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permission to speculate wildly

April 16, 20204 min read

I once described Ribbonfarm as “permission to speculate wildly”.

At the Ribbonfarm conference last year, I listened to talks on how emotions are made, investing in cults, quantum physics, seeing voids.

Some of the talks were visions into the future; others were far-fetched.

No matter how (un)reasonable your theory, the audience listened carefully, asked thoughtful questions, and probed the speakers’ assumptions. In fact, the crazier the theory, the more the audience engaged.

It’s freeing to find yourself in a community like this, somewhere you’re free to think out loud.

You speak without attaching your worth to an idea. Ideas come and go. You don’t self-censor; there’s no need to, because no one is judging how “smart” you are by the truthiness of what you say.

You’re shooting the shit together. You’re exploring.

Thinking out loud makes conversation feel like play.

And,

Thinking out loud creates a fast learning curve because you get immediate feedback on what you’re learning (hence the meme “learning in public”, and The Power of Twitter).

I recently tweeted a theory I have about sleep. I also shared that I’m attempting to sleep 4.5 hours per night on a polyphasic sleep schedule.

This sounds a little crazy, and to be honest, I’m 70% convinced it IS crazy, and only 30% convinced that it’s a good idea.

But, as I’ve come to expect from my Ribbonfarm-adjacent online communities, my thread was treated seriously. People kindly probed my assumptions, and asked thoughtful questions.

A sleep researcher suggested that my theory wasn’t taking into account the benefits of stage 2 NREM sleep. Yet he implicitly gave me permission to speculate wildly, by calling my theory “interesting”.

Speculating wildly isn’t just fun. (Although, it’s a LOT of fun, and that’s a primary reason I recommend it).

Creating a society that allows wild speculation is how humanity uncovers our collective errors.

News outlets are frequently wrong. Experts are frequently wrong. Organizations are frequently wrong. (For recent examples see: epidemiologists and news outlets under-estimating the spread of COVID, or the CDC claiming masks don’t work).

Permission to speculate wildly keeps humans from clustering around a single narrative. That sort of herd thinking is dangerous because sometimes the dominant narrative is wrong.

In January, some “conspiracy theorists” were pushing the theory that coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Twitter flagged any links to the “conspiracy” site as “dangerous,” discouraging users from clicking through.

In April, the Washington Post ran the same “conspiracy theory,” except the Washington Post is Respectable with a capital R, so the “conspiracy theory” magically transformed into just “a theory”.

No one knows if the lab theory is true yet, but that’s kind of the point.

Conspiracy theorists are sometimes right, and the dominant narrative is sometimes wrong.

Basically: all humans are fallible.

And the way we combat our inherent fallibility is to continue giving ourselves permission to consider that our strongly-held opinion might just be wrong; and continue to listen to wild speculation.