Stranger than Fiction

What follows is an excerpt from a book. Well, a fan-fiction.

“There’s a tale I once heard about some students who came into a physics class, and the teacher showed them a large metal plate near a fire. She ordered them to feel the metal plate, and they felt that the metal nearer the fire was cooler, and the metal further away was warmer. And she said, write down your guess for why this happens. So some students wrote down ‘because of how the metal conducts heat’, and some students wrote down ‘because of how the air moves’, and no one said ‘this just seems impossible’, and the real answer was that before the students came into the room, the teacher turned the plate around.”

"Interesting”, said Professor Quirrell. “Is there a moral?”

“That your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality,” said Harry. “If you’re equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge. The students thought they could use words like ‘because of heat conduction’ to explain anything, even a metal plate being cooler on the side nearer the fire. So they didn’t notice how confused they were, and that meant they couldn’t be more confused by falsehood than by truth.”

This is from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s epic fan-fiction, “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality”, a new ‘book’ I’ve begun. The New Yorker describes it as “one that recasts the original story in an attempt to explain Harry’s wizardry through the scientific method.” It is suffice to say that it is beyond amazing.

What I liked in this parable above is Yudkoswky’s ability to shine a light on the human fallacy of ‘trying to explain everything’. He’s effectively telling us that its okay to be confused - that’s how you learn. But its in our nature to extrapolate our current knowledge and belief to try and “fit” it to a puzzle, when all this time, the puzzle itself could be misleading.

I highly recommend a reading of this book, available for free at the site A high-brow reader would not care to explore further about the book, as I’m ashamed to admit I did, when I learnt of its existence in 2012, but dismissed it in the elusive category of fan-fiction. Since then, I’ve taken a more positive outlook to fan-fiction in general, and put less faith in my abilities as a judge of books.


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