and some change

Overconfidence and Communication

Today I turned in the paperwork for my job! Hopefully I’ll start soon.

Something that’s been bugging me for awhile about the communities around the hard sciences and tech fields is that very frequently, you’ll encounter people who are dead certain that their opinions are absolutely correct and that anybody who disagrees with them is not only incorrect, but also flawed as a human being for disagreeing with them. You see this all the time in software development - I’m sure you’ve met someone who would snicker at anyone who was running a non-Linux OS, or using PHP, or not camel-casing their variable names. Not that this is necessarily limited to software development: I’ve worked with people who were very vocal about the worthlessness of the social sciences relative to “harder” sciences, or the existence of a deity. It can be painful to try to talk reasonably with these people to get things done, since for many of these people there’s absolutely no room for compromise - their way is the One True Path and anything else is absolutely inferior and incorrect.

“Half of what we’re going to teach you is wrong - the problem is, we don’t know which half.” - Popular medical school teaching

Fundamentally, I think the issue at hand here is that people feel the need to be confident about their choices in life. We’re all taught from birth that confidence is something to be pursued and desired, and while growing up our role models constantly project an image of self-confidence and certainty. And this makes sense - as a parent, you instinctively don’t want your kids to grow up doubting and questioning themselves at every turn. That doesn’t sound like a great way to live, and if they’re ever going to be anyone of importance, it makes sense that they need to be able to convince people to follow and trust in them.

To admit even the possibility of different-but-equally-reasonable viewpoints on a topic nowadays is to fatally handicap your arguments; after all, if everyone was constantly consciously-aware of the fact that we really know very little about the things that really matter (e.g. whether or not God exists, what “best practices” really are in software development), everyone would start to more critically-assess arguments made by previously-considered authorities! It would be much more difficult for people to attract a following, where previously mere force of rhetoric was considered sufficient to attract an audience. And the truth that we really don’t know about the most important things is scary! Nobody likes dealing with uncertainty, but simply masking the truth is doing everyone a disservice, yourself included.

As a result, we’re becoming more and more “confident” - even when people disagree over something, each side is insisting all the more strongly that they are absolutely correct. But this comes off as the wrong approach to me, especially today where the problems we’re pursuing are much more complex in nature. In a society where the best representation of physical reality we’ve got is quantum physics (which continues to humble me in its complexity), I don’t think we can really afford to let the state of our public discourse degenerate so far. To do so is to simultaneously shut the door on further improvements in human communication, a field that is becoming all the more important in our more highly-interconnected society, and also resign ourselves to an increasing disconnect between the universe and our conceptions of it.

This is not to say that all confidence is unwarranted - I’d say that we understand the physical universe much better than we did a millennium ago, so to say that we understand quite a bit about how the universe works is perfectly realistic. To take Richard Dawkins’s stance on theology and actively disbelieve in a divine creator based on irrelevant scientific knowledge, however, is overconfident and arrogant, and encouraging people to behave in this way is incredibly destructive to the actual pursuit of knowledge, theological and scientific. Similarly, to shut down a startup proposal because “no one would be using it in 10 years when everyone has a free Android smartphone” is deeply misguided on many levels, not the least of which is assuming anything about the state of technology 10 years from now. If you want to have a productive conversation with someone and come away with more than just a superficial feeling of dominance, you’ve got to actively be aware of the limits of your knowledge and expertise and communicate that to your partner.

So to this end, I want to make it clear that anytime you see me being arrogant or overconfident, please call me out on it! I’m flawed in this regard, just like everyone else, but I’ve been trying to change myself for the better and I hope you’ll help me along that path.

Harvard is hosting a workshop on computational social science - If I were in the neighborhood, I’d totally sign up for this. I’ve toyed around with Gephi and made some decent-looking network visualizations before, but I’ve been dying to learn from professionals.

Opinions Netflix has formed about me during my 3.2 years as a customer - Some of this is pretty misguided, but it’s a good reminder that small datasets have very limited predictive power.

Ezra Klein interviews Paul Krugman - The most interesting part of this to me is Krugman’s response to how the Greek debt crisis would look in a country that has full control over its currency. It really underscores how much of this problem is really a matter of incredibly-hazy human perceptions of how likely it is that a government will remain committed to currency stability. I can see why Bernanke is so very committed to the inflation half of the Fed’s dual mandate.