Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Of Swans and Turkeys
On Monday I was on Equal Time Radio with Carl Etnier, WDEV, Waterbury, Vermont. The other guest was the technological optimist William Halal, author of Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Transformation of Business and Society. Halal claims to be able predict the future of industrial civilization by talking to experts in different technology fields and then putting all of their predictions about their own fields together as a single map of things to come.
My immediate reaction was along the lines of "Of course experts in any given field like to think that their field has a bright future!" and only later did it occur to me to put him in the context of Nassim Taleb's work, allowing me to formulate a better response.
Taleb is known for introducing us to black swans (reality-altering observations that invalidate earlier conventional wisdom) but another animal he should be rightly famous for is the Christmas turkey. Taleb says that asking an economist to predict the future is like asking the Christmas turkey what's for dinner on Christmas: based on its entire lifetime of experience, the turkey expects to be fed on Christmas, not to be eaten. As far as the turkey is concerned, Christmas is a black swan-type event.
But yesterday it occurred to me that this analogy extends to all professionals, and certainly to technologists and scientists: when asked about the future of, say, nanotubes, or nuclear fusion, or genetic engineering, they will predict that it's bright, and continue to say so until the day their grants are canceled, their salaried positions eliminated, and their labs shut down for political and macroeconomic reasons they are ill-equipped to try to comprehend.
This is precisely what happened during the demise of Soviet science the early 1990s: one moment there was a great scientific establishment boldly predicting a bright future for itself, and the next moment you had experts in holography making little religious holograms to sell at outdoor flea markets in order to buy food, aerospace metallurgists reinventing the straight razor to get a decent shave because disposable razors had disappeared, graduate students dropping their research projects and going off to make some money doing manual labor, and the entire faculty at once trying to find a visiting faculty position abroad.
And so it seems to me safe to conclude that the future of your specific field of scientific or technological endeavor depends first and foremost on your ability to continue drawing a salary and receive funding, which, in turn, depends on a long list of things, with the viability of the particular field of endeavor somewhere near the bottom of that list. When asking an expert for an expert opinion, that expert is forced make assumptions about a multitude of factors that lie outside the expert's narrow field of expertise. The most important assumption is that there is continuity in the surrounding environment - physical, social, and economic: the turkey's assumption about getting fed tomorrow based on it being fed every day.
Given what is happening all around us - be it physical resource constraints, climate upheaval, or unsustainable social tends - that assumption is highly questionable. With this basic assumption invalidated, an expert's expertise regarding the future is no more impressive than the expertise of a Christmas turkey regarding Christmas.