Without Theory

How can we improve the state of the world? How can we make countries more competitive, growth more sustainable and inclusive, and genders more equal?

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How can we improve the state of the world? How can we make countries more competitive, growth more sustainable and inclusive, and genders more equal?

One way is to have a correct theory of the relationship between actions and outcomes and then to implement actions that achieve our goals. But, in most of the situations we face, we lack such a theory, or if we have one, we are not sure that it is correct. So what can we do? Should we postpone action until we learn about what works? But how will we learn if we do not act? And if we act, how can we learn whether we did the right thing?

New advances in machine learning and biological anthropology are shedding light on how learning happens and what makes a learning process successful. But, while theories are important, most of what we learn does not depend on them.

For example, there may be a theory of what makes a cat a cat, but that is not how toddlers learn to recognize them. As Harvard’s Leslie Valiant argues in his 2013 book, we learn the concept of “catness” in a theory-less way by inferring it from a set of pictures of animals that are appropriately labeled as either cats or non-cats. And the more examples we see, the more we become “probably, approximately correct.”

We learn to recognize the spoken language without knowledge of linguistics, and voice-recognition software uses a theory-less learning algorithm called a “hidden Markov chain” on a set of audios and their texts, rather than by using linguistics, as Ray Kurzweil tells us in his book How to Create a Mind. To the chagrin of many of us academics, theory is often dispensable.

Biological evolution is also based on a theory-less algorithm, one that learns which genotypes generate better-adapted individuals without having a theory of which changes in the genome will improve performance. It just uses random variation and selection of the fittest, over and over again.

While biological evolution through sexual reproduction requires generations, we can learn from each other much more quickly through cultural evolution, explaining why humans have made so much progress. According to Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and Joseph Henrich, our ability to imitate is at the core of our success as a species. It is what makes cultural evolution possible, cumulative, and powerful. It is what allows us to learn from others and hence to make progress much faster than if we were to learn by ourselves. In addition, because imitation, like genetic replication, is not perfect, we accidentally discover other ways of doing the same thing (or even new and better things).

We humans are wired to imitate others, and we especially prefer to imitate the most successful among us. This makes evolutionary sense, as the features of the successful are more likely to be related to their success than those of others.

But this may lead to errors when what we imitate is unrelated to success. Advertising has exploited this weakness in our wiring, making us think that if George Clooney is cool and wears something, maybe we can be cool by wearing it, too.

More constructively, the business world uses imitation through the practice of benchmarking, whereby companies share performance information so that they can all learn what is achievable and whom to try to imitate, thus facilitating the identification of “best practices.” To improve, you can start by imitating what successful companies do, without a good theory of why.

Benchmarking has been moving to the policy arena, including issues such as sustainable development, the business environment, competitiveness, gender parity, and, more recently, inclusive growth. Some of these applications create good measures of performance, allowing users to assess outcomes and track progress.

Good examples of these benchmarking exercises are the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index or the United Nations’ Human Development Index. They are theory-less in the sense that they do not tell you how to improve performance; but they do tell you if you did improve – that is, they inform about changes in “fitness.”

Other indicators, in my view, confuse measures of performance with measures of hypothetical causes of performance. They confuse the “what” and the “how,” and they inappropriately put both in the index. They attempt to be more theory-driven than our knowledge allows.

Two examples of this are the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index and its new Inclusive Growth and Development Index. For example, competitiveness has to do with the ability to increase market share without sacrificing margins or lowering wages, something that reflects superior productivity. The inclusiveness of growth has to do with the disparities of income and growth across different regions and social groups.

But this is not what these indexes really measure. Instead, the indexes include variables – what they refer to as the “policy space” – that are supposed to cause either competitiveness or inclusive growth. And the authors do not even check whether they do. (In the case of competitiveness, my co-authors and I have found that they don’t.)

Confusing “what” and “how” is counterproductive. It has led country after country, including Colombia, Mexico, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, to try to improve their competitiveness ranking by working on things that are in the index but that do not really improve their performance. And they are late in finding out, because they do improve their ranking in the index.

We do not really know what could make growth more inclusive, countries more competitive, and development more sustainable in each country and region; and we should not pretend that we do. We can help the world make progress by measuring the outcomes we care about, facilitating imitation and tracking performance. But confusing means and ends will have us all dressing like George Clooney and wondering why we do not really feel all that cool.

Adapted from project-syndicate

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Jack Westin
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14 Comments


  1. Author seeks to examine that there are no theories for various types of things, ex: differentiating a cat vs. noncat, spoken language, and that we as humans seek to imitate others to be successful. When it comes to competitiveness and success however, it is counterproductive to confuse the “what” and the “how” with different theories, thus it’s meaningful to measure the perspective of imitation and actual performance

    Reply

  2. Figuring out how to improve things in the world is difficult. Most of the time, improvement is not based on theory but rather it is based on imitation. Most of the global measures out there do not measure this, often causing confusing what the improvement is with how they actually improved, providing false information

    Reply

  3. imitate = success, imitate can lead to errors

    Reply

  4. author begins the passage by delineating biological principles of learning and evolution. He/she then applies this idea in a macro-perspective and concludes that society also imitates similar to an individual and shifts the discussion toward economics and advises countries to focus on increasing their performance rather than being overly concerned with the index ranking. In his/her perspective, the key to increasing growth and becoming more competitive is imitating the processes that makes one successful rather than imitating the superficial stereotype of successful.

    Reply

  5. In order to improve, we need to measure relevant outcomes( successful instances) and to facilitate imitation of that instance. No theory needed

    Reply

  6. Theory is not essential to learning; we can learn without theory. Imitation is key to success but can still lead to errors if not done correctly.

    Reply

  7. author talks about how without a theory we can be successful through imitation. but it has to be imitated the right way, author provides example of competitiveness and how countries can grow .

    Reply

  8. Main Idea:
    Competitiveness and growth and equality are difficult to understand and share with other countries
    Humans learn best by imitation vs instruction
    There are downsides to learning through imitation since it misses understanding of the method & function of a certain strategy
    We try to create benchmarks, and ways to review performance through competitiveness but this ultimately doesn’t judge whether a country is prospering or not
    Competitiveness and imitation are should be used with caution to promote prosperity

    Reply

  9. MI: No one knows how the state of things of our societies may be improved upon (ex. growth, gender disparities), and those who consider it often fail by confusing what and how, or ends and the means. Author notes that the success of our species, and in natural selection, is not “theory-driven,” that it is random mixing of variables. Advantage of humans is cultural learning, but our imitative practice in which we try to achieve the ends of success are by the wrong means (ex. George Clooney).

    Reply

  10. Learning does not depend on theory. Imitation causes faster/better evolution. Benchmarking measures performance, but not the causes of performance.

    Reply

  11. To improve the state of the world, we must not confuse WHAT to do with HOW to do it. They should be two separate things. As an example, many countries fall into the trap of confusing the two and end up with lackluster competitiveness rankings. In this sense, the theory behind why something should be done is not really necessary. This is where imitation comes very handy.

    Tone: “I noticed this is not right, and by noticing this I encourage a change”

    Reply

  12. MIP: we can improve the world by focusing more on imitation for learning rather than theory

    Reply

  13. (1) Learning does not depend on theories
    (2) Use recognition > theory
    (3) Cultural evolution = faster than biological evolution b/c imitating (benchmarking)
    (4) Ppl confuse what (index) with how (theory)
    (5) What (imitation) > how (theory) to improve world

    Reply

  14. The author is stating that people need to use theory to think about their decision and measure the outcome of the decision. People can learn from imitation, but one should see why it works as well

    Reply

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