Chartism & Skepticism

Chartism: …Policymakers fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro-chart and anti-chart. Pro-chartists think that data can explain the world, and the more we have the better. But anti-chartists think that relentless data accumulation is misguided because it offers false certainty and misses the big picture interpretation. As the saying goes: “More fiction is written in Excel than Word.”

-David Perell, “Friday Finds (1/29/[21 sic])” Friday Finds. January 29, 2021.

David Perell references Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism as the origin of this idea. It’s interesting, but I think it is largely a false dichotomy. Obviously, data can help explain the world and help us to make better decisions. However, equally obviously, Sturgeon’s Law applies to data, just as it does to anything else, and a lot of data is crap. Or, it is worse than crap because it gives us confidence in ideas, decisions, etc. that we should not be confident in. However, there is a solution to this problem: philosophical skepticism.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds in that Stanford article of belief, justification, and so forth about skepticism. But, the main idea is that everything you know could be wrong. On one level, none of us knows enough to be completely wrong about anything. On another, you could say that we aren’t even wrong because we don’t even know what the basic framework of being right should be. It’s a bit confusing, but skepticism is easier to understand if you tackle it using a specific problem: the problem of induction, which was originally formulated by David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature in 1739 .

At base, the problem of induction is that our past experiences aren’t really predictive and don’t constitute knowledge. Take an easy example: will the sun rise tomorrow? It has risen all the previous days for billions of years, so it seems we could say that we know it will rise tomorrow too. However, we just know history. Something could change tomorrow. There could be some detail about stars that would make tomorrow’s reality different from our expectation.

In terms of Chartism, we have a lot of data points about the sun’s daily rising. We’ve been able to predict, successfully, the sun’s rise in the past. We may even have some ideas about star formation and other details that would inform our expectations. But do we know that the sun is going to rise tomorrow? No, we don’t.

And once you are willing to question the sun’s rise, you’re on your way. Everything is up for grabs. You can still go about your day thinking certain things will happen. But, you also know that there’s uncertainty there that you were not aware of before. It is one of the principle problems of humanity that we believe that we know things that we don’t. With skepticism, we introduce a little intellectual humility, a quality that never hurt anyone.

It is the Worry That Made the Work Good

“To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naive faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s skepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? with one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other.

The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and skeptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.”

—Paul Graham. “Being Popular.” paulgraham.com. May 2001.

Optimism that a solution to whatever problem you are tackling can be solved, and skepticism in whatever solution you’ve managed to find or create, thus far, is perhaps one of the great lessons of how to approach life.