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The Green Lumber Fallacy: The Difference between Talking and Doing

“Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking.”
— Nassim Taleb

***

Before we get to the meat, let’s review an elementary idea in biology that will be relevant to our discussion.

If you’re familiar with evolutionary theory, you know that populations of organisms are constantly subjected to “selection pressures” — the rigors of their environment which lead to certain traits being favored and passed down to their offspring and others being thrown into the evolutionary dustbin.

Biologists dub these advantages in reproduction “fitness” — as in, the famously lengthening of giraffe necks gave them greater “fitness” in their environment because it helped them reach high up, untouched leaves.

Fitness is generally a relative concept: Since organisms must compete for scarce resources, their fitnesses are measured in the sense of giving a reproductive advantage over one another.

Just as well, a trait that might provide great fitness in one environment may be useless or even disadvantageous in another. (Imagine draining a pond: Any fitness advantages held by a really incredible fish becomes instantly worthless without water.) Traits also relate to circumstance. An advantage at one time could be a disadvantage at another and vice versa.

This makes fitness an all-important concept in biology: Traits are selected for if they provide fitness to the organism within a given environment.

Got it? OK, let’s get back to the practical world.

***

The Black Swan thinker Nassim Taleb has an interesting take on fitness and selection in the real world:  People who are good “doers” and people who are good “talkers” are often selected for different traits. Be careful not to mix them up.

In his book Antifragile, Taleb uses this idea to invoke a heuristic he’d once used when hiring traders on Wall Street:

The more interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business (something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life).

Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible–they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives. Entrepreneurs are selected to be doers, not thinkers, and doers do, they don’t talk, and it would be unfair, wrong, and downright insulting to measure them in the talk department.

In other words, the selection pressures on an entrepreneur are very different from those on a corporate manager or bureaucrat: Entrepreneurs and risk takers succeed or fail not so much on their ability to talk, explain, and rationalize as their ability to get things done.

While the two can often go together, Nassim figured out that they frequently don’t. We judge people as ignorant when it’s really us who are ignorant.

When you think about it, there’s no a priori reason great intellectualizing and great doing must go together: Being able to hack together an incredible piece of code gives you great fitness in the world of software development, while doing great theoretical computer science probably gives you better fitness in academia. The two skills don’t have to be connected. Great economists don’t usually make great investors.

But we often confuse the two realms.  We’re tempted to think that a great investor must be fluent in behavioral economics or a great CEO fluent in Mckinsey-esque management narratives, but in the real world, we see this intuition constantly in violation.

The investor Walter Schloss worked from 9-5, barely left his office, and wasn’t considered an entirely high IQ man, but he compiled one of the great investment records of all time. A young Mark Zuckerberg could hardly be described as a prototypical manager or businessperson, yet somehow built one of the most profitable companies in the world by finding others that complemented his weaknesses.

There are a thousand examples: Our narratives about the type of knowledge or experience we must have or the type of people we must be in order to become successful are often quite wrong; in fact, they border on naive. We think people who talk well can do well, and vice versa. This is simply not always so.

We won’t claim that great doers cannot be great talkers, rationalizers, or intellectuals. Sometimes they are. But if you’re seeking to understand the world properly, it’s good to understand that the two traits are not always co-located. Success, especially in some “narrow” area like plumbing, programming, trading, or marketing, is often achieved by rather non-intellectual folks. Their evolutionary fitness doesn’t come from the ability to talk, but do. This is part of reality.

***

Taleb calls this idea the Green Lumber Fallacy, after a story in the book What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Taleb describes it in Antifragile:

In one of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance, descriptively called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, the protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber,” actually thought it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move and went bust.

It is not just that the successful expert on lumber was ignorant of central matters like the designation “green.” He also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant.

The fact that predicting the order flow in lumber and the usual narrative had little to do with the details one would assume from the outside are important. People who do things in the field are not subjected to a set exam; they are selected in the most non-narrative manager — nice arguments don’t make much difference. Evolution does not rely on narratives, humans do. Evolution does not need a word for the color blue.

So let us call the green lumber fallacy the situation in which one mistakes a source of visible knowledge — the greenness of lumber — for another, less visible from the outside, less tractable, less narratable.

