Tag: Francis Bacon

Proximate vs Root Causes: Why You Should Keep Digging to Find the Answer

“Anything perceived has a cause.
All conclusions have premises.
All effects have causes.
All actions have motives.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer

***

The Basics

One of the first principles we learn as babies is that of cause and effect. Infants learn that pushing an object will cause it to move, crying will cause people to give them attention, and bumping into something will cause pain. As we get older, this understanding becomes more complex. Many people love to talk about the causes of significant events in their lives (if I hadn’t missed the bus that day I would never have met my partner! or if I hadn’t taken that class in college I would never have discovered my passion and got my job!) Likewise, when something bad happens we have a tendency to look for somewhere to pin the blame.

The mental model of proximate vs root causes is a more advanced version of this reasoning, which involves looking beyond what appears to be the cause and finding the real cause. As a higher form of understanding, it is useful for creative and innovative thinking. It can also help us to solve problems, rather than relying on band-aid solutions.

Much of our understanding of cause and effect comes from Isaac Newton. His work examined how forces lead to motion and other effects. Newton’s laws explain how a body remains stationary unless a force acts upon it. From this, we can take a cause to be whatever causes something to happen.

For example, someone might ask: Why did I lose my job?

  • Proximate cause: the company was experiencing financial difficulties and could not continue to pay all its employees.
  • Root cause: I was not of particular value to the company and they could survive easily without me.

This can then be explored further: Why was I not of value to the company?

  • Ultimate cause: I allowed my learning to stagnate and did not seek constant improvement. I continued doing the same as I had been for years which did not help the company progress.
  • Even further: Newer employees were of more value because they had more up-to-date knowledge and could help the company progress.

This can then help us to find solutions: How can I prevent this from happening again?

  • Answer: In future jobs, I can continually aim to learn more, keep to date with industry advancements, read new books on the topic and bring creative insights to my work. I will know this is working if I find myself receiving increasing amounts of responsibility and being promoted to higher roles.

This example illustrates the usefulness of this line of thinking. If our hypothetical person went with the proximate cause, they would walk away feeling nothing but annoyance at the company which fired them. By establishing the root causes, they can mitigate the risk of the same thing happening in the future.

There are a number of relevant factors which we must take into account when figuring out root causes. These are known as predisposing factors and can be used to prevent a future repeat of an unwanted occurrence.

Predisposing factors tend to include:

  • The location of the effect
  • The exact nature of the effect
  • The severity of the effect
  • The time at which the effect occurs
  • The level of vulnerability to the effect
  • The cause of the effect
  • The factors which prevented it from being more severe.

Looking at proximate vs root causes is a form of abductive reasoning- a process used to unearth simple, probable explanations. We can use it in conjunction with philosophical razors (such as Occam’s and Hanlon’s) to make smart decisions and choices.

In Root Cause Analysis, Paul Wilson defines root causes as:

Root cause is that most basic reason for an undesirable condition or problem which, if eliminated or corrected, would have prevented it from existing or occurring.

In Leviathan, Chapter XI (1651) Thomas Hobbes wrote:

Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive…Anxiety for the future time disposeth men to inquire into the causes of things: because the knowledge of them maketh men the better able to order the present to their best advantage. Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consideration of the effect to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last that there is some cause whereof there is no former cause.

In Maxims of the Law, Francis Bacon wrote:

It were infinite for the law to consider the causes of causes, and their impulsions one of another; therefore it contented itself with the immediate cause, and judgeth of acts by that, without looking to any further degree.

A rather tongue in cheek perspective comes from the ever satirical George Orwell:

Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.”
The issue with root cause analysis is that it can lead to oversimplification and it is rare for there to be one single root cause. It can also lead us to go too far (as George Orwell illustrates.) Over emphasising root causes is common among depressed people who end up seeing their existence as the cause of all their problems. As a consequence, suicide can seem like a solution (although it is the exact opposite.) The same can occur after a relationship ends, as people imagine their personality and nature to be the cause. To use this mental model in an effective manner, we must avoid letting it lead to self blame or negative thought spirals. When using it to examine our lives, it is best to only do so with a qualified therapist, rather than while ruminating in bed late at night. Finding root causes should be done with the future in mind, not for dwelling on past issues. Expert root cause analysts use it to prevent further problems and create innovative solutions. We can do the same in our own lives and work.

