Garrett Hardin: The Other Side of Expertise


From Garrett Hardin’s mind-blowingly awesome Filters Against Folly.

In our highly technological society we cannot do without experts. We accept this fact of life, but not without anxiety. There is much truth in the definition of the specialist as someone who “knows more and more about less and less.” But there is another side to the coin of expertise. A really great idea in science often has its birth as apparently no more than a particular answer to a narrow question; it is only later that it turns out that the ramifications of the answer reach out into the most surprising corners. What begins as knowledge about very little turns out to be wisdom about a great deal.

So it was with the development of the theory of probability. It all began in the seventeenth century, when one of the minor French nobility asked the philosopher-scientist Blaise Pascal to devise a fair way to divide the stakes in an interrupted gambling game. Pascal consulted with lawyer-mathematician friend Pierre de Fermat, and the two of them quickly laid the foundation of probability theory. Out of a trivial question about gambling came profound insights that later bore splendid fruit in physics and biology, in the verification of the causes of disease, the calculation of fair insurance premiums, and the achievement of quality control in manufacturing processes. And much more.

The service of experts is indispensable even if we are poor at ascertaining under which circumstances they add value, when they add noise, and when they are harmful. Hardin cautions that each new expertise introduces “new possibilities of error.”

It is unfortunately true that experts are generally better at seeing their particular kinds of trees than the forest of all life.

Thoughtful laymen — that’s us — can, however, “become very good at seeing the forest, particularly if they lose their timidity about challenging the experts. … In the universal role of laymen we all have to learn to filter the essential meaning out of the too verbose, too aggressively technical statements of the experts. Fortunately this is not as difficult a task as some experts would have us believe.”

Filters Against Folly is Hardin’s attempt “to show there …. (are) some rather simple methods of checking on the validity of the statements of experts.”

A Few Lessons

shane

Looking back on my first years out of school and the countless mistakes I made, I can’t help but feel that any success I’ve enjoyed is more through dumb luck than any particular brilliance on my part.

Through Farnam Street, I detail my journey of self-discovery and learning. Basically, I explore two things in parallel:

First is the enduring search for how we should live and what it means to live a good life. And second, more practically, I explore things we can learn and connect that better equip us to solve problems by thinking.

While unqualified, I’m often asked to give advice to young people who are just beginning their own journey of self-discovery. With that disclaimer, let me share a few things that I’ve learned in the hopes that these help you navigate your journey.

1. Learn to say “I don’t know.”
Being caught without an opinion on something can be the kiss of death for the modern knowledge worker. This fosters an environment where we borrow our opinions from others without doing the necessary thinking.

And to make matters worse, once blurted out, we feel the need to defend these borrowed opinions because we don’t want to appear inconsistent. So we end up defending a superficial opinion based on the thoughts of others all because we couldn’t say three simple words: “I don’t know.”

2. Learn the difficult skill of changing your mind.
When was the last time you changed your mind on something? If you’re honest, it was probably a long time ago. We tend to accumulate knowledge and assume, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that we are right.

The point here is to re-examine your conclusions and attitudes. When someone has a better one, adopt it. Seek evidence that contradicts what you think and try to explain it.

3. Your reputation for helping others is the most important thing.
Harry Truman had a saying that resonates a lot with me: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

The thirst for credit fuels our ego. When culturally reinforced, this leads to predictably disastrous outcomes. Ego often prevents us from being as generous as we would like. It causes us to show how smart we are by making others look bad rather than making them look good.

Ego causes us to withhold information. And so on. When your ego gets too big, people won’t want to work with you. Help others achieve their goals and you’ll be amazed at the places you’ll go.

4. Knowing what to avoid is often more valuable than knowing what you think you want.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is invert the problem. It’s often as helpful to know what you want to avoid as what you want. Things that ruin lives tend to be predictable over time.

Avoid debt or leverage as well as over-consumption of drugs and alcohol. But there are some less obvious things to avoid.

For instance, when you start out in the workforce you’re looking for a cool place to work, but the person you work for is important, too.

Generally you want to work with people who have three traits: intelligence, energy and integrity. Avoid at all costs the seductive allure of smart people that lack integrity.

5. Mistakes.
Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. Learn to recognize mistakes and correct them. (see #2.)

