Why I Use Epistemology and Heuristics to Understand Anything

I do podcasts on a wide range of topics – from history and investing, to geopolitics and AI. I’m usually – nay, always – talking about topics I’m not an expert in. I’m not an expert in anything, so I have had to develop a strategy to allow me to quickly get my head around the core issues of many complicated topics. And I think most people could benefit from a similar approach. Nobody can be an expert on everything and life often forces us to make decisions about complicated topics. Decisions that could have serious consequences, for us personally, for our families, and for the world (eg the COVID vaccines).

Epistemology and Heuristics

So, I use a system. It’s not complicated, but it works for me. It’s based on two things: epistemology and heuristics. Sounds fancy, but it’s not.

Epistemology, Or How I Figure Out What’s Bullshit

Epistemology is just a highbrow word for figuring out how you know what you think you know. In any area, whether it’s geopolitics, history, or science, there are ways to figure out what’s most likely to be true. Of course, the “truth” in most subjects is a moving target. As we get more information, better tools, better interpretation of data, we can make more accurate analysis. But at any given point in time, there is a theory that is most likely to be true, based on what we know right now.

Each domain has its own methods, its ways to sift the wheat from the chaff. Science has its experiments and peer review. Journalism has source verification and corroboration. History has primary and secondary evidence. So we need to first work out how truth is determined in the particular domain or subject we are thinking about.

I ask myself simple questions: How do we know this is true? Who says so? What’s their evidence?

Heuristics, Or How I Keep From Being Overwhelmed

Then there’s heuristics, which is a fancy word for “a rule of thumb”. This is about taking shortcuts to understanding through trusted sources and established knowledge. It’s about not reinventing the wheel every time you need to know something new. I find a few experts I trust, see where the consensus lies, and start there. Sure, experts can be wrong, but let’s face it, it’s the best place to start.

Ideally I’d like to find a group of experts in some kind of body or association, that has long standing credibility. Not some organisation that was invented yesterday to promote a particular agenda – and there are always hundreds of those. I want a body that’s been around for a decade or more, and that existed before the current subject of interest was even a thing. The body should be credible and a little boring (meaning they tend to stick to the consensus of experts). A consensus of experts is important because that’s usually how “truth” is determined in most fields. This person or that person will have their own interpretation of the evidence, and you’ll usually find an opinion of every possible flavour, and they all contradict each other. So we need to find out which interpretations have the most support – by experts, and by experts I mean people who are active professionals in the field. Not professionals from another field. Not former professionals who are retired from the field. Not someone on YouTube or a podcaster. Professionals. Experts. Active in the field.

If I can’t find a suitable credible body of long standing, my next source is going to be an individual expert. But, again, they should have long standing credibility in the field, ideally decades. For example, Noam Chomsky is, I believe, a credible source for topics involving America’s geopolitical agenda or American domestic politics.

So I don’t need to “do my own research” or watch hundreds of hours of YouTube videos. I just need to find out the consensus opinion of credible experts.

Ah, I hear you say “but expert bodies can be corrupted!”

Sure, that’s true. They can be. They are. But if you’re going to dismiss an expert body with that claim, you should really be able to first provide credible evidence for your claim. Otherwise, it sounds like you just don’t like what the experts are saying.

“But science can be wrong!” Yes, as I said earlier, better tools lead to better data and better interpretation of the data, which gets us closer to the truth. But the consensus opinion today is the consensus opinion based on the best data we have. Science makes progress by new theories and experiments and tools providing new data, which leads to new interpretations and conclusions, which are then peer reviewed and become the new consensus opinion. Rogue opinions sometimes lead, over time, to the new consensus, but until they do, they are just that – rogue opinions. If you prefer the rogue opinion to the consensus, you have to ask yourself why.

Why All This Matters

Using these tools, I can quickly form a decently informed opinion on a wide range of topics. This method isn’t perfect – no method is. You have to be ready to update your views when better information comes along. That’s key. Stay flexible, stay skeptical, and keep digging when it matters. Above all, care about getting as close to the truth as you can, wherever it may lead. Don’t let your personal ideology or identity get in the way of searching for the truth.

This approach has kept me sane in a world drowning in information. Maybe it’s a bit rough and ready, but it’s better than getting swept away by every new headline or latest theory. And in this era of misinformation, having a solid method to filter what you consume is more crucial than ever.

Using ChatGPT to Analyse The News

One of my hobbies at the moment is to use ChatGPT to help me analyse the news. I imagine this will be come pretty standard in the near future, and there will be better tools to use. At the moment it seems the ABC has blocked ChatGPT from reading its articles, so I have to copy and paste the article into GPT. But then I run a couple of prompts to get it to breakdown the story for me. My basic objective is to get GPT to act as a second brain, helping me uncover the biases in news stories and highlight the gaps in the coverage.

Here’s GPT’s analysis of a recent ABC article about the US and Israel. It gave the original article a rating of 6 our of 10 for journalistic quality.

