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Seek value, not authority
For thousands of years, common knowledge was created by a process I like to call the certainty-industrial complex —
an Authority establishes a certainty, and
enforces agreement with this certainty via threats of social or physical violence — reputational attacks, sending to gulag, excommunication (aka “deplatforming”), etc.
We’ve inherited this model from the past — a world without the entire world’s knowledge in everyone’s pocket — and are still largely subject to it.
There are many problems with the certainty-industrial complex, but there’s one problem in particular we’re tripping over right now: certainty is one of the most relentlessly nonexistent things in the universe.
Step 1, Establish Certainty — the premise on which the entire model is based — is literally impossible.
The works of Wittgenstein (Language games in philosophy), Godel (Incompleteness theorem in mathematics), and Heisenberg (uncertainty principle in physics) reveal that the more one examines the most fundamental premises of any field, the less certainty can be justified.
Therefore, it’s difficult to establish certainty without a lot of lying. The impossibility of certainty necessitates the use of social or physical violence to coerce public agreement (consensus), because some form of dissent will virtually always be justified. The certainty-industrial complex therefore requires suppression of justified dissent — i.e., truth — in order to function.
Let’s look at its basic pieces again:
Enforce via suppression of dissent/punishment of dissenters
The first is impossible. The second is immoral.
The process we’ve inherited from our ancestors for establishing common knowledge, is both impossible and immoral.
It was the best we could do at the time, and it got us here, so I’m not saying “every authority has been downright evil throughout all time.”
But in the internet age, when every person has the power to do their own research, the certainty-industrial complex simply will not work anymore. Its shortcomings are irreparably apparent, and we have the technology to improve upon them.
But we still tend to expect our information problems to be solved by an authority, using enforcement: “silencing dis/misinformation” and “changing the algorithm to promote fewer conspiracy theories,” for example. This is just more certainty-industrial complex in modern clothing, and also will not work anymore.
I expect the real solution will come from a shift away from creating and enforcing certainty — which is both impossible and immoral — and toward responsible management of uncertainty, which is both possible and moral.
Taleb once wrote, “Rationality is risk management.” That notion might have more legs than even he expected.
We already have systems for managing uncertainty that are well-tested, well-trusted, and extremely authoritative: markets. This is the basis for my epistemic infrastructure crypto startup, Ideamarket. Ideamarket aims to turn rationality into risk management, literally, and at population-scale.
But infrastructure aside, the notion of “rationality is risk management” is a metaphor shift we can practice in our personal lives, and it’s one of the central themes of my writing on epistemology. The notion of psycho-economics I’ve been writing about is an allusion to this, as we’re constantly deciding where to invest our trust, and which psychological and social risks are worth taking for the sake of the truth.
The personal form of the shift away from “certainty” and toward “risk-management” might look like this: Seek value, not authority.
Typically, when we look for information about something important, we look for authority.
What does the New York Times say?
What does the CDC say?
Seeking authority has major psycho-economic benefits:
Authorities tell us which beliefs will be socially acceptable and minimize social risk. You can always talk about what the New York Times says at the family dinner table or at work.
Authorities relieve us of personal responsibility for being wrong. There’s always a built-in implication that “It’s not my fault if I was wrong — after all, the New York Times said it.”
These psycho-economic benefits help maintain the authority of authorities — people keep trusting them because they value these psychological and social benefits more than they value being right.
But if you value being right, then seeking authority and all its comforts is not the best strategy.
Instead, think like a risk-manager: seek value. More specifically, seek what’s undervalued.
Constantly ask yourself:
What information is undervalued on this topic?
What’s the most undervalued information on this topic?
What’s the one thing about this topic which, if everyone knew, would have the greatest effect?
These questions help iterate our understanding of large and complex problems, and find the fulcrums on which they most truly rest.
One of my mentors once said, “You can stop a train with one finger if you know where the right button is.”
Seeking value is how you find the buttons of the world — the little places where, if you press a little, complexity goes away and elegant solutions emerge. You find answers to questions like, “What do I need to know, that eliminates the need to know the most other things?”
You become free from the endless onslaught of headlines, because they don’t matter until they start talking about the one little button you noticed 5 months ago. You can be tactically ignorant, yet superbly informed — you can be right without knowing anything.