Consider some views.
Stricter gun laws won’t deter mass shootings. Carbs, especially before bed, will make you fat. ADD is overdiagnosed. Free speech is on the decline. Too much screen time is impairing our children. Social media is making everyone sadder. Men and women with the same job title should have the same pay. If you pay your taxes until you are old, you should not have to pay again on what you leave your children.
I probably got some nods. I also got some sour faces. On average, I’d outperform a coin flip on guessing who felt what, which is a revealing demonstration of how we are wired. If I posted some of those on Facebook I could imagine an angry emoji riot storming my notifications. Just kidding, I’d never post a thought to Facebook. Gresham’s Law ensures no reasonable people hang out in that back alley anymore. I’m actually not stating a side on any of those views. As for you, your reaction to the views might have been strong but let’s see if abstaining might make more sense.
Information asteroids bombard us daily. When we are young we latch on to things that authorities tell us. And when you are 4 feet tall, every person you meet is an authority. By the time acne finds you, enough contradictions have piled up to open your eyes. But there are artifacts. Beliefs that you never bothered to fact-check. Time has whitewashed memories. Misjudgments calcified as truth.
The world is too complicated not to have shortcuts and one of our favorite heuristics is appropriating our tribe’s view when we haven’t put in the work to form our own. Since we can’t research everything that strikes me as valid a strategy as any. If you haven’t really studied the views above, your own take is likely borrowed. But the loan comes with a cost.
You must remember that your view was just a shortcut. Not a hill to die on. The venerable Danny Kahneman showed that how we come to know things is largely out of order. The first idea we receive on a topic becomes the holder of the championship belt. The next data point by virtue of it simply being not-first makes it the challenger. And we all know incumbents are hard to overthrow. They have the crowd in their corner. Egos to protect. For dealing with complex knowledge, this can be counterproductive or even dangerous if you actually have power over policy, employees, or your kids.
I’m an expert on very little so I try to maintain weak priors. This is uphill both ways. You can’t be so “open minded your brain falls out”, but alternatively your mostly untested opinions are regrettably arbitrary. I’m always interested in how to manage this meta-problem since it is so upstream to all of our thoughts and actions.
Imagine your consciousness as a solar system. You are zipping around in an X-Wing dodging information asteroids en route to an objective. Space rocks are flying by containing nuggets of commentary, maybe facts, definitely some clickbait. Without a unifying narrative, you’re lost, retreating to the views that are most mentally available regardless of merit.
Enter the New Planet.
The new planet is an article or book that looms large in your mental solar system. It derives its mass from the work that was required to select and pull together tons of space rock for cohesion. Its gravity organizes related passing asteroids into its orbit creating well-defined thought moons. Its atmosphere filters and burns junk rocks before they hit its surface. It is your reference for topic X and it was not easily found.
This ‘new planet’ model gives you a chance to invert your automatic tendency to believe then confirm. It’s the core from which to create satellite views around. If you really want to understand an issue, it’s the real starting point, the launchpad, to beat the metaphor into white dwarf oblivion. Without the requisite work, your beliefs are hunches whose weight should be appointed in proportion.
I will offer a few examples of some ‘new planet’ content which became reference points to contextualize subsequent data or commentary on a topic.
- One of my favorite writers goes by pen name SlatestarCodex which is an anagram for his name, Scott Alexander. I will use his recent post about an issue that affects many Americans. His process of stepping through the question and attacking it from multiple angles yields work that you can consult as your planet when you need to refer to the topic. It’s not to say that his conclusions are correct. He’s quite careful not to overstate them himself, a pleasant display of intellectual honesty. His process reminds you of what it takes to hold a worthy opinion. Note how it moves through each hypothesis, aiming to rule out, as he builds up a case. Often times the greatest benefit from a new planet is it shows you just how expansive a topic is, replete with tensions and paradoxes. Slatestar wonders if the conventional wisdom that college admissions have become vastly more competitive over time is, in fact, true I encourage you to explore the post here as I risk that request backfiring by listing the conclusions here:
1. There is strong evidence for more competition for places at top colleges now than 10, 50, or 100 years ago.
2. Until 1900, there was no competition for top colleges, medical schools, or law schools. A secular trend towards increasing admissions (increasing wealth + demand for skills?) plus two shocks from the GI Bill and the Vietnam draft led to a glut of applicants that overwhelmed schools and forced them to begin selecting applicants.
3. Changes up until ten years ago were because of a growing applicant pool, after which the applicant pool (both domestic and international) stopped growing and started shrinking. Increased competition since ten years ago does not involve applicant pool size.
4. Changes after ten years ago are less clear, but the most important factor is probably the ease of applying to more colleges.
5. Medical schools are getting harder to get into, but law schools are getting easier to get into. There is no good data for graduate schools.
6. All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time unless you are from a disadvantaged background.
I became interested in this topic partly because there’s a widespread feeling, across the political spectrum, that everything is getting worse. I previously investigated one facet of this – that necessities are getting more expensive – and found it to be true. Another facet is the idea that everything is more competitive and harder to get into. My parents’ generation tells stories of slacking off in high school, not worrying about it too much and knowing they’d get into a good college anyway. Millennials tell stories of an awful dog-eat-dog world where you can have perfect grades and SAT scores and hundreds of hours of extracurriculars and still get rejected from everywhere you dreamed of.
As Slatestar does with popular essays like this one, he reposts his favorite comments. He is a central figure in the nerdy rationalist community and comments to his posts make for better reading than most news. If interested, here’s his hand-picked comments extending the conversation. If anyone browses more of his writing and is interested, I can cobble together a list of my favorite Slatestar posts.
Other examples of ‘new planet’ articles I have recently added to my solar system:
- The SF housing shortage and its history explained in detail. This could have been a book.
- How complicated and broken US healthcare is. Not surprisingly, no single culprit.
My personal take: when faced with new information, a study, or commentary I wish to retain, I am deliberate in docking it to my existing planet of knowledge in that realm. Until I undertake the active effort of integrating the new info, it will deserve less weight than l will natively assign to it. I’ll wield it incorrectly, defend it without enough cause, and even misdirect myself. I want to minimize those errors. The planet approach takes practice plus I fail all the time. And for a cherry on top, it’s pretty ego-depleting. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t think that just the effort yields better personal calibration and subsequently better decision outcomes. Plus, I hope it makes me a wee more tolerable.