The horse-sized duck: a theory of innovation, individuals and society

post by Dominik Tujmer · 2020-04-02T18:52:31.733Z · score: 11 (9 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

Who would win: a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses? This age-old question which has occupied the intellect of professional shitposters already has an answer in this video of three football players defeating 100 children ( - the answer is definitely the horse-sized duck!

However, I want to provide another argument in favor of this idea by examining ancient Mesopotamia. If the last couple of sentences seem completely insane to you - theory of innovation, horse-sized ducks, and Mesopotamia - I invite you to keep reading because it will soon start sounding relatively sensible!

So, off to Mesopotamia. You live your everyday life, work in a garden, trade goods with your neighbors, marry, have children, and then you die. Pretty much the same as today. Not so for one odd Babylonian. Meskalamdug from Sumer - his friends just call him Messi - does his share of work, but his social skills are terrible, he never "gets" anyone or their jokes, and he gets weird and obsessed about the most random things, like the number of grains of wheat spilled on the floor, or the amount of time you can hear an echo if you drop a stone in the well.

One day, Messi stays awake late. The sun has set and the stars are visible. Messi lies on the floor and ignores his mother calling him home. He watches the stars and starts seeing shapes. That thing looks like a bear. And that other thing looks like a small bear! And there is a snake too! He gets excited about it and tells everyone in the village, but they just ignore him, like the village idiot he is. Animals in the sky? Yeah, sure. Messi, however, remains interested in the shapes of the stars, and continues watching them every night.

Many years pass, and Messi is a grown man now. He has been drafted into the Babylonian army. His regiment participated in a battle somewhere far away, got separated from the rest of the forces, and now Messi and several of his companions are wounded, tired, and utterly lost. It's night and the stars are visible. Messi explains to the rest of the group that he knows how to get back home by watching the stars, and, out of pure desperation, they reluctantly follow his lead. They get home! The villagers are happy! How did you find your way back, they ask. Well, that's kind of a funny story...

Some people still think Messi is just an idiot who got lucky, but a few others look into what he is talking about. He explains to them that, every night, all the stars are the same and that you can see shapes if you look really hard. He explains how different shapes move, and points at a star which never moves. Their families and neighbors mock them for listening to a blundering idiot, but they manage to ignore the shame and go watch the stars every night.

Years pass. Messi is now an old, dying man. He has no children and has few belongings. However, the children of those who listened to him now continue to watch the stars, and, in several generations, the knowledge about the animals and shapes in the sky spreads throughout the region, from village to village. Soon, traders and soldiers and travelers alike start watching the skies and developing a navigational science, a science based on stars, astronomy.

I don't know if this is a true story. I might be completely wrong - maybe the discovery of astronomy was a group endeavor from the very start: a great team self-assembled to unravel the mysteries of the night skies. However, I find it more plausible that it went on like this. It's easy to see how constellations make sense when you already know about them, but if you imagine a world where constellations aren't already known, they are not obvious to discover. The transfer of knowledge is easier than the discovery of knowledge.

I would bet that it took one "autistic" kid to see random shapes in the sky before it came to widespread use. After proof that it actually works, others would have started using this knowledge, and only then would teams assemble and perfect and categorize and record this knowledge. But it all probably started with one low-status neuroatypical who saw something where others saw nothing. One horse-sized duck, more effective than a hundred duck-sized horses.

My general theory of history is: it took extraordinary individuals to find solutions, and ordinary individuals then popularized these solutions. Fire, the wheel, agriculture - all of these are obvious when you already know about them, but if you don't, they are not obvious solutions to your problems! The success of our species is built on two things: cooperating and imitating the discoveries of rare individuals.

Dividing people into extraordinary and ordinary sounds very 18th century, especially when there are really no clear differences or ways to figure out who's who. A more precise distinction is one between ordinary people and lucky people. Ordinary people have ordinary levels of luck. In some areas, they're good, in others, they aren't. A priori, everybody is ordinary. Being ordinary is the default mode of being human. Lucky people, on the other hand, are distinguished from ordinary people by a particular stroke of luck which leads to a discovery like astronomy, or fire, or the wheel. Lucky people may be born with a particular architecture of mind, one which makes them obsessed over something that's not particularly interesting to most others. Or they might be really ordinary in all internal respects, but find themselves in the right place at the right time, and they figure something out.

