Fundamental Principles Versus Specific Answers

This occurred to me in the course of posting a reply to an inquiry on another board. I suspect it’s just a difference in each person’s approach to solving problems.

The inquiry was in the general category of “should I make format choice X or format choice Y in developing a document.”

 And, as one might expect, several people jumped in to offer answers. Some were excellent; others were based on old and incorrect information regarding the psychology of readability.

But thinking about this lead me to ask “why would this person post the question in the first place?” From time to time, we are in the position where we want the quick answer, the fast solution to the thing we need or want to do right now. I wonder, though, whether this approach, taken to extremes, becomes a habit, and limits capability.

For example, what happens two hours later, or two weeks later, when the same person has another question in the same domain? Do they simply post again? Or give up if no instant solution is offered?

What happens if the answers they were given are simply wrong for the actual context in which they intend to apply the information? (Because it’s a special case.)

Instead, I want to know about the fundamental principles. What is the general body of knowledge and research that underlies the thing I’m trying to do? That doesn’t mean I need to go get doctoral-level expertise right now, but I would want to have read some basic articles – hopefully a few that are complementary, and some contradictory – so I have an understanding of the basic principles and foundation for this area.

In the case of the query I mentioned above, I seemed to remember that a couple posts made assertions that have been disproven by newer research in the field. While I didn’t have time to dig out the journal articles, I figured someone on the net had collated this work. So, turning to Google, I searched something like “X versus Y” and was able to (politely) post to suggest that there was some additional information on the subject. And, I refreshed my memory as well.

Perhaps it’s just a difference in internal wiring, interests, and proclivities. But I think that looking for the fundamental principles can help build depth and expertise – and help in solving more difficult classes of problems.

Or perhaps it’s just a rationalization for spending too much time on Google and reading books. 🙂

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