The limits of knowledge

John Brockman of Edge magazine does an annual piece where he asks a whole bunch of celebrity thinkers to answer an intriguing question. Sometimes the results are fascinating, and sometimes they are not. This year’s round of answers (to the question “What will change everything?”) struck me as especially unimaginative. This may be more my problem than that of the writers; it’s been a long time since I’ve looked to modern-day thinkers for useful answers to anything, since the questions they spend their time looking at strike me as uninteresting and mostly irrelevant.

But there are two good pieces lurking in there, which I will reproduce here. The first is by economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who recently gained some notoriety by writing a book, The Black Swan, about which one reviewer wrote:

Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, "History does not crawl, it jumps." Our assumptions grow out of the bell-curve predictability of what he calls "Mediocristan," while our world is really shaped by the wild powerlaw swings of "Extremistan."

His response to Brockman’s question, called “The Idea of Negative and Iatrogenic Science,” continues this theme by speculating that there will be a shift in scientific approach from analyzing and fixing problems to identifying and avoiding them. The writing is difficult to follow at points, but stick with it.

People want advice on how to get rich –and pay for it. Now how not to go bust does not appear to be valid advice –yet given that over time only a minority of companies do not go bust, avoiding death is the best possible –and most robust –advice. It is particularly good advice after your competitors get in trouble and you can go on legal pillages of their businesses. But few value such advice: this is the reason Wall Street quants, consultants, and investment managers are in business in spite of their charlatanic record. I was recently on TV and some "empty suit" kept bugging me for precise advice on how to pull out of the crisis. It was impossible to communicate my "what not to do" advice –or that my field is error avoidance not emergency room surgery, and that it could be a standalone discipline. Indeed I spent 12 years trying to explain that in many instances no models were better –and wiser –than the mathematical acrobatics we had in finance and it took a monumental crisis to convince people of the point.

Unfortunately such lack of rigor pervades the place where we expect it the least: institutional science. Science, particularly its academic version, never liked negative results, let alone the statement and advertizing of its own limits — the reward system is not set up for it. You get respect for doing funambulism or spectator sports –following the right steps to become the "Einstein of Economics" or the "next Darwin" rather than give society something real by debunking myths or by cataloguing where our knowledge stops.

[In some instances we accept limit of knowledge trumpeting, say, Gödel’s "breakthrough" mathematical limits –because it shows elegance in formulation and mathematical prowess – though the importance of such limit is dwarfed by our practical limits in forecasting climate changes, crises, social turmoil, or the fate of the endowment funds that will finance research of such future "elegant" limits].

Let’s consider Medicine –which only started saving lives less than a century ago (I am generous), and to a lesser extent than initially advertised in the popular literature, as the drops in mortality seem to arise much more from awareness of sanitation and the (random) discovery of antibiotics rather than therapeutic contributions. Doctors, driven by the beastly illusion of control, spent a long time killing patients, not considering that "doing nothing" could be a valid option –and research compiled by my colleague Spyros Makridakis shows that they still do to some extent. Indeed practitioners who were conservative and considered the possibility of letting nature do its job, or stated the limit of our medical understanding were until the 1960s accused of "therapeutic nihilism". It was deemed so "unscientific" to decide on a course of action based on an incomplete understanding to the human body –to say this is the limit of where my body of knowledge stops.

The very term iatrogenic, i.e., harm caused by the healer, is not well spread — I have never seen it used outside medicine. In spite of my lifelong obsession with what is called "type 2 error", or false positive, I was only introduced to the concept very recently thanks to a conversation with the essayist Bryan Appleyard. How can such a major idea remained hidden from our consciousness?  Even in medicine, that is, modern medicine, the ancient concept "do no harm"   sneaked-in very late. The philosopher of Science Georges Canguilhem wondered why it was not until the 1950s that the idea came to us. This, to me, is a mystery: how professionals can cause harm for such a long time in the name of knowledge and get away with it.

Sadly, further investigation shows that these iatrogenics were mere rediscoveries after science got too arrogant by the enlightenment. Alas, once again, the elders knew better –Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs had a built-in respect for limits of knowledge. There is a treatise by the Medieval Arab philosopher and doctor Al-Ruhawi which betrays the familiarity of these Mediterranean cultures with iatrogenics. I have also in the past speculated that religion saved lives by taking the patient away from the doctor. You could satisfy your illusion of control by going to the Temple of Apollo rather than seeing the doctor. What is interesting is that the ancient Mediterraneans may have understood the trade-off very well and have accepted religion partly as a tool to tame such illusion of control.

