An Odyssean education would focus on humans’ biggest and most important problems

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Dominic Cummings was Michael Gove’s main adviser when he compiled some thoughts on education and political priorities:

Although we understand some systems well enough to make precise or statistical predictions, most interesting systems — whether physical, mental, cultural, or virtual — are complex, nonlinear, and have properties that emerge from feedback between many interactions. Exhaustive searches of all possibilities are impossible. Unfathomable and unintended consequences dominate. Problems cascade. Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.

A growing fraction of the world has made a partial transition from a) small, relatively simple, hierarchical, primitive, zero-sum hunter-gatherer tribes based on superstition (almost total ignorance of complex systems), shared aims, personal exchange and widespread violence, to b) large, relatively complex, decentralised, technological, nonzero-sum market-based cultures based on science (increasingly accurate predictions and control in some fields), diverse aims, impersonal exchange, trade, private property, and (roughly) equal protection under the law. Humans have made transitions from numerology to mathematics, from astrology to astronomy, from alchemy to chemistry, from witchcraft to neuroscience, from tallies to quantum computation. However, while our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors. The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre. In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving. Less than 10 percent per year leave school with formal training in basics such as exponential functions, ‘normal distributions’ (‘the bell curve’), and conditional probability. Less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation. Only a small subset of that <1% then study trans-disciplinary issues concerning complex systems. This number has approximately zero overlap with powerful decision-makers. Generally, they are badly (or narrowly) educated and trained (even elite universities offer courses that are thought to prepare future political decision-makers but are clearly inadequate and in some ways damaging). They also usually operate in institutions that have vastly more ambitious formal goals than the dysfunctional management could possibly achieve, and which generally select for the worst aspects of chimp politics and against those skills seen in rare successful organisations (e.g the ability to simplify, focus, and admit errors). Most politicians, officials, and advisers operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgement), and little experience in well-managed complex organisations. The skills, and approach to problems, of our best mathematicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions. We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ — we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much.

The consequences are increasingly dangerous as markets, science and technology disrupt all existing institutions and traditions, and enhance the dangerous potential of our evolved nature to inflict huge physical destruction and to manipulate the feelings and ideas of many people (including, sometimes particularly, the best educated) through ‘information operations’. Our fragile civilisation is vulnerable to large shocks and a continuation of traditional human politics as it was during 6 million years of hominid evolution – an attempt to secure in-group cohesion, prosperity and strength in order to dominate or destroy nearby out-groups in competition for scarce resources — could kill billions. We need big changes to schools, universities, and political and other institutions for their own sake and to help us limit harm done by those who, entangled with trends described below, pursue dreams of military glory, ‘that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.’

Some ideas are presented, aimed mainly at 15-25 year-olds, for what physicist Murray Gell Mann described as an ‘Odyssean’ education synthesising a) maths and the natural sciences, b) the social sciences, and c) the humanities and arts, into crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking. This should combine courses like The Big History Project, Berkeley’s ‘Physics for Future Presidents’ (or Professor Timothy Gowers’ planned equivalent for maths) with the best of the humanities; add new skills such as coding; and give training in managing complex projects and using modern tools (e.g agent-based models, ABMs). Universities should develop alternatives to Politics, Philosophy, and Economics such as Ancient and Modern History, Physics for Future Presidents, and Programming. We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling, who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project. An Odyssean education would focus on humans’ biggest and most important problems and explain connections between them to train synthesisers. An approach is suggested here based on seven broad fields with some big, broad goals.

  1. Maths and complexity. Solve the Millennium Problems, better prediction of complex networks.
  2. Energy and space. Ubiquitous cheap energy and opening space for science and commerce.
  3. Physics and computation. Exploration beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, better materials and computers, digital fabrication, and quantum computation.
  4. Biological engineering. Understanding the biological basis of personality and cognition, personalised medicine, and computational and synthetic biology.
  5. Mind and machine. Quantitative models of the mind and machine intelligence applications.
  6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions. Nielsen’s vision of decentralised coordination of expertise and data-driven intelligence (‘a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable’); more ambitious and scientifically tested personalised education; training and tools that measurably improve decisions (e.g. ABMs).
  7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes. Replacements for failed economic ideas and traditional political philosophies; new institutions (e.g. new civil service systems and international institutions, a UK DARPA and TALPIOT (non-military), decentralised health services).

Such an education and training might develop synthesisers who have 1) a crude but useful grasp of connections between the biggest challenges based on trans-disciplinary thinking about complex systems; 2) a cool Thucydidean courage to face reality including their own errors and motives; 3) the ability to take better decisions and adapt fast to failures; 4) an evolutionary perspective on complex systems and institutional design (rather than the typical Cartesian ‘chief of the tribe’ perspective); and 5) an ability to shape new institutions operating like an immune system that will bring better chances to avoid, survive, and limit damage done by inevitable disasters.

