Managing ignorance

The best way and the most usual1 way of managing ignorance2 may be understanding the limits of your knowledge and solving them. We may do this in a number of ways. They will normally be in one of two groups:

  1. Someone knows the answer: ask them, read their books, attend their lessons, etc.
  2. No one knows the answer: then you have to do research, according to some methodology. Empirical research may be the most common and usually includes collecting data, defining hypotheses, and validating or rejecting them.

That is assuming that we want to solve our ignorance, and we may solve our ignorance. Alternatively:

  1. Some decisions may be postponed until the answer presents itself, and they are best postponed.3
  2. Some decisions may not be postponed, not even enough to solve our ignorance. Then we have to manage it.

The preamble is important for the first take home message: If you do not have to manage your ignorance, do not do it. Either because you may solve your ignorance, or because you may postpone your decisions until it solves itself. You are better off with any of those options, when they are actual options.

When the decision is urgent and necessary, the focus should be on not doing anything stupid, surviving, and continuing “in the game”.4

As long as we are “in the game”, we have a chance to solve our ignorance, or let the situation resolve itself.

“In order to succeed, you must first survive.” — Warren Buffet

The usual approach in education is answering the questions with the known answers, according to the model that is being studied. That leads to unnecessary exposure to risk, when a risk is new and the model does not account for it. That exposure to a risk is a problem when its downside is unbounded, or it is a existential risk.

The right approach to take when something is unknown is acknowledging your ignorance and erring on the side of caution. That is not what happened in the pandemic because of the incentives:

  1. For experts, to not acknowledge their ignorance, as they would no longer be experts, which is a existential risk for their status. Similarly, apply available models, even if proven outdated or against common sense, to shift the blame on them.5
  2. For politicians, err on the side of inaction. They will be held accountable for their actions, and they may always blame the virus for any result. Misinterpreting the advice of the experts to err on the side of inaction and shift any remaining blame on the experts is a suitable layered approach (Swiss cheese model).6

We know that some things are impossible to know. Ignorance is unavoidable. But everybody should be aware of when they are out of their own depth, and have a contingency plan to deal with that. That plan needs to be based on not doing anything stupid, with the purpose of surviving, and staying in the game.

Summary diagram

1

This might be wishful thinking. The most usual way of managing ignorance may be meta-ignorance. But let us ignore that.

2

With “ignorance” I refer to incomplete information, partial information, asymmetric information, and analogously to knowledge (incomplete, missing, partial, etc.) It is a glass half-empty or half-full kind of situation, and a very prevalent one at that.

3

See the LEAN principle “decide as late as possible”.

4

See also:

  1. Farnam street — avoiding stupidity: [1], [2], [3]
  2. Finite and infinite games
  3. Nassim Nicholas Taleb — The Logic of Risk Taking. Also this, and the links in it:
  1. Learning in Public — Sav Sidorov
  2. TLDR: Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Pandemic
  3. This is a summary of the most recent EconTalk episode, ‘Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Pandemic’. Well worth the listen. The relevant papers discussed in the episode: ‘Systemic Risk of Pandemic via Novel Pathogens — Coronavirus: A Note’ — Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Nassim Nicholas Taleb…
  4. Read more
  5. 2 years ago · 9 likes · 3 comments · Sav Sidorov

5

See also: Nassim Nicholas Taleb — Intellectuals yet idiots.

6

The case of the politicians is more complex. The disruption of the healthcare system is a problem, and to a good extent their responsibility, especially for public healthcare. As a consequence, “zero COVID” was never “possible”, but “flattening the curve” was “necessary” (to not exceed the ICU capacity, if possible).

Again, the point is the incentives, and what they may be held accountable for, or get away with. The pandemic is a great example of the relevance of managing ignorance, much more could be written about it, but shorter is better.

Cross-posted from the Sigmoid newsletter

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trylks

trylks

I write to have links to point at when discussing something (DRY). Topics around computers, AI, and cybernetics, i.e. anything.