“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Establishing Root Causes

Establishing root causes is rarely an easy task. However, there a number of techniques we can use to simplify the deduction process. These are similar to the methods used to find first principles:

Socratic questioning
Socratic questioning is a technique which can be used to establish root causes through strict analysis. This a disciplined questioning process used to uncover truths, reveal underlying assumptions and separate knowledge from ignorance. The key distinction between Socratic questioning and normal discussions is that the former seeks to draw out root causes in a systematic manner. Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

  1. Clarifying thinking and explaining origins of ideas. (What happened? What do I think caused it?)
  2. Challenging assumptions. (How do I know this is the cause? What could have caused that cause)
  3. Looking for evidence. (How do I know that was the cause? What can I do to prove or disprove my ideas?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives. (What might others think? What are all the potential causes? )
  5. Examining consequences and implications. (What are the consequences of the causes I have established? How can they help me solve problems?)
  6. Questioning the original questions. (What can I do differently now that I know the root cause? How will this help me?)

The 5 Whys
This technique is simpler and less structured than Socratic questioning. Parents of young children will no doubt be familiar with this process, which necessitates asking ‘why?’ five times to a given statement. The purpose is to understand cause and effect relationships, leading to the root causes. Five is generally the necessary number of repetitions required. Each question is based on the previous answer, not the initial statement.

Returning to the example of our hypothetical laid off employee (mentioned in the introduction), we can see how this technique works.

  • Effect: I lost my job.
  • Why? Because I was not valuable enough to the company and they could let me go without it causing any problems.
  • Why? Because a newer employee in my department was getting far more done and having more creative ideas than me.
  • Why? Because I had allowed my learning to stagnate and stopped keeping up with industry developments. I continued doing what I have for years because I thought it was effective.
  • Why? Because I only received encouraging feedback from people higher up in the company, and even when I knew my work was substandard, they avoided mentioning it.
  • Why? Because whenever I received negative feedback in the past, I got angry and defensive. After a few occurrences of this, I was left to keep doing work which was not of much use. Then, when the company began to experience financial difficulties, firing me was the practical choice.
  • Solution: In future jobs, I must learn to be responsive to feedback, aim to keep learning and make myself valuable. I can also request regular updates on my performance. To avoid becoming angry when I receive negative feedback, I can try meditating during breaks to stay calmer at work.

As this example illustrates, the 5 whys technique is useful for drawing out root causes and finding solutions.

Cause and Effect Mapping

This technique is often used to establish causes of accidents, disasters, and other mishaps. Let’s take a look at how cause and effect mapping can be used to identify the root cause of a disaster which occurred in 1987: The King's Cross fire. This was a shocking event, where 31 people died and 100 were injured in a tube station fire. It was the first fatal fire to have occurred on the London Underground and led to tremendous changes in rules and regulations. This diagram shows the main factors which led to the fire, and how they all combined to lead to the tragic event. Factors included: flammable grease on the floors which allowed flames to spread, flammable out of date wooden escalators, complacent fire staff who failed to control the initial flames, untrained staff with no knowledge of how to evacuate people, blocked exits (believed to be due to cleaning staff negligence) and a dropped match (assumed to have been discarded by someone lighting a cigarette.)

Once investigators had established these factors which led to the fire, they could begin looking for solutions to prevent another fatal fire. Of course, solving the wrong problem would have been ineffective. Let’s take a look at each of the causes and figure out the root problem:

