Friday, June 15, 2012

Empirical Science Versus Logic

This is a great debate going on in archeology.  OK, maybe that is a sentence you don't hear every day.  But I bring it up today because it pits a logical argument against an empirical argument that are in direct contrast.

In one corner is the empirical science.  Apparently, cave paintings in Spain that we thought were 30,000 years old are really 40,000 years old - according to a new advance in carbon dating.  Carbon dating is one of those hard sciences that makes us feel really confident.  People can lie, but molecules??

The problem is that there were no modern humans around 40,000 years ago.  There were plenty of Neanderthals around, but that is where the logicians come in.  Neanderthals had been around for 300,000 years already.  What would make them all of a sudden decide to paint caves?  So logically, the paintings must have been done by humans who were new on the scene.  It would make logical sense for a new species, especially one with a brain structure that fits the practice of cave painting, to be the ones who painting the Spanish caves.

So who is right?  Are the paintings 40,000 years old and done by Neanderthals - as determined by the science of carbon dating?  Or are they 30,000 years old and done by humans - as determined by logic?


Liquiglide is the innovation of the day for many reasons.  They competed in this year's MIT entrepreneurship competition, winning the crowd favorite award but not the cash prize from the official judges. 

So what is it?  If is a coating that you can put inside a bottle to make the contents come out easier, faster, and more completely.  No more "anticipation" for your Heinz. 

I love this innovation for three reasons. The UX advocate in me loves that it is not a whiz bang bell and whistle add-on.  It is a great example of a ubiquitous innovation.  The user shouldn't even know it is there - it just makes many of his/her other products work better.

Second, it is green in the most common sense.  It is made out of plant-based compounds.  No increased reliance on petrochemicals.  No hazardous waste - even at the factory.

Third, it is green in the more overriding sense.  Do you know how much ketchup, mayo, shampoo, hand lotion etc etc etc is thrown away every year because it is stuck in the bottom of a bottle?  So Liquiglide also reduces the need to make more of all of this stuff by 5-10% across the board.  This is both environmentally incredible and money saving for pretty much every consumer out there.  We all buy tons of these kinds of bottles. 

So it saves money, reduces food waste and health and beauty product waste, reduces petrochemical use, is environmentally friendly itself . . .


I just came across a great article by Robin Hanson over at George Mason – which as you know is one of my favorite sources of behavioral economics wisdom – from back in August 2000 (Still good after 12 years!!  The very definition of a thought leader!).  I am also a big fan of Robin’s blog Overcoming Bias. 

The motivation for even considering this idea is that the typical citizen/voter/American is good at understanding and articulating his or her basic values.  But not nearly as good at understanding the complexities of policy design and development.  I have posted on this at length (for example)So we need to separate these two if we want government to get anything done.  Have voters select their candidates based on core values, but create some other mechanism to design the policies.  In his Futarchy model, he proposes a prediction market (using the Wisdom of Crowds idea, implemented similarly to the Iowa election market (link), Hollywood Exchange, etc.). 

I am not sure if this model would work better than our current one – nothing like this has ever been tried before and there could easily be unforeseen consequences, emergent interactions, or other side effects of complexity.  But it is definitely worth considering, developing, and trying out.