How to answer a question
I’ve been enjoying watching Les Stroud’s directors commentaries of old Surviorman episodes. For the uninitiated: Survivorman is a survival show where Les Stroud goes out in the wilderness geared for a “typical scenario” (e.g. “scuba diver whose boat floated away”) and he survives for a week while filming himself. Strong encounters with the real: if he fails as surviving, he doesn’t eat, and if he fails at filming, he doesn’t have a show.
His reflections on this experience are exactly the information-rich, unsystemized anecdotes we’re all about here. And I want to pull out one particular answer that really emphasizes how an expert will properly answer a question to transmit their experience without going too far. When asked whether eating right before bed makes you cold (as some survival experts say) or warm (as he does), he answered:
I cannot speak to the physiology. It may be very true that eating before bed draws heat from your extremities - after all, the blood goes to the stomach to aid digestion. However, what I can say from a true experiential perspective is that for me, when I bed down in a survival situation and I know I’m going to be cold, then I put in a chunk of fat into my body. My trick when I go camping, and I have done this time and time again with friends of mine who — we’ll go camping, canoe trip, that sort of thing. Backpacking. And I will always reserve a block like the size of a pat of butter, maybe, a little block of cheddar cheese. I say ‘Here, eat this, tell me how you are when you get up in the morning’. And they always say the same thing: “I was so hot I had to put my sleeping bag down a bit to get some cool air in.” So I find that whether or not physiologically it’s true — and any doctor watching this, they can answer that question, I cannot speak to the physiology of it. I can speak to the survival experience and say: absolutely, I always eat before bed, but especially if I can, it’s going to be something high in fat content. And I feel what’s happening is the stomach is churning, working hard to digest that rich fat, and the heat just emanates from my stomach to my extremities, and I’m quite warm.
Les plays a clever trick with the word “physiology”. From a strictly literal perspective, the subjective experience of heat is still a physiological one. What he really means when he says “the physiology” is “the non-experiential” — I have no broader framework beyond the literal sensory experience I am about to recount. He’s preemptively ceding representational privilege to anyone who knows enough to wield it, being careful to only talk about his signal. But because the signal itself is valuable — the subjective experience of being cold is usually what people want to minimize! — he goes from emphasizing the modesty of the representation to emphasizing the resilience of the signal. It’s multiple friends, it’s multiple circumstances, it’s only as little cheese as a pat of butter, it’s a big enough effect that you have to put your sleeping bag down a bit.
He ends with a plausible reason why - “my stomach is churning” - but he doesn’t spend much time on it, because he doesn’t need to. Hypotheses are prone to all sorts of errors and biases and replication problems, and you only need a hypothesis if you’re going to change the circumstances of the signal and want to know if the pattern will still hold in that new context. If you just want to feel warm at night, then knowing something that reliably makes people feel warm at night is enough, no “why” needed. These consistent, theory-free observations are what skilled practitioners are on the hunt for; centering your explanation around them is the sure sign of an expert.