Standard Stories

Standard Stories

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or where you live, your life is made up of stories. We use narratives to understand ourselves and our places in the world. We imagine grand arcs for ourselves, for others, and for the planet. We create motivations for ourselves and others, impart goals to people and societies, and create meaning between events. But what does it mean for us all to live in stories?
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at one aspect of stories, the fact that they are not perfect reflections of reality. They can only include so much, and they focus on certain aspects of life over others. He writes, “the problem with standard stories, it might be argued, isn’t that they ignore trivial situational influences on human conduct but that they ignore very far from trivial structural influence.”
This quote comes within the context of Cassam discussing situationists and structuralists. Situationists argue that who we are and how we behave is in many ways influenced by the particulars of the situations we find ourselves in. In our personal narrative we may be calm, rational, and kind, but in a stressful situation we may be impulsive, cruel, and rash. Contrasting situationists are structuralists, who look at larger social and systemic factors that influence our lives. We might be cheerful, energetic, and optimistic people, but being forced into a dead-end job to earn enough to get by could crush all of those character traits. Larger structural forces can influence the situations we find ourselves in, ultimately shaping who we are and how we behave.
What Cassam is specifically highlighting in the quote is the idea that our narratives often rely too much on the particulars of given situations and ignore the larger structural systems that shape those situations. Our stories highlight individual level motivations and desires, but those are in turn situated within a larger context that becomes the background of our narratives. We focus on the individual conflicts, struggles, and arcs without recognizing how larger forces create the environments and rules within which everything else takes place. Standard stories fall short of reality and fall short of helping us understand exactly what is possible and exactly what shapes our lives because they don’t recognize structural forces. Without acknowledging those larger structural forces standard stories can’t help us understand how to change the world for better.
Moral Vices Versus Epistemic Vices

Moral Vices Versus Epistemic Vices

Before reading Vices of the Mind by Quassim Cassam I had never given vices much thought. I had not considered what made a vice a vice, why vices are so bad, and I certainly had not thought about differences between different kinds of vices. Cassam specifically looks at epistemic vices, which are vices that obstruct knowledge. He spends a lot of time at the outset of his book diving deep into all the questions about vices that I had never considered, and for the purposes of his book he differentiates moral vices versus epistemic vices.
Cassam writes, “some epistemic vices might be moral as well as epistemic failings, and be morally as well as epistemically blameworthy, but being morally blameworthy isn’t what makes them epistemic vices.”
Vices, Cassam explains, systematically lead to bad outcomes. Epistemic vices can be understood as systematically obstructing knowledge in one way or another. Moral vices, on the other hand, systematically lead to negative outcomes for an individual or society. The examples that Cassam uses to differentiate between moral vices versus epistemic vices are moral vices like cruelty and mundane epistemic vices like gullibility.
Being cruel is a moral vice. It doesn’t necessarily obstruct knowledge, but being cruel will systematically harm other people, damage relationships, and hinder human progress. Being gullible will systematically prevent someone from accurately understanding the world, but it won’t systematically harm anyone. A cruel person is likely to hurt others either physically or emotionally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to obtain knowledge and information to accurately understand the world. A gullible person may not hurt anyone, but is likely to misunderstand the world and make poor decisions based on inaccurate understandings.
Diving into the intricacies of vices and distinguishing between moral vices versus epistemic vices may feel like a tedious and unnecessary endeavor, but I think that diving into these differences is important and helpful for us. It helps us better understand how our behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits may contribute to negative outcomes in the world. Taking such a careful look at vices helps us get better at thinking about what we like and dislike in the world, and helps us better disentangle what is good, what is bad, and how we understand what leads to the positive things we like and what contributes to the negativities we wish to avoid. It is helpful to pull things apart, to study their component parts, and to see how they come back together to form a whole so that we can better understand ourselves and the contexts of the lives that we find ourselves within.
Risk literacy and Reduced Healthcare Costs - Joe Abittan

