The value of falsifiable predictions

We understand the world around us either by making assertions or by making falsifiable predictions. The biggest difference? An world-view based on assertions grows weaker in the face of contradictory information, while one that is based on falsifiable predictions gets stronger each time it is falsified.

Every religion has underlying assertions – Jesus’s virgin birth, the story of the Buddha’s life, Mohammed receiving the Koran and Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna. These assertions are handed down as stories, and prescribe certain principles such as The Ten Commandments or the Eightfold Path. The power of any religion is derived from how unchanged its stories and assertions remain through the ages.

Science is constructed around falsifiable predictions. Every scientific theorem is an interpretation of the world that can be put to the test. John Dalton first theorized that everything around us is made up of indivisible atoms. But Dalton was disproved when positive and negative charges were discovered. This gave way to J.J. Thomson’s pudding pie model, which incorporated protons and electrons, but could not explain some experiments by his student Ernst Rutherford. Rutherford then proposed his own model, which was then replaced by Neils Bohr’s model with electrons revolving around a nucleus with protons and neutrons. All of this refinement within a window of about 100 years was possible because each of these scientists made predictions that could be falsified and replaced with a better model of how the world works.

While religious texts try and remain unchanged, scientific literature changes with every passing decade. To get closer to the truth, one must, ironically, be vulnerable to falsification.

The blue pill or the red pill?

With the red pill and blue pill dichotomy, the Matrix gave us a metaphor for the choice between comforting illusions and harsh reality.

Whenever I win a hard fought chess game, I feel like analyzing, digging deeper and finding out what I did right – the good tactics I used and the decisive moves I made to secure the win. When I lose a challenging game though, my first impulse is to close it down and move onto the next one rather than analyze and deconstruct it.

It is painful to dig deeper when one is wrong. And a chess engine, like a math textbook, offers you the most objective of measure of how wrong you are. There is no escape!

Learning from our mistakes exposes to us the bounds of our knowledge. When we try and learn from instances where we are right, we limit our knowledge and reinforce it. At the same time, we neglect the conditions to which our understanding might not apply. A person who analyzes only her wins on the chessboard, or only ever plays against opponents she can win against sets herself up for a disappointing loss somewhere down the road.

Being right every time leads to overconfidence and confirmation bias. Being wrong leads to humility and tells us the bounds of our knowledge.

Being right every time led to economic theory using the rational agent model. Being wrong gave us a more human behavioural economics.

Being right every time leads to religion and superstition. Being wrong – making falsifiable claims – leads to science.

There is gratification in being right. There is learning in being wrong. What will it be? The blue pill or the red pill?

Making execution easier

Moving to the first world has given me an arch nemesis – supermarkets. I always spend longer than I wish to in these labyrinths, which are mandatory in these parts of the world if starving to death isn’t for you. The supermarket paradox is how the supermarket stocks every single thing – like quinoa-kale bread, fermented fenugreek and goat cheese ice cream – except that one item you want.

In my battle against supermarkets, I have tried several strategies – preparing shopping lists, sticking to familiar stores, timing my visits and willing myself to get exactly the 5 items I need and storm out. But to no avail. Once I am inside a supermarket, with its ten brands of kidney beans, hundred brands of chocolate and thousand brands of alpine salt, I turn into a zombie who has had a few drinks too many.

Thanks to some recent reflection, I realized how I wasted most of my time in moving to and fro between sections. Let’s say my shopping list had the following items:

  • Capsicum
  • Onion
  • Nutella
  • Mozerrela
  • Salad mix
  • Assorted nuts
  • Carrots
  • Avocado

I would pick up capsicum and onion at the veggies section and go to the next items on my list – say Nutella, mozerella and so on – but then realize that I would have to return to the veggies section to pick up carrots and avocado. The alternative, I figured after two years of struggle, is to order the shopping list by section on my phone before I step into the supermarket. That way, I would avoid jumping back and forth through this maze.

I know! It took me too long to figure this out. But it’s curious how one minute of reflection and planning served me better than all the times I grit my teeth and tried to power through.