6. Goal-orientated people mostly fail.
Goal-oriented people mostly fail. What you really want is a system that increases your odds of success. Even if that system only improves the odds a little it adds up over a long life.

7. Friendships.
Friendship is more than just being there for your friends. Being a great friend means that you let your friends be there for you.

Marcus Aurelius: You Have One Life To Live

Young Marcus Aurelius
Young Marcus Aurelius

The excerpt is from this version online, although if you’re going to read it, get the Hayes translation.

Our mental powers should enable us to perceive the swiftness with which all things vanish away: their bodies in the world of space, and their remembrance in the world of time. We should also observe the nature of all objects of sense–particularly such as allure us with pleasure, or affright us with pain, or are clamorously urged upon us by the voice of self-conceit — the cheapness and contemptibility of them, how sordid they are, and how quickly fading and dead. We should discern the true worth of those whose word and opinion confer reputations. We should apprehend, too, the nature of death; and that if only it be steadily contemplated, and the fancies we associate with it be mentally dissected, it will soon come to be thought of as no more than a process of nature (and only children are scared by a natural process) — or rather, something more than a mere process, a positive contribution to nature’s well-being. Also we can learn how man has contact with God, and with which part of himself this is maintained, and how that part fares after its removal hence.

Nothing is more melancholy than to compass the whole creation, ‘probing into the deeps of earth’ as the poet says, and peering curiously into the secrets of others’ souls, without once understanding that to hold fast to the divine spirit within, and serve it loyally, is all that is needful. Such service involves keeping it pure from passion, and from aimlessness, and from discontent with the works of gods or men; for the former of these works deserve our reverence, for their excellence; the latter our goodwill, for fraternity’s sake, and at times perhaps our pity too, because of men’s ignorance of good and evil–an infirmity as crippling as the inability to distinguish black from white.

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come–for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest-and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

(h/t Lampham’s Quarterly)

Charlie Munger: Adding Mental Models to Your Mind’s Toolbox

Berkshire Headquarters
In The Art of War Sun Tzu said “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.”

Those ‘calculations’ are the tools we have available to think better. One of the best questions you can ask is how we can make our mental processes work better.

Charlie Munger says that “developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do.”

Those models are mental models.

They fall into two categories: (1) ones that help us simulate time (and predict the future) and better understand how the world works (e.g. understanding a useful idea from like autocatalysis), and (2) ones that help us better understand how our mental processes lead us astray (e.g., availability bias).

When our mental models line up with reality they help us avoid problems. However, they also cause problems when they don’t line up with reality as we think something that isn’t true.

In Peter Bevelin’s Seeking Wisdom, he highlights Munger talking about autocatalysis:

If you get a certain kind of process going in chemistry, it speeds up on its own. So you get this marvellous boost in what you’re trying to do that runs on and on. Now, the laws of physics are such that it doesn’t run on forever. But it runs on for a goodly while. So you get a huge boost. You accomplish A – and, all of a sudden, you’re getting A + B + C for awhile.

He continues telling us how this idea can be applied:

Disney is an amazing example of autocatalysis … They had those movies in the can. They owned the copyright. And just as Coke could prosper when refrigeration came, when the videocassette was invented, Disney didn’t have to invent anything or do anything except take the thing out of the can and stick it on the cassette.

***

This leads us to an interesting problem. The world is always changing so which models should we prioritize learning?

How we prioritize our learning has implications beyond the day-to-day. Often we focus on things that change quickly. We chase the latest study, the latest findings, the most recent best-sellers. We do this to keep up-to-date with the latest-and-greatest.

Despite our intentions, learning in this way fails to account for cumulative knowledge. Instead we consume all of our time keeping up to date.

If we are prioritize learning, we should focus on things that change slowly.

The models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control – at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers – is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much…

And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints – that’s a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass – that comes out of physics – is a very powerful model.

After we learn a model we have to make it useful. We have to integrate it into our existing knowledge.

Our world is mutli-dimensional and our problems are complicated. Most problems cannot be solved using one model alone. The more models we have the better able we are to rationally solve problems.

