Tim Harford: Why Do Complex Systems Thrive on Trial And Error? Economist Tim Harford identifies similar characteristics in successful industrial and economic systems. They work much better, he says, when they're constantly evolving through trial and error.

Why Do Complex Systems Thrive on Trial And Error?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about failure and why failure can be good for us, even though when you're the one doing the failing, it can feel pretty horrible. And Tim, I should just mention here that I'm terrible with failure. You know, like, every time I've had a failure in life, I don't want to talk about it.

TIM HARFORD: Yeah. Is that being terrible, though? It's perfectly natural for failure to really hurt. That's just being a human being. There's nothing wrong with that.

RAZ: This is Tim Harford. He's an economist and a journalist who wrote a book about failure.

HARFORD: To be terrible with failure is either to be so scared of it that you never do anything interesting, or alternatively to be so terrified of admitting it that you continue with a disastrous course of action and you just continue to fail because you keep telling yourself you're not failing. And that, to me, is what it means to be terrible with failure.

RAZ: And Tim says people who are terrible at failure in this way suffer from something known as the God complex, this idea some people have that they're not fallible, that they're the experts. Here's Tim on the TED stage.


HARFORD: I see the God complex around me all the time in my fellow economists. I see it in our business leaders. I see it in the politicians we vote for, people who in the face of an incredibly complicated world are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world works. And this man, Archie Cochrane, understood this as well as anybody.

Archie was a doctor, so he hung around with doctors a lot. And doctors suffer from the God complex a lot. And there's this one trial he ran many years after World War II. He wanted to test out the question of where is it that patients should recover from heart attacks? Should they recover in a specialized cardiac unit in hospital, or should they recover at home?

All the cardiac doctors tried to shut him down. They had the God complex in spades. They knew that their hospitals were the right place for patients, and they knew it was very unethical to run any kind of trial or experiment. Nevertheless, Archie managed to get permission to do this. He ran his trial.

And after the trial had been running for a little while, he gathered together all his colleagues around the table, and he said, well, gentlemen, turns out you're right. It is dangerous for patients to recover from heart attacks at home. They should be in hospital. And there's this uproar and all the doctors start pounding the table and saying we always said you're unethical, Archie. You're killing people with your clinical trials. And there's all this huge hubbub. Archie lets it die down. And then he says, well, that's very interesting, gentlemen, because when I gave you the table of results, I swapped the two columns around. It turns out your hospitals are killing people, and they should be at home. Would you like to close down the trial now, or should we wait until we have robust results? Cochrane would do that kind of thing because he understood that uncertainty, that fallibility, that being challenged, they hurt.

RAZ: I wonder if this God complex thing happens, like, less and less nowadays, you know, like, in science and technology because people seem to be better at embracing failure, like, what we just - we just heard from Astro Teller - right? - that in Silicon Valley, failure is like a badge of honor.

HARFORD: Yeah, Silicon Valley typifies that, the idea of evolving a website or any of the other things you can evolve through trial and error. That feels quite safe. And some people embrace that and say great, we can fail 10,000 times before breakfast and find the perfect solution. And I think one of the wonderful opportunities we have in the world today is that in many areas, it's never been quicker or cheaper to run experiments, to fail on an incredible industrial scale.


HARFORD: Let's say you wanted to make detergent. Let's say you're Unilever, and you want to make detergent in a factory near Liverpool. How do you do it? Well, you have this great, big tank full of liquid detergent. You pump it at a high pressure through a nozzle. You create a spray of detergent. And the spray dries, it turns into powder. It falls to the floor. You scoop it up. You put it in cardboard boxes. You sell it at a supermarket. You make lots of money.

How do you design that nozzle? Now, if you ascribe to the God complex, what you do is you find yourself a mathematician, you find yourself a physicist, somebody who understands the dynamics of this fluid, and he will or she will calculate the optimal design of the nozzle. Now, Unilever did this, and it didn't work - too complicated.

But the geneticist professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever actually did solve this problem - trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle, looks a bit like a chess piece, functions absolutely brilliantly.

We have no idea why it works, no idea at all. But the moment you step back from the God complex and you say let's just try a bunch of stuff, let's have a systematic way of determining what's working and what's not, you can solve your problem.


RAZ: Maybe the thing is that when you're in a situation where you can't test something over, over and over again, then the stakes seem so much higher - right? - because you don't get a do-over.

HARFORD: Yeah. It's very common when you look at anything from people investing in the stock market to professional poker players to people who play the game show "Deal Or No Deal." They all exhibit something called loss aversion. It's just this disproportionate anxiety that I'm losing this game. I went wrong somewhere. We hate admitting that and selling our shares in Lehman Brothers or whatever and getting out at a loss. We hate that out of all proportion to what the actual loss really is. And I think that is one of the reasons why people just keep on in a failing situation.

RAZ: Which is pretty understandable - right? - because, I mean, a failure can be debilitating - right? - I mean, especially if it's a public failure like a career-damaging failure.

HARFORD: Yes. And sometimes I think it really helps to try to to take the emotion out of the situation. I was really struck by the experience of the great choreographer Twyla Tharp who worked with Billy Joel and produced this musical called "Moving Out" about 10 years ago. It was 2003, I think. And it was a complete disaster. All the reviewers said it was awful, it was naive. She could have just curled up into the fetal position and said, oh, everybody hates me. But instead she said, OK. I've got to fix it.

And so she just went through all the reviews, and she turned them into a spreadsheet, like, a checklist. How are we going to fix these things? Tick them off - one, two, three, four - just tick them off. And in a few weeks, the show was enormously better - ran for years, won two Tony Awards. And the critics couldn't believe it. But it was - she just viewed it almost as an engineering problem. And that was when she stopped the process of failing and started the process of fixing everything.


HARFORD: Now, I've been sort of banging on about this for the last couple of months. And people sometimes say to me, well, Tim, it's kind of obvious. Now, obviously, trial and error is very important. Obviously, experimentation is very important. Now, why are you just sort of wandering around saying this obvious thing?

And I say, OK, fine. You think it's obvious. I will admit it's obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don't have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions, every single one of which has an answer. And there's an authority figure in the corner behind the teacher's desk who knows all the answers. And if you can't find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid. When schools stop doing that all the time, I will admit that, yes, it's obvious that trial and error is a good thing.

When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says, and I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I've got a half a dozen ideas. We're going to test him out. They'll probably all fail. Then we'll test some other ideas out. We'll find some that work. We'll build on those. We'll get rid of the ones that don't. When a politician campaigns on that platform, and, more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works and that...


HARFORD: Thank you.


HARFORD: Until then, I'm going to keep banging on about trial and error and why we should abandon the God complex. And since I started talking about this subject and researching this subject, I've been really haunted by something the Japanese mathematician said on the subject. So shortly after the war, this young man Yutaka Taniyama developed this amazing conjecture called the Taniyama–Shimura conjecture. It turned out to be absolutely instrumental many decades later in proving Fermat's Last Theorem, prove one, you prove the other.

But it was always a conjecture. Taniyama tried and tried and tried, and he could never prove that it was true. His friend, Goro Shimura, who worked on the mathematics with him many decades later reflected on Taniyama's life. He said he was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes, but he made mistakes in a good direction. I tried to emulate him, but I realized it is very difficult to make good mistakes. Thank you.


RAZ: Tim Harford is an economist and an author. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.


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