Risk Literacy & Reduced Healthcare Costs

Gerd Gigerenzer argues that risk literacy and reduced healthcare costs go together in his book Risk Savvy. By increasing risk literacy we will help both doctors and patients better understand how behaviors contribute to overall health, how screenings may or may not reveal dangerous medical conditions, and whether medications will or will not make a difference for an individual’s long-term well being. Having both doctors and patients better understand and better discuss the risks and benefits of procedures, drugs, and lifestyle changes can help us use our healthcare resources more wisely, ultimately bringing costs down.
Gigerenzer argues that much of the modern healthcare system, not just the US system but the global healthcare system, has been designed to sell more drugs and more technology. Increasing the number of people using medications, getting more doctors to order more tests with new high-tech diagnostic machines, and driving more procedures became more of a goal than actually helping to improve people’s health. Globally, health and the quality of healthcare has improved, but healthcare is often criticized as a low productivity sector, with relatively low gains in health or efficiency for the investments we make.
I don’t know that I am cynical enough to accept all of Gigerenzer’s argument at face value, but the story of opioids, the fact that we invest much larger sums of money in cancer research versus parasitic disease research, and the ubiquitous use of MRIs in our healthcare landscape do favor Gigerenzer’s argument. There hasn’t been as much focus on improving doctor and patient statistical reasoning, and we haven’t put forward the same effort and funding to remove lead from public parks compared to the funding put forward for cancer treatments. We see medicine as treating diseases after they have popped up with fancy new technologies and drugs. We don’t see medicine as improving risk and health literacy or as helping improve the environment before people get sick.
This poor vision of healthcare that we have lived with for so long, Gigerenzer goes on to argue, has blinded us to the real possibilities within healthcare. Gigerenzer writes, “calls for better health care have been usually countered by claims that this implies one of two alternatives, which nobody wants: raising taxes or rationing care. I argue that there is a third option: by promoting health literacy of doctors and patients, we can get better care for less money.”
Improving risk and health literacy means that doctors can better understand and better communicate which medications, which tests, and which procedures  are most likely to help patients. It will also help patients better understand why certain recommendations have been made and will help them push back against the feeling that they always need the newest drugs, the most cutting edge surgery, and the most expensive diagnostic screenings. Regardless of whether we raise taxes or try to ration care, we have to help people truly understand their options in new ways that incorporate tools to improve risk literacy and reduce healthcare costs. By better understanding the system, our own care, and our systemic health, we can better utilize our healthcare resources, and hopefully bring down costs by moving our spending into higher productivity healthcare spaces.
Probability is Multifaceted

Probability is Multifaceted

For five years my wife and I lived in a house that was at the base of the lee side of a small mountain range in Northern Nevada. When a storm would come through the area it would have to make it over a couple of small mountain ranges and valleys before getting to our house, and as a result we experienced less precipitation at our house than most people in the Reno/Sparks area. Now my wife and I live in a house higher up on a different mountain that is more in the direct path of storms coming from the west. We receive snow at our house while my parents and family lower in the valley barely get any wind. At both houses we have learned to adjust our expectations for precipitation relative to the probabilities reported by weather stations which reference the airport at the valley floor. Our experiences with rain and snow at our two places is a useful demonstration that probability (in this case the probability of precipitation) is multifaceted – that multiple factors  play a role in the probability of a given event at a given place and time.

 

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “Probability is not one of a kind; it was born with three faces: frequency, physical design, and degrees of belief.” Gigerenzer explains that frequency is about counting. To me, this is the most clearly understandable aspect of probability, and what we usually refer to when we discuss probability. On how many days does it usually rain in Reno each year? How frequently does a high school team from Northern Nevada win a state championship and how frequently does a team from Southern Nevada win a state championship? These types of questions simply require counting to give us a general probability of an event happening.

 

But probability is not just about counting and tallying events. Physical design plays a role as well. Our house on the lee side of a small mountain range was shielded from precipitation, so while it may have rained in the valley half a mile away, we didn’t get any precipitation. Conversely, our current home is in a position to get more precipitation than the rest of the region. In high school sports, fewer kids live in Reno/Sparks compared to the Las Vegas region, so in terms of physical design, state championships are likely to be more common for high schools in Southern Nevada. Additionally, there may be differences in the density of students at each school, meaning the North could have more schools per students than the south, also influencing the probability of a north or south school winning. Probability, Gigerenzer explains, can be impacted by the physical design of systems, potentially making the statistics and chance more complicated to understand.

