Friday, September 30, 2011

The Pains of Progress

To measure time by how little we change is to find how little we've lived, 
but to measure time by how much we've lost is to wish we hadn't changed at all. Andre Aciman

The last frontier is not the Antarctic, or the oceans, or outer space. The last frontier is The Unknown. We mentioned in an earlier essay that uncertainty - which makes baseball and life interesting - is inevitable in the human world. Life will continue to be interesting as long as the world is rich in unknowns, waiting to be discovered. Progress is possible if propitious discoveries can be made. Progress, however, comes with costs.

The emblem of my university entwines a billowing smokestack and a cogwheel in the first letter of the institution's name. When this emblem was adopted (probably in 1951) these were optimistic symbols of progress. Cogwheels are no longer 'hi-tech' (though we still need them), and smoke has been banished from polite company. But our emblem is characteristic of industrial society which has seared Progress on our hearts and minds.

Progress is accompanied by painful tensions. On the one hand, progress is nurtured by stability, cooperation, and leisure. On the other hand, progress grows out of change, conflict, and stress. A society's progressiveness reflects its balance of each of these three pairs of attributes. In the most general terms, progressiveness reflects social and individual attitudes to uncertainty.

Let's consider the three pairs of attributes one at a time.

Change and stability. Not all change is progress, but all progress is change. Change is necessary for progress, by definition, and progress can be very disruptive. The disruptiveness sometimes arises from unexpected consequences. J.B.S. Haldane wrote in 1923 that "the late war is only an example of the disruptive result that we may constantly expect from the progress of science." On the other hand, progressives employ and build on existing capabilities. The entrepreneur depends on stable property rights before risking venture capital. The existing legal system is used to remove social injustice. Watt's steam engine extended Newcomen's more primitive model. The new building going up on campus next to my office is very disruptive, but the construction project depends on the continuity of the university despite the drilling and dust. Even revolutionaries exploit and react against the status quo, which must exist for a revolutionary to be able to revolt. (One can't revolt if nothing is revolting.) Progress grows from a patch of opportunity in a broad bed of certainty, and spreads out in unanticipated directions.

Conflict and cooperation. Conflict between vested interests and innovators is common. Watt protected his inventions with extensive patents which may have actually retarded the further development and commercialization of steam power. Conflict is also a mechanism for selecting successful ideas. Darwinian evolution and its social analogies proceed by more successful adaptations replacing less successful ones. On the other hand, cooperation enables specialization and expertise which are needed for innovation. The tool-maker cooperates with the farmer so better tools can be made more quickly, enhancing the farmer's productivity and the artisan's welfare. Conflicts arise over what constitutes progress. Stem cell research, genetic engineering, nuclear power technology: progress or plague? Cooperative collective decision making enables the constructive resolution of these value-based conflicts.

Stress and leisure. Challenge, necessity and stress all motivate innovation. If you have no problems, you are unlikely to be looking for solutions. On the other hand, the leisure to think and tinker is a great source of innovation. Subsistence societies have no resources for invention. In assessing the implications of industrial efficiency, Bertrand Russell praised idleness in 1932, writing: "In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving ...." Stress is magnified by the unknown consequences of the stressor, while leisure is possible only in the absence of fear.

New replaces Old. Yin and yang are complementary opposites that dynamically interact. In Hegel's dialectic, tension between contradictions is resolved by synthesis. Human history is written by the victors, who sometimes hardly mention those swept into Trotsky's "dustbin of history". "In the evening resides weeping; in the morning: joy." (Psalm 30:6). Change and stability; conflict and cooperation; stress and leisure.

No progress without innovation; no innovation without discovery; no discovery without the unknown; no unknown without fear. There is no progress without pain.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Robustness and Locke's Wingless Gentleman

Our ancestors have made decisions under uncertainty ever since they had to stand and fight or run away, eat this root or that berry, sleep in this cave or under that bush. Our species is distinguished by the extent of deliberate thought preceding decision. Nonetheless, the ability to decide in the face of the unknown was born from primal necessity. Betting is one of the oldest ways of deciding under uncertainty. But you bet you that 'bet' is a subtler concept than one might think.

We all know what it means to make a bet, but just to make sure let's quote the Oxford English Dictionary: "To stake or wager (a sum of money, etc.) in support of an affirmation or on the issue of a forecast." The word has been around for quite a while. Shakespeare used the verb in 1600: "Iohn a Gaunt loued him well, and betted much money on his head." (Henry IV, Pt. 2 iii. ii. 44). Drayton used the noun in 1627 (and he wasn't the first): "For a long while it was an euen bet ... Whether proud Warwick, or the Queene should win."

An even bet is a 50-50 chance, an equal probability of each outcome. But betting is not always a matter of chance. Sometimes the meaning is just the opposite. According to the OED 'You bet' or 'You bet you' are slang expressions meaning 'be assured, certainly'. For instance: "'Can you handle this outfit?' 'You bet,' said the scout." (D.L.Sayers, Lord Peter Views Body, iv. 68). Mark Twain wrote "'I'll get you there on time' - and you bet you he did, too." (Roughing It, xx. 152).

So 'bet' is one of those words whose meaning stretches from one idea all the way to its opposite. Drayton's "even bet" between Warwick and the Queen means that he has no idea who will win. In contrast, Twain's "you bet you" is a statement of certainty. In Twain's or Sayers' usage, it's as though uncertainty combines with moral conviction to produce a definite resolution. This is a dialectic in which doubt and determination form decisiveness.

John Locke may have had something like this in mind when he wrote:

"If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly." (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1706, I.i.5)

The absurdity of Locke's wingless gentleman starving in his chair leads us to believe, and to act, despite our doubts. The moral imperative of survival sweeps aside the paralysis of uncertainty. The consequence of unabated doubt - paralysis - induces doubt's opposite: decisiveness.

But rational creatures must have some method for reasoning around their uncertainties. Locke does not intend for us to simply ignore our ignorance. But if we have no way to place bets - if the odds simply are unknown - then what are we to do? We cannot "sit still and perish".

This is where the strategy of robustness comes in.

'Robust' means 'Strong and hardy; sturdy; healthy'. By implication, something that is robust is 'not easily damaged or broken, resilient'. A statistical test is robust if it yields 'approximately correct results despite the falsity of certain of the assumptions underlying it' or despite errors in the data. (OED)

A decision is robust if its outcome is satisfactory despite error in the information and understanding which justified or motivated the decision. A robust decision is resilient to surprise, immune to ignorance.

It is no coincidence that the colloquial use of the word 'bet' includes concepts of both chance and certainty. A good bet can tolerate large deviation from certainty, large error of information. A good bet is robust to surprise. 'You bet you' does not mean that the world is certain. It means that the outcome is certain to be acceptable, regardless of how the world turns out. The scout will handle the outfit even if there is a rogue in the ranks; Twain will get there on time despite snags and surprises. A good bet is robust to the unknown. You bet you!

An extended and more formal discussion of these issues can be found elsewhere.