Paul Graham on Risk and Discovery

In a short post Paul Graham (computer scientist, venture capitalist, and opinion haver) notes that biographies of famous scientists tend to focus on the subset of their ideas that panned out, neglecting their failures.

Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed.

[snip]

In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics

[snip]

Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But they were all risky.

You can take this argument even further. There have been a ton of people throughout history working on topics that, at the time, seemed as promising as physics or alchemy. People don’t tend to write biographies about the folks for whom the big breakthrough never comes.

The written history of science tends to be a post-hoc narrative of linear progress imposed on a roiling, chaotic mess of false starts and wrong turns. (As does the history of not-science, for that matter.) The problem is that it leads us to think that we can have progress without risk, success without failure. It leads to our risk-averse approach to funding scientific research, which has proven itself effective at producing huge volumes incremental science.

The fact is, if we want to fund the research that will lead to the next Principia, we’re going to have to become okay with funding a lot more alchemy.

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