Manu Ganji

Via Negativa

There are two ways to acquire and enrich your knowledge.

The popular way is to learn about what something is, what is proven to work and why it works - Via Positiva.

The other way is called Via Negativa - by describing what something is not, what is not yet disqualified without insisting too much on explanation.

For example “the cure for fever is Paracetamol” is a Via Positiva answer. A Via Negativa answer would instead be like so: Fever is not cured with Medicine A, Medicine B, Medicine C. Not a direct answer but always reducing the pool of available options to something that is known to work in the widest range of conditions. This philosophy was actively promoted by medical science when they had to develop robust methodology to eliminate bad treatments. Via Negativa embraces skepticism for advancement of knowledge.

I had had a vague notion for this idea for a few years. I must credit Nassim Nicholas Taleb for introducing me to this philosophy in Antifragile.

Via Negativa knowledge has a few advantages. Foremost, it is robust. Something known to fail in a few scenarios can be safely ignored forever. But something that works now is still open to failure in an unforeseen situation.

Over time, Via Negativa knowledge decreases likelihood of blow-ups while always keeping the possibility of an upside open. When the team knows all the options that fail it can come up with something better each time - getting them closer to the best solution. This is in fact not a new theory - pharma research always happens in this approach.

Obviously, I hate project demos that show new features and make emotional pitches about future while ignoring behaviour under uncontrolled conditions.

Via Negativa avoids Confirmationist Bias. Remember that Idea Guy who misses the point that everyone in the room can see? It also avoids the Surviorship Bias and Narrative Fallacy. It also explains why most new ideas fail. Because they have hidden fragilities.

Throughout this series, I’ll point out what doesn’t work. I’ll probably make a list of ideas that don’t work. The understanding is that all other options are open to experiment until proven wrong. This doesn’t make us pessimists but helps us avoid fragilities.