The Deep End

Gell-Mann Amnesia and Group Identity

Schopenhauer said "All truth passes through 3 stages". Here we discuss why ridicule and violent opposition are the defenses of weak organizations.

April 23, 2020
By:
Aaron

Introduction

There's a phenomenon that goes something like this:

You're reading the newspaper when you come across an article discussing a topic you know well. The author of the article, being a reporter, has no special knowledge of the topic, and as you read you find numerous logical inconsistencies. You find misunderstood concepts. You find factual errors that anyone versed in the subject would know to look for.

You then turn the page and read another article, this time on a topic on which you're a layman. As you read, you feel informed and as if you learned something, promptly forgetting that viewed from a position of knowledge, the previous article was entirely composed of bullsh*t.
A stack of lies and pictures of also lies.


Michael Crichton popularized the concept which was formed by his friend, Physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Crichton's specific quote on the topic can be found here - but for the purpose of this article, it's mostly important to understand that when facts are presented poorly or in an illogical sequence - as Crichton says "reversing cause and effect - the 'wet streets cause rain' stories" - we can generally stop and recognize that the author is wrong... if we know something about the topic first.

It's far more difficult to extend that conclusion and say "well, if they would produce information that's patently wrong on that topic, why should I trust them on *any* topic?"

If you've ever wondered why we at ISG say that we hold ourselves 100% accountable for any and everything we say, or that we're always willing to hear opposing views and modify our positions as necessary, it's for this exact reason.

This has a tendency to make people look arrogant or unnecessarily confrontational, and chances are if you question self-styled experts, you'll find yourself facing down an accusation or two as well.

So as long as people continue to be people, you'll probably find yourself fighting plenty of ignorance... and if we learned anything from side scrolling video games from the 90's, it's if you're encountering more bad guys, you're going the right direction.

Let's take a quick look at why, if the best someone can do if you ask a reasonable question is attack your character, that you're probably the one who's right.


Dunning-Kruger, meet Gell-Mann

As we've written before, we are consciously aware that there are things we don't know. On ISG, there's a wide array of topics written from a pool of contributing authors. If we know that we're not the authority to consult for a topic, we'll find someone who is.

Said simply, if we don't know about it, we won't be talking about it.

What can you infer from that? 

In short, we hope that if you trust our articles, it is because we've established ourselves as having an unwavering commitment to being factually correct and able to talk on the subject drawing on some experience. This is a really great quality that isn't ours - we owe it to our mentors and teachers who came before us, and instilled a sense of respecting those who put in the work.

We hope you'll consider it's value as well.

If you have a problem with the facts, the problem isn't the facts.

Some of our areas of overlap include topics on which we rarely speak, but we have some experiential knowledge. So, when we see someone advocating head-scratching misinformation that represents a 'wet streets cause rain' situation, we think it's good practice to either have them explain more fully, demonstrate the validity, or move along.

This isn't rude, and you should be entirely comfortable making judgments. It's your time and money, after all, and no one deserves it any more than they deserve respect. Doesn't mean you can't be courteous, but you also shouldn't let patently bad information slide.

For example, there are a couple of almost undying myths that many people don't realize are bad information, such as "I don't need a tourniquet, I'll just use my belt!"

Many people learned this as a method of stopping bleeding, and because very few people are called on to stop arterial bleeding, it persists. We know there's science that *strongly* states that without a windlass, 'tourniquets' failed to stop bleeding 99% of the time. We can't fault people who learned bad information, but we have to ask: 

Why are people still teaching this and selling tourniquets without windlasses?
Products that check boxes without delivering. There are human equivalents.

If we apply Gell-Mann's principle, why would we think someone advocating this would be right on other topics? If their main goal is to sell products, and they'll smile and encourage you to buy and carry something with a 1% efficacy rate, why would you trust them on any other topic relating to your safety?

How about people who focus on counter-custody training targeting grown men? Are they including the fact that in the U.S., a grown man's chance of being abducted in *any* way is about 1/10,000, while the chance of a female child being abducted is about 1/500?

Do those courses help parents design plans to help prevent such things, or are they largely just entertainment? This isn't to say those courses are useless - it's still wise to understand some principles that will help prevent abduction for adults as well, but are those same people taking into account your odds of dying in traffic are something like 1/77?

Is creating a culture dedicated to something that's a thousandth of a percent possibility - being as generous as possible with the stats - really sensible, or does that seem like a fad?

More generally, if people will attempt to peddle verifiably bad information that doesn't check any boxes in the "logical consistency" column, why would we expect that in the future they'll all-of-a-sudden commit themselves to being correct or that the credentials they've established for themselves are factual?