The main takeaway is that the real causative factors of success are often hidden from usWe think that knowing the intricacies of green lumber are more important than keeping a close eye on the order flow. We seduce ourselves into overestimating the impact of our intellectualism and then wonder why “idiots” are getting ahead. (Probably hustle and competence.)

But for “skin in the game” operations, selection and evolution don’t care about great talk and ideas unless they translate into results. They care what you do with the thing more than that you know the thing. They care about actually avoiding risk rather than your extensive knowledge of risk management theories. (Of course, in many areas of modernity there is no skin in the game, so talking and rationalizing can be and frequently are selected for.)

As Taleb did with his hiring heuristic, this should teach us to be a little skeptical of taking good talkers at face value, and to be a little skeptical when we see “unexplainable” success in someone we consider “not as smart.” There might be a disconnect we’re not seeing because we’re seduced by narrative. (A problem someone like Lee Kuan Yew avoided by focusing exclusively on what worked.)

And we don’t have to give up our intellectual pursuits in order to appreciate this nugget of wisdom; Taleb is right, but it’s also true that combining the rigorous, skeptical knowledge of “what actually works” with an ever-improving theory structure of the world might be the best combination of all — selected for in many more environments than simple git-er-done ability, which can be extremely domain and environment dependent. (The green lumber guy might not have been much good outside the trading room.)

After all, Taleb himself was both a successful trader and the highest level of intellectual. Even he can’t resist a little theorizing.

Carol Dweck on Creating a Growth Mindset in the Workplace

Carol Dweck‘s concept of Mindset permeates through every aspect of our lives.

One area particularity affected is in the workplace. We spend half of our day at work (some of you likely spend more than half) and both your mindset and the mindset of those around you will have a significant impact on your life, especially the mindset of your boss. Dweck comments:

Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior, and the company is simply a platform for this.

These leaders tend to have a strong focus on personal reputation, generally at the expense of the company. Lee Iacocca, during his time at Chrysler, is a good example of this. Iacocca had his ego severely bruised when he was forced out of Ford. Fixed-mindset leaders tend to respond to failure with anger instead of viewing it as an opportunity to learn or get better.

So the king who had defined him as competent and worthy now rejected him as flawed. With ferocious energy, Iacocca applied himself to the monumental task of saving face and, in the process, Chrysler Motors. Chrysler, the once thriving Ford rival, was on the brink of death, but Iacocca as its new CEO acted quickly to hire the right people, bring out new models, and lobby the government for bailout loans. Just a few years after his humiliating exit from Ford, he was able to write a triumphant autobiography and in it declare, ‘Today, I’m a hero.’

He showed Ford that they made a mistake when they let him go, and he reveled in his triumph. But in his glory-basking, Iacocca forgot that the race wasn’t over yet.

This was a hard time for the American automotive industry, the Japanese were challenging the market like no one ever had before. Chrysler needed to respond to the competition or they would be in trouble again. Meanwhile, Iacocca was still focused on his reputation and legacy.

He also looked to history, to how he would be judged and remembered. But he did not address this concern by building the company. Quite the contrary. According to one of his biographers, he worried that his underlings might get credit for successful new designs, so he balked at approving them. He worried, as Chrysler faltered, that his underlings might be seen as the new saviors, so he tried to get rid of them.

Instead of listening to the advice of his designers and engineers, Iacocca dug his feet into the ground.

See, a fixed-mindset doesn’t easily allow you to change course. You believe that someone either has ‘it’ or they don’t: it’s a very binary frame of mind. You don’t believe in growth, you believe in right and wrong and any suggestion of change or adaptation is considered a criticism. You don’t know how to adopt grey thinking. Challenges or obstacles tend to make you angry and defensive. 

Iacocca was no different.

But rather than taking up the challenge and delivering better cars, Iacocca, mired in his fixed mindset, delivered blame and excuses. He went on the rampage, spewing angry diatribes against the Japanese and demanding that the American government impose tariffs and quotas that would stop them.

Blame is a big part of the fixed-mindset; when something goes wrong you don’t want to take responsibility because that would be akin to accepting inferiority. This can push some bosses to become abusive and controlling. They feel superior by making others feel inferior. Colleagues may feel this way too, but management has power. This is when you will notice the effect of mindset on your corporate culture. Everything starts to revolve around pleasing upper management. 

When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged. It starts with the bosses’ worry about being judged, but it winds up being everybody’s fear about being judged. It’s hard for courage and innovation to survive a companywide fixed mindset.

