Monday, March 17, 2008

Tools make the solution

In an example of how tools shape thinking, New Scientist reports on a study where using Mathematica led students to focus on the computational aspects of a problem, rather than trying to understand the underlying physics. (Mark Buchanan, "Physics tool makes students miss the point" 8 January 2008; source paper by Bing & Redish)

Mathematica frees scientists from the drudgery of solving equations by hand - but first you have to devise a solution strategy. Apparently this is a broader problem: automated thinking tools prevent people from thinking about the broader context of the problem they face.

I have to wonder whether the quants on Wall Street (and their bosses) were so wrapped up in their computer models that they didn't think about the underlying risks of sub-prime derivatives, or the moral hazard of decoupling the mortgage reseller from the consequences of a loan going bad.

In a version of "you get what you measure", here "the solution is determined by the tool."

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