Wrong models are good

“To live a creative life we must first lose the fear of being wrong.”
– Joseph Chilton Pearce

A common belief is that we should only use correct mental models, but the reality is that some wrong models are worth keeping around.

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A mental model is how our minds think of the world abstractly. We make approximations based on these mental models. The standard advice is to collect a wide range of mental models, like having a toolbox filled with all sorts of tools. We must make sure these models are accurate, or else our approximations will be bad.

Sounds logical, but how about this:

The model of the atom taught to high school chemistry students is the Bohr model. An atom has a positively charged solid core called the nucleus, surrounded by negatively charged electrons arranged in layers. This model is good at explaining concepts such as the difference between covalent and ionic bonds or the structure of the periodic table. But it is wrong, as teachers well know. The Schrödinger model, which describes electrons as probability distributions around a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, is more accurate.

201802 bohrwrong

Then why teach the wrong Bohr model? The reason is that although it’s wrong, the Bohr model is the most effective way of teaching the core concepts. Students need to understand these concepts before they can learn the more advanced concepts explained by the Schrödinger model. Trying to skip a step and leap straight to the Schrödinger model will confuse students and actually slow down their learning. So the Bohr model is wrong, but it is useful!

This is just one example of a wrong but useful model. There are three major types of wrong models that are worth keeping around even when correct models could replace them. We can think of them as lanterns, flashlights, and traffic lights.

Lanterns

201802 lantern

Lanterns light up everything around them. Although their light cannot penetrate into the farthest corners, they can make the most important areas bright enough. Lanterns give us a broad and wide-ranging explanation for the things they claim to model. They are efficient and very safe to use, with no risk of leading us badly astray.

Often, a slightly wrong model is good enough. If I need directions to a nearby grocery store, I don’t need to model the Earth as a sphere. The curvature of the Earth is irrelevant and I just need to think of it as a flat plane. If I’m weighing out flour to bake a cake, I don’t need to think of mass and weight as separate things, and I don’t need to adjust for the gravity difference due to how high I am above sea level. I can just read the scale and that’s good enough.

Models can also be useful even if they are not scientifically valid. The MBTI is a personality test which is unreliable and unfalsifiable. Psychometricians (people who study mental processes and abilities) hate it! But for many people the MBTI gives useful guidance and the risk of harm is low. For example, one MBTI concept is that some people think mainly in terms of concepts and ideas, while others respond to real information from the physical world. There is no scientific proof for this, but it is still a useful model that provides good actionable ideas. It would be a mistake to ignore the MBTI just because it isn’t supported by evidence.

Flashlights

201802 flashlight

Flashlights focus light in a narrow beam. While lanterns try to reveal as much as possible, that’s not the purpose of flashlights. They are trying to illuminate a small area very thoroughly. Flashlights are more dangerous than lanterns, because it’s tempting to use them for everything. Just like in horror movies, doing this leads to bad outcomes.

Libertarianism is a recent example. Libertarianism says that freedom and autonomy are good, the free market is the best economic system, restrictions on individual actions should be minimized, and private property is important. Government is wasteful and inefficient, so we should minimize it.

This model is wrong because it ignores other things in society that need to be accounted for, such as intergenerational wealth persistence, negative effects of economic inequality on social cohesion, reduction of social capital due to pure competition, the harm to some moral foundations caused by individual freedom, and so on.1 By omitting important concepts from other fields of study, the model is incomplete.

Most people dismiss libertarianism because of this, which is a big mistake. Libertarianism is only dangerous if we treat it as a complete, one-size-fits-all model. If we are aware of what the model leaves out, we can use it as a flashlight and apply it only to areas where it excels, such as thinking about incentive systems and productivity.

Traffic Lights

201802 traffic light

Traffic lights give off almost no light at all. If you tried to see in the dark with a traffic light, you wouldn’t get anywhere. This doesn’t mean that traffic lights are useless! Lanterns and flashlights may help us see, but traffic lights show us where to go.

Traffic light models are often quickly thrown away because they are obviously wrong, but this is a mistake. They improve the power of our other models, and are safe precisely because we won’t apply them directly.

Astrology is a great example. It claims that the location of the planets determines people’s personality, and this is completely wrong. Then how does astrology improve our thinking?

