Friday, December 18, 2009

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is ...

According to Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and his 8 part video lecture (YouTube videos) "the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function". For example a 5% stable per annum increase figure says nothing or little to him/her, whereas it leads to a doubling (+100%) in 14 years.

This may help explain, IMO, among other things our inability to realise the effects of population growth, global warming and other dynamics that have a vital effect on us.

But I dare say, with my background in Operations Research and an MBA, that IMO an ever greater shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand or perceive multi-variable functions, in plainer words, the fact that most outcomes do not have a single causal factor but are a result of many and, often, the interplay between them. As well as the ability to understand the distinction between correlation and causality.

This inability manifests itself in all aspects of our lives, from understanding the Universe to daily economics. And forces many people, from attorneys in trials to politicians to marketers to journalists etc, to try to often satisfy our need for mono-factor causality and inability to deal with a variety of causes to one outcome by simplifying and thus distorting reality as they present it to us. It also leads us, IMO, to a propensity for believing conspiracy theories rather than understanding that it was a variety of non-conspiring factors that led to an outcome.

Another major shortcoming of our human race is the inability of most of us to deal with uncertainty which is the way of the Nature. And our quest for certainty or security (be it in investing, etc) often leads to avenues that cost us a lot and still not provide but the feeling rather a reality of security.

Do you agree with Dr. Bartlett's choice or any of my two choices of the "greatest shortcoming"? Feel free to comment or offer your own choice.

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