NOTE: While looking through my old essays, I found another 15 that struck me as particularly interesting. Some may seem a bit dated, as they discuss current events during the period 2008 to 2010, but the principles they discuss are still relevant.
I have written before that the use of aggregates can create confusion and allow for the "proof" of utterly absurd premises. ("Individual and Aggregate", "Aggregates and Confusion") However, today I found yet another confirmation of this, though in a slightly altered form.
This afternoon, while working, I noticed a small, blister-like patch on the roof of my mouth. It was puzzling, so I decided to look on line and see if there were reports of similar incidents related to the flu-like bug that has been troubling me for the past few days*.
On line, I found a message board where various individuals tried to diagnose themselves. There was some nonsense, such as mercury poisoning (including instructions for cilantro juice detox!), and some sound advice, from seeing a dentist to letting it be for a while and not worrying too much. However, one other thing struck me.
Most of these people had symptoms that did not match.
Perhaps it was because I was paying careful attention to make sure the symptoms matched mine, or maybe it is just a habit after six years of self diagnosis attempts when no one knew what disease was plaguing me**, but I paid a lot attention to the descriptions, and it seemed there were dozens of very different symptoms, from some mention of pimple-like structures, red or white, hard bumps, fluid filled blisters to open sores. Locations ranged from gums to the front of the palate to where the soft and hard palates meet. And yet, strangely enough, everyone who commented acted as if all the others suffered from exactly the same disorder.
It was puzzling.
And yet it wasn't. In some ways it perfectly fit with what I have seen in economic and political problem solving. Abstraction, properly applied, is a powerful tool for solving problems. When we can remove nonessential features and recognize that various cases match in all essential aspects, we can quickly being to form theories about causes and solutions.
On the other hand, improperly abstracting, lumping together unrelated events, or abstracting essential details so that completely unrelated items can be joined, can result in utterly inappropriate solutions. Just imagine trying to treat all fevers with one solution***. And that, in the end, is what improperly aggregating data is, it is failing to abstract properly, joining together unrelated items.
I know it is a trivial example, but such trivial examples often highlight more significant patterns. If we can be confused by such simple things, in matters with which we are intimately familiar, such as our own bodies, then how much easier is it to become confused in unfamiliar, abstract matters such as economics or political decisions?
* I later recalled I had overheated some food late last night and, being very tired, likely had burned my mouth without noticing it, which made me feel a bit foolish, but also help demonstrate how easily anyone can get caught up in these sorts of hysterias.
** For those unfamiliar with the blog, I suffered from pain and strange sensations in my hands and feet, followed by photosensitivity, confusion, strange reactions to medicine and a host of other symptoms. After five years I finally insisted on three different tests for porphyria, and the third showed a positive result. I still can't get a result which will identify a definite variety, but at least I now know I have some variety of intermittent porphyria.
*** In some ways, I think early modern medicine suffered from this in their efforts to treat "cancer", since it has become evident that uncontrolled cell growth can have multiple causes.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/03/30.