But if we don’t have the models we become the proverbial man with a hammer. To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you only have one model you will fit whatever problem you face to the model you have. If you have more than one model, however, you can look at the problem from a variety of perspectives and increase the odds you come to a better solution.

“Since no single discipline has all the answers,” Peter Bevelin writes in Seeking Wisdom, “we need to understand and use the big ideas from all the important disciplines: Mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, psychology, and rank and use them in order of reliability.”

Charles Munger illustrates the importance of this:

Suppose you want to be good at declarer play in contract bridge. Well, you know the contract – you know what you have to achieve. And you can count up the sure winners you have by laying down your high cards and your invincible trumps.

But if you’re a trick or two short, how are you going to get the other needed tricks? Well, there are only six or so different, standard methods: You’ve got long-suit establishment. You’ve got finesses. You’ve got throw-in plays. You’ve got cross-ruffs. You’ve got squeezes. And you’ve got various ways of misleading the defense into making errors. So it’s a very limited number of models. But if you only know one or two of those models, then you’re going to be a horse’s patoot in declarer play…

If you don’t have the full repertoire, I guarantee you that you’ll overutilize the limited repertoire you have – including use of models that are inappropriate just because they’re available to you in the limited stock you have in mind.

As for how we can use different ideas, Munger again shows the way …

Have a full kit of tools … go through them in your mind checklist-style.. .you can never make any explanation that can be made in a more fundamental way in any other way than the most fundamental way. And you always take with full attribution to the most fundamental ideas that you are required to use. When you’re using physics, you say you’re using physics. When you’re using biology, you say you’re using biology.

But ideas alone are not enough. We need to understand how they interact and combine. This leads to lollapalooza effects.

You get lollapalooza effects when two, three or four forces are all operating in the same direction. And, frequently, you don’t get simple addition. It’s often like a critical mass in physics where you get a nuclear explosion if you get to a certain point of mass – and you don’t get anything much worth seeing if you don’t reach the mass.

Sometimes the forces just add like ordinary quantities and sometimes they combine on a break-point or critical-mass basis … More commonly, the forces coming out of … models are conflicting to some extent. And you get huge, miserable trade-offs … So you [must] have the models and you [must] see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.

Seneca on Wisdom

wisdom

In Seneca’s Morals: Of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger, and Clemency, the famous stoic philosopher Seneca, who brought us combinatorial creativity, illuminates real wisdom.

Wisdom is a right understanding, a faculty of discerning good from evil, what is to be chosen and what rejected; a judgment grounded upon the value of things, and not the common opinion of them. It sets a watch over our words and deeds, and makes us invincible by either good or evil fortune. It has for its object things past and things to come, things transitory and things eternal. It examines all the circumstances of time, and the nature and operation of the mind. It stands to philosophy as avarice to money — the one desires and the other is desired; the one is the effect and the reward of the other. To be wise is the use of wisdom, as seeing is the use of eyes, and speaking of the tongue. He that is perfectly wise is perfectly happy; nay, the very beginning of wisdom makes life easy to us. It is not enough to know this; we must print it in our minds by daily meditation, and so bring a good will to a good habit.

Philosophy, after all, is a guide to living your life.

We must practise what we preach, for philosophy is not a subject for popular ostentation, nor does it rest in words, but in deeds. It is not an entertainment to be taken up for delight, or to give a taste to our leisure, but it should fashion the mind, govern our actions, and tell us what we are to do and what avoid. It sits at the helm and guides us through all hazards; nay, we cannot be safe without it, for every hour gives us occasion to use it. It informs us in all the duties of life : piety to our parents, faith to our friends, charity to the poor, judgment in counsel; it gives us peace by fearing nothing, and riches by coveting nothing.

A wise man, will always be happy …

… for he subjects all things to himself, submits himself to reason, and governs his actions by counsel, not by passion. He is not moved with the utmost violences of fortune, nor with the extremities of fire and sword; whereas a fool is afraid of his own shadow, and surprised at ill accidents, as if they were all levelled at him. He does nothing unwillingly, for whatever he finds necessary, he makes it his choice. He propounds’ to himself the certain scope and end of human life: he follows that which conduces to it, and avoids that which hinders it. He is content with his lot, whatever it be, without wishing for what he has not, though of the two, he had rather abound than want.

