Step Right Up Folks. For $22 Million – See the Dragon in Carl’s Garage!

The best classroom is the real world. The NYT’s “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program,” is a can’t-miss teachable moment. If you haven’t seen the article, give it a google.  It’s far easier to teach your kids/friends/local internet trolls critical reading and thinking skills over U.F.O. programs than wonky tax policy discussions. So where to start?  Here are three handy shortcuts to use: Jacobi’s Inversion, Sagan’s Dragon, and 50 Shades of Bias.

–          Charlie Munger loves to quote mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi who said, “invert, always invert.” When we look at the NYT’s story, the first thing we should ask is what it is and what it isn’t about. What inverting does, is makes us look for the logic that’s being used to ask the is/isn’t questions by working backwards from the conclusions. Technically speaking, inverting puts us on the hunt for hypotheses to test.  Think, “how do we know x,” and “if we assume y, would z follow?”

–          Jacobi’s Inversion: When the program was funded, how did the cost match the information they wanted to study? If aliens are visiting us and don’t want us to make contact with them, why are they letting us see/film them? How many non-believer’s approved of the allocation?

–          Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” includes a famous passage about the dragon in his garage. When you ask if you can see it, he tells you its invisible. When you ask if you can throw flour on the floor to see footprints, he tells you it floats. You should get the idea by now, but his point is that if you can’t test it, what’s the difference between it existing and not existing? Nada.

–          Sagan’s Dragon: Is not being able to identify something in the sky, often at night, particularly surprising? Can we duplicate the effect another way? What’s a more plausible explanation?

–          Once we’ve combined logic and testing, we are ready to look at the interpretation of the results. What we are really after is referred to as “bias.” Bias is being inclined towards an outcome without respect for the logic. There are 50 shades of grey with bias, some of which will barely make you blush, and others that will make you cringe. The point is, there are mild and extreme forms and you should approach bias as a range.

–          50 Shades of Bias: “Internationally we are the most backwards country in the world on this issue,” says Mr. Bigelow in the article. We could ask what “more forward” countries like China and Russia have to show for their progressiveness in these matters? What values to the investigations did non-believers estimate compared to the values estimated by believers? Does his belief cloud his ability to remain objective?

–          Breaking the story down using these tools, we can now say that the story IS about budget allocations that don’t get transparently reported. What it ISN’T about is offering any proof of what the U.F.O.’s could actually be identified as (yeah, that U = unidentified word is pretty significant). What it IS, is a story about “believers” who crowbarred the program into the budget, based on bias (or at least anecdote) and not evidence. What it ISN’T, is an offering of rationale for those beliefs.

–          While oversimplified here to make the point, Jacobi’s Inversion + Sagan’s Dragon + 50 Shades of Bias, are three quick shortcuts to help evaluate what we’re reading. Whether it’s a sales forecast, a compliance memo, or a viral Facebook story, try teaching the logic to someone with an open (enough) mind. The truth is out there (but I am sorry to report that the dragons are likely not).