Whenever execution seems harder than it ought to be, there is usually a simple plan that could make things a lot easier.

It costs time

Recently, I found myself thinking about how several things “costs time”. I then realized how that sounds absurd. In the English language, things cost money, and money is precious. Time is precious as well, but apparently not enough to call it a cost.

But Germans see the world differently. “Es kostet Zeit”, they often say, which translates to “it costs time”.

Perhaps this reflects how punctuality is central to a German’s worldview. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, our language determines how perceive the world and vice-versa. Someday it might be acceptable to say that things cost time.

For a similar post on the language we associate with time, click here.

Job security in the 21st century

Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist, was also a connoisseur of wine. Based on the knowledge that that wine quality depended on sunny summers and wet springs, Ashenfelter used three parameters – the average temperature during summer, the rainfall during the harvest and the total rainfall during the previous winter to create a simple formula that predicts the price of wine at a particular age. The results? His predictions correlated with actual prices to the tune of 0.90 – a higher accuracy than most wine experts with years of training, tasting and not cleaning their tongues.

Even in the previous century, people such as Ashenfelter came up with simple formulas that replaced complex human judgement. Today, we have the technology to integrate these formulas into machines, distribute them on a network and put them on a positive feedback loop so that they improve every day – all for a fraction of the price it would take to train one expert.

This brings us to job security in the 21st century. If your job involves diagnosis or prediction that rely on a fixed set of factors, you are likely to be replaced by a machine. It doesn’t matter how many years of practice and training it took for you to achieve this expertise – those years only produce an illusion of complexity. However, the job of a sommelier – a professional wine taster at fine dining restaurants, is still not obsolete. Because along with being an expert on the quality of wines, a sommelier is a performer who makes a human connection.

The irony of jobs in the 21st century is that diagnosticians who are jerks, even brilliant ones like Dr. House, would be replaced by a formula, while an empathetic and caring nurse in the same hospital might retain his job.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

The other side of disability

When I first came across the term “differently abled”, I thought of it as a euphemism. One that trivialized the challenges disabled people faced, which could prevent them from getting the care they need. However, the work of two psychologists have pointed out to me how the word “disabled” undermines human resilience.

All of us have what Dan Gilbert calls a psychological immune system that helps us sees the gravest of setbacks in a positive light. He points us to research that indicates how paraplegics regress to a earlier levels of happiness a year after their tragedies. In prospect, we all fear an accident that can leave us without one of our precious limbs. In retrospect, our minds are powerful enough to bounce back for the most part.

Another psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, points out how several disabled people perceive their tragedies as being both the most negative and the most positive events in their lives. He cites the surprising findings of several studies, where different victims bounce back from losing their limbs, losing their vision and becoming paralyzed. While disability limits what people can do, its constraints can sometimes bring about order and focus to people who otherwise felt that they were wasting away their lives. In the face of constraints, however bad, our mind can respond positively.

These findings surprise us because of two things we underestimate – our mental resilience, and the benefit of constraints in giving us clarity – both of which differently abled people teach us how to better appreciate.

I do not seek, in any manner, to trivialize the challenges that the differently abled face. It is our duty to ensure that we build an inclusive world, where they are provided with access to what all of us have. At the same time, the term “disabled” brings with it a touch of arrogance and condescension. In the process, it undermines what we can learn from the differently abled people around us.

Between inspiration and vicariousness

Kurt Vonnegut’s signature novel, Slaughterhouse Five, takes us to the midst of World War II. Roland Weary is an American soldier on German soil. He thinks of himself a war-hero who has avoided capture and is saving American lives behind German lines. He expects to be admired, adored and decorated. But all of this happens within his cranium. In reality, the first shot he fired alerted the Germans to the position of their machine gun and they mowed down his entire company. He was its only survivor. In the real world (of Vonnegut’s novel) he is a hapless soldier in a foxhole, cocooned under several layers of clothing, while his glorious illusions protect his mind from coming to terms with his ineptitude.

The psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells us how the fundamental difference between humans and other creatures is our ability to synthesize experiences. Our brain has lets us imagine and design intricate machines, transform the planet and travel to outer space. The flipside, though, is that we are the only animals who are prone to vicariousness – to live in the virtual realities that we concoct in our heads.

The thin line between inspiration and vicariousness has often intrigued me. When do we cross this line?

The biggest difference between the two states is action. The extent to which we’re inspired by something is the extent to which we act upon what we have learnt. Or else, it is a mere simulation to please our minds. And once our minds are pleased, they see no reason to act.

The question is less about what you know about the world, and more about what you have shipped with that knowledge.

Doing before thinking

Conventional wisdom tells us that strategy has to precede execution. But this rule can unwittingly work against tech innovation. Kevin Kelly summarized the reason in Kelly’s law: Old technology fails frequently, but in a reliable way: new technology fails less often, but when it fails, it fails in an unexpectedly new way we are not prepared for.

While dealing with old technology, we are familiar with its pitfalls to a degree that we can chart out a strategy. This isn’t true of new technology. The better approach with the latter is to start with the doing and not the thinking. It is better to pilot the technology with a simple idea, understand its quirks, and then scale it out with larger projects.

Several organizations today are making the mistake of formulating an elaborate “AI Strategy” before executing smaller projects to engage and understand the technology. No wonder they are beaten to its adoption by startups which are small and scrappy. Startups which try things out and then think things through.

A string of smaller bets

Would you take the a bet where you had a 50% chance of winning $1500 and a 50% chance of losing $1000?

How about 10 bets, with a 50% chance of winning $150 and 50% chance of losing $100 on each of them?

Most people shy away from taking the big bet, but are open to accepting the series of smaller ones. Yet, from a probabilistic perspective, in both cases, the expected outcome is the same for both the alternatives (0.5×1500 – 0.5×1000 = $250).

When the stakes are high, even at the same odds, the leap is intimidating. People who dream of making a grand splash when they start something often keep raising the stakes of their plan, which prevents them from ever starting.

It is often better to split up our grand plan into a series of smaller ones – to begin and encourage forward motion.

The universe and your dreams

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”, wrote Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist.  Coelho explains how it was this line that carried the book from obscurity to every other bookstore across the world.

With a moment of thought though, we can see the absurdity of those words. Every human being is one among a billion, with trillions of other living creatures swarming on this planet, which itself is more insignificant than an atomic particle in the vastness of the universe. Surely, the universe has bigger supernovas to fry than to cater to people’s the dreams. Seen from this perspective, Coelho’s sentiment seems like delusion served with a healthy dose of hubris.

And yet, it finds resonance with most of humanity. It indicates our propensity to put ourselves squarely at the center of the universe. We even have a name for the universe’s plans for each of our lives – fate.

“Man is a deterministic device thrown into a probabilistic universe.” quoted Amos Tversky, perhaps as an antithesis to Coelho’s sentiment.

The universe is a chaotic place, mostly unfriendly and rather unconcerned about human well-being. Realizing this truth would divest our lives of meaning – a prospect which is so scary that we cope by seeing patterns where none actually exist.

Urgency goes away

On my day job, I automate processes using a software. Whenever we face an issue with the software, we raise a ticket with the vendor. The contents of the ticket may vary based on the problem we face, but one thing remains consistent – we unfailingly set the urgency level on the ticket to the highest possible value.

“Urgency level – Critical.”

Taking the other perspective, this is true of several things that land on our desk with the urgent label .

“The nice things about things that are urgent is that if you wait long enough they aren’t urgent anymore.” – Amos Tversky.

Causing conversation to flow

Having an honest, face-to-face conversations is one of humanity’s oldest joys. As social animals, it gives us great pleasure to connect at a deeper level.

However, these conversations are dying today. Most communication happens from behind screens, sanitized of nuance, attention and realness. We have seen how this is leading to a break-down in communication across political boundaries everywhere. I do not need to labour upon the decline of real conversations in present times, and its consequent disadvantages.

But how do we have engaging conversations? That is perhaps the most useful thing that school doesn’t teach us.

