A regular theme on the newsgroups is newbies complaining about
the crankiness and "RTFM" answers from "gurus", and the regulars
complaining about the hopeless stupidity and laziness of the newbies.
While there are sometimes suggestions as to how to improve the manners
of those who provide answers, it's the opposite remediation that
is expressed more often: the newbies just need to learn how to "think"
and they could solve most of these problems themselves. I'm
guilty of it myself here sometimes: I expect people to at least
TRY to search for an answer before asking something trivial and
wasting everyone's time (and my bandwidth!)
Well, like most things, it may not be all that simple. For
at least some of the people asking "dumb" questions, they may have
little choice, or rather this may be their deliberate choice
because they know from bitter experience that they can't do
much better no matter how they try.
For example, I'm clumsy with my hands. I'm just not "neat",
the only way anything I build will come out plumb and level is if
I spend the entire day checking and rechecking. Most of my hammer
strikes will miss, and that's in spite of many years of practice
I had working with my Dad (who could build anything). I'm lucky
if I don't hurt myself, too. My wife had me hang a shelf once:
it cost $200.00 for a professional to come fix the mess I made
and then hang the shelf. It might have cost me $75.00 if I
just had him do the work originally.
So when something needs building, I don't even try. It's too
difficult, too consuming of my time, too expensive: it's really
far cheaper for me to hire a professional than to do it myself.
Some of the people who ask "moronic" questions are like that.
Computers have beaten them, confused them, frustrated them. They
just don't "get it". What's easy for some of us is pure pain for them,
just like the pain I feel trying to repair a deck. I can DO it,
but it takes way too long and it angers me and affects everything
else I do. Forget it, let someone who is good at it do the job.
That doesn't mean they are "stupid". They might be, but
they might be much smarter or even brilliant at other tasks.
If all of the people I know were suddenly cast back into a stone
age society, none of us would have the necessary skills to survive.
However, some of us would, and those folks would be the more
adaptive, the more creative problem solvers. I'd bet even some
who (like me) would be ill adapted because of physical problems
like poor eyesight would develop techniques to overcome and survive.
While some would be frantically stumbling around begging for help,
others would be observing, testing, thinking. Some of them
would die anyway (mistakes happen), and some would survive just
by dumb luck or by trading other skills, but a common thread
of the most likely to survive would be that they don't ask a lot
If you did a Google search for the newsgroup
posts of the better contributors, you'd mostly find people who have
never asked many questions at all, and if they did, the questions
and answers were highly esoteric. Were you privy to the rest of
their lives as well, I suspect you'd also find the same pattern:
people who are capable of figuring things out by themselves even
when given poor tools and a paucity of information to go by.
People aren't equal mentally. I'm a lousy musician, and would die
quickly in a society where ability to recognize pitch was necessary
to avoid death (the bird beasts that sing in high C are dangerous,
the other warblers are not). I am a good general problem solver
and have earned my living doing that for a long time now. I have
fair "people" skills, which helps, but there are people with far
better intuition and knowledge of human nature. Now who's "smarter"
- the musician, the politician, the problem solver? Depends on
what you are testing and why.
That's not to say that everyone is good at something. Some people are piss-poor at everything. That's just unfortunate for them.
An ex-partner's father once said to his son "Never complain about
stupid people. Stupid people put me where I am today". The only
change I'd make to that is to note that just because someone is
"stupid" about computer problems doesn't necessarily mean they are
stupid about everything. They may in fact be a lot smarter than
I in a LOT of other areas, and I keep that thought firmly in mind.
So can you teach people to be better at solving computer problems?
Maybe, but in my view, sloppy thinkers remain sloppy thinkers. It
may be possible to teach logic to some degree, but at the best you
get small improvement.
There are three factors that make for good problem solvers. The
first is logic and causality. This can be taught, or at least most
people can be taught that much.
Memory is the second requirement, and it is short term memory that
is most important. Apparently most people can't remember more than
seven discrete items (numbers, names of objects, whatever) without
help. Some are even worse than that: how many people do you know
who have to write down a phone number they plan to use within
moments? Too many.. You can improve memory with effort, but it
is with effort, and I'm not sure that memory "tricks" will help
with this, because the problem really is the relationships between
chains of events: if a, then b and if b then c, etc. By the time
you get most people out to "if d", they've forgotten how "a" played
into it, and if it's "if d and b was also less than f", forget it.
They can't follow and never will. They may be great musicians,
politicians, comedians, whatever, but they just can't follow
a long chain of logic.
The final thing is inspiration, or the ability to see relationships
that didn't exist before - recognizing patterns and similarities.
This is what separates great problem solvers from mediocre.
Somewhere here I have a book called "The Flash of Genius"
(out of print, Alfred Garrett, 1963, Van Nostrand) that
talks about that. You can't learn that overnight. You need a
lifetime of reading, of learning, of noticing, of analyzing and
even at that, person X is going to be better at it than person Y
just because their brain works better for this task.
I don't think you really can teach this to someone who doesn't have
ability. My Dad tried to teach me his skills - he was a guy who
could build a spiral staircase, could (and did) construct an entire
house by himself with absolutely no help, etc. He tried to teach
me, but I just didn't "get it". I could beat him at chess when I
was seven, but I never could build even a bird house that wasn't
Bottom line: there are poor problem solvers, there are mediocre
problem solvers, and there are those who are really good at it.
People don't exhibit great movement within those classifications.
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