Randall Monroe of xkcd started writing explanations of complex physical phenomena using only the most common 1,000 English words (or the most common ‘ten hundred’, as he’d have to put it). He recently released a straightforward application which allows writers to check which words fall into his list of 1,000. I’ve often worried that we tend to over-complicate things in philosophy, so I thought I’d try explaining the main thrust of my work on hierarchies of evidence (or ‘information ordering things’) using only these 1,000 words. This is the result:
What is a hierarchy of evidence and why is it a problem?
It is an information ordering thing, a way to put into an order all the different kinds of information that you can get from doing studies about when people get sick and when they get better. The top one in the order is meant to be the best kind of information. They give really good information about whether more people get better when they are given one thing instead of a different thing, and we try to use those studies to tell us what the best thing to give people is. The bottom ones are the worst. People think the information they give us is wrong more often and doesn’t help us figure out what the best things to give people are. But the people who made the order didn’t always think about other kinds of question that need other kinds of information. Like questions about why some people get better and some people don’t, even when they are given the same thing. Some people think these questions need their own order. But others like me think that actually we need lots of different kinds of information all together to answer these questions, and that these questions turn out to be the most interesting and important ones.
The most interesting questions, for me, are questions like: Do some people get better but others don’t? Can we find out before hand which people will probably get better and which people won’t, or for which people our work will do the most good? Are there things about people that help us figure this out? Is the best answer sometimes to give some people one thing and other people a different thing, even though they have the same thing wrong with them? Most important is: what kind of information do we need to answer these questions? How do we get that information?
Trying to put everything into a simple order won’t help with this, especially because we need to draw on lots of different kinds of information together to answer many of these questions. All in all, let’s stop trying to put everything into order, and work on finding ways to put things together.