28 Rules of Thumb

Blog entry posted by alex3619, Nov 6, 2011.

None of these are original. Somebody else has said them all. They are heuristics, rules of thumb, which means they are only guides not laws set in stone. They should be considered opinion.

These are the kinds of things you often find at the bottom of day calendars on office desks. I am a sceptic with direction - I don't have time to be sceptical of everything, but I would like to. Scepticism has to be pragmatically directed.

Some of this is serious, some is humorous. Make up your own mind about which is which. Once I got started writing this I couldn't stop - I had to force myself to stop as I have more important things to do.

Read, learn, enjoy or ignore - the choice is yours.

1. To understand something you need both the big picture and the fine details. The big picture without the details is a house of cards. The details without the big picture will be used unwisely. In military terms a fine detail thinker is a tactician, a big picture person is a strategist, going into war without both is a mistake. You might only need a few big picture thinkers to a lot of fine detail thinkers, but you still need them.

2. A corollary to the big picture rule is that if you want to change something, you need to understand the details of everything it changes in turn, or risk unintended consequences. This includes feedback loops which are very resistant to conventional reasoning. How many drugs have been developed in which the associated pathways affected were never adequately investigated?

3. The difficulty with big picture thinking is that there are no boundaries and no limits. Boundaries are purely for pragmatic reasons.

4. Most politicians are tacticians. Very few have any vision but most are very good at making you think they have vision.

5. Most doctors are technicians. Most know what but often dont understand why and don't have an interest in understanding. Those who don't fit this rule are usually well worth listening to. Most doctors will say the corollary applies to them however.

6. Keep in mind that doctors don't have time to keep up to date on everything. Find one who has a special interest in the topic in question. The corollary is that when a doctor gives an opinion on something they are not up to date in they are speculating.

7. Look at how people judge things. It tells you about their values. Ignore what they say they think about things, look at what they actually say and do. This can tell you a lot about a person, but it doesn't always tell you anything about what they are judging.

8. Question everything - even this statement.

9. To respond quickly you have to be prepared. This applies to research and advocacy as well as emergencies. Speculation serves a purpose - we are future proofing advocacy. Its only a problem if we confuse speculation with reality.

10. If something might be true and you are biased toward it, beware of presuming it is true with only a little evidence, or because others tell you it is true.

11. If something might be wrong and you are biased against it, beware of presuming it is false with only a little evidence, or because others tell you it is false.

12. What does one lemming say to the other? "Everyone is moving this direction, it must be a good idea." Beware your fellow lemmings - just because something is popular doesn't make it right or a good idea. Make up your own mind after at least some investigating and if you still agree then follow the others, just be cautious of cliffs and oceans.

13. Learn about logical fallacies - it wont entirely stop you from making them but at least you can then figure out where you went wrong and gain a little wisdom.

14. Stupidity and ignorance are independent of intelligence. Anyone can be stupid or ignorant about something. The only safeguards are objective facts, investigating claims, and reason. You can also ask an expert, but keep in mind the expert is only less likely to be a victim of stupidity or ignorance.

15. Reason is bounded by knowledge. Even with perfect reasoning, something you don't know could change everything.

16. Reason is bounded by memory. A person with ME can be totally reasonable and still very wrong - what we don't remember can change everything.

17. Don't be afraid to be wrong. If you can figure out why you are wrong, you are much better off than if you never allowed yourself to be wrong in the first place.

18. Don't be afraid to give up on something. Giving up is a choice. You can always choose again later - a choice isn't written in stone. Regroup and come back stronger.

19. Be wary of making choices that can't be unmade - its called burning bridges for a reason.

20. Big advances are made by those who take big risks. This is not an excuse to take unreasonable risks, but it is an excuse to avoid conventional "wisdom" if you think it is wrong.

21. Big mistakes are also made by those who take big risks.

22. Most treatments for ME are lemons, they don't suit everyone - but you often wont know if it suits you until you suck it and see. If you see a soured look on my face you will know why.

23. Dogma is a box. Its nice and safe and cozy. If you want more, you have to open the box.

24. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws

Clarke's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

This also applies to doctors. The old guard in medicine jealously hold on to their dogma. This has nothing to do with intelligence - indeed a smart defender of dogma will hold on to it even more tightly.

25. Being wrong is not a sin. Deliberately ignoring the facts because it suits you to should be a sin. Deliberately ignoring the facts because it suits you and allowing others to come to harm because of this - that should be a crime.

26. Nobody is the font of all knowledge and wisdom. The collective wisdom of a community is usually much greater than that of any member ... as long as its not a community of lemmings.

27. The single biggest danger to the human race is ignorance. The second greatest cause of ignorance is not lack of education, but the teaching of dogma. Lack of education in reason is the third biggest cause. Lack of education on facts is a mere fourth place.

28. The single greatest cause of ignorance is the size and complexity of the universe. No mortal can know more than a sliver of a slice of a fraction of the whole. The human race itself only knows a tiny piece of the total.
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About the Author

I am a long term ME patient with many complications. While I have pushed research advocacy since 1993, I became political around 2009. My current project is a book called "Embracing Uncertainty". Uncertainty in medical science seems anathema to too many doctors. "I do not know" is something more doctors should be honest about.
  1. alex3619
    Here is number 29: As the number of physiological abnormalities increases, particularly in causally unrelated pathways, the difficulty of discovery of the causative mechanisms increases. Hence this leaves them medically unexplained, not some putative psychogenic hypothesis.
  2. meandthecat
    maybe as an addition to 11,12

    Learn to tell the difference between intuition and wishfull thinking

  3. heapsreal
    I do like number 22 and have tasted a few lemons, lol. I think its a very good rule of thumb for us.
    22. Most treatments for ME are lemons, they don't suit everyone - but you often wont know if it suits you until you suck it and see. If you see a soured look on my face you will know why.