Sharp Mental Models
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I am still in India and squeezing time here and there to think and write this week’s post. Today I want to share a few mental models that all seem to share a penchant for sharpness. In particular, I have a few razors below. A razor is a tool that can be used to shave off and eliminate many arguments/theories.
When multiple theories attempt to explain an observation, it is prudent to go with the simplest one. Occam’s Razor states, “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate” which translates as “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” In simpler terms, this means that the simplest explanation is often the best explanation.
Suppose my flight is delayed, and I am at the gate. Perhaps the gate attendant seems to be on edge. I may be tempted to think there is a major problem with the aircraft and that these guys are hiding it from the passengers. Or the other explanation is that the delay is mundane (e.g. refueling), and the attendant is tired.
Not only is this useful in day-to-day life, but this also has applications in science. In computer science, for example, this directly translates to preferring models that have fewer parameters. In fact, when fitting a curve, we try to penalize the algorithm from using several parameters.
Simplicity doesn’t naturally come to us. We all are victims of the narrative fallacy, wherein we like to construct stories to explain what we see and have a liking for colorful stories. The stories themselves might be simple but may not be the simplest explanation.
Hanlon’s Razor states that “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” If your friend doesn’t respond for two days, they are likely not avoiding you but just forgot to reply—stupid friend, not a bad friend.
It states that it is not worth debating if you cannot verify something by experimentation or observation. I should follow this sometimes (but not always since some debates are fun to engage in)!
Many of us are familiar with double-edged swords. While our phones are instrumental in getting us the information we need right when we need them, they are also addictive and cause developmental issues in children and teens. A lot of the double-edged swords seem to be dependent on the dosage: useful in limited quantities but poisonous in larger quantities. There is no such thing as too much of a good thing.
When our predecessors invented agriculture, they also needed to create a way for people to cooperate and obey orders. God and other myths were thus born, of which religion has stuck with us till this day. Humans have invented many other myths (e.g., the concept of a country or a company), which helps them cooperate in different ways. Read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari to understand more about this and about the choice of the term “myth.”
Religion has been useful in getting people together and cooperating. But at the same time, it can cut in sharp ways, quite literally. People kill each other in the name of religion. In India, religion has a major presence everywhere and an important part of many people’s lives. But sometimes people die in stampede during festivities (this happened just recently), or roads are blocked for processions. When I was young, I remember loudspeakers blaring religious songs late into the night, making studying much harder.
Politics is pivotal to bringing order and prosperity when used correctly. But it seems to invariably degenerate into what we colloquially call politics: backstabbing, scheming, bickering, and Machiavellianism. Again, in India, you will see politics plastered everywhere in the form. People outdo each other by giving away free things, only before elections.
Growth and the economy
The name of the game for the economy to keep buzzing is growth. And growth doesn't come without impact on the ecology. At the current rate, we are headed towards a certain ecological collapse. I can't solve this for you, but what I want to point out is that without our current growth, we wouldn't be having such comfortable lives (compared to our ancestors), but the same growth will lead to irreversible damage.
So what are some other examples of double-edged swords that you face?