Scholarship is conservative, tinkering is progressive

We are not rational beings. We cannot string simple sequences of logical arguments without making mistakes. We cannot reason probabilistically.

There is ample evidence that rational arguments fail to convince. That’s not surprising given how poor we are at evaluating rational arguments.

We teach what we have learned. We repeat what we have heard.

People hold up to their conservative models… science and scholarship are fundamentally conservative. Being a scholar is a bet against progress. If you write a book about a given field, and the field gets fundamentally transformed, all your hard earned expertise becomes worthless.

And yet we make progress. Not on all fronts, and not always fast enough… but we move forward. Kuhn advocated that progress happens through “paradigm shifts”.

How is that possible if every intellectual is a conservative?

Not everybody, not every culture, is betting against progress. For every theoretician that insists on keeping his model, there is an engineer or an entrepreneur whose mind is set on constructing reality.

To construct a new reality, you cannot rely on a comforting theoretical framework, as these tend to be fundamentally conservative. So you have to accept that you will be tinkering.

Long before we had Maxwell’s laws, we had tinkerers designing applications for electricity. Long before we had thermodynamics, we had useful engines.

How many people place their bet on progress? This depends very much on your culture. You can very easily make it untenable to be a tinkerer if you ensure that progress cannot happen. Somehow the Western civilization embraced tinkerers, at least in part.

But tinkering is dangerous. Inventing electricity can make the world safer or riskier. You can’t tell which one ahead of time. You have to try.

It is not immediately obvious why a civilization would allow tinkering. But I think it has to do with the fact that without some tinkering, civilizations tend to be fragile, in Nassim Taleb’s sense.

We do not live in a static world. There are strong external shocks. We deplete our ressources, we face new diseases, we enter into unforeseen wars…

In comparison, tinkering causes harm to the civilization, but at a fairly low intensity. And a tinkering civilization becomes more robust because it is kept on its toes. That’s ultimately a lot better than waiting for a massive collapse.

Daniel Lemire, "Scholarship is conservative, tinkering is progressive," in Daniel Lemire's blog, September 14, 2017.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “Scholarship is conservative, tinkering is progressive”

  1. I cannot help but draw parallels to population genetics; the conservation of mutations through forces such as purifying selection, whilst a population tinkers at perhaps an arguably “fairly low intensity” through the processes of spontaneous mutation and recombination, giving it a diversity that serves as a template for future avenues (i.e. “robustness” loosely speaking). The push and pull of conservatism versus progressivism are certainly at play in evolution.

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