A Scientific Way to Call BS on Someone’s Argument

Sir Karl Popper, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and the difference between science and pseudoscience.

My friends and I joke that a lot of films credit any kind of mental disorder of a character usually to either parental abuse, mummy/daddy issues, or some kind of trauma that occurred in the past.

Personally, I blame Sigmund Freud for this whole debacle. In case you are a big Freud fan, I don’t mean to offend you, but I’ve some serious issues when people engage in predicting the past, rather than the future. In other words, when you use the past to justify the present.

For example, if you diagnose that a certain startup has failed miserably (or has succeeded stupendously) for such and such (obvious) reasons, I’ve got very little to counter your reasoning. And that’s exactly what a lot of business journalists do.

They write post-hoc analyses with titles like, “How Square Became a $30 Billion Company by Reimagining Payments,” or “How Pinterest Became an $11 Billion Company by Organising the World’s Hobbies” that vehemently pisses me off.

On top of that, the same trait is often used both to credit the success of one company, and the failure of a different company. It’s hilarious! Yet these types of articles are often huge among the readers. But I call BS on them, and not without a strong ground.

Predicting the past is what I call, a pseudo-intellectual’s job. It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong in your prediction, because there’s no way to empirically verify your claim.

Sir Doktor Professor Karl Raimund Popper calls these kinds of unverifiable claims pseudoscience.

Emerging at roughly the same point in time, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein both made predictions with the intention to help us better understand the world. 

Freud predicted that our childhood experiences have a heavy impact on who we grow up to be. 

Meanwhile, Einstein waited patiently for a solar eclipse that could disprove his entire general theory of relativity, depending on what it would reveal about how light travels through space. 

Sir Popper (born in 1902) grew up observing these predictions with keen interest, and he noticed that these great thinkers applied very different methods.

Freud’s method allowed him to be able to make just about any data point work in favour of his theory. He could explain a person’s social issues both in terms of over parenting, or lack thereof.

But Einstein was making a different kind of prediction. Instead of predicting the past as a justification for the present, he was looking ahead, and trying to predict the future state of affairs.

His method was full of risk, and his whole reputation depended upon it. A single solar eclipse in 1919 had the power to finish off his general theory of relativity.

Popper observed that Einstein had more skin in the game than Freud. Unlike Einstein, Freud always had the privilege to predict the past differently to always confirm his theories, and there’s no proper way to rebut his claims.

Popper was convinced that methods like Freud’s, that only serve to confirm precomposed theories are pseudoscience, as they can be used to prove just about anything.

Let me elaborate: consider the existence of Santa Claus. Evidence is lying all around about his existence. Apart from the gifts under the tree, there are all these songs, stories, TV shows, movies, and all these people who believe in his existence. They all can easily combine to confirm your belief in Santa.

In fact, this method based on finding confirming evidence can be used to convince you of just about anything—the science behind astrology, the existence of god, the new investment scheme that would turn you into a millionaire, etc.

But it’s only by seeking to disprove Santa’s existence that you can demonstrate his unreality. The correct approach, as discussed in the previous article, is to disconfirm a theory rather than confirm it, when you begin to test it.

But there’s no actual way to test Freud’s predictions, thereby rendering them as mere pseudoscience. Science by design allows empirical testing, and enough room for falsification. In other words, science disconfirms, while pseudoscience confirms.

This is the modern scientific thinking that we accept today: testable, refutable, falsifiable. In Popper’s words, “If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted.” This means a good theory must have an element of risk in it. It must be able to be proven wrong under stated conditions.

So how do we actually know if something is true? Well, we don’t. It is far easier to know if something is not true, but almost never possible to know if something is true with all certainty.

NNT elaborates this in The Black Swan:

“I am saying that a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence. Seeing white swans does not confirm the nonexistence of black swans. There is an exception, however: I know what statement is wrong, but not necessarily what statement is correct. If I see a black swan I can certify that all swans are not white! If I see someone kill, then I can be practically certain that he is a criminal. If I don’t see him kill, I cannot be certain that he is innocent.”

So where does this leave us? 

The takeaway from this article is that you have to be open to the idea that your beliefs might be false—because that’s the only way holding onto them can really mean anything.

Otherwise, we’re all just believing whatever others are saying with no grounds for adjudication between beliefs. So don’t cling to your ideas, claims, and beliefs. The day they are falsified, abandon them. As Einstein would have done. 

Continue your never-ending noble quest of seeking the truth.


