Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Ten Rules For Understanding the World
Our perception of the world is colored by our experience, by what we pay attention to, and by what we accept or reject.
For the past 27 years I have paid myopic attention to statutes, contract and tort law as it relates to the construction industry. What this meant in practice was keeping track of ever-changing statutes, new cases, writing and thinking about particular questions and problems presented by clients. With time this resulted in a deep and comprehensive understanding of a very narrow field--how the law applies to problems and disputes in the construction industry. To a lesser extent it has also provided me with expertise about the law and its workings in general. To a great extent it has colored my view of the world.
Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, we all have our predilections that influence our picture of the world. And beyond our profession, trade, craft, or avocation that fills our days and weeks and years, our understanding of the world remains limited. Deep knowledge of one subject may translate far beyond the narrow subject matter, but our horizon of vision remains inevitably limited. Beyond the pale of our ken we are all left naive about most things in the world.
In college, a professor once attempted to explain to us the use of a liberal arts education: "It will train you to recognize drivel when you hear it," he said. And 40 years down the road I can vouch that there is something to this. Our education and work related expertise acts as a drivel-detecting divining rod. Although we may be fooled, we do acquire some ability to recognize deep expertise in others, and to recognize when they are full of drivel. And this sixth sense about where knowledge can be found is essential because, beyond our own narrow expertise, we rely almost exclusively on others to help us understand how the world works. Is there global warming and what can we do about it? What government policies will be most effective for creating jobs? What is the danger of government debt in excess of 100% GDP? Is fracking bad? is GMO bad? How can peace come to the Middle East? What is the nature of the universe? Can matter be created from nothing? How did life begin? Is there a God? All we have is our wits and who we decide to listen to.
So here are my ten rules for understanding the broad and mysterious world.
1. Pay attention to your own expertise and apply your wits as clearly, honestly, and best you can.
2. Be careful and skeptical when you step beyond the pale of your ken.
3. Pay no attention to drivel.
4. Be open to reconsider.
5. Recognize that we like stories about how the world works and that all stories are folklore.
6. Recognize that, although folklore is the best we can do, folklore may be completely false.
7. Pay attention to more than one source; pay attention to as many sources as possible.
8. Pay attention to competing stories (subject to the no drivel rule).
9. Eschew hubris.
10. Don't trade in ad hominem attacks based on folklore.