Focus is hard to hold in politics. After 1945, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. It is suggested here that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science: Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’, we could be the school of the world. Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced education and science as its defining mission and therefore changed the nature of the people running it and the way they make decisions and priorities. We already have a head start; we lack focus. Large improvements in education and training are easier to achieve than solving many other big problems and will contribute to their solution. Progress could encourage non-zerosum institutions and global cooperation — alternatives to traditional politics and destruction of competitors. However, the spread of knowledge and education is itself a danger and cannot eliminate gaps in wealth and power created partly by unequally distributed heritable characteristics.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The utter, Utopian absurdity of these problems indicates that Cummings is a lunatic, and a dangerous one. These schemes are the stuff that drives communists and their obsession with power. You cannot change 6 million years of Darwinian evolution that has genetically hardwired our politics. You would have to eliminate human beings to do so, and start over with a different animal. Of course, eliminating human beings is what all leftists like Cummings really desire. They cannot bear reality.

    “Our” civilization is really only the civilization of the WEIRD, some 10% or less of humanity. It is likely that it will collapse at some time, and pretty soon if mass migrations from low IQ, illiterate, unskilled civilizations continues.

  2. Kirk says:

    That’s a rambling, incoherent mess of ideas, most of which I’d submit are quite mistaken in both conception and factual reality.

    The root of the problem lies in this general idea that greater social mass and greater size in social structures are either true to human nature, or at all feasible with modern humans. We keep trying to build these massively unwieldy structures, and remain constantly shocked, dismayed, and surprised when they don’t work out over short, medium, or long terms.

    The key thing is right there in the opening paragraphs of this piece, where the author describes the social structures and organizational features of “primitive” societies as being beneath contempt.

    But, see, here’s the thing: Those chaotic and tiny little hunter-gatherer bands of yore are the way we evolved to live, and the exact social structures that took us out of Africa (or, wherever else we might have evolved…) and on to essentially cover the world are what works for humans. These massive, impersonal bureaucracies and inhuman hives are not. Contrast the whole path we took as human beings colonizing the Americas and Australia. Were the forebears of the Amerindian and Aborigine representatives of some vast antedeluvian bureaucracy, working to the orders of some authoritarian priest-king? Or, were they a bunch of small, self-supporting bands of humans who came together as necessary to do big things, like hunt for buffalo and other megafauna?

    The reality is that the big edificial civilization-thingies we’ve become so fond of don’t really work out all that well, over the long haul. Rome and the Ottomans fell; the city-states of the Maya are no longer around, but the Mayan families who built them are still out there on the Yucatan, doing their thing.

    Mass and size are things we don’t do well, when it comes to social structures. It inevitably decays into ossified bureaucracy that can’t adapt, can’t change, and the jobsworthies take over everything. More than likely, the guys who built Angkor Wat could have coped with changing conditions around the city, but the problem was that they were all dead, and the bureaucrats had taken over, who promptly “managed” their civilization to death.

    The human mindset and mental capacity for working within these brobdignagian institutions is simply not there; we build them, but we can’t make them work.

    That being the case, we need to take a look at what does work, on a human scale, and then try to adapt that to how we organize and run our lives. If you go back and look at the various really major things humans have done over the years, the accomplishments that stand out to me are things like taking over the entire Eurasian environment, conquering the Americas, and turning Australia into a human-dominated environment. We did all that without the benefit of a freakin’ “Big Government”, or anything more complex than a hunter-gatherer band for social structure. By comparison, in terms of scale of the project, just about everything else we’ve done pales. Humans were living at the very tip of Tierra Del Fuego, when the “advanced” Europeans arrived, and they were quite happy. How many Europeans would have survived, near-naked, in that environment?

    Hell, Peary had to adapt and adopt most of the technology of the Inuit in order to even be able to do his polar explorations. Think about that for a moment: The most advanced civilization on the planet couldn’t cope with the environment in the Arctic, and then had to copy and co-opt the technologies and life-patterns of one of the most “primitive” in order to simply survive and do some basic exploration of their environment, that they’d been living in for thousands of years without even the rudiments of “big government”. Socially, the Inuit were primitive as hell, but… They adapted and lived in one of the harshest environments on Earth, completely without benefit of “big government”.

    What does that tell you about the essentials of human nature? We don’t do “big” at all well; the Inuit predecessors were in the Arctic and thriving before Rome rose, and weren’t fully replaced until after the Vikings left Greenland to the glaciers. That’s nearly a 2,000-year run of success, followed by Inuit dominance of the region until the early 20th Century.

    In that period, how many “big government” civilizations rose, fell, and left big messes behind, while the Arctic populations just kept on keeping on, tiny little bands thriving in the chaos of the harshest environment on Earth? Did they need “big government” to do that?

    Small, polyvalent and survivable is what we need to be. We’re happiest in that social environment, and I think we’d be better off building out our bigger efforts from these blocks. Instead of corporations, we ought to be focusing on work teams that mimic the ancient situation of the human hunter-gatherer band. The individual anomie and dissatisfaction with life in modern social structures is down, I think, to the isolation and lack of social support. If you were to focus on building effective small structures like work teams, and then built up from those on an ad-hoc basis, you’d avoid many of the perils of the modern mass society. People would be happier, and work more effectively–You’d also do away with the need for much of the HR bureaucracy we seem to be doomed to recapitulate every time things get out of hand, size-wise.