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Try to prove your own opinions wrong to make them stronger.

How to devalue wrong claims with the falsification method.

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Let’s do a small experiment.

Suppose I present you with a number sequence: 2–4–6. I tell you that the sequence follows a certain rule, and the task is to calculate the underlying rule. You are allowed to present other strings of three numbers, and ask whether or not these new strings meet the rule.

If you’re like most people, your first instinct is that the rule is “ascending even numbers” or “numbers increasing by two,” and so you guess something like: 8-10-12, and to this I say, “Fits the rule.”

Now your confidence rises. To confirm your hypothesis, you test out just one more possibility, just as due diligence, something like, 20-22-24. Again, “Fits the rule.”

Now you have concluded, “The rule is to add two to the last number,” and you declare your answer. Unfortunately, that is not the rule!

How can this not be the rule? “But it’s so obvious,” you think.

Can you tell me how you actually came to the conclusion about the rule? Most likely, you had a hypothesis and you ran a couple of experiments to confirm it. You felt that “add two to the last number” is the correct rule, and ran tests to confirm this rule.

And I don’t blame you for that. It is not natural for us to formulate hypotheses, and then test various ways to prove them false. Instead, it is far more likely that we will form one hypothesis, assume it is true, and only seek out and believe information that supports it. Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.

Sir Karl Popper (regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest philosophers of science) believed that the only way to test the validity of any theory is to prove it wrong—a process he labeled Falsification.

And it turns out we’re quite bad at falsification. Mostly because it is unintuitive, and it doesn’t come naturally to us. Let me explain with the same example.

To solve the number-sequence problem, let’s try a very unintuitive approach this time. Instead of trying to confirm our hypothesis, let’s try to disconfirm it. 

The hypothesis is, “Add two to the last number,” so naturally a sequence like 7-9-11 won’t fit the rule. But if you present me with it that, I would say, “Fits the rule.” Wow! Did your hypothesis just get debunked so easily?

Let’s get wild now. How about 7–8-9? “Fit the rule.” How about 15-199-1123? “Fit the rule.” Getting weirder! I’m sure you have several hypotheses about the rule in your head by now. How about 12-16-29? “Fits the rule.” Okay. How about, 8-12-10? “Doesn’t fit the rule.” Interesting! How about negative numbers? (-2)-(-4)-(-6)? “Doesn’t fit the rule.” How about, (-10)-(-6)-(-1)? “Fits the rule.”

Most likely by now you know of a lot of rules that are very likely incorrect. So what’s the rule? Is it, The next number must be higher than the previous one?

8-10-12 does fit the rule, it’s true, but so does 7–9–11, and 12–16–29. The only way to win the game is to guess strings of numbers that would prove your beloved hypothesis wrong—and that is something each of us is constitutionally driven to avoid.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

— Richard Feynman

Adopting falsification as a method is easier said than done. We all need safety and comfort, both physical and intellectual. Above safety we need certainty, and falsification in itself means that you can never be certain of anything.

Falsification implies that you have to always test your ideas, claims, and beliefs, and have the mental discipline to update whenever you are proven wrong.

This method can be adopted in two steps:

  1. For any belief you have or any claim you make, ask what it would take for you to change your mind. Be as specific about that evidence as possible.

  2. Seek out that evidence, and be willing to change your belief if you find it.

We all are plagued by lots of hidden biases when it comes to making decisions or sheltering beliefs. All of that can be put in check if you adopt the falsification method. 

On top of that, you also will be able to see your attitude change — you’ll become more open-minded, and less likely to be dismissive of others, or other sources of information.

Falsification, if mastered, has a lot of upside and zero downside.

Weaker opinions are easily destroyed by this method. On the other hand, the more your efforts are unable to devalue your opinion, the stronger your opinion gets.

It also forces you to do the hard work to have an opinion, and be able to argue better against your view than the smartest guy who holds that opposite view. This only makes you more persuasive.


How to to fail quickly in order to learn fast.

The power of experimentation, prototyping, and why you should not put all your eggs in one basket.

In my previous article, I talked about the benefits of running small experiments, and taking small bets—where you control your downside, but expose yourself to massive upsides.

If you start small, get your feet wet, and test things out without becoming too invested in a decision, you can tinker along the way. This is the advantage of small bets—making progress and tweaking as you go—approaching problems in a non-linear manner.

Of course, we all want to make big bets, put all our eggs in one basket from the start. There are certain people who would say, “I’m not in the habit of keeping a Plan B.” It sounds bold, and does feed your ego, but it’s irrational. Do it at your own peril. 

