how-to tacit knowledge || bookdown blogdown

What is obvious and for whom?

In the last few weeks I tried to work with bookdown, an R package developed by Yihui Xie. This program is/was for me much harder to understand unlike blogdown by the same author. In blogdown I could even – after some initial problems – write a tutorial which even the developer applauded 😅.

But with bookdown it was different: Not only that I misunderstood some program functions but more important I could not report my problems in an adequate way. In one case I did not communicate an important information in the other case I did not look on the right place where my question was explicitly addressed. No surprise that Yihui Xie got angry with me and even wrote a blog post about the incident. He gave me the advice…

Please do not make this assumptions when filing issues

For me as a professional educator, this is a very important question. Where to start with explanations and where to stop? Should I provide just the information to solve the problem or should I give some background information? What kind of advice should I give to prevent similar problems in the future? These are examples of questions I have to consider as a teacher all the time. But this time I am on the other side of this communication exchange - I am the learner and student and I am the one who has to ask the expert.

Yihui Xie is not blaming me as a user as he wrote in his last paragraph of the mentioned blog post. You can see his positive attitudes also in the post on The Minimal Reproducible Example Paradox where he is complaining that many user do not provide a minimal reproducible examples or do not know how to produce one. He comes to a somewhat depressing conclusion:

How many times have I reminded a user of posting a minimal, self-contained, and reproducible example (reprex)? Probably 500 times. How many times do I think I will still need to remind users of this? Perhaps 5000 times.

But again: This is a standard situation we have in education as well. We are explaining the same thing over and over but — to different people, students learners, classes etc. Even if we explicitly mention common errors and misunderstanding: there are always some learners who will commit these mistakes. When we describe emphatically operations you should not undertake, you can be sure there is one or two who will follow precisely these wrong paths.

Tacit knowledge and language games

So what? Are people dumb? Do they deliberately ignore our advices? I don’t think so but rather there is a gap which cannot be overcome only with linguistic means. It is also a question of transferring ‘tacit knowledge’, to use a notion introduced by Michael Polanyi:

I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell. 1

Many philosophers (e.g. Søren Kirkegaard, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gregory Bateson, Susan Langer, Jürgen Habermas, Nelson Goodman to name a few) have reflected about the limitation of linguistic expressions. Wittgenstein for example has pointed out that we cannot explain the meaning of every word or sentence because we have to use language with other words and sentences. It is an endlos regress that we cannot solve with language alone. We have to share a common ground, we have to know how “to play the language game”. Following some quotes to give you a flavor of the argument:

One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name. But what does one have to know? (Philosophical Investigations 30) … When one shows someone the king in chess and says: “This is the king”, this does not tell him the use of this piece-unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point. (31) … Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to ‘guess’ the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong. 2

To use a famous philosophical example: If I point to a white rabbit and say in my own foreign language “Gavagai!” you have to guess the meaning. Do I say “There is a rabbit!” or “Look at the nice white color!” So even a ostensive definitions is under determined and does not help to choose the right interpretation and to solve the ambiguity of meaning in our speech acts.

One proposal which could serve as an avenue of escape for this gap or paradox is to invent a special kind of notational system. Common examples to demonstrate this strategy is chess notation or musical notation. I believe that a minimal reproductive example or to deliver the sessionInfo() is also a kind of notational systems. But the problem is the same: One has to learn this (new) language in order to use it correctly.

Many different layers

The malice of the situation is the assumption that from the fact that we are using the same (English) words and sentences that we communicate the same meaning and understand to each other. The expert believes that (s)he has expressed every necessary information and so the novice in asking a question. – And this is mostly correct – from his/her point of view or understanding.3

I have reflected why for me using bookdown was so much more complex than blogdown. Actually I started several month ago with bookdown but I gave up and started another trial after I had some success with blogdown. This is weird as it appears that for Yihui Xie the situation was inverse. 4. I think there are different reasons:

  1. Blogdown was written together with Amber Thomas and Alison Presmanes Hill. I think that it was an exceptional inventive and successful strategy to integrate authors who can provide the perspective of the user side. In the blogdown book there are some very helpful chapters about actions strategies. They provide very useful tips even they contain some (technical) simplification (we educationalists call this method “pedagogical reduction”). I refer to chapters like A quick example or A recommended workflow.

  2. The success in working with blogdown is more straight and comes in smaller bits and pieces. You write a sentence with Markdown in your blog and you can see the result immediately. It seems - at least for lay people like me - that in blogdown there are not so many hidden conversion processes as this seems to be the case in bookdown. Bookdown by definition provides the means for cross media publishing resulting in three different products (website, PDF and ePub), all three with their own underlying structure and rules.

The importance of mental models

But there is one common point why both, blogdown and bookdown, are intrinsically difficult to understand for novices: There are many different layers of software working together to produce the end result. I am not sure if I am even able to enumaerate these different layers correctly: There is the used hardware, the operating system, R and the environment RStudio, there is Rmarkdown using pandoc, there is knitr and blogdown or bookdown and last not least git and GitHub. All of this different tools work on top of each other and/or together. And all of these different levels have their own complexities, laws, functions, manuals, commands etc.

