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Dear Lurkers

I wrote this privately in Feb 2009. I've made minor edits.

Dear Lurkers (yes, you),

Figuring things out is hard. And fooling ourselves is easy. (This is a paraphrase of Feynman, one of the best philosophers of the 20th century.)

A truly wise man knows how ignorant he is. (This is a theme of Socrates.)

I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth. (Popper)

Through seeking we may learn, and know things better... (Xenophanes)

If you think you know how to parent without hurting your children, and haven't written a thousand posts about it, then you are probably violating these quotes.

It certainly took me a lot more than a thousand posts to figure out what I know today. David Deutsch too. Do you think you're a lot smarter than us, and a much faster learner?

If you are, that's great, please go invent something better than quantum computers and TCS. Then write a better book than The Fabric of Reality. If you're taking requests, start by defeating aging.

Back to parenting: what I know today is, in my view, insufficient. Parenting and education is a hard problem in the mundane sense of needing a lot of practical knowledge. And it's a hard problem in the sense that most people fail badly. And it's a hard problem in the sense that commonsense gets a lot of things about it wrong and advanced philosophy is required to correct those errors. And it's a hard problem because many mistaken ideas about it are entrenched traditions and seem obviously true. And it's a hard problem in the sense that many people see some of these dangers, and think they can do better, but fail to; it's very common to think you are different and still fail. There are also misconceptions about education built into the English language. And there is also constant pressure from your own parents, and friends, and neighbors, and sometimes Government officials, and school teachers, and well everyone, to do a wide variety of things that your children won't like. Also, sometimes these people will try to coerce your children, so there is the added problem of protecting children.

Parenting is also a hard problem because our own parents hurt us in such a way as to make us bad at parenting, and irrational at thinking about parenting and evaluating our knowledge of it. If your instinct is to deny this, that is a major indication that you will be a bad parent. If you intellectually will admit this, but still have the emotional instinct to deny it, then again you should expect to hurt your children. Just changing intellectual theories, but not intuitive reactions, emotions, and how you live life on autopilot by default, and thus being a person always in conflict, simply isn't good enough.

Fully non-coercive parenting is a harder problem. How many people here could even explain what coercion is accurately and answer questions? Hardly anyone. Few people have been interested enough to think about it a lot and ask lots of questions about it and try to talk about it frequently over the course of years. I also think it's implausible that someone who never tried to write an essay on it actually understands it.

It's easy to think you agree with and understand something. It's easy to miss things and not notice you missed anything. It's easy to fool ourselves. What's harder is to take the knowledge you think you have and apply it, and also explain it to others, and persuade people who disagree. If you really understand morality and epistemology well, you should be able to actually do things in real life that normal people can't do, such as change your emotional makeup from whatever it is to what you actually think is a good idea, or break your bad habits (bad in your view) without feeling bad, and many more things which, if you can't think of them yourself, you still have a lot more to learn.

(If you think some of these things are not desirable, then you definitely ought to post at least a little more. Why don't you write a post to try to settle the disagreement? To be confident in your view, and not feel an urgent need to learn more about our disagreement, you better have some significant and clearly thought out criticisms of my view. So post those, just to make sure I'll concede, and won't have anything to say that you hadn't thought of. If you don't feel the need to post ideas to be criticized, just in case others know something you don't, then you are not respecting the difficulty of finding things out.)

Maybe you are all having wonderful conversations IRL where you learn a lot. But I doubt it (I mean you probably have some, but not enough). Non-coercive parenting is extremely unpopular. It's hard enough to find any conversations about it on the whole internet, let alone in your neighborhood. And that's any serious conversation with interested people at all. Finding people who also know something about Popper and philosophy -- enough to have thoughts about education that actually engage with important questions -- is much harder.

Parenting is of course not the only issue. For example, non-coercive adult to adult relationships are very important as well. You will coerce your spouse unless you have quite a lot of knowledge of how to avoid doing so. I needn't list any more. Try to rattle off a dozen more danger areas in a couple minutes. If you can, you've listed them for me. If you can't, then certainly you don't know enough to avoid harming and wronging people you interact with. (What? You thought you could be a decent, peaceful, nice person without knowledge?).

If you'd like to post, but don't know what to post, then you have a problem. So ask a question about that. Or consider a common problem and try to figure out if you have it and how it can be solved. Or take a post and try to understand it, and if you don't get all of it, then ask a question, and if you think you do get all of it, then post some further implications, or even better ideas on the same topic, or something like that.

If you're bad at writing, don't worry, everyone is born that way. You just need a combination of practice, thinking about it, and educational resources. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

  • focus on expressing one idea at a time, very clearly
  • short sentences
  • no fancy words
  • short paragraphs
  • simple sentence structure
  • content matters more than form or style
  • don't try to impress anyone
  • omit anything unnecessary
  • avoid meta discussion
  • include an example
  • when in any doubt about the meaning of a word, check the dictionary or don't use it
  • short is better, but harder. don't try for length, but don't worry if it ends up long
  • misunderstandings are very common, and will happen, so don't get discouraged or pessimistic. if someone misunderstands then try to clarify
  • if someone says something abstract that's hard to understand, ask for a simple, practical example
  • above all, never write a list

PS Join the Fallible Ideas discussion group.

