Via Negativa: Wisdom Through Subtraction

Published on April 12, 2017

Modern life is full of opportunities to seek wisdom and knowledge by adding new sources to our information diet.  If reading one newspaper is a good idea, perhaps adding a second or third will generate further enlightenment.  If a tidbit or two of information can be found on Facebook, then maybe adding Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social networks will reveal additional tidbits.  There are always numerous new books, many of which should have instead been a series of blog posts, purporting to solve complicated problems by adopting new ways to achieve some seemingly important objective.  The problem is that in our modern world, the noise can become overwhelming and any relevant signals can easily be lost in the cacophony.  Look around in any public setting and you will see people glued to their smart phones consuming “information”, some even while driving their cars or walking across busy intersections completely oblivious to the real world surrounding them.

Library of Congress

Bill Gates has long been known to take semi-annual retreats where he goes into seclusion for seven days in order to ponder various topics.  These retreats, which he characterizes as “think weeks”, were originally intended to consider Microsoft’s future but most likely have taken a broader view as Mr. Gates turned his attention toward philanthropy in recent years.  Removing oneself from the noise of day to day life is sometimes a pre-requisite for gaining insights.  In some cases, it is a requirement.  Inspired by the concept of a “think week”, I recently decided to disconnect for a few days with the goal of reading books, limiting consumption of news, completely eliminating consumption of and participation in “social media”, and giving myself the space to … think about various topics.

The silence was overwhelming.

Less Is Much More 

The concept of subtractive knowledge is discussed in quite a bit of detail in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, one of the books in the Incerto series.  In life, understanding what to avoid is more important than constantly searching for positive advice to do something new. This is expressed well in the following brief excerpt:

“So the central tenet of the epistemology I advocate is as follows: we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works).  So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition — given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.  If I spot a black swan (not capitalized), I can be quite certain that the statement “all swans are white” is wrong.  But even if I have never seen a black swan, I can never hold such a statement to be true.”

Translated into the concept of a “think week”, the first and most obvious benefit was surprisingly not the content in the books I had selected to read but in the absence of the noise and useless chatter of everyday life that I left behind.  I did not completely avoid the news but strictly limited my news diet to thirty minutes right after waking up in the morning and I did not return to any form of news until late in the day.  I banned all forms of social media, turned off the ringer on my phone, and responded only to personal correspondence.  Doing this was equivalent to a fog lifting and facilitated the ability to think.  Therefore, without even turning the page of the first book I had selected, I had gained mental bandwidth by subtraction of “news” and chatter — Via Negativa.

Social Media and Emerging Events

Anyone who has been active on social media knows that reasoned discussion is rare and meaningless chatter is the norm.  On Twitter, in particular, the vast majority of “fintwit” participants are looking for actionable information that they can trade on … immediately.  Others are there for nefarious reasons such as hyping a company that they are long or attacking a company that they are short. The majority of accounts seem to be anonymous which could be understandable if they are not financially independent and rely on the benevolence of an employer who they are afraid of offending.  In general, it is best to judge these accounts based on the quality of their content rather than their anonymity, but if one chooses to not be anonymous yet interact with anonymous accounts, an important asymmetry exists in which one side is accountable for their actions while the other is not.

The following example is not related to investments but perfectly illustrates the group think and noise prevalent on the internet in general and social media in particular.

On April 4, 2017 reports of a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria horrified anyone with access to the internet who observed the pictures of dead and dying civilians, many of whom were innocent children.  In the hours immediately after the attack, before any facts where known regarding the situation, it quickly became apparent that it was not permissible to even ask the following basic questions regarding the attack:

  1. Are we sure that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad ordered and oversaw the attack?
  2. Did Assad have an incentive to order such an attack?
  3. Is it possible that one or more of the rebel groups executed a “false flag” operation intended to frame the Assad regime and generate a U.S. response?
  4. Did Assad lose control of his military chain of command – was the attack unauthorized?
  5. Are we sure that Russia was involved?  What are the motives/incentives?

The only permissible opinion, both in “polite company” as well as the noise of the internet was to unequivocally declare that Assad ordered and oversaw the attack.  Anyone who dared to even ask the additional questions above was immediately branded an Assad regime apologist or, more commonly, a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of the Assad regime.

