In praise of Incrementalism

Two of my favourite authors are Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the duo behind the Freakonomics series of books and the eponymous podcast which has now been running for over five years. They have a wonderfully insightful approach to tackling problems using information and data.

"The Hidden Side of Everything"

"The Hidden Side of Everything"

Many of the most interesting, and arguable the most important, questions for society are also the ones where it is hardest to collect and evaluate hard empirical data. What often tends to happen — informally at least — is that questions that should be empirical questions (like "What is the air speed of an unladen swallow?") get delegated to other fields like philosophy — or worse, religion. (Remember that up until a few hundred years ago, there was no distinction between science and philosophy.)  It's important to recognize the difference between questions which are not scientific, and questions which are scientific but have practical challenges associated with gathering the data. You can't put a teacher through the Large Hadron Collider and measure its properties, but there are empirical ways of evaluating good and bad teaching techniques. 

Recently, the podcast featured to two particularly insightful episodes, back to back: In Praise of Maintenance and In Praise of Incrementalism. They argue that when it comes to things that improve the human condition, we often put our focus in the wrong place, putting emphasis on so-called "revolutionary" advances. They point out first that it's the more "boring" activities like keeping the roads intact and making trains run on time that account for most of the wealth (figuratively and literally) in society.

You can listen to the full episode here:

They go on to show (in In Praise of Incrementalism) that most of what we think of as spontaneous revolutionary advances are actually processes that are much more gradual that we often don't take the time to remember properly. You can listen to that one here: