Category: Thinking

Information Without Context

Information without context is falsely empowering and incredibly dangerous.

As an adult, have you ever picked up a child’s shape-sorter and tried to put the square item through the round hole? Of course not. Adults know better — or at least we’re supposed to. Yet we often take square solutions and cram them into round problems.

Consider, for example, a project that falls behind schedule. A project manager is apt to adopt whatever solution worked the last time a project was falling behind schedule. If more people were added last time and that produced a successful outcome why not do it again? Our tendency to stick with what has worked in the past, regardless of why it worked, creates a powerful illusion that we are solving the problem or doing the right thing.

When posed a difficult question by an informed reporter, politicians often answer something related but simpler. The politician treats what should be a complex topic as something black and white and portrays the topic as simpler than it really is (reductive bias). In the corporate world we do the same thing when we take something that worked previously (or somewhere else) and blindly apply it to the next problem without giving due consideration to why it worked.

Maybe we’re just becoming an intellectually lazy society constantly looking for then next soundbite from “experts” on how to do something better.  We like the easy solution.

In Think Twice, Michael Mauboussin writes: “Consultants, researchers, and practitioners often observe some success, seek common attributes among them and proclaim that those attributes can lead others to succeed. This simply does not work.”

Our brains may be adult, yet we demonstrate a very childlike level of consideration. Decision makers often fail to ask key questions, such as: What’s different about this project? Under which circumstances is adding more people likely to work? and, Am I doing this because someone else is doing it?

Adopting best practices has become the reason to do something in and of itself.  It is, after all, hard to challenge logic of best practices. But what do best practices mean? Whom are they best for? What makes them successful? Can we replicate them in our company? Culture? Circumstance? Do we have the necessary skills? What are the side effects? What are the incentives? … More often than not, we embrace a solution without understanding under which conditions it succeeds or fails.

I think there are some parallels between business decision making and medicine. In Medicine our understanding of the particulars can never be complete: misdiagnosing a patient is common so doctors look at each patient as a new mystery.

A doctor, applying the same thoughtlessness spewed by management consultants might, reasonably, determine that all people with a fever have a cold. However, we know people are more complex than this simple correlation. Medical practitioners know the difference between correlation and cause. A fever by itself tells the doctor something but not everything. It could indicate a cold and it could be something more serious. Doctors, like good decision makers, check the context and seek out information that might disprove their diagnosis.

Bertrand Russell: On Avoiding Foolish Opinions

bertrand russell avoiding foolish opinion

We’d all like to avoid folly, wouldn’t we?

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance. And it doesn’t take a genius. Only a few simple ideas.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) offers some advice, which will not keep us from all error but will help us navigate away from obvious error.

On Avoiding Foolish Opinions

Via The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell:

If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetizing diet. Aristotle, however, was less cautious. Ancient and medieval authors knew all about unicorns and salamanders; not one of them thought it necessary to avoid dogmatic statements about them because he had never seen one of them.

Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias.

If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own. When I was young, I lived much outside my own country in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. I found this very profitable in diminishing the intensity of insular prejudice. If you cannot travel, seek out people with whom you disagree, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is not yours. If the people and the newspaper seem mad, perverse, and wicked, remind yourself that you seem so to them. In this opinion both parties may be right, but they cannot both be wrong. This reflection should generate a certain caution.

Becoming aware of foreign customs, however, does not always have a beneficial effect. In the seventeenth century, when the Manchus conquered China, it was the custom among the Chinese for the women to have small feet, and among the Manchus for the men to wear-pigtails. Instead of each dropping their own foolish custom, they each adopted the foolish custom of the other, and the Chinese continued to wear pigtails until they shook off the dominion of the Manchus in the revolution of 1911.

For those who have enough psychological imagination, it is a good plan to imagine an argument with a person having a different bias. This has one advantage, and only one, as compared with actual conversation with opponents; this one advantage is that the method is not subject to the same limitations of time or space. Mahatma Gandhi deplores railways and steamboats and machinery; he would like to undo the whole of the industrial revolution. You may never have an opportunity of actually meeting any one who holds this opinion, because in Western countries most people take the advantage of modern technique for granted. But if you want to make sure that you are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, you will find it a good plan to test the arguments that occur to you by considering what Gandhi might say in refutation of them. I have sometimes been led actually to change my mind as a result of this kind of imaginary dialogue, and, short of this, I have frequently found myself growing less dogmatic and cocksure through realizing the possible reasonableness of a hypothetical opponent.

Be very wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem. Both men and women, nine times out of ten, are firmly convinced of the superior excellence of their own sex. There is abundant evidence on both sides. If you are a man, you can point out that most poets and men of science are male; if you are a woman, you can retort that so are most criminals. The question is inherently insoluble, but self esteem conceals this from most people. We are all, whatever part of the world we come from, persuaded that our own nation is superior to all others. Seeing that each nation has its characteristic merits and demerits, we adjust our standard of values so as to make out that the merits possessed by our nation are the really important ones, while its demerits are comparatively trivial. Here, again, the rational man will admit that the question is one to which there is no demonstrably right answer. It is more difficult to deal with the self esteem of man as man, because we cannot argue out the matter with some non-human mind. The only way I know of dealing with this general human conceit is to remind ourselves that man is a brief episode in the life of a small planet in a little corner of the universe, and that, for aught we know, other parts of the cosmos may contain beings as superior to ourselves as we are to jellyfish.

Still curious? Check out Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching.

Bruce Pandolfini Teaches Thinking, Not Chess

Bruce Pandolfini Teaches Thinking

Bruce Pandolfini doesn’t have an MBA but he knows more about strategy than most people. Pandolfini is one of the most sought-after chess teachers in the world.

He’s also one of the most widely read chess writers. I have a copy of Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess on my bookshelf.

Pandolfini makes it clear to his students that he’s not teaching them how to play chess. He is, instead, teaching them how to think.

“My goal,” he says, “is to help them develop what I consider to be two of the most important forms of intelligence: the ability to read other people, and the ability to understand oneself. Those are the two kinds of intelligence that you need to succeed at chess — and in life.”

On Thinking Ahead

There are lots of misperceptions that influence how people think about — and play — chess. Most people believe that great players strategize by thinking far into the future, by thinking 10 or 15 moves ahead. That’s just not true. Chess players look only as far into the future as they need to, and that usually means thinking just a few moves ahead. Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time: The information is uncertain. The situation is ambiguous. Chess is about controlling the situation at hand. You want to determine your own future. You certainly don’t want your opponent to determine it for you. For that, you need clarity, not clairvoyance.

“You should never play the first good move that comes into your head. Put that move on your list, and then ask yourself if there is an even better move.”

On Attacking

Great players want to build their position and to increase their power — so that, when they strike, there is no defense. Trying to win a game in the fewest number of moves means hoping that your opponent is incompetent. I don’t teach students to base their play on hope. I teach them to play for control.

On Small Advantages

Chess is a game of small advantages. It all goes back to Wilhelm Steinitz, the first great modern chess teacher. Steinitz developed the theory of positional chess, which assumes that, to get an advantage, you have to give up something in return. The question then becomes “How can anyone win? Why isn’t the game always held in dynamic balance?” The answer is that you play for seemingly insignificant advantages — advantages that your opponent doesn’t notice or that he dismisses, thinking, “Big deal, you can have that.” It could be a slightly better development, or a slightly safer king’s position. Slightly, slightly, slightly. None of those “slightlys” mean anything on their own, but add up seven or eight of them, and you have control. Now the only way that your opponent can possibly break your control is by giving up something else. Positional chess teaches that we are responsible for our actions. Every move must have a purpose.

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