In these circumstances, the fear of punishment leads to groupthink. No one wants to dissent or put their hand up because it’s likely to get slapped. 

So what can you do if you’re new to a company and working against a fixed-mindset? This will be a difficult road but there are definitely ways of nudging your company towards a growth mindset.

Dweck outlines the main attributes that create a growth-mindset environment:

  • Presenting skills as learnable
  • Conveying that the organization values learning and perseverance, not just ready-made genius or talent
  • Giving feedback in a way that promotes learning and future success
  • Presenting managers as resources for learning.

At the end of each chapter of Dweck’s book, she has a brilliant section entitled ‘Grow Your Mindset.’ She reviews the chapter’s contents and asks the reader probing questions to help them evaluate their situation and suggests concrete ways to move forward. Here are a few pertinent examples to explore:

What kind of workplace are you in?

Are you in a fixed-mindset or growth-mindset workplace? Do you feel people are just judging you or are they helping you develop? Maybe you could try making it a more growth-mindset place, starting with yourself. 

Is it possible that you’re the problem?

Are there ways you could be less defensive about your mistakes? Could you profit more from the feedback you get? Are there ways you can create more learning experiences for yourself? How do you act toward others in your workplace? Are you a fixed-mindset boss, focused on your power more than on your employees’ well-being? Do you ever reaffirm your status by demeaning others? Do you ever try to hold back high-performing employees because they threaten you?

Can you foster a better environment?

Consider ways to help your employees develop on the job: Apprenticeships? Workshops? Coaching sessions? Think about how you can start seeing and treating your employees as your collaborators, as a team. Make a list of strategies and try them out. Do this even if you already think of yourself as a growth-mindset boss. Well-placed support and growth-promoting feedback never hurt.

Do you have procedures to overcome groupthink?

Is your workplace set up to promote groupthink? If so, the whole decision-making process is in trouble. Create ways to foster alternative views and constructive criticism. Assign people to play the devil’s advocate, taking opposing viewpoints so you can see the holes in your position. Get people to wage debates that argue different sides of the issue. Have an anonymous suggestion box that employees must contribute to as part of the decision-making process. Remember, people can be independent thinkers and team players at the same time. Help them fill both roles.

Mindset is filled with practical advice that will change the way in which you think and interact with the world. Through examples from her rigorous research Dweck eloquently explains the nature of the two mindsets and their influence on sports, business and relationships. Since culture eats strategy, it’s important to understand her main points. Understanding her core concepts will also add depth to your comprehension of metal models like confirmation bias and bias from overconfidence.

If you’d like a bit more on Mindset we suggest taking a look at Dweck’s Google talk or perhaps revisit a more detailed explanation of the two mindsets.

Frozen Accidents: Why the Future Is So Unpredictable

“Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long
sequence of accidents,
any of which could have turned out differently.”
— Murray Gell-Mann

***

What parts of reality are the product of an accident? The physicist Murray Gell-Mann thought the answer was “just about everything.” And to Gell-Mann, understanding this idea was the the key to understanding how complex systems work.

Gell-Mann believed two things caused what we see in the world:

  1. A set of fundamental laws
  2. Random “accidents” — the little blips that could have gone either way, and had they, would have produced a very different kind of world.

Gell-Mann pulled the second part from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the human genetic code, who argued that the code itself may well have been an “accident” of physical history rather than a uniquely necessary arrangement.

These accidents become “frozen” in time, and have a great effect on all subsequent developments; complex life itself is an example of something that did happen a certain way but probably could have happened other ways — we know this from looking at the physics.

This idea of fundamental laws plus accidents, and the non-linear second order effects they produce, became the science of complexity and chaos theory. Gell-Mann discussed the fascinating idea further in a 1996 essay on Edge:

Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently. Think of the fluctuations that produced our galaxy, the accidents that led to the formation of the solar system, including the condensation of dust and gas that produced Earth, the accidents that helped to determine the particular way that life began to evolve on Earth, and the accidents that contributed to the evolution of particular species with particular characteristics, including the special features of the human species. Each of us individuals has genes that result from a long sequence of accidental mutations and chance matings, as well as natural selection.

Now, most single accidents make very little difference to the future, but others may have widespread ramifications, many diverse consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. Those we call frozen accidents.

