Obvious points

As mentioned previously, pointing out obvious things seems embarrassing to me. However, it also often seems very valuable. That might seem obvious to you. Even so, this post will elaborate on this obvious point.

The set of things an intellectual would like to claim are obvious will tend to be much larger than the set that is reliably casually inferable by a random person with three minutes to devote to the issue. It is probably even much larger than the set of things reliably inferable by that intellectual earlier in their life. Many questions have obvious answers, while the questions themselves are not obvious. Many questions are obviously important once you notice them, but were not salient beforehand. Many points are obvious intellectually, yet not automatically integrated into one’s worldview and actions. And arguably, the more important and true and valuable a point, the more likely it is to look obvious once you know it.

I sometimes think of considerations that are so obvious to me now that I can barely articulate the converse, yet which it seems I must have been unaware of when younger. In general, if something is too incoherent to articulate, this seems like a strong mark against its appropriateness as a focus of discussion. It’s falsity is probably obvious. So I’m not very inclined to write blog posts about such topics. Yet it would usually have been very valuable for my younger self to read such a post – I’d guess more than hundreds of times as valuable as it is costly for me to write such posts, which is much worse again than the cost to more knowledgeable readers of seeing a discussion of something they already knew. And unless I am unusually dense (in which case my blogging strategy seems unimportant), others probably make similar errors to the ones I seem to have made. So it seems probably socially beneficial to write posts about points as obvious as those.

If writing obvious things is costly to the author, does it matter much that it is socially beneficial? It makes more difference than you might suppose: if the author endorses writing socially beneficial obvious things, then when others see the author writing obvious things, they should less infer that the author thought the point was non-obvious (as long as endorsing this coincides at all with writing things that seem obvious, which appears plausible). On that note then, I just wanted to say how important I think writing obvious things is.

4 responses to “Obvious points

  1. It makes more difference than you might suppose: if the author endorses writing socially beneficial obvious things, then when others see the author writing obvious things, they should less infer that the author thought the point was non-obvious (as long as endorsing this coincides at all with writing things that seem obvious, which appears plausible).

    Put simply, uttering obvious things or advocating their utterance signals stupidity. Thus, you’re altruistic for your willingness to say the obvious when it’s socially beneficial. (Unfortunately, you degraded your signal by pointing this out. But that just makes you more altruistic!)

    But there are other reasons to state the unstated obvious. There are low lying fruit in fields where the obvious was avoided because of this bias toward the nonobvious. Harvesting these fruit may require (and signal) something more on the order of intellectual courage than intelligence.

  2. Actually I think the more you dumb down your posts in the level of obviousness, the more popular the post would be. That is because it would be easier for more people to understand, and not just interesting to intellectuals.

    To take it to the extreme, you could dumb it down to the most banal level of self-help/financial advice type things that are found in popular magazines. This would help the largest number of people but might be mentally-costly to you since you are writing about things which are blatantly obvious to you and from your perspective as an individual you are wasting time.

    Perhaps that is a problem in the “marketplace of ideas” – banal ideas are more popular than abstract intellectual concepts. Thus those abstract intellectual concepts which are being stated are not being properly rewarded or recognized.

    (I know this is not what the post is actually about. It is just something I thought of. …Realistically, I don’t think you are in any danger of descending into a pit of obviousness with your posts.)

  3. Stating the obvious is especially valuable when people are going around disagreeing with it.

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