“An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq). As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Ironically, one thing many people “know” about this quote is that it was first uttered by Mark Twain or Will Rogers—which just ain’t so.)-David Dunning, “We are all confident idiots.” Pacific Standard. October 27, 2014.
“…it is a principal task of a successful modern university to teach people how to read [big, difficult, flawed, incredibly insightful, genius books]. Indeed, it might be said that one of the few key competencies we here at the university have to teach—our counterpart or the medieval triad of rhetoric, logic, grammar and then quadriad of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology—is how to read and absorb a theoretical argument made by a hard, worthwhile, flawed book. People need to understand what an argument is, and the only way to do that is actually go through an argument—to read the argument and try to make sense of it. People need to be able to tell the difference between an argument and an assertion. People need to be able to do more than just say whether they liked the conclusion or not: they need to be able to specify whether the argument hangs together given the premises, and where it is the premises, and where it is the premises themselves that need to be challenged. People need to learn that while you can disagree, you need to be able to specify why and how you disagree.
The first order task is to teach people how to read difficult books…Teaching them how to read difficult books will stick with them over the years. Knowing what to do with a book that makes an important, an interesting, but also a flawed argument—that is a key skill.
…we urge you to focus on the “meta” to the extent that you can: it is not so much the ability to answer the question “what does Marx think about X?” that we want you to grasp, but rather “how do I figure out what Marx thinks about X?” that is the big goal here…
We have our recommended ten-stage process for reading such big books:
1. Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.
2. Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.
3. Read through the book actively, taking notes.
4. “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
5. Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.
6. Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading.
7. Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.
8. Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?
9. Decide what you think of the whole.
10. Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.”-Brad Delong, “A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books…” Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality. December 28, 2019
Four problems that biases help us address:
Problem 1: Too much information.
Problem 2: Not enough meaning.
Problem 3: Need to act fast.
Problem 4: What should we remember?-Buster Benson, “Cognitive bias cheat sheet.” Medium.com. September 1, 2016.
Recommend reading this in its entirety, but at minimum, it is worth a click through and scroll to the bottom to see the graphic. You can also purchase a poster of the cheat sheet.
“In life, it’s usually even more complicated because in most real decisions we haven’t examined the coin. We don’t know if it is a fair coin, if it has two sides with a heads and tails on it and is weighted properly.
That’s the hidden information problem. We can’t see everything. We haven’t experienced everything. We know the facts that we know, but there may be facts that we don’t know. Then the job of the decider is to reduce the uncertainty as much as they possibly can, but to understand that they’re always working within a range and they have limited control over how things turn out on any given try.”
—Stuart Firestein, “The Resulting Fallacy Is Ruining Your Decisions.” Nautilus. Issue 55.
“Simpson’s paradox (or Simpson’s reversal, Yule–Simpson effect, amalgamation paradox, or reversal paradox), is a phenomenon in probability and statistics, in which a trend appears in several different groups of data but disappears or reverses when these groups are combined.
—s.v. Simpson’s Paradox, Wikipedia.
An example using arithmetic from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
1/5 < 2/8
6/8 < 4/5
7/13 > 6/13
Barbara Minto‘s “The Minto Pyramid Principle” is a how-to guide for writing concise reports in a management consulting firm that has been around for years. I wrote a one sheet summary of her book over a decade ago that I still sometimes find to be a useful aid for writing. While it might be overkill for most writing we do, it is still a useful reference.
First Things First, Subject/Predicate
- What is the subject you are writing about?
- What is the question you are answering in the reader’s mind about the subject?
- What is the answer?
Make It a Story
- What is a situation where the Subject/Predicate can be illustrated?
- What problems complicate the situation?
- Do the question and answer still follow?
Find The Key Line or Take-Away
- What new question is raised by the answer?
- Will you answer it, inductively or deductively?
- If you answer inductively, what is your plural noun?
- Dramatize the main idea using imagery.
- Imagine a doer – for analysis and writing.
- List all the points you want to make, then find relationships.
- Ideas at any level must always be summaries of the ideas below.
- Ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of idea.
- Ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered.
- Always try top down first.
- Use the Situation for thinking through the introduction.
- Don’t omit to think through the introduction.
- Always put historical chronology in the introduction.
- Limit the introduction to what the reader will agree is true.
- Be sure to support all key line points.
- What is the problem?
- Where does it lie?
- Why does it exist?
- What could we do about it?
- What should we do about it?
- Introductions are meant to remind not inform.
- They should contain the three story elements.
- Length of introduction depends on reader and subject.
- Never use only one element for a heading.
- Show parallel ideas in parallel form.
- Limit to the essence of thought.
- Don’t regard headings as part of the text
- Introduce each group of headings.
- Don’t overdo.
- Question the order in a grouping – time, structure, or ranking.
- Question source(s) used in the problem solving process.
- Question the summary statement.
- Question your expression.
Structures for Evaluation
- Financial structure – consider strictly financial issues.
- Task structure – focus on how work gets done.
- Activity structure – focus on what needs to happen to create problem.
- Choice structure – bifurcate choices.
- Sequential structure – combination choice and activity structure.