If you really want to solve a problem, then it’s more important to learn about it—it’s subtleties, it’s nuances, and the opportunities it provides. That’s where small bets come in. Small bets are about learning from problems and opportunities, while big bets are about capitalising upon them once they’ve been identified.

Also, when you are trying to do something new, you are most likely not to get the right answer in the first try, no matter how hard you plan. You are very likely to meet with failure. Therefore detailed planning is not usually recommended.

But the process of planning is easy, and does give you a sense of false control. And that’s why many people waste a good amount of time, effort, and resources trying to plan what cannot be planned. Don’t overplan. As Mike Tyson says: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

On top of that, if you expect to get things right at the start, you block yourselves psychologically from many creative options, and in that process you give up a host of opportunities to learn.

People with growth mindset have an advantage here as they naturally believe that intelligence and abilities can be grown through effort. So they tend to view failures or setbacks as opportunities for growth. They have a desire to constantly challenge and stretch themselves.

Hence, becoming more comfortable with (inevitable) failure, and coming to view false starts and mistakes as opportunities opens you up creatively.

If you are thinking, “But I don’t have a growth mindset,” do not worry! Carol Dweck’s research shows that with enough practice, growth mindset can be cultivated.

But doing so would require you to be be willing to challenge your underlying beliefs about abilities and learning. The good news is that simply knowing more about the growth mindset also allows you to react to situations in new ways.

So if you are a person who tends towards a fixed mindset, you can catch yourself and reframe situations as opportunities to learn, rather than viewing them as a potential for failure.

A method that is most helpful to embrace the learning potential of failure, is “prototyping”. It’s a method very common among designers. In fact, the creation of low cost, rough prototypes makes it possible to fail quickly in order to learn fast.

One of the biggest problems with planning, perfectionism, and needing correct answers is that so much time can pass before actually doing anything. Prototyping solves this problem.

The following image is an early prototype of the computer mouse by Douglas Engelbart. Back then the computer mouse was a completely new idea, and nobody knew how it would look like.

But as you can see, this looks nothing like the final product. It wasn’t designed to go into production anyway. But it does what it’s supposed to do pretty darn well. It demonstrates a new concept i.e. a computer mouse, and in the process collects actionable feedback from users who play with it.

This prototype is one among the many low cost versions of the idea of a computer mouse. It’s a small experiment, not the final product.

Similarly, all softwares have alpha and beta versions. Alpha versions are what teams test among themselves internally. Betas are what they release to the public, to be able to actively collect feedback from real users.

In startups, the very concept of an MVP or Minimal Viable Product is to try and see what works and what doesn’t as early as possible, before committing too much time, or investing too much money and effort into an idea.

All these are variations of prototyping.

While describing Pixar’s creative process of making films, Ed Catmull (President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) writes, “Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”

The process of transforming a product idea that sucks to something that doesn’t suck involves multiple rounds of peer review of unpolished ideas with the Braintrust.

The Braintrust is a group of trusted colleagues at Pixar that gets together periodically to review the progress of a film that is in development. The job of the Braintrust is to give actionable feedback and “push towards excellence, and root out mediocrity,” writes Catmull.

Similarly, Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E is fond of saying, “People need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. In that scenario, the only unacceptable course of action is running between the hills.”

So, this is what I say: be wrong as fast as you can. Which basically means, while trying something new, you’re gonna screw up. Just admit that, and do not be afraid of it. But do it as fast as you can so you can get to the answer.

After all, you can’t reach adulthood before you go through puberty. You won’t get it right the first time, true, but you will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.

Building the future is not a linear process of going from step A to step B to step C. Given the dynamic quality of any discovery process, small wins (from small bets) provide a technique to validate and adapt ideas. Small wins provide clarity amid uncertainty.

So, what really makes a small bet? There are no hard and fast rules, but it generally boils down to: trying out something, observing, learning, adjusting, and repeating.

It is however important to recognise that something may or may not come of this, and since you are not betting everything on it, that is okay. The goal is not to guarantee success, but to explore the possibilities in a way that doesn’t have a lot of downside.

As NNT says in Antifragile, “How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble.”


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How to invent the future.

How do we invent the future, especially if it’s not a logical extension from the past?

Contrary to popular belief, most successful founders don’t begin with brilliant ideas—they discover them.

Facebook started as a social network for college students. Pixar started by selling high-end computers for animation. And Twitter was a podcasting company before this.

