The Illusion of Explanatory Profundity

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Although the debate was clearly one best avoided, I had briefly slipped into engagement. On one hand, I like to reminded myself of the wisdom of Simeon ben Zoma: “Who is wise? One who learns from every man.”

On the other hand, this particular theory was clearly not the sleek and graceful vessel of profundity, slicing through the waves of my ignorance, that its recounter had been sold. It was, in fact, a rotting hulk of drivel, lurching wildly toward the iceberg of reality that I was about to provide.

The audiophile in question had sought an explanation of a simple concept in electronics. Unfortunately, he had chosen to seek it in a forum of opinions rather than a library of facts. So his simple question was answered with an ornate and convoluted verbal snowstorm by the resident self-appointed gurus therein, rather than someone with actual knowledge. Which, if I may briefly digress, reminds me of this William Shatner/Ben Folds collaboration:

So our hapless recounter, armed with this steaming pile, gleefully passed it on. Bad ideas and corrupt information spread like mind-viruses until they are so prolific they become accepted hi-fi lore. As Carl Jung wrote: “People don't have ideas. Ideas have people.” This is nowhere more true than within the cult of hi-fi. With religious zeal, audiophiles cling to ideas that have no basis in fact and are not demonstrable or falsifiable. But they are eminently defensible by those versed in the illusion of explanatory profundity.

Eventually, the bad idea in question was inflicted on me, where it was finally revealed as what Daniel Dennett describes as a “deepity”: A statement that is apparently profound but merely asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another, or, simply put, "pseudo-profound bullshit".

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The illusion of explanatory profundity is only an effective tool to mask a lack of knowledge or sell you expensive things you don’t need if you are unaware of its existence, so...

Listen: There is nothing in basic electronics (and by extension, hi-fi) that can not be clearly, simply and concisely explained. An explanation that is otherwise indicates that the narrator does not actually have any depth of knowledge on the subject. It may also indicate that there is no depth of knowledge to be had. Dealing with that unfortunate nugget is the purview of the advertising executive and the post-modern philosopher.

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I’m sure the child from The Emperor's New Clothes would not, in reality, be rewarded for his revelation of royal nudity. I imagine the poor boy would receive nothing but a good thrashing from the mob. Denuding the high-priests of hi-fi, while childs-play, is likely to have a similar result. It is a well known phenomenon that it’s harder to talk someone out of a false belief than into it and that they may not take kindly to the attempt.

So I don’t engage, unless asked, and then do so with caution.

Nobody wants to know the Emperor has no clothes.

William Crampton


For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.

From Plato’s The Apology of Socrates

The illusion of explanatory profundity is a term I first heard used by Dr Gad Saad.