Naive Intervention


Imagine someone of the type we call neurotic in common parlance. He is usually wiry, often  contorted, speaks with an uneven voice. His neck moves around when he tries to express himself. When he has a small pimple, his first reaction is to assume its cancerous, that the cancer is of the lethal type, and that it has already spread to his lymph nodes. His hypochondria is not limited to the medical department: he incurs a small setback in business and he reacts as if bankruptcy is near and certain. In the office, he is tuned to every single possible detail, systematically transforming every molehill into a mountain. The last thing you want in life is to be stuck in traffic with him on the way to an important appointment. The verb “overreact” was designed with him in mind: he does not have reactions just overreactions.

Compare him to someone imperturbable,  with the ability to be calm under fire that is considered necessary to become a leader, military commander, or mafia godfather. Usually unruffled and immune to small information, he can impress you with his self control in difficult circumstances. For a sample of a composed, calm, and pondered voice, listen to interviews with “Sammy the Bull,” Salvatore Gravano, who was involved in the murder of nineteen people (all competing mobsters). “He speaks with minimal effort, as if what he is describing is not a big deal.”

This second type sometimes reacts when necessary; in the rare situations when he is angry, unlike with the neurotic fellow, everyone knows it and takes it seriously.

The supply of information we are exposed to thanks to modernity is transforming humans into neurotic hypochondriacs. From the equable second fellow into the neurotic first one. For the purpose of our discussion, the second fellow only reacts to real information, the first largely to noise. The difference between the two fellows will show us the difference between noise and signal. Noise is what you are supposed to ignore, signal what you need to heed.

Indeed, we have loosely mentioned “noise.” In Science, noise is a generalisation beyond the actual sound to describe random information that is totally useless for any purpose, and that you need to clean up to make sense of what you are listening to. Consider, for example, elements in the encrypted message that have absolutely no meaning, just randomised letters to confuse the spies, or the hiss you hear on a telephone line that you try to ignore in order to focus on the voice of the interlocutor. And this personal or intellectual inability to distinguish noise from signal is behind over-intervention.

Giving someone a personal doctor doesn’t prolong their life, quite the opposite.

Michael Jackson’s personal doctor has been sued for something equivalent to overintervention-to-stifle-antifragility ( but it will take the law courts a while to become directly familiar with the concept). Did you ever wonder why heads of state and very rich people with access to all this medical care die just as easily as a regular person? Well, it looks like this is because of overmedication and excessive medical care.

In business and economic decision making, reliance on data causes severe side effects – data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity, and the proportion of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed in it. A very rarely discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities – even in moderate quantities.

The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you disproportionately likely to get (rather than the valuable part, called the signal); hence the higher the noise-to-signal-ratio. And there is confusion which is not psychological at all, but inherent in the data itself.  Say you look at information on a yearly basis for stock prices, or the fertiliser sales for your father-in-laws factory business, or inflation numbers numbers in Vladivostock. Assume further that what you are observing, at a yearly frequency, the ratio of signal to noise is about one to one (half noise, half signal) – this means that half the changes are real improvements or degradations, the other half come from randomness. The ratio is what you get from yearly observations. But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95 percent noise, 5 percent signal. And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news and market price variations do, the split becomes 99.5 percent noise to 0.5 percent signal. That is two hundred times more noise than signal – which is why anyone who listens to and reads news more than is necessary is exposed to fragility.

Consider the iatrogenics of newspapers. They need to fill their pages everyday with a set of news items – particularly those news items also dealt with by other newspapers. But to do things right, they ought to learn to keep silent in the absence of news of significance. Newspapers should be of two-line length some days, two hundred pages on others – in proportion  with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money and and need to sell us junk food. And junk food is iatrogenic.

There is a biological dimension to this story. I have repeated in my previous posts that a stressor is information. Too much information would therefore be too much stress, exceeding the threshold of anti-fragility. In medicine, we are discovering the healing powers of fasting, as the avoidance of the hormonal rushes that come with the ingestion of food. Hormones convey information to the different parts of our system, and too much of them confuse our biology. Here again, as with news received at too high a frequency, too much information becomes harmful – daily news and sugar confuse our system in the same manner.

Now lets add psychological to this: we are not made to understand the point, so we overreact to noise. The best solution is to only look at the very large changes in data or conditions, never at small ones.

Just as we are not likely to confuse a bear for a stone (but likely to mistake a stone for a bear), it is almost impossible for someone rational, with a clear, uninfected mind, someone who is not drowning in data, to make a vital signal one that matters for his survival, for noise – unless he is overanxious, oversensitive, and neurotic, hence distracted and confused by other messages. Significant signals have a way to reach you. In the tonsillectomies  story, the best filter would have been to only consider the children who were very ill, those with periodically recurring throat inflammation.

Media-Driven Neuroticism 

There is so much noise coming from the medias glorification of the anecdote. Thanks to this, we are living more and more in the virtual reality, separated from the real world, a little bit more every day while realising it less and less. Consider that every day, 6,200 persons die in the United States, may of preventable causes. But the media only report the most anecdotal and sensational cases (hurricanes, freak accidents, small plane crashes), giving us a more and more distorted map of real risks.  In an ancestral environment the anecdote, the “interesting” is information; today, no longer. Likewise, by presenting us with explanations and theories, the media induce an illusion of understanding the world.

And the understanding of events (and risks) on the part of members of the press is so retrospective that they would put the security checks after the plane ride, or what the ancients call post bellum auxillum, sending troops after the battle. Owing to domain dependence, we forget the need to check our map of the world against reality. So we are living in a more fragile world, while thinking it is more and more understandable.

To conclude, the best way to mitigate interventionism is to ration the supply of information, as naturalistically as possible. This is hard to accept in the age of the internet. It has been hard for me to explain the more data you get, the less you know what’s going on, and the more iatrogenics you will cause. People are still under the illusion that “Science” means more data.

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