  • Cause: A dropped match. Smoking on Underground trains had been banned 3 years prior, but many people still lit cigarettes on the escalators as they left. Investigators were certain that the fire was caused by a match, and was not arson. Research found that many other fires had began in the past, yet had not spread. This alone did not explain the severity of this particular fire. Better measures have since been put into place to prevent smoking in stations (although Londoners can vouch for the fact that it still occasionally happens late at night or in secluded stations.)
  • Cause: flammable grease on escalators. Research found that this was indeed highly flammable. Solving this would have been almost impossible- the sheer size of stations and the numbers of people passing through them made thorough cleaning difficult. Solving this alone would not have been sufficient.
  • Cause: wooden escalators. Soon after the fire, stations began replacing these with metal (although it took until 2014 for the entire Underground network to replace every single one.
  • Cause: untrained staff. This was established to be the root cause. Even if the other factors were resolved, the lack of staff training or access to fire fighting equipment still left a high risk of another fatal incident. Investigations found that staff were only instructed to call the Fire Brigade once a fire was out of control, most had no training and little ability to communicate with each other. Once this root cause was found, it could be dealt with. Staff were given improved emergency training and better radio tools for communicating. Heat detectors and sprinklers were fitted in stations.

From this example, we can see how useful finding root causes is. The lack of staff training was the root cause, while the other factors were proximate causes which contributed.

From this information, we can create this diagram to illustrate the relationship between causes.

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions … In nature, there is no effect without a cause … Experience never errs; it is only your judgments that err by promising themselves effects such as are not caused by your experiments.”

- Leonardo da Vinci

How We Can Use This Mental Model as Part of our Latticework

  • Hanlon’s Razor — This mental model states: never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to incompetence. It is relevant when looking for root causes. Take the aforementioned example of the Kings Cross fire. It could be assumed that staff failed to control the fire due to malice. However, we can be 99% certain that their failure to act was due to incompetence (the result of poor training and miscommunication.) When analysing root causes, we must be sure not to attribute blame where it does not exist.
  • Occam’s Razor — This model states: the simplest solution is usually correct. In the case of the fire, there are infinite possible causes which could be investigated. It could be said that the fire was started on purpose, the builders of the station made it flammable on purpose so they would be required to rebuild it that the whole thing is a conspiracy theory and people actually died in an alternate manner. However, the simplest solution is that the fire was caused by a discarded match. When looking for root causes, it is wise to first consider the simplest potential causes, rather than looking at everything which could have contributed.
  • Arguing from first principles — This mental model involves establishing the first principles of any given area of knowledge- information which cannot be deduced from anything else. Understanding the first principles of how fire spreads (such as the fire triangle) could have helped to prevent the event.
  • Black swans — This model, developed by Nassim Taleb is: “an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact…. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” The King's Cross fire was a black swan- surprising, impactful and much analyzed afterwards. Understanding that black swans do occur can help us to plan for serious events before they happen.
  • Availability bias — This model states: we misjudge the frequency of events which have happened recently and information which is vivid. Imagine a survivor of the Kings Cross fire who had also been on a derailed train a few months earlier. The intensity of the two memories would be likely to lead them to see travelling on the Underground as dangerous. However, this is not the case – only one in 300 million journeys experience issues (much safer than driving.) When devising root causes, we must be sure to consider all information, not just that which comes to mind with ease.
  • Narrative fallacy — This model states: we tend to turn the past into a narrative, imagining events as fitting together in a manner which is usually false.
  • Hindsight bias — This model states: we see events as predictable when looking back on them.
  • Confirmation bias — This model states: we tend to look for information which confirms pre-existing beliefs and ideas.

Francis Bacon and the Four Idols of the Mind

Francis Bacon the Four Idols of the Mind


Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures.
It informs us across four centuries that we
must understand nature
both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity
on the course of self-improvement. 

-E.O. Wilson on Francis Bacon

***

The English statesman and scholar Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the earliest thinkers to truly understand the nature of the mind and how humanity truly progresses in collective knowledge.

Bacon's first great contribution was to lessen the focus on traditional scholarship: the constant mining of the old Greek and Roman philosophers and the old religious texts, the idea that most of our knowledge had already been “found” and needed to be rediscovered.

To Bacon, this was an unstable artifice on which to build our understanding of the world. Better that we start reasoning from first principles, building up our knowledge of the world through inductive reasoning. E.O. Wilson summarizes Bacon's contribution in a chapter on the Enlightenment in his excellent book Consilience.

By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below–though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

In this way, Wilson crowns Bacon as the Father of Induction — the first to truly grasp the power of careful inductive reasoning to generate insights. Bacon broke down the old, rigid ways of classifying knowledge in favor of building a new understanding from the ground up, using experiments to prove or disprove a theory.

