The Map to Nowhere: Intellectual denial of service attacks, part 2


This idea first came to me from Nassim Taleb, who reminds us that a bad map is often worse than no map. You wouldn’t use a map of London to try to navigate Beijing, no matter how lost you were. Shane Parrish lays out this idea in his post, “The Map Is Not the Territory,” far more skillfully than I can do here. If you haven’t read his post or come across the idea elsewhere, you’ll enjoy it.

We often wed ourselves to our models of the world. We have a certain finite skillset, an idea we want to be true, or a limited set of data, and we frame everything in those terms. After all, what else have we got? When events overwhelm our capacities, we tend to try to force events into a Procrustean bed (another concept from Taleb) rather than admitting to being lost. We use the wrong map even if it’s not taking us anywhere.

This phenomenon need not be related to individual incapacity, or a sign of incompetence – it may simply be the case that no one can predict the future, or sufficient data doesn’t exist. Then it’s not a question of expertise, but of epistemic humility. Best not to leap confidently into that which you don’t understand. There may be unpredictably dire consequences.