First, astrology directs us to think about the Barnum effect. These are ways of sounding insightful by making statements that sound specific, but are so general that they apply to almost everyone. “You tend to be critical of yourself” or “sometimes you are sociable, while at other times you are more reserved” are examples of this effect.

This leads to further insights: how come people are tricked by these statements so easily? It’s due to the tendency of the brain to match patterns too easily, which is a systematic error called pareidolia. Thinking about astrology led us to a valuable insight into how our brains work!

We could also think of astrology as a kind of cold reading, which is the skill of noticing a lot of small details about someone to arrive at an accurate guess of what they are like. That sounds like a valuable skill, doesn’t it? Further study of astrology, mentalism, fortune-telling, and related fields will give us an even stronger ability to notice these subtle cues and what they mean.

Astrology also helps with other mental models. We can pattern match it to other models; if they are similar to astrology, then they are likely wrong. Also, knowing that many people believe in astrology, we can think about what makes astrology attractive to them and think about how this applies to our other models. All of this helps us strengthen our existing models and evaluate new models. Keeping the astrology model in our toolbox makes our brain draw connections between things much more easily.

The takeaway here is that a model can be wrong but still useful. We shouldn’t be so quick to discard a model just because it is wrong!

You might feel guilty about having wrong models in your brain. It feels inefficient to remember astrology information; surely it’s better to delete it and only remember correct things? I hope this article shows why that’s not the case, and that you will feel comfortable carrying around wrong models of the world. You could even baby-hammer and keep every new wrong model you come across for a while!


1. If you don’t agree with this example and think that libertarianism adequately accounts for all of these factors, please substitute with another ideology of your choice.

Be the baby with a hammer

Michael Baby

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow

Conventional wisdom warns against being fascinated by a new idea and applying it to everything. But the reverse is true; we should deliberately apply new ideas more than it seems necessary.

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Baby with a hammer syndrome happens when a baby gets her hands on a hammer. A hammer should only be used to pound nails. But our baby loves using her hammer so much, she pounds everything in sight – nails, xylophones, toys, even grandma’s precious crystal collection! Adults can behave like this, too. A lawyer enjoys success because she is a tough negotiator at work, so she negotiates everything, even with friends and loved ones. When dad gets a new sports car, he drives it to the grocery store, even though it is so close to home and there are no parking spots there.

I call this mindset “baby-hammering”. Many people warn against this mindset, and for good reason. It can be dangerous to be too focused on a single thing, and even smart and skilled people can be harmed by this. One example is the psychologist B. F. Skinner, who contributed to the theory of operant conditioning. This theory says that people do things more if they are rewarded for it, and do things less if they are punished for it. This is a great theory, but sadly Skinner fell in love with it, stretching it to explain everything and refusing to consider other theories:

“What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome […] he scorned opponents who had any different way of thinking or thought anything else was important. This is not a way to make a lasting reputation if the other people turn out to also be doing something important.”

Another example of bad baby-hammering is the story of Ancel Keys. He had the idea that eating some kinds of fatty foods caused heart disease. He focused on this idea so much that he didn’t seriously consider other possible causes, and produced a lot of wrong advice that millions of people followed:

 “His biggest error […] had to do with tunnel vision. Along with failing to explore reasons why fat might be linked to heart disease in a non-causal way, it seems Keys had his eyes locked so tightly on his lovely lipids that he didn’t notice the role of other dietary factors.”

We all know someone who constantly uses their pet theory for everything, with bad results. It’s easy to see why this is so tempting: it takes little effort to bash the same hammer over and over again. So doesn’t this mean that baby-hammering is bad and we should avoid it?

No! Don’t stop here, we need to explore further.

We saw that mindless baby-hammering leads to bad results. But the key word here is “mindless”. I think that when we learn a new insight or concept, we should be baby-hammering often. The difference is that we should over-use and over-apply things in an intentional way, while being totally aware of what we are doing and putting our heart into it.

Why is this good? For one thing, the dangers of baby-hammering are low if we are doing it deliberately. When we are baby-hammering this way, we welcome feedback and are willing to change course. This protects us against the biggest danger, which is tunnel vision.

