Monday, February 26, 2007

Future discoveries: illusions of order versus stochastic science.

Nassim Taleb on future discoveries: "...we are victims of the narrative fallacy — even in scientific research ...The pattern-seeking, causality producing machine in us blinds us with illusions of order... I hold that not only discoveries are also largely the result of a random process, but that their randomness is even less tractable than, and not as simple as, biological evolution....this makes me extremely optimistic about the future in several selective research-oriented domains, those in which there is an asymmetry in outcomes favoring the positive over the negative — like evolution. These domains thrive on randomness. The higher the uncertainty in such environments, the rosier the future — since we only select what works and discard the rest.

I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim — I've been hearing about its imminent decline ever since I started reading. Take the following puzzle. Whenever you hear or read a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as "uncultured", "unintellectual" and "poor in math" because, unlike his peers, they are not into equation drills and the constructions middlebrows people call "high culture". Yet the person making these statements will be likely to be addicted to his Ipod, wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his "cultural" statements on his (Intel) PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. Well, it so happened that the U.S. is currently far, far more tinkering an environment than that of these nations of museum goers and equation solvers — in spite of the perceived weakness of the educational system - which allows the bottom-up uncertainty-driven trial-and-error system to govern it, whether in technology or in produces "doers", Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas... by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and "cultural" states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people's ideas.

All the while institutional science is largely driven by causal certainties, or the illusion of the ability to grasp these certainties; stochastic tinkering does not have easy acceptance. Yet we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing — thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system. I am also optimistic that the academy is losing its power and ability to put knowledge in straightjackets and more out-of-the-box knowledge will be generated Wiki-style."

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