I have recently been reading about when certain methodologies or paradigms fail. My current research has taken the direction of when classical models of certain kinds of physics are not appropriate. Assuming the results of my proposed alternatives look good, I will share some of them here. I have also been reading things very much outside of my area, and it has made me think more about the nature of academic, government/industrial, and layperson thought. The rest of this post will be a very brief response to this article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as well as a few other pieces such as a book on Street-Fighting Mathematics, which is an excellent read for anyone interested in approaching mathematics from a very different perspective.
There is quite a lot to say about the information presented in the links above. I mostly want to comment on the common perceptions people have about academics, and perhaps more importantly, about the tools that they produce. It is abundantly clear that we live in a world that is becoming more complex, and that we are starting to face challenges that previous generations could never have conceived. Epigenetics has turned the concepts of DNA and hereditary information into a much more complicated picture, where our daily choices will possibly have deep impacts on the physiology of our children. Antibiotics changed so much of medicine, but they have come with a very unexpected new danger of antimicrobial resistance, which we still don’t have good measures to guard against. While we have increased our awareness as a species about our impacts on the environment, climate change and other areas where the science is very nuanced show us how little we know about our meddling in natural affairs, and how very dangerous that can be. I highly recommend you to read this article on a very real take on the purely nonsensical problems with the politics surrounding this issue.
It is for these reasons that I think, on average, people are beginning to appreciate complexity significantly more. Speaking anecdotally for a moment, I remember that as a child the number of people I knew who had the mental abilities to manipulate computers was quite small. In comparison, I now know more people capable of not only using a myriad of devices, but of programming them to various degrees. This isn’t a trivial skill, but it is becoming a much more valuable one to at least begin to understand. I would highly recommend reading this article in full when you have the time to really begin to appreciate what programming really is. In fact, I’d recommend spending some time just playing on that beautifully-interactive description of an increasingly-important area of human knowledge.
So in general, my outlook for the average person’s capabilities and intelligence are quite high. I think people, at least those in an economically prosperous country, will continue to become more capable, and on average more intelligent. There is some debate, especially about how we quantify intelligence and how our capabilities are changing. As usual, I encourage you to read some of the modern discussions such as this or this, as a brief overview of that topic. I think though, that it is a much harder question to determine if our capabilities are increasing fast enough to match the increasingly complex and nuanced challenges we are beginning to face.
In particular, I find the abuse of mathematical and statistical tools, or the mis-use of scientific theory in government or even within academia itself, very disheartening. Taleb’s article about how little good theory we have to deal with the majority of real-life probabilistic challenges is very sobering to a theoretician like myself. Most of us are well aware that we idealize reality in order to strive for more elegant and general theories, and often those using applications in the “real-world” simply take our models and apply them, without carefully checking the assumptions.
It is difficult to read through dense and technical work in order to understand things like why GDP is used as an economic measure, and how viable it is. The literature is vast and contains an incredible amount of subtlety and technical analyses. Yet, as with many such ideas, we can find videos of politicians and newscasters comparing GDP to the total enterprise value of a company. This kind of comparison has many issues (discussed in some detail in the Street-Fighting Mathematics book), not the least of which is that it is dimensionally inconsistent. It would be similarly nonsensical to compare the position of the moon relative to the earth with how fast a car is moving, in order to make a statement about how slow it is going. On the one hand, it is unreasonable for us to expect everyone to be well-versed in modern economic theory. Despite its mathematical nature, I know basically nothing about it. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if people with important jobs, like politicians and reporters, could remember enough about their high school science curriculum to make valid statements and comparisons?
I have very mixed feelings about all of this, and I will probably spend a long time thinking and reading before stating any possible solutions to these problems. Nevertheless, I think a very important takeaway is how invaluable a good education is, and how this is often being compromised in favour of training in many places, or otherwise terrible solutions to the difficult problem of education in an increasingly complex world.
Please do share your thoughts on these issues with me, and I very much would encourage you to read some of the items linked above.