How to Determine What (and Whom) to Believe

The few who can sift through information to decide what’s true and what’s not for themselves (and then implement that knowledge into decision-making) have an increasingly sizable lead over the unfree.

About Lucky Maverick

About Jonathan Bales

Subscribe for updates. It's free!

Whom are we to trust and what are we to believe?

It’s a really important question. Each passing day, it seems like there’s more and more value, more and more of an edge in separating fact from fiction. In an era of “fake news,” the few who can quickly sift through a sea of information and decide what’s useful and what’s not (and then properly implement that knowledge into decision-making) have an increasingly sizable lead over the unfree.

I mean, the entire idea of cultivating an autonomous mindset is really what Lucky Maverick is all about.

I talk all the time about the value of being an independent thinker—a truly independent thinker, which is a rare trait. The truth is that even the staunchest contrarians must trust others much of the time. We can’t be experts on everything. We can’t even be experts on more than a few things.

We have to trust some people, some of the time, right? Whether it’s scientists or experts in fields we don’t understand or whatever, we’re always making implicit judgements on what Ray Dalio labels “believability”—how much we should trust a person and subsequently weight their opinions in forming our own beliefs.

It seems self-evident there’s a range of believability for different people in any given area. If I’m trying to learn about the nature of the universe, I’d probably want to talk to an accomplished astrophysicist and not the drunk guy out on the street stumbling around and rambling about how dark matter is actually made up of neutrinos. Like bro, that theory was rejected in like the 90s, and although it’s seen a bit of a resurgence with the 2018 discovery that neutrinos can morph into and out of various sterile forms, they still aren’t abundant enough to account for all the dark matter we see in the universe.

LOL, drunk people.

Each person has differing believability in various fields, too. I see people make the mistake all the time of trusting the opinion of someone in one area simply because they’re super sharp in another. Smart people might be intelligent enough to reason through problems in most areas, but that doesn’t make them instantly knowledgeable in all areas.

It’s easy to just throw our hands up and only trust ourselves, but there’s simply so much useful knowledge out there that it’d be quite foolish to not at least consider the opinions of others. It opens up your pool of available knowledge in an exponential manner. When you find a highly believable person in a particular area—even if it’s very specific—you can save an incredible amount of time.

So much of finding success, in my opinion, is being able to identify and tail the right people. And if you can develop an incredible base of knowledge or highly specialized skill in one area, you’ll have something to offer them in exchange, making the knowledge-trading process that much easier.

  • Become among the most knowledgeable or skilled in one specific area.

  • Trade that knowledge for knowledge in areas in which you’re not an expert (most of them).

  • Expand your knowledge base exponentially.

You can’t have truly world-class knowledge in every area. In my opinion, you’re better off refining the skill of identifying believable people and trading knowledge than you are trying to become an expert in every area.

The best I’ve seen at this is my business partner Peter Jennings, who has an uncanny ability to pinpoint exactly what skills and knowledge people have—where they’re most believable—and bring everyone together such that the whole is unimaginably larger than the sum of the parts.

Still, this all comes down to cultivating the ability to identify and tail believable people—who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s real and who’s a charlatan, who can find truth and who cannot. Perfecting this skill will grow your knowledge more so than perhaps any other.

A Quick Poker Aside

I had the idea for this post this morning when I saw the below tweet from poker pro Phil Galfond. Phil is a poker legend and among the most rational people I’ve ever encountered.

This is just such a sophisticated view from Galfond, in my opinion. I’ve had the chance to hang out with Phil, and he’s the epitome of a believable person. He was present when Peter and I booked our prop bet with Joey Ingram that Joey couldn’t learn Mandarin in 12 months—our $45,000 to Joey’s $7,500.

#MandarinPapi lost that bet miserably, by the way. He did make it this far, though:

When it comes to learning Chinese, Joe Ingram is not what we’d define as a believable person.

The reason I really appreciated this tweet from Galfond, though, is that I think it’s really rare to recognize and accept that not understanding the reasoning behind something is not an automatic reason to discredit a person or idea, especially when there’s a track record of success.

In the case of learning poker, one question a player might ask is “Who should I study to improve?” which is effectively “Which players are most believable?” Galfond’s tweet shows he recognizes the value of “what’s true is what works.” New players, very often quants with an understanding of game theory, don’t respect Phil Hellmuth because he doesn’t play like them. Whether or not Hellmuth is actually still a great player among his peers or total dust is irrelevant; the idea is that there are various ways to find truth, and we should use all of them to dictate our beliefs and subsequent actions.

Note that I’m not saying to hang onto old beliefs for the sake of it. Far from it. It would have been foolish to ignore the Sabermetrics revolution in baseball—as so many teams did for so long—just because it was new. The old, scout-centric approach should have been replaced by the data-driven one almost immediately because it was abundantly clear the latter was superior.

Rather than value old or consensus opinions just “because,” you should place weight on the beliefs of people who have done and continue to do what you want to do. “Talk is cheap.” Once it stops working, the believability of the person should dissolve along with it, unless that person adapts. Hellmuth’s style might not make a lot of sense to new players—and I don’t really think there’s anyone serious about poker that thinks Hellmuth is still among the top players in the world—but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer.

In terms of believability (using poker as an example), I think it looks something like this:

I had a graphic designer make this image for me for $199. They told me they were really talented and I believed them.

When figuring out who to trust or what to believe, there are two heuristics I think we should use: track record and logic. Has the person accomplished something that suggests they know what they’re talking about, and can they articulate it in a way that is logical and rational? The most believable people are in the upper-right quadrant, and they can both logically explain their thoughts and put them into practice. Those are the people whose opinions we should value most.

