Ah, theories and probabilities. One of my favorite subjects.
As newspapers reported last week, the state of Kansas decided to remove questions about evolution from its public school curriculum. This event affords us a good opportunity to think and affirm some Foolish truisms, which are not only relevant to The Motley Fool and our worldwide community, but to investing at large.
From this fascinating result, what may we learn and conclude? Not what one might conventionally think. Read on.
Evolution is a scientific theory, as any good scientist or teacher will tell you. Like many theories, it cannot be proven to be true. This attribute it shares in common with all religions, ancient civilizations, and -- when you get down to it -- virtually every sensory perception any of us has.
For instance, can you "prove" history to be true? Anything that happened in the past -- even the most generally accepted beliefs -- cannot now be proven. Every historical document we still have -- papyrus or foolscap or parchment -- we have used to piece together another day, or year, or era, or millennium. And every single one -- whether from antiquity, the Renaissance, or the American Revolution -- may have been forged. Prove to me that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Go ahead: Prove this to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Gravestones, monuments, "Washington Slept Here" signs, signed treaties, any of these separately or all of them taken together, are not proof.
Prove to me that Washington even existed.
Should Washington be taught in schools?
What we all actively use, use so actively that we take it completely for granted, is faith. My favorite definition of faith comes ostensibly from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, 11:1. Faith is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." This classical and beautiful definition describes the very substance that we all use in copious amounts to make our way through life! We take on faith what we read in history books. We take on faith that the way that light bends and bounces off our pupils does in fact convey to us what is actually happening in our physical environment. We take on faith that our biological parents are who they say they are. We take on faith a whole earthful of things that most people reflexively assume to be "true" that are in fact unprovable... theories.
Evolution is just a theory. One theory in a wide, wide world called science, which is itself only a subset of the world of ideas.
What is deeper than the world of ideas? What do we use to navigate it, regulate it, live in it?
This is the crux, both for the state of Kansas and for any investor. It is: probability. Probabilities. Let me underline that and spell it out: PROBABILITIES.
What makes faith seem less like a leap is probability. While I cannot prove that George Washington ever existed, or that Asia exists despite my never having stepped foot on the continent, the fact remains that the probabilities that both are true are highly, highly likely.
Good -- one might say, "proper" -- education offers us the best theories, the most probable explanations. It does not insist on their truth. It does not even insist on a single explanation. We are taught that light is a wave AND a particle. We are taught that there are five primary reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. We debate between Keynesian economics and the Austrian school of laissez-faire. Teachers provide students with the best, MOST PROBABLE explanations for what we see in the world, what we can or should learn from it.
Evolution is not a fact. It is a theory. For any theory to have reached the currency, "buy-in," and prominence that evolution has achieved in our society, it has to be incredibly good. The testing of evidence that occurs today in our world is stringent beyond any historical precedent. Our belief in the scientific theory -- in hypothesizing, gathering data, testing that hypothesis to form a theory, in subjecting any theory to the scrutiny of a competing theory -- has created an amazing revolution of technology and thought. Respect that.
And to write the final word to Kansas before I show what this means to us as investors, I would like to say this. You shame yourselves. I myself am Christian, but I will not mince my words when I say that a statewide decision to omit one of the most probable and important scientific theories from your children's education is tragic. I would feel genuine sadness if I didn't believe that this decision is among the most likely to be repealed (sooner rather than later) that I know of. And yet -- and here's a complexity of thought that I hope any reader will appreciate: I celebrate your decision. Why? Because I believe people should be free to choose what they want their public schooling to teach. It's a free world with free ideas. If you want to mandate that your children be taught that they should give their money to mutual-fund managers, rock on, Kansas. Your decision, your consequences. It is a wondrous country that we live in, and Kansas (ironically, if you like) proves that.
I celebrate Kansas, and its Board.
Now to investing and Fooldom:
We feature on our site a mix of different investment approaches. Call them theories, if you like. We offer the particular theories that we do (Rule Breaker, Foolish Four, Rule Maker, Boring and Drip) for your scrutiny and edification. We cannot ourselves "prove" that they are good. It is our faith that what is on offer at The Motley Fool's Hall of Portfolios is worthy; our third corporate core value is "A relentless search for better solutions." What is on offer here is the best stuff we've seen so far, or dreamt up.
But just because you find me here at the Rule Breaker portfolio, do not assume (as some have) that I believe emphatically that Rule Breakers are the best stocks, and make up the best portfolio for all people. Emphatically not.
Yes, the performance of the Breaker Port would seem to indicate some probability that we have some good ideas, here. But it ain't proof. And even after 40 years of returns (35 years from now), that won't be proof that we are "right."
My six attributes for selecting a Rule Breaker, and my belief that a portfolio of them will beat the market, are theories, nothing more. And every person is different: your time horizon is different than mine; your tolerance for risk exceeds or undershoots my own; your job, interests, and hobbies are not identical to mine. The upshot of these truths is that each of us picks his or her own investment portfolio (whether stocks, funds, Furbies, what have you) which is unique, uniquely relevant to one's base of knowledge and experience, one's degree of attention to the market, one's time in the market, one's psychology, you name it.
You are not here for hand-to-mouth coddling, and you're not here to click a button and have us manage your money for you. We don't offer that service. And we are highly skeptical of those who do. We are here to teach you to think for yourself, and to share with you some of the best thoughts and ideas that we have come across. What you do with it -- whether you wish to buy Amazon.com, or sell it -- is your choice. It's your decision, and you and yours will reap the benefits or drawbacks of those decisions. What emerges in a free world that offers free markets, capitalism, and democracy, is one of my favorite all-time things: meritocracy.
To close, a word about Foolishness. Foolishness opens your eyes to realize you can and should be in control of your money, you can learn this stuff, it really matters, no one has your own interest better in mind than you, investing is FUN, investing is a natural extension of who we are, et cetera. The themes here are personal responsibility, educational and amusing enrichment, and self-determination. Hop aboard our Ship of Fools, and lend a hand. It is our faith that great things will come of it.
David Gardner, August 18, 1999
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