Opinions Redux

Attributions are opinions. But they are the opinions of experts. I’ve written before on it but it bears some pounding on the table from time to time.

There is a strong libertarian school of thought in the sword market which is abused by sellers. This is based partially on calling out your manhood.

I don’t need papers to tell me what to think. Do you need papers to tell you what to think?

— Guy who probably should pay more attention to papers

For a mid level student, this calls their knowledge out on the floor and challenges it. Nobody wants to be the mid level guy to say yeah, I don’t know.

There are known unknowns

Let me type this out because it is a miracle of off the cuff locution.

There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

— Donald Rumsfeld, patriot, poet, and Dark Lord of the Sith

If you listen you can really pick up on the rhythm of his speaking. I never liked the guy, and I felt he was was clearly working off of Machiavelli’s playbook that the ends justify the means. Rumsfeld’s primary problem was arrogance: he is an extremely intelligent man but couldn’t foresee that he could possibly be wrong.

The very nature of unknown unknowns is that you cannot know what the results will be. 

So even though Rummy was smart enough to recognize that there were situations where you should throw up your hands and say, “I don’t know” … he never did so himself. If he would have, then he would have been more cautious and the history of the world up to today would be much different. 

Let’s give this failing mode of thinking a handle. Let’s call it:

Rumsfeld’s Failure of Imagination: that the nature of knowledge means it is always possible for people to be wrong; however that applies only to other people. 

I don’t know

When it comes to matters of scholarship, only two types of people say I don’t know: beginners and top level scholars. 

Darcy: Can you tell me what you think we should do?

Steve Jobs: I don’t know.

— email exchange, ca. 1991

That actually did happen.

The least wise and least educated have nothing at stake to say I don’t know.

The most wise and most educated have gone around the full circle to close the loop. They have enough experience to know that it’s not always possible to know, and to be comfortable with saying I don’t know.

Everyone in between the top level expert and the bottom level newbie, will claim they know and furthermore that there is something wrong when you don’t. These will always try to sketch together an answer even when one cannot be had, because they have enough knowledge to feel uncomfortable with it being challenged and yet do not have enough knowledge to know when I don’t know is the right answer (or the only answer).

Following the model of Rummy and being lead around by your arrogance means dismissing the opinion of people who are experts in exchange for what you know in your gut to be true.

Rummy thought he could use an army to bring freedom and liberty to the middle east. He thought with just the right amount of bombs, he could bomb the world into happiness and security. Oddly enough it did not work out this way.

What he did there was to dismiss the opinion of everyone that disagreed with the conclusion he already held in his gut to be true. In this it became a matter of religion and if you questioned it or admitted uncertainty or that you needed the opinions of experts, then you got called out on the floor as someone who just did not know.

People respond to this challenge generally by trying to cover up the holes in their knowledge and piecing something together into a conclusion. These conclusions are usually not valid because they’re based on incomplete knowledge and incomplete experience and moreover, they assume that there actually is an answer to be had.

Q. Please tell me the position and momentum of an electron at a given point in time?

A: it is not possible within the framework of reality to provide an answer to this question.

— Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

This point that quantum mechanics makes is that some questions have only one valid answer and that answer is “I don’t know.”

Darcy: On this blade with part of the signature cut off, if _______ did not make it, then who did?

Tanobe sensei: God only knows.

Therein is the path of wisdom. There are some unknown unknowns and by their very nature they cannot be corralled into something manageable. Tanobe sensei was wise enough to provide the right answer to this question. With a twinkle in his eye nonetheless which implied that he had a theory but was not about to put it on the line because he knows it is only a place you can go to in your heart but not your head.

Rummy failed because he had that place he wanted to go to in his heart, a world that was stable and secure with representative democracies everywhere… but he thought that heart knowledge translated into head knowledge. That… freedom, peace, and stability can be delivered to people at the end of a gun barrel. And it didn’t work out like that, as it never has throughout history. You can’t mix up what you want in your heart with what you should know in your head.