 

Finally, degrees of belief play a role in how we comprehend probability. Gigerenzer states that degrees of belief include experience and personal impression which are very subjective. Trusting two eye witnesses, Gigerenzer explains, rather than two people who heard about an event from someone else can increase our perception that the probability of an unlikely story is accurate. Degrees of belief can also be seen in my experiences with rain and our two houses. I learned to discount the probability of rain at our first house and to increase my expectation of rain at our new house. If the meteorologist said there was a low chance of rain when we lived on the sheltered side of a hill, then I didn’t worry much about storm forecasts. At our new house, however, if there is a chance of precipitation and storm coming from the west, I will certainly go remove anything from the yard that I don’t want to get wet, because I believe the chance that our specific neighborhood will see rain is higher than what the meteorologist predicted.

 

Probability and how we understand it and consequentially make decisions  is complex, and Gigerenzer’s explanation of the multiple facets of probability helps us better understand the complexity. Simply tallying outcomes and predicting into the future often isn’t enough for us to truly have a good sense of the probability of a given outcome. We have to think about physical design, and we have to think about the personal experiences and subjective opinions that form the probabilities that people develop and express. Understanding probability requires that we hold a lot of information in our head at one time, something humans are not great at doing, but that we can do better when we have better strategies for understanding complexity.
Risk Literacy - Joe Abittan

Risk Literacy

In February of 2020 I finished a book called Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer. At the time I read the book, I could not predict that thinking about risk would come to dominate the remainder of the year. Throughout 2020 and into the start of 2021, humanity across the globe has demonstrated how poorly we think about and handle risk. The United States has clearly been worse than most countries, as we have failed to understand the risk of COVID-19, failed to grapple with the risk of crowds and appropriate uses of force, and failed to adequately assess the risk of a President living in a state of denial and delusion.  As Gigerenzer writes on page 6 of his book, Risk Literacy is the basic knowledge required to deal with a modern technological society,” and in many ways, the United States and the rest of humanity have shown that risk literacy is deeply lacking.

 

Gigerenzer believes that we are smart, that we are resourceful, and that with proper aids and education, we can become risk literate. Whether we recognize it or not, we already calculate risk and make decisions based on risk. Understanding risk can lead to us packing an umbrella and wearing a waterproof windbreaker when the weather station forecasts rain. We can make sound investments without understanding every aspect of an investment thanks to savings vehicles that help us better understand and calibrate risk. And we can decide to go to a movie or skip it based on aggregated reviews and ratings scores on Rotten Tomatoes.

 

At the same time, we have had trouble understanding our individual risks related to COVID-19, we have had trouble understanding the risks and benefits of wearing masks, and we have dismissed what seem like impossible possibilities until they happen to us personally, or happen in a dramatic way on tv. We are capable of making good decisions based on perceptions and understandings of risk, but at the same time, we have still shown ourselves to be risk-illiterate.

 

It is clear that moving forward societies will have to do better to become risk literate. We will have to improve our ability to communicate risk, estimate risk, and take appropriate precautions or actions. We cannot live in a world free from risk, and new technologies, ecological pressures, and sociopolitical realities will change the risk calculations that everyone will have to make. Improving our risk literacy might mean that we don’t have over 400,000 people die during future respiratory pandemics. It might mean we have robust economic systems that don’t damage the planet. And it might mean we are able to live together peacefully with global superpowers competing economically. Failure to address risk and failure to improve risk literacy could lead to disaster in any one of those areas.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Original Intent

A popular idea among many people, in regard to the Constitution of the United States is the idea of “Original Intent.” It is a concept that suggests that our constitution should be strictly followed and narrowly interpreted, that what was written and ratified in 1788 is what should still guide our government today. Historian Joseph Ellis thinks this is a troublesome view given the nature of the Constitution’s adoption and approaches of Madison who greatly influenced the shaping of the constitution.

