Insight30 Jan 2016
What does insight look like?
When people think of controversial, groundbreaking ideas, when people shout “new” and “fresh”, they think of opposites. “We believed this way, but the truth is the opposite.”
But correct is only exactly the opposite of incorrect when you’re in one dimension. If you can reduce the situation so that there is a single number that you’re trying to maximize, like ELO in competitions, then more is better than less. However, situations are rarely that simple (or more precisely, reducible): in any dimension greater than one (in which compression to a single dimension is too lossy), the opposite of the incorrect is almost always… also incorrect.
The way to think well or insightfully– is not (just) to be contrarian; by doing so, you are still defining yourself by incorrectness, albeit by negation. Insight doesn’t feel like a grand crusade against the antithesis of truth, it feels like being less confused.
Reading After Credentials made me realize how different actual insight felt like.
The essay didn’t feel like an attack on the old institutions, of a fierce individualist defying the traditions by proclaiming “you don’t need college!” It was a simple explanation of the circumstances in which these institutions were created, an evolutionary niche that had to be filled due to inefficiencies in predicting performance (and one that itself had the flavor of fierce defiance of the previous norm, which was widespread nepotism). Then it simply explained why those forces are fading away (efficiency gains), again in the matter-of-fact tone that made it obvious that progress was being made.
Things simply made more sense this way. Unconnected dots now had lines (even arrows) between them: for example, the prevalence of hagwons, the rise and fall of enormous corporations, and the high school experience. To put it more bluntly, enormously complex packages (human motivations and organizations) were reduced to simpler forces.
This is not abstract gratification, either. In this case, if you understand that credentials only exist as a proxy for performance, you’ll understand the actual causal structure in the situation. Credentials have meaning to the extent that they signify performance– that’s why prizes at competitions mean something, why prestige even has a definition. That they exist at all is a compromise, an easily compared but imperfect hashcode or summary.
Insight is not any of the bullshit that seems to be correlated to it, like novelty, or being anti-establishment, or freshness. Insight is just getting closer to the truth.