Most think rational thinking looks like this.
The evidence is examined with a microscope and then a smart conclusion is formed.
In fact it’s probably the opposite, we form an opinion and then look for evidence to back it up. Locking prior beliefs in a box before weighing evidence is rare, if not non-existent.
Also, I think I’m rational and everyone else isn’t. So do you and so do stupid people.
But ignoring human bias for a second, the evidence based approach makes sense.
There are domains where we have figured it all out. With enough diligence, we’ll get the right answer. Problem is, these domains are often simple and boring. People transfer this same approach to areas we haven’t figured it all out yet. It doesn’t work so well here.
The Present Bias
We not just too confident in our own intelligence, we’re too confident in societies intelligence.
Sure there’s lots of stupid people, but the smart people are really smart.
100 years ago they used horse and cart, now we have self driving cars. 60 years ago we couldn’t go to the moon, now we’re talking about mars. 30 years ago we had to drive to the library to learn, now the worlds knowledge is in our pockets.
We’re impressed by what man can do, because our reference point is the past.
But imagine a parallel universe that had a perfect education system. What if that society was founded entirely on innovation, rather than capital?
They’d wonder why we’ve been twiddling our thumbs for so long. ‘VR took that long?’
In 200 AD they weren’t saying ‘this evidence is the best we have, but it isn’t very good. They’ll have it all figured out in about 2000 years’.
Every society ever has assumed they have it basically figured out. All that’s needed is to colour in a few details.
Unlike 200 AD, we’re can be smart enough to remind ourselves that ‘in 2000 years our current knowledge will be a joke’.
Or take yourself as an example, hopefully you think you were an idiot 5 years ago.
You remember all the dumb thoughts you had and your real smart compared to then. It’s more difficult to imagine all the smart thoughts you’ll think in the next 5 years. Rendering your current self an idiot should be the plan.
With 5 years worth of smart thoughts the evidence for your rational thinking will be very different.
. . .
It’s nighttime in the desert.
Imagine the collective knowledge of 200 AD as 10 candles. Today, we’ve got 100.
Or imagine your own knowledge from 5 years ago as 10 candles. Today, you’ve got 100.
The light from these candles lets us to see. Every time we light a new one we can see further, but it also extends the darkness.
Assume your in the Sahara Desert for a second. The unknown would therefore be much bigger than the known. This darkness would necessarily have lots of black swans.
In simple and boring domains the whole desert is lit up. Thing is, with the non-trivial stuff we have no way of knowing how big it actually is.
The more specialised knowledge one has the more likely they are to think to whole thing is lit up. This isn’t to say that evidence is unimportant, only that we’re biased towards what we can see.
If your starting assumption is the Sahara, you’ll land somewhere very different than if starting and ending by the candles.
Disagree with anything? Great, come bludgeon this on Twitter 🙂