The progress of science (and ourselves)

Earlier this year I wrapped up a great book, Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” It’s a brief but very thorough look at our history as we know it – from astronomy to anthropology, paleontology and particle physics. Really, everything.

What really struck me is how science has progressed over time. How we as a collective society learn things, and fail to learn things. Throughout the story of our history, patterns emerge in learning. We are both remarkably good at discovery and astonishingly terrible at moving forward. We are terrible at recognizing our own limitations. When we discovered the atom, most assumed the study of physics was nearing its end. Then the exact same thing happened with subatomic particles, astronomy, and most recently with genomics.   And of course, as always, I was struck by the parallels to how information and learning advance in the sciences and in markets. Here’s a few observations, in no particular order.

Amateurs (often overlooked) are sometimes the first to get there.

Warren Buffett encapsulates this. You might scoff, but he was once an amateur. Just a guy who bought a failing textile company. Then he kept buying a few more companies that were cheap, following in the footsteps of his mentor Ben Graham. Today, we just call it value investing and practically everyone recognizes there is some premium there, from Graham-Doddsvile true “value” guys like Howard Marks to stalwart academics like Gene Fama. But it was first just a few operators who were on to it.

What limited knowledge we do have is very new.

Even in just my short lifetime, scientific knowledge has exploded. We’re mapping the human genome (trying to anyhow), targeting gene therapies, curing disease, discovering new species, gaining better understanding of subatomic particles and diving deep into crazy-sounding theories in physics like string theory and multiple universes. In the investment markets, it’s REALLY new.

Our data set is limited.

Do you actually know how many pre-human fossils we have of our genetic ancestors? Fewer than you think. If you wanted to only count partial skeletons (not counting just teeth and jawbones or partial skulls) it’s something like 5 (not counting homo sapiens). I know I thought we had more evidence than that. Practically every dinosaur skeleton you’ve ever seen isn’t made of fossils, it’s a cast of fossils, much of which has been based on some well intentioned assumptions and qualified guesswork.  Our markets are the same. We probably only have really good, reliable data about markets for the last 50-70 years. Usable data for the last 100. Not much that’s reliable before then. We’re talking about a single person’s lifetime of data; that’s what we have to use, build models, make assumptions, place bets and argue about on Twitter.

Most unorthodox views are wildly wrong. Every once in a while  they are right.

There are some pretty hilarious examples of people with wildly unorthodox views in the history of science. Percival Lowell, an otherwise brilliant mathematician and astronomer (founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff), grew, over the course of his lifetime, utterly convinced that there were canals stretching across the planet mars.

Then, in 1912, a meteorologist (of all things!) wrote a book describing a concept that the Earth’s continents had moved throughout time. He was widely lambasted and thought a kook, and it wasn’t until 50 years later that plate tectonics was generally accepted science.

So what are we to make of such heresies? The balance is being open minded and skeptical. To wholly shut oneself off from unusual ideas means that you believe we have attained the full sum of possible knowledge (such a starting point might be a tad egotistical, even for me). So we must tread, albeit carefully, into unknown territories.

Changing your mind is really hard, especially as you get older.

We become entrenched. I’m not sure how it happens, but it happens to all of us. Maybe we just get tired as we age, and learning new things or changing our minds simply becomes too much work. Because it is a lot of work, to always be evaluating new ideas, considering contrary viewpoints, allowing ourselves to be disabused of past assumptions. Even Einstein refused to accept quantum theory as valid science late in his life, despite his own discoveries that helped foster a more complex understanding of the universe. We are amazingly resistant to any evidence that contradicts our prior beliefs, be it in science, religion, or markets (religion for many). If learning is a muscle to be worked on, we would do well to not let it atrophy as we move throughout our lives. Many know more than we do.

 

 

It really does advance one funeral at a time

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