A Rose By Any Other Name . . .


Once again, my thoughts are triggered by a David Brooks oped column. He writes in today’s NYTimes (4/27/12) about learning in a big way. The headline, “Is Our Adults Learning?” is strange. I can’t figure out if it means something important or is simply the output of a headline writer that didn’t learn enough in school. I think it is the latter. Irony at work in the real world.

Brooks is laying down a case for what some call small-scale social experiments or, maybe in this context, large-scale experiments. Arguing that the models that experts use to predict the future under various scenarios are not up to the job, he offers up the possibility of real learning by trying out (experimenting with) policies or strategies and seeing what they actually produce in the messy world out there instead of in the pristine inner guts of some supercomputer. He thinks this way can avoid the arguments among experts, macro-economists in his example, about the effectiveness of some proposed “answer” to a big problem like the financial meltdown and also the postmortems that are usually nothing more than I-told-you--so exercises.

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi [author of the recent book, Uncontrolled] argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn. By 2000, the credit card company Capital One was running 60,000 randomized tests a year — trying out different innovations and strategies. Google ran about 12,000 randomized experiments in 2009 alone.

These randomized tests actually do vindicate or disprove theories. For example, a few years ago, one experiment suggested that if you give people too many choices they get overwhelmed and experience less satisfaction. But researchers conducted dozens more experiments, trying to replicate the phenomenon. They couldn’t.

Brooks talks about randomized experiments that Visa and Google used to test theories that were supposed to provide bigger profits. Drug companies are required to show the effectiveness and safety of their drugs in real trials. What’s missing in this excellent article is the magic word, pragmatism. These companies were being pragmatic, learning from experience, not computer modeling trials. Pragmatism, is both a philosophy about how we think, and a practical framework for getting what we want out of life. The latter feature applies both to individuals and to organizations.

Pragmatism is a dirty word even though it is practiced everywhere. Some say that being pragmatic is a cop out. Rationalism, the only way to truths one can trust and apply, is based on the positive knowledge we have collected over time through rigorous applications of method. Anything else is suspect and subject to distortion and abuse. Pragmatic is a pejorative term when directed at politicians. In the popular media, it connotes weakness and uncertainly. To avoid being tarred with this image, political leaders fall back on the advise of experts and their computer models, whether the computer is a big mainframe kludge or some inner machine in their brains.

It is true that sometimes these models produce the desired outputs, but not most of the time. Far-reaching policies and strategies put in play by both governments and businesses often become croppers. Brooks argues, as many do including myself, that the models being used cannot capture the realities of our complex, messy, ever-changing world: “…no model can capture enough of the world’s complexity to yield definitive conclusions or make nonobvious predictions.”

Pragmatism, as a philosophy, is a different way of thinking and acquiring knowledge about the world. It holds experience, itself, not the theories and conclusions we derive from experience, as the primary source of understanding the world. The contentious feature of pragmatism is that the truths produced by experience are always contingent. A new experience may negate an old truth. Surprise--this is the way that even science proceeds, except that “experience” is confined to rigorous, controlled experiments and a priori hypothesis testing. Pragmatism relaxes this rule and accepts observations from life itself.

Pragmatism is also a way of life, a philosophy based on practice and applied in practice, an interesting virtuous circle. Unlike the objective, floating-in-air contextless aura of positivism, pragmatism is grounded in life; the truths it seeks are always directed toward some tangible end. John Dewey, one of our great thinkers, called it “the comprehensive art of the wise conduct of life itself,”

Pragmatism cannot be put into play without keen observation powers available. After all, it is a form of continuous inquiry, learning as you go. I often use the metaphor of gardening to describe pragmatism in action. Gardeners can and do learn their skill, mostly in the course of tending to their fields. Organizations, especially government agencies, are not set up to operate in this way. Careful, continuous observation and learning take money, patience, and a different kind of competence, more akin to wisdom than intellectual power, all of which are lacking in the structures of our institutions today.

The presumption that the world will turn out the way models forecast diverts attention away from the need to carefully watch the process as it unfolds. The present primary framing of problems is to deal with the symptoms, wait for a while (usually until the leadership of the firm or the government has changed) and put a new theory-based regimen into play. Carl Lindblom, in a classic article described the process of public administration as “muddling through.”

Why then bother to describe the method in all the above detail? Because it is in fact a common method of policy formulation, and is, for complex problems, the principal reliance of administrators as well as of other policy analysts. And because it will be superior to any other decision-making method available for complex problems in many circumstances, certainly superior to a futile attempt at superhuman comprehensiveness. The reaction of the public administrator to the exposition of method doubtless will be less a discovery of a new method than a better acquaintance with an old. But by becoming more conscious of their practice of this method, administrators might practice it with more skill and know when to extend or constrict its use. (That they sometimes practice it effectively and sometimes not may explain the extremes of opinion on "muddling through," which is both praised as a highly sophisticated form of problem-solving and denounced as no method at all. For I suspect that in so far as there is a system in what is known as "muddling through," this method is it.)

Pragmatic sounds to me less pejorative than Lindblom’s phrase, “mudding-through.” The essence is the same. Language shapes the actions we take. Tiptoeing around a word or phrase means that we will not step firmly into the plot that needs weeding, and rest satisfied with applications of some magic weedkiller we can spray from afar. Solutions that come from the lab are no different than those those coming out of a computer.

The time has more than come when we need to embrace pragmatism as the better way to move along the paths we choose. It is the only way to become wise about the complexities of the world. Wisdom, not smarts, is the critical operative word for governance. Attaining flourishing, the essence of sustainability, absolutely demands pragmatism. Even Brooks infers to its potential, ending his column with:

Still, things don’t have to be this bad. The first step to wisdom is admitting how little we know and constructing a trial-and-error process on the basis of our own ignorance. Inject controlled experiments throughout government. Feel your way forward. Fail less badly every day.

| | Comments (3)

« Previous Entry   Next Entry »


Jim Manzi said:

Thanks for the very thoughtful comments.

I wrote the book that is the basis for this column as way of describing an approach to pragmatic learning.

All the best,
Jim Manzi

David M Carter said:

Strangely enough, the theory of too many choices leading to dissatisfaction to which Brooks refers was proposed by the same person who believes that "practical wisdom" (akin to pragmatism) is the key to doing the right thing.


Jim Manzi said:


I actually go through the famous "jam experiment" that is the basis for Schwartz's claim (literally, he says in his book that the paper reporting that experiment plus a classroom experiment shows that the theory that more choice is better for society is invalid) in great detail, as well as about 50 follow-up experiments that tested the claim of "choice overload" in other contexts