How First Principles Can Help You Avoid Bias And Your Tendency To Make Really Really Dumb Mistakes

Fellow human,

Every time I turn on the Internet, I'm assaulted with more examples of human stupidity.

I personally know people that have a genius level of intelligence in a certain domain yet still make the same STUPID mistakes over and over again.

These same individuals, and millions like them around the world, rarely change their mind because they are so blinded by their ego, bias, and intelligence.

After all, when you're smart, and you know you're smart, you're less likely to take in new information that may change our mind.

After all, you're smart, so why would you need to change your mind?

The human mind is capable of justifying even the most heinous acts of violence. Look throughout history.

Don't convince yourself you are any different.

We all fall victim to this one way or another.

It used to be acceptable and normal to discriminate against blacks in America.

In fact, NOT DISCRIMINATING against blacks could have put you at risk by fellow members of your community. And speaking out about racism or segregation… forget about it.

So most people did what most people did: they kept their head down and their mouth shut and things kept on. Some engaged in aggressive conformity—what we call "Karens" today—in making sure that things stayed the way they were.

In fact, Karens today would have been the most vocal about maintaining the racist status quo in places like the South where Jim Crow laws were in full force.

Yet if you were to suggest this to any aggressive conformist today—like those that are shaming people for not wearing a mask or calling the police on their neighbors for having a “party”—and you'll be ignored and/or called crazy.

Again, the human mind is the great deceiver of us all.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool." -Richard Feynman

I take pride in my ability to critically think.

I believe most of the things I have strong opinions about are well-considered and are somewhere near "truth."

One thing is for sure: I'm wrong about some things.

And that's why I have to keep my mind open and seek out ideas that challenge my current world view.

It's not easy, that's for sure.

I have found a powerful strategy for being right more often than not.

First principles.

First principles are the basics, the things you know for sure.

  • 1+1 = 2
  • Gravity
  • if I stub my toe, I'm going to curse
  • Etc.

Most people suck at reasoning from first principles because they get caught up in the complexity that comes from bias.

Bias loves complexity because it makes it easier to believe what you want to believe. So your mind goes on making logical error after logical error and uses a bunch of bad examples and other complex hypotheticals to avoid having to challenge itself.

When I think about anything, I'm trying to figure out what the first principles are so I can keep that at the forefront of my mind as I try to understand.

Some examples of first principles thinking:

Socialism - Terrible idea. Sounds good on paper, never works in real life. Proponents say stupid things like, "Well, they just didn't do it right. The reason it doesn't work = human nature. Who is going to be in charge? You? Them? Etc.

First principles to help understand why socialism is such a bad idea

  • First principle: human nature doesn't change, which is why socialism, e.g. a government distributing resources through force (violence), never works.
  • First principle: every example history has been a catastrophic failure, leaving millions dead.
  • First principle: human nature.
  • First Principle: violence begets violence.

Another example: optimal human nutrition

What's the best diet? Carnivore? Omnivore? Plant-based? Vegan? Fruitarian?

First principles to figure it out:

  • Our ancestor’s brain size and the connection between cooking and meat-eating that allowed it to double in a relatively short period of time.
  • The diet of chimps and gorillas still eat a plant-heavy diet and sit around in the forest, chewing tough plant cellulose for hours a day. (There's a reason humans have iPhones and chimps do not.)
  • Human gut acidity is similar to vultures. After taking down a thousand-pound mastodon, our ancestors would have eaten meat for days or weeks, which is why we had to adapt strong stomach acid to kill dangerous organisms.
  • Humans cannot survive on plants alone - you will die. (This is why plant-based eaters must supplement. This should be the only first Principle you need to figure out how integral animal foods are in the natural human diet.
  • You cannot find certain vitamins in the plant kingdom; thus humans MUST eat animals.
  • Many more first principles to list.

If you were to take either of these examples and start a debate with someone that has a different viewpoint, you'll find a whole lot of sidestepping and "what ifs" and other logic gymnastics in their attempt to avoid having to change their mind.

And that's what humans are designed to do: to NOT change our mind.

Today, in our fast-moving world, changing your mind is a superpower and your best chance at not making really really really dumb mistakes.

“The doctor who refrains from operating on a back (a very expensive surgery), instead of giving it a chance to heal itself, will not be rewarded and judged as favorably as the doctor who makes the surgery look indispensable, then brings relief to the patient while exposing him to operating risks, while accruing great financial rewards to himself.”
-Nassim Taleb, Antifragile


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