The foremost quality that makes an activity engaging is a feeling of “flow”. Flow is a condition whereby we are so engrossed that we lose sense of time, our surroundings and even of our own selves. It usually happens when the complexity of an activity meets our current level of competence – too simple and it turns boring. Too complex, and it becomes stressful. Computer games are the classic example of a flow inducing activity. They are designed to increase in complexity as their players progress across levels and increase in competence.

Although conversations seem simple and boring, they are, in reality, complex and hard. The reason people are moving away from conversations is because digital mediums offer them an easier alternative. It is easier to hide behind a screen and text somebody than have the courage to look them in the eye and tell them the truth. The key to making conversations engaging is to modulate the level of complexity so that it engages all the parties involved. We do this by shifting attention to the other person – by listening to them, observing their body language and steering our conversations accordingly. What maybe easy for you as an engineer might be complex for a social scientist and vice-versa. A child may have lesser knowledge than you, but a richer and more fertile sense of imagination. The idea is to keep exploring until you find the golden middle ground.

To have more engaging conversations is to change our mindsets towards them, and to direct our attention to the other person. By making these shifts, we can rediscover one of humanity’s oldest joys, and contribute to a better, more harmonious world.

Inspiration: Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Double standards

We expect plumbers and doctors to show up everyday. We expect consistency and professionalism from them – not authenticity. Why should artists be different? Why do they have to be “in the mood”?

We don’t tell a plumber or a doctor how to do their job. We defer to their expertise. Why should artists be different? Why does everybody have an opinion on how a work of art should be different?

Science and the muscle of imagination

One of the things that makes science difficult, is that it takes a lot of imagination. – Richard Feynman

Some people find science hard, and therefore, also find it boring and dull. As Richard Feynman stated, it is less a measure of intellectual capability and more a limitation of our imagination that prevents us from enjoying scientific knowledge to the fullest. When we do not enjoy something enough, it automatically becomes both hard and dull.

Scientific research has built upon itself over the centuries to manifest as the abstract scientific concepts we find today.  While we can experience a hot breeze and see a shiny red apple, our brain in its native form isn’t wired to think of hot air molecules zipping through a room, or to think of how the apple absorbs every wavelength of white light but for its particular shade of red. This imagination requires training and practice, much like muscle power. At first, it took all of our fingers to say that 6 + 4 is 10. With sufficient training, we know that answer instantly.

The people who find science hard haven’t trained their mental muscles to imagine these concepts. Perhaps their teachers from school did not inspire them or show them the right way to do it. Richard Feynman, on the other hand, had the imaginative muscle power to explain the most complicated scientific concepts to a lay person.

Apart from its practical benefits, science is the language of the natural world. It is fascinating to think of how sands from the Sahara desert, rich in fossilized algae, blow all the way across the Atlantic ocean to fertilize the Amazonian rain forest. In Feynman’s own words, the imagination of nature far surpasses that of man.

It’s a splendid world out there, waiting to be discovered, understood and appreciated. And just as it is true of physical muscles, it is never too late to exercise and build one’s imaginative ones.

The illusion of insignificance

A possible consequence of living in the 21st century is a feeling of insignificance. The more interconnected the world is, the more of its vastness we see. As individuals, we are then left with the feeling that our own actions count for nothing. This often leads to cynicism, perhaps demonstrated by low voter turnouts or by how most people do not particularly care for the environment. How much can one person change things, after all?

However, this feeling of insignificance is a powerful illusion. One of the prime reasons for this illusion is the human nature to personify. It is second nature for us to treat everything around us like people – we name animals, birds and plants. We talk about how the sun rises and moves across the sky. Most civilizations personified almost every aspect of nature they encountered – wind, water, constellations and so on. Our stories are filled with talking crocodiles outwitted by clever monkeys.