These “frozen accidents” occur at every nested level of the world: As Gell-Mann points out, they are an outcome in physics (the physical laws we observe may be accidents of history); in biology (our genetic code is largely a byproduct of “advantageous accidents” as discussed by Crick); and in human history, as we’ll discuss. In other words, the phenomenon hits all three buckets of knowledge.

Gell-Mann gives a great example of how this plays out on the human scale:

For instance, Henry VIII became king of England because his older brother Arthur died. From the accident of that death flowed all the coins, all the charters, all the other records, all the history books mentioning Henry VIII; all the different events of his reign, including the manner of separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church; and of course the whole succession of subsequent monarchs of England and of Great Britain, to say nothing of the antics of Charles and Diana. The accumulation of frozen accidents is what gives the world its effective complexity.

The most important idea here is that the frozen accidents of history have a nonlinear effect on everything that comes after. The complexity we see comes from simple rules and many, many “bounces” that could have gone in any direction. Once they go a certain way, there is no return.

This principle is illustrated wonderfully in the book The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. The first example comes from 19th century history:

In the late 1800s, “Buffalo Bill” Cody created a show called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which toured the United States, putting on exhibitions of gun fighting, horsemanship, and other cowboy skills. One of the show’s most popular acts was a woman named Phoebe Moses, nicknamed Annie Oakley. Annie was reputed to have been able to shoot the head off of a running quail by age twelve, and in Buffalo Bill’s show, she put on a demonstration of marksmanship that included shooting flames off candles, and corks out of bottles. For her grand finale, Annie would announce that she would shoot the end off a lit cigarette held in a man’s mouth, and ask for a brave volunteer from the audience. Since no one was ever courageous enough to come forward, Annie hid her husband, Frank, in the audience. He would “volunteer,” and they would complete the trick together. In 1880, when the Wild West Show was touring Europe, a young crown prince (and later, kaiser), Wilhelm, was in the audience. When the grand finale came, much to Annie’s surprise, the macho crown prince stood up and volunteered. The future German kaiser strode into the ring, placed the cigarette in his mouth, and stood ready. Annie, who had been up late the night before in the local beer garden, was unnerved by this unexpected development. She lined the cigarette up in her sights, squeezed…and hit it right on the target.

Many people have speculated that if at that moment, there had been a slight tremor in Annie’s hand, then World War I might never have happened. If World War I had not happened, 8.5 million soldiers and 13 million civilian lives would have been saved. Furthermore, if Annie’s hand had trembled and World War I had not happened, Hitler would not have risen from the ashes of a defeated Germany, and Lenin would not have overthrown a demoralized Russian government. The entire course of twentieth-century history might have been changed by the merest quiver of a hand at a critical moment. Yet, at the time, there was no way anyone could have known the momentous nature of the event.

This isn’t to say that other big events, many bad, would not have precipitated in the 20th century. Almost certainly there would have been wars and upheavals.

But the actual course of history was in some part determined by small chance event which had no seeming importance when it happened. The impact of Wilhelm being alive rather than dead was totally non-linear. (A small non-event had a massively disproportionate effect on what happened later.)

This is why predicting the future, even with immense computing power, is an impossible task. The chaotic effects of randomness, with small inputs having disproportionate and massive effects, makes prediction a very difficult task. That’s why we must appreciate the role of randomness in the world and seek to protect against it.

Another great illustration from The Origin of Wealth is a famous story in the world of technology:

[In 1980] IBM approached a small company with forty employees in Bellevue, Washington. The company, called Microsoft, was run by a Harvard dropout named bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen. IBM wanted to talk to the small company about creating a version of the programming language BASIC for the new PC. At their meeting, IBM asked Gates for his advice on what operating systems (OS) the new machine should run. Gates suggested that IBM talk to Gary Kildall of Digital Research, whose CP/M operating system had become the standard in the hobbyist world of microcomputers. But Kildall was suspicious of the blue suits from IBM and when IBM tried to meet him, he went hot-air ballooning, leaving his wife and lawyer to talk to the bewildered executives, along with instructions not to sign even a confidentiality agreement. The frustrated IBM executives returned to Gates and asked if he would be interested in the OS project. Despite never having written an OS, Gates said yes. He then turned around and license a product appropriately named Quick and Dirty Operating System, or Q-DOS, from a small company called Seattle Computer Products for $50,000, modified it, and then relicensed it to IBM as PC-DOS. As IBM and Microsoft were going through the final language for the agreement, Gates asked for a small change. He wanted to retain the rights to sell his DOS on non-IBM machines in a version called MS-DOS. Gates was giving the company a good price, and IBM was more interested in PC hardware than software sales, so it agreed. The contract was signed on August 12, 1981. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Microsoft is a company worth $270 billion while IBM is worth $140 billion.

