0639 – beware articulate misdiagnoses and the illusion of knowledge

I want to reflect on an exchange of comments that I had on Hacker News.

Here’s the context:

  1. Snap is about to IPO, and they’ve committed $2B over 5 years to paying for Google cloud infrastructure.
  2. The top comment on HN about this is that this is a really bad idea, and that Snap should build their own infrastructure instead. [1]
  3. Someone replied saying: “I love HN where a random person can tell a company their $2 billion plan on infrastructure is “a really bad move” with authority”
  4. A response to that was “to be fair, that company is run by these same ‘random persons’ that are commenting here.” It’s a subtle logical fallacy – just because people who run companies post in forums doesn’t mean that people who post in forums are qualified to comment about how to run a company.
  5. A response to my followup was, “the playing field is quite level, so we shouldn’t judge a comment on whether we recognize their username, but rather on quality of content.”
  6. My response to that comment (which I’ll basically expand on in the rest of this vomit)

The “I love HN” comment is ambiguous – you can interpret it in at least two ways. Reading it straight, it might say, “HN has really high-functioning random people who can speak with authority on $2b issues”. But I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is – it’s funny how everyday people feel highly qualified to talk about things that probably involve far more complexity than they appreciate. [2]   It’s funny because they can feel qualified, look and sound qualified, but actually be utterly unqualified – and yet get all the upvotes, positive responses, write books on the subject, etc. etc.

I’ve been joking about this with my wife recently – for instance how so many men (and for some reason it’s almost always men) feel completely qualified to comment on sports. There was a particularly funny comment on YouTube somewhere, where a guy criticized an eagle (literally, the bird of prey) for making a bad decision. The response to that was, “Crazy? You’re the one criticizing a bird on the internet”. In this case it’s obviously funny – the guy is a guy, not an eagle, and he has obviously never done any eagle-ing himself, and the eagle obviously will never care about his opinion.

When it comes to sports, its a little less clear. Could an average person with a job in an unrelated field actually have an opinion on how to run a top tier football club better than its manager? Can football journalists, for that matter? Most broadly, can any person – let’s say highly motivated, good-intentioned, highly intelligent, etc – ever have any meaningful input on how some game should be played, if they don’t play it themselves?

Let’s use the example of a food critic. Let’s say she’s a really good home cook, so she knows her food. And maybe she’s run a moderately successful little restaurant of her own at some point. She’s also visited lots and lots of restaurants of all sizes, perhaps even more than the number of restaurants visited by the people running a bigger restaurant. Can she possibly have anything meaningful to say about how to run a Michelin-starred restaurant?

That’s a lopsided question. She could totally have some very good things to say. She might ask some of the most insightful questions, that most people don’t think about asking. If you’re a Michelin-starred restauranteur, you might enjoy reading what she has to say.

But here’s the catch – there’s a gap between what she knows (from having achieved herself, by operating in the space that she’s operated in), and what she thinks she knows (based on what she’s inferred from talking to people, from making observations, and so on). She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. And while she might be right 9 out of 10 times when talking about Michelin restaurants, there are going to be times where she’s completely, egregiously wrong without knowing it. And casual readers aren’t going to know. Mid-sized restauranteurs aren’t going to know. The only person who’s going to recognize that she’s wrong are the Michelin restauranteurs, and they’re probably too busy running their restaurants to sit down and write an articulate response about what she’s wrong about. [3]

Let me return to my point about the top comment criticizing Snap’s decision. I don’t know if Snap should or shouldn’t commit $2B to Google cloud infrastructure. But I think can be quite certain that anybody who hasn’t run a billion dollar tech company who has a strong opinion on why they should or shouldn’t… is probably misjudging the situation. [4]

What’s my conclusion here? How do I sum up all of this, what is my takeaway?

I think the first thing is recognizing that a person’s opinion can sound very persuasive but still be fundamentally misguided. “Armchairing decisions” can teach you to be very persuasive and win you a lot of likes, but it doesn’t actually mean that you know what you’re talking about. Beware the illusion of knowledge.

[1] In the responses, it’s interesting to learn that Netflix depends on AWS, Snap depends on Google, and FB and Google have their own data centers.

[2] I’m reminded of the response to when Drew Houston first shared Dropbox with HN – the 2nd highest comment said, “you can build it yourself quite trivially“. That comment was relatively nice. What about Newsweek claiming that the Internet was a short-lived fad? Newsweek is now Internet-only. What about the media claiming that Apple was going to fail in the 80s or 90s?

[3] Convoluting this even further is the fact that a Michelin restauranteur might not be particularly good at communicating his thoughts. He’ll probably be better than the average person, because anybody in a leadership role needs to get good at communicating, but his prose might not be as compelling and impressive as a food critic who’s spent decades getting good at writing.

[4] Here’s where it gets even more convoluted. Their reasoning could be wrong, but they might get lucky and make the right prediction. And even a person who’s actually run a billion dollar tech company might get it wrong by being overly fixated on his own experience. It begins to dawn on you that when it comes to the really difficult, gritty things about life, it’s tough for anybody to be right about anything!

Also:

1. A person can misjudge something, and yet incidentally achieve their desired end-state.
 
2. If there’s a substantial payday attached to that outcome, the human environment surrounding the person will celebrate them.
 
3. This means you really can’t trust most of what you read, including any of this. You have to really work carefully from first principles and be very rigorous about falsification.

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