‘We learn most when we have the most to lose.’ Michael Nielsen, author of the brilliant book Reinventing Discovery.
‘There isn’t one novel thought in all of how Berkshire [Hathaway] is run. It’s all about … exploiting unrecognized simplicities…Warren [Buffett] and I aren’t prodigies.We can’t play chess blindfolded or be concert pianists. But the results are prodigious, because we have a temperamental advantage that more than compensates for a lack of IQ points.’ Charlie Munger,Warren Buffett’s partner.
I’m going to do a series of blogs on the differences between fields dominated by real expertise (like fighting and physics) and fields dominated by bogus expertise (like macroeconomic forecasting, politics/punditry, active fund management).
Fundamental to real expertise is 1) whether the informational structure of the environment is sufficiently regular that it’s possible to make good predictions and 2) does it allow high quality feedback and therefore error-correction. Physics and fighting: Yes. Predicting recessions, forex trading and politics: not so much. I’ll look at studies comparing expert performance in different fields and the superior performance of relatively very simple models over human experts in many fields.
This is useful background to consider a question I spend a lot of time thinking about: how to integrate a) ancient insights and modern case studies about high performance with b) new technology and tools in order to improve the quality of individual, team, and institutional decision-making in politics and government.
I think that fixing the deepest problems of politics and government requires a more general and abstract approach to principles of effective action than is usually considered in political discussion and such an approach could see solutions to specific problems almost magically appear, just as you see happen in a very small number of organisations — e.g Mueller’s Apollo program (man on the moon), PARC (interactive computing), Berkshire Hathaway (most successful investors in history), all of which have delivered what seems almost magical performance because they embody a few simple, powerful, but largely unrecognised principles. There is no ‘solution’ to the fundamental human problem of decision-making amid extreme complexity and uncertainty but we know a) there are ways to do things much better and b) governments mostly ignore them, so there is extremely valuable low-hanging fruit if, but it’s a big if, we can partially overcome the huge meta-problem that governments tend to resist the institutional changes needed to become a learning system.
This blog presents some basic background ideas and examples…
Extreme sports: fast feedback = real expertise
In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was an interesting case study in how useful new knowledge jumped from a tiny isolated group to the general population with big effects on performance in a community. Expertise in Brazilian jiu-jitsu was taken from Brazil to southern California by the Gracie family. There were many sceptics but they vanished rapidly because the Gracies were empiricists. They issued ‘the Gracie challenge’.
All sorts of tough guys, trained in all sorts of ways, were invited to come to their garage/academy in Los Angeles to fight one of the Gracies or their trainees. Very quickly it became obvious that the Gracie training system was revolutionary and they were real experts because they always won. There was very fast and clear feedback on predictions. Gracie jiujitsu quickly jumped from an LA garage to TV. At the televised UFC 1 event in 1993 Royce Gracie defeated everyone and a multi-billion dollar business was born.
People could see how training in this new skill could transform performance. Unarmed combat changed across the world. Disciplines other than jiu jitsu have had to make a choice: either isolate themselves and not compete with jiu jitsu or learn from it. If interested watch the first twenty minutes of this documentary (via professor Steve Hsu, physicist, amateur jiu jitsu practitioner, and predictive genomics expert).
Video: Jiu Jitsu comes to Southern California
Royce Gracie, UFC 1 1993
Flow, deep in the zone
Another field where there is clear expertise is extreme skiing and snowboarding. One of the leading pioneers, Jeremy Jones, describes how he rides ‘spines’ hurtling down the side of mountains:
‘The snow is so deep you need to use your arms and chest to swim, and your legs to ride. They also collapse underfoot, so you’re riding mini-avalanches and dodging slough slides. Spines have blind rollovers, so you can’t see below. Or to the side. Every time the midline is crossed, it’s a leap into the abyss. Plus, there’s no way to stop and every move is amplified by complicated forces. A tiny hop can easily become a twenty-foot ollie. It’s the absolute edge of chaos. But the easiest way to live in the moment is to put yourself in a situation where there’s no other choice. Spines demand that, they hurl you deep into the zone.’ Emphasis added.
Video: Snowboarder Jeremy Jones
What Jones calls ‘the zone’ is also known as ‘flow‘ — a particular mental state, triggered by environmental cues, that brings greatly enhanced performance. It is the object of study in extreme sports and by the military and intelligence services: for example DARPA is researching whether stimulating the brain can trigger ‘flow’ in snipers.
Flow — or control on ‘the edge of chaos’ where ‘every move is amplified by complicated forces’ — comes from training in which people learn from very rapid feedback between predictions and reality. In ‘flow’, brains very rapidly and accurately process environmental signals and generate hypothetical scenarios/predictions and possible solutions based on experience and training. Jones’s performance is inseparable from developing this fingertip feeling. Similarly, an expert fireman feels the glow of heat on his face in a slightly odd way and runs out of the building just before it collapses without consciously knowing why he did it: his intuition has been trained to learn from feedback and make predictions. Experts operating in ‘flow’ do not follow what is sometimes called the ‘rational model’ of decision-making in which they sequentially interrogate different options — they pattern-match solutions extremely quickly based on experience and intuition.
The video below shows extreme expertise in a state of ‘flow’ with feedback on predictions within milliseconds. This legendary ride is so famous not because of the size of the wave but its odd, and dangerous, nature. If you watch carefully you will see what a true expert in ‘flow’ can do: after committing to the wave Hamilton suddenly realises that unless he reaches back with the opposite hand to normal and drags it against the wall of water behind him, he will get sucked up the wave and might die. (This wave had killed someone a few weeks earlier.) Years of practice and feedback honed the intuition that, when faced with a very dangerous and fast moving problem, almost instantly (few seconds maximum) pattern-matched an innovative solution.
