Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Searching for unobtanium [you can't thread a needle with a hammer]

Ever since Collison and Cowen called for a science of progress back in 2019 the web has seen countless proposals about what to do, many of them assuming that the problem is an organizational or a management problem. The solution then is to reorganize and/or adopt new management techniques. In some cases the suggested solution is some version of “become more like a business.”


Noah Smith, an often perceptive economics blogger has now given us his opinion. Here’s how I responded to his post:

“Encouraging not just novel research, but research in novel directions. Asking questions no one has asked before. Using methodologies no one has tried before.”

Umm, err... This is not a new or particularly big idea. Back, I believe, in 1969, Jean Piaget gave an address at Johns Hopkins where he said that if you want to be creative in a field, study all the adjacent fields. We've known this for a long time. Doing something about it is another matter.

As far as I can tell, the university system was never really designed to generate novelty. Oh, sure, novelty is highly regarded, novelty in the past. The intellectual heroes are the one's who come up with novel ideas. But the system itself doesn't know how to do it. Simply saying, “seek out novelty” is not helpful. If you really think you are being helpful, then, with all due respect, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Fast grants, that's another matter. It's important, but given the will and the means, it's easy to do. We need more of it. But they're working within well-explored intellectual territory. How do you get out in the “here be dragons” region, stay there, and find something before going broke?

Oh, I do like your mining analogy. I think it’s apt. Ore’s are not regularly distributed in physical space and our methods of predicting where they might be are crude. Same with ideas in intellectual space. Check out a working paper where I build on a model Paul Romer proposed in 1992, in particular, see the section, “Stagnation, Redux: Like diamonds, good ideas are not evenly distributed”, https://www.academia.edu/43938531/What_economic_growth_and_statistical_semantics_tell_us_about_the_structure_of_the_world

I’d like to pick up on the mining analogy. Say that we’re in the unobtanium business. We know that there’s only so much unobtanium in the world. When we’ve mined it all, the business is over.

So, we’ve been at it for awhile. At first new deposits were easy to find. Then things became difficult for awhile, it took more an more effort to find a new deposit. But that ended and the effort-per-new-deposit (EPND) dropped. This went on for two or three more cycles. Then EPND went up. And up. And up.

We’d found all the deposits. But we didn’t know that. I’m asserting that from my transcendental point of view as the teller of this tale. In real life there are no transcendental points of view. In real life, how do you know that the world’s supply of unobtanium has been exhausted?

What reorganization will solve that problem? What management solution?

My fear is that much of the response to Collison and Cowen falls within the scope of that well-known story of the drunk looking for his keys underneath the street light because that’s where he can see. Everyone is using a hammer to thread the needle because that's the tool they know how to use.

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