Looking For Test Subjects: Breaking Questions Down

As long time readers are well aware, my main focus for the last year has been developing a method for Knowledge Bootstrapping– going from 0 to 1 in an unfamiliar field without undue deference to credentialism. I’m at the stage where I have a system that works well for me, and I’ve gotten feedback from a few other people about what works and doesn’t work for them, but there’s a long way to go. A lot of my knowledge is implicit and not explained on the page, plus I am only one person; what works for me will not translate perfectly for every human. So I’m looking for test subjects.

One particular part of my method is breaking down one large question into many smaller questions. This has several purposes: it forces you to clarify what you actually care about, and makes it more obvious what information is relevant. I describe this process and the reasoning behind it here, but not very well.  I’m looking for test subjects that have a research question, and would like to practice breaking it down into smaller questions, with the goal of refining the technique and my teaching of it.

What This Looks Like

  1. Come up with a question you might like to research.
  2. You book a phone call with me via calendly, or email me at elizabeth -at- acesounderglass.com to set up a time. 
  3. We discuss your question in an attempt to break it down into smaller parts.
  4. I sure hope some people actually go off and research the new questions but there’s no commitment required to do so.

What Are the Expected Outcomes?

  • You will have a better understanding of what you actually want to know and will be better positioned to find answers.
  • You will be better able to break down your next research question, without me.
  • I will make some of my metis on breaking down questions more explicit.
  • I will become better at teaching the technique of breaking down questions.
  • I learn techniques from you I couldn’t have learned on my own.

No Notes Research

I started watching The Vow with a friend, and got inspired to do a bunch of reading on cults in general and Vow’s cult, NXIVM, in particular. I didn’t originally take notes because this was coded in my head as a leisure activity, not real research. Eventually it became clear it was a real research project, but it seemed unfair to introduce real notes halfway through, so I decided to use it as an experiment in research without detailed notes instead (I did end up writing a few, but a far cry from The Algorithm). This turned out to be the right situation for that experiment, because my friend was a check on how much I actually remembered, especially on things we disagreed on, which was a lot.


  • Memory is in fact hard. 
    • When I went to share what I learned with my friend, I often had to look back at my (sparse) notes to remember things I wanted to talk to him about. This is true even when I was talking to him the morning of the day after I read the book. 
    • Often he would ask me questions and the answer wasn’t in my notes- sometimes it was firmly in memory and I’d just forgotten to bring it up, sometimes I knew the book had the answer but I had lost it.
  • I mixed up sources a lot.
    • I would frequently assume my friend knew something, only to find out it wasn’t from our shared source. 
  • I’d compress specifics into patterns. This hindered me arguing with my friend.
  • In combination with the source mix-up, this often meant I couldn’t tell apart the following situations:
    • Books A and B repeating the same story with the same source (almost equivalent to one source)
    • Books A and B tell the same story from their own perspectives (stronger evidence the thing actually happened, but not evidence of a pattern)
    • Books A and B tell stories about similar things happening to different people (evidence of a pattern).
  • Losing the specifics that demonstrated a pattern also made it much harder to change my mind in response to new evidence. Is this more credible or a stronger signal than the data my current view is based on? Who’s to say, if I can’t remember the original evidence?
  • This feels way easier with something as emotionally salient as cults than it did with my more distant historical research. And when I did shift to a more history-style book (Mystics and Messiahs), I suddenly had to take real notes.
  • I did go into this with a question, but I didn’t know what it was until I’d read a few books and seen what felt live and what didn’t. 
    • The question was: how do we cultivate instincts/responses that seamlessly antagonize the unhealthy parts of cults while allowing for communities and new ideas.
    • Also: Interpersonal power: How does it work?

I feel like there’s more to learn from this experiment, but I really needed to write *something* today and a draft post I had on a beautiful theory of mine took a hit from an ugly gang of facts, so this is it.