Wednesday, January 4, 2017

An Aphorism and a Parable

Aphorisms encapsulate wisdom, even though we know that many of them contradict one another, so it becomes a problem of figuring out when to apply which one. Absence makes the heart grow fonder; out of sight, out of mind. Two heads are better than one; too many cooks spoil the broth. And on into the night.

Which brings us, oddly enough, to Michael Lewis, whom I view as something of a genius for the way he puts together finance, psychology, amazingly transparent prose exposition, and let's not forget that most central concern of modern life – sports and sports management. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is about the joint careers and relationship of Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman. The parable it brings to my mind is, once again, the Hindu story of the blind men and the elephant. More on this in a minute.

The aphorism I have in mind is the familiar, as I remembered it, “Genius is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.” I thought it came from Einstein. But look here, from the “Quote Investigator”: It turns out that the ratio was 1% or 2% to 99% or 98%, and it was attributed to Edison. But the QI traces it back to a Ms. Kate Sanborn, whom no one has heard of, and who didn't have it phrased just right, and who of course was not a man, so naturally it would be stolen from her. But then it was also attributed to Einstein! His was, “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.” ( Einstein is such a receptacle! One of the quotes I have at the bottom of my emails is this: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." This is commonly ascribed to Einstein, but careful investigation (i.e., a quick Google search) reveals that it really came from a William Bruce Cameron. A very smart guy with white curly hair sits there and is happy to be used as a reference for all that is wise! What a life!

But back to substance. The hard work aphorism reminds me also of the inventors of Trivial Pursuit. When it became a phenomenon, an interviewer asked with wonder how the inventors had come up with this amazing invention. The inventors responded that they thought that people came up with ideas like this all the time, but what made them and Trivial Pursuit different was that they pursued it, and put in the hard work to bring it to fruition. Same point.

Lewis, who sometimes works out at the same gym as I do at the Claremont and whom I have seen on the Stairmaster and once out at the pool but have never approached but maybe I will given the right opportunity, talks in his afterward about the discipline he enforces on himself to get the writing done. It's hard work to get his rear end in the chair day after day with a daily goal in mind. Dorothy Parker used to talk about how people envied her writing, but how hard it was to do, although people imagined that she just sat down and had a grand old time. Hemingway had a rigid schedule, up early in the morning, write at the stand up desk, then at 2 in the afternoon (I think that was the time it was) he'd go out fishing and then do his drinking and people thought he was just a hard liver. He was, but his craft was based on very hard work. “Hemingway said: 'Stop when you are going good.'” (

