Why are the leaves falling?
On trends, facts, and assumptions
I’ve been meaning to write about the events in Ukraine for a while now but discovered that what I wanted to say can be broken into at least three different posts. This is the first post in that series.
Allen Dulles, one of the founders of the CIA and the gray cardinal of the US establishment for decades, once said that people can be confused with facts, but it's very difficult to confuse them if they know the trends.
What does it mean to know the trends?
In simple terms, it means that if you, dear reader, find yourself on a ship that has suddenly come to a jarring stop in the middle of the North Atlantic, and there are rumors [fake news!] of flooding on the lower decks, it is highly likely that there will be a very high premium indeed for each seat in those life rafts everyone ignored during the first day’s safety instruction by the guy in the dashing uniform. Maybe you should be heading for the life rafts, like, immediately.
Fine, you say, I get the trend stuff. But then, you ask, what does it mean to be confused with facts? A great question! In the simple terms outlined above, it means having your mental bandwidth jammed by the sudden avalanche of facts such as:
- The captain said everything is under control, just a little maneuver.
- The orchestra keeps playing.
- Everyone in first class is joking about some puny thug of an iceberg that dared come in our path and we easily avoided thanks to
our democracy the great skill of the guy in the dashing uniform.
- The orchestra keeps playing, and they are pouring free champagne in the club room.
- Apparently, the iceberg has the GDP of a Manhattan street corner and no chance at all against us. Ha!
- Those rumors of flooding in the lower decks are fake news!
- Apparently, a Chef’s apprentice went to the lower decks with an ice pick and single-handedly broke the iceberg into 100 harmless pieces. Everyone in first-class calls him the Ghost of the Engine Room.
- The orchestra has composed a little ditty for the Ghost of the Engine Room and plays it on a loop.
- We have closed all hatches to the lower decks to prevent the spread of fake news.
- The guy in the dashing uniform said we may have hit a small iceberg but the Ghost of the Engine Room is taking care of it as we speak. The iceberg has a laughably low GDP and no chance!
- Apparently, some irresponsible passengers have started lowering the life rafts on their own and one or two have already left the ship. The captain has put armed guards around the remaining life rafts.
You get the picture.
Trends are built out of events locked in a causal chain. Events are built out of other events that we call facts out of convenience. Facts are built out of other facts. Yes, it’s turtles all the way down. To understand a trend and spot it in the wild, you need deep knowledge of past events, broad knowledge of related facts, and the ability to evaluate their second-order implications without emotional attachment. Let’s break this down.
Knowing past events means understanding their causes, the events themselves, and their effects. Wikipedia tells us that WWII, or at least its European front, started with the German attack on Poland on 1 September 1939. That’s one isolated fact we can designate as the start of the event. We could choose another fact as the start, but in either case, it would be only a very small part of the event.
Other elements of the event might include the history of Polish-German relations in Pomerania and East Prussia, the history of the city of Gdansk [or Danzig], the events of WWI, the ethnic geography of the region, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the British security guarantees to Poland, and many many more. Events, even the most mundane ones, are complex phenomena resulting from the tangling agencies of multiple little factoids arranged in a causal chain.
Everything might matter, and nothing should be forgotten or ignored.
On top of that, we have a broad pool of related facts that might not be in a direct causal relationship with an event but are of indirect importance due to their second-order effects. The collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the discovery of oil in the Caspian basin, the Wall Street collapse in 1929, and so on. Not directly related to the chain of events we are focused on but good to know about them as their second-order effects influence our chain of events.
Finally, there’s the problem of evaluating facts and second-order implications without emotional attachment. Most people are usually fond of themselves. Most people have opinions about reality that they take very seriously, and more often than not associate with their identity and sense of self-worth. This means that most people are emotionally attached to their opinions.
If you’ve been paying attention you might see why that is a very serious problem. You cannot be expected to accurately evaluate a fact or its second-order implications if you are emotionally invested in a specific alignment of that fact in the causal chain.
This problem is made even more serious by the upstream problem of the language we use to describe facts, events, and other people. The facts we think about are downstream from the language we use to think with. If the narrative tools you use to build your reality frame with are hopelessly damaged by emotional and totalizing language [see my post on cognitive mercantilism], the rest of your analysis is useless white noise. What does this problem look like in practice?
Here’s a scenario. All legacy and social media suddenly fill up with serious analysts discussing whether this month’s Enemy of the West is an irrational lunatic, a desperate thug, an evil autocrat, or all of the above. After a few days of intense pontificating a consensus emerges that this month’s Enemy of the West is an evil thug made irrational by his desperate situation. Following that, the fine analysts – with backgrounds as disparate as politics, finance, sport, and cryptocurrency – proceed to deliberate on the possible future strategies for mitigating the inevitable demise of the Enemy. Two weeks into this uplifting discussion, a veritable genius among the analysts discovers the evil thug made irrational by his desperate situation controls the largest nuclear triad on the planet. All intricate calculations have to be discarded. Back to the drawing block! How do we stop this guy?!
You see the problem here. The base assumptions of the narrative are built on a frame hopelessly polluted by emotive language and cognitive mercantilism. Everything downstream of that frame is so much hot air and should make you immediately question all other opinions of the serious analysts. Clearly, they either don’t know how to or don’t want to, pick the right tools to think with.
To make this even simpler, if you are basing your analysis of the ship’s situation on a frame populated by the exploits of the valiant Ghost of the Engine Room your chances of getting on that life raft are infinitesimally small. Unless. Unless you are already on one of those life rafts that made it out and are singing praises to the valiant kitchen hand with an ice pick simply to buy more time for your boat as it moves away from the sinking ship. In that case, nothing I’ve written here is new to you.
As we proceed with our analysis of trends, we have to operate based on one or several assumptions. These are tricky to do properly, for all the cognition and language-related reasons outlined above. Let’s say you have done your framing properly and are looking at events as they unfold. You are trying to understand how they fit in a trend, but the problem is you cannot make any sense of the enemy’s moves. Why are they doing that, it doesn’t make any sense? We wouldn’t do that in the same situation, no rational actor would!
The fact you do not understand the enemy’s rationale does not mean that the enemy is not a rational actor. It means that you a] have insufficient data, and/or b] your data is no good, and/or c] you do not want to acknowledge the existence of the enemy’s rationale. The last possibility would suggest that you are, in fact, the irrational actor in this sordid little tale.
So far so good – facts, trends, assumptions – but right about now you might be wondering which facts to focus on and build assumptions about in our search for the elusive trend.
There is an apocryphal saying attributed to a KGB colonel, which goes more or less like this:
If the leaves are falling, someone with a name and address has ordered them to.
What is the mysterious colonel telling us? It’s about assumptions. Assume even the most mundane phenomena are part of causal chains. Why? Because they usually are. Asking why something is happening is not enough though. You have to follow through upstream the causal chain to the name and address of the originator of the event chain. No matter how mundane the chain. The trick is to do this long enough so it becomes a habit while ignoring the white noise which will invariably fill the space you are trying to analyze. Then, maybe, you get to pick an empty lifeboat.