Video: surfer Laird Hamilton in one of the greatest ever rides
The faster the feedback cycle, the more likely you are to develop a qualitative improvement in speed that destroys an opponent’s decision-making cycle. If you can reorient yourself faster to the ever-changing environment than your opponent, then you operate inside their ‘OODA loop’ (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) and the opponent’s performance can quickly degrade and collapse.
This lesson is vital in politics. You can read it in Sun Tzu and see it with Alexander the Great. Everybody can read such lessons and most people will nod along. But it is very hard to apply because most political/government organisations are programmed by their incentives to prioritise seniority, process and prestige over high performance and this slows and degrades decisions. Most organisations don’t do it. Further, political organisations tend to make too slowly those decisions that should be fast and too quickly those decisions that should be slow — they are simultaneously both too sluggish and too impetuous, which closes off favourable branching histories of the future.
Video: Boxer Floyd Mayweather, best fighter of his generation and one of the quickest and best defensive fighters ever
The most extreme example in extreme sports is probably ‘free soloing’ — climbing mountains without ropes where one mistake means instant death. If you want to see an example of genuine expertise and the value of fast feedback then watch Alex Honnold.
Video: Alex Honnold ‘free solos’ El Sendero Luminoso (terrifying)
Music is similar to sport. There is very fast feedback, learning, and a clear hierarchy of expertise.
Video: Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations (slow version)
Our culture treats expertise/high performance in fields like sport and music very differently to maths/science education and politics/government. As Alan Kay observes, music and sport expertise is embedded in the broader culture. Millions of children spend large amounts of time practising hard skills. Attacks on them as ‘elitist’ don’t get the same damaging purchase as in other fields and the public don’t mind about elite selection for sports teams or orchestras.
‘Two ideas about this are that a) these [sport/music] are activities in which the basic act can be seen clearly from the first, and b) are already part of the larger culture. There are levels that can be seen to be inclusive starting with modest skills. I think a very large problem for the learning of both science and math is just how invisible are their processes, especially in schools.’ Kay
When it comes to maths and science education, the powers-that-be (in America and Britain) try very hard and mostly successfully to ignore the question: where are critical thresholds for valuable skills that develop true expertise. This is even more a problem with the concept of ‘thinking rationally’, for which some basic logic, probability, and understanding of scientific reasoning is a foundation. Discussion of politics and government almost totally ignores the concept of training people to update their opinions in response to new evidence — i.e adapt to feedback. The ‘rationalist community’ — people like Scott Alexander who wrote this fantastic essay (Moloch) about why so much goes wrong, or the recent essays by Eliezer Yudkowsky — are ignored at the apex of power. I will return to the subject of how to create new education and training programmes for elite decision-makers. It is a good time for UK universities to innovate in this field, as places like Stanford are already doing. Instead of training people like Cameron and Adonis to bluff with PPE, we need courses that combine rational thinking with practical training in managing complex projects. We need people who practice really hard making predictions in ways we know work well (cf. Tetlock) then update in response to errors.
A more general/abstract approach to reforming government
If we want to get much higher performance in government, then we need to think rigorously about: the selection of people and teams, their education and training, their tools, and the institutions (incentives and so on) that surround and shape them.
Almost all analysis of politics and government considers relatively surface phenomena. For example, the media briefly blasts headlines about Carillion’s collapse or our comical aircraft carriers but there is almost no consideration of the deep reasons for such failures and therefore nothing tends to happen — the media caravan moves on and the officials and ministers keep failing in the same ways. This is why, for example, the predicted abject failure of the traditional Westminster machinery to cope with Brexit negotiations has not led to self-examination and learning but, instead, mostly to a visible determination across both sides of the Brexit divide in SW1 to double down on long-held delusions.
Progress requires attacking the ‘system of systems’ problem at the right ‘level’. Attacking the problems directly — let’s improve policy X and Y, let’s swap ‘incompetent’ A for ‘competent’ B — cannot touch the core problems, particularly the hardest meta-problem that government systems bitterly fight improvement. Solving the explicit surface problems of politics and government is best approached by a more general focus on applying abstract principles of effective action. We need to surround relatively specific problems with a more general approach. Attack at the right level will see specific solutions automatically ‘pop out’ of the system. One of the most powerful simplicities in all conflict (almost always unrecognised) is: ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of war’. If we approach the problem of government performance at the right level of generality then we have a chance to solve specific problems ‘without fighting’ — or, rather, without fighting nearly so much and the fighting will be more fruitful.
This is not a theoretical argument. If you look carefully at ancient texts and modern case studies, you see that applying a small number of very simple, powerful, but largely unrecognised principles (that are very hard for organisations to operationalise) can produce extremely surprising results.
We have no alternative to trying. Without fundamental changes to government, we will lose our hourly game of Russian roulette with technological progress.
‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable… [T]he ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life … gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ John von Neumann
As Steve Hsu says: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.
Ps. There is an interesting connection between the nature of counterfactual reasoning in the fast-moving world of extreme sports and the theoretical paper I posted yesterday on state-of-the-art AI. The human ability to interrogate stored representations of their environment with counter-factual questions is fundamental to the nature of intelligence and developing expertise in physical and mental skills. It is, for now, absent in machines.