Thursday, December 18, 2008

Whoever killed the Dinosaurs, please stand up.

So it turns out that, perhaps, Dinosaurs were felled not by a gigantic asteroid, but by tons of sulfur polluting the atmosphere. Think of the smell!

Whichever theory will prove true remains to be seen, but we see this again and again: sufficient evidence over sufficient time leads us to a worldview which feels more and more like fact. Facts that we make decisions on. Facts that that lend concreteness to our lives.

How many arguments have been made for asteroid research and defense techniques that cite the extinction of dinasaurs?  Many. If Volcanoes turn out to be the true culprit, do we know which policies or government programs should be revisited to see if they are still valid?

Yet we do this all of the time -- it is a technique we use to order the world around us. The key is recognizing it. Alfred Whitehead's called this a Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness - the mental mistakes we make when we treat an assumption or a working theory as something concrete, or solid. We hear it enough that it becomes part of the furniture of our lives, something we rely on to always be there. I still tell my children that there are 9 planets, forgetting that happy Pluto is now a planet-like object.

The news today is full of examples of the failures of misplaced concreteness - Madoff's hedge fund ponzi scheme, were that was where smart money went for good, safe returns. Greenspan conceding a flaw in his "intellectual edifice" formed policy for decades, assuming that, for example, housing prices would not go down. Turn the page of any newspaper and you'll find another.

Everyday we push our own policies and agendas based on our own worldview, which amounts to a set of assumptions that we've accumulated over time. There is no other way to work. But if we recognize that we do this, do we take the next logical step, and revisit our old decisions based on the new information that is constantly coming in? Usually, no.

This is not just out of neglect or stupidity - it is as much a result of how we work and the volume of decisions.  We are on to the next battle, the next crisis.  The only way to efficiently revisit our decisions would be if there was an easy way to record them. We need a simple way to record these assumptions, these "facts," and how they inform our logic, and a simple way to revisit our logic when they change.

Well, I'd better go get a notepad...

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