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Ian Ayres’ interesting new book,...

Posted Sep 11 2008 3:38pm

Ian Ayres’ interesting new book, Super Crunchers, has a chapter about expert prediction versus predictions from math models. Almost always, the math models do better than the experts. I learned about this in graduate school when I read stuff by Paul Meehl, a psychology professor who compared the predictions of clinicians and regression equations in the 1950s. The idea has gathered strength since then and now the persons in some jobs — such as loan officers — are required to follow an algorithm for making decisions. Their expertise is ignored. Obviously they no longer derive as much self-worth from their job, Ayres points out.

It’s like the beginning of agriculture. Lots has been written about the physical problems caused by the change to agriculture. Stature decreased, tooth decay increased, and so on. I’ve never read about the mental problems it must have caused. I can only speculate, of course, but here’s an possible example: Hunters derived self-worth from bringing meat to their families. Taking that away caused problems. (Watching Once Were Warriors, a terrific movie, should make this more plausible.)

I have never read anything about how to reintroduce into everyday jobs crucial mental elements that hunting had and farming lacked. Nutrition education, vitamin supplements, dietary fortification, and other nutrition programs push us toward a pre-agricultural diet, which was far more diverse and better balanced. There is no similar set of things that move us closer to pre-agricultural ways of making a living. My self-experimental research is all about the value stuff that ancient life had but modern life lacks — such as seeing lots of faces in the morning — but I have never figured out how to simulate elements of hunting, beyond being on one’s feet a lot.

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