On the suspension of disbelief
Previously, I asked what kind of leader you wanted to be. In it, I struggled with the question of the tradeoffs of misrepresenting ground truth.
Suppose you work at the WWE and you need to make a business decision. Somebody literally believes that it’s all real. You need to make a business decision about a contract renewal. What kind of harm are you doing to them, and to yourself, in going along with their belief, something that you know yourself not to be true?
Beliefs are absurd things.
Later that month, I was asked why I was so sure that WWE wasn’t real? Why was my version of ground truth any more legitimate than somebody else’s ground truth? I replied, glibly, that I was quite sure Hornswoggle wasn’t Vince McMahon’s son (That would be Kennedy). I argued that I’d gladly update my beliefs in response to evidence that Hornswoggle was real, and indeed, the son of Vince McMahon. Fundamentally, WWE is fictional art, with accidents.
After thinking more on that, and thinking back to the advice that James G. March gave us about experience, there may be a better way that doesn’t involve lying, taking down ones’ integrity in doing so, or stalemate, or open conflict.
Why is this even problem?
Because of beliefs.
Previously, in that post, I wrote: “I believe there to be an obligation to emit a signal when ground truth is not shared.”
Why should such a belief exist?
For whatever reason, I believe that I should at least try to leave people better off. What service is there in reinforcing an untruth through silence, or worse, nodding? In order to just get through the decision, I could remain silent, disengage, and arrive at a resolution. That would be easier. It’s less risky. It doesn’t damage a relationship. But it wouldn’t be better.
For another reason, I believe that reality is scary and business is competitive. One can’t afford to engage in delusional, unicorn, thinking. The convenient stories people make up for convenient reasons, when repeated and believed, endanger estranging the entire enterprise from ground truth, rendering the firm uncompetitive.
Instead of wallowing in fear – what’s a better way forward?
A better question may be why they believe that WWE is literally real? Which aspects of it are real? Why is it an advantage to hold that belief? When did they come believe that? How does it help them?
What if it’s real enough to be salient to the contract decision?
Disbelief Beyond The Absurd
I chose WWE because it’s something relatable to a North American audience, and a field where the suspension of disbelief is very important in enjoying that art form. There’s very little difference between watching WWE or a watching a Marvel movie or taking in an Opera or watching a comedy. Many experiences demand that you accept a lie as the price of entry.
We might suspend disbelief when we go to work in order to enjoy it.
Data scientists, when among friends, will equate belief with heuristic (a heuristic is a rule of thumb). Heuristics are only accurate some of the time. A great heuristic is accurate 95% of the time. A good one 80% of the time. An acceptable one 68% of the time. These are quite different from algorithms, which we expect to perform extremely well and very reliably, or natural laws, which are ground truth.
There are simply too many heuristics to refine. If we spent all our time challenging every belief we encounter or every anecdote posing as data, we’d never have time, energy, or resources to sort the important activities from the myths. There’d be no time left to discover new heuristics from the mystery. There’d be no chance to pull the heuristics that really matter into algorithms.
So many of us spend so much time fighting to disprove heuristics, in particular amongst groups that are put off learning because we’re the ones fighting.
It’s more absurd to think that we’ll ever catch all the absurdity. It’s messing with our backlog. It’s polluting our research agendas.
Perhaps a better leadership mode would be to respond the same way we respond to unusual data? Perhaps we should respond with curiosity?
What do you think?
Let me know on Twitter @cjpberry or send me a note.