How to Survive the “Experts”

We are bombarded everyday with various “experts” on the television, radio, podcasts, at work, or even on the street. How can we filter through their thoughts & opinions while remaining grounded? Garrett Hardin developed 3 filters – Literate, Numerate, and Ecolate – for just the situation in his book, “Filters Against Folly“. The following excerpts are from the book.

No one filter by itself is adequate for understanding the world and predicting the consequences of our actions. We must learn to use all three.

Literate Filter

Consciously or not, literate analysis begins with this question: “What are the words?” i.e., what are the most appropriate words?

To understand what is meant, one often has to be able to hear two languages: language in the ordinary sense, and the unspoken language that tells you how to “hear” the spoken.

Beyond communication, language has two functions: to promote thought, and to prevent it.

Numerate Filter

The implicit question of the numerate person is this: “What are the numbers?” i.e., what are the exact quantities, the proportions, and the rates?

Quantities matter. Numbers matter. Duration of time matters.

Ecolate Filter

Time and its consequences are essential concerns of the ecolate filter. The key question of ecolate analysis is this: “And then what?” That is, what further changes occur after the treatment or experience is repeated time after time?

Every measured thing is part of a web of variable more richly interconnected than we know. We use the ecolate filter to ferret out at least the major interconnections. Every proposal of plausible policy must be followed by the question “And then what?”

I’ll take the liberty of adding 2 more filters to Hardin’s three. The first, Incentive Structures, I borrowed from Charlie Munger.

Incentive Structure – I strongly recommend that you read more about the power of incentives in Charlie Munger’s 1995 speech to Harvard University [pdf]. The first 2 quotes aren’t from the speech, but are very relevant, and the last two quotes are nice teasers from his speech.

Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.

You must have the confidence to override people with more credentials than you whose cognition is impaired by incentive-caused bias or some similar psychological force that is obviously present. 

Well you can say, “Everybody knows that.” Well I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

One of my favorite cases about the power of incentives is the Federal Express case. The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can’t be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work. And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

Reflexivity – The 2nd filter I would add is George Soros’ concept of reflexivity that guided him “both in making money and giving it away.” The following quotes are from his 1994 speech at MIT. It’s a conceptualization of the effects of a participant’s causal thoughts on their relevant environment by either reinforcing a trend or breaking that trend thereby reflecting changes back on the relevant environment.

Reflexivity is, in effect, a two-way feedback mechanism in which reality helps shape the participants’ thinking and the participants’ thinking helps shape reality in an unending process in which thinking and reality may come to approach each other but can never become identical.

Reflexivity is a two-way feedback mechanism, which is responsible for a causal indeterminacy as well as a logical one. The causal indeterminacy resembles Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but there is a major difference: Heisenberg’s theory deals with observations, whereas reflexivity deals with the role of thinking in generating observable phenomena.

With the world becoming ever more complex the value of simplicity beckons. Complexity can often overwhelm us. That’s the perfect time to exercise this caveat: If you can’t make it through the 1st three filters, then you might need the advice of an expert or two.

But there are also cases where you have to recognize that you have no wisdom to add – and that your best course is to trust some expert. – Charlie Munger

Armed with these filters you can differentiate the worthwhile from the distractions, and apply yourself to what you really want to do with your time while having a better understanding of the “experts” and their expertise.

I’d also like to hear from you. What filters do you use to simplify the world around you and your decision-making process?

I am @Cinema_Air


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