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.
“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