The risk is also lower if we are able to use a multi-disciplinary approach. Someone who has a big toolbox with wrenches, screwdrivers, saws, pliers and spanners inside can confidently baby-hammer. He has a rough idea of the best result and worst result, and of what is likely to happen. He can use the hammer to try and turn a screw, and compare it to his experience using screwdrivers to turn a screw. He can try to use the hammer to pull out some nuts and bolts and compare it to using a wrench.

The main downside of intentional baby-hammering is the risk of looking foolish, and this is only temporary.

What about the benefits? I can see three major benefits:

Speed. Babies learn things really quickly, much more quickly than adults do. Let’s think about how a baby learns new things. She learns by trying out all kinds of things, and seeing which ones work and which ones don’t. She quickly learns that using a hammer to pound grandma’s crystal plates leads to an unhappy grandma and an angry mum. She learns how to use a screwdriver or whistle or bowling ball not by using them as they were intended, but by using them as they were not intended. People learn quickly by failing often. The baby quickly learns to use a hammer by trying out many different ways of using it, and then stops doing the ones that give bad results. This eagerness to try things out is why babies learn quicker than adults.

Learning chess is a good example. Beginners love to use their queen all the time, because the queen is the most powerful piece. Although tempting, it’s usually a bad play, because a player who uses all of their pieces will win against a player who only uses their queen. The standard teaching method is to tell the beginner not to move their queen too much, with a short explanation of why they should be bringing out their other pieces. But moving the queen is fun! How can we expect people to learn quickly if we prevent them from feeling joy? Instead, I think it’s much better to encourage beginners to move their queen as much as they want. With some gentle suggestions to guide them, they will quickly absorb this lesson and gain a deep and lasting understanding.

Creativity. Creativity is when we can quickly think of many ways of using or combining things. Baby-hammering is extremely creative, because we’re trying out things that people normally wouldn’t dare to try. Hello Kitty is a good example. Who would have thought that a cartoon cat could be used to sell dental braces or coffins? It’s highly creative to put Hello Kitty on microwave ovens, toasters, or microscopes. All of these products only happened because someone baby-hammered the Hello Kitty brand fearlessly.

Possibilities. Occasionally, you will discover a new way of seeing things that is extremely powerful. Following the baby-hammer method, you keep using this new concept as often as you can. You expect it to lead to failure, but it works for everything. Discovering something like this often leads to major improvements in your life. This can only happen if you had the courage to baby-hammer it. If you didn’t, you would have learned it much more slowly, or not at all.

Peter Thiel does this. Once upon a time, he had the idea of “flipping around” things to see if the conventional wisdom is wrong. He then applied it to everything he could think of. People say going to university is good, but what if it was a waste of time? So he gave money to young people for them to not go to university. People think that journalists can safely write whatever they want about famous people, but what if they could be driven to bankruptcy for doing so? People think conflicts of interest are bad, but what if it was good? People think corruption is harmful, but what if having no corruption was also bad? Peter Thiel is so successful because of his willingness to baby-hammer even at the risk of suffering embarrassment.

There’s always a time and place for everything. Even though I recommend baby-hammering a lot, we still have to reduce it to a normal amount at some point. When should we stop?

I believe we should stop baby-hammering when our natural curiosity is satisfied. If we have truly let go of our concerns and given ourselves the freedom to baby-hammer, then the loss of curiosity is our brain’s signal that it is satisfied with the new gift we have given it.

Please try out baby-hammering for yourself. Here are some ideas:

  • Just read an anthropology book? See if the patterns appear in your country. Can you apply it with your friend groups? How about at work?
  • Learning to play the drums? Hit every object you come across, to see what sound it makes. Try to see rhythmic patterns everywhere around you.
  • Tried Thai food for the first time? Experiment with different combinations. Green curry and chocolate. Pad thai in a bagel. Thai iced tea cocktails.
  • Took the bus to visit a friend? What if you took the bus everywhere you went? What about visiting every area in your city?
  • Had a baby? Consider all your social opportunities based on how baby-friendly they are. Only go to places which have baby facilities. Buy everything based on how useful it is for the baby.

I’m sure you can think of much more. Try baby-hammering everything. I would be so happy if you over-used this concept!