< Go Back

Bumper Sticker Thinking

Bumper Sticker Thinking

    Perhaps you are familiar with this famous quote:

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

    The idea here is that patterns in history repeat. That might be true. Or it might be false. I have no idea. But I’ll tell you one thing I know with 100% certainty: 

    People see patterns where there are none.

    Oh, and people also fail to see patterns when they exist.

    I don’t know whether or not historical patterns repeat themselves. All I know for sure is that the stuff we think are important patterns are mostly confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. We see the patterns we want to see.

    Don’t believe me? How about an example.

    On Twitter, people have been hammering me over the fact that Clinton has higher poll numbers than Trump in a general election matchup. Therefore, say the helpful strangers on Twitter, Clinton will probably win, because polls usually do a good job of predicting the future. People believe polls have predicted well in the past – albeit imperfectly – and we should expect them to predict fairly well in the future. History repeats itself, right?

    But here’s the thing. I have publicly and accurately predicted Trump’s rise since last summer. And I ignored polls to do it. Doesn’t my track record count as history that will repeat itself?

    If polls say Trump will lose, and I say Trump will win, you have two histories that predict opposite outcomes. Which one do you pick?

    Answer: The one that agrees with your existing opinion.

    Looking at history is bullshit if you don’t know which part of history matters. And you don’t. Because people are dumb like that.

    Here’s another name for historical patterns: Analogies.

    Analogies are not a useful component of reason in the way most people believe they are. Just because something reminds you of something does not mean there is causation. Analogies are not about causation. Analogies are great tools for explaining new things for the first time, and that is about all they are good for. For example, the game laser tag is like a real gunfight except with toy guns that have harmless lasers instead of bullets. That analogy saved me a lot of time explaining something new. But that is ALL it did.

    The gunfight analogy has no predictive power beyond that. I can’t, for example, assume people will die playing laser tag because they die during real gun fights.

    Analogies are for explaining, not predicting. Analogies are not part of logic or reason.

    And while I’m at it, how about Occam’s Razor? Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation of things is usually correct. It must be true because most educated adults are familiar with Occam’s Razor. And anecdotally, it does seem as if the simplest explanation is usually true. For example, the simplest explanation for the universe is that a magic turtle created it all. If you have some fancy theory about The Big Bang and evolution, you better keep it to yourself because my turtle theory is the simplest one. Therefore, it must be right.

    Sarcasm: off

    In reality, the simplest explanation to you tends to be the one you already believe is correct. Cognitive dissonance makes you see your preferred answer as the simple one even when it isn’t. 

    Still not convinced? The next time you are with a group of friends, ask them to answer some controversial political or spiritual question. Watch how often your dumbest friend has the simplest (and most wrong) explanation of things. Does it look like a coincidence to you?

    The simplest explanation usually either comes from someone trying to manipulate you by leaving out important details or from someone too dumb to understand complicated things. The end.

    In summary, history might repeat itself, but humans have no reliable way of knowing which patterns are the important ones. Or as I like to say:

    “Those who think the past predicts the future are condemned to pick the wrong stocks.” – Scott Adams

More Episodes