Blog » The problem with real-world problems

19 Feb 2006

The problem with real-world problems

Filed under: Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 8:12 pm

I was talking to some people from the students group at All Saints Church recently, and one was talking about how she’d met the winner (and new world record holder) of an international Rubik’s cube solving contest — a Caltech undergrad. The record, by the way, is now 11.13 seconds. Un. Be. Liev. Able.

She asked him why he enjoyed the cube so much. His answer was that it is a hard, but solvable, problem. Much of the research that gets done by all the really smart people at places like Caltech falls in this category, it would seem. Follow good method, and try enough things, and it is in principle possible to work out the desired solution.

“Real-world” problems, by which one presumably means problems to do with social organisation, economic organisation, inequality, government structures, etc., are often not ideally solvable. Each option has pro’s and con’s. But even more importantly, even the best laid plans have to be executed by people, each with their own agendas. So good ideas get lost in corruption, inefficiency, skills shortages or even laziness.

So my friend’s suggestion, following her Rubik’s cube encounter, was that the reason so many smart people focus on abstract problems, and don’t apply themselves to human problems in the world, is because scientists like problems which admit a “clean” solution. Which is, when one thinks about it, a pity for all concerned.

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  1. I’m studying a decidedly unsolvable problem. Protein folding has infinite solutions. Our method for solving the problem is basically to use what knowledge we have to constrain the problem to a smaller set. There are still infinite possibilities, but we esablish a finite set of things that *aren’t* right. Eventually we get something that almost definitely isn’t right, but is close enough to being right that it’s useful for real-world problems.

    It’s not a clean solution, it’s not a solvable problem, and in general our method isn’t even all that elegant. But it’s definitely a real-world problem.

    It *is* frustrating to not be able to say in the end, “This is Right.” But if everything goes well, in the end you can say, “This can be (or has been) used to Help people.”

    Comment by Adam — 19 Feb 2006 @ 9:36 pm

  2. This is why I knit and play computer games. There are problems, but they are designed to be solved.

    Comment by Dixie — 20 Feb 2006 @ 11:13 am

  3. I don’t know if it is why scientists become scientists, but I think I do agree with your comment that we tend to like clean solutions. Certainly I would never want to publish work unless I could say: this is what happened and it will always happen like that!

    Following on from Adam’s comments, while the science of modelling protein folding ab initio may not currently be “solvable”, there clearly exists a solution or proteins could not fold correctly (in the time scales they do!) in the real world.

    I think the difference that arises is that of: in science it is a case that there is a possibly murky solution that may take several generations to find, but where the ultimate cleanest answer can eventually be found, compared to say art where there is no right or wrong as it is an expression of a feeling interpretted by the person viewing it and biased by their feelings.

    The value in this distinction comes when the clean answers are used successfully in society for its improvement.

    Comment by Paul F — 20 Feb 2006 @ 11:24 am

  4. That gets to the heart of the dilemma of social science – the attempt to force methodologies that assume a right answer onto material that is predictable only in large groups and in probablilities; and then with topics for which “right” in any case carries value baggage. This is illustrated historically, for example, by the research into how to “cure” gay people.

    It takes a certain resiience to persevere with research when you don’t know if there is an answer or, if there is one, whether or not it should be the right one. In the absence of resilience, it takes a certain lack of insight or thought. Perhaps the latter is too true of many of us social scientists.

    Of course those who are of the persuasion that there are just two types of science, physics and stamp collecting, will no doubt find Rubik’s cube much more fun.

    Comment by Jonathan — 20 Feb 2006 @ 11:42 pm

  5. Um, it’s actually a bit worse than that, particularly in economics (which, as befits its imperial status, is dragging everyone else along with it). Even within social science, you can pick research topics, and some are more “clean” than others. As an economist, I can (and do) worry about the consistency of my quasi maximum likelihood estimator, and I can think through that problem, prove a few propositions and I’m done. Or, I can think about ROSCAs (Rotating Credit and Savings Institutions) in India, and see if they fit a particular auction model (a little less clean – what does a good “fit” look like?). Or I can worry about the political economy of Nigeria, and then I’m, well, not going to produce anything clean (indeed, I’m probably going to end up verbally arguing my point, without appeal to a strong quantitative methodology).

    Which one to pick? If you are of a purely scientific bent, you pick the former. If your inclination is towards academic social science, you go with the ROSCAs. If you want to set policy, you look at Nigeria.

    So – in addition to the problem that scientists are not devoting themselves to human problems – there’s the potential problem that those people who ARE studying these questions are those that like to set policy, rather than those who are good at generating careful and scientific research. My impression is that this is certainly a problem in South Africa; it is mitigated in the US by the sheer number of tenured professors in the social sciences who have time to devote to both sorts of topics.

    Comment by Greg — 29 Mar 2006 @ 8:18 pm

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