Monday 14 March 2016

Deut 4:6 When science goes backwards

Science progresses through simple experiments. A scientist will isolate a problem into its simplest form, then observe the results. The results are then written down and used by the next generation. And so science progresses.

But what about fundamentally complicated questions, like how to run an economy? How do you simplify the choices of millions of people? Today we use supercomputers, but we can barely calculate three months ahead. However, an ancient economist had a number of advantages over a modern economist:
  1. Much simpler societies. Yet they still had all the elements of modern societies: human nature, trade, specialisation, etc. 
  2. Control groups.
    Plenty of isolated societies for comparison.
  3. More experiments. The ability to set up your own test society on unused land if needed. Plenty of ancient people founded new tribes or city states.
  4. Time to think.
    The class system meant some people had nothing to do but explore their interests. 
  5. Broader knowledge. The ability to read and digest everything ever written on a topic, from every possible point of view.
  6. First hand knowledge.
    Direct experience of all parts of society. The average polymath in ancient times would have direct experience of war, or leadership, of building, of farming, etc.
  7. Longer experiments.
    While city states came and went, some societies were largely unchanged for thousands of years.
  8. Brutal clarity.
    In ancient times divisions were a lot clearer and more brutal. The king's opinion of his serfs was obvious. And if people didn't like each other they often went to war and it was over quickly.

Compare this with the problems faced by a modern economist:

  1. Vast complexity
  2. No way to isolate them: everybody is constantly trading with everybody else.
  3. No way to set up an experiment: even if a superpower were to give you land, it would influence every outcome.
  4. No time to think. A modern academic must specialise, teach, publish, answer emails, and never stand still.
  5. Less time given to alternate views. A thousand times more books than you can even skim read, let alone digest. Yes, this is good for specialisms, but inevitably you will give some schools of thought less time than others.
  6. Too much theory. Lots of book learning, but very limited direct experience.
  7. Chaos: everything changes too fast to be sure what caused what.
  8. Mystification. Everything is hidden behind diplomacy and public relations. It takes longer to guess what's really going on.

This does not prove that ancient economists were always right. But they were in a better position to understand the underlying principles.

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