At any point in that story, business history could have gone a much different way: Kildall could have avoided hot-air ballooning, IBM could have refused Gates’ offer, Microsoft could have not gotten the license for QDOS. Yet this little episode resulted in massive wealth for Gates and a long period of trouble for IBM.

Predicting the outcomes of a complex system must clear a pretty major hurdle: The prediction must be robust to non-linear “accidents” with a chain of unforeseen causation. In some situations this is doable: We can confidently rule out that Microsoft will not go broke in the next 12 months; the chain of events needed to take it under quickly is so low as to be negligible, no matter how you compute it. (Even IBM made it through the above scenario, although not unscathed.)

But as history rolls on and more “accidents” accumulate year by year, a “Fog of the Future” rolls in to obscure our view. In order to operate in such a world, we must learn that predicting is inferior to building systems that don’t require prediction, as Mother Nature does. And if we must predict, must confine our predictions to areas with few variables that lie in our circle of competence, and understand the consequences if we’re wrong.

If this topic is interesting to you, try exploring the rest of the Origin of Wealth, which discusses complexity in the economic realm in great (but readable) detail; also check out the rest of Murray Gell-Mann’s essay on Edge. Gell-Mann also wrote a book on the topic called The Quark and the Jaguar which is worth checking out. The best writer on randomness and robustness in the face of an uncertain future, is of course Nassim Taleb, whom we have written about many times.

Remembering More of Everything: The Memory Palace

“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’
it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.”

— Joshua Foer

***

That’s a quote from the book Moonwalking with Einstein, the fascinating account of Joshua Foer’s journey investigating memory.

What starts as a routine piece of writing ends with his participation in the USA Memory Championships. While interviewing contestants for the article he was told that anyone could have a memory like these champions if they trained properly. Intrigued, Foer decided to give it a try.

The journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle, and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level. Did that make the brains of these “mental athletes” physically different from yours or mine?

Foer found research where MRI was used to compare the memory specialists’ brains to those of a control group. There was no difference between the brain structure of the two. However, during the act of memorizing, the regions of the brain which “lit up” were completely different. 

Surprisingly, when the mental athletes were learning new information, they were engaging regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation.

It turns out the mental athletes were purposefully converting the information they were memorizing into images, and then placing these images into a mentally constructed “palace” — thus the involvement of visual memory and spatial navigation.

Foer goes into great (and fascinating) detail regarding the science of memory (which we’ve covered some before). However, let’s explore the specific techniques that Foer learned while studying the memory athletes.

The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace is a device that has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks, to help encode their memories for easy retrieval. This was a time before smart devices; if you wanted information at your fingertips you had to put that information in your head. You’d do it through a process the modern memory athletes call elaborative encoding.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

The memory palace technique is about changing your memories into images placed in a familiar mental location. The idea is that you can mentally walk through your Palace looking at your memories to recall them.

They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar.

The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our head. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context. Creating a multi-sensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick.

‘Now, it’s very important to try to remember this image multisensorily.’ The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.

Try to animate your image so that you watch it move. Try to think of what it might smell like or feel like and make it as vivid as possible. This is you processing your image. Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate why this works.

***

Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front porch, try to remember as many details as possible.

Let’s imagine that your spouse has asked you to pick up a few steaks from the grocery store for dinner. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.

Got it?

Okay, now lets try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch, not like a cow would, like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubble gum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about what that bubble gum would smell like or the strange smell of a mixture of bubble gum and cow. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubble gum off of the cow’s face?

Four hours from now when you leave work to head home you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front porch. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks, that you see all the time? Or the gum chewing cow we created?

A professional memory athlete will put objects in multiple places within their palaces and have more than one palace in their repertoire. Some will even design their own fictional palaces in great detail, designed specifically as a place to hang memories.

The Memory Palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember.

What’s the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.

PAO: Person – Action – Object

In this system every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object.

The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.

