Friday, September 9, 2011

On Whiskey and Scorpions

Practical fallacies and the virtue of practical thinking.

There’s a ton of content out there on logical fallacies—the concept of logical fallacy has definitely entered into the network of “pop sci” content outlets (Boing Boing, Wired, Radiolab, Malcolm Gladwell, TED, etc). The idea being, I think, that if you can rid humanity of logically improper thinking, you can get right to the business of landing on Mars, ending poverty and disease, and/or finally cancelling “The Bachelorette”.

 I applaud this effort, even though I was recently caught using the phrase “begging the question” terribly wrong. Stamping out the Lake Wobegon Effect or “If-By-Whiskey” is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor, but I do have one concern (without being a concern troll): logic only gets you halfway to the door.

This guy is doing his part to stamp out "If-By-Whiskey"
Here’s an example: there’s an infamous game theory puzzle called the Two Envelopes Problem. In it, a participant is given two identical envelopes, one containing X amount of money, and the other containing twice that. This hypothetical participant takes one envelope, but before opening is, she’s given an opportunity to exchange the envelopes. When she gets that envelope, she’s given the opportunity to exchange the envelopes, and so on.

The trick here is that the math says you’re always better off to switch envelopes (much like in the Monty Hall Problem, you’re better off to switch doors). Unfortunately, the math doesn’t take into consideration that you don’t have all eternity, dang it, and $X is better than $0 (for positive values of X, of course). “Wait, wait,” you’re saying, “this is game theory! If the math doesn’t reveal the most logical course of action, there’s something wrong with the math, not with logical thinking on the whole!”

And you’d be right. But, as of right now, the math isn’t there. It hasn’t been corrected fully, so it can’t be used. So you’re stuck there shuffling envelopes indefinitely until you make an illogical, but practical, solution (though I would switch envelopes at least twice, in case the weight of the money is a giveaway). Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the world still shuffling envelopes. I see three big ways this happens, and I'll talk about one right now:

Forgetting Why. The TED-friendly marketing dude Simon Sinek has a whole talk on “Starting with Why”, and the tl;dr version is this: “People won’t buy your product, they’ll buy your vision.” And that’s awesome, but the “why” I’m talking about is more like the “why” in “Why do scorpions have poisonous stingers?” or “Why does my car have bags of air that inflate when I crash?” and less like “Why does Apple make cool gadgets?” Forgetting Why is forgetting that scorpions can't choose not to have stingers.

A classic example of Forgetting Why stems from Malcolm Gladwell’s recent appearance on the Radiolab episode “Games”. Jad and Robert were talking about a study that showed that 4 out of 5 people root for the underdog in any given, unbiased scenario. Gladwell, apparently did not, and briefly mentioned his sadness when the expected winner fails in an athletic contest. In doing so, he illustrates just what I mean by “forgetting why”.

You see, the “purpose” of a tournament isn’t to identify the strongest team. If that goal were more important than all others, we could simply have a committee do some math to the field of teams after a long season and we’d have a verifiable winner without all the madness. But the reason we have an NCAA basketball tournament is because it’s entertaining, and entertainment has a market value. The reason March Madness exists is not to tell us who's the best—it's to make lots and lots of money.

Conflating the perceived “purpose” of a thing with its function is a problem, because it can have the logical conclusion of a stung child telling the scorpion to get rid of that stupid stinger. We've all seen people who are obsessed with a cause that they cannot possibly effectively champion. Many of them are Forgetting Why, assuming that someone, somewhere, is making life unfair by his or her choice, and if he or she would only choose otherwise, a massive problem would be solved.

In other words, if you can’t assume that products of evolutionary systems control their existence. Like scorpions, or basketball tournaments, or cultures, or economies. Next up: Forgetting How.

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