Sunday, 24 September 2006

The utility of complexity

A recent article in Salon (watching an ad required to enter) nicely captures one of the preoccupations of this blog. It begins with a discussion of an essay by Devesh Kapur, The Knowledge Bank. Paraphrasing slightly, Kapur suggests that economic consultants are not primarily motivated by finding successful outcomes:

The very nature of academia means that researchers [...] are not accountable for the consequences [of their work] in the sense that it responds to professional incentives, not to development payoffs. These professional incentives place a large positive premium in academic papers on the novelty of ideas, methodological innovation, generalizability and parsimonious explanations. Detailed country and sector knowledge, an acknowledgment that the ideas may be sensible but not especially novel, that uncertainty and complexity rather than parsimony are perhaps the ground reality, are all poor country-cousins of research that purports to find universal truths.

Kapur is talking about the social sciences in general and developmental economics in particular, but the conclusions hold much more broadly. As Salon says:

One of the clearest fault-lines in economic debates [...] is between those who believe they know one answer that fits all questions, and those who believe every question deserves a different answer -- that what works for Singapore may not work for Somalia, that the circumstances of Bangladesh require a different approach than the conditions of Brazil. It's a fault-line that transcends ideological differences between right and left, free trader and protectionist. On one side, a willingness to accept complexity and uncertainty also concedes that one may not know what the answer to a given question is; on the other, the rightness of the answer is taken as a given, and it's the implementation that must be at fault; it's never "I don't know" and always "how did you screw it up?"

This is a lovely summary of a ubiquitous fallacy: just because we sometimes have to pretend that the world is simple to get on doesn't mean we have to believe it. Incrementalism -- trying something you think might work, seeing what happens, and adjusting your strategy based on the outcome -- is surely the only rational response to a complex, partially comprehended reality. Bangladesh is different from Brazil, and 2006 Britain from 1990 Britain, for that matter. Yesterday's remedies might work, but we should approach their application with a suitable sense of humility.

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