Tuesday, September 12, 2017

More magical heuristics -- Levy's omnicompetence

Yesterday, I introduced the term magical heuristics (still open to a better name) to describe nonrational mental tools used by many journalists and investors particularly when discussing science and technology. I laid out four general categories for these heuristics: magic of association; magic of language; magic of attitude; magic of destiny.

This post from Alon Levy (one of the most important contributors to the Hyperloop debate) perfectly fits with two of these categories, magic of association and magic of destiny (the idea that there are chosen ones among us destined for greatness). The whole thing is very much worth reading, but I've selected below the paragraphs that are most relevant to this thread and added emphasis to bring home the point:

There is a belief within American media that a successful person can succeed at anything. He (and it’s invariably he) is omnicompetent, and people who question him and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him. If he cares about something, it’s important; if he says something can be done, it can. The people who are already doing the same thing are peons and their opinions are to be discounted, since they are biased and he never is. He doesn’t need to provide references or evidence – even supposedly scientific science fiction falls into this trope, in which the hero gets ideas from his gut, is always right, and never needs to do experiments.


I write this not to help bury Musk; I’m not nearly famous enough to even hit a nail in his coffin. I write this to point out that, in the US, people will treat any crank seriously if he has enough money or enough prowess in another field. A sufficiently rich person is surrounded by sycophants and stenographers who won’t check his numbers against anything.


The more interesting possibility, which I am inclined toward, is that this is not fraud, or not primarily fraud. Musk is the sort of person who thinks he can wend his way from starting online companies to building cars and selling them without dealerships. I have not seen a single defense of the technical details of the proposal except for one Facebook comment that claims, doubly erroneously, that the high lateral acceleration is no problem because the tubes can be canted. Everyone, including the Facebook comment, instead gushes about Musk personally. The thinking is that he’s rich, so he must always have something interesting to say; he can’t be a huckster when venturing outside his field. It would be unthinkable to treat people as professionals in their own fields, who take years to make a successful sideways move and who need to be extremely careful not to make elementary mistakes. The superheros of American media coverage would instantly collapse, relegated to a specialized role while mere mortals take over most functions.

This culture of superstars is a major obstacle frustrating any attempt to improve existing technology. It more or less works for commercial websites, where the startup capital requirements are low, profits per employee are vast, and employee turnover is such that corporate culture is impossible. People get extremely rich for doing something first, even if in their absence their competitors would’ve done the same six months later. Valve, a video game company that recognizes this, oriented its entire structure around having no formal management at all, but for the most part what this leads to is extremely rich people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who get treated like superstars and think they can do anything.

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