The Knowledge Problem in Jim Manzi’s words

Just a paragraph later from the previous quote, Manzi writes:

These deep commonalities across activities such as science, markets, common law, and representative democracy at least indicate the plausibility of a common underlying structure. Each is a noncoercive system for human social organizations to increase material well-being in the face of a complex environment.

They are all methods for obtaining and exploiting practical knowledge through action, and all commingle abstract knowledge and action to various degrees; hence, so-called tacit knowledge. If the environment were simple–if determining the course of action were obvious and relatively static across time–then the complexity and waste of a scientific/market/judicial/democratic process of discovery would not be justified, and central authority would more efficiently impose a common answer.

Later, Manzi reminds us that we should be humble about our knowledge, even if we have what we think are foolproof models to help us predict what might happen (p. 67):

By (unverifiable) tradition, a Roman general who received a triumphant parade upon returning from a conquest had a slave stand just behind his shoulder, whispering over and over again into his ear, “Remember, you are mortal.” When using a probabilistic forecast, we should always hear a whisper in our ears remind us: The model is never the system.

I agree. I often tell my statistician buddies that to create a model that factors in everything in a complex system they would first need to create the universe.

I think the models they create are like the artist’s rendering of a subject. With a great artist, his or her rendering may be good to hang on the wall, but it tells us very little about the true workings of the subject’s world.

The rendering of a mountain landscape, for example, will not give us any information about how weather fronts move over those mountains or how universal forces combined to create the majestic landscape. The artist’s rendering is nothing more than well placed brush strokes on a canvas that merely represent the landscape from one particular point of view at one particular point in time. A statisticians model is much closer to that than it is a living model of the real world.

Of course, some folks entertain the thought that our universe is a simulation. Perhaps we live in a model of a statistician that took my advice to heart.


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