Tag: Stephen J Dubner

The learning curve.

A guest post from Dr John W Lewis.  John and I have known each other for some years now, both of us sharing a group aircraft that was based in Exeter, SW England.  His areas of interest and competence are described here.  But these days when John and I chat about the world in general and nothing in particular we often come back to the topic of innovation.  So bear that in mind as John muses on the rather gloomy nature of a recent post on Learning from Dogs.

John writes:

John Lewis

Having read the recent Post, Group Human Insanity, my first instinct is that I have nothing particular worthwhile to say that has not been said before.  But, of course, the time to apply minds is exactly when the answers don’t readily come to mind, so I will continue!

In a way, it’s probably a case of applying the sentiment on the old wartime poster, “Keep calm and carry on!” or as Winston Churchill said, “I’f you’re going through hell, keep going!”.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to change, because we do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to put a lot more effort into things that matter, because we do. But, as has been said before, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking backwards”. In other words, “it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”.

Reading about this kind of thing in books, such as  “Freakonomics” or “Drive” or “Switch” suggests that we don’t really understand the mechanism by which behavioural changes happen in populations, although some of the discoveries of Everett Rogers about the diffusion of innovations is relevant here. To refer to another book, there is probably going to be a lot of “Who moved my cheese?” hemming and hawing behaviour going on too.

All we really know is that when the environment (in the most general sense) is changing rapidly, populations are much better off if they are diverse in their characteristics and behaviour; also I believe (but am not sure) that it’s true to say that increased communication assists populations in adapting to changes in the environment.

So the most important thing to do is to let lots of different people do lots of different things in search of ways forward.  If you like, we need to split up (within the multidimensional behavioural space in which we operate) into smaller groups to dodge the big boulders.

We need to communicate lots of information and lots of ways of interpreting and verifying not only the information itself, but also the operational implications of that information (which may be very different things). Hopefully this will reduce (but it will never eliminate) instances of mass movements (as in stampedes) based on partial information which misdirect substantial resources into activities that turn out to be dead ends.

If we don’t believe that there are any viable ways forward, then we might as well give up and just enjoy what’s left of the good times!

But if there are ways forward, then the way to find them is to have lots of people scouting ahead on lots of fronts and passing information around so that we maximise the chances of finding those ways forward, and having lots of other people striving to find ways to make use of that information and testing out those ways forward.

Whether this is all obvious, or not, I don’t know; but it probably is. One thing we do know is that telling people what to do is emphatically not going to work! Just look at some of the stories on the Breaking The Mould website.

Instead, we are better off when people are asking questions, gathering information and passing it around. I believe that if these behaviours are adopted in a population, as a result of ‘external’ pressures building up, then changes and innovations will inevitably occur, and this is about the best that we can do! Fortunately, I think that is what tends to happen anyway.

So, in a sense, as I referred to above: “Keep calm and carry on”  (By the way, a Google search on that phrase unearths a variety of interesting stuff and variations such as “Get excited and make stuff”)


Dr John W Lewis

Email: john.lewis@holosoft.com
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