Social learning

Via Bloomberg Opinion I came across this essay by David Perell on “How philosophers think.” It’s really a critique of shallow and conformist thinking.

The point is, you can read all the Wikipedia summaries you want, but they won’t give you a holistic understanding of an idea. That only happens once you have a layered, three-dimensional perspective, which writing helps you achieve. 

Charlie Munger calls this the difference between “real knowledge” and “chauffeur knowledge.” He tells an apocryphal story about Max Planck, who went around the world giving the same knowledge about quantum mechanics after he won the Nobel Prize. After hearing the speech multiple times, the chauffeur asked Planck if he could give the next lecture. Planck said, “Sure.” At first, the lecture went well. But afterwards, a physics professor in the audience asked a follow-up question that stumped the chauffeur. Only Max Planck, who had the background knowledge to support the ideas in the talk, could answer it. 

From the chauffeur’s story, we learn that you understand an idea not when you’ve memorized it, but when you know why its specific form was chosen over all the alternatives. Only once you’ve traveled the roads that were earnestly explored but ultimately rejected can you grasp an idea firmly and see it clearly, with all the context that supports it. 

The more pressure people feel to have an opinion on every subject, the more chauffeur knowledge there will be. In that state of intellectual insecurity, people rush to judgment. When they do, they abandon the philosophical mode of thinking. In turn, they become slaves to fashionable ideas and blind to unconscious assumptions. 

This resonates, in that I think back to lots of opinions I gathered quickly at some point in time via blogs and newspaper columns. I was like the chauffeur, able to repeat what I’d read about, say, the merits of fiscal stimulus, but without any deep understanding of the subject matter.

On the other hand, there were opinions I formed in roughly that manner that seem to me to have been basically right, even as I’ve learned more about the topic.

The essay continues:

People who don’t have the tools to reason independently make up their minds by adopting the opinions of prestigious people. When they do, they favor socially rewarded positions over objective accounts of reality. A Harvard anthropologist named Joseph Henrich laid the empirical groundwork for this idea in his book, The Secret of Our Success. In it, he showed that evolution doesn’t prioritize independent thinking. Humanity has succeeded not because of the intelligence of atomic individuals, but because we’ve learned to outsource knowledge to the tribe…

…Humans are such prolific imitators that they even copy the stylistic movements of people they admire, even when they seem unnecessary. Most of this happens outside of conscious awareness. And they don’t just copy the actions of successful people. They copy their opinions, too. Henrich calls this “the conformist transmission” of information. All this suggests that social learning is humanity’s primary advantage over primates and, in Henrich’s words, “the secret of our success.”

But sometimes, that conformity spirals out of control.

Perell goes on to talk about all the problems this can cause but, as he acknowledges, this kind of epistemological outsourcing is also really useful.

And when I think about what good thinkers do, it’s not just that they constantly reason deeply and independently. It’s that they’re good at using “social learning”–chauffeur knowledge–to get toward the truth.

Take forecasters, since that’s a well-studied area. Tetlock’s superforecasters are certainly capable of reasoning deeply, but often times they succeed because of efficient social learning. They read widely, make good calls about who to trust, and then mentally average over several perspectives. Sometimes they reach the truth without deeply understanding the topic. You see similar stuff reading about how fact checkers do their job or what information literacy experts recommend.

All of which makes sense, since we just can’t understand everything sufficiently; outsourcing is the only option. Social learning is the norm, and it’s an underrated skill to do it in a way that helps you get at the truth when that’s your aim, rather than just signaling an affiliation.

We shouldn’t just ask people to turn on “philosopher mode” more often–although sometimes, sure–we should also teach them to be better social learners.

More posts on related topics:

And my writing elsewhere about forecasting and Tetlock:

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