The world we understand

A regular problem I encounter is that people create false dichotomies and use this to guide their reasoning as well as influence the reasoning of others. The problem is that we live in an increasingly complex world with lots of tuneable parameters. Some of them are known, most of them are unknown and almost all of them behave in a highly non-linear manner. 

If a project is ineffective that doesn’t mean that the original idea was inherently bad nor does it mean that the particular implementation of that idea wasn’t carefully thought out. It could have failed for any number of reasons. My guess is that many of us reason in a simplistic manner in order to maintain the belief that we live in a world we understand. 

Let me give some examples of nonsense I often hear:

  1. “curiosity-driven education doesn’t work
  2. “foreign aid is a terrible idea”
  3. “renewables are the future and always will be”
  4. “Mars-bound rockets can’t be built by a company”

In every case the educated person in question will point me to a list of experimental or empirical studies and then try to convince me that the particular idea is lousy. However, what many don’t seem to realise is that in many cases it’s difficult to separate the conclusion of a study and its design. Moreover, what is particularly pernicious about this sloppy method of reasoning is that it often targets unconventional ideas. 

In many cases enterprising ideas aren’t inherently more risky than conventional methods. Very often the unusual idea is more carefully thought out whereas the conventional approach merely relies on tradition for justification. If you should take an unusual path there’s less social support in the event of failure and that’s an important reason why many people judge that it’s safer to fit in. There might be a greater chance of succeeding with approach X but if people are guaranteed to say “I told you so” in the event of failure you wouldn’t be irrational to choose conventional methods.  

This might seem like a fuzzy cultural problem but I think that this is one of the most important problems facing our society today. We may not be one technology away from utopia but if our society doesn’t become more adaptive I don’t see how we’ll collectively overcome the biggest problems facing us in the 21st century. Tradition should not be the default answer. 

However, modern society’s collective desire to be accepted means that even the truth surrounding historically important innovators gets distorted. Paul Graham touches this topic very succinctly in his essay, The Risk of Discovery:

Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed. How to explain all the time he spent on alchemy and theology?

In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics; if they had, more people would have been working on it.

Now, among those people who are aware that Newton spent a considerable amount of time on things other than physics almost all tend to interpret it by saying that he was a bit crazy like all geniuses. This is simply a careful attempt to recast an important innovator to someone more conventional so we can maintain an illusion that comforts us rather than rationalise unusual and possibly risky projects. 

In reality we aren’t safer by collectively walking off the side of a cliff. We need important innovation in the areas of energy, education and government. For this to happen we need to encourage people that take calculated risks and if they should fail instead of saying “I told you so” we should say “It was worth a try”.

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