The Can Opener Principle

Context: What’s that? I have a paper deadline in 28 hours? Why don’t I write about literally anything else!

Epistemic Status: It’s a normative theory.

A thing I think about a lot because my brain is completely normal and as a result I spend a lot of time thinking about completely normal things is the role of consent in the ethics of explanation.

The following is a line from the Hypothesis code of conduct:

It’s OK not to want to know something. If you think someone’s question is fundamentally flawed, you should still ask permission before explaining what they should actually be asking.

The Hypothesis Code of Conduct

This is a response to The XY Problem, which is a legitimate problem but often used as an excuse for explaining to someone why their question is bad and they should feel bad. I do think there are cases where non-consensual explanation may be ethically justified, or even mandatory, but they are generally things of the form “You are causing harm by your ignorance and I need you to understand this”.

That’s not to say that in normal interactions you need to bend over backwards to make sure that people are consenting to every word you say to them, but it’s worth checking in with someone before you launch into a significant attempt to educate them.

A thing I realised recently is that it’s not just consent that’s important, it’s informed consent. If you are explaining things to someone, then hopefully you understand it better than they do, which means that you have a burden of responsibility to help guard against infohazards.

This was prompted by a conversation in which a friend who had previously mostly written Ruby was asking me about Python’s class system. We got a while down the rabbit hole before I realised how bad this was going to get and said the following:

I am happy to give you as much information on this subject as you want me to, but my considered advice is that my life has not been made better by the fact that I understand this and neither will yours be.

I think the following is a nice framing of this sort of interaction:

Do not hand a can opener to someone until you are sure that they understand that the can they are holding is full of worms

It’s explanation as gentle knowledge editing rather than explanation as gate keeping: If they do understand that they’re holding a can of worms (maybe it’s for their garden?), handing them the can opener is fine, but as the current holder of the can opener it is your responsibility to make sure they know what they’re letting themselves in for.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

3 thoughts on “The Can Opener Principle

  1. pozorvlak

    “You are causing harm by your ignorance and I need you to understand this”

    Does “You are wasting significant amounts of channel bandwidth and developer energy with your ill-formed questions” count (perhaps after repeated offences)? Energy vampires have definitely been a problem in some tech communities I’ve been part of (though they usually have little desire to become more deeply educated, being energy vampires).

    1. david Post author

      I don’t think it does! The correct response to people who behave that way is to tell them to go away, not to attempt to educate them.

      1. Blaisorblade

        The blog post makes sense, but this side point makes me curious — in my community we at most ignore them, and it’s unclear our CoC would allow sending them away.

Comments are closed.