Naive Empiricism: When Ignorance Makes You Smarter

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is naive empiricism? How does it work to counter confirmation bias?

Naive empiricism is the scientific practice of approaching a problem without any assumptions or expectations, relying solely on empirical evidence. This term is occasionally used differently in other fields.

We’ll cover how naive empiricism combats confirmation bias and other cognitive errors.

The Error of Confirmation

Before we look at naive empiricism, let’s look at what it combats. All too often we draw universal conclusions from a particular set of facts. For example, if we were presented with evidence that showed a turkey had been fed and housed for 1,000 straight days, we would likely predict the same for day 1,001 and for day 1,100.

Taleb calls this prediction the “round-trip fallacy.” When we commit the round-trip fallacy, we assume that “no evidence of x”—where x is any event or phenomenon—is the same as “evidence of no x.” When we make assumptions of this kind, we’re not practicing naive empiricism.

In addition to drawing broad conclusions from narrow observations, we also have a tendency to select evidence on the basis of preconceived frameworks, biases, or hypotheses. For example, a scientist conducting an experiment may, often unconsciously, discount evidence that disconfirms her hypothesis in favor of the evidence that confirms it. This is the opposite of “naive empiricism.” It’s “confirmation bias.”

Taleb’s solution to confirmation bias is naive empiricism—the rigorous search for disconfirming, rather than corroborating, evidence. This technique was pioneered by a philosopher of science named Karl Popper, who called it “falsification.” The reason naive empiricism/falsification is so effective is that we can be far more sure of wrong answers than right ones.

Why Is Naive Empiricism Necessary?

Let’s look at an example that shows why naive empiricism is so necessary.

Picture a turkey cared for by humans. It has been fed every day for its entire life by the same humans, and so it has come to believe the world works in a certain, predictable, and advantageous way. And it does…until the day before Thanksgiving.

Made famous by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (though, in his telling, the unlucky bird was a chicken), this story illustrates the problem with inductive reasoning (the derivation of general rules from specific instances). With certain phenomena—marketing strategy, stock prices, record sales—a pattern in the past is no guarantee of a pattern in the future.

In Taleb’s words, the turkey was a sucker—it had full faith that the events of the past accurately indicated the future. Instead, it was hit with a Black Swan, an event that completely upends the pattern of the past. (It’s worth noting that the problem of inductive reasoning is the problem of Black Swans: Black Swans are possible because we lend too much weight to past experience.)

In the turkey illustration, we might assume that “no evidence of the possibility of slaughter” equals “evidence of the impossibility of slaughter.” To take a medical example, if a cancer screening comes back negative, there is “no evidence of cancer,” not “evidence of no cancer” (because the scan isn’t perfect and could have missed something).

Another example of faulty inductive reasoning, this time from the world of finance, concerns the hedge fund Amaranth (ironically named after a flower that’s “immortal”), which incurred one of the steepest losses in trading history: $7 billion in less than a week. Just days before the company went into tailspin, Amaranth had reminded its investors that the firm employed twelve risk managers to keep losses to a minimum. The problem was that these risk managers—or suckers—based their models on the market’s past performance. These assumptions resulted in a lack of naive empiricism.

In order not to be suckers, we must (1) cultivate a naive empiricism—that is, a skepticism steeped in fact and observation—and (2) remain vigilant against the innately human tendencies that leave us vulnerable to Black Swans.

Naive Empiricism: When Ignorance Makes You Smarter

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

One thought on “Naive Empiricism: When Ignorance Makes You Smarter

  • December 30, 2020 at 12:43 am

    Ms. Penn,

    You have completely mixed up naive empiricism with negative empiricism!


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