Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Inferential Distance

Suppose you're trying to teach someone calculus. Before they can learn calculus, they have to learn algebra. Before they can learn algebra, they have to learn arithmetic. This is the basic idea of inferential distance - background knowledge needed the understand the matter at hand.

Put this way, it looks simple, maybe not even worth talking about. But it's more subtle than that. To start with, arithmetic, algebra and calculus aren't single subjects. They're a whole bunch of related but still different subjects, which need to be learned independently. The learn integration, you have to learn differentiation, before that you have to learn limits, before that functions, variables, division, mulitplication, subtraction, addition... And don't forget the really fundamental things like what a number is.

And that's the really tricky part of inferential distance. There are a lot of things you know that you don't know you know. That is to say, you know them so well, it doesn't even occur to you to that someone else might not know it. Things that are so fundamental to your point of view that they're invisible to it. And so when you try to explain something to someone, you accidentally skip over a bunch of inferential steps, resulting in misunderstanding and each party will walk away thinking the other is stupid or crazy.

Consider a biologist talking to a creationist. They might try to explain the evidence for evolution, but before the creationist can understand that, they have to understand what evidence means, how science works, maybe even something as simple as why truth is important...


  1. Alex,

    This was a great explanation of the fundamentals of learning. I think when teaching anyone something for the first time being aware of that person's inferential distance. Learning is easiest when a new topic is put into a frame of reference, something familiar. As a student it is important to ask questions so that these "inferential step" can be determined when an instructor inadvertently skips them.

  2. While inferential distance is important to keep in mind while teaching it goes far beyond that. It applies to pretty much any form of communication. I'd say it has less impact on teaching than other forms of communication, and that's because it's more visible. When you're teaching someone, you know they lack background knowledge; that's why you're teaching them. But when you're, say, having a policy debate, then inferential distance is less likely to be considered.