Digestable #32: Rucking Edmonton, Remagification, Goodhart’s Law, Skating on Glass

Hi all!

Welcome to another edition of Digestable, the short, weekly email where we follow our curiosity and wrestle with the meaningful! This edition was emailed to subscribers on November 21, 2021.

Here’s what’s under the kimono this week:

Wake the Ruck Up: When the alarm goes off at 5:30 AM, it best be for an adventure with friends. Or at least a microadventure. My good friends Steve Koehn and Elijah Stauth took me for an early morning ruck (weighted hike) in Edmonton’s dark & snowy river valley this week. Eli made a fun little edit as he tested out his new phone. I hope you are finding ways to enjoy the new season!

Remagification (the Virtues of Ignorance): We know more about outer space than we do our own bodies. Among countless other amazing feats, NASA launched a spacecraft that four years later successfully landed on the asteroid Bennu while it hurtled through space 200 million miles away. We are even expecting to get that spacecraft back in 2023, bringing space goodies with it. When cars can drive autonomously, and when we can have a video call with a friend across the globe via Starlink broadband, we can get a sense that the world’s mysteries are nearing extinction.

The late German sociologist Max Weber called the effect of science solving the world’s mysteries demagification. Demagification is when we discover that churches burning to the ground via lightning strikes are not necessarily acts of God seeking vengeance for a blasphemous sermon, it might be lightning seeking the quickest route to the ground and the church steeple was the tallest structure in town.

It is an easy-to-make mistake to believe that the expertise we have in domains such as astrophysics and computer science extends to all other domains. It is easier to find physicists who agree on the calculation that will land us on the moon than it is to find nutritionists who can agree on whether or not a loaf of bread is nourishing us, or slowly poisoning us. The final frontier might not be in outer space, it may be inside of us

The human body is a supremely complex system and it is dependent upon other intensely complex systems such as our environment, nutrition, and even the influence of thoughts. Though we have “demagic-ed” many components of human biology, there are too many variables to isolate for a complete understanding. The success we have had “demagic-ing” parts of our world lead us to “unscientifically overestimate the reach of our scientific knowledge” (N.N. Taleb) when it comes to the body. This is scientism.

Advancement in the field of human biology has looked like this: A+B=C. Then, when a new understanding is uncovered, A+B=C, unless X. And every new understanding adds another unless. There are now so many unless-es it feels near-impossible to navigate what to eat for breakfast, or even if you should eat breakfast.

Serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel offers the following business advice in his book Zero to One: build your business where the secrets are, i.e: the field of nutrition. “We know more about the physics of faraway stars than we do about human nutrition, this is the kind of field that could yield secrets.” He further alleges, “The Food Pyramid is more a product of lobbying than a product of science.”

Mark Sctzkehar, writer in residence at the Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center (affiliated with Yale University) recently opined, “This idea that we have deep knowledge of the nutritional make up of food and of our own needs is a total myth.”

Fascinatingly, the experts at the top of their fields (not just nutrition and human biology) are starting to describe what I am calling, “remagification.” Rather than solving the mysteries of their domains, they are realizing that the more they know, the more they know they don’t know. It’s a Hydra problem: for every mystery unraveled, more mysteries are unveiled.

Most know the cliché, “They know enough to be dangerous.” That is where we are right now in the long arc of the human story: the Enlightenment has put us on a false summit where we know enough to be (very) dangerous.

Climate science is a similarly complex field we are prone to suffer from scientism. That is the topic a number of experts expound on in the compilation of essays called, The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge. They advocate for an “ignorance-based worldview,” as opposed to a “knowledge-based worldview.” From the cover:

Human dependence on technology has increased exponentially over the past several centuries, and so too has the notion that we can fix environmental problems with scientific applications. The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge proposes an alternative to this hubristic, shortsighted, and dangerous worldview. The contributors argue that uncritical faith in scientific knowledge has created many of the problems now threatening the planet and that our wholesale reliance on scientific progress is both untenable and myopic.

All conclude that we must simply accept the proposition that our ignorance far exceeds our knowledge and always will. Rejecting the belief that science and technology are benignly at the service of society, the authors argue that recognizing ignorance might be the only path to reliable knowledge. They also uncover an interesting paradox: knowledge and insight accumulate fastest in the minds of those who hold an ignorance-based worldview . . . Demonstrating that knowledge-based worldviews are more dangerous than useful.”

The authors theorize that to advance safely into the future, we need to be cautiously and humbly making small, decentralized, low-consequence experiments and bets.

Though demagification may have brought us out of the dark ages, remagification may lead us to paradise, a true summit. It will require a posture of humility, adventure, and an ignorance-based worldview to travel in this direction. Thank you to my friend Jeremy Schmidt for recommending the Virtues of Ignorance book!

Quote I’m Pondering: “What gets measured, gets managed.” – unknown, but largely misattributed to the late management guru, Peter Drucker.

A more appropriate phrasing of this “law” is, “Be careful what you measure,” as it will be managed to the detriment of other more important metrics. If you want to improve the productivity of your factory and start to measure the number of widgets your factory can produce, the number of widgets increase but the quality decreases. You will need to counterbalance this measurement of widget quantity with a measurement of widget quality.

If an online article’s success is measured by the number of people who open the article, you will end up with “clickbait” headlines. In some studies, when hospital wait times are measured, the wait times decrease but the death rate increases.

This management maxim needs to be paired with Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” and another unnamed law, “you can’t measure what really matters.

What happens when our collective eye is glued to the microscope of COVID metrics? What outcomes would you predict? For more on the conundrum of managing “measurement mania,” check out “When targets and metrics are bad for business“.

Where did your curiosity lead you this week? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks again for following along. I’m having a riot putting these together, so if you are enjoying this newsletter I’d love it if you shared it with a friend or two and we can keep the great conversations growing.

Yours truly,
Jeff

P.S. Get out to Nordegg, quick! Fish Lake has frozen over crystal clear and created nature’s finest skating rink. Thank you Emilie Sutherland for the photos!

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