I was reflecting on Seth Godin’s musings about the number of moons in our solar system. The initial assumptions we use to make predictions about our world can sometimes be orders of magnitude off from truth.
We as humans don’t like to be wrong, but we shouldn’t be overly concerned with our initial assumptions being off the mark. After all, if we knew the truth (whatever “truth” happens to be in this case), there would be no need to start from initial assumptions. It is because we are starting from a place of ignorance that we have to start from an assumption (or hypothesis) in order to move forward.
The problem lies with whether we realize we are making assumptions, and how committed we are to holding on to them. Assumptions made about the physical world can often be value-neutral, but assumptions that intersect with the lived experiences of people always come pre-packaged with history that’s value-loaded. It’s fine to make an assumption that your experiences are shared with others, but that assumption can only be carried so far. At some point, you have to acknowledge that there will be a lot missing in your initial assumptions that need to be accounted for.
The lesson then is this: when working from an estimation or prediction, be careful with your initial assumptions. It’s fine to begin with your own experiences, but always put an asterisks beside it because your experience is likely not universal. We must guess, then check. Test, verify, then revise.
Aiming at truth is a noble goal, but we should settle for asymptotically moving closer towards it as it more likely reflects reality.
The Varol piece was new, and as I read it, it reminded me of the Sivers piece, so I’m pairing them together. I’m a little conflicted with the message. On the one hand, I agree with both writers about the sentiments they are expressing. In Varol’s case, often citation becomes a short-hand for original thinking. Rather than expression your own unique ideas, you regurgitate what you’ve consumed from others (whether you are citing it or not, as is on display in the Good Will Hunting example). Likewise, Sivers is on to something when he suggests that integrating facts into our mental apparatus should not require us to cite our sources when it’s no longer the appropriate context. It makes sense to cite sources when writing something that will be graded in school, but it is stilted while in informal settings.
Where I feel conflicted is when there is a need to trace ideas back to verify the content. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it has certainly accelerated in recent years that misinformation is being thrown out into the void at a rapid pace. The internet has optimized itself on three facts of human nature – we like sensation, we like things that are familiar (that accords with what we already believe), and we are less critical of our in-group. Therefore, information bubbles get set up online, which creates a digital environment that’s conducive to rapid spreading of memetic viruses. When you think about it, it’s a marvelous analogy: the online information bubble is a closed environment where people are like-minded, which amounts to a roughly analogical immune system. A memetic virus then latches hold on one person, who spreads it to people in their network. Since the folks in the network share similar belief structures, the homogeneous group quickly spreads the meme throughout the information bubble. The meme is then incorporated into the belief network of the individuals through repetition and confirmation bias exposure. It writes itself into the belief web, in the same way viruses incorporate themselves into DNA.
I’m using the example of a memetic virus, but I think this framework is equally applied to more benign examples. Scientists release findings in the form of pre-peer reviewed news releases, which gets amplified and distorted through the media, which is then amplified and distorted through information bubbles. See here for an example:
At each phase, part of the signal is lost or transformed, like a social media game of telephone. When one person in the chain misunderstands the data, that impacts how the idea gets replicated. Over time, it becomes the digital version of a cancerous mutation of the base information.
This is why it’s important that we take care of how information is communicated, because as soon as you print something like “the majority of people believe x,” or “studies showed a y% decrease in the effect,” without a proper context of what the data is saying (or its limitations), that gets incorporated into people’s webs of belief. If you are a part of the population that believes something and you read that information, it reinforces your prior beliefs and you continue on in replicating the idea.
And so I’m torn. On the one hand, I shouldn’t need to cite my sources when having a casual conversation (a la Sivers), and I shouldn’t be substituting original thoughts with the ideas of others (a la Varol), but at the same time, I want it to be the case that when I encounter something that it should be verifiable and scruitable. I don’t know what the solution to this is, other than to flag it and remind myself to be wary of absolutist language.
