The Best of...

April 24, 2020 by guidj

In this life, people create models of the world in which they live in. Some of these models can be simple and codify critical yet simple rules, e.g. if it’s cold, you search for warmth. Other models can be rather more complex and express things we might not even be able to always explain, like who we feel comfortable being around.

What both types of models and others along the spectrum can have in common is a propensity for bias. And by bias, I’m referring to assumptions that are made and taken for granted. Some of them can be harmless, and others can be quite damaging.

I remember the first time I realized, through introspection, that the concept of best can hardly exist on its own, i.e. without a conditional. It’s a realization that I happenstance upon over and over again, as I encounter different scenarios in life where there is an attempt at qualifying a universal ordering. Take pizza, for instance. One could ask what is the best pizza in the world?. It should be obvious that the answer is that there is no such thing. Because there is one question that needs to be answered beforehand - or rather two of them: best to whom? And second, with respect to what?

A pizza can have the highest amount of cheese in the world - this is both reliably measurable and comparable. Another pizza can have the softest dough - though harder, this is also measurable and comparable. But what makes a pizza the best in the world? Is it that it has been judged by a small group of critics that collectively decided they enjoyed it most? Surely, they will make use of their own criteria to make that judgement - how hard is it to make, how much they enjoyed the ingredients or how much they believe most people will enjoy them. The fact is, without a conditional, there can be no best. Only a preferred one. To each specific individual, and according to their specific criteria. Even a majority favorite does not constitute best.

And yet, anywhere you go, you will hear people talking about the best: the best movie of all time; the best restaurant in the city; the best place to travel to. Underlying these affirmations is an assumption resting dormant within that my preferred or our preferred is equivalent to the best.

At times, this is merely one of many shortcuts employed in human language. If we had to describe everything minutely, communication would be slower — which quite frankly isn’t a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to always say “according to my personal preferences, molded over my years of existence, while noting that I have not experienced all other alternatives, and that I might carry some deeply rooted pre-dispositions, I think I prefer vanilla ice-cream over other types of ice-cream”. That may be fine for an essay, but not for every day conversation. You can, however, say “vanilla icre-cream is my favorite”.

When making decisions, it’s important to keep this in mind. A question as simple as what is the best algorithm comes inbued with many ambiguities. Is is the most efficient for a specific data profile? The easiest to be understood? - looking at you raft. The one with the most optimized implementation?

Working with data and intelligent decision making, this is something that one (hopefully) comes to internalize. Every ranking as a reference to its ordering. And that’s the truth.