Heuristic is not a bad word

byHughRistik10y6th Apr 200913 comments


An insect tries to escape through the windowpane, tries the same again and again, and does not try the next window which is open and through which it came into the room. A man is able, or at least should be able, to act more intelligently. —George Polya, How To Solve It

Intelligence makes humans capable of many impressive feats. Unlike flies and birds, we don't bang up against windows multiple times trying to get out of our houses. We can travel to the moon. We have taken over the planet. Why? Because intelligence enables us to solve problems.

All problems start the same way. They start unsolved. Each fact humans have figured out was initially unfigured out by us. Then we did something, which converted the unknown fact into a known fact, changed the state of a problem from unsolved to solved.

I emphasize the unknown starting state of problems to make a point: problem solving, the basis of human achievement, depends on a process of discovery, discovery of new facts, new possibilities, new methods, and new ways of thought.

Heuristic—the art and science of discovery—has been integral for human progress. The word "heuristic" is related to "Eureka!"

Heuristics and biases

Unfortunately, heuristic is a bad word. At least, that's the impression you might get, seeing it hand-in-hand with "bias" in the psychological literature. In Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Tversky and Kahneman acknowledge that "in general, these heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors." On Overcoming Bias, heuristics seem primarily discussed as resulting in biases.

Bias-reduction is a form of skepticism that is a critical part of rationality. Due to the uncertain nature of the territory of reality, many notions of the territory are wrong. Rational skepticism helps us identify false assumptions, areas where our map will depart from the territory.

While bias-reduction is necessary in the search for rationality, it is not sufficient. It's a mistake in cartography to have areas of your map that are filled in wrong, but it's also a mistake to have areas on your map blank that you could have filled in, at least with something approximate. A map with wrong patches will not take you to your destination, but neither will a map with blank patches. Believing things that are false is one error which will prevent us from finding the truth or winning in our endeavors, yet another error in rationality is failing to recognize or believe things that are true, probable, or useful.

How can we draw our maps more accurately in the first place, so that they need less corrections? This is a job for heuristic.

Heuristic as rational creativity

Rationality depends on both bias-reduction and heuristic. Heuristic is the creative faculty, while overcoming bias and other skeptical techniques are the critical faculty. As Ben Kovitz proposes on the Heuristic Wiki, "Heuristic is about how to steer your attention so that you find things that meet the criteria of logic." From the start, heuristic depends on avoiding bias, or else it will be based on false assumptions and spiral off in the wrong direction. The results of even well-calibrated heuristics require critical scrutiny. Yet no matter how good your ability to critique ideas may be—to separate the wheat from the chaff—you will never learn anything if your attention is wasted on ideas that are overwhelmingly chaff; heuristic is about growing better wheat in the first place, making your winnowing efforts more productive.

While granting and emphasizing the fallibility of heuristic and its danger of taking us away from truth, and that most applications of heuristic will be crap, I also want to explore the potential of heuristic to take us towards truth. I want to understand how heuristic works in practice, not just acknowledge the benefits of heuristic in principle. Heuristic enabled Tversky and Kahneman to make new discoveries about bias; it enabled Einstein to formulate General Relativity and arrogantly state his confidence in it regardless of future experiments.

While many of the heuristics currently scrutinized for bias seem like quaint quirks of human psychology to which we condescendingly admit usefulness in some situations, we must recognize that all of human knowledge came from heuristic and started off as a guess. To the extent that we think that humans have solved any problems—albeit approximately or provisionally—we should value heuristic. Perhaps the best heuristics are so far unarticulated or undiscovered.

The varied results of heuristic lead me not to pessimism about heuristic, but rather to optimism about how we might identify the strong heuristics currently in use and develop even stronger ones. In future posts, I intend to delve deeper into what heuristic is, why we need it, and how to practice specific heuristics. I don't yet know a great deal about heuristic on a conscious level, but I want to figure it out.