The Wisdom of the Elders

For S.F. and I.K.

I can understand the idea behind wanting younger people, but to be honest I think older people are often more careful and responsible.

… suggests a hubris among younger workers

Totally agree.

The younger workers might know the latest cool whiz-bang stuff, but the older people will understand the big picture, and will be able to efficiently direct talent and energies. The former will know many different trees; the latter will understand the overall lay of the forest and how it all fits together.

It’s like the difference between “intelligence” and “wisdom” in Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post (yeah, I know that “intelligence” and “wisdom” can be hard to define, hence the scare quotes). Wisdom is not as easy as intelligence to measure. For example, it’s easy to see that somebody has the smarts to program a fancy application in the latest cool whiz-bang computing language, and not so easy to tell whether somebody is careful, responsible, and non-hubristic. So, it’s easy to give wisdom short shrift.

High intelligence and low wisdom is a dangerous combination, because it leads to hubris (I.K.’s word), which in turn leads to human-made disasters like the ones we’ve been hearing about in the news the past year or so. Someone with the opposite problem — low intelligence and high wisdom — would at least be aware of their own limitations.


I am reminded of a paper I read for my statistical consulting course, Barabba, Vincent P. (1991), Through a glass less darkly, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 86, 1-8, but only because that paper in turn referenced another work, Haeckel S.H. (1987), Presentation to the Information Steering Group, Cambridge, MA: Marketing Science Institute.

In Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy (according to Barabba — I don’t have access to Haeckel’s presentation, so I’ll have to trust Barabba on this), raw data is converted (transmuted?) into information. It takes a lot of data to produce one piece of information, in the same way that you need multiple data points to estimate a mean with a low standard error. Information in turn is converted into intelligence, which is converted into knowledge, which is finally converted into wisdom. There is attrition at each stage; e.g., in the same way that it took a lot of raw data to produce one “bit” of information, it takes a lot of information to produce one piece of intelligence, etc.

Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy (adapted from Barabba, 1991)

This is not to say that raw data is unimportant; quite the opposite, in fact, since you need raw data to even begin to ascend Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy. But what seems to be happening these days is an overreliance on the bottom rungs of the Information Hierarchy at the expense of the top.


To measure is to know.

Lord Kelvin

Measuring gives you the raw data at the bottom of Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy, which can lead to knowledge, and ultimately (one hopes) wisdom. But if wisdom itself is difficult to measure, then it will be difficult to obtain knowledge about wisdom.


Here’s a Magic The Gathering card with a delicious flavor text, one of my favorites: Counsel of the Soratami. The flavor text reads:

Wisdom is not the counting of all the drops in a waterfall.
Wisdom is learning why the water seeks the earth.

Counting all the drops of water in a waterfall would count as raw data in Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy.

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Shanghai Express (1932)

This past Christmas vacation, I saw The Shanghai Express in Basel; I believe the date was 12/31/08. I found the movie very interesting.

Spoiler alert: I discuss the movie below.

The movie is set on the Shanghai Express, a train going from Beijing to Shanghai. Early in the movie, we’re introduced to three other passengers (among others) on the train:

  • Shanghai Lily, played by Marlene Dietrich, a notorious courtesan.
  • Captain Harvey, Lily’s estranged old flame, whom she still secretly loves. Five years ago, Lily tried to make him jealous with some ill-conceived scheme, but her ploy backfired and he no longer trusts her.
  • Reverend Mr. Carmichael, a theologian who takes an immediate dislike to Shanghai Lily and her travelling companion Hui Fei, because they’re women of ill-repute.

There are the beginnings of a rapprochement between Lily and Harvey.
But this is derailed (pun intended) when a rebel warlord “Chang” hijacks the train. He makes a “bargain” with Lily: she must agree to become his mistress, otherwise he will burn out the eyes of Captain Harvey with a hot iron. Lily agrees to the arrangement. It is a secret: nobody else knows why she agrees to it.

Chang is ultimately dispatched, stabbed in the back by Hui Fei. But Captain Harvey now regards Lily with renewed distrust, because although he knows she had agreed to become Chang’s mistress, he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t realize that his eyesight was at stake!

Mr. Carmichael pays Lily a visit, and insists that she tell him why she had agreed to become Chang’s mistress. Lily reveals her secret to Carmichael, on the condition that he tell no one else, especially not Harvey. Carmichael is moved by Lily’s self-sacrifice, and now wants to know why she doesn’t reveal her secret to Harvey. It seems like the obvious thing to do. If only Harvey knew Lily’s secret, then he would forgive her, and everybody would be happy!

But Lily has a very good reason for her secrecy. She tells Carmichael that she wanted Harvey to love her on faith; if he were to reconcile with her based only on knowledge instead, then his love wouldn’t really be worthwhile. Lily wants Harvey’s trust. Carmichael, formerly Lily’s adversary, now becomes her ally; and he makes a very interesting comparison to religious belief, saying the following memorable line:

Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn’t amount to very much.

The analogy in religious belief is this. If God really exists, then why doesn’t he work some amazing miracle to demonstrate his existence to the world, thereby settling the matter? Why not move the stars in the sky so that they spell “HELLO WORLD! FROM, GOD LOL”? I think Carmichael would say it’s because God wants faith, not knowledge.

Note that the mainstream version of Christianity that we’re familiar with emphasizes belief rather than knowledge. But there was once a rival variant (Carmichael would call it a heresy) called Gnosticism, in which knowledge rather than faith was key (gnosis = knowledge). With Gnosticism, you can have salvation only if you know certain secrets. But only specially chosen people have access to this secret knowledge, which is passed down from initiate to initiate, like a secret society. I think that this has a strong New Age flavor!

If Carmichael had been a Gnostic mystic rather than a mainstream Christian theologian, he might instead have said:

Love without faith, like religion without knowledge, doesn’t amount to very much.

The knowledge vs. faith theme seems strongly related to the old question of reconciling science and religion. A very interesting book I read recently (highly recommended), written by a physicist at the University of Delaware (and who went to graduate school at Princeton), poses the question as materialism versus faith, rather than science versus faith.


As an aside, Shanghai Lily’s real name was Magdalen. This is very most likely a reference to Mary Magdaelene, who’s traditionally considered to be a woman of ill-repute (although according to the Wikipedia entry she’s never actually called a prostitute or adulteress in the New Testament), and who became one of the first Christians. A fallen woman who redeems herself. The parallel to Shanghai Lily seems convincing.