Wittgenstein’s Ruler: When Our Opinions Speak More About Us Instead The Topic

If you pick a random early stage founder at a business conference and ask him about his opinion on bootstrapping vs. raising money, chances are, it will be far more descriptive about himself and his experiences than informational about the topic.

Similarly, a political analysis, good or bad, unless the source of the statement has extremely high qualifications, the statement will be much more revealing of the reviewer than about the matter.

It is habitual of most people to hold opinions about other people, situations and ideas. In most of the cases, our opinions speak more about us, rather than the topic itself.

I once met an investor who was convinced that Quora was running on borrowed time back when Quora didn’t have any monetisation feature implemented. He believed that advertisement was dead, and even if it wasn’t, it would surely not work for a platform like Quora.

In these situations, there are two cases. Either: (a) the person knows what he is talking about with near perfection, having made several investments in startup similar to Quora, having seen both the upsides and the downsides of running ads in such a platform, or (b) just does not know what he is talking about and reveals his views on ‘advertisement for monetisation in general rather than about Quora’s possible demise.

This mechanism is called Wittgenstein’s Ruler:

Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler.

In other words, the less you trust the ruler’s reliability the more information you are getting about the ruler and the less about the table.

After spending a couple of hours at a local crime scene, if you make a statement like, “Most likely the servant is not the burglar as there are not enough footprints,” it reveals very little about the statistical evidence of footprints as compared with what it shows about your ability to make an inference out of a situation. Had you been a trained detective, the ratio of information would have tilted the other way.

Similarly, when I hear people telling their opinions about politics, religion and problems of the world along with their solutions, it feels funny. Not because I know better myself but because of the realisation that I know that I don’t know. By suggesting isolated problems and simplified solutions in these complex domains, the ruler itself is giving its measurements instead of measuring the table.

If somebody insults you or your idea, it might help to know that most of the time their opinions are just a measure of their own beliefs rather than you or your abilities.

Flipping it on this side now, sometimes you do have to pass quick judgments on persons and situations. It might feel good and fill in a sense of superiority but in reality, if you don’t have any expertise on the subject, don’t go believing your own opinions as truths without further knowing about the topic.

But the problem is that such reasoning may be central to our thinking, but only our System 2 knows it and not our System 1. Our emotional system does not understand Wittgenstein’s Ruler. A compliment is always going to be pleasant, regardless of its authorship. This is something manipulators exploit rather very well.

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