Fads essentially rely on the antithesis of critical thought - they demand you surrender your questions to the will of the mob, and that's a powerful motivator to shut up and color. No one wants to face Schopenhauer's first two steps, Ridicule and Violent opposition, just so they can come out on the other side with something that's self evident.

Self-Defense and Ambiguous Experience

Fads are an inexhaustible well of distractions that no matter what we say or do aren't going anywhere. This article isn't about this specifically, but the most prominent place you find fads is in the tactical world, and because there's some thin overlap between ISG and the self-protection industry, it bears saying that the self protection industry is one of the worst offenders there is.

Why?

Validation... or more specifically, the lack of it. When we discuss self-defense, we enter territory that's nebulous, inconsistent, and comprised of a variety of hard lessons that are risky to learn.

Most of us can't, or won't, risk our lives to prove our methods work, and therefore, many people simply speculate and train without ever testing themselves against another living person.

So we have shot timers, targets, egos, and a 'tactical' community that mirrors politics... as my friend Kris says:

[The self defense industry] is like government. it's huge and bloated and full of privilege and ego.
Oh, another post about "_____________" (Insert figuratively anything you see on social media here)


The people who occupy it may or may not deserve the power and influence they have, but as with politics, the ones who want it the most deserve it the least.

More to the point, what good are they doing for their prospective students?

If someone suggested you go to a Dojo and learn a martial art from an instructor who had never sparred or fought, you'd probably laugh, right?

Can a person who has never been in a fight that could result in their death really be considered an expert?

How about someone who's never been hunted by other humans being an expert on escape and evasion?

This might hurt some feelings, but we say no, not really. No more than a virgin can be an expert on sex. 

They can be experts on studying the tools or tricks involved, but without testing under pressure, those things are theoretical and subject to "your results may vary" and all that paper credentialing amounts to "enthusiastic non-participant".

When it comes to things that could mean life or death, we can't afford to expect that any testimony we read is expert and correct, just because it's published, or has a significant amount of support - and yes, that goes for us as well.

We conveniently set aside factual errors in our rush to accept information from groups we want to identify with.

Boom.

Gell-Mann's Amnesia.


Elsewhere...

ISG has roots in a very martial culture, as most of us have spent time in the profession of arms. Because of that, it's important to say that while it's a part of the ISG culture, we recognize that it's not something that everyone is interested in. We view self defense as a 'like it or not' fact of emergency environments, and as Jordan Peterson says:

"A harmless man is not a good man. A good man is a very dangerous man who has that under voluntary control."

...But that's not the only thing we're interested in. We understand that people have different skills and interests, and the group that works best is the one that works to find and optimize each individual'ss contributions through mutual trust.

One of the things that weeds people out from ISG is that we place value on the interdisciplinary, and apart from martial culture every other skill we emphasize requires fact, precision, and technical ability... You can't pretend to do those things the way you can pretend to be a Threepercentvikingwarriorpunisherreaperspartan. The act would be impossible to keep up.

For example:

  • - You can't just throw out opinions about medicine. There's peer reviewed science supporting or invalidating your claim on nearly any subject you can imagine, so you can have some beliefs on the nuance, but the facts are pretty clear most of the time.
  • - When it comes to, say, setting up a communications network with HAM radios, there's just no room for interpretation. The programming works, and you're able to communicate, or it doesn't and you're not.
  • - If you rebuild an engine and it doesn't work, it's probably not because something is wrong with the engine - it's that YOU failed to find and address the fault.
  • - If a situation requires you to overcome physical obstacles and barriers, you either have the technical skill and fitness to do so, or you don't.


All of these things take work, and owning these responsibilities is a MAJOR checkride for us. The type of people we look for and associate with aren't making excuses or blaming something else. They're not avoiding difficult tasks because they don't fully understand them. They aren't paying lip service to critical thinking while not actually thinking critically. They aren't looking for the lowest risk way to "look the part", which is endemic in our society...

If you've ever asked yourself why we're a small organization, here's your answer:

Not everyone is willing to looking for difficult, comprehensive audit of their insufficiencies. People want a distraction that pulls them away from the hum-drum of modernity, not emphasizes just how much they've lost while living in the gilded cage.


The ones who are, are often leaders working on their own projects, and that's great - we don't feel like everyone needs to be in our sphere of influence. If you're doing the work, that's good enough. We also don't expect anyone to do the work. It's a long, lonely road that will have you questioning your motives and sanity until those moments of truth where you can definitively say "My God, the work paid off..."

So, it's fine with us if people come and go. If they take what they want and leave the rest. We encourage it, and we've said from the beginning: ISG isn't for everyone. Again, this isn't to be arrogant or smug. It's to acknowledge not everyone has the time, motivation, support, or patience for this, and that's fine.