FYI, the last item on the list is a joke. Jokes frequently cause miscommunications, and this joke was misunderstood by at least one person who actually said so (people usually don't tell you when they don't understand you). A better tip is to avoid jokes if you want to be understood.

Although this post focuses mostly on parents, the issues apply to everyone. Knowledge helps you hurt yourself and others less. Choosing not to seek knoweldge means choosing to hurt people, including yourself. (I think you should especially care about hurting yourself, but many people think they care more about hurting others. Anyway both matter.)

Elliot Temple on January 27, 2020

Messages (5)

A few skills that knowledge help with:

- Breaking phobias

- Getting over irrationalities (and expecting to be able to!)

- Becoming competent at something quickly

- Not fearing making mistakes

- Enjoying finding mistakes

Anonymous at 6:25 PM on January 27, 2020 | #15274 | reply | quote

> avoid meta discussion

why is this a good guideline for people bad at writing who are trying to learn to write?

GISTE at 3:40 AM on January 28, 2020 | #15279 | reply | quote


A question: Would you (ET) say that so long as educators don't use force or fraud on their children/students, then no matter what they say or do to them, they can only be helping the children's/students' growth of knowledge or at worst having no effect?

I ask because:

> If your instinct is to deny this, that is a major indication that you will be a bad parent.

Sentences like this, where it’s like: If person does X, then they (likely) have bad attribute Y, seem to be coercive. There are more examples, but I will just start with that one.

This is because they commonly cause the average person to feel conflict. They read the sentence, then have some kind of negative emotional reaction. However, perhaps they can’t rationally refute the idea that having attribute Y is bad. This is a conflict between the negative emotional reaction (inexplicit) and the not being able to refute the idea (explicit).

What are the consequences? If you can’t find anything wrong with such a statement, you *might* end up acting on his idea because you have some idea of rationality and it involving acting on ideas that are unrefuted and letting argument be your guide. Even though the negative emotional reaction indicates you is in conflict, you may not realise that.

In conclusion: The way ET presents his material may lead to people coercing themselves.

Now, we could just explain that ET did not *cause* them to coerce themselves, their irrationalities did. People may have the bad idea that: Noticing an error of type Y is bad and should result in feeling anxious. However, I think it should be pointed out, especially as ET advertises himself as an educator.

Anonymous at 8:02 AM on January 28, 2020 | #15282 | reply | quote

> Would you (ET) say that so long as educators don't use force or fraud on their children/students, then no matter what they say or do to them, they can only be helping the children's/students' growth of knowledge or at worst having no effect?



Anything anyone says to anyone may somehow be coercive. In general, it's very hard to predict aside from simple cases. If you're doing any kind of complex analysis, that's an indication that it's too hard to predict and one should default to expecting everyone to worry about their own life.

A reason it's hard to predict is that communication involves creativity to interpret. Another is that people are extremely complex and you don't have enough info about other people (or, often, yourself, for predicting your own reactions to things).

A bigger reason it's hard to predict is that coercion involves a failure at problem solving. You can't assume that people will fail every time they're faced with anything negative or a problem. Most of the time, they don't fail. How do you know which few of problems will be the ones they fail at dealing with?

So for example, your comment could be coercive to me. First, it's negative and critical. Second, I can reasonably guess that you might not follow up much and reach conclusions in this discussion. As I see it, there are lots of interesting conversations that could happen but probably won't. Wanting what I can't have could coerce me. And it could present me a difficult problem about what to do. Put effort into a project that will probably evaporate in the middle, and with most of the learning (for both you and me) backloaded towards the end of the conversation (the part I think is unlikely to happen)?

Should I try extra hard to say a lot ASAP before you quit, or just take it in little steps which could lead to you thinking I don't have much to say and leaving? Those are conflicting ideas I could have, and that conflict could be hard to resolve, and it could be your fault.

I don't think your post is especially coercive. It's just life. You don't know me that well. You can't predict my thoughts that well. You didn't cross any sort of major line into a simple case of doing something bad that's easier to analyze.

Standards can be raised a bit when dealing with long term relationships where you know more about someone, so you ought to be able to predict more. But a lot of what happens there is still simple arguments and predictions, e.g.: your child requested you don't do X 3 times in the last year, and then today you did X, so you should have reasonably predicted he would dislike it. Whereas with a stranger on the internet, or especially writing an article for a general audience, there frequently aren't any relevant past requests.

The purpose of

> If your instinct is to deny this, that is a major indication that you will be a bad parent.

is to point out unsolved problems, to help people learn something, so that they can better recognize the importance and value of making progress. This is also kinda similar to your criticizing me as possibly a bad (even coercive) educator, but less personally directed.

curi at 2:41 PM on January 28, 2020 | #15283 | reply | quote

#15279 Meta discussion is a topic change. Talking about multiple topics at once is harder. So a more general tip is to focus on one thing at a time.

And whatever topic you started with, that's generally one you had a reason to talk about – you thought it was a good idea and were interested – so there's a reason that's a good topic to discuss for you.

And people have lots of problems with not finishing discussions or getting very far in them. Having lots of discussions that don't get past the beginning is bad. Limiting topic changes helps with this.

This doesn't mean to never change topics. Not even close. If you find out about a problem with the original topic (for you, in your current situation), you may want to change. Or if you find out about some advantage of a different topic. If you do change topics, you should often put the original topic on hold.

curi at 3:06 PM on January 28, 2020 | #15284 | reply | quote

Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

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