Monday, May 31, 2010

Grand Conclusions

A trend I've been particularly aware of recently is the widespread urge to make grand conclusions based on little observations. Minor decisions like shopping at Wal-Mart or using a Mac get turned into sweeping generalizations about the kind of person behind those decisions.

I started to write a post about this but then realized it had already been written for me:

Eliezer Yudkowsky
We tend to see far too direct a correspondence between others' actions and personalities.  When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are "an angry person".  But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it's because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row. Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.
We attribute our own actions to our situations, seeing our behaviors as perfectly normal responses to experience. But when someone else kicks a vending machine, we don't see their past history trailing behind them in the air.  We just see the kick, for no reason we know about, and we think this must be a naturally angry person - since they lashed out without any provocation.
Ryan Holiday:
Schopenhauer once said that the ability to"always see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius." Sure. And being a pompous fool too.
The running temptation on the internet is to take a minor observation and turn it some grand theory (Thankfully it's not as common, but still shamefully alluring to name this theory after yourself. I wince every time I see a "Hugh's Law" or one of the "Jarvis Laws of Media"). See a poorly run restaurant? - pontificate about the power of customer service. Hear an old media company fucked up? - let's rant about how awesome blogs are.
Work it like this, I think: cut yourself off the next time something makes you think "wow, that would make a good blog post." It won't. The fact that it feels like it would means it's probably trite, obvious and self-congratulatory. Give it a some intense study before you expound the value of a new business model. Stop and consider how likely it is that new information will change the nature of the situation and you'll find you probably don't need to weigh in just yet.
I have a bigger than big amount of respect for Ben Casnocha but I do seem to find this quite a bit in his writing. (But is that because he does it a lot or is it because I am most on top of his online presence so I happen to notice it more? Not sure.)

As an example, he once tweeted that businesspeople wearing a sportswatch were more practical than those wearing a formal watch. Which, to the untrained eye, seems perfectly acceptable- it makes sense. Small observation straight to big conclusion.

In another tweet he wrote about his musical tastes- solidly "a Top 40 guy" but didn't add a conclusion. There aren't many positive conclusions Ben could make about being "a Top 40 guy" but let's imagine for the moment that Ben's musical interests were turned on their head- let's say he had really refined musical tastes and listened to things that relatively few others did. It would be plausible to say that people with eclectic musical interests pay more attention to detail or that they are critical thinkers because they refuse to accept what society throws at them. We could agree that those explanations make sense. But that's the problem. Each of those is just one simplistic explanation that's backed by zero evidence. When any kind of anecdotal observation is turned into a sweeping conclusion, this kind of disclaimer is needed (which also just so happens to be from Ben Casnocha):

"Of course, what do I know? I don't have kids, and I don't have much experience with either career or calling, and I'm not backing these claims with data. I could tick off examples of people I know or have observed, but I don't want to publicly characterize their family or spousal arrangements. So for now I offer only Ralph Nader's candor and my intuitions based on observing people in the world."

But all that won't fit in a tweet.

In terms of my intuitions based on observing people in the world, I've found literary types to be particularly bad for this kind of thing. They have a tendency to create narratives from their experiences and surroundings, constantly glamorizing and smoothing out the edges of what they see instead of seeing all the jagged edges of the chaos, randomness and exceptions that (I believe) are a more accurate picture of the world. They see clear conclusions and present them elegantly- as opposed to the dry, formulaic way someone like Robin Hanson writes. These otherwise flimsy claims slip past our bullshit detectors, in large part because we defer to the seemingly prestigious and wise air about them. I've found Alain de Botton's twitter feed (while at times offering some valuable insights, I should add) to be a good example of this.


Although it can't really be considered a series, this is related to my previous post, What Really Matters In Relationships? and When It Hits The Fan. All three were inspired by this post, Far Thoughts Fit Ideals.


  1. This is a very good post, although I don't really share the feeling about the need to more accurately portray reality. I support attempts to simplify reality (even radically so) if only because I believe our brains are wired to do so. Every theory is by definition a simplification of reality, and the more "parsimonious" the better. And adding a disclaimer every time just seems inefficient. :-)

    But this is thought-provoking and I will have to think about it more.

  2. I have to second Justin - I am intrigued. Especially as an avid consumer of Alain's twitter (and most everything else...)

    It would seem to me that the nugget-version of truth is a majorly double edged sword in that it can convey ideas with the appearance of power and authority. While, outside of the world of pure mathematics, almost no idea is that clear cut. That black & white.

    I'll be mulling over this one... *grin*