Facebook expanded upon the idea of social network. Pixar stayed in the same industry, but moved on to film making. Twitter changed their game completely. 

Similarly, Larry Page and Sergei Brin did not begin with an ingenious idea—Google was a side-project to improve library searches—but they certainly discovered one.

Most of the time, people do start with what they think is an ingenious idea, then they quickly discover that it is flawed, and then they rapidly adapt. Successful entrepreneurs think of learning the way most people think of failure.

To tell you the truth, it’s nearly impossible to predict the future, especially since the future isn’t a logical extension of the past. It’s a collection of moments yet to come, and as Peter Thiel says, “What makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today.”

No one can produce the future exactly, but we know two things: it’s going to be different, and it’s going to be rooted in today’s world.

But this knowledge alone isn’t enough to build the future.

Building the future is not something that comes naturally, since that isn’t how we are schooled. Our education system puts greater emphasis on teaching facts from the past, and then testing us in order to measure how much we’ve retained the facts.

To add to that, learning facts isn’t the same as gaining knowledge. Skills taught in schools work perfectly well for many situations, especially if you are aiming for a desk job, but they are not of much use when you are planning on doing something new, something creative, something original, something that is pre-unknowable. School education certainly doesn’t help us invent the future.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. — Alan Kay

Let’s face it: the majority of us aren’t geniuses. We all cannot be Elon Musk. Genius is indeed rare, but if you are creator, you’ve got plenty of other tools in your disposal to help you create something new.

The beauty of an experimental, iterative, repetitive, trial-and-error approach is that it doesn’t take a genius to achieve breakthroughs. All you have to do is be persistent, and be willing to accept failures and setbacks as you work interactively towards your goals.

You would be surprised to know just about how many successful people abide by this principles. Take Chris Rock for example. When Rock is preparing fresh material, he will first appear at small nightclubs dozens of times and test hundreds of jokes. He brings a notepad on stage and records which bits go over well and where he needs to make adjustments. The few killer lines that survive will form the backbone of his new show.

While there is no doubt he has great talent, the routines he rolls out on his shows are the result of his learnings from thousands of small tests, nearly all of which fail.

This is true for almost all kinds of performers. It can be surprising that someone who has reached Chris Rock’s level of success still puts himself out there in this way, willing to fail night after night. But Rock and all other performers deeply understand that ingenious ideas almost never spring into the mind fully formed. They emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process.

This is one kind of hedging, where you take small affordable risks, and balance them out with your wins. When you lose you lose small, but when you win, you win BIG. This is also how you invent the future.

In his famous book The Black Swan, NNT talks about a similar method—about exposing oneself to positive-Black Swans (an event that comes as a surprise, and has a major effect), “Aside from the movies, examples of positive–Black Swan businesses are: some segments of publishing, scientific research, and venture capital. In these businesses, you lose small to make big. You have little to lose per book and, for completely unexpected reasons, any given book might take off. The downside is small and easily controlled.”

This practice however requires a significant shift in mindset. After all, we’ve always been taught to avoid mistakes and failure at all costs.

My suggestion is, don’t analyse new ideas too much too soon, or try to hit narrow targets on unknown horizons, or put your hopes and eggs into one big bet.

Instead of trying to develop elaborate plans to predict successes, try doing small things to discover what you should actually do to achieve success. This is the same ethos with which Jeff Bezos runs Amazon.

Amazon had launched a product recommendation feature that would compare a customer’s entire purchase history with millions of other customers, and show you what items the one person with the closest matching history has bought. No one used it. “Our history is full of things like that, where we came up with an innovation that we thought was really cool, and the customers didn’t care,” Bezos says.

But there were pleasant surprises as well. When Amazon launched its Associates Program (a marketing scheme that allows other websites to earn affiliate fees by sending buyers to Amazon), it quickly exceeded expectations. About this, Bezos famously said, “You can’t put into a spreadsheet how people are going to behave around a new product.”

Both Rock and Bezos take little bets to discover the futures, and so can you. Neither of them can predict the future—so they invent it.

“Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

If you start small, get your feet wet, and test things out without becoming too invested in a decision, you can tinker along the way. This is the advantage of taking little bets, making progress and tweaking things as you go, and approaching problems in a non-linear manner.

And, the beauty of this method is that you don’t have to be a genius to use it—anybody can use it to unlock creative ideas.


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If ambition spells probable disappointment, why pursue excellence?