Three days later, on April 7, the Trump Administration launched 59 cruise missiles in an attack on the Shayrat Air Base where the administration believed planes took off to execute the attack on Khan Shaykhun.  Yet the attacks failed to halt the use of the base for Syrian flights which resumed shortly after the attack.  Asking any of the following questions was deemed to be not only politically incorrect but disloyal:

  1. What was the goal of the operation and was it fulfilled if the air base was again being used for Syrian flights shortly after the attack?
  2. Were the benefits of attacking an air base with Russian troops present outweighed by the benefits of the attack – and, if so, please name the benefits.
  3. What U.S. interests were involved and why was Congress not asked to authorize the attack?
  4. What is the evidence that further chemical attacks will now be thwarted, whether by the Syrian regime or by rebel forces?
  5. What makes us confident in current intelligence reports given prior intelligence reports stating that 100% of chemical weapons were removed from Syria?

On April 11, four days after the missile attacks on the Shayrat Air Base, the Trump Administration released declassified information that supports the decision to attack.  The declassified report, drawing on information provided by the military and intelligence services, appears to answer some of the questions posed above.

Silencing the Jackals

There is a certain asymmetry that one must understand on social media – if one is not anonymous and chooses to interact with those hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, prepare for relentless attack if you have several thousand followers and have expressed a non-consensus view – whether it is about a particular investment or the wisdom of engaging in warfare.

What is clear is that social media, despite claims to the contrary, does not add to the discussion during times when news is breaking and the facts are foggy, at best.  There might be some exceptions when it comes to verifiable eyewitnesses, but the commentary from observers removed from the action is of very little value.  Removing such information actually adds to knowledge by eliminating mental pollution.  

One of the common sentiments on Twitter, in response to posts where some of these questions on Syria were asked, was to inform me that I should “stick to my topic” – presumably meaning investing.  But who other than the individual gets to decide what “his topic” should be, particularly when we are talking about a free website?

Nassim Taleb came up with the concept of “F*** You Money”, which in other words means that an individual has the financial freedom to say goodbye to his employer, if warranted.  Much the same, when it comes to social media, one has the right to say “F*** You” to those who would even suggest that one should “stick to” some predefined topic that they approve of.  In the case of social media, that means an unconditional policy of blocking any and all such “critics”, to say nothing of the many who would threaten or engage in personal attacks with knowledge of my identity.

Taking the Best, Discarding the Worst

Why does anyone choose to engage with others on social media, particularly strangers, and particularly when there is an asymmetry created by not being anonymous in a sea of anonymity?  Self interest should be the main guiding light.  Disagreements on principle or concepts, as long as they are informed, should be sought out because by doing so we can counteract tendencies to become wedded to our prior beliefs.  Testing ideas can also be beneficial, although I am highly skeptical of the wisdom of widely sharing investment ideas, particularly because of the negative psychological effects this can cause.  But any form of unethical or intellectually devoid discussion, particularly straw man arguments (“You don’t care about the children who were gassed!”, “You must be short that stock”, “You should be running a 7/11 or a Comfort Inn”, “You are a stooge of Putin”, “You must hate puppies”) should immediately result in blocking the individual, no warnings given.

Via Negativa is a good way to view life in general and it seems to have special applicability when it comes to “information” that we are inundated with on a daily basis.  Little additional insight seems to occur when spending two hours with newspapers compared to fifteen to thirty minutes (at the most).  Hardly any loss occurs when eliminating social media interactions entirely.  Turning off the cell phone and taking a walk while actually observing the world is more conductive to thinking about a topic, in some depth, than being constantly connected.  Removing bad elements from your life can be far more conducive to acquisition of wisdom than adding something new.

This is not to say that the acquisition of worldly wisdom is not important.  It is vitally important, particularly to venture beyond one’s narrow discipline in order to acquire the best knowledge from other fields.  However, Via Negativa applies when venturing into new territory as well.  Taking the best from the field, preferably focusing on old sources that have stood the test of time, is preferable to reading blog posts or new bestsellers in the field.

Lest we skip an obvious point, only the reader can decide whether this article in particular or the website in general is additive to his or her knowledge.  It is perfectly possible that this content is a net negative – “information” that is not helpful and should be eliminated from your information diet.

Via Negativa: Wisdom Through Subtraction