How do We Assess Our Beliefs About Apple?

4 minute read
| Analysis

I write about Apple. I have opinions about how Apple is doing as a company. How do I know that my judgments bear any resemblance to reality?

Recently, I was reminded of the required thinking process in a book that I’ve been reading in the evenings. The Big Picture. It’s by Dr. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. In Chapter 9, author Carroll is preparing to talk about how scientists know what they know, and how reliable their knowledge is about certain things.

Analyzing Apple or any company is, essentially, a real science. Via Shutterstock.

Stay with me here. There won’t be any math.

Author Carroll starts with an introduction to the Rev. Thomas Bayes (1702-1761) who was an English Presbyterian minister. Oh, and quite a good mathematician. We’re introduced to the methodology he worked out for “the best way of moving toward reliability in our understanding.”

On the same page, author Carroll more carefully defines the scientist’s argument that while they may not know everything, they know a lot of things. Here’s the quote that caught my eye as he answers the question about how we know the reliability of our understanding:

To even ask such a question is to admit that our knowledge, at least in part, is not perfectly reliable. This admission is the first step on the road to wisdom. The second step on that road is to understand that, while nothing is perfectly reliable, our beliefs aren’t all equally unreliable either. Some are more solid than others. A nice way of keeping track of our various degrees of belief, and updating them when new information comes our way, was the contribution for which Bayes is remembered today.

Degrees of Belief

Without repeating his Chapter 9, Carroll goes on to explain degrees of belief. Statisticians call theses credences. For example, if I told you that a man on a bicycle just rode past my house, knowing my location (Colorado) and your own world experience, you’d place a high credence on my casual remark.

However, if I told you that a headless man just rode by my house on a horse, you’d place a low credence on that fact. Later, I explain that a movie studio was filming a movie, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in my neighborhood. Suddenly, with this new information, your credence, your estimation of the validity of my remark, goes way up.

Thomas Bayes formalized this process in a way that lends itself to statistical assessment of validity. So, when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN reported in 2012 that they discovered the Higgs Boson, it was a statistical result, based on very high standard of confidence. This is a process that, without prior training or experience, is lost on most casual readers and authors.

Page 2: How does all this apply to Apple?

5 Comments Add a comment

  1. aardman

    Thanks, an article that Apple observers should read and incorporate in their thought processes.

    Might I add or emphasize a few items that folks should keep in mind when they try to understand Apple’s actions:

    1. Starting from the assumption that Tim Cook and the rest of Apple management are ‘stupid’ is stupid.

    2. We do not know a lot of information about Apple that Apple management knows. Specifically, unlike other companies out there who sound a five-trumpet fanfare for every little thing they come up with, Apple is very secretive about what they’re working on in R&D. We also don’t know their product sales details, we don’t know their cost structure, we don’t know a whole lot.

    3. We can only see the broad brushstrokes of what they are trying to do and make inferences from that. From afar, it looks like Apple is aware that the era of rapid iPhone sales growth is past and they are looking to services as the most obvious next growth frontier. They seem to be expanding into services with the unique selling proposition of “services that hold your privacy sacred”. Will they succeed? Who knows. For sure though, the premium end of the smartphone market has a lot more at risk if their privacy is breached while the vast ocean of Android users don’t. (Sorry, that sounds crass and elitist but them’s the facts.) So to hold on to that premium sector, Apple’s approach to services must be necessarily more privacy-conscious than its competitors.

  2. brett_x

    Good points, but I think most of the disillusionment of Apple over the past 4-5 months was aimed at the lack of progress in the Mac realm. That the year over year sales were up may just mean that people gave up waiting for something spectacular and finally replaced their aging machines. There was a lot of hype, and then MacBook Pro they released was not the MacBook Pro that most people were waiting for. The touchbar is neat, and a bit innovative, but it hardly is a must-buy feature. Especially when a lot of ‘pros’ don’t even use the built-in keyboard (for ergonomic reasons).
    Meanwhile, Microsoft hit the mark with the Surface Studio. That one machine gives some Mac users a reason to dream of switching to PC, which was unimaginable just months prior. It made us uncomfortable to think that Apple was just beat by Microsoft their game.

    Objectively, the MacPro has not had an update since it was redesigned. (There doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon, but that’s the black box you speak of.)
    Objectively, the loaded MacBook Pro they released under performs compared to the prior version.
    Objectively, except for the MacBook and MacBook Pro, all of the current offerings have gone without updates for longer than in the past.

    Of course, Apple is not doomed. But I think we’d all like to see them innovate on the Mac front. Maybe that area doesn’t matter as much in the bigger equation. But if Apple wants to be seen as a leader, I think they need to up their game.

  3. CudaBoy

    The Kool-Aid Meister at work again -well those that can’t get published-write for the web as they say. Fact is iOS is a tiny percentage of mkt share over Android approx 1/6 and Samsung holds about double market share to iPhones and that is while their numbers drop for a few obvious reasons. Never weep for either Cupertino or Suwan (a paltry 23 trillion dollar PROFIT in the electronics div.) as they both operate a racket that dominates 99% of mobile – the real commodity that powers Apple. Stop the rubbish about Mac …that’s bull. Where’s the new FUNCTIONAL Mac Pros, and iMacs???? And then you look at the new ‘campus’….. the failed car project, no AI, no bike… But that phone……d;D

  4. MacFrogger

    CudaBoy: Re: “The Kool-Aid Meister at work again -well those that can’t get published-write for the web as they say.”

    Take a chill pill Dude. It’s OK to disagree with John as you well know. But lately your insults have been borderline childish while the above one is really quite over the top. Maybe someday you will grow up and become a CudaMan…but in the meantime you owe him an apology.

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