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Against Theory

January 3, 2015

Economics, Philosophy

Tinkering

I have a very dear friend who always sends me the latest scientific evidence showing that a vegan diet is the optimum one for good health. He has an answer for every objection, but so does another friend who happens to follow the Paleolithic diet, and is just as persuasive. Personally, I’m a cheating vegan, not because I’ve analyzed the competing claims of every nutritional regimen, but simply because I feel better and healthier when I eat this way.  Maximalist running shoes were the hot running trend in 2014 but having read ‘Born to Run – a Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen’, I’m persuaded that nature did not design our feet to be heavily cushioned when running. I prefer to trust the human evolutionary process of trial and error rather than the commercially motivated claims of Nike.  At my local gym I was told that the reason lifting heavy weights builds muscle mass is something to do with growth hormones. However, I remember years ago being told, in answer to the same question, that lifting heavy weights breaks down muscle fibers so they can be ‘rebuilt’. The theories come and go but the phenomenon stays the same. We may not know exactly why lifting heavy weights leads to increased muscle mass but we do know it always has and always will.

In his book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder’, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about his deep respect for practitioners rather than theorists. Real, usable knowledge, he claims, comes from practicing an activity not from reading about it. Taleb recalls his time on a foreign exchange trading floor where he was shocked to find that professional traders had no background in theory and knew no economics, they simply had a nose for when to buy and sell. From experience they knew what worked so they didn’t need to understand why. Isaiah Berlin, who, unlike most philosophers, had practical experience of international diplomacy, also understood the value of tacit skills and knowledge, which he claimed defied rational analysis. For Berlin practical judgment is an “empirical knack”, a tacit skill that allows for the synthesis of those “fleeting, broken, infinitely various wisps and fragments that make up life”. Michael Oakeshott developed this idea further arguing that tacit knowledge or ‘knowing-how’ is foundational, theory and knowledge emerge from practice, not the other way around.

Humans are much better at doing than understanding, better at tinkering than inventing. Science reveals far more examples of opportunistic discoveries such as penicillin and Viagra, than of planned ones. The technologies that run the world today like the internet, the computer and the laser are not used in the way intended by those who invented them yet we continue to delude ourselves that planning, forecasting and controlled research are effective. Possibly the American student’s much advertised weakness in academic math and science is an advantage because what Americans really excel in is failure. It is the free market system that enables us to capture the randomness of the environment, systematize risk and so tolerate errors and failures on the way to knowledge, success and fortune.

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“Random tinkering is the path to success. And fortunately, we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing it – thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naïve investors, greedy investment bankers, confused scientists and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free market system.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

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62 Comments on “Against Theory”

  1. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Back when I studied statistical modeling, I learned how to take opposite sides of the argument and build a statistically valid model to support both sides. It was eye-opening, and the thrust of theories and proclamations that sweep the globe every day is in the same vein. Theories, not facts.

    You’ve written the same, and are so correct with the statement that we are much better and doing and understanding… Eastern medicine used herbs without fully understanding the theory, just recognizing the value, and it took Western medicine centuries to finally validate “traditional Eastern medicine” clinically.

    So much beautiful randomness out in the world, that only when we go through the trials and errors of understanding, do we gain real knowledge and success. Cheers to your future successes 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. As they say, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” 🙂 Eastern medicine is a great example of practice seeming to work while we lack any theory of how it works. I am thinking specifically of acupuncture here although I know there are far more examples.

      Reply

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      Oh, no. Theory is not something Eastern Medicine lacks. At least the millenia-old Traditional Chinese Medicine. The theory is profoundly complicated, much deeper and richer than anything Western Medicine can even dream or currently knows to tap in the body. But from my paltry understanding, the point relevant to the discussion is that the theory was borne of keen, intent observation and practice.

      Reply

      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Well, I was certainly referring to a lack of a Western explanation for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine in general, but you are right to point out that Chinese medicine has its own explanations born of thousands of years of observation and practice. However, the crux of the matter is that, irrespective of whether there is a compelling theory (Western or Chinese) as to why it works, if observations and practice shows that it does work, that should be sufficient.