Alan Turing was lucky in the first way, in the sense that he had the great luck to be born with a type of mind that was really good at understanding structures and at solving extremely difficult puzzles. And he was also lucky in the sense that he was in the right place at the right time - many things in the universe had to come together just right for him to make his impact. Then again, if you read on how he ended up, you wouldn't call him lucky - in fact, he was the opposite of lucky. It is the rest of us who are lucky that a particular brain-architecture named Alan Turing managed to find itself in Britain in the early 20th century.

So the theory is messy in wording, but sensible in meaning: we should take great care of our freaks and misfits. True random discoveries really are random and we can't do much about them. But we can build institutions that allow weirdos with strange obsessions to work on their obsessions. This is similar to what Freeman Dyson talked about when he called for building scientific communities which welcome unfashionable pursuits - you don't know where the gems lie, but you can try to find them by allowing smart "misfits" to work on their obsessions:

I am grumbling because I do not think the fashionable stuff ought to be a hundred percent of what we do here. The fashionable stuff is useful and important and exciting. We can be proud that our young people do the fashionable stuff and do it well. We can expect that a majority of them will always prefer to do the fashionable stuff, for reasons which I understand and respect. I am only saying that we ought to have room here also for a minority who do not do the fashionable stuff. We ought to seek out and encourage the rare individualists who do not fit into the prevailing pattern. We ought to bias our admission of members a little towards unorthodox and unconventional spirits. If we here do not give the practitioners of unfashionable science a home and a place to work, who will?


We ought to give greater attention and greater support to unfashionable research. At any particular moment in the history of science, the most important and fruitful ideas are often lying dormant merely because they are unfashionable.

This problem is a part of a larger set of problems, one discussed by Samo Burja in his recent article:

It is no victory for free society that a small segment of the online commentariat are right when all major institutions are wrong. Their prolific tweets are evidence that society has failed to harness their capacities, leaving them misapplied and our elites adrift.
Amateur analysts kept busy at fake jobs where it is possible to tweet all day represent astronomic waste. While they proved prescient, they are structurally locked out of the information and decision loop of all U.S. government agencies. PhDs, MBAs, law degrees, and fellowships have been selecting against their kind for decades. The media are no kinder to them when they run for office.

Even though he talks about the response to the current COVID-19 crisis, this problem extends to more than just this pandemic: capable individuals working on interesting things are not harnessed enough in our societies. It is wasteful to let their interests and capabilities wilt away. They are billion dollar bills lying on the street, waiting to be picked up.

There is an entire game-theoretical analysis to be made as to why people go the mainstream, credentialed or neurotypical route. Whatever the solution is, the key ingredient will be bravery - at some level, someone will have to dare to be unconventional.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-04-03T23:10:34.446Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

First, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the idea of "be a nerd even if it doesn't pay off in your lifetime because it will make society better". That said, I think it's all the more reason to be skeptical about the argument here.

Just to zoom in on one thing, I doubt the story you tell about the discovery of astronomy. As you say, it's illustrative and not historical, but there is some historical and anthropological evidence about this, and I'm not sure your story is very believable against that evidence. Skimming the book at that link and knowing as a general prior that humans tend to overfit data (i.e. find patterns in everything), it would be surprising to me if it took some special person with special skills to produce the sort of basic astronomy you're suggesting. If anything, I'd expect humans to rapidly reinvent astronomy based on noticing patterns in the stars and seeing them as representative of animals, plants, etc. if you wiped the memories of every human living today and asked them to start over from scratch.

You then go on to say some things about bravery and working on neglected topics that might turn out to be hits, but this seems to have nothing to do with neurodivergence other than a kind of backwards causation where neurodivergent folks are more likely to work on neglected things, but not because they are neglected but because the space of things one might care about is wide and someone who isn't interested in popular things will most likely not accidentally land on caring about a thing that is incidentally popular.

