What are the course corrections?

Background: I wrote this for the Synthesis team as part of a series on our core values as a company. It contains a secret Josh gleaned from his time with Elon which I don't think has been publicly written about before. - Chrisman

At Synthesis, our mission is to accelerate human progress through education. We believe progress is possible, but not inevitable: we must fight for it. To be successful in the fight, it is critical that we commit to seek the truth so that we may take correct action.

Popular intellectual movements in the past and present have sought to frame truth as subjective. But truth is not subjective. A rocket gets to orbit or it does not. Farmers produce enough food to feed the population or they do not. No amount of wishing or wordplay will save a life from a deadly disease such as smallpox. Only the truth in action can do that.

Seeking objective truth is not so easy, because we are hardwired to seek another kind of truth: social truth.

Social truth is truth by consensus. A tribe must have a leader, so they concoct a story about how the current leader was chosen by unseen gods. Whether this is objectively true or not is unimportant. The widely accepted social truth allows the group to act cohesively.

Objective truth is the domain of science. Social truth is the domain of tribalism. You can tell which domain you are in by how you greet new evidence that contradicts your beliefs. If you are seeking objective truth, you will welcome the new evidence; discovering your error leads you closer to the truth.

People do not exactly seek social truth. It is the result of conformity, not thinking. If you share evidence that contradicts social truth, you will be ignored or attacked.

Synthesis will be a company that seeks objective truth. Our commitment will remain even when the search violates social truth. We will not act on the basis of falsehoods, and will not propagate falsehoods in the name of social truth. To do so would violate our sacred responsibility to our students.

If seeking objective truth sounds obvious or easy, let me assure you it is anything but. Scientists, our revered seekers of objective truth, are as likely to cave to social truth as anyone else. The great physicist Richard Feynman tells one such story in his essay "Cargo Cult Science:"

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

We should assume we are no more intellectually honest than these scientists. How then do we adhere to the path that leads toward truth?

They key is embracing fallibilism.

Fallibilism is the combination of two ideas:

a) We are always at least a little bit in error.

b) We can correct our errors.

Taken together these two statements are the core of the argument put forth by physicist David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity. The title is apt: by embracing fallibilism we can literally expand our knowledge infinitely.

Fallibilism is not only a better way to seek objective truth, it is a fundamentally optimistic world view. After all, how pessimistic to imagine that our knowledge today is the best that we will ever do? Fallibilism suggests the opposite: infinite possibilities for improvement. What could be more optimistic?

At Synthesis we embrace fallibilism by repeatedly asking ourselves and our students a question: "What are the course corrections?"

Josh learned this question from meetings with Elon. It stuck with me because it essentially implies both of the core tenets of fallibilism in a single question. Elon did not ask: "Do we have any course corrections?" He assumes there are. Remember: we are always at least a little bit in error. And by using the phrase "course corrections" he implies optimism: we can correct our errors.

Fallibilism is perhaps the single most powerful idea in all of human history. It allowed us to break free from superstition and sparked the Enlightenment, an historical turning point that has created unprecedented wealth and expanded human liberty over the last several centuries. The world is not perfect, but it is almost certainly better because of the Enlightenment.

As an institution of education, there is no more important goal than extending the reach of the Enlightenment. This means teaching our students to seek progress through fallibilism. Equally important, it means embracing fallibilism ourselves. We must not ever give in to the illusion that we are in possession of truths that cannot be questioned.

This is not an excuse for endless debate: often the truth can only be discovered through action. We must occasionally decide to act even though uncertain, in order to discover the truth. It is sometimes necessary to commit to a course of action even in the face of uncertainty. For startups, this is de rigueur.

Neither is fallibilism an embrace of criticism for its own sake. There is a hierarchy of critique. We must focus on discovering and correcting those errors which are most likely to compromise our ability to achieve our mission. Just like Synthesis students, we must focus our resources on the decisive factors if we hope to win our game.

If we do our job well our students will see farther and achieve more than us. Our principle mission is to help them do so, which means we must never assume we are in possession of ideas so true they cannot be questioned and improved. To succeed at Synthesis, embrace fallibilism and never stop asking: "What are the course corrections?"