        Reply

  2. Jon Sharp Says:

    Your ability to throw a rock into a pool and create waves is extraordinary Malcolm. I have a theory about how you keep doing it but won’t bore you here ;-). Your missive “Against Theory” is far too sweeping a statement. I simply do not understand how you can discredit theory emanating from such “improper subjects” as economics and assume this applies to theories developed and tested in “proper subjects” such as physics. It’s as if the concept of scientific method does not exist. Next you will be claiming that the practical observation of global warming in terms of rising sea levels, glaciers disappearing, the opening of the northwest passage to commercial shipping and such have no merit in the face of the Koch brother’s theory that the whole thing was a creation of scientists in search of research dollars.
    On the other hand I do agree that Americans are very good at failure and, like you, believe this is a positive thing :-). Happy New Year to you and I look forward to your next blog.
    Cheers mate!
    Jon,

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks Jon. There’s no secret to what I write. I simple read a great deal and write about what I currently find interesting. Taleb’s book on antifragility was the first book I ever finished and then immediately re-read from cover to cover. There is nothing in my post that I find too sweeping (except the title), rather it is your comment that is too sweeping. I am not against all theory and economics is definitely not an ‘improper’ subject as defined in an earlier post of mine. Of course the scientific method works (I have an idea, let’s test it), how else would you tinker? The post is a plea for epistemological humility. The history of science reveals that most breakthroughs come about by accident and are not planned for. Theoretical financial models like the Black–Scholes formula for options pricing, originated in the heuristics of traders who knew nothing about economics. Physics is certainly an exception in that progress is dependent on better theories and tinkering is not a possibility. Finally we have already discussed global warming in an earlier post so you know my position there. Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

      Reply

      • Jon Sharp Says:

        Thank you Malcolm. I think my objection to your post is more a generalised objection to how the word “theory” is used in modern day terms. I still think of it as “scientific theory” which implies a rigorous and comprehensive framework for understanding nature that has within it the potential for its own falsification or verification by testing the predictions generated by the theory in controlled, practical and repeatable experiments. However, the broader use of the term “theory” can mean everything from a hypothesis to broad conjectures or even just an idea. This obfuscation of the word “theory” may have contributed to the confusion and misinformation in scientific areas such as evolution and climate change with people uttering phrases such as “it’s just a theory” and feeling that they are justified in portraying their own ideas as “theories ” with equal measure. In that context, I feel this particular blog does no clarify this issue, but rather continues the process of obfuscation by presenting the iterative process of “tinkering” as an alternative to theory. I am not at all against your claim that accidents and tinkering has spawned theories, inventions and technologies that have benefited us all (and I look forward to reading Taleb’s book). I am against your idea that somehow this is better than theory in it’s more narrow scientific meaning because I think you are comparing apples and oranges.
        Economics is a tricky one because it is a subject that does not lend itself easily to controlled experiments. That said I was really just teasing you by describing it as improper ;-).
        Nevertheless, I have to admit that (fortunately for everyone else) I do not have control over how society chooses to use words. And so “theory” is now applied to almost every discipline listed in a university catalogue with varying degrees of objectivity. But perhaps we might start using the terms “scientific-theory” and “theory” as to mean two different things? Just an idea 😉
        Cheers
        Jon.
        PS: I did enjoy thinking about this post tho’…

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Jon, thank you. I may have been guilty of some inadvertent obfuscation in my three paragraph post but I think I’ve corrected that in my comments, particularly where I say the post is about epistemological humility, about granting more respect to practitioners over theorists, tinkering over grand research projects and nature over the current theory du jour. I enjoy our exchanges and hope you continue to enjoy the posts 🙂

  3. Snowbird of Paradise Says:

    Ha ha. You are really just a trouble maker, aren’t you.

    Reply

  4. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Malcolm, Humans are ideological animals. Everything we do is based on a theory we have constructed, in part from our observations and conclusions drawn from our experience. The solution to our life challenges involves not rejecting theory, rather finding one more closely matched to reality than the one we’re operating on.

    In this blog you express your theory about theory. Scientists work this way as do humans, who are programmed to act as amateur scientists.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michael, thank you. Please see my reply to Jon Sharp’s comments. I am not foolishly arguing that all theory is wrong, but, as you say, simply proposing another theory (following Taleb), i.e. that tinkering is usually more productive than controlled research and that evolutionary trial and error is usually a better guide to success than the latest theory du jour.

      Reply

      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        Sorry, Malcolm, I misunderstood. I thought your message was, “don’t theorize.” I inferred what you did not imply.

        It’s true nature did not design our feet to be heavily cushioned when running. However when nature designed our feet no one was running on paved paths.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thank you Michael. As I understand it the problem with cushioning is that it encourages striking the ground with the heel, which was not designed to resist this type of impact. Consequently if you have to run on paved paths cushioning might be your only option but it would be much better to change to trail running.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Malcolm, The experience of many runners fails to support your theoretical bias against heel-strike running.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Yep, theoretical bias is wrong again 🙂 Seriously, googling the subject does bring up some evidence against heel-strike running. I included this subject in the post to demonstrate that, in the absence of hard evidence against it, nature should be given the benefit of the doubt.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Malcolm, there is evidence on both sides, not a blanket advisory against heel-striking. For most runners, running uphill calls for toe running, downhill heel-striking. Short bursts forefeet, marathons heels.