So overall I'm not convinced that your arguments hold up for saying anything more than that there is value in being brave and working on neglected things if you have good reason to think they are important or because you are pursuing a high-variance strategy; the rest is just incidental.

comment by Viliam · 2020-04-02T22:59:16.860Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes I get an impression that people on autistic spectrum "have outlived their usefulness" (TV Tropes) from the perspective of the society. There was a time, not that long ago, when normies didn't care about computers, because using them required esoteric knowledge of things such as binary numbers, and they didn't care about internet, because it was mostly a way to interact with people who cared about these esoteric things. To become good with computers, you had to spend a lot of time studying obsessively something that didn't have much value in the eyes of most people.

Then it became common knowledge that IT is where the money is, and also working with computers became easier. Suddenly people with no intrinsic interest in esotetic knowledge started paying attention to IT. And now you have students of computer science who freely admit that they actually don't like programming and consider it boring... but they are willing to do it for money (because presumably all other jobs are boring, too).

The weirdoes became a minority in the field they have created, and the social norms are turning against them. Caring about the craft already became low-status; if you care about clean code and algorithmic complexity, you are obviously not paying attention to the larger picture i.e. the buzzwords the management is most happy about recently. There are not enough resources to do anything properly (although there sometimes are resources to do the same thing over and over again as the old solutions keep falling apart under their technical debt). The social skills are more important than the technical ones. Even in open source people are kicked out of projects for being bad at political games.

Of course, there is a value in social skills, and there is a harm in excessive weirdness. People can have long unproductive wars about minutiae of formatting the source code. Lack of communication within the project can waste lot of resources. Documentation sucks when it is written by people who hate talking to others. Introducing social skills to the project should be good... if we could keep the balance. If the people with social skills could respect the people with technical skills, and vice versa. But it seems to me that after the initial resistance is broken, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, and suddenly we have a formerly nerdy profession where people are regularly reminded that nerds suck.

Normie-ness is a positive feedback loop; the more normies you have, the greater the pressure to eliminate the non-normies. People with better social skills will almost by definition succeed at pushing the narrative that what we really need is to give even more power to people with social skills. And when things start falling apart, instead of shutting up and fixing the code, more and more meetings are scheduled, because for a normie, talking endlessly is the preferred (and the only known) way to solve all problems.

To some degree, this is not as bad as it sounds. Software is easy to copy. You could have 99% of software projects completely dysfunctional, and the remaining 1% would still move the planet forward. Similarly, you can have million anti-vaxers, but as long as you have one Einstein, science can still move forward. One person doing the right thing is more important than millions wasting time, if the solution can be copied.

But ultimately, the resources are scarce, and the people pretending to care are competing against the people who actually care. When you get to the point where the Einstein can't get a job, because he is outcompeted at every position by people with better social skills, then -- unless he is independently wealthy (but how could he save for early retirement if he can't get a good job?) or he has a generous sponsor (but here he also competes against people who have better social skills) -- he will not be able to work on his theory of relativity. And if only 1% of programmers care about clean code, you won't get clean code in 1% of projects; it will be much less, because most projects are developed by teams, and you would need a majority of the team to actually care.

comment by Roko Jelavić (roko-jelavic) · 2020-04-02T19:30:20.738Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lucky individuals often find something which has a long inference chain. Not a one-step improvement to existing theory, but many steps further. To the experts, it may look like a few new steps, combined masterfully. To the non-expert, they may need to learn about 100 new concepts for it to make sense. That's why 100 non-experts can't just invent general relativity, they need to take a 100 steps, 1 step each, but all in the same direction.

comment by khafra · 2020-04-03T15:01:04.556Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How many dimensions is inference space? How many duck-sized horses do we need, to have a 2/3 chance of taking those steps? And are they being modeled as duck-sized monkeys with typewriters, or are they closer to a proper mini-Einstein, who is likely to go the correct direction?

comment by korin43 · 2020-04-02T19:26:44.823Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like Patreon is sort-of fixing this, at least when the thing people are obsessed with is interesting enough.

comment by FactorialCode · 2020-04-03T20:42:56.764Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But we can build institutions that allow weirdos with strange obsessions to work on their obsessions.

I suspect this is far easier said than done and that for various reasons any such institution is unstable. Either it will fail to produce anything, in which case it will die out. Or it will become extremely successful and then get co-opted and by agents who enforce conformance norms. I don't fully understand why this is the case, but I suspect it's because conformance norms are an excellent way for people to coordinate, establish and maintain power.