The sub-title of Jim Manzi’s “Uncontrolled” is “The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society”, but multiple passages of the book actually consists of caution how small such payoffs can be. The sociologist Peter Rossi formulated the “Iron Law of Evaluation“: The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero. Manzi’s background is in consulting for business rather than social policy, but the same logic applies in that there are abundant ideas undertaken because they sounded good when an evaluation would show them to have little effect. Manzi phrases things differently: he says questions of human behavior are plagued by high “causal density“, in contrast to the simplicity of questions in physics which can be controlled in a lab. Mencius Moldbug would claim this is why one must then rely on “wisdom” rather than the “cargo cult science” found in academia, but I find Manzi more persuasive. Reality is one and our methods of obtaining knowledge can work in other fields, even if it is more difficult (as Manzi phrases it: “The experimental revolution is like a huge wave that has lost power as it moved uphill through topics of increasing complexity and holism”). This book isn’t an in-depth introduction to epistemology & the philosophy of science, but it does provide a bit of an intro so a layman can understand that such issues exist. (more…)

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