          Please elaborate on your suggestion to give nature the benefit of the doubt. Nature’s design protects heel strikers. The large calcaneus heel bone is more protective and less prone to injury than the many delicate bones in the forefoot and toes. In all my years as a competitive long-distance runner I’ve known of metatarsal and sesamoid forefoot-bone injuries, especially stress fractures, never calcaneus ones.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, the link I sent you states that the evidence supports barefoot running. However, we both agree that there is a real debate here and no side has any conclusive evidence. What is one to do? Evolution is a very long process of trial and error where successful adaptations tend to remain and unsuccessful adaptations tend to be eliminated. Our feet evolved for barefoot running and walking, so personally, I would give more weight to evolution than to Nike.

        • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

          Instead of having your head decide how to plant your feet, why not let your feet decide? Put theory aside and just go out the door and run!

          Isn’t this in the spirit of your blog?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, that sounds like an eminently sensible option. I said I would give evolution the benefit of the doubt but only if I found it difficult to make up my mind from all the available evidence.

  5. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Put simply, great post. I am a firm believer that randomness can often produce fortuitous results. I have often found that the grandest plans for something, the most elaborate methods or even carefully applied studies don’t always yield the most productive of outcomes. Perhaps because the very nature of being free to explore, without the confines of the norm or the status quo of life, offers us more inspiration to produce wonderful things (than constriction). I actually think ‘tinkering’ should be encouraged more, but feel that many people are afraid to or are unable to break from the paradigms that surround them. For example; I was listening to a podcast recently about how children have become ever more restrained in their learning or exploration whilst at school. The way the current curriculum is run, seems to instil a fear of ‘tinkering’ to find results. Consequently, children are relying ever more on the direction of their teachers to find the answers they require (in science and IT).
    Maybe this could be all related to individuality; people tend to not want to do what others aren’t for fear of being singled out as odd! So, we tinker less! Just a thought.
    Thanks again for posting, Bex

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bex, you raise an excellent point that constraints on our behavior affect our ability to adapt to change. I also see this in education which seems to have a single-minded focus on getting children to pass tests which ‘qualify’ them to be ‘educated’. The more freedom people are given (legal, moral, consensual) the better they will be able to adapt to change, the only certainty in life.

      Reply

      • The Savvy Senorita Says:

        Thank you Malcolm. I completely agree with you and think that change is the key thing here. People seem to be unable or unwilling through their life constraints to embrace and deal with change. We educated children to blend in, and not truly express who they are. Yet, change does bring wonderful things!! Bex

        Reply

  6. Mike Says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Terrific points! Taleb, and I’d put Hayek in there, too, deserve much more attention.

    Reply

  7. Ann Koplow Says:

    Wonderful post. I don’t know the theory about this, but I do practice it, every day.

    Reply

  8. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Great observation: “technologies that run the world today like the internet, the computer and the laser are not used in the way intended by those who invented them”. This surprise also speaks to the richness of societal relationships, that there’s really no precise telling what people will do with what when, esp when it comes to communication.

    The human body was not designed for food fads. Yes, there is overwhelming research supporting the benefits of a vegan diet but you do well to listen to your body. Every body is unique, has its own constitution. No book or theory can tell me what I should be eating without understanding the complexities and vicissitudes of this body and the constitution I inherited. Those who stake their ground on the nutritional landscape also often neglect to factor in the dynamics of our environment and their impact on us. We need, and therefore crave, more warming foods in the winter, for instance. Hence the attraction to roasting and to foods like stews. If anything, I have found great wisdom in the truism of Traditional Chinese Medicine, that any extreme becomes its reverse. Food wasn’t your main point but I couldn’t resist stepping on your soapbox. =)

    We forget theory is just that. Theory. The scientific method (purpose, hypothesis, materials, procedure, results, conclusion) is supposed to be a journey of discovery in the tinkering you speak of but we often take theory for dogma or gospel. Love your closing thought, MG.

    A related tangent by Walt Whitman:

    WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for the kind spelling correction 🙂 as well as for this thoughtful comment. I’m glad you found room on the soapbox as you raise important points about the uniqueness of our constitution and the dynamics of our environment. I had not really thought about the latter before but you are right that we crave heartier and warmer fare during the winter, so thank you for easing my conscience and providing yet another rationalization for violating veganism during the winter. You summarized the post exactly when you wrote – “we often take theory for dogma or gospel”. Love your closing quotation, HW.