There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. How do you deal with that?

“If ambition spells probable disappointment, why pursue excellence?”

—Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

How do you deal with failure?

We all have a habit of saying, “It’s OK,” or “It doesn’t matter.”

I’ve done the same whenever I’ve met with failure. Turns out, it’s not the best way to cope with failure. It’s a lie you tell yourself to let you feel that this failure didn’t get to you. In most cases, failures do get to you, and that’s why it hurts so much. In fact, failures hurt twice as much as successes feels great. Still, most of us haven’t really figured out the right way to deal with failure. What if we could find a way to grow stronger and get better through failure?

A good starting approach is to internalise a process-first approach by making your internal feedback system respond to efforts over results—praise a good day’s work, a lesson learnt, and not get prejudiced by the outcome bias

On the other hand, it is okay for the child in you to enjoy a win. When you have worked hard to succeed at something, you are allowed to smell the roses. However, the key is to recognise that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away as you inhale. Figuratively, you should enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then while you exhale, note the lesson learnt, and move on to the next adventure.

All is easy when you win. But when you lose, things are different, and the stakes feel higher. You’ve put your heart on the line and have lost. How should you handle this moment? The world seems to be crashing down upon you at this moment.

For starters, don’t say that it doesn’t matter, because you know better than that. If it didn’t matter, then why should you try to win? Why go through all those hurdles, and put yourself to the test, all for nothing? It matters greatly. So self-empathy (not self-pity) is a good place to start. Try not to be alone. Share your story with somebody. Hug a loved one. Cry your heart out if you have to. It’s okay to be sad and vulnerable, in fact it’s very natural to be sad and vulnerable.

Most people would prefer not to have weaknesses, but since that can’t practically happen, they do the next best thing that can be done: they remain in denial of their weaknesses.

I don’t really blame them. Our upbringings and our experiences in the world have conditioned us to be embarrassed by our weaknesses and failures. Naturally we try to hide them. But people are happiest when they can be themselves. If you can be open with yourself and your close confidantes about everything—your success as well as your failures, your strengths as well as your weaknesses, your goals as well as your fears—it will make you freer and will help you deal with them better.

I urge you to not be embarrassed about your problems, recognising that everyone has them. Bringing them to the surface will help you break your bad habits and develop good ones, and you will acquire real strengths and justifiable optimism.

Disappointment is a part of the road to greatness. But if you can learn to reflect on the pain and disappointment, rather than run from it, it leads to rapid learning. It’s not the easiest thing to do, however. But once you make it into a habit, and you start seeing how much more effective you can be by facing painful realities, you most likely won’t want to operate in any other way.

What you have to understand is that there is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. The pain is a signal that you need to find solutions so you can progress.

The human being is the only animal bestowed with the power of reflectiveness—which means that you can think deeply and weigh subtle things to come up with learning and wise choices. Ask yourself about the root causes of your pain. Asking other people is also very helpful—especially others who have opposing views but who share your interest in finding the truth.

The good thing is that if you can reflect deeply upon your problems, they almost always shrink or disappear, because you almost always find a better way of dealing with them than if you don’t face them head-on.

The challenges you face in life test you for your strength, resilience, wit, and wisdom. If you fail, it means you aren’t strong or witty enough. And if you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximising your potential. Like I said, failure and disappointment are essential in your road to greatness.

This process of pushing your limits—of sometimes failing and sometimes breaking through, and deriving benefits from both your failures and your successes—can actually be thrilling once you embrace it and play this game properly. It isn’t for everyone—especially for people with fixed mindset—but if it is for you, it can become fun and addictive. It’s like switching from ‘not exercising’ to ‘exercising’, and developing a habit of embracing the pain to help you grow.

”Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith.”

— Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

Nonetheless, at some point in your life you will eventually crash in a big way. You might fail at your job or with your family, lose a loved one, suffer a serious accident or illness, or discover the life you imagined is out of reach forever. There are a whole host of ways that something will get you. At such times, you will be in pain and might think that you don’t have the strength to go on. Let me tell you that you almost always do have the strength. However, your ultimate success will depend on you realising the fact that pain is your ally, not something to be feared and avoided, even though it might not seem that way at the moment.

So it’s better to prepare, and make it a habit of going to the pain rather than avoid it. If you don’t let up on yourself and instead become comfortable always operating with some level of pain, you will evolve at a faster pace.

Ask NNT says, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure , risk, and uncertainty.” Embracing the pain helps you become attain antifragility


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