There probably isn’t one reason

I finally finished The Hidden Half. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and ties together much of my reading and thinking over the past year or so.

As a recovering determinist, I relish the celebration of uncertainty and the unknown. I’ve written quite a bit as I’ve read along. But here’s one more thought – the implications of uncertainty for silver bullets.

As much as we try to make the world bend to our will, there likely isn’t just one reason for anything. And so there probably isn’t one solution for it either.

…The biggest things are unusual by definition. Unusual things often result from an alignment or interaction of many circumstances – that’s why they turn out big. By their nature, these will be harder to understand. However, this does not mean we have failed to research them as well as reasonably possible: in a world of enigmatic influences, research rigour does not equal nailing down. The best answer might be that there is no answer.

The bigger the thing you’re trying to tackle or explain, the more influences it will likely have. Including ones you can’t see or measure. If you remove any of these jenga blocks, will your notion stand up?

This makes transplanting explanations or “solutions” from one context to another incredibly problematic. Your idea may have “fixed” the problem over there – and that’s a big if. But do you really know why? What about all the factors underlying that?

History is littered with simple solutions to complex problems and we’re all prone to creating panaceas. Modern democracies, especially, incentivise simple explanations rather than waiting, seeing and experimentation.

But the world defies being put in a box.

This is why public policies so often miss or fail entirely. Complex problems have complex causes and likely require nuanced and adaptable solutions. That it’s worked before or fits a particular world view isn’t enough.

…A favourite big thing, a silver bullet, has so many advantages: it’s easier to sell, to describe, to understand, to put into practice. But whether the thing we pick would travel, on its own, to another context is another question. Silver bullets seldom work once, never mind twice.

As I have written previously, what this requires is a little more humility, as well as institutions and a culture that can accept uncertainty and not knowing. Working with best approximations and striving to improve them.

As always my emphasis.

Why information hygiene matters

I’ve been struggling with the notion of beliefs as the output of a transitory and “swirling mass” of complexity inside each of us. Myriad tiny influences we can neither observe nor prise apart.

But, assuming this theory is valid, the logical conclusion is that the quality of the information you allow in is incredibly important. If that which inspires your System 1 thinking is rubbish, so is your thinking.

From The Hidden Half:

Asked to account for our beliefs and choices, how often would we say it was an unknown nudge from the flotsam of incidentals? ‘I probably only believe this because I pulled the equivalent of a red sock from my mental laundry under the influence of the last thing I heard in a bar. . .’

If the incidentals are so important, unpredictable and seemingly invisible, it’s not enough to swamp the bad with good. The only answer is to be incredibly vigilant about what gets in.

Perhaps this will prove easier than culling the poorly informed and conscious conspirators from our social networks.

As always my emphasis

Where does your belief come from?

I’ve posted a lot of stuff on this blog questioning the foundations of belief.

How our beliefs are the function of the people we surround ourself with or are built during our formative years and then ossify. How language and culture both inform and limit what we can take in. And that much appears to be stuck in formative states.

But twice this week I’ve come across arguments that our “beliefs” are actually so transitory and shallow that they are all but meaningless.

That we are so riven with contradictions and so lacking a coherent world view that our “beliefs” are little more than fleeting notions backed up by post hoc rationing.

First in an old New Yorker article that makes me seriously question ever again trying to change someone’s mind.

And now in my continued reading of The Hidden Half:

We asked our volunteers to choose their political priorities on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, what would you do if it came to a choice whether the country should spend more on state-provided healthcare, or spend less and cut taxes (where 1 was definitely spend more and 10 was definitely cut tax)?…A short while later, we went back to talk over with our volunteers what they’d written and why. But we cheated. We left their original answer sheet as it was–written in their own hand with their names at the top to help convince them nothing fishy was going on. But where their answers were anywhere from 3 to 7–so not a definite 1 or a definite, uncompromising 10–we flipped the question around.

These are quite long quotes, but bear with me.

The partially handwritten page in front of them was evidence of what they believed–or so they thought. And it was this (doctored) opinion that they now defended. I sat down with a man who originally said that tax cuts were more important than more spending on state healthcare–and listened as he now explained why the opposite was true. His explanation was earnest, intelligent, clear, without hesitation. He wasn’t confused. He accepted this new position as a legitimate summary of his beliefs and didn’t miss a beat in justifying them.

I’ve read of studies where people surrender their opinion in the face of a majority or authority figure.