As long as everything works fine, there is no need to understand the different parts and their interaction and/or synergy. But when something breaks down, then a shift of focus occurs or as Heidegger says the worldliness becomes obvious, changing tool usage from “ready-to-hand” to “present-at-hand”5. In “ready-to-hand” awareness you are using tools to fulfill their purpose (to write a blog post), in a breakdown = “ready-to-hand” awareness you get consciousness of the complexities inside your tools machinery. 6

But here comes now the problem: As users we are only experts in “ready-to-hand” awareness and we have no clue about the functionality inside the black box. We can only report about some weird behavior, about some experienced phenomenon from the “ready-to-hand” point of view. We lay persons have constructed a mental model about the functionality of our tools and we are reporting about the problems with the underlying tacit assumptions of our mental model. The mental model functions like a world view: We see all the different objects, people etc. under a certain perspective guided by our underlying tacit assumptions.

After the breakdown we should question our mental model but this is very difficult: Our world view has worked successfully so far. One will not change the world view with just one contradictory fact. The same happens with scientific theories: One contradictory fact is a challenge to elaborate the theory, to improve it and to incorporate the anomaly into the theory. Maybe the problem lies in the reluctant fact itself (e.g. the software has a bug, or the fact is wrong reported).

Lesson learned

So what the fuss with all these abstract ideas? Where is the practical impact of all these considerations?

I make the case in this article that we should focus separately on two different kinds of explanations:

  1. On the one hand we users need “ready-to-hand” explanations which are easy to follow even if they are simplified and do not cover all eventualities. We need guidelines, step-by-step (video)-tutorials etc. Are there shortcuts, tips and rules of thumbs one could follow? And we would need tons of examples! But people who provide this kind of explanations should be aware: These explanation always are under determined and cannot prevent misunderstandings. Lacking the necessary knowledge we always have to interpret what “Gavagai!” means.

  2. On the other hand we users need at the same time “present-to-hand” explanations in order to build up correct mental models of the intrinsic complexities and functionalities of the tools. Which software components relies to which other components? What is the task of component X and how it is related to the ready-to-hand functionality? But people who provide this kind of explanations should be aware: This level of explication is not a technical one, not directed to other experts. (This is another important third level of explanation and documentation, one I will not cover here in this article). So we would need special formats like diagrams of the interconnectedness and synergistic effects or other ways to explain or even to discover the functionality of different parts of the software machinery.7

  3. Whereas advices like Please do not make this assumption when filing issues. are important ethical guidlines but not very practical and useful. We are always using (tacit) assumptions. In stating one proposition we are relying on a net of different assumptions, otherwise we could not use language and construct meaningful sentences. The problem is to know what assumptions are to test and what assumptions are to rely on. 8

There is no possibility to examine all believes at the same time. The whole book “On Certainty” by Ludwig Wittgenstein is full of aphorisms about tacit assumptions, we rely on, and that our knowledge does not consist of separated propositions but is a system of interconnected views/opinions.I will close this post with some quotes by Wittgenstein to illustrate this point 9:

  1. Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.

  2. It is not single axioms that strike me as obvious, it is a system in which consequences and premises give one another mutual support.

  3. The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.^[To prevent a possible misunderstanding: I do not think that for the two explanation levels above are only or even predominantly software engineers responsible. Their expertise is to develop programs, to document them and to resolve bugs. I just want to point out that there should be more focus on these two separate levels and that more people should be concerned to provide information on these two levels.

StackOverflow for instance is very, very good for “read-to-hand” explanations but does - as far as I know - a bad job for building up mental models. Discussions about different but similar software packages, their advantages and disadvantages are forbidden.10

  1. Polanyi, M. (2009). The Tacit Dimension. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Wittgenstein, L. (1961). Philosophical investigations. New York: Macmillan.
  3. I could tell some jokes about misunderstandings between Germans and Austrians, both using German as their native language.
  4. He said that blogdown was especially complicated to develop, but I cannot find the place at the moment to quote it correctly.
  5. Heidegger, M. (2008). Being and Time (Reprint). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
  6. For an understandable description of the philosophical concept of ‘breakdown’ read this example on Human Computer Interaction
  7. One important step for me in understanding the complex template structure of Hugo was to write in every template the sentence: “This here is the template xy” and to see what happens in different situations.
  8. BTW: This is the same conclusion as Yihui Xie has drawn: “To clarify, I’m not blaming this user. I can totally understand it. Many users do the same thing. The problem is that there are so many possibilities for software to screw up, so you have to describe everything clearly to eliminate as many possibilities as possible.” – So we do have the same analyis but I prospose (in addition to reflect and report all hidden assumpotion) another additional long term strategy (namely helping building up correct mental models about the complex software dependencies) to prevent similar faults as I have commited.
  9. Wittgenstein, L. (1975). On Certainty (Revised ed.). Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
  10. At least this is my mental model from StackOverflow. For instance my question about the difference between packrat and checkpoint was closed as off-topic.
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