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The Great Wiki

August 19th, 2009 · 11 Comments

Apropos of these recent musings on cross-partisan perspective taking, I was recently talking to a friend about the rather open-ended recovery/12-step concept of placing yourself at the mercy of a “greater power.” As a lifelong atheist, this seems like it’s bound to present some problems if I ever develop a sufficiently bad habit, and so it would probably behoove me to figure out some plausible greater power candidates just in case. And I think I’ve found mine: I believe in the Great Wiki.

Like a lot of my friends in this town, I spend a lot of my time dealing in arguments and ideas. I produce them for a living, and then I knock off and have some more arguments over drinks for fun. Does this mean I’m actually supremely confident that my own beliefs are right, and all the smart people who radically disagree with me are wrong? Fuck no; I’m a primate with a couple nice neckties just like the rest of you. Does that mean I throw my  hands up and float in a kind of humble agnosticism about everything? Clearly not, because that’s not how the Great Wiki works. I plant a flag and do my best to defend the truth as I imperfectly perceive it, because that’s how the ball gets moved forward even if I’m wrong about everything. Or, anyway, everything but the Great Wiki.

Think, by analogy, of the wisdom of markets. A lot of people blame the financial crisis on a misguided belief that the market, like evolution, is always cleverer than you are. Usually they mean the problem was that regulators held this belief—a diagnosis that seems mostly wrong from what I’ve read, anyway. But it may have contributed to the problem that market actors held this belief. If the market always aggregates and processes more information than your models can crunch, it’s mook’s game to try to outsmart the market by picking the stocks and securities that will turn out to be underpriced winners. Just diversify and roll with it. If everyone’s gobbling up those AAA-rated CDOs, the market’s confirmed that they really are that safe. But of course, the reason that the market is smarter than any individual participant is that all those individual participants struggling fruitlessly to outsmart it end up contributing their information to the larger process by their efforts. If everyone tries to free ride on the premise that the cloud knows best, market optimality turns out to be a self-defeating prophecy.

A rarity among greater powers, then, the Great Wiki demands our neglect rather than our worship—requires us to forget, in our day-to-day lives, that we’re aware of its existence. It is an anti-Tinkerbell drawing life and strength from our disbelief. The ultimate surrender to the Great Wiki is the will to hubris. And if that faith too turns out to be misplaced, at least you had fun arguing along the way.

Tags: General Philosophy · Markets


       

 

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sam // Aug 19, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Heh. I once read an article about test pilots. The pilots all said that, in extremis, you could always pull the Jesus Maneuver: When the plane was out of control, and nothing you did was working, you took your hands and feet completely off the controls and put the whole thing in the hands of a Higher Power.
    They said it worked more often than you’d think.

  • 2 the teeth // Aug 19, 2009 at 10:22 am

    They said it worked more often than you’d think.

    A touch of survivorship bias going on here, maybe? :)

  • 3 sam // Aug 19, 2009 at 11:11 am

    No doubt. But in those situations I would, like the general in War Games, piss on a sparkplug if I thought it would help (though getting to a sparkplug in an out-of-control aircraft might present a problem :) ).

  • 4 Mike // Aug 19, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    You mean, they put their hands in the laws of physics and the aerodynamics of a plane that is, in most cases, designed to naturally return to straight flight? :)

    I know in racing they teach you that over-correcting is generally the worst, and most natural, thing you can do.

  • 5 jre // Aug 19, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    My flight instructor used to say “This little airplane wants to fly, but you youngbloods just gotta grab her by the scruff of the neck and yank her this way and that way ’til she can’t fly anymore.” Then he’d pull back on the yoke and throw her into an accelerated stall to illustrate his point.

    Maybe the Great Wiki is like that: we will all trend toward a net[1] advance in consciousness so long as we don’t indulge in revert wars and the like.

    [1] (both senses)

  • 6 sam // Aug 19, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    “You mean, they put their hands in the laws of physics and the aerodynamics of a plane that is, in most cases, designed to naturally return to straight flight?”

    Well, recall that these were test pilots flying a machine for which is it was not at all clear that it would return to straight flight–hence, the testing. :)

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  • 8 Nozick on Intellectual Humility // Mar 30, 2010 at 1:21 pm

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  • 9 Intellectual Honesty // Sep 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    […] So “intellectual honesty” is, in a sense, a higher standard than mere honesty.  And while dishonesty in argument is pretty much always a bad thing—you can imagine extreme “murderer at the door” counterexamples, of course—it’s not clear that “intellectual honesty” is necessary in every context. Sometimes—as in a debate round or an adversarial legal proceeding—you want everyone to make the strongest case they can for whatever position they’re assigned to defend, regardless of their own view, to get a clear contrast—or “good clash,” as we used to call it. Sometimes the point is working consensus rather than a search for some ideal.  If I make the case for school vouchers to a religious audience and point out how it would allow them greater freedom to have their kids educated in their own traditions, this might be “intellectually dishonest” in some sense: I think the religious indoctrination of children is a bad thing! And I’d be pretty queasy if the result of a voucher system were a dramatic increase in the number of schools treating “intelligent design” as a serious scientific theory.  I would be giving reasons why they should want to support a policy that I favor for mostly distinct reasons, not sincerely advancing what I think to be the best arguments—and that’s OK sometimes! It’s also a matter of degree rather than kind: I know many people who are at least as smart as I am disagree strongly with lots of my views, so I’m acutely aware that I could be wrong, and that it’s highly probable I’m mistaken about many things.  But instead of constantly hedging and qualifying—though I do plenty of that—I plunge ahead and trust that everything will work out in the Great Wiki. […]

  • 10 I enjoy debating… | Sick Transit // Oct 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

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  • 11 The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Blogger // Dec 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

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