All of the above is to say that we need to be prepared to admit three things:

Case 1

The answers to some questions will be over your head. Within the scope of your knowledge, to certain questions, any conclusion you may make is not separated by any distance from guesswork.

An example of this is what happens when a beginner who has read a book that tells him horimono were made at times to cover up flaws, draws two invalid conclusions:

1. that this is an undeniable fact and not an opinion

2. that this then means all horimono are evidence of flawed workmanship

The end result is this beginner goes around telling people who have more experience and more knowledge that they absolutely will not buy a blade with horimono because that means the blade was poorly made.

So we have an assumption at the beginning being accepted without questioning it, and then we have it being mercilessly applied with far too wide a scope. The end result is a sea of invalid conclusions. 

It is Rumsfeldian.

Case 2

Because the answer to a question is over your head, it does not mean it is necessarily over someone else’s head.

Person goes to Google. Person enters search term. Person reads two paragraphs on a complicated subject. Person goes to internet forum and argues with people who have studied the subject for 20 years. 

Every. Day.

Case 3

Some questions however, are over everyone’s heads.

See above about electrons and missing signatures.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

— Reinhold Niebuhr

And wisdom to know the difference.

And wisdom to know the difference.

And wisdom to know the difference.

Worth repeating.

This wisdom comes from experience. It comes from experience in being wrong. If we put Rummy back where he was before the Iraq War with the knowledge he has now, he would not do it the same way. He is arrogant enough that he just might try again, but do a few things differently. Some people will never admit that it was beyond their abilities so they shouldn’t have kicked the hornet’s nest in the first place. 

But if you kick a hornet’s nest and get stung, it teaches you a basic life lesson: don’t kick hornet’s nests.

If you have some basic common sense, you learn things like this. Fire is hot. Don’t stick your hand in the fire.

Or, don’t date someone in a band.

If you’re not born with that natural instinct to wait and see or think about it a bit more, it can be learned by rushing out based on invalid conclusions and having it blow up in your face.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.

— Otto von Bismarck

I have also heard this as:

A smart man learns from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Fools don’t learn at all.

— Russian Proverb

Either way this is laying down the path.

All of this is intended to introduce the idea and make it comfortable that uncertainty is part and parcel of life. That when someone challenges your gut knowledge they are playing a psychological game with you, or with themselves. You should strive to know. You should strive to understand, but anyone who tells you that your gut instinct is better than a scholar in Japan who studied this subject for their life is probably someone with a bridge to sell you.

People who don’t need papers to tell them what to think are those that are denying that someone else may know more than them. 

People who are telling you that you don’t need papers to tell you what to think are telling you that right there with what you know right now, there is no way to introduce any knew knowledge whatsoever. That you are there, some sort of omniscient being, based on reading a few books, owning a few swords, and you are ready to challenge experts who devoted their life to this field on the basis of what is in your gut.

And that brings us to tonight’s word: Truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the word-police, the “wordanistas” over at Websters, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…

I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today.

Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart…

The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news…at you.

— Stephen Colbert


So I can bring this right back around to my point in this post, which is opinions.

Attributions are opinions, but people use that as a way of saying that attributions are as arguable as you may want them to be. That your opinion is another opinion and so by both being an opinion they reside on the same level. 

This is falling into the trap illustrated by Colbert that there is head thinking and heart thinking. It’s Rumsfeld’s Failure of Imagination.

One who knows and knows that he knows… His horse of wisdom will reach the skies.

One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!

One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… His limping mule will eventually get him home.

One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!

— Ibn Yamin, 13th century Persia, on four types of men

Too bad the <blink> tag doesn’t work anymore.


I wrote this before but it is the conclusion of this piece.

When it comes to how much load a bridge can bear, there are two sorts of opinions: yours and mine, and then that of a mechanical engineer.

Choose your mechanical engineers wisely, take their opinions under advisement and learn from them, and you may find your bridge will stand for a thousand years or more.

Or just trust your gut…