Tuesday, December 02, 2008

It's time for the "Numerati" to step back

I've been reading the book "Einstein's Mistakes" by Hans Ohanian and though it's been a lot different from my expectations (I was looking for mistake stories and through 150 pages haven't found many) it has proved useful in spurring some thoughts.

One such thought has been the consequences of the growth of science and logical thinking. The first part of "Einstein's Mistakes" describes the roles of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and others in setting the stage for Einstein's relativity theories. What this brief physics history reinforced to me was the gradual rise to preeminence of logic and mathematics in the processes of human thought--at the expense of philosophy, sociology, anthropology.

Interestingly, even in these legendary clear thinkers there was the all-too-human urge to self-protect and rationalize. Notable was Galileo's effort, according to Ohanian, to fudge the numbers so that his calculations would match what he knew to be correct about the heavens.

Next on my list to read (around "War and Peace") is Stephen Baker's "The Numerati." I find I come to this book with loads of prejudgments. From the press and the jacket copy, the book celebrates the numerization of our thinking. Which I believe is mostly bad news.

This kind of number-worship has brought us financial risk mitigation that paradoxically increased risk, created AAA-rated bonds which were actually of junk status, and any number of other examples of solid financial and numerical logic that under examination simply failed the common-sense test. In other words, a hedge fund that studied human nature might have made a lot of money these last few years.

To me, "The Numerati" is behind the times. We've seen the apotheosis of the logical/mathematical revolution, and it ain't pretty.

It's time to put numbers into their context, and begin to shift more investment to understanding people, how they think, feel and relate to one another. This is where the money will be in the future, and this is what society needs now.

As Dave Snowden writes, "It's not that social computing has created some completely new form of human interaction, what it has done is to enable conversations across barriers and boundaries. We can now be a global tribe (or rather tribes), if we can make the changes that the technology permits."

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