Friday, August 10, 2012

The importance of what you don’t know

As I’ve finished my Master course (waiting for the diploma until December) I found myself with some free time; so I ended doing some random reading all around the internet.

Eventually, as my topics of interest have spread wider, I started to look for randomness and Murphy law texts, looking for statements for a possible, yet not probable book I’ll write as I’ve been told to place some of the odds ramblings on paper.

I ended with Nassim Taleb topics... Black Swan events.

I’ve just started reading the book; however, I have to say this thing has started to make me have flashbacks,

Back on college (electrical engineering program) one of my dear professors, Martin Issac Donderis (RIP) was trying to make us think out of the box and have a deeper understanding of stuff. I’ll never forget his following statement (translated from Spanish so may not make much sense and sound funny):

I am awarethat I know;
I am aware that you don’t know.
You have no idea that you don’t know... even if you think you know.

at the end of this course, you’ll be fully aware that you don’t know and at least you’ll be able to see that nobody knows shit.

Funny enough, this guy was a Civil engineer and he were teaching us statics... go figure!

Anyway, randomness, uncertainty and Murphy have always called my attention; and the funny thing is that there is somehow no documentation that gather enough knowledge about all tree.... specially on a practical matter (think about uncertainty on project management for example).

This “Black Swan” thing is interesting because as far as I’m understanding, Taleb point is that “whatever you don’t know” is in fact far more relevant of what you do know. We learned (engineers, scientist etc.) about the “central limit theorem” where the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent random variables, each with finite mean and variance, will be normally distributed....

… and since it works (think about quality control procedures) we have been conditioned to ignore the long tail of the gaussian curve and focus on the mean and standard deviation... the apex.

Theoretical Physicist have change the concept of causality with quantum mechanics some years ago; and there has been enough debate about how these dynamics doesn’t explain our world until recently with M theory, which stick with the wild randomness of quantum mechanics on all levels of existence (M theory defines 11 dimensions for reality). So, the structured world where the cause-effect that the “common homo sapiens” claim to understand is just a small little piece of a much more complicated reality where randomness and uncertainty define alternate universes and endless possibilities and chaotic dynamics.

The problem of uncertainty:

I’ve learn thru my education that the human mind have a structured procedure to learn and deal with knowledge and conclusions. Let’s ilustrate that with an example:

All germans are black
All black are ugly...

conclusion: all germans are ugly.

This is the basic formal structure of our thinking. The premises I’m using as initial statements are, by any standard absurd. However, what if you know nothing about ugliness or germans¿?

It is the knowledge or the judgment elements that make us able to determine that it is just bullshit; however, the conclusion is correct. In other words, if you where dumb enough to believe that all germans are black you’ll end “knowing” that all germans are ugly.

The evolution of the human mind have follow a path of not appreciating introspective thinking; and also, not questioning everything.

On a biological level, thinking need huge energy resources and is in fact, time consuming. We as a species started to think on an eyelash in terms of evolutionary time, and back on those days, I am sure we used our brain on subjects too peripheral to matter; like avoiding to be eaten.
Evidence shows that we do much less thinking than we believe we do; except of course, when we think about it.

So we have learn to focus our thinking resources on a very narrow field of what matter to us; and every time we found a problem that seem impossible to understand, we attribute it to god will and lived happy with that dumb ass explanation.

1 comment:

  1. I'll share a quote from a book I really enjoyed:
    "Looking back on it all, you might assume that what you thought you didn't know was the secret.
    That once you got that knowledge, once you learned that one thing you knew that you didn't know yet, then you walked... then you rode your bike."
    "But if you think back very carefully, you'll discover that the secret to walking and the secret to riding did not come from what you knew - and it did not come from what you thought you didn't know, either.
    That special secret lived somewhere in a vast expanse of unexplored knowledge - what I've learned to call what you don't know that you don't know."
    -John Milton Fogg

    Once you learn statistics, the appeal to the engineer mind or the otherwise mathematically inclined is undeniable. The ever-powerful mean that allows you to neatly categorize and determine what can make the curve move to the left and what can make it move to the right, you just find the right set of parameters and conditions and you are able to work the magic of the project managing God, moving masses at your whim.

    What I discovered later is that sometimes what you should really be doing is creating a new curve or then again, maybe even a circle. Your departed professor probably intended to share with you that he too came to this discovery, the hubris of thinking that the men of science were fools for thinking that the World was flat will be the same when the men of science in the future wonder why the heck we didn't figure out quantum mechanics earlier.

    I'd throw this wrench in and say, 6000 years is possibly too small a time sample to determine black swans or outliers or random events. It may very well be that there is a well defined pattern we would need the benefit of time to zoom out to see.

    In any case, disruptive innovation, the real game changers are based free floating creativity, imagination, what if. The known in many cases would be a very poor precursor.

    Good topic my friend