As with many other people right now, I have chosen to go back and re-watch favourite television shows. I decided that with Star Trek: Picard’s recent release, it would be a great time to go back to the beginning (of the modern era, anyway) and revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had probably watched every episode in my teen years, but I had always watched it in syndication, so this is my first time going through the show in order.
Approaching the series in my 30’s has been a real treat. I have more life and cultural experience to draw upon as I watch these incredibly written episodes play out. I knew the show was amazing, but I never appreciated how well it engages with moral issues.
I want to highlight one excellent episode from the third season – episode 7, “The Enemy.” The characters provide us with a moral issue about autonomy, and a good lesson in leadership.
The story centres on the conflict that arises when the protagonists rescue an enemy officer from an out of bounds planet. The officer, from a race of people called Romulans, is gravely wounded and requires a blood transfusion. There is only one member of the crew whose blood could be usable, but that crew member, Worf, has a history with the enemy’s peoples – Worf’s parents had been killed during a Romulan attack when he was a child. Worf, still carrying his anger for their death all these years, refuses to give his blood.
Meanwhile, a Romulan ship is en route to recover the officer. There is a tenuous peace treaty that prevents an all out war, but the Romulans have a history of subterfuge and deceit. It is believed they will cross the border and assume an antagonistic stance to provoke a war. Worf’s Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is seeking any means that would avoid an armed encounter, and decides to plead with Worf to reconsider his decision.
In this moment, it would be expedient to Picard and his crew to order Worf to donate his blood. He is about to contend with an adversary whom has no issue with breaking a peace treaty by provoking an attack (whether or not his side is initially in the wrong). Picard is seeking to recover a still-stranded crew member on the planet below, keep his ship safe, maintain the territorial sovereignty of the Federation, and maintain tenuous diplomatic relations with a rival group. This is all threatened because the one solution to his problem, keeping the enemy officer alive, is being blocked by a crew member whose personal history and honour motivate him to not help the enemy.
There is a beautiful scene where Picard appeals to Worf for him to reconsider:
Picard: So, there is no question that the Romulan officer is more valuable to us alive than dead. Worf: I understand. Picard: Lieutenant, sometimes the moral obligations of command are less than clear. I have to weigh the good of the many against the needs of the individual and try to balance them as realistically as possible. God knows, I don’t always succeed. Worf: I have not had cause to complain, Captain. Picard: Oh, Lieutenant, you wouldn’t complain even if you had cause. Worf: If you order me to agree to the transfusion, I will obey of course. Picard: I don’t want to order you. But I ask you, I beg you, to volunteer. Worf: I cannot.
In silence, Picard slowly walks back around his desk and sits in his chair.
Picard: Lieutenant. Worf: Sir? Picard: That will be all.
We then learn from the ship’s Chief Medical Officer that the Romulan has died. Picard has lost the only bargaining chip he had to keep things peaceful with the approaching enemy ship.
Picard could have chosen to order Worf to allow the blood transfusion. Instead, he chooses to respect his crew member’s personal wish, and as a leader deal with the hand he’s given. He also knows that making an order against the personal rights of a crew member under his command sets a dangerous precedence – that anyone is disposable if the captain judges it. Instead, he accepts that this closes off options. He knows that this places him not just on the back-foot, but also with his arms tied behind his back as he prepares for the possibility that his ship will be destroyed. However, the burden of command requires him to take these realities as they come and make the best decisions that he can. Events are being shaped around him that are beyond his control, but he strives to make the best decision that he can. He’s not perfect, but he becomes a role model in striving to do the right thing.
Even if the right thing might mean the death of he and his crew.
It’s a wonder piece of science fiction that I’m glad to be discovering anew.
