30/6/2013

Lecturing birds on how to fly

Nassim Taleb discussing about the concept of Anti-Fragile and the importance of trail and error

Rule 4: Trial and error beats academic knowledge

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photo credit: AmaRiV via photopin cc

Things that are antifragile love randomness and uncertainty, which also means—crucially—that they can learn from errors. Tinkering by trial and error has traditionally played a larger role than directed science in Western invention and innovation. Indeed, advances in theoretical science have most often emerged from technological development, which is closely tied to entrepreneurship. Just think of the number of famous college dropouts in the computer industry.

Thomas Edison was a prolific American inventor. Tinkering by trial and error has played a large role in Western innovation

But I don’t mean just any version of trial and error. There is a crucial requirement to achieve antifragility: The potential cost of errors needs to remain small; the potential gain should be large. It is the asymmetry between upside and downside that allows antifragile tinkering to benefit from disorder and uncertainty.

Perhaps because of the success of the Manhattan Project and the space program, we greatly overestimate the influence and importance of researchers and academics in technological advancement. These people write books and papers; tinkerers and engineers don’t, and are thus less visible. Consider Britain,whose historic rise during the Industrial Revolution came from tinkerers who gave us innovations like iron making, the steam engine and textile manufacturing. The great names of the golden years of English science were hobbyists, not academics: Charles Darwin, Henry Cavendish, William Parsons, the Rev. Thomas Bayes. Britain saw its decline when it switched to the model of bureaucracy-driven science.

America has emulated this earlier model, in the invention of everything from cybernetics to the pricing formulas for derivatives. They were developed by practitioners in trial-and-error mode, drawing continuous feedback from reality. To promote antifragility, we must recognize that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of formal education that a culture supports and its volume of trial-and-error by tinkering. Innovation doesn’t require theoretical instruction, what I like to compare to lecturing birds on how to fly.”

One of the challenges with university learning is that. More focussed on academics than real learning and not just in terms of projects but using trial and error for feedback and improving the knowledge. The key to a lot of the social challenges will be this ability to work with a trial and error’ approach and innovate.


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