Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Curse of Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom, understandings about life and the world developed by past generations, has always been with us.  Hundreds of years ago Galileo experienced the downside of conventional wisdom when he had the temerity to suggest the earth was round and ended up imprisoned.

Our education is rooted in teaching conventional wisdom.  We go to school (or church) to memorize facts and ideas that our elders deem important.  Ideally it is a starting point for understanding life.  But our increasing sophistication and rapid growth of technology makes one suspect conventional wisdom is becoming ever more of a drag on society.  

Biologically our brains seem to be hardwired to suck in information through our teens but our brain begins to become less flexible as we become an adult.  In prior ages formal education ended very young for most people, so they were out in the world being forced to problem solve to survive very early in life.

Today conventional wisdom says if you want to do well in life you need at least a college education, which means continuing to memorize conventional wisdom into early adulthood, where we begin to approach the point where our brain is already losing some of its ability to be flexible in our thinking.

Education can help one learn to cultivate flexibility, but often to do that requires rejecting conventional wisdom the instructor is attempting to impart.  That often means you end up getting a lower grade than those who just figure out what the instructor wants to hear and regurgitate it.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg didn't care about building a resume so they could get get a good job, they were interested in solving problems.  So they dropped out of college to avoid having to regurgitate conventional wisdom and started solving problems.  That approach can work in a career founded on advancing technology because you can physically demonstrate your understanding by building a better machine.  But it doesn't work so well in social sciences, economics or politics as they are rooted in more abstract ideas.

So social sciences, economics and politics end up being dominated by the folks who did the best job of absorbing conventional wisdom.  They got great grades, great first jobs and go from there.  But they are often limited in their problem solving ability by mistakes in the conventional wisdom their thinking is rooted in.  They have a hard time figuring out how to deal with data that contradicts conventional wisdom and find it emotionally difficult to contradict the conventional wisdom they spent years learning.

Politics of today presents perhaps a perfect example.  Economic data covering the last 100 years shows a vast gap in the economic health of the country between the half century when the US imposed income taxes at rates of over 50% on the wealthiest taxpayers and the half century when the highest tax rate paid by the wealthy was under 40%.   In the high tax years growth averaged nearly 3% per year, while the National debt was stable.  In the low tax years debt exceeded growth. 

Conventional wisdom says high income taxes limit growth.  As a result neither political party seems capable of accepting that fact the data contradicts conventional wisdom.

Accepting the truth the data suggests may fall to generations to come who are exposed to the data before their thinking loses flexibility.  We don't seem currently  capable of dealing with it.

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