 

In my last post, I wrote about the Constitution as a living document, designed with the intent that it would be updated and adjusted through time to meet the needs of citizens at a given point. Ellis, in his book The Quartet, continued with this view of the document and wrote,

 

“The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For judicial devotees of “originalism” or “original intent,” this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison’s “original intention” was to make all “original intentions” infinitely negotiable in the future.”

 

The Constitution has few hard and fast rules, especially when the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments are not considered. It focuses most thoroughly on the role of Congress and authorities and duties delegated to Congress. The Executive Branch is also fairly well detailed and explained, but the Judicial Branch is hardly developed in the Constitution. Broad language such as “necessary and proper” was written into the Constitution, creating  flexibility for Congress. Trying to look back at the Constitution and assume what the founding fathers waned our government and society to look like today is trivial in the eyes of Ellis. The Constitution they wrote encourages debate, argument, and new interpretation. Clinging to ideas of original intent appears counter productive, because the founders never intended for their understanding of the world to lock in specific governance rules for all time. The intent was a document which would define and separate power to allow for deliberation and debate among the branches and among the people to guide the important decisions of the nation.

 

I also believe that original intent does a disservice to the Constitution and to society by elevating the document and the founding fathers to a quasi-religious level. To assume that original intent is the most appropriate way to understand the Constitution is to assume that the document itself and the men who wrote it were somehow greater than ordinary men and that the written words of the constitution are in some sense sacrosanct and divine. Our founding fathers, the quartet detailed by Ellis in particular, no doubt achieved something remarkable with the writing and adoption of the constitution, but if you study the time and can view history through the lens of those who experienced it, you see that history was shaped by people who made mistakes just as we do today, who were counting on good luck, and who had equally cloudy judgement and foresight as today’s leaders. Just as we would assume that a law written today is not perfect and should not ever be adjusted when the situation calls for it, we should not assume that the Constitution is a document that cannot be re-imagined and re-understood as society and the world change.

Getting Team Members to Take Action

I don’t find myself in a lot of direct coaching situations today, but nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for understanding coaching relationships and knowing how to be truly effective not just as a coach, but also as someone receiving coaching. One recommendation that Bungay Stanier has in his book is for coaches to ask more questions relative to the advice they give. As a person working on a small team and as a spouse, this is something I have always been challenged by. As an employee who knows that he doesn’t quite know everything (as much as I sometimes do feel that I do), recognizing that the questions people ask me are great chances for us both to develop greater understanding is important. For the person being coached, questions are always a little terrifying. Answers from above are easy, but questions mean you have to really know your stuff and be prepared to provide a meaningful response.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends that coaches use questions to get the other person thinking and to truly get to the most important issues for a given employee. From the outside we can look at someone’s problems and assume that we know what is going on for them, but we can never truly get inside their head. Asking more questions relative to giving advice is one way to better understand what someone is dealing with. One way to get more questions into your coaching conversation is to give the person you are working with a chance to answer both your questions and also their own questions before you chime in.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends the following approach as a coach when someone asks you a question, “Say, ‘That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?'”

 

This strategy provides an insight into the thoughts and approaches of the other person. It reveals their general approach to a given situation and helps you understand where their thinking breaks down. The response gives you a chance to give examples and to focus on what the other person is actually looking at and thinking about, whereas giving advice without this question just shows what you think about a problem without understanding it from the point of view of who you are working with. You won’t be able to address the person’s questions if you don’t know how they are understanding and interpreting the situation they are in. Asking what their thoughts are and what their approach would be in a given situation reveals how you can be the most effective as a coach.

 

As an employee, I try to remember this and bring this into my own 1-on-1’s with my manger. I know that I can shed light into my thought process and outline what approaches to problems and situations seem reasonable to me. Rather than expecting an answer from my manager, I can better explain my challenges and how I have thought about approaching a situation to elicit better guidance. It is not easy on either side, as the coach or the team member, but it is necessary to actually drive improvement for both of us and our team.

Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.