Erik Larson

Dec 10, 2008

Rule Following

“This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men

One the great myths of modern society is that we’re following rules to obtain outcomes. I mean rules, roughly, in the sense described here , although I’ll also feel free, for these purposes, to equivocate a bit between plans and rules. No harm should be done for now.

So the myth of rule following. We see it in software development (no one seems to notice, or if they do, they dare not mention, that the “rule” was changed a thousand times between conception and completion of project), we see it in the economy, the social sciences, and indeed everywhere that the veneer of science and technology and the almost pathological need for certainty manages to obscure deeper truths about the fragility of our capacities.

Retrodiction, not prediction, is what we’re best at, though it is unfortunately and for obvious reasons of little interest. And for various psychological reasons that I’m neither qualified nor interested in researching directly, we’re strikingly good at painting failure after failure to predict what comes next with ex post facto explanations that make things just so. Political science is perhaps paradigmatic. It was common in the 1950s to prognosticate about how the (now defunct) USSR would be the preeminent superpower by the 1970s. France (yes, France) was widely thought to be emerging in the 1970s. Japan in the 1980s. China of course today. Our ability to keep proclaiming, generation after generation, our cock-sure predictions about the future state of human societies in the next year, five years, decade (or God forbid, century), is simply amazing, and defies logic. Yet we keep doing it. And we will keep doing it, in spite of all evidence of consistent failure to the contrary.

The psychology of rule following tells us that there’s a rule (or a set of rules) that we followed to get to a result (or that will allow us to predict a future result). And when we achieve the result, we tend to confirm the application of the rule , when in fact (chances are) we’ve made innumerable on-the-fly judgements to get to our result, and then we’ve tidied things up after the result was achieved by giving credit to the rule. So everything fits . Feels like progress.

On the other side of the coin, when a result is not achieved, instead of recognizing the general problem of using rules, we tend to assume that the particular rule (we claimed to) use, was in fact not adequate. And we set about looking for a new rule, which will of course not be adequate in many contexts too. Such is the nature of our (unexamined) selves. In a deeper and more honest sense we might someday admit that progress (at least in messy, complex situations that we’re immersed in), is mostly a function of insights, adaptive thinking as the environment changes, and, well, luck. But we don’t see it this way. It doesn’t sound like something an expert would say.

So I think that in complex systems (like the weather, or any system where human choice can enter in), our capacity to formulate generalizations that tell us how things will be at time t + n , when we refer to them at time t , is effectively a chimera (whenever n is large enough, which depends on features of the system). Things are constantly new, and different. We formulate plans, and rules, and they guide us, but very loosely, because the environment is constantly in flux. Rules we’ve grabbed onto “work”, only because we keep adjusting things to make them seem to work. The real driver is rather our own wits and insight. And with these much more powerful tools, software does get developed. The Surge in Iraq works. The Space Shuttle (mostly) arrives at the Space Station. And when I get correct directions and follow them, I typically get where I’m going (even if unexpected snags happen). And on and on.

Anyway, in some other post I promise to explain in more depth exactly how rule-following is a mirage, which I haven’t yet done (I’ve asserted mostly only that it is). To be continued. Until then, rest assured that our rules are grains of salt. They just masquerade as so much more.