In the same vein, we also personify every movement that captures our attention. The movement for Indian independence had many prominent leaders, but Mahatma Gandhi was its face. Martin Luther King’s led the American civil rights movement, just as Mother Theresa was the symbol of the missionaries of charity. Rock bands have their front-men. The conductor of an orchestra receives applause on its behalf. Christianity is synonymous with the life of Jesus, and needed several Popes to continue flying its flag. Every company needs a CEO, just as every country needs a head of state. The same applies for negative movements too. Every terrorist outfit has a face. Hence the obsession of the US government with hunting down Osama bin Laden to avenge 9/11. We understand the world in the form of stories, and every story inevitably needs protagonists and antagonists.

Just as prominent as all these leaders are, they would have amounted to nothing without their faceless followers. Gandhi would have remained a loon with strange ideas but for the support of the Indian community in South Africa. A conductor without his orchestra is but a comical mime artist. Front-men such as Freddie Mercury or Jim Morrison would have never risen to prominence. While every movement has a face and an identity, it is but a mere shell without its followers. Moreover, the person chosen to lead a movement is often driven by chance and unique circumstances. A face of a movement isn’t necessarily the most devoted or the most capable person – it is just somebody who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Therefore, every member of a movement makes their valuable contribution. The reason people still feel insignificant is due to the errors of attribution we make due to our nature of transforming movements into stories and anointing them with a protagonist.

Following is underrated, as Derek Sivers points out here. Most movements can have only a handful of leaders, but every one of its followers make a powerful impact, however insignificant they seem in comparison.

Listening to the bass notes

Appreciating more intricate forms of music, such as western classical or jazz, requires a trained ear. How does one learn to appreciate more intricate music, with all its melody, harmony and rhythm?

One way is to pay attention to every bass note in a musical piece. The bass is the foundation on which the rest of the instruments and vocals lay.  Bass is subtle, slips into the background and is easily drowned out. But by paying attention to the bass, we understand where the composer comes from. It gives us a means to understand the music from bottom up.

Communication is always more nuanced than whatever is on the surface. Apart from the words people say, there is tone, sentiment, context and body language. Listening merely to their words is analogous to transforming a symphony into elevator music – a hollow, incomplete experience.

A good listener is interested not merely in the words, but where they come from.

It does not matter

It does not matter…

… which table you sit at the restaurant, once you have settled in.

… which hotel room you are assigned, as long as it is tidy.

… which car you drive, once you stop noticing that it is new.

… which brand of boxers you are wearing, once you have put them on.

what kind of pencil Stephen King uses.

Things seem far more important when we think about them than they actually are. Marketers everywhere remind us of their brands to make them seem important.

With most things, there is good enough. And then, there is a multitude of distractions.

What makes skepticism healthy

Daniel Kahneman is a deeply skeptical person. Ever since his childhood, he held strong beliefs about the complexities underlying human behaviour. As a child, he questioned the existence of god. As a student, he refused to believe his teachers. As a 21-year-old psychologist in the Israeli army, he invalidated their selection process and replaced it with a more effective interview. As a professor, his work with Amos Tversky has fundamentally shifted our understanding of human judgement. After 60+ years in the field, he remains an inveterate skeptic and continues to this day to question his every assertion.

Despite all of his skepticism, Kahneman’s assertions have made him the most influential psychologist alive today. His work sees application across several fields – sports, business, leadership, decision making and economic theory. He is one of two psychologists to have earned the Nobel prize in Economics. As a person who built his career around doubt and uncertainty, his influence spans an extraordinary number of fields.

I find this surprising, for unbridled skepticism can devolve into cynicism. A person who dismisses ideas outright is likely to not appreciate the bounded realms of their applicability.

Kahneman is a skeptic, but he is no cynic. Something about the how he directs his skepticism helps him break through cynicism and into a variety of fields. When he encounters a new idea, instead of qualifying it or disqualifying it outright, Kahneman thinks about the boundaries of its applicability. Thereby, he provides us a more nuanced understanding rather than merely shoot down theories. A telling example here is his collaboration with his academic adversary – Gary Klein. Klein was a firm believer in expert intuition while Kahneman questioned the abilities of most experts and despised their overconfidence. Through a 6 year collaboration, Kahneman and Klein outlined the boundaries of expert intuition – they established the specific conditions under which experts can nurture and utilize their intuition, thereby qualifying rather than disqualifying their abilities.