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        Though I can understand why you’d consider it cheating, perhaps you can be fairer to yourself and decide it’s honoring your body’s call for balance esp in the seasonal shifts. It’s what your post was about, in fact – that you should observe and heed your own messages (empirical discovery) to test and prove the theory (of nutritional -isms and dictum) rather than impose the theory on yourself. Animal protein and spices (like those in curry) are warming. Raw foodists do themselves a disservice in their die-hard allegiance to what they don’t realize is cold food (raw = cold, cooked = warmer), too much of which actually weakens the G.I. (Excess becomes its reverse.) I’ll stop so as not to hijack your thread and also bc Holistic Chef starts charging after this point. =)

        My successful recommendation of BTR might influence you to get a hold of Pitchford’s book (on my food blog, How to Eat page). It is my nutritional Bible and will blow your mind in its thoroughness. My good friend who studied under him said he is respected in the field of integrative nutrition, as the book was the first of its kind over a decade ago. I would encourage you to get the latest edition. He doesn’t urge you toward a particular spot on the dietary spectrum. He is far more comprehensive, in-depth, and fair than that. The $ is more than worth it. Take care, MG.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          A good point about not calling it cheating and as you say, it’s what the post was about. I mostly cheat because I don’t like throwing away my daughter’s non-vegan leftovers. However, you are correct that sometimes specific foods call out to me. For example, after a multi-day backpacking trip I invariably crave a large steak. Not quite sure what “BTR” is and I’m hoping you will not charge me for the information. Pitchford’s book looks encyclopedic so I will check it out. Thanks again HW.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          BTR = Born to Run.

          I was, actually, going to say that given the amt/level of physical activity you put in, your body will naturally ask for more protein, a varied sort at that from the vegan.

          It’s a revised relationship with your self/body I am encouraging, where the concept of cheating becomes instead conscious choosing and honoring – and enjoying. At least in the area of food. ^ ^ Your body, I would argue, was protesting the stoicism. See, I didn’t think you were a true stoic.

          This last word was gratis. =)

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “where the concept of cheating becomes instead conscious choosing and honoring – and enjoying.”

          OK, I like the above reframing but I question your claim that that a vegan who exercises a lot doesn’t get enough protein. There is plenty of protein in leafy green vegetables and fruits. Just look at the size and bone density of elephants and gorillas who get all their protein from a plant based diet. Furthermore, at the time when we have the greatest need for protein (as a baby) nature endows mother’s milk with approximately 5% protein. That is easy enough to get from a plant based diet. As to stoicism, it’s quite an eclectic and adaptable philosophy, which can accommodate anything from a craving for meat to the loss of a good friend.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          Actually, I am well aware of and espouse the protein answer (elephants and all) and didn’t mean to cast doubt on the sufficiency in the vegan diet, though I can see how it came across that way. I don’t mind marking you a tally on that one, on the strength of your argument and the weakness of my logic. *score* But I was riding on the coattails of your admission that protein outside the vegan diet does call to you at times and was simply letting the testimony speak for itself (the empirical over the theory of sufficiency you just brought up).

          I was teasing, on the stoicism, but thanks for clarifying. I don’t know enough to speak with conviction.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Point taken HW and I know you were teasing 🙂

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          Meant to add that Pitchford is an excellent writer. He’s been a guest in our home. You’ll know more about the properties of food and their impact on health than MDs. Enjoy.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          HW, thank you. Your other blog (My Holistic Table) contains some great information and I particularly liked your post ‘I Built My Life on Sugar’.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          Appreciate the good word. Feel free to write me there when you’ve read enough to want to comment on it.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          AH Journey stole my heart (and time); it’s a shame I haven’t been able to build that blog. =)

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Love is a rough road to travel 🙂

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          Mm. If love is the word. In my case it was, and I lay down my vision for MHTable, felt I had to pick a lane.

  9. chr1 Says:

    I’ve always had a healthy respect for competent people who also have a healthy skepticism, especially regarding theory.

    Reply

  10. NicoLite Великий Says:

    In Germany, we say “Probieren geht über Studieren” (trying trumps analyzing; would be an appropriate interpretation, given the context)

    Reply

  11. The Sicilian Housewife Says:

    I remember being pressurised a great deal when I was coming to the end of my university course to have a career plan and being told by many people that I ought to know what I intended to be doing in ten years’ time.
    I reacted by asking all the most successful people I met if they had planned their careers and lives and if they had had any idea of how they would turn out. Or did it all just turn out by chance?
    Every single one of them told me they had not planned any of their life the way it turned out and that their greatest successes were sheer luck and completely unplanned.

