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Breakfast Notes #7 (Jevon's Paradox, The Cost of Adventure, Scientism)

Breakfast Notes #7 (Jevon's Paradox, The Cost of Adventure, Scientism)
Photo by Hal Gatewood / Unsplash

Happy Friday Morning to You!

Street Lights in Singapore

Yesterday, Singapore celebrated Deepavali (otherwise known as the Festival of Lights) with our Hindu friends. Hindu families line their homes up with candles, transforming their homes into beacons of light. They feast and pray to deities together.

While the mythical tales surrounding the genesis of this holiday vary across India, they all share a similar focus on righteousness, self-inquiry and the importance of knowledge. Thus, Deepavali is fundamentally a celebration that marks the triumph of good over evil.

Due to the unfortunate circumstances of COVID-19, I did not have the chance to take up my friend's invite for Deepavali. However, past celebrations had always filled my stomach and soul up. As I reflect on it all, I am thankful that, as a Chinese Christian, I have had the privilege to be invited to the homes of my Indian Hindu friends and enjoy the blessings of their friendship.

Indeed, on this day, we overcome the evil of ignorance through the good of friendship.

Before I continue, I want to show you a love letter I wrote to Kinfolk and share why I think they are crushing it.

Without further ado, here are the tidbits of the week.

Jevon's Paradox In The Knowledge Economy

Burning Coal
Photo by Andrey Andreyev / Unsplash

In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal use did not reduce coal consumption but increased coal consumption in a wide range of industries.

He concluded, emphatically in italics, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

I see a parallel in modern knowledge work.

The advances in internet communication technology reduce the cost of knowledge work. We have the world at our fingertips at (close to) zero cost. Google, Wikipedia, blog posts, newsletters and even McKinsey reports are completely free to use.

Did this improved technology mean that we would work less and enjoy increased output? The answer is an emphatic no.

A recent survey done in America by the HR tech company Workhuman reported that 64% of people had experienced burnout in their career, and 41% of workers said that burnout happened in just the past few months.

Why is it that so many employees are stressed and burnt up despite the abundance of productivity-boosting tools?

Example of Jevons Paradox in Play 

The truth is that productivity yields its own demand. With the falling costs of knowledge work, the quantity demanded of our time, energy and efforts. Our job scope expands, and we are expected to cover more and more projects because we are perceived to be increasingly productive.

The answer is not to smash our computers and ditch our iPhones but to not treat knowledge workers as automatons by mandating a costlier use of our time. I don't think giving higher pay is the way to go because it will likely encourage the opposite effect: overwork the worker in the name of efficiency.

However, implementing a form of social or time costs such as mandated off-days, no post-office hours messaging, and scheduled shutdowns might be the first step to solving the Knowledge Economy’s Jevon Paradox.

Reagan's Response To Tragedy

Reagan Foundation

At Reagan's Address to the Nation after the Challenger Seven Speech, he addressed the schoolchildren of America, the symbols of America's future, he said,

I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery, and it’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.

This is spot-on. Adventures are inherently risky, and there is always a possibility that disaster strikes. The first voyagers, pilots and astronauts had to stare death in the eyes, and for many, they succumbed.

The right response to the exploration and its attendant risk is not avoidance but sober optimism.

When we fail in our pursuit of greatness, remembering Reagan’s words after the Challenger Tragedy will do us all good.

Visualization Of The Day

Source: New York Public Library Archive

I found this 1900 photo of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn in the New York Public Library. It's crazy how 1900 New York looks like 2021 Paris.

The Six Signs of Scientism

Source: Csun.edu

By default, all human enterprises are fallible and imperfect. The same goes for science. For all the good it generates, it remains flawed. Science brings knowledge, and with knowledge comes power. Sadly, power attracts its abusers.

Scientism is an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of life.

How do you know when someone uses the name of science in vain? Here are six tell-tale signs as written by Susan Haack and simplified by me,

  1. Using the word 'Science' to make yourself sound more legitimate. Consider the book title The Science of Getting Rich. Would this book be scientific?
  2. Adopting the methods and technical terms of the sciences even when it’s useless to do so. Consider the breakdown of this paper by Nassim Taleb calling it 'quackery'. They use a regression analysis when it makes no sense to do so.
  3. A preoccupation with the demarcation between science and pseudo-science. Science is constantly changing, as long as there is a 'general spirit of disinterested inquiry” with the 'methods and language of the natural sciences', we ought to resist the impulse to demarcate.
  4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method” is presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful. In fact, the 'scientific method' itself is varied, with many tools and techniques. Thus, there is no one definitive way to do science.
  5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope. Science can tell us the consequences of damming a river, but it cannot tell us whether building the dam is good. To say that science tells us building the dam is a bad thing would be patently false.
  6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

If someone uses science to silence or manipulate people, they are probably closer to being tobacco advertisers than scientists.

Remember to stay fresh,
Keith