# The Stopped Clock Problem

[Unusually for me, I actually wrote this and published it on Less Wrong first. I’ve never reverse-cross-posted something to my blog before.]

When a low-probability, high-impact event occurs, and the world “got it wrong”, it is tempting to look for the people who did successfully predict it in advance in order to discover their secret, or at least see what else they’ve predicted. Unfortunately, as Wei Dai discovered recently, this tends to backfire.

It may feel a bit counterintuitive, but this is actually fairly predictable: the math backs it up on some reasonable assumptions. First, let’s assume that the topic required unusual levels of clarity of thought not to be sucked into the prevailing (wrong) consensus: say a mere 0.001% of people accomplished this. These people are worth finding, and listening to.

But we must also note that a good chunk of the population are just pessimists. Let’s say, very conservatively, that 0.01% of people predicted the same disaster just because they always predict the most obvious possible disaster. Suddenly the odds are pretty good that anybody you find who successfully predicted the disaster is a crank. The mere fact that they correctly predicted the disaster becomes evidence only of extreme reasoning, but is insufficient to tell whether that reasoning was extremely good, or extremely bad. And on balance, most of the time, it’s extremely bad.

Unfortunately, the problem here is not just that the good predictors are buried in a mountain of random others; it’s that the good predictors are buried in a mountain of extremely poor predictors. The result is that the mean prediction of that group is going to be noticeably worse than the prevailing consensus on most questions, not better.

Obviously the 0.001% and 0.01% numbers above are made up; I spent some time looking for real statistics and couldn’t find anything useful; this article claims roughly 1% of Americans are “preppers”, which might be a good indication, except it provides no source and could equally well just be the lizardman constant. Regardless, my point relies mainly on the second group being an order of magnitude or more larger than the first, which seems (to me) fairly intuitively likely to be true. If anybody has real statistics to prove or disprove this, they would be much appreciated.

# Charging the Self-Trust Battery

In my post last month on Authentic Service and Self-Improvement, one of the aspects of the model I presented was security. This is what I had to say:

It is not enough just to know yourself, know your beliefs, and live authentically. To be secure in yourself is also to know why, to have trust in yourself. When you understand not just who you are but why, then you can stand firm against the people who will try to change you, and instead change when you think it is right for you.

Over the past month, as I have attempted to live out this philosophy, I have found this part… difficult. It feels, on a normal day, like I am secure; I rest my self-image on firm foundations, and approach the world with confidence. But this security is an illusion. It is easy for something seemingly trivial to upend this confidence and leave me insecure, unsure, and alone.

At the company where I work, we use the metaphor of a trust battery for dealing with other people, but it works just as well when applied to the self. Unsurprisingly, my trust battery with myself is very low. I still get through life just fine most of the time because I can draw power from external sources: praise and affirmation from other people, my position at my workplace, my possessions. But when these are stripped away, or even merely threatened, I have no personal trust battery to fall back on, and I become lost.

For a lot of people, their self-trust is anchored in a permanent, intimate relationship of some kind, either with a god or with another human being. These relationships, while technically external, provide a base of unconditional acceptance that allows an actual self-trust battery to grow. They act both as anchor and as safety net. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it’s not for everyone.

If you are single, and an atheist, then you have no such relationship to rely on. Without a base of unconditional acceptance, you may try to charge your trust battery on conditional social acceptance, but you can’t actually do that. As long as the juice is flowing you feel fine, but one misstep and your acceptance is revoked. It’s only when the energy stops that you realize your battery is still nearly empty. This is obviously fragile, but also severely limiting: it is the people who feel comfortable defying convention once in a while who are able to change the world. When your power comes from conditional acceptance, you quickly learn a Pavlovian fear response to not fitting in, and it becomes even harder to deviate.

Charging a self-trust battery ex nihilo is hard. It requires discipline, so that you can trust your behaviour, and brutal self-honesty, so that you can trust your mind. It requires a deep commitment to values over emotions, and most importantly it requires a core belief that charging the battery is important. That the strange and beautiful kind of zen which results from a full battery is a state worth achieving. That before you can trust the universe, you must first trust yourself.

Even with all of these things, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of running on conditional acceptance. It’s right there, the quick win, the shortcut, the bad habit. If charging your battery is hard, then remembering that it needs charging is harder. But if you don’t then one of these days a storm will isolate you, and you’ll be left without power at all.

We all have to weather the occasional storm. Do it with the lights on.