But that we are so intellectually supplicant that an unrecorded belief is essentially meaningless has quite thrown me. And that we could be dictated to by a recorded belief – even a false one – even more so.

To a certain extent this merely lines up with previous arguments in the book about complexity and simplification. But the lack of stability in the “lens” we use to understand the world – that I can’t feed you similar information over and over and expect a somewhat predictable response – has huge implications for discourse and institutions.

Let me end with a concluding remark from this section of the book:

…the ideal of holding a complete picture in our heads damns our capabilities with an impossible aspiration. The world, quite simply, is too complicated, too big, too messy, to frame in one go. The fact that we observe it in often contradictory fragments is also a measure of the enormity of the perceptual ask.

As always my emphasis

Singles not home runs

Watching professional sports, you often see a team that is behind suddenly go into desperation mode. The clock is ticking, so a flailing three pointer is launched from ten feet behind the line. Or the batter suddenly tries to hit the skin off of every pitch.

In reality it’s often not so dire. And trying to catch up in one go will likely doom you to failure. Hence the refrain – heard in many sports, not just baseball – that the way to go is by hitting singles, not home runs.

Just get onto first base. The person behind you will try and get you to second, etc. Go for a two pointer and not a three.

Don’t try to win it in one go. You won’t be the big hero. But you’ve got a better chance of succeeding.

I’ve been thinking about the weight given to big leaps, and in turn the relegation of smaller, safer gains, as I continue to read The Hidden Half.

We need to face the possibility that big influences are not as orderly or consistent as we expect, that the way things turn out is bound less by observable laws, forces or common factors than by the mass of uncommon factors, the jumble of hidden, micro-influences. Our habit of thinking of this as ‘noise’–and then thinking of ‘noise’ in turn as an annoying residual–diminishes one of life’s most magical elements.

Because of course, just as on the playing field, the heroes of academia and intellect are the ones who make the big play, not the tinkerers and exception finders.

But so often these big leaps wind up in incongruencies or pale in significance to the influence of smaller ones.

It’s not as sexy, but perhaps we should be emphasising something else – singles, not home runs.

We dream of laws and general truths; the practicality is often a patchwork of unexpected anomalies. Run with these ideas, apply them more widely, and you begin to conceive a world bustling with powerful but enigmatic differences that we just don’t see.

As always my emphasis.

A plea for more humility about what we ‘“know”

…we can’t help turning up our pattern-making instinct to 11–when life offers only a 5. Too often, we make bold claims about big forces with law-like effects, but with culpable overconfidence that leads us to waste time, money, talent and energy, and detract from real progress… I’d like our claims to be more proportionate to the awkwardness of the task. Every new generation needs reminding of the overconfidence of every previous generation, of how much there is still to know and do, and, above all, how resistant the raw materials of life can be.

Reading books like Thinking In Bets, The Lady Tasting Tea and The Drunkards Walk, it’s hard not to be thoroughly disaffected with the deterministic model of the universe most of us carry in our heads.

Green tea causes weight loss, your aunt tells you. You should try get into that school cause it’s the best, they say.

In fact, it’s tempting to draw this back to school, where we’re taught to find the right answer, not the best approximation of one. Confounding, selection, randomness and the dozens of other thorns in simple causation aren’t even really hinted at.

It’s like a civilisation-wide Dunning-Kruger effect. We engage in pattern matching, fuelled by ascertainment and confirmation bias.

And, most importantly for The Hidden Half, where these excerpts are form, we try to boil all of this down into iron laws. The “noise” that inevitably screws up these simple heuristics are willed away or ignored, to be settled later.

But it’s here where author Michael Blastland really shines – in a plea to embrace the beauty of that which confounds our attempts at simplification.

I’m only a couple of chapters in but it’s already a rollicking ride.

I’ve no desire to dismiss or discourage genuine, careful and humble efforts to understand, and no desire either to knock down robust houses of brick alongside the mansions of straw. It would be easy, but deluded, to see this book as part of an anti-science cynicism that says everything is uncertain, and therefore nothing can be done. I reject that view entirely. On the contrary, I want more robust evidence precisely so that our decisions and actions can be more reliable. I sympathize entirely with how difficult it is to do that well. I applaud those who devote themselves to the problem conscientiously and carefully. This is why we must recognize our limitations, try to understand how they arise, tread more carefully and test what we know vigorously. It was once said that at certain times the world is over-run by false scepticism, but of the true kind there can never be enough. 20 This book aspires to the true kind. The goal is not cynicism; it is to do better.

As always my emphasis.