How To Print Index Cards From Word

I’ve wasted hours of the last couple of weeks trying to work out how to print 3×5 index cards from Word via my Canon MP250. I finally worked it out today and here’s how I did it.

  1. First of all, it’s worth knowing that the Canon Mp250 will NOT print 3×5 cards. So stop trying.
  2. It WILL, however print 4×6 index cards – so go down to your nearest office supplies place and buy some of those.
  3. Open Word and create a new document. Or just use this template I created for you.
  4. If you’re on a Mac, go to FILE>PAGE SETUP and select 4×6
  5. Copy and paste your content into this document.
  6. Place cards in printer vertically (ie with smallest edge at the top)
  7. aaaaand print!

These days I’m using index cards to memorise a bunch of things, including the opening monologue for my documentary about Jesus, the entire text of The Raven by Poe, and a bunch of random facts I want to remember. I’ve tried using Evernote as flash cards over the years, but it just doesn’t work for me. I can carry around flash cards made from index cards in my pocket or briefcase and just test myself whenever I have a few minutes. Sometimes you just can’t beat the old school methods.

An Even BETTER Way To Get Audio Into Evernote on your iPhone

I do most of my best thinking behind the steering wheel after meetings and I’m always looking for ways to capture those ideas before I forget them.

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about using Siri to transcribe voice-to-text into an email that it would send to Evernote. That’s worked well for me but it has some limitations – mostly that if you’re trying to write a long note and you pause to think, Siri will assume you are finished and cut you off mid-sentence.

So I have a new system that I find works even better.

Dropvox is an iPhone app that will a) record your voice and b) automatically save the recording to Dropbox. There are other apps that will do a similar thing, but I like Dropvox for two reasons.

1) It has a HUGE RED BUTTON making it easy to press while driving.
2) It has a setting that will start recording as soon as the app opens, which means you don’t even have to press the button!

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 5.41.37 pm
Of course you can record notes into Evernote directly but it takes a few clicks and the in-app record button is the size of ant’s balls. This is more like an elephant.

So while driving I can activate Siri and simply say “Open Dropvox” (making sure I over-emphasise the “VOX” so it doesn’t open DropBOX by mistake) and, when it opens, I start recording my note. When I hit the huge red elephant-sized STOP button, Dropvox will automatically upload the file to Dropbox.

Now – here’s the magic.

On my Macbook I have a Hazel rule setup to grab new notes in the Dropvox folder under my main Dropbox folder, and open them in Evernote! So when I get back to the office after my meeting and open my Macbook, I’ll magically get my audio note open in Evernote a minute later (once Dropbox has synched).


The Polaroid Philosophy.

Do you remember the days when things were limited? When you might buy one new album of music every couple of months? When you had to buy photo negatives by the roll and be careful what you used them on? When there were only two channels of television? When there was one newspaper to read? When you had to go to the library to get your hands on a new book to read?

Today we are inundated with media options. Some people say it’s too much. Some people say we are oversaturated. Some people say all of this content is making us less appreciative.

polaroid photo

Photo by Andrew Saltmarsh

I’m starting to agree. I remember appreciating music much more (or at least it seemed that way) when I’d buy a new album rarely and then listen to it over and over and over, becoming familiar with every nuance, every note. Today I still love those albums. Putting them on gives me the feels, releasing an oxytocin burst of the warms and fuzzies. Is it somehow due, at least in part, to their familiarity?

Perhaps less *is* more.

Over the last decade I’ve become something of a miner bird, foraging on bits and pieces of media all day long – a song here, a song there, this blog, that blog, 10,000 Twitter feeds, 1,000 Facebook feeds, 100 books on my iPad, watching YouTube clip after YouTube clip, TV torrents by the bucketload – from dawn until midnight. And it’s not limited to the media I consume, it also extends to the media I produce. I might take 10 photos a day and several videos. I tweet. I Facebook. I blog. It’s too easy to produce gallons of crap.

Less is more.

What if I limited myself?

I limit myself in other areas of life – eg I only eat ice cream (and sugar free at that) on weekends – what if I limited myself digitally as well?

What if I limited myself to taking one photo every day? If I’m only allowing myself one photo, it had better be the best photo I can take.

What if I limited myself to listening to one album of music every week? No more shuffling. One album. I’d have to listen to it over and over until I knew the grooves inside and out.

What if I limited myself to writing one Tweet / Facebook post per day and writing one blog post per week? I better make sure they are good.

What if I limited myself to one episode of TV per day? One YouTube clip?

What if I reduced my Twitter feed to ten people? The same with Facebook. They better be the best feeds I can find.

What if I reduced the feeds in Flipboard and Zite to only one or two? Would it make me choose what I read more carefully?

I’m going to treat my media consumption and production with the Polaroid philosophy. I’m going to force myself to set artificial limits, a media diet. Because I really do believe that less is more.