Gustavo Ballvé on February 17th, 2010
Corporate Strategy, Food for thought, Home, Mental models, Science

There was a very interesting if somewhat lengthy article in Piauí Magazine (in portuguese) about how a great mathematician is “forged”. One of the things that stands out from the text is the multidisciplinary approach to knowledge/ scientific discovery. And once you think about it, it’s also about the relentless quest for developing not just a team’s “toolbox” but also one’s own.

In this debate, one aspect appears overlooked: communication. If you don’t have the adequate communication policies/ environment, how does one reap the rewards from all this multidisciplinary goodness?

Again, the article stands out in its own but it made us think of the multidisciplinary approach “debate”. One should always try to build teams with this in mind, looking for complementary skill sets/ experiences/ backgrounds. Nothing new there. But please bear with us as we follow the “links” this article made us follow.

The diversity prediction theorem by Scott Page states that:

“Collective error = average individual error – prediction diversity” (as stated in Michael Mauboussin’s Think Twice, Chapter 3, page 46)

Some types of problems are better suited for experts and some for “crowdsourcing”. Either way, the theorem above applies. For instance, when diversity doesn’t improve the odds of solving a problem, you can focus on decreasing the first part, i.e. decreasing average individual error or, if you prefer to see it this way, increasing “ability”, as Mauboussin calls it.

But if you think proactively and seek counter-evidences and multidisciplinary approaches yourself, it’s as if you’re increasing the “diversity” part of your own expertise/ skill set/ tool set. At the very least, you could become less prone to fall into the traps of biases and etc.

In the book, Mauboussin recommends reading Scott Page’s book (“The Difference”) and his own text on the subject.

A review of “The Difference” at the Crooked Timber blog mentions in the 8th paragraph the problem with one of the assumptions of the diversity prediction theory (just to be clear, Mauboussin deals with it in his book): it assumes that the diverse crowd interacts/ communicates in a way that the diversity “bonanza” can take place. As we all should know given a certain degree of experience, that is often far from reality.

Another approach to the same problem was discussed by Julia Kristeva: “One cannot be an amateur, or decide one day ‘Let’s be interdisciplinary’. A university may decide to develop in that direction, but what matters is that each researcher finds and establishes some complicities with other researchers so that interdisciplinarity comes from the base of the pyramid and works its way up. One can only benefit from interdisciplinary practices if researchers meet other researchers whilst learning how to discuss both their competencies and the outcome of their interaction; therefore contributing to the exposure of the risks inherent in an interdisciplinary practice… the first obstacle is often linked to individual competencies coupled with a tendency to jealously protect one’s own domain. Specialists are often too protective of their own prerogative, do not actually work with other colleagues, and therefore do not teach their students to construct a diagonal axis in their methodology.”

Any investment professional worth his salt should always take steps to address this, and this blog is part of these efforts.

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