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We Know Far Less than We Think—And That’s OK
The Trouble with Not Knowing We’re Ignorant. Reviewing Michael Blastland’s ‘The Hidden Half.’
Let’s start with a ridiculously big number: 10 to the 78th power, otherwise known as one quinvigintillion. That’s how many atoms there are in the universe, give or take. And we should probably give because the upper range of estimates is higher still: 10 to the 82nd power, or ten sexvigintillion.
But here’s the kicker. These guys aren’t layabouts. All those atoms are busy, talking with each other, getting together, falling apart, recombining, and generally existing in nonstop, dancing interplay. That means our ridiculously big number is truly tiny compared to the impossibly large number of potential interactions between all those atoms.
“The universe,” said poet Muriel Ruykeyer, “is made of stories, not of atoms.” But, of course, all those jostling, bouncing atoms contain unique information in their particular configurations and relationships. We expect different things from Maseratis, maize, and monsoons. All those atoms are spinning stories of their own, and the resultant library is practically infinite.
The minute we try to bring it all down to earth, it can blow our minds back to outer space. Take a simple game of chess. Between all the pieces there are about ten duodecillion possible legal moves (10 to the 40th power) and at least one sextrigintillion (10 to the 111th power) if you toss illegal but stilll possible moves into the count.
Just think: All that possibility hiding in just 64 squares and 32 pieces. What are we to make of more complex entities and interactions? Businesses, bureaucracies, marriages, cities, families, labor markets, economic policies, climate dynamics, the network of neurons that form our very own consciousness?
Thankfully, those are easy!
At least we like to think so. Consider all the tips and solutions deluging your Facebook timeline, podcast downloads, magazines, and news shows.
Then again, if all that advice really worked, the world would be free of surprises, embarrassments, drama, adventures, failures, reversals, and everything else that lends challenge, excitement, learning, and texture to life.
This is a good news–bad news situation for us all.
First, the Bad News
We live in a world of unknowns, says journalist Michael Blastland, and that’s okay. At least, as he argues in his book, The Hidden Half, it’s better to recognize the limits of our understanding than to bumble along, assuming we know more than we do.
The Hidden Half presents three main ideas:
We know less than we think
Illusions of knowledge bedevil us
We don’t require complete knowledge to thrive
Why do we think more than we do? Blastland offers several helpful answers to that question, full of fascinating stories and case studies. But they mostly come down to one primary factor: We trick ourselves into believing similarity is the same as predictability. “We all have evidence to justify what we do today,“ he says. “We find it—where else—in what we learned yesterday.”
There’s a neurological basis for this. See, for instance, Beau Lotto’s book Deviate (2017) or György Buzsáki’s The Brain from Inside Out (2019).
Blastland demonstrates the point by looking at several relationships where we fall for the similarity-equals-predictability trap. We assume, for instance,
what worked once should work again
what worked there should work here
what worked for Bill should work for Ben
what’s true of small systems should be true of large systems
what’s true in one case should generalize to all cases
But it turns out every extrapolation is a gamble, and there’s more dissimilarity at play than we recognize. Just think of all those chess moves. In the infinite variability of life, we cannot know all the possible interactions between known factors, let alone all the unknown factors.
Situations sometimes only seem the same. There is a hidden half that affects the whole. Thankfully, we manage well enough, regardless. But not always. Blastland offers case after case of this dynamic negatively affecting medicine, public policy, economics, business, personal psychology, and more. “Even if we think we know 99% of what’s important,” he says, “we can be 100% wrong about how it turns out.”
“You can do everything right,” he explains, “or at least as right as can be done in one context, and still things go wrong because the context changes.”
Surely science can solve this, right? We can amass data, run studies. Nope: “The world changes the evidence it shows us, depending on how we look at it.” Hence the ongoing replication crisis.
Even our own thoughts and mental makeup are subject to surprising variability. Part of this comes down to the simple challenge of sizing up the world around us. “The world is, quite simply, too complicated, too big, too messy, to frame in one go.” Instead, we observe it in “contradictory fragments” that we either try to reconcile with varying degrees of success or simply forget or ignore.
“We are not ourselves alone,” Blastland says. “We are also unavoidably how we interact—and interaction brings a world of enigmatic variation.” Who we are in one context differs from another, according to who we’re with, what we’re doing, what we want, and so on. All doubts on the point should be squelched the minute we survey our own biographies and their surprising turns.
“Freakish serendipity could be a motto for every person alive,” Blastland says: “without it none of us would be here.” And that’s the good news.
The Good News!
Is “everything so fickle that nothing can be done”? No. “I reject that view utterly,” says Blastland. Instead of futility or despair, Blastland says we should see “the hidden half of enigmatic variation as a positive force for disruption.” After all, there are a lot of winning moves in all those potential chess positions.
If similarity doesn’t equal prediction, that means there is more possibility in the world than appearances might indicate. All those plans and patterns and predictions can imprison us. Meanwhile, says Blastland, “uncertainty can be freedom.”
Blastland offers a dozen rules for navigating this uneven earth. I’ll list a slightly modified and abbreviated version of his rubrics here; you can get the full list and details in the book.
Experiment and adapt. “Offer up our ideas to life, acknowledging our ignorance, and wait for it to give us a verdict, to ‘talk back.’ . . . If it works, carry on. If it doesn’t, stop.” Remember, he says, that a bet is a bet, not a sure thing.
Resist the urge to conclude. It’s okay to not have all—or even most—of the answers. Hasty and false conclusions are simply ignorance dressed up like knowledge. Better to know the emperor’s naked.
Deal with uncertainty. This goes for all spheres. Psychologically, of course. But also how we govern, manage, and communicate regarding uncertainty. Half the difficulty and all the crazy caused by the coronavirus pandemic springs from our inability to deal with not knowing.
Remember that probabilities are not knowledge. They are bets. And it’s unwise to bet the farm unless you have to.
When you’re stuck, change the metaphors. We think by way of analogy. It’s why similarity feels like predictability. So, if x = y isn’t working for you right now, try z or a, b, or c.
Let exceptions to the rules challenge the rules, especially if the rules aren’t working well.
Let me add another that flows naturally from the above: Accept that all knowledge is provisional. Everything we know is formulated and applied in contexts that continually change. Yes, there are settled facts. But how we relate and what we do with those facts are subject to change. And if we’re learning and growing, our understanding expands and deepens—even concerning categories we regard as fundamentally fixed.
But don’t sweat it. Blastland’s final bit of advice is to relax. Remembering that we cannot know all the chess moves should make the game more fun, not less. Will we lose in ways we never could anticipate? Yes. Will we also win in ways just as surprising? Yes.
If we try forcing the world to conform to our expectations, it won’t. If we try navigating the uncertainty, testing and changing our assumptions as we go, we’re far more likely to enjoy the journey and reach the ends we desire—and often ends better than those we originally imagined.
5 Quotes from The Hidden Half
“When we make up our minds, we are doing exactly that: making up our minds, inventing and improvising.”
“Every unforeseen or unintended consequence is the revelation of another fracture in our understanding.”
“Those who do learn the lessons of history—or think they do—are condemned to play poker with the present.”
“Uncertainty about what to do leaves us feeling vulnerable. But we always were; we just weren’t told.”
“We furnish the mind with illusions of knowledge partly because we cannot bear to leave it empty.”
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