Remembering Chesterton’s Fence

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” -G.K. Chesterton

Writer G.K. Chesterton wrote about the importance of understanding the reasoning behind something before tearing it down. Without knowing why it came into being in the first place, we risk haphazardly tearing it down and worsening things compared to when it existed.

Chesterton’s lesson resonates as I think about the oft reflexive responses to policies, plans, data, etc. which follow the news- especially in the age of Twitter where we can all broadcast a response in only a few seconds. The coronavirus pandemic has given us a constant array of examples. Whether criticisms of weeks-old models developed when there were fewer data and greater uncertainty, quick-handed takedowns of the drug and vaccine development processes, or definitive assessments on why technocratic institutions have failed us due to unnecessary bureaucracy, it is not hard to come across responses made outside of Chesterton’s guidance.

This is not to say that those things are immune to critical reevaluation- they most certainly should not be- it is just that those discussions need to start with a contextualization of why things are the way they are before we jump to how we can improve them in the future. Without this we risk repeating history’s mistakes, succumbing to hindsight bias, or downright behaving foolishly while patting ourselves on the back. Without a sound understanding of why things are the way they are, we cannot come up with the proper prescriptions for tomorrow.

Remembering Chesterton’s fence allows us to be better holistic thinkers and may even serve as a source of humility. It may be time to slow down and think about why the fence exists before we rush to tear it down next time- I think we will all be better for it.

Embracing uncertainty

In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar — ajar only. – Richard Feynman

The late, great Richard Feynman had a deep-rooted philosophy which I believe contributed just as much to his success as a brilliant physicist as talent and opportunity. Central to Feynman’s outlook was the recognition that uncertainty is ubiquitous and must be embraced in order to allow ourselves to continue to question and learn. The lessons that ring from his wisdom go beyond the realm of science and into practically anything that touches the human experience. Politics, economics, relationships, love – it is all surrounded by the mist of uncertainty. If 2017 has underscored one belief in my life, it is that accepting the confines of the clouds may pay great dividends to us as individuals and as a society.

Our track record of being wrong because of the underlying uncertainty of situations is undeniably strong. Whether it is the history of science contradicting itself and past wrongs becoming today’s truths or the abysmal accuracy of our forecasts on pretty much anything (the economy, elections, the new year, etc.), it is clear that we end up surprised by reality in even some of the most studied and thought-about matters. This extends to our personal lives too- misinterpreting people and things, having unrealistic expectations, being surprised by the interactions we have had- it happens to us all the time.

Ultimately, the universe and most things in it are infinitely complicated, to a degree that we will likely never be able to fully appreciate. A sentiment that I find value in bringing to the forefront- one which is not only humbling, but objective, and can serve to further connect us all.

Embracing uncertainty allows us to give the benefit of the doubt to others because we do not know what they know, what experiences they have had, or exactly what they are thinking in any given situation. It allows us to be more empathetic- to be kinder and to be better people. It allows us to understand that we are all trying to make the best choices and decisions given the limited information that each of us has.

At the same time, accepting uncertainty allows us to take a more objective look at the world. To recognize the potential holes in our opinions and when proven wrong to accept them and rethink the issue to be in line with what we learned. It is a core tenet of science and what makes it so effective.

The opposite of uncertainty is absolute certainty, a blinding arrogance often untied to reality and the face of so many of the obfuscations we encounter in intellectual discourse- tribalism, urges to self-validate, overvaluing the opinions of experts, etc. These things may even be central to our biology to some degree, but with greater rejection of certainty, they tend to be less harmful as we question the conclusions driven by our primal urges.

Accepting that we do not know can very much be a philosophy, one which Feynman clearly exemplified as have many other great thinkers. With all that is happening in the world, I think we owe ourselves and each other the comfort of accepting that we do not know and that that is okay. We may just be more prosperous and happier for it.

Then again, I’m not really sure.

Here I go

I believe that writing is an important part of the thinking process. It helps us organize our thoughts, to see them in a different medium, to figure out how to communicate them to others. I do it from time to time in trying to think through various things, but not with the consistency which I would like. That is partly because I worry about the finished product, I overedit, and am never completely satisfied with the final product. I fall into the traps that many professional writers warn others not to fall into.

So now, I am going to try to heed their advice by relaunching this blog and sharing my imperfect pieces with the world. The reasons for doing this publicly are several- it forces me to get to a more refined product than I otherwise might, there is a good feeling associated with hitting “publish” which builds momentum, and maybe, just maybe, it will lead to some discussion which will further my thinking by refining it or proving it wrong altogether. It also serves as a nice record of my thinking over time and how it may have changed. So there it is. Stay tuned for some posts soon and hopefully continuing on over the months and years.