Too much information…

…and I’m not talking about learning the details of how you were conceived.

I’m talking about how complexity diffuses a person’s ability to reason well.

Suppose someone asks you how much control you have over the world outside your body. Can you control other people’s thoughts? Can you manipulate the laws of physics? Can you move things with your mind?

Reflecting back on your experiences, you should answer ‘no’. You have never done any of those things.

Now, suppose someone tells you

The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies.

and, suppose that person was a quantum physicist, citing the legendary Heisenberg!

Now, there’s too much information for you to reason properly–too many unknowns. Most people don’t know quantum mechanics. It seems reasonable to accept a statement about science from a scientist in the field. Plus, everyone knows that quantum mechanics produces counter-intuitive results. Therefore, if quantum mechanics is true, it must be possible to create one’s reality, even though it conflicts with everyday intuition and experience.

But, any counter-intuitive science result should come with some explanation of why you were fooled. When someone presents a surprising science result, you should ask yourself “why didn’t we notice this before?” Quantum mechanics comes with this. Humans were fooled into believing classical mechanics for hundreds of years because when you have a large number of quantum mechanical systems interacting with each other, you get classical mechanics. In fact, doing quantum experiments means taking great care to isolate the system you are working with so that it doesn’t interact with other systems. Sometimes, this means doing your experiment in vacuums or in very low temperatures.

For humans, even though quantum mechanics is true, we are totally classical. No two ways about it. We live in a classical world that follows classical laws. We do not have any quantum super powers.

What’s actually happening when someone misrepresents science in this way is they are attempting to overload your brain with information so that it can’t think properly. It takes you outside the comfort zone of textbook problems from school and into the unfamiliar world of complexity.

This is the strategy behind advertisements that use science jargon, complicated cell phone plans, and even religious cults. The message is: “reasoning through this problem is too complicated for you. You’d probably need to learn some math. Let us do the reasoning for you, and save you the trouble!”

Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Blink that we approach complex issues by reasoning with our gut.

It’s a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, “Blink” is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book. I’m judging it with my gut, the way Gladwell would have wanted it.

I think Malcolm and I are interested in the same problem: the world is full of problems and there is a tonne of information waiting to distract you from making the right judgements about how to proceed.

Malcolm’s advice is to simplify the problem by paying attention to the information that’s right at the surface and allow your cognition to fill in the blanks.

I think this is wrong. Your cognition does a terrible job of filling in the blanks. I agree with Malcolm that if you naively collect huge amounts of information, you are more likely to become confused and distracted from what is relevant. Humans are not naturally good at dealing with complicated problems with lots of data and information. So, if you are going to do things in a naive way, you might as well follow Malcolm’s advice and simplify.

But, I think there’s another option. Pay attention to the evidence, try to falsify your beliefs and perspectives, filter out the bullshit. That takes real discipline and hard work, though. So, Gladwell’s message isn’t wrong. If you are bad at handling money, a short-term solution is to cut up your credit cards. But the real long-term solution is to learn how to handle money. Same goes with understanding complex issues. A short-term solution might be to simplify the issues by ignoring everything but surface details so that you don’t get confused. But, the long-term solution is to practice reasoning through complex issues in a disciplined way: practice thinking like a scientist.


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