As you can see this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about Frank Sinatra kicking a cape before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your ‘stock images’ as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.

You may look at PAO and think that it’s a very clever way to memorize numbers, a party trick, but not necessarily useful for most of us from day to day. Maybe true, but Foer shares a great insight into the residual effects of training your memory.

I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.

This reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our life.

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory… Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.

We are a culmination of our experiences, how we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavour.

Foer’s personal account in Moonwalking with Einstein is a great starting point for your own mental journey. While you’re waiting for that to arrive, start reading our four part series on our memory’s advantages and weakness, starting here

Biology Enables. Culture Forbids.

“From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.
Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
— Yuval Harari

***

We get a little confused when deciding if a particular human behavior is cultural or biological. Is homosexuality a natural act or unnatural? How about Facebook? Is it unnatural human behavior? Abortion? Non-procreative sex? Slavery? Mixing of races?

Many of these are either explicitly or certainly border on being taboo subjects. As in, they may not be discussed in polite company, even when encouraged.

Yet, for for those of us seeking to understand reality as it is, to understand deeply the most important buckets of knowledge, taboo is no reason to avoid the hard subjects.

So how should we think about this?

Professor Yuval Harari, who has previously taught us why humans dominate the earth and the false natural state of man, has an interesting take, discussed in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The chapter is aptly titled “There is No Justice in History.”

Professor Harari’s well-informed heuristic boils down to: Biology Enables. Culture Forbids.

How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obligates people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children — some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another — some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility.

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

[…]

…Evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak, and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?

Our biology gives us a very wide playground and a lot of berth. We’re capable of a wide variety of activities and forms of organization, while other species generally fall into far more fixed and predictable hierarchies.

Over the course of history, humans have taken advantage of this wide range in a variety of positive and negative ways by creating and sustaining myths not supported by biological reality.

Take slavery, once a common practice throughout the world and now thankfully considered a scourge (and illegal) on all parts of the planet. Or the caste system, still in place in some in certain areas of the world, although perhaps less strictly than in the past.

Both slavery and the castes were carried out through a series of pseudoscientific rationalizations about the “natural order” of things, stories strong enough to believed (in part) by all constituents of the hierarchy. This “forbidding” aspect of culture was not supported by biological differences, but that didn’t make the stories any less powerful or believable.

Even the American political system, ostensibly founded on a bedrock of “liberty and equality”, only provided those things to certain small groups. The Founders used cultural myths to rationalize a deeply divided society in which men had dominion over women, European whites had dominion over blacks and the native people, and the historically rich had dominion over the historically poor. Any other order would have been “unnatural”:

The American order consecrated the hierarchy between the rich and poor. Most Americans at that time had little problem with the inequality caused by wealthy parents passing their money and businesses onto their children. In their view, equality meant simply that the same laws applied to rich and poor. It had nothing to do with unemployment benefits, integrated education or health insurance. Liberty, too, carried very different connotations than it does today. In 1776, it did not mean that the disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women) could gain and exercise power. It meant simply that the state could not, except in unusual circumstances, confiscate a citizen’s private property or tell him what to do with it. The American order thereby upheld the hierarchy of wealth, which some thought was mandated by God and others viewed representing the immutable laws of nature. Nature, it was claimed, rewarded merit with wealth while penalizing indolence.

All the above-mentioned distinctions — between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor — are rooted in fictions…Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.

This isn’t to argue that there aren’t biological differences between certain groups of people, including men and women. There are. But history has shown our tendency to exaggerate those differences and to create stories around our exaggerations, stories that uphold a certain desired hierarchy. These stories have a way of creating their own reality.

Just as frequently, we commit the opposite sin by restricting certain behavior based on some idea of what’s “natural” or “unnatural”, confusing biology with religious or cultural taboos. (And these myths die hard: It’s hard to fathom, but homosexuality wasn’t even legal in the United Kingdom until 1967.) As Harari rightly points out, anything we can do is perfectly natural in the biological sense. We come well-equipped for a variety of behavior.

And this certainly isn’t to argue that all behavior is equally acceptable: We put bumpers on society to reduce murder, rape, slavery, and other vile behavior that is perfectly biologically natural to us, and we should.