As a skeptic, it maybe more meaningful to ask “What could this be true of?” rather than “Is this idea valid?”.

Inspiration: The undoing project – Michael Lewis

The most insidious cognitive bias

Jeremy Lin was an incredible athlete on the basketball court. Back in 2010, he had the fastest first two steps in the NBA. He had an explosive start and could change directions quicker than any of his peers. And yet, most teams refused to draft him because they thought he was not athletic. The New York Knicks benched him for most of the 2011-12 season, and only brought him on when most of their players were injured. Jeremy Lin led a dramatic turnaround against the New Jersey Nets. He then put up a string of memorable performances and earned the the nickname (Knickname?) “Linsanity”.

Why was one of the most athletic players in the NBA repeatedly rejected for not being athletic enough? Perhaps it was because Jeremy Lin was the first Asian American to play in the NBA.

Most NBA coaches and scouts held a long-standing prejudice against Asian players for not being athletic enough. “Me and John [Wall] were the fastest people in the draft, but he was athletic and I was ‘deceptively’ athletic,” Lin said during an interview. “I think I’ve been deceptively ‘whatever’ my whole life.”

The coaches and teams who had excluded Lin weren’t intentionally racist. Their best judgement was compromised by confirmation bias – perhaps the most insidious of cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias binds us to our first impressions. In most cases, we have no idea about the real reasons for why we form a first impression – a person could remind us of our father or a situation could remind us of an event from our childhood. Nevertheless, once we have a first impression, we go ahead in search of information that confirms and reinforces it. Athletic and good looking players are routinely overestimated across sports. And even as NBA scouts saw a lightning quick Asian player, they chose to remember instances where he wasn’t athletic, or compared his technique to substandard players.

Confirmation bias is deeply ingrained in how our brains work. We simply do not know why something appeals to us. Since this process is unconscious, knowing about the bias offers no protection from falling for it. You cannot change what you have no control over. Nevertheless, our minds readily supply a reason when asked for one, which is what makes this bias insidious.

Mitigating confirmation bias is crucial. We can guard against it by instituting statistical systems that aren’t fooled by these biases. Back in 2010, the system used by the Houston Rockets had pointed out that Jeremy Lin was an exceptional athlete, but the teams decision makers had overruled it. Another means to mitigate a bias is through diversity. When we work with people of diverse backgrounds, the individual biases that they bring could be mitigated in aggregate decisions.

In 2012, just before Jeremy Lin sparked the “Linsanity” movement, the New York Knicks had thought of releasing him. Lin, a Harvard graduate, had decided to quit basketball if he was released. A lucky break came in to rescue his career and gave us one of the athletic players in the NBA from the clutches of the most insidious bias that dictates how our minds perceive the world.

Inspiration: The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis

Practice what you practice

Practice what you preach can be bad advice.

We lay a big emphasis on consistency – to construct a set of ideals and hold true to them. At the same time, the world changes rapidly and expects people to adapt to these changes. How does one resolve this tension?

Based on our world-view, we construct ideals to aspire towards. Working towards an ideal is a process – it isn’t merely a state of mind or a switch that we flip. Besides, it need not be carried out in isolation. Our ideals are as much a result of our own experiences as they are of other people’s. Even as we hold true to ideals, it would take time to realize them with the support of the people around us.

Additionally, ideals can change with time and experience. The better we understand the world, the less likely we are to stick to our naive constructions of how it works. With additional information, we ought to change our beliefs about what we stand for and how we would address problems. Open-mindedness and adaptability are indispensable.

“Practice what you preach” demands that we keep things consistent, and therefore static. It holds people to a rigid standard, based on something that a person has declared in the past. While emphasizing consistency, it discourages boldness.

Sure, people should not be hypocrites – accountability is crucial in ensuring fairness and holding us to our commitments. But the commitments themselves can evolve over time and must be allowed to.

While an anchor keeps a ship from drifting away, it ought to not turn into a weight in tow.