More People, Better Earth — Part 3

{Read part 2 here.}

How much of the great scientific advances involve random guess work and wild conjectures? Would that be zero percent or 10 percent? How much of technological progress depends on luck, serendipity and accidental discovery? Would that be 20 percent?

The answer is 100 percent. Scientific progress is made by pure guesses. The process is simplicity itself. Some random person makes a random guess about some random subject that happens to interest him. Then he works out the logical implications of that guess, and then announces that the world is this way, and people try to prove the whole thing wrong, and if nobody is successful in proving it wrong, it gets accepted to be true of the world, and the guy who started with that random guess is called a scientist.

The popular perception of science and technology as enterprises where luck and guesswork are not involved is 100 percent wrong.

Karl Popper’s book The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934 in German, re-written 1959 in English) deals with the nature of scientific knowledge and the notion of falsifiability. Here we are not concerned with that logic but the separate claim about the role of luck in the development of science and technology.

Copernicus (1473 – 1543) guessed that the sun was at the center of the system of planets, not the earth. Newton (1643 – 1727) guessed that there’s a universal force of gravity. Darwin (1809 – 1882) guessed that evolution happens through the process of natural selection (and so did his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace). Einstein (1879 – 1955) conjectured that space and time were not absolutes, guessed that matter bends space and stretches time, that the speed of light is the same in all frames of reference, etc.

Technology is invented by accident. People tinker and try stuff out. Then once in a while, something happens and the tinkerer says, “Aha! This is how we can do that.” Trial and error, and then a bit of accidental success. Tens of millions of trials, and then one success. It’s like in a casino. Hundreds of thousands of people losing money in their trails and once in a while someone hits the jackpot.

This hitting-the-jackpot thing is very fundamental in biology. Natural selection involves trials, about 99.999999999 percent of which end up in failure, and only one out of a few billion trails, one turns out to be a success. That is why evolution works so slowly and species evolve over tens of millions of years.

Just as the natural biological world is not consciously designed and is largely a product of lucky accidents, so too are the scientific and technological advances products of lucky guesses and accidents.

The number of trials depends on the number of people trying things. Therefore a world with a population of 10 billion people is (all else being equal) about 10,000 times more likely to make a discovery than a world of one million people.

Why is the world advancing or changing at this rapid pace? Which is the same as asking why is technology advancing so rapidly now as compared to the past. The answer is the world has more people today than ever before (recall the hockey stick graph of  the world population), and the rate of growth of technology is an increasing function of the existing stock of technology and the number of people.

But wait, there’s more. Not just more people but more freedom that the people have. Societies that allow people freedom to try stuff out advance. Societies that insist on veneration of ancient wisdom in matters scientific and technological don’t allow people the freedom to try things and therefore end up backward.

More people having more freedom is the reason that we have more scientific and technological knowledge. That means more resources out of the stuff on earth.

Paul Ehrlich believes that people are like cows — they are incapable of generating ideas that invent resources. Julian Simon thought of people as the ultimate resource — human brains create the resources and there are no limits to growth.

With this preamble done, I will next address the questions in the comment that started off this series.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

6 thoughts on “More People, Better Earth — Part 3”

  1. I think some parts of this essay are wrong/misleading.

    This part which says that Scientific progress is made by 100% guess work.
    > The answer is 100 percent. Scientific progress is made by pure guesses. The process is simplicity itself. Some random person makes a random guess about some random subject that happens to interest him. Then he works out the logical implications of that guess, and then announces that the world is this way, and people try to prove the whole thing wrong, and if nobody is successful in proving it wrong, it gets accepted to be true of the world, and the guy who started with that random guess is called a scientist.

    Scientific progress happens by –
    – Informed guesses guided by a person’s intuition, an intuition which the person has honed and shaped through a lifetime of study.
    – Then workout out the implications of the guess or conjecture using the scientific method of knowledge discovery – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method
    – And then the verification of results through empirical rigor.

    So my disagreement is with the first point – guesses are not random and they are not all luck. There is a lot of difference between informed guesses of domain experts and “random guesses of random people”. There is a lot of study, grit, hard work and perseverance that goes into shaping the right kind of intuition that will ask the right questions make the right kind of guesses. Reducing it all to “100% luck” would be misleading, IMO.

    Postscript – My disagreement is only with the above part, and I am in agreement with the general sentiment of the article and I do not buy into the whole population explosion doomsday/apocalypse theory.

    1. Anirudh:

      I stand by my claim that scientific progress beings with guesses or conjectures. Of course, people have to have enough intelligence to observe the world around them, then ask a relevant question, and then guess the answer. Most times the guesses are wrong. And when the guesses are right, science progresses. Great scientific advances (stress on the word great) are random events. It involves luck, not just hard work and intelligence. Actually, luck plays a remarkably important role in every aspect of human life — business, family, country, whatever

    2. > Scientific progress is made by 100% guess work.

      I suspect a non random guess would still be considered a guess no ? Guessing means you do not know for certain the outcome.

      1. The way science works is hypothesis and then figuring out if the hypothesis is correct. Of course, the hypothesis has to be based on observations of facts A, B, C, etc. There are zillions of facts about the world. First you have to decide which facts matter for your needs. That’s where domain knowledge comes in. You choose the facts that think are important. Now consistent with those facts, there are a very large number of equally plausible hypotheses. That’s where the guessing game comes in. The guess that happens to be correct (out of the 14,389 incorrect possible guesses) advances science in a major way.

        Edit: Popperian falsifiability means that you can never prove a scientific theory; you can only disprove it. So there no way of proving a hypothesis to be correct — only you know that so far the hypothesis has not been proven false.

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