Churchill was famous for saying he could give a two hour lecture tomorrow, but if it had to be 15 minutes, it would take him a month to prepare. Something like that. At least that's what I thought. More careful investigation (lasting about 10 seconds) yields this, not from Churchill, but from Woodrow Wilson, when asked about speech preparation: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” ( OK, not Churchill but Woodrow Wilson, still someone famous. But it turns out that if you look at that QI article, more obscure authors actually said it before Wilson did.
Thus is born a new aspiration. I want to be a receptacle! Me, I said it, me!!
Alas, it is not to be. We are who we are, and most of us toil away in obscurity. I've wanted to introduce myself that way, and if and when I introduce myself to Michael Lewis, or to Steve Kerr who also works out sometimes at the Claremont, or even A's manager Bob Melvin who I probably wouldn't even recognize, then I'll say, “Hi, I'm Budd Shenkin, an obscure local pediatrician here in Berkeley.” Can't wait to add in “obscure.” That really makes the case. Maybe they'll pick up a quote from me that can be attributed to them. In your dreams, guy, in your dreams. Like I had always aspired to have written a book that appeared on the remandered table. Oh, ye of modest aspirations!
Anyway, the Michael Lewis book. First of all, the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Although I have wound up doing so much of my work alone, when I have had colleagues, it has been even better. In 1973 I was at Yale for a year and met David Warner, an economist, who was also at Yale for a year. David was massive, 6'6” and about 265 lbs, I'd guess. I was driving a little blue Austin-Healey at the time, and David would bend his frame in two, it seemed, to wedge himself into the passenger seat as we went off to play tennis. As he got in one day, he said, “You know, they ought to give patients their medical records. I'm seeing two doctors, and they can't even get to see each other's notes. I could just take my record with me wherever I went.”
Thus was born, or rather conceived in that little Austin-Healey, an epochal paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine. David was the economist and I was the doctor, but I immediately latched on to the economics theory part of what he said, talking about who should own the information, and what the implications would be for the medical care system if patients were given their records, the production of which they had paid for, so it should belong to them. David stuck with the practical aspect – in other words, we switched roles. Then I ran with it, wrote up an outline, he contributed, as together we put together a basic article which lives on today as the first official presentation of the concept, now made much more practical by electronic medical records. And since we did a really good job of writing it, no one has ever improved on the explication of the theory.
So. Inspiration came from David in about 5 seconds. The extrapolation of the implications of the thought came from both of us, I guess, and the persistence in doing it came from me, probably. I just wouldn't quit doing it, that I remember, and I was a really good writer. And the setting was important, too. Yale as incubator, bringing people together and seeing what would happen. 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.
For that paper, we talked to each other about the different parts of the elephant we were feeling. It was a collaboration of two minds which couldn't have done it alone. He saw the practical and I saw the theory in the beginning, and then we batted it back and forth and each contributed. And then I went to Washington the next year and he went to the LBJ School of Public Policy in Austin and I don't think we've seen each other since, although we've talked once or twice and almost met up once a couple of years ago, but didn't.
So that's my little bit of inspiration and cooperation for this obscure pediatrician. But small as it is, it allows me to better appreciate the genius collaboration of Tversky and Kahneman over decades – decades! – of inspiration and perspiration in a way that revolutionized the way people looked at decision making. What a wonderful story! Smart, persistent, brave, insightful, and boy did they work hard. Nobel Prize, ladies and gentlemen, and well deserved.
But, on the other hand, there is Trivial Pursuit. And there is something we haven't mentioned, which is the arrogance of others, in this case, the field of economics and the participants therein. When Aaron Wildavsky, a political scientist and arguably a man of genius, established the Graduate School of Public Policy at Berkeley in 1970, his idea was that public policy had to be rescued from the economists, who threatened to take over the field. Wildavsky assembled a team of political science, sociology, organizational theory, and some other disciplines as well (not psychology, unfortunately, since Tversky and Kahneman came later), because he saw that public policy was an elephant and everyone who participated was blind and they needed each other. He was correct, but despite the success of GSPP and the establishment of dozens of schools of public policy in other universities since then, the economists are still insular, and they still threaten to take over public policy with their oracular pronouncements. Give them a hammer and they think everything is a nail, to cite yet another aphorism.
One of the biggest problems with economics, besides their arrogance, was their assumption of rationality. They thought they could quantitate decisions, and on the whole the human mind would follow their prescriptions of how thinking should go. 5% up should be equivalent to 5% down, for instance, although anyone who has any sensibility at all understands what Tversky and Kahneman laboriously proved, that the human mind experiences the pain of loss more sharply than the pleasure of gain. “They shouldn't,” argued the economists, because it should be equal. And they thought that pretty much everything came down to simple figures called utility, which was pretty much like money, and which could be made pretty simple by charts and graphs. Idiots.
I say “any sensibility at all,” because I always felt, this obscure pediatrician in Berkeley, little me, I always saw the holes in the unfeeling armamentarium of economics theory. So when I read in Lewis that conferences between economists and psychologists “didn't go well,” because the economists were rude and arrogant and the psychologists retreated – well, no kidding, Dick Tracy, that was hard to predict. The genius of Tversky and Kahneman wasn't only the insight that they brought to what was really happening in these cases of cognition, the systematic biases that were introduced by humans thinking in heuristics, although that was of course the key cognitive advance. Their genius was finding ways to express it, proving it by experiments, persisting in publishing papers to a disbelieving profession which preferred to go one step at a time down the golden path toward professional advancement by accepting the current norms rather than introducing new thinking. Conformity is the way of the world, after all. Their genius was their bravery and persistence and immunity to the slings and arrows emanating from the established wrong, or at least incomplete, thinkers. Trivial Pursuit of persistence being the key. And ambition, let's not forget that. And belief in the possibility of recognition. And working together – they needed each other.
One of the biggest problems with arrogance, it seems, is that it violates the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Work together, even if it's hard. You have to listen to one another, because others really do have something to teach you. It's hard, because it's hard enough to follow your own thoughts, let alone follow someone else's. Tversky and Kahneman did that with each other, and then they invaded the turf of others and finally got others to incorporate what their perceptions were.
And have the economists learned? Oh, yes, they have learned. Now, they are crowing – see what we have done! We now have Behavioral Economics! We incorporate some of the psychology of people that we have discovered, and now we economists are more powerful than ever! What a hammer we have now! Listen to us! Follow what we say! Economics forever!
Pretty soon some of Tversky's aphorisms will be attributed to some economist. Watch for it. It's coming.

Budd Shenkin

No comments:

Post a Comment