    Instead of building out Empire, I think we’d do better to focus on doing what our ancestors did, and build small effective teams that can come together as needed and then dissolve to repurpose for other projects. Building some huge thing like NASA for one project does not make sense, because concentrating all that power and authority in one place just attracts the wreckers, the careerists, and the mind-numb apparatchik parasites. Better to determine a mission, swarm it, and then dissolve the whole thing once the mission is done to everyone’s satisfaction. The Amerindians did not have some prehistoric NASA-like thing over them all, as they spread out and made the land their playground, exploiting every niche that they could.

    You look at it with the right point of view, and that achievement is truly amazing. And, they did it all as tiny little hunter-gatherer bands spreading out chaotically across the continents…

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Odyssean education is not new. Currently many private schools promote a Classical education that covers all the categories the author mentions. Also what is not new is the effort to educate a class of ‘philisopher kings’ as Plato recommended in The Republic.

  4. Kirk says:

    The search for the ideal “philosopher god-king” is an example of what’s wrong with humanity. There’s a deep need to have a daddy-figure to tell us what to do, instead of standing on our own two feet and figuring it out for ourselves. As the urge for daddy exists, so to does the drive to be daddy for others, in a great chain of codependent bullshit.

    What we need to do is get past this to the next stage, where actual adults with full agency run their own damn lives, and let others the hell alone to run theirs.

    Unfortunately, that’s a long ways off. I’m tired of the infantile children around me wanting daddy to come tell them what to do, what to think, how to think, and I’m equally tired of the asshole wannabe “daddies” who actually can’t manage their own lives to any degree, yet who think they should tell me how to run mine.

    One of these days, there’s going to be some self-appointed “great leader” arise, and instead of everyone falling over themselves to do what he wills, the vast majority are just going to point at him and laugh, going about their own business without paying him the slightest heed.

    At that point, you’ll know we’ve finally matured as a species.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Daddies are for children. When you no longer need an authority figure, you have grown up. If you desire to be a father figure, be sure only to attempt it with children. And remember: the point of childhood is to grow up. Those who display no potential to grow are not children, they are livestock or pets.

    The flip side: never try to interact on an equal basis with those who are not on your level. It just doesn’t work.

  6. Graham says:

    I’d like to support such an education in general terms- I’m never going to argue against classics, humanities or science.

    More conservative types have offered up almost as utopian such schemes in the past to my loose approval, for all that most people would not benefit.

    On the other hand, this one is packaged in the usual flowery, utopian radical way that leaves a foul taste. For me it combines all the downside of the technocrat progressive mind, the ideal of an elite of super progressive tech-enabled strivers saving the world, and the inevitable idealizing of perfect, perfectly formed youth as the people of tomorrow.

    Unless the institution in question is the Battle School of Ender Wiggin, and Earth is actually under threat from alien arachnids, I don’t want any part of such notions.

    Plus Cummings is associated with it. I can’t remember what it was, but I recognized his name from some other nauseating scheme of a few years ago. His name ought to be poison.

  7. Neovictorian says:

    Do you guys have any idea of who Dominic Cummings is? No leftist and no air-headed idealist, that’s for sure. More like “The smartest man in the room.”

    I think all of you above have completely missed the point–in such great detail that I am not even going to attempt a “refutation.”

    The Guardian reported that “Anna Karenina, maths and Bismarck are his three obsessions.”

  8. I’m with Neovictorian on this one. Cummings gives me hope.

  9. Graham says:

    That wiki reminded me of who he was and where I would have last seen references to him [the Brexit referendum campaign], but not of whatever it was that had left me with a bad taste.

    Cummings has clearly been closely linked to objectives I’ve favoured and attitudes I share, and also to attitudes I might not share. He also sounds like a huge, arrogant DB. But an accomplished one.

    So I’ll reserve some judgment until I might remember what it was that bothered me before. For now, I can only say that I wouldn’t really want my own country transformed into a “meritocratic technopolis” any more than a socialist commune or a progressive egalitarian [probably also] technopolis. If those are my only alternatives then I would gladly watch it all fall into the sea.

  10. Steve Hsu says Benedict Cumberbatch did a pretty good job portraying Cummings in the movie Brexit, and that performance alone is pretty cool.

    Hsu befriended Cummings way back in 2014 at one of the Google Summits, and I suspect Hsu is the fellow who put Cummings in touch with other theoretical physicists, whom Cummings famously used to win Brexit instead of political consultants. An endorsement from Hsu carries some weight for me; the guy’s done a lot of cool stuff behind the scenes, so to speak.

    I also found Cummings’ writeup of that weekend (linked below) illuminating of his mindset, especially when you consider the timeline of what he did since. The guy’s desperately trying his ass off to fix the world, and I admire his methods.

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