Subtraction is better than addition

As far as I can remember, from the talks I had with various authors, scientists, the majority of them, especially scientists have been very careful with their prediction about outcomes of experiments, social and government changes. Now I do the same, very rarely anybody can hear from any form of prediction, mostly because they don’t come to fruition as soon as they vocalized. Why so?

The thing is, we rarely understand the limits of what we know, and we completely lack the knowledge of unknown unknowns. We can’t take into account what we missed, close your eyes and try recounting what you haven’t done. We miss the notion of inaction, it stays out of reach of our consciousness. And this is exactly what makes progress possible. Randomness of the events is a true miracle doer to evolution, embrace it. But how to plan and make correct prediction? There is a solution.

Every professional uses in their decision-making framework mostly negative thinking, what mustn’t happen in order to get what I want. What moves to do on the chessboard and not to lose the leadership in the game or the game itself. What decision won’t bust my business. Should I look into this bush, that shakes strangely, or I can live without the knowledge that the Sabre tiger is lurking there. In short, pessimistic mindset wins ten out of ten from optimistic. The greatest contribution to knowledge lies in a field of subtraction.

Imagine that I asked you to describe the phone of the future, say from the year 2100. What it would look like? I bet you have something like this in mind:
We might assume that they will look extremely different from what we have now. Foremost, form factor will change, maybe we will manage it with power of a thought, or it will be integrated and used as a piece of wetware equipment, the dream of any transhumanist. Could be charged wirelessly over the air, and all other traits brought together from sci-fi novels.
I, on the other hand, see a phone from the 2100 a little differently. The phone of the future will still have the possibility to make calls, send messages and email, take photos, make videos and audio recordings.

Imagine that we made a bet, who would win? I think the second prediction has greater chance of playing out. Thus, the greatest contribution to any knowledge we can make is not adding anything, but taking away. Peeling layers of information and misconception, digging to the core of things. It’s what we think wrong must be removed, not what we think right added. It is called subtractive epistemology.

As human being we evolved with better understanding of what is wrong not what is right. What doesn’t work stands out more. A broken car on the side of the road draws attention better than the same but moving car. Typos in the book catch eyes faster than immaculate text. When the text slightly blurred, reading it becomes an effortful process and understanding becomes deeper. In an argument, one small and apparently unimportant counterargument can invalidate the soundest idea. What I want to say is that disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation. I refer to our tendency to overestimating the possibility of positive (good) things happening in life. In any book or scientific publication, it’s preferable to print research that has a positive (eventful) outcome, than an uneventful or negative one. Which raises another issue that is not the topic of this piece, the replication problem.

In conclusion, I want to restate the not so obvious fact, negative knowledge is more robust. It’s better not to do something than do.





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