Checking Your Priors

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” - John Kenneth Galbraith

One of the problems of having strong opinions is they tend to stay that way. Even if you stay in learning mode on a topic, confirmation bias usually leads only to deeper confidence in positions held. No question overconfidence in our own beliefs and the resulting disdain of the other side is a dynamic that makes compromise and progress difficult. It’s hard work trying to be open-minded to different views. I thought I would look back and see what I changed my mind on in the last year or so to check my own openness. And indeed on a few things I have seen the error of my least for now. As Winston Churchill once said, “It’s better to be right than consistent.” 

  1. Bitcoin. No one was more skeptical of cryptocurrency than I over the last few years. I saw little gain: overhyped privacy, high transaction costs, mediocre transaction speeds, and of course, new technology risk. My skepticism is still high on crypto in general, but I’ve changed my mind on Bitcoin. It has a few elements other digital currencies lack: strict supply limits and 12 years of proven security and stability. In a year where we printed 20% of all the US dollars ever, limited supply in a currency is the ultimate guarantor of value. Central banks will continue to print. Gold will be good, but Bitcoin will be better.

  2. Wind and Solar won’t get us there. I have massively believed in solar as the answer to our energy and climate problems. Clean, renewable, and eventually very cheap - what’s not to like? And, it will still play a huge role. But if we want to take billions out of poverty we will need 10x the energy we use right now. The raw power density of sun and wind coupled with its intermittence will limit its scale. Not to mention the real environmental impact of millions of acres covered in machines. Next-generation nuclear is going to play a massive role. I am all for it...will the environmental movement be as open? Right

  3. Money is rarely the bottleneck. Politicians say budgets are an expression of our values. What we spend on is what matters.  In public policy, I have often felt money constraints were usually the highest priority. The problem with this logic is there is no end to it. You can always spend more. And ideas are just much more powerful. Why do startups beat massively funded giants? Better ideas. Most of our pressing public problems don’t change much with more money - see homelessness, the Drug War, college funding, and many many more. Even politics itself does not seem to be determined by money (see Bloomberg in Florida...and almost another major funder this year). We need a lot more ideas from our leaders - not just the easy quest for more money.

  4. Mastery is a foolish goal. In the era of big data, unlimited computing, and scientific breakthroughs it is easy to feel we could use knowledge to solve any problem. I too have put a lot of faith in progress through rational study and solution design. But, if anything, this year proves we need to embrace probabilistic thinking over certainty, experimentation, and small bets over top-down highly planned big investments. Chance, circumstance, hidden factors always play a role in hard problems. The world is massively complex. You can do everything right and still lose - or vice versa. But, playing to probability wins in the long run. Litigating every COVID decision as one of right/wrong is how we end up at each other’s throats. We have to get back to thinking about trade-offs and probabilities of outcomes - willing to live with mistakes made with the best available info and be totally open to learning with real-world results. Imagine how the mask debate would have gone with this humble and open mindset.

  5. Religion works. Despite a Catholic upbringing, I am one of the “nones” that make up the fastest-growing religious group in America. The value of community, tradition, and moral teaching is undeniable in conventional religion. It’s the dogma, myths and corruption that is turning off younger generations. The problem opposed to what? As David Foster Wallace so rightly said: “Everybody worships.” Sadly political activism seems to have replaced religion for many. You gain a larger purpose but it tends to inspire the kind of evangelical moralizing that turned me off to begin with. And no question any political ideology eventually gets its own set of dogma, myths, and corruption. So far it looks like a net loss.

What did you change your mind about this year?

Reads That Helped Me Change My Mind - January 2021

  1. The best summary article I have found outlining the case for bitcoin

  2. Even Slate can see the problems going too fast on super green energy policy in California: higher prices and rolling blackouts. Not exactly climate justice for the poor. We still need much more energy innovation to resolve this trade-off.

  3. If only we had more money! San Francisco made it happen to tackle homelessness. With almost triple the budget what progress can be shown? Sadly, none.

  4. Russ Roberts makes the case against big data. How can it factor in relationships, meaning and internal life?

  5. The full David Foster Wallace speech on religion: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism.”