In this way, he realized much of what was being taught in his time, including metaphysics, alchemy, magic, astrology, and other disciplines, would eventually crumble under scrutiny. (A feeling we share about our current age.)

Insights of the Mind

Most importantly, hundreds of years before the advent of modern psychology, Bacon understood clearly that the human mind doesn't always reason correctly, and that any approach to scientific knowledge must start with that understanding. Over 400 years before there was a Charlie Munger or a Daniel Kahneman, Bacon clearly understood the first-conclusion bias and the confirmation bias.

In his Novum Organum, Bacon described these errors in the same manner we understand them today:

The mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected.

[…]

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

He called the wide variety of errors in mental processing the Idols of the Mind. There were four idols: Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace, and Idols of the Theater.

Idols of the Tribe

The Idols of the Tribe made the false assumption that our most natural and basic sense of thing was the correct one. He called our natural impressions a “false mirror” which distorted the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

Idols of the Cave

The Idols of the Cave were the problems of individuals, their passions and enthusiasms, their devotions and ideologies, all of which led to misunderstandings of the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

Idols of the Marketplace

You might call the Idols of the Marketplace a problem of political discourse: The use of words to mislead. (Nearly a half a century later, Garrett Hardin would argue similarly that good thinkers need a literary filter to suss out sense from nonsense.)

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

Idols of the Theater

The final idol, of the Theater, is how Bacon referred to long-received wisdom, the ancient systems of philosophy, the arbitrary divisions of knowledge and classification systems held onto like dogma. Without emptying one's mind of the old ways, no new progress could be made. This would be an important lasting value of the Baconian view of science. Truth must be reasoned from first principles.

Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.

The Lasting Importance of Narrative

Even with his rationalistic view of the world, a rigorous devotion to truth, Bacon realized that unless you used creative storytelling and engaged a learner's mind, it would be impossible to communicate real truths about the world. He knew the power narrative had to instruct. E.O. Wilson writes in Consilience:

Reality still had to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions. Nature and her secrets must be as stimulating to the imagination as are poetry and fables. To that end, Bacon advised us to use aphorisms, illustrations, stories, fables, analogies–anything that conveys truth from the discoverer to his readers as clearly as a picture. The mind, he argued, is not like a wax tablet. On a tablet you cannot write the new till you rub out the old, on the mind you cannot rub out the old except by writing in the new.”

 

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I know it sounds strange but I love learning about how people go about creating things. So you can imagine my delight when I came across Mason Currey's new book Daily Rituals, which describes how 161 inspiring minds maneuver the “many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do.”

daily rituals by mason currey

Some wake up early. Some sleep in late. Some drink too much. Some won't touch the stuff. Just as no two people are the same, no two routines are the same.

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self- discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well- worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William James’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Ironically, James himself was a chronic procrastinator and could never stick to a regular schedule.

The book is full of detail, anecdote, and advice.

Consider …

W.H. Auden on passion: “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the say, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

“(Francis Bacon's) idea of dieting,” Mason writes, “was to take large quantities of garlic pills and shun egg yolks, desserts, and coffee—while continuing to guzzle a half-dozen bottles of wine and eat two or more large restaurant meals a day.”

Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

“(Patricia Highsmith) had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms,”

We'll be taking a closer look at some of these inspiring minds in the days ahead.

From the Jacket:

Franz Kafka, frustrated with his living quarters and day job, wrote in a letter to Felice Bauer in 1912, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

Kafka is one of 161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations”. . . Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day . . . Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.”

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself that each morning he write three thousand words (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for thirty-three years during the writing of more than two dozen books . . . Karl Marx . . . Woody Allen . . . Agatha Christie . . . George Balanchine, who did most of his work while ironing . . . Leo Tolstoy . . . Charles Dickens . . . Pablo Picasso . . . George Gershwin, who, said his brother Ira, worked for twelve hours a day from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers . . .

Here also are the daily rituals of Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, John Updike, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, and Igor Stravinsky (he was never able to compose unless he was sure no one could hear him and, when blocked, stood on his head to “clear the brain”).

Daily Rituals just might inspire you.