So, what's the problem?

The problem is assuming the role of an experts without being able to present factual accounts of how and why they know what they're talking about. It's the allusion that feeds the illusion that's the problem.

It's mixing the fantasy with reality, and pretending no delineation exists.

Grab your G10 stabby crayolas and let's get ready to escape arrest!

It's people 'creating content' on topics we know well through hard lessons to be nothing more than the idle fantasy of active imaginations. We pissed off a good chunk of Instagram publishing our thoughts on Improvised Weapons, because we've been in fights and used improvised weapons. Those circumstances are not something to be proud of and they're difficult to discuss, but it's important that our readers know where we're coming from.

We've known and lived among the homeless and can spot a misrepresentation of their 'tactics' (lol) a mile away... We can understand and interpret information on abductions, and we've ran from authorities, been captured, and generally understand the principles of topics like "Escape and Evasion" on a very personal - and professional - level. Again, often embarrassing, but the experience informs the content, and that's relevant to a reader who is looking to establish trust so they can safely assume the author isn't just making things up to sell products.

This brings us to the worst fad of all:

Being a "yes" man. Wanting to tap into followership to sell products more than you want to provide solid, accurate, and actionable information. Being friendly, not because you're a friend, but because you're an opportunist looking to coat-tail popularity. The fad of equating your skill in a controlled environment as the equivalent of capability in an uncontrolled environment. These fads are the bastard children of the ego-driven absorption endemic with social media.  

The fad that you can smile, nod, and buy your way into favor will persist. Snake oil is nothing new.

The fad that you can buy your way to competence, well... that's never really been the true, no matter how many people want to believe it, but it isn't going anywhere, either.

Having some sort of group identity is a powerful motivator. Logos, slogans, and branding are all just a buy in to the safety of a group, and #(whatever) is really no different.

Once you decide to buy in to one, it's damn hard to divorce yourself in a way that allows you to look objectively at the flaws of your ethos. Further, peer pressure and social norms are a hell of a drug. Most of us are deeply bound to peer esteem. Problem is, if your peers are clueless smooth-brains, they'll be extra sure to hold you to their standards, and make no mistake, there are plenty of clueless smooth-brains out there, some of which have solid credentials.

The normative behaviors of a group these days often starts with wet streets (some specific, unifying interest) and that might incidentally cause some rain (the desire to trace the interest to its origin), but more often than not, it just ends right there where it slowly dies on the vine and is replaced by some other fad.

We hope that whatever identity you buy in to is one that encourages you to think, persist, and advance, not accept with blind obedience.


Conclusion

People flock to group identity because there's safety in numbers. There are those out there who engineer images to draw people in, and provide that identity for them.

Some out there might think in terms of "weaponized psychology" to describe their marketing approach. We're not big fans of Aleister Crowley or the occult, but he does have one particularly germaine quote:

“The sin which is unpardonable is knowingly and willfully to reject truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices.”

Our belief is that prejudices are the enemy of efficacy, and this position is informed by our experiences fighting and working in a variety of Spheres of Violence over most of the last 15 years. Are there those more skilled, better equipped, and more experienced?

Yeah, you better believe it. Anyone who fails to acknowledge this is nowhere near as competent as they think. This is one of the main reasons we're "Integrated Skills Group" and not "Integrated Skills Personality Cult". I don't care who you are, you're not an expert on everything. If you don't have a network of experienced professionals who help inform your tribe, well, see above.

We believe - truly - that if we manipulate people into thinking they're a purchase away from competence, *we're* culpable for any fault that befalls them. If we tell them a belt is 'good enough' for a tourniquet because we don't believe they'll ever really need it, that if they *do*, the blood from their failure will be on our hands, as well.

That means that while you might not agree with everything we say, we will never knowingly provide you with information that is incomplete or insufficient. We won't be selling your tourniquets without a windlass, direct linking you to a big, outdoor themed chain store, or demand that you agree with us.

Hell, if there's anything we miss, it's the ability to be honest and disagree respectfully.

Carrying that thought to its logical conclusion, we are, always have been, and always will be, open to explaining our position and how we arrived at it. If we're wrong, we'll grow. If we're correct, the strength of the knowledge will solidify. We hope you'll do the same. It's what this community desperately needs. That is *our* identity, and we hope that you can see it's not so we can look down on others, but so we can look forward towards greater competence.

Either way, we all win doing it this way.

...but there should be no expectation that we won't hold people to the same standard, and if we catch wind of bullsh*t, don't be surprised if we're unwilling to step in it.

Cheers,

Aaron

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