Better explanations

Better explanations or improving explanations is a cause area working to explain ideas to people better.

Some reasons to think this is useful:

  • Better explanations allow people to learn more quickly, allowing them to spend more time doing things or learning other things.
  • Better explanations mean people with less talent in an area can learn things. One way to think about this is that 100 years before an idea is discovered, no human is bright enough to understand the “explanation” (whatever scattered prerequisite ideas and prior work that could in principle be built on or combined to produce an explanation); by the time the idea is discovered, only the brightest humans can understand the “explanation”; as the idea is published, more and more people can learn about the idea; when good expositions are produced, people with non-standard backgrounds or cognitive styles, or less talent can learn the idea.
  • Bad explanations frustrate people, turn them away from subjects they may have liked, etc., so this would counteract this sort of effect of existing explanations.

In some cases, there may already exist good explanations, but these just aren’t widely known. In that sense, resources like Luke Muehlhauser’s “The Best Textbooks on Every Subject” that try to find good existing expositions can be considered part of this cause area.

“Anything that improves communication abilities or cooperation abilities of people is going to have a huge impact: on the neural side, figuring out how to better learn languages, or how to make social media work. Plus anything that makes human capital easier to acquire and multiply: better education, cognitive enhancement, downloadable skills.” (source)

Of course, “better explanations” is a general/neutral capacity, which can also be used possibly to create more persuasive explanations, propaganda, etc.

Potential reason for this cause being underrated among the smartest and most influential people: the smartest people don’t need as good of an explanation to understand something (they can just figure it out themselves). There might also be a cultural thing among elite people where you try to signal your intelligence by working through a particularly difficult book (e.g. the math community’s regard for Baby Rudin). On the other hand, some really smart people like Eliezer Yudkowsky have thought a lot about how to communicate ideas, even going so far as to work on a company whose goal was to become the Wikipedia of explanations (Arbital).

Existing work

I think the following people have thought about this, especially for technical explanations and from a human–computer interaction perspective:

  • Bret Victor
  • Douglas Engelbart
  • Seymour Papert
  • Michael Nielsen
  • Andy Matuschak
  • Christopher Olah
  • Shan Carter
  • Jonathan Blow

Also look more in the user experience community.

A lot of people have thought about mathematical exposition.


New interactive technology (e.g. interactive animations in web browsers) make some things easier to explain.

Broad explanations vs specialized explanations

I think there are some fields where the basic textbooks/explanations are generally good (or at least “alright”). For these subjects, I think spending time writing yet another broad textbook isn’t going to be very useful; more useful would be really specialized explanations of e.g. particularly difficult topics, certain topics that benefit from “unusual” perspectives, summary tables, better examples, better worked-out problems, etc.

On the other hand, other fields lack even good textbooks, or there is a particularly fruitful way to explain the whole subject in a different-from-usual way. In this case, explaining the whole subject over again can be useful (think the state of linear algebra explanations before Linear Algebra Done Right).

There are also aspects of entire disciplines that not usually discussed. Think undergraduate math before Gowers’s pedagogy posts, the Tricki, etc. These things were probably discussed to some extent in classrooms, but my guess is there was nothing very good online.

See also

External links