But unless we recognize the difference between biology and cultural myth and seek to reduce our unfair taboos wherever possible, we fail in some way to see the world through the eyes of others, and see that our imagined order is not always a fair or just one, a natural or inevitable one. Maybe some of the things we see around us are just a historical accident if we look closely enough.

Even more than that, examining the relationship between biological reality and cultural myth allows us to appreciate our basic storytelling instincts. Human beings are wired for narrative: We’ve been called the Storytelling Animal and for good reason. Our thirst and ready acceptance of narrative is a basic part of our existence; it’s hard-wired into our genetic algorithm.

Much of our narrative superpower can be observed in the structure of human language, which is unique among species in its infinite flexibility and adaptability. It makes us capable of great cooperative accomplishments, but also great evils.

Fortunately, the modern world has done a pretty good job steadily loosening the grip of mythical “natural” realities that only exist in our heads. But a fair inquiry remains: What sustaining myths still exist? Are they for good or for evil?

We leave that for you to ponder.

Check out Harari’s book Sapiens or his new book, Homo Deus.

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If you liked this, you’ll love:

Why Humans Dominate the Earth: Myth-Making — It is our collected fictions that define us.

Religion and History: Will Durant on the Role of Religion and Morality — Religions ability to shape cultural behavior.

The False Allure of a “Natural State” of Man — The heated debate about Sapiens’ “natural way of life” is missing the point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens.

Using Multidisciplinary Thinking to Approach Problems in a Complex World

Complex outcomes in human systems are a tough nut to crack when it comes to deciding what’s really true. Any phenomena we might try to explain will have a host of competing theories, many of them seemingly plausible.

So how do we know what to go with?

One idea is to take a nod from the best. One of the most successful “explainers” of human behavior has been the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. His books have been massively influential, in part because they combine scientific rigor, explanatory power, and plainly excellent writing.

What’s unique about Pinker is the range of sources he draws on. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a cogitation on the decline in relative violence in recent human history, draws on ideas from evolutionary psychology, forensic anthropology, statistics, social history, criminology, and a host of other fields. Pinker, like Vaclav Smil and Jared Diamond, is the opposite of the man with a hammer, ranging over much material to come to his conclusions.

In fact, when asked about the progress of social science as an explanatory arena over time, Pinker credited this cross-disciplinary focus:

Because of the unification with the sciences, there are more genuinely explanatory theories, and there’s a sense of progress, with more non-obvious things being discovered that have profound implications.

But, even better, Pinker gives out an outline for how a multidisciplinary thinker should approach problems in a complex world.

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Here’s the issue at stake: When we’re viewing a complex phenomena—say, the decline in certain forms of violence in human history—it can be hard to come with up a rigorous explanation. We can’t just set up repeated lab experiments and vary the conditions of human history to see what pops out, as with physics or chemistry.

So out of necessity, we must approach the problem in a different way.

In the above referenced interview, Pinker gives a wonderful example how to do it: Note how he carefully “cross-checks” from a variety of sources of data, developing a 3D view of the landscape he’s trying to assess:

Pinker: Absolutely, I think most philosophers of science would say that all scientific generalizations are probabilistic rather than logically certain, more so for the social sciences because the systems you are studying are more complex than, say, molecules, and because there are fewer opportunities to intervene experimentally and to control every variable. But the exis­tence of the social sciences, including psychology, to the extent that they have discovered anything, shows that, despite the uncontrollability of human behavior, you can make some progress: you can do your best to control the nuisance variables that are not literally in your control; you can have analogues in a laboratory that simulate what you’re interested in and impose an experimental manipulation.

You can be clever about squeezing the last drop of causal information out of a correlational data set, and you can use converging evi­dence, the qualitative narratives of traditional history in combination with quantitative data sets and regression analyses that try to find patterns in them. But I also go to traditional historical narratives, partly as a sanity check. If you’re just manipulating numbers, you never know whether you’ve wan­dered into some preposterous conclusion by taking numbers too seriously that couldn’t possibly reflect reality. Also, it’s the narrative history that provides hypotheses that can then be tested. Very often a historian comes up with some plausible causal story, and that gives the social scientists something to do in squeezing a story out of the numbers.

Warburton: I wonder if you’ve got an example of just that, where you’ve combined the history and the social science?