That’s not to say we can’t ever trust those in the bottom-right (can do, can’t logically theorize), or upper-left quadrant (can’t do, can logically theorize). It’s just that the standard for proof needs to rise; we need to set a higher bar. That is, they need to either propose something so clearly mathematically or logically true, or else they need to have an impeccable track record of success. In the case of Hellmuth, Galfond is basically pointing out, “Hey, this guy keeps winning and has won for such a long time that maybe the fact he’s unorthodox needs to be overlooked a little bit.” Hellmuth is at one extreme on this scale.

I think a lot of the conflict regarding people’s believability assessments stem from viewing truth in a very one-dimensional manner. If you want to learn business and your first instinct is to go to business school, you might be more in the upper-left quadrant than someone who wants to just follow an entrepreneur, who might be more in the bottom-right quadrant.

We shouldn’t immediately dismiss anyone (except the compulsive gambler), but we should ultimately end up dismissing almost everyone. We can believe the theorists and we can believe the practitioners, specifically when they’re at the extremes, but ideally we’re finding the rare breed who can do both.

It is my opinion that to most accurately (and quickly) identify the logical practitioners, we should first search for those with a proven track record—those with “skin in the game.” That is, we should search for and value the methods of those with real downside from their opinions—business owners over business professors, sports bettors over sports media, the guy who just gets all the women over the one studying evolutionary psychology as a foundation for picking up girls at the bar HEY NOW WAIT THAT ONE WAS ME IN COLLEGE…moving on.

Then, after we seek out the guys who do and say the right things to attract women and not the guy in the corner mumbling “Well you know, she really shouldn’t be going for that guy according to modern theory,” we sort them by their ability to clearly articulate why they’ve had success. The reason I think it makes sense to start with the practitioners is because there are just fewer of them. That speeds up the process, eliminating a lot of false positives. In short, a lot of people can talk about it, and few can do it.

Side note: I hope you all never blindly trust me and question everything I say. Chances are much of it is wrong or sub-optimal! But if you do place believability in me, it should be first and foremost because I’ve put my theories into practice in the past, had some success (and many failures), and have lived to logically (I hope!) explain my thought process.

Subscribe for updates. It's free!

Applying Believability to Yourself

Before I go get Vietnamese food for third time this week, I’ll leave you with this. It’s not just others whose trustworthiness you need to weight. You should also determine how believable you are in a certain area by considering your track record and how well you can logically explain what you believe to be true. You should do this, specifically, because it’s really hard to be honest with yourself about your abilities. So don’t let yourself lie; look at actual results.

The easiest way to figure out how well you know something or how true your beliefs are is to put them to the test. Don’t just say it; do it. It’s surprising how many theories that “should be true” just don’t work in practice. Sometimes it’s near-impossible to even explain why; some things just don’t work when pressure is applied.

One simple way to accomplish this is to make small bets with friends. Bet on anything and everything you can, even if not for money. You’ll quickly learn how well your predictions hold up (and thus how well you really know XYZ).

To understand how high you land on the scale of logical thinking, I have one main suggestion: write. To me, clear writing is the most obvious sign of a clear mind. That’s not to say that everyone who is sharp can write well—they definitely cannot—but rather that if you can write very well (and other people agree), you’re probably thinking logically about a subject.

There’s really nowhere to hide when you write. You’re trying to take a complex idea in your head and use specific sequences of words to convey that information to someone else in a way that will resonate with them. That’s a hard task, and there’s really no way to do it well unless you’re thinking rationally.

Some Cool Related Reading

  • Related to this post, I really liked this article on tacit knowledge (and why that’s the most important type of knowledge). As Naval has said, “The skills you really want can’t be taught, but they can be learned.”

  • Speaking of Naval, get this.

  • In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams lays out six filters for truth, or how we typically go about figuring out what’s fact and what’s fiction—personal experience, experiences of people you know, experts, scientific studies, common sense, and pattern recognition. I’d add two more filters for truth to the list: logic/math and “what works.” No matter the exact filters proposed, the idea is there are various ways to go about determining what is true.

  • John Conway was a mathematician who made up new games all day. His book Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays is very obscure and you probably won’t like it, but like five of you will love it.

TL;DR (The Important Points)

  • In an era of “fake news,” the few who can quickly sift through a sea of information and decide what’s useful and what’s not (and then properly implement that knowledge into decision-making) have an increasingly sizable lead over the unfree.

  • We’re always making implicit judgements on what Ray Dalio labels people’s “believability”—how much we should trust them and subsequently weight their opinions in forming our own beliefs.

  • So much of finding success, in my opinion, is being able to identify and tail the right people. And if you can develop an incredible base of knowledge or highly specialized skill in one area, you’ll have something to offer them in exchange, making the knowledge-trading process that much easier.

  • Rather than value old or consensus opinions just “because,” you should place weight on the beliefs of people who have done and continue to do what you want to do.

  • When figuring out who to trust or what to believe, there are two heuristics I think we should use: track record and logic. Has the person accomplished something that makes you think they know what they’re talking about, and can they articulate it in a way that is logical and rational?

  • That’s not to say we can’t ever trust those who can do, but can’t logically theorize, or those who can’t do, but can logically theorize. It’s just that the standard for proof needs to rise; we need to set a higher bar. That is, they need to either propose something so clearly mathematically or logically true, or else they need to have an impeccable track record of success.

  • To most accurately (and quickly) identify the logical practitioners, we should first search for those with a proven track record—those with “skin in the game.”

  • You should also determine how believable you are in a certain area by considering your track record and how well you can logically explain what you believe to be true

  • The easiest way to figure out how well you know something or how true your beliefs are is to put them to the test. One simple way to accomplish this is to make small bets with friends.

  • To understand how high you land on the scale of logical thinking, I have one main suggestion: write. To me, clear writing is the most obvious sign of a clear mind.