I will conclude with the following statement: you cannot do anything with knowledge unless you know where it stops, and the costs of using it. Post enlightenment science, and its daughter superstar science, were lucky to have done well in (linear) physics, chemistry and engineering. But, at some point we need give up on elegance to focus on something that was given the short shrift for a very long time: the maps showing what current knowledge and current methods do not do for us; and a rigorous study of generalized scientific iatrogenics, what harm can be caused by science (or, better, an exposition of what harm has been done by science). I find it the most respectable of pursuits.

I especially appreciate the call to stop making excuses and to say so publicly when things simply do not work. I think, for example, that there are plenty of concrete situations where the economic theories of both Keynes and Friedman have been tried and have failed; we would be better off closely examining those failures to determine the actual limits of those theories and the costs of using them, rather than speculating about how things would have turned out better if only they had been used properly.

The second good piece comes from Brian Eno, one of my favorite musicians and a smart and thoughtful guy besides.

What would change everything is not even a thought. It’s more of a feeling.

Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better. The world was rich compared to its human population; there were new lands to conqu
er, new thoughts to nurture, and new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of human history grew from the feeling that there was a better place, and the institutions of civilisation grew out of the feeling that checks on pure individual selfishness would produce a better world for everyone involved in the long term.

What if this feeling changes? What if it comes to feel like there isn’t a long term — or not one to look forward to? What if, instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise and hazard, we start to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water?

Many of us grew up among the reverberations of the 1960’s. At that time there was a feeling that the world could be a better place, and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. Why did this take root? Probably because there was new wealth around, a new unifying mass culture, and a newly empowered generation whose life experience was that the graph could only point ‘up’. In many ways their idealism paid off: the better results remain with us today, surfacing, for example, in the wiki-ised world of ideas-sharing of which this conversation is a part.

But suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world not in that way but instead as something more closely resembling the nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion described in Cormac McCarthy’s post-cataclysm novel The Road. What happens then?

The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere. There isn’t time for them. Long term projects are abandoned — their payoffs are too remote. Global projects are abandoned — not enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits.  Any kind of social or global mobility is seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism rules. Might will be right.

This is a dark thought, but one to keep an eye on. Feelings are more dangerous than ideas, because they aren’t susceptible to rational evaluation. They grow quietly, spreading underground, and erupt suddenly, all over the place. They can take hold quickly and run out of control (‘FIRE!’) and by their nature tend to be self-fueling. If our world becomes gripped by this particular feeling, everything it presupposes could soon become true.

Eno grossly overstates his premise when he says, “Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better.” In fact, this is a very new idea; until about the sixteenth century people felt that things were going to be exactly as they had ever been, and it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that the idea of progress came to dominate the culture. But the idea is so dominant at this point that we really can’t imagine any other way of looking at things, and so his premise may as well be true.

What struck me here is that Brian Eno, thoroughly modern thinker of big thoughts as he is, now thinks that the attitude he describes is actually tenuous, and that a simple shift to another attitude could bring the whole Enlightment project crashing down. It’s like that video now circulating where big-time atheist Penn Gillette describes how he was stopped short by a follower of Jesus who simply handed him a book of Psalms because he wanted Gillette to have it. When something gets through the defenses of a smart, sophisticated atheist, every believer should sit up and take notice. Similarly, when a modern Enlightenment bigwig admits to suddenly noticing that his worldview is much more tenuous than he had assumed, agrarians should take notice—the conventional wisdom may be shifting in such a way that the agrarian message might get an honest hearing.

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One thought on “The limits of knowledge

  1. I ran across a quote today that in its own way ties together the ideas behind the above two essays:

    The view that experts including physicians are self-serving has an honored tradition in the English speaking world. Lord Salisbury, a prime minister of Great Britain about a century ago, wrote, “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe soldiers, nothing is safe.” There are already people in the USA who say the equivalent of: “If you believe scientists, support is never adequate.”

    Which reminds me of this quote from Upton Sinclair, which I’ve written about before:

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

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