Pinker: One example is the hypothesis that the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment, that is, the abolition of slavery, torture, cruel punishments, religious persecution, and so on, was a product of an expansion of empathy, which in turn was fueled by literacy and the consumption of novels and journalis­tic accounts. People read what life was like in other times and places, and then applied their sense of empathy more broadly, which gave them second thoughts about whether it’s a good idea to disembowel someone as a form of criminal punish­ment. So that’s a historical hypothesis. Lynn Hunt, a historian at the University of California–Berkeley, proposed it, and there are some psychological studies that show that, indeed, if people read a first-person account by someone unlike them, they will become more sympathetic to that individual, and also to the category of people that that individual represents.

So now we have a bit of experimental psychology supporting the historical qualita­tive narrative. And, in addition, one can go to economic histo­rians and see that, indeed, there was first a massive increase in the economic efficiency of manufacturing a book, then there was a massive increase in the number of books pub­lished, and finally there was a massive increase in the rate of literacy. So you’ve got a story that has at least three vertices: the historian’s hypothesis; the economic historians identifying exogenous variables that changed prior to the phenomenon we’re trying to explain, so the putative cause occurs before the putative effect; and then you have the experimental manipulation in a laboratory, showing that the intervening link is indeed plausible.

Pinker is saying, Look we can’t just rely on “plausible narratives” generated by folks like the historians. There are too many possibilities that could be correct.

Nor can we rely purely on correlations (i.e., the rise in literacy statistically tracking the decline in violence) — they don’t necessarily offer us a causative explanation. (Does the rise in literacy cause less violence, or is it vice versa? Or, does a third factor cause both?)

However, if we layer in some other known facts from areas we can experiment on — say, psychology or cognitive neuroscience — we can sometimes establish the causal link we need or, at worst, a better hypothesis of reality.

In this case, it would be the finding from psychology that certain forms of literacy do indeed increase empathy (for logical reasons).

Does this method give us absolute proof? No. However, it does allow us to propose and then test, re-test, alter, and strengthen or ultimately reject a hypothesis. (In other words, rigorous thinking.)

We can’t stop here though. We have to take time to examine competing hypotheses — there may be a better fit. The interviewer continues on asking Pinker about this methodology:

Warburton: And so you conclude that the de-centering that occurs through novel-reading and first-person accounts probably did have a causal impact on the willingness of people to be violent to their peers?

Pinker: That’s right. And, of course, one has to rule out alternative hypotheses. One of them could be the growth of affluence: perhaps it’s simply a question of how pleasant your life is. If you live a longer and healthier and more enjoyable life, maybe you place a higher value on life in general, and, by extension, the lives of others. That would be an alternative hypothesis to the idea that there was an expansion of empathy fueled by greater literacy. But that can be ruled out by data from eco­nomic historians that show there was little increase in afflu­ence during the time of the Humanitarian Revolution. The increase in affluence really came later, in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

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Let’s review the process that Pinker has laid out, one that we might think about emulating as we examine the causes of complex phenomena in human systems:

  1. We observe an interesting phenomenon in need of explanation, one we feel capable of exploring.
  2. We propose and examine competing hypotheses that would explain the phenomena (set up in a falsifiable way, in harmony with the divide between science and pseudoscience laid out for us by the great Karl Popper).
  3. We examine a cross-section of: Empirical data relating to the phenomena; sensible qualitative inference (from multiple fields/disciplines, the more fundamental the better), and finally;  “Demonstrable” aspects of nature we are nearly certain about, arising from controlled experiment or other rigorous sources of knowledge ranging from engineering to biology to cognitive neuroscience.

What we end up with is not necessarily a bulletproof explanation, but probably the best we can do if we think carefully. A good cross-disciplinary examination with quantitative and qualitative sources coming into equal play, and a good dose of judgment, can be far more rigorous than the gut instinct or plausible nonsense type stories that many of us lazily spout.

A Word of Caution

Although Pinker’s “multiple vertices” approach to problem solving in complex domains can be powerful, we always have to be on guard for phenomena that we simply cannot explain at our current level of competence: We must have a “too hard” pile when competing explanations come out “too close to call” or we otherwise feel we’re outside of our circle of competence. Always tread carefully and be sure to follow Darwin’s Golden Rule: Contrary facts are more important than confirming ones. Be ready to change your mind, like Darwin, when the facts don’t go your way.

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Still Interested? For some more Pinker goodness check out our prior posts on his work, or check out a few of his books like How the Mind Works or The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

The Map is Not the Territory