All Big Questions Or None?

As an intellectual, should you tackle big or small problems?  You might think you face a trade-off: since big problems are harder, you should either tackle many small problems or a few big ones.  You could invest in learning a tool-set for tackling a long stream of similar and moderately important problems, or you could learn everything about a particular very important problem in the hopes of finding a solution.

In fact, however, the folks I’ve known who focus on big problems usually try to tackle more problems than those who tackle small problems!  I’m guilty of this, as is Steven Landsburg, who takes on twenty big questions in his latest book, The Big Questions. It seems that most intellectuals either refuse to engage big questions, or they have a life-long quest to personally answer all big questions!  Many of the later are embarrassed to hear of a big question they have not pondered.  Why?!

One might argue that there are two basic intellectual strategies, focusing on something particular, or looking for connections between varied things, and that the connection strategy is more likely to lead to big innovations.  But even if true, this doesn’t justify trying to tackle specific big problems, much less all of them, rather than just telling folks about the connections one finds.

My guess is that there are two key kinds of intellectual status; one goes to those who make any clear contributions whatsoever, no matter how trivial, and the other goes to those who can talk thoughtfully about a wide range of big topics, even if they make no progress on them.  Far too little status, relative to the effort required, awaits those who actually make progress on big questions, which is why so few folks focus on big questions.

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  • Anthony

    Coming from a technical field, Richard Hamming wrote a pretty long article on exactly this question called “You and Your Research”.

    My personal conclusion is that (at least for my particular field, experimental computer science) our current system provides poor incentives to work on big problems. In Operating Systems, an average paper requires 2-5 man years of work, so most students will only get a chance to publish one or two before graduation, since they will also spend time taking classes and helping out their more senior students with their papers. Big problems are usually more difficult and require more time, either on the thinking or on the implementation. So if a student decides to gamble on a big problem, they will probably be putting all their eggs in one basket, and end up looking for a research/faculty position with only one paper, when the average successful candidate has three. And since it was a tough problem to begin with, it’s likely they will fail. So overall, attacking a big problem is not the path to a tenured faculty position.

  • Chris T

    It could be that most of the big questions (I’m a little curious as to how you differentiate between big and small questions) have a large set of potentially valid answers and intellectuals like problems that have only one valid answer that they can demonstrate.

    Other questions may have a single answer, but no way to determine it (ie: Does God exist?).

    • Doug