A Game of Giants [Wait But Why]

by kilotaras1 min read30th Aug 20194 comments



Key insights

  • Let's look at emergence tower (atom -> molecule -> .. -> cell -> organ system -> animal -> pack/tribe) and consider where independent lifeforms live
    • amoebas are on a cell level
    • ants live on a pack level
    • spiders live on single animals level
    • humans live somewhere between ants and spiders and can move up and down as a response to external threat
  • Evolutionary pressure prefers inner tribe kindness and outer kind ruthlessness
    • Totally ruthless people die to inner tribe competition
    • Totally kind people die to intertribe competition
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From footnote 3:

I wrote this chapter of the series from an intuitive perspective before digging into what the evolutionary scientists say about it.

"I made shit up, then checked the facts later." This made me lol, because that's exactly my impression of Urban's writing.

I think he's not obviously doing something all that wrong from a learning/modeling perspective. Trying to figure out the answer yourself using your own models (and all the data you've passively accrued yourself) before looking up the answer seems like a rather good way to think and learn.

If he then checks his answer before sharing it with others, and is clear about the process he used, then that's not clearly bad.

(I do think some things he's saying are mistaken/misleading, but the process described in the footnote seems okay.)

First of all, trying to figure out the answer yourself, on a topic like evolutionary biology, having done no research, reading, study of the subject, related subjects, etc., and just basing your reasoning on an “intuitive perspective” (when we know that intuition predictably leads people astray when thinking about this stuff!), seems very foolish. The likelihood of arriving at anything like the right answer seems low; the likelihood of doing so consistently must be close to nil.

But that’s not the most important thing.

The real question is, what does Mr. Wait But Why do if he tries to figure out some answer, writes an entire chapter of a blog post series based on what he comes up with, and then looks up the academic consensus and learns that actually, he got it all wrong?

Does he delete the whole chapter and start over? (Does he write something to the effect of “I tried to figure things out on my own, but guys, I confess that my intuitive understanding was totally wrong! And it turns out that my ideas which were based on that understanding are therefore also all wrong! Here’s the wrong things I thought before, but here is the actual answer…”? Now that would be very instructive!)

I think he does no such thing. I think that, far more likely, he keeps the notions he had, and interprets what he learned in such a way as to permit him to believe that he was basically right all along, and is still right. I think he almost certainly does not cast aside any notions of his which are affected by the wrong understanding.

And—if I am right in my suspicions!— it is that, rather than any specific mistakes, which what makes this fellow’s writing not only not useful, but harmful.

The likelihood of arriving at anything like the right answer seems low

In the useful version of this activity, arriving at right answers is not relevant. Instead, you are collecting tools for thinking about a topic, which is mostly about being able to hold and manipulate ideas in your mind, including incorrect ideas. At some point, you get to use those tools to understand what others have figured out, or what's going on in the real world. This framing opposes the failure mode where you learn facts without being able to grasp what they even mean or why they hold.