Check your assumptions

My good friend and mentor, stochastic processes über-guru Pol Spanos, has many wise sayings. One is: intuition is a good servant but a terrible master.

In other words, check your assumptions.

A recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academies looks further into this and notes that “intuition can be a good tool when: (1) the environment is predictable (so what happened previously is a good predictor of what will be likely to happen again); and (2) the person has had the “opportunity to learn the regularities of the environment” through repeated exposure and feedback.” (Intelligence Analysis Behavioral and Social Scientific Foundations, National Research Council of the National Academies, 2011, p122.) Unfortunately, these conditions hardly ever exist. So you should know how to use your intuition.

Intuition might be good to set an initial game plan—say decide the order of priority in which you’ll test various hypotheses—but it shouldn’t ever replace a full-blown analysis, on things that matter, that is. Otherwise, you might jump to conclusions and, oh, I don’t know, drive two nations a little further apart because intuition dictates that the performances of a US cyclist are credible and the critics of the French show just how much they are a bunch of envious, critical no-good doers. (Alternatively, replace the deeds of Monsieur Armstrong with the alleged existence of Saddam’s WMDs. Same fallacy, same result.) Except that if you took the time to check your smell check, you wouldn’t be in the awkward position of renaming those fries yet again. Yes, US Congress, I’m talking to you. (And, I know, I know, taking a shot at the US Congress these days isn’t exactly an act of bravery, considering they are less popular than colonoscopies, Brussels sprouts, or—wait for it, France itself!—but since they’re not very good at pointing out their shortcomings, others should.)

The corollary, of course, is that you need to be ready to say that you are wrong. A central idea in our hypothetic-deductive approach to problem solving is that you aren’t aiming at confirming your hypotheses, you’re aiming at shooting them down. The outstanding problem solver isn’t the one saying ‘yep, I was right in the first place’, it’s the one saying ‘ok, I thought I was right but the facts show I was wrong. Great! Let’s integrate this information and move on.’

Our intuitive powers are limited. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they aren’t. You can’t really control them, but you should control how you use them, especially when dealing with unknown quantities. So check your thinking periodically and adopt a fair amount of skepticism towards your intuition.

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