Untangling Good Explanations

“Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.”

—Richard Feynman

Whether you are an individual contributor at work, a manager running a project team, an entrepreneur building a business with your entire net worth on the line, or a CEO leading a multi-billion dollar global organization, it’s generally a good idea to avoid fooling yourself.

In fact, fooling oneself is unadvisable for most any living organism. We humans are just more adept at it than other animals.

But how, with so much information, so much complexity, and so much to do, can we avoid fooling ourselves when it matters most? In our search for understanding, we must begin by making sure we are searching for the right thing. Justification, supporting evidence, and reliable authorities all matter, but there’s something deeper.

What we really want are good explanations, and not all explanations are created equal.

How can we tell a good explanation from a bad one? The physicist and philosopher David Deutsch offers clear and simple criteria:

Good explanations are hard to vary, while still accounting for that which they purport to account for.

Deutsch has a knack for making seemingly simple statements that have profound implications. This is one of them.

The best explanations also have what Deutsch calls “reach.” They end up explaining phenomena well beyond what they were originally conceived to explain.

Isaac Newton Was Not a Conspiracy Theorist

Isaac Newton’s theories of motion and gravity not only account for what they purported to account for—the fact that the apple fell straight down on his head and not any other direction—but they also ultimately explained the motion of essentially everything. Newton’s theories have almost universal reach, and they are monumentally hard to vary.

If you want to change anything about Newton’s first law (inertia), for example, you’ll have to provide an alternate explanation for our entire understanding of physics, as well. If you change anything about the theory, it ruins everything about the theory.

Conspiracy theories are almost always wrong partly because they are not supported by evidence-based reasoning, but more deeply because they are bad explanations. They are typically comically easy to vary.

Flat Earthers contend that our experience of walking on flat ground is explained by the fact that the earth is, in fact, flat. Can we easily vary that theory? Instead of claiming the earth is a flat disc, why not a cube? Or maybe an inverted cone. On second thought, maybe it’s shaped like a giant upside-down gopher tortoise.

Flat earth is a bad explanation because it is really easy to vary. If we took any Flat Earther manifesto on the internet, and did a find-replace substituting “flat disc” with cube, inverted cone, or upside-down gopher tortoise, would it matter? Not really.

But to argue that the earth it is anything but a near-sphere, one cannot just claim that all the evidence was faked by NASA (or was it the Illuminati? Or Elvis?). One must also re-explain the entirety of physics.

The same physics that makes the Earth and all other planets slightly squashed spheres also makes billiard balls move as we expect, water flow downhill, and hurricanes rotate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere.

But Newton Still Got It “Wrong”

Of course, we now know that Newton’s laws were not quite right. It took us more than two centuries, but with quantum mechanics and relativity, we came to understand that Newtonian physics breaks down at the extremes of size, speed, and gravity.

This illustrates another fundamental quality of explanations: they are never settled.

Even the best explanations are never complete. Essential to the growth of knowledge is the recognition that we might always be mistaken. Deutsch argues that the most immoral act is to disable the means by which we criticize our explanations. When we do that, further progress becomes impossible.

Inquiries like this are part of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that explores the nature, origin, scope, and limits of human knowledge.

It’s not just idle philosophizing. Understanding a bit of epistemology is important if we are to avoid fooling ourselves on matters much more consequential than arguing with Flat Earthers.

Good Explanations in the Real World

Think of a problem you are having at work. Perhaps your employee turnover is increasing. Maybe you are struggling to get projects done on time. It could be a technical issue, a manufacturing defect, or a high scrap rate. Maybe you are struggling to get your team to work together effectively.

Why are these things happening?

You likely have some ideas. You might have deeply held beliefs about the cause or causes, maybe even some good evidence, or some authoritative voices agreeing with you. But are they good explanations?

We don't only fool ourselves when it comes to solving problems. We can be even more prone to fooling ourselves when things are going right, because if it ain’t broke, we tend not to prioritize fixing it.

A management team might believe the company is growing because of their excellent management, or that turnover is low because they have created a great place to work, or that their product sells because of its superior design and quality.

Those explanations could be right, but are they hard to vary?

What if the company is simply riding the wave of a growing industry? If the industry is growing at 16% and this hypothetical team’s company is growing at 12%, is that explained by “good management?”

The explanation of low turnover has some “reach” if their local competitors offering similar jobs are struggling while their workforce thrives.

Is their product design and quality really superior? Or are their competitors struggling with supply chain problems (which might soon be resolved)?

Seek Good Explanations When It Matters Most

We are busy people. It is often necessary to take the readily available evidence at face-value. We have to rely on authority figures, because DYOR (do your own research) is just wildly impractical. None of us have either the time or the expertise to derive our entire worldview from first principles.

But when we find ourselves working in complexity, on issues of real consequence like a pivotal project decision or you company’s strategy, we should pause and pressure-test our explanations. We can never reach total certainty, but we can do better.

What we can achieve is a much higher probability that we truly understand why things happen by looking for powerful explanations, those that are hard to vary, and have reach beyond the surface.

Next time you feel like you understand why something happened (and whether it will happen again), ask yourself...

  • Does that really explain it?
  • If I change some of the details, would my explanation still work?
  • Does my explanation have any "reach?" Is there an "a-ha!" that leaves you saying, "Oh! Now I understand why that other thing is happening, too!"

If your answer to all those questions is yes, odds are good that you are onto something.

Retexo strives to work with ideas that provide truly good explanations for how leadership really works, why people behave as they do, and how you can most effectively grow yourself and your business. Contact us to learn more.

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