In my first post on intellectual denial of service attacks, I covered something I dubbed “bad infinitum,” a tendency for non-experts to overwhelm experts with repetitive, costly, and often unproductive demands for evidence or counter-argument to oft-debunked or misleading claims. Here, I’ll cover another of these intellectual attack vectors, which I’ll call “the map to nowhere.” An asymmetry exists in each of these attacks: easy to launch, hard to counter.
Many responses to my first post mentioned the need for a renewed trust of experts. I’m not so sure of this. The squelching of productive conversation can go both ways, as I hope to describe.
(Aside: In a comment on Hacker News, tinono mentioned noticing a similarity with Paul Graham’s essay, “Keep Your Identity Small,” in my comment about not wanting to go back on previously-stated beliefs. His essay greatly influenced my thinking on the topic, and it deserves your attention if you haven’t read it)
The Map to Nowhere
Has anyone ever presented you with a solution to a problem that you intuitively know to be wrong, but you can’t articulate exactly why, provide proof, or suggest a better idea? Let’s say that they propose the following:
Because of an epidemic of suicides and mental health issues, the government should provide unlimited free candy to every citizen, to make everyone happier.
Immediately, you see some problems:
- Won’t unlimited candy make people fat?
- How do we know that unlimited candy will make people happier?
- Where will we get all this candy?
Your interlocutor shoots back. “Fine, what’s your idea for fixing the suicide epidemic? You’re not helping anything by criticizing my idea!”
“I… I’m not sure,” you say, “I’d have to think about it.”
You rack your brain for ideas, but none are forthcoming. No matter how hard you try, you can’t come up with a better solution on the spot. Your counterpart taps his foot impatiently. Finally, you give up. Every potential solution just spawns its own problems.
“Okay,” you sigh, “You win. Free candy for everyone. But only fat-free candy.”
Skeptics are often derided for being unhelpful, if not actively harmful. By pointing out deficiencies in others’ plans or ideas, they reduce the total number of solutions to any problem without providing alternatives. Never mind that the solutions might be actively counterproductive – this problem demands immediate action! The fancy name for this is the politician’s syllogism, which goes like this:
- We must do something
- This is something
- Therefore, we must do this
I’ve called this attack The Map to Nowhere as a specific sub-type of the politician’s syllogism. A proposal purports to describe the world as it is, but falls far short. Opponents may cite serious flaws in the proposal’s assumptions. Similar plans implemented elsewhere may show mediocre or negative results. As demands for action grow louder, however, the vacuum begins to roar. The plan represents the “least worst” option, say its proponents. Accusations of cowardice, idiocy, heartlessness, etc. plague anyone who seeks time to produce a better proposal.
The map is not the territory
The “map” presented in these cases purports to describe reality, but reality differs significantly from the representation – the map is not the territory. Meaningful assumptions are presented without significant evidence. Sharp edges of reality are rounded to make the proposed solution a better fit.
This idea first came to me from Nassim Taleb, who reminds us that a bad map is often worse than no map. You wouldn’t use a map of London to try to navigate Beijing, no matter how lost you were. Shane Parrish lays out this idea in his post, “The Map Is Not the Territory,” far more skillfully than I can do here. If you haven’t read his post or come across the idea elsewhere, you’ll enjoy it.
We often wed ourselves to our models of the world. We have a certain finite skillset, an idea we want to be true, or a limited set of data, and we frame everything in those terms. After all, what else have we got? When events overwhelm our capacities, we tend to try to force events into a Procrustean bed (another concept from Taleb) rather than admitting to being lost. We use the wrong map even if it’s not taking us anywhere.
This phenomenon need not be related to individual incapacity, or a sign of incompetence – it may simply be the case that no one can predict the future, or sufficient data doesn’t exist. Then it’s not a question of expertise, but of epistemic humility. Best not to leap confidently into that which you don’t understand. There may be unpredictably dire consequences.
Notice that this attack might go two ways (among many others):
- Experts wielding their jargon and credentials as devices to shut up non-experts, even if non-experts have credible critiques and ideas to offer
- Non-experts pushing poorly designed policies and demanding that experts immediately produce counter-proposals that purport to achieve those ends with the same or fewer costs
It’s easier to produce something that claims to solve a complicated problem than to actually solve it. “The problem is X, my solution bans X, bing, bang, boom, no more problem!” Worse, bad solutions can prime you to think in a certain way about the problem, which may ultimately limit your ability to come up with different solutions (hence the “fat-free candy” addendum).
It’s also tempting to wave the magic wand of jargon to silence discussion that undermines our strong beliefs. By using excessively complicated terminology, experts can bully non-experts who might nonetheless have useful ideas or critiques into silence. As I pointed out in my first post, expertise spent repeatedly debunking weak premises represents expertise wasted. New, useful ideas can come from unexpected places, however.
At the core, humility in discussions helps obviate this problem. Expertise is valuable! Our current expertise might not be sufficient to solve every problem, though. When both sides engage without malice, truly productive conversations can follow. Data analyzed dispassionately can provide answers that our existing mental models fail to anticipate.
If we want to avoid this trap, we must allow for a possibility of being mistaken in our beliefs, and accept that even many of the best theories have limitations. Striking down bad ideas, even if no replacement ideas are immediately forthcoming, makes room for good ones. Some problems truly demand immediate action, but thankfully these are rare.
Research, respect, and non-confrontational communication are extremely valuable. Try to be humble, expert or no. And beware the map to nowhere, even if you lack a better map!