Dec

4

Doerner: (The Logic of Failure, page 61)

In scientific research, for which the immediate applicability of results is often not (nor should be) a criterion of success, “goal degeneration'' of this kind is no minor matter. Many social scientists who have set out to write computer programs they could use to evaluate an experiment have woken up years later to find themselves computer specialists. And they will hardly have realized that they have long since lost sight of ther real goal and become addicted to the fascination, challenges, and triumphs of working with a computer. An interim goal has dislodged the primary goal.

I'm a bit triggered by the above.

Some research programs have been carried out, (and it will continue), over several scientists generations. I'm thinking for instance about linguistics, but there are many other  fields one could cite. Before using computers, people working in the field were writing books. Hundreds of papers/books. Theories, nice theories, small pieces of correct theories, but also so many wrong theories, so many daydreams, some writings that were complete fiction.

- Why so many books ? Mainly of course simply because there were few other way to work.
- Why so many false assumptions ? Mainly because the risk of being contradicted was small. Hardly falsifiable/refutable. It's very easy to rave when nothing contradicts.
- Was this work useful ? afaik, i.e. in linguistics, very little.

Then we got computers. What is a computer ? A machine that can read/process/test/refute our programs/scripts. What is a program ? Executable/refutable writing. Thus, in many cases in science, writing programs is really far more efficient than just writing books.

Of course the 1st generation of researchers had to learn using computers. Yes, it took a lot of time. Yes, there was friction and time lost. Yes, the primary goal got lower priority. Yes, programming is dirty/buggy/painful/(add your own) (an engineer's job, not a scientist's). Yes, programming is often a task of its own. Yes, some people have become computer specialists. (But few have "woken up" imho)

BUT, if mastering a given tool is mandatory to succeed,
… is there really any other way than learning it until you master it ?

Some activities need tools, tools to build tools, tools to build tools to build tools, etc. Frustrating … but also so human.

Having encountered people from this 1st "computer enabled" generation, who believed in the potential of computers, even if they didn't understand them very well, I want to thank them, because it was not easy at all. It was in fact much easier to criticize them. But getting your hands dirty was the right track.


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  1. Anil Baptist on December 5, 2007 4:32 pm

    A really interesting article. I like to regard a computer as a tool like a cellphone or an automobile, or a chainsaw. The only problem with a computer is it can become fascinating and hence one can loose sight of the primary goal. Whatever one spends ones time regularly with will one day become part of them. So if I play soccer regularly i become a soccer player and so on. The trick here is to concentrate on doing what you are good at and get computer programs written by programmers. So as a trader I want to focus on the market and leave the technical stuff to the experts.

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