Doing the work required to have an opinion

As Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204), commonly known as Maimonides, said: “Teach thy tongue to say I do not know, and thou shalt progress.” I have previously written about many of our biases when it comes to watches, and thought I’d share another take on the matter. Many of us hold an opinion on watches and watch collecting, but how many put in the relevant work required in order to have this opinion?

We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.

Charlie Munger

Making the effort required to hold an opinion means you can argue against yourself better than others can. The point of doing this, is so you can rest knowing that you won’t find anyone who is able to argue better against your view. If you do, it becomes incumbent upon you to revisit your opinion, and if necessary, revise it accordingly. The problem is, this counteracts our natural desire to only seek out information that confirms what we believe (“think”) we know.

A former NFL executive Michael Lombardi comes up with a really good analogy which you can listen to here – he says:

“There’s two kinds of snakes you come across. There’s the Texas Coral Snake, and the Mexican Milk Snake, and they both look exactly alike. The Texas Coral Snake is dangerous, it’s venomous, it can kill you in a minute. The Mexican Milk Snake can’t do anything to you; it’s an impostor.”

Michael Lombardi

Now you might be wondering what the hell this has to do with watches? Bear with me. For starters, how/why do these two snakes look alike? The phenomenon is called Batesian Mimicry. In the 1850s, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates found a certain set of butterflies who were clearly not of the same species but whose wings looked almost the same to the naked eye. Bates found that while the butterflies which were toxic to potential predators (the “models”) were able to operate freely and relatively unmolested, there had also developed a “mimic” population of butterflies which wasn’t toxic at all, yet still went untouched! This was because predators couldn’t take the risk of getting poisoned by a mimic, because they weren’t sure which one was the poisonous butterfly.

Allow me to digress a little with this story which Charlie Munger used at the 2007 Commencement to the USC Law School, to illustrate how to distinguish between the two types of knowledge: real knowledge and pretend knowledge:

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics.

Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine. [What if] I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

Charlie Munger

So, coming back to Batesian Mimicry… in the world of watches we observe a similar phenomenon; Copycats are often very effective, very convincing “mimics” of the true champions. They dress the part, they talk the talk, and they know what buttons to push… but in the end, they are merely chauffeurs. It boils down to something Richard Feynman puts so eloquently: it’s about making a distinction between knowing the name of something and knowing something. As they can be very convincing,  we must be wise enough to watch out for Batesian mimicry — even in ourselves.

This brings up an interesting and somewhat paradoxical question: Who can best tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its Mimics? The Coral Snake itself, of course! The real thing knows a fake. Of course, in the animal kingdom the definition of a real coral snake and a mimic, is quite straightforward and indisputable… the nuance in the watch world, although analogous, is quite different.

There are two angles to this – the first is the fact-based knowledge about the watches themselves… and the second is more nuanced, related to the hobby of collecting, and the intentions/mindset with which you collect watches.

Regarding the first angle: A long-time watch vintage Rolex dealer for example, comes with the credentials and real-world experience to claim expertise – to be a reliable and trustworthy source of information; After all, this is where the adage “buy the seller” comes from. Their livelihood depends on their reliability and conning the odd person is merely a short-sighted exercise which would likely kill their business. Or so you’d think… However, anyone who has heard of Jose Pereztroika will know, buying the seller is not always safe. He has exposed numerous fakes from the likes of Christie’s, Phillips and Antiquorum to name a few… and many would argue these ought to be among the most trusted names out there. So much for buying the seller then – caveat emptor!

Now, onto the second angle: Whose opinions do you seek, and whose opinions do you trust or value? It’s an important consideration, because more often than not, we find ourselves in the watch collecting echo-chamber and what we tend to observe is how the confirmation bias runs rampant… It becomes tempting to look at someone’s follower-count on Instagram, for example, and inherently assume this translates into ‘expertise’ or ‘trustworthiness’. This is nonsense and I include myself in this category too – I know very little, and my opinion deserves to be challenged and countered. Aside from enjoying the discussions, this is one of the main reasons why I put my thoughts out here for everyone to see – to be challenged, and to be on the record, thereby risking being wrong, or being called out for errors or blind-spots. How else would I grow, or stress-test my own views? Be wary of what you read, and always question each person’s intent before you take any opinion on board as part of your own decision-making.

Conclusion

Many people you will encounter are pretending to be seasoned collectors with some sort of well-formed views to be relied upon – they will tell you tall tales about the many years of ‘experience’ they have, collecting watches. They will paint elaborate pictures of how their invaluable wisdom came to be. Don’t bite. Every single person has a unique experience; This difference can arise for any number of reasons ranging from financial circumstances to networks of friends who were able to assist… not to mention, many times people stumble onto things through sheer luck.

Nearly all of this is not directly replicable. Keep asking questions, take the time to form your own principles for collecting, and find your ‘why’ in watch collecting – then keep challenging yourself and testing your beliefs as you go along…. it’s ok for your tastes to change, and it’s ok for you to be wrong sometimes – that means you’re learning and growing. If I had to leave you with only one piece of advice, it is this: always assume the other person you’re speaking to, knows more, and has better information than you; This will ensure you approach any conversation with an open mind… listen to them with the intention of understanding them, and NOT with the intention of replying to them.

-F

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