How to solve big problems, and whether to solve them

Wed, 28 Jan 2015 | norman

How to solve big problems

As a software developer, I believe it is important to be able to test any solution to a problem. If you do not test it, how do you know whether you have solved it? If you cannot compare solutions, either quantitatively or qualitatively, your choice of solution cannot be justified. Oh, you can try to justify it. For millennia ideas have been justified with persuasive arguments entirely devoid of actual evidence. It worked great for Plato. But when I say "justified", I mean justified by evidence. Without knowing how to determine success, it is impossible to know whether you have succeeded.

So, first, determine a test. This is not easy, but it is necessary, and in many disciplines often omitted.

Then, either invent an hypothesis, or choose an existing hypothesis. This is the fun part. This is the part that we tend to talk about to friends, and get excited about. This is the bit that we write papers on, or blog about, or legislate, or write on banners and shout from soapboxes. I don't think this step is new to anyone.

But the last step is probably the hardest: Come up with a political or economic or business model for getting the solution implemented, and execute it. Because if you don't have a mechanism for changing the status quo, it's unlikely to change.

These steps apply to economics, philosophy, politics, and any field that can have solutions that apply to people.

I would love to help you with the last step, but I am no good at it. Even some of the world's most influential people have struggled to implement the things they wanted to change. Of the three, the last step must surely be the hardest. I think the best that most of us can do is add our voice to a crowd. And if that crowd doesn't yet exist, then you have to shout really loudly.

Whether to solve big problems

For people without the financial or political means to implement solutions or bring about change, it might be better to be a good parent and to work hard at a fulfilling and socially impactful career, than to be a mediocre parent, a mediocre professional, a mediocre blogger, and a useless activist.

In other words, maybe I should shut up about ideas that I am never going to follow through on, and focus on the few areas where I might actually make any kind of difference.

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