During a throwaway thought experiment in his 1641 treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated, René Descartes posited the idea of an evil genius or demon that systematically deceives us to distort our understanding of the world. Contrary to first year philosophy students everywhere (a younger version of myself included), Descartes did not actually believe in the existence of an evil manipulator that was holding us back from understanding the nature of the real world. Instead, he was using it as part of a larger project to radically re-conceive epistemology in an era of rapid advancements in science that was threatening to overturn centuries of our understanding of the world. He felt that knowledge was built upon shaky ground thanks to an over-adherence on the received authorities from Greek antiquity and the Church’s use of Aristotelian scholasticism. Similar to Francis Bacon twenty years earlier, Descartes set out to focus on knowledge that stood independent of received authority.
Through Meditations one and two of his book, Descartes considers the sources of our beliefs and considers how we come to know what we think we know. He wants to find an unshakable truth to build all knowledge from, and through an exercise of radical doubt he calls into question many of the core facts we hold – first that knowledge gained from the senses are often in error, that we often can’t distinguish the real from fantasy, and through the use of the evil genius, that perhaps even our abstract knowledge like mathematics could be an illusion.
When I teach this to first year students, they either don’t take his concerns seriously because of the force of the impressions the real world gives us in providing sense data for knowledge (a stubbed toe in the dark seems to forcefully prove to us that the external world to our senses is very real), or they take Descartes too seriously and think Descartes really thought that a demon was actively deceiving him. Regardless of which side the student falls on, they will then conclude that Descartes’ concerns are not worth worrying about; that this mode of thinking is the product of an earlier, less sophisticated age.
Unless you are a scholar delving into Descartes’ work, the real purpose of teaching the Meditations is to provide students with a framework to understand how one can go about thinking through complex philosophical problems. Descartes starts from a position of epistemic doubt, and decided to run with it in a thought experiment to see where it took him. The thought experiment is a useful exercise to run your students through to get them to think through their received opinions and held-dogmas.
However, in light of my rant a few weeks back about informed consent and vaccines, I’ve discovered a new contemporary use for thinking about Descartes’ evil genius. In some sense, the evil genius is *real* and takes the form of fear that shortcuts our abilities to learn about the world and revise our held beliefs. Descartes posited that the evil demon was able to put ideas into our heads that made us believe things that were completely against logic. The demon was able to strip away the world beyond the senses and even cast doubt on abstract concepts like mathematics.
Much in the same way Descartes’ demon was able to “deceive” him into believing things that were contrary to the nature of reality, our fear of the unknown and of future harm can cause us to hold beliefs that do not map onto facts about the world. Worse yet, the story we tell about those facts can get warped, and new explanations can be given to account for what we are seeing. This becomes the breeding ground for conspiracy thinking, the backfire effect, and entrenched adherence to one’s beliefs. We hate to be wrong, and so we bend over backwards to contort our understanding of the facts to hold-fast to our worldview.
In truth, we are all susceptible to Descartes’ demon, especially those whom believe themselves to be above these kinds of faults of logic. In psychology, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, of which there are all sorts of reasons given why people overestimate their competence. But in the context of an entrenched worldview that is susceptible to fear of the unknown lurks Descartes’ Demon, ready to pounce upon us with false beliefs about the world. Its call is strong, its grip is tight, and the demon is there to lull us into tribalism. We fight against those we see as merchants of un-truth and in a twisted sense of irony, the weapons of truth we yield only affect those already on our side, while those we seek to attack are left unaffected. It becomes a dog-whistle that calls on those who already think and believe as we do.
If we hope to combat this modern Cartesian demon, we’ll need to find a new way of reaching those we see on the other side.
I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning. The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available. The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side. This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.
In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search. This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded. However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars. Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.
If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event). I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.
My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:
My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door. This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots. Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots. These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.
Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.
First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots. By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly. Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time. If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.
Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there. Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.
Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots. I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps. When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row. If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot). If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.
The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row. There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined. This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot. Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.
A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from. That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.
All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.
If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???). I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem. I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria. In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.
It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time. For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time. Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.
When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time. So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options. Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want. It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.
While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).