    Reply

  12. aFrankAngle Says:

    For contrarian purposes, two thoughts. 1) It’s easy to take a stance, then find stats to support it. … 2) Is going against theory related to how many misuse the term?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      In answer to 1) please see Dalo’s comment. As you say, it’s so easy to lie or mislead with models and statistics. Both give us a false sense of confidence. In answer to 2) it’s not so much that people misuse the term but rather they don’t understand the limitations of theories. Risk managers had models and theories to explain why investing in sub-prime mortgages was safe. These risk models were based on the worst event that had happened in the past but they forgot that each time such an event happened it was the worst event ever. In other words they looked to the past but they should have been looking to the future and asking what could possibly go wrong. However, the CEO’s of those companies took it for granted that these complex risk models were actually doing something useful. In fact they were all useless. The bottom line is that we know far less than we think and so we should build institutions and practices that thrive on volatility and risk because change is the only certainty. When an aircraft crashes the industry becomes stronger because it learns from the mistakes that have been made. When the banks screwed up they were not allowed to fail so we have built fragility into the system ensuring that the next time there is a financial crisis it will be worse than the one we have just had.

      Reply

      • aFrankAngle Says:

        Thanks for the explanation and for guiding me to Dalo’s comment. When I first made the comment, I had scientific theories in my head, thus forgot about its use in terms of other fields (although I see a connection). I recall a conversation with a young colleague in my teaching days when I told (something like) … when we start teaching, we try to use the theory, then proclaim it doesn’t work. With more experience and continuing education, we return to theory … thus when the lesson doesn’t work, we ask this important question: Was it the plan, implementation, or both?

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          That sounds exactly like tinkering to me i.e. trying something out, then going back to the drawing board, then trying something else etc. The problem comes when the experts become convinced that they have the right theory and everyone else is forced to toe the line. The current educational panacea is technology which is being crammed into schools at an alarming rate. But, check out this brief video clip for some healthy skepticism.

        • aFrankAngle Says:

          I’m with you regarding how some expect all to follow the theory that’s in vague. In my case, it’s not tinkering with the theory, but returning to the theory to tinkering with the plan.

          As a former teacher, and one who was more reform minded than most, that was a good video. His most important statement was about the educational system’s inertia. Meanwhile, sometime this month I will start a series featuring statements that I wrote many years ago about education and change.Stay tuned.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thank you, I look forward to your series on education, a subject also dear to my heart.

  13. Tahira Says:

    I’m all about ‘balance’ these days, Malcolm. A healthy dose of thinking along side a good old portion of doing goes a long way. As most I lean much more toward doing and tinkering than I do thinking. Theory and evidence are needed but I too tend to do what feels right rather than because there is evidence to prove that it is right. Great post, really enjoyed reading it.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Tahira. A good life has always been about balance. Aristotle said virtue is achieved when the golden mean is maintained i.e. a balance between two extremes. Your blog exudes a sense of balance with its beautiful pictures of your travels to places that make you feel good.

      Reply

  14. D.G.Kaye Says:

    Love the topic and enjoyed reading many of the responses.

    Reply

  15. Daniela Says:

    Interesting. I do however believe that neither one excludes or necessary precedes/follows the other. History of humanity evidence endless examples of accidental discoveries, inventions born out of tinkering, as is does of remarkable theories. It would have been even more interesting if you applied the argument to your own ‘cheating vegan’ practice and outline what it is and how/why you arrived to it. By tinkering with theory perhaps?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Daniela. Of course there have been both accidental discoveries as well as discoveries from controlled research, but one of the the points of the post is that, contrary to popular belief, we have benefited far more from the former than the latter. Cancer is a good example. The National Cancer Institute came out of the Nixon “war on cancer” in the early 1970’s and over a twenty-year period of screening of more than 144,000 plant extracts, representing about 15,000 species, not a single plant-based anticancer drug reached approved status. This failure stands in stark contrast to the discovery in the late 1950’s of a major group of plant-derived cancer drugs, the Vinca Alcaloids – a discovery that came about by chance, not through directed research.

      As to my diet, I have already pointed out in reply to another comment that tinkering also uses the scientific method (I have an idea, let’s test it), but it does so in a more humble way than the grand controlled research project and so is more likely to be successful.

      Reply

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