The business of his life, like that of nature, is performed without tumult or noise: he neither fears danger nor provokes it; but from caution, not from cowardice; for captivity, wounds, and chains he looks upon as unreal terrors. He undertakes to do well that which he does. Arts are but the servants whom wisdom commands. He is cautious in doubtful cases, in prosperity temperate, and resolute in adversity; still making the best of every condition, and improving all occasions to make them serviceable to his fate.

Some accidents there are which, I confess, may affect him, but they cannot overthrow him; such as bodily pains, loss of children and friends, or the ruin and desolation of his country. One must be made of stone or iron not to be sensible of these calamities; and besides, it were no virtue to bear them if one did not feel them.

There are three degrees of proficiency in the school of wisdom:

The first are those that come within the sight of it, but not up to it: they have learned what they ought to do, but they have not put their knowledge into practice; they are past the hazard of a relapse, but they are still in the clutches of disease; by which I mean an ill habit, that makes them over-eager upon things which are either not much to be desired, or not at all. A second sort are those that have conquered their appetite for a season, but are yet in fear of falling back. A third sort are those that are clear of many vices, but not of all. They are not covetous, but perhaps they are passionate; firm enough in some cases, but weak in others; perhaps despise death, and yet shrink at pain. There are diversities in wise men, but no inequalities; — one is more affable, another more ready, a third, a better speaker; but the felicity of them all is equal.

Read more: Seneca’s Morals: Of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger, and Clemency which is available online for free.

​​(Image source)

5 Books That Will Change Your Life

Reading is important to me. Not only is it one way to fill in the gaps left by my formal education but it is a meaningful way to better myself. Reading alone, however, isn’t enough. What you read and how you apply it matters. In the past year, I started reading over 300 books and finished 161 of them.

Reading what everyone else reads is good for conversation, perhaps, but it’s not going to help you to think differently. And if you can’t think differently, you’re always going to be a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.

With that in mind, here are five books that will change your life and enable you to see things in a new light.

1. Collected Maxims and Other Reflections by La Rochefoucauld
La Rochefoucauld’s critical and pithy analysis of human behavior won’t soon be forgotten. A list of people influenced by his maxims include Nietzsche, Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, and Conan Doyle. “The reader’s best policy,” Rochefoucauld suggests, “is to assume that none of these maxims is directed at him, and that he is the sole exception. …. After that, I guarantee that he will be the first to subscribe to them.”

2. The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
I’ve never read this book in a cover-to-cover sense but I’ve read each of the laws. More than that, I’ve broken each of the laws. I’ll give you an example. The first law is “Never outshine the master.” Once I worked directly for a CEO. I worked as hard as I ever have to show off my talents and skills and at every turn it backfired over and over again. The lesson — “make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.” I wish I read this book earlier in my career, it certainly would have been helpful.

3. Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War by Xenophon
This book sat on my shelf for a year before I picked it up recently. This is the biography of Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus the Elder, who made the oldest known declaration of human rights. The book is full of leadership lessons. Here’s an example. “Brevity is the soul of command. Too much talking suggests desperation on the part of the leader. Speak shortly, decisively and to the point–and couch your desires in such natural logic that no one can raise objections. Then move on.”

4. Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son
This no nonsense collection of 20 letters from a self-made man to his son are nothing short of brilliant as far as I’m concerned. This is a great example of timeless wisdom. The broad theme is how to raise your children in a world where they have plenty but the lessons apply to parents and non-parents alike.

5. Models of my Life by Herbert Simon
An autobiography of Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, a remarkable polymath who more people should know about. In an age of increasing specializing, he’s a rare generalist — applying what he learned as a scientist to other aspects of his life. Crossing disciplines, he was at the intersection of “information sciences.” He won the Nobel for his theory of “bounded rationality,” and is perhaps best known for his insightful quote “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

And one more… just for good luck.

6. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Ok, this is a bonus pick as I figured a many of you might have read this already. It was, after all, on the 2013 Farnam Street reader’s choice list. If you bought it and haven’t read it, consider this a nudge. The best way to sum up this book is: A simple and powerful guide to life. This book was never intended for publication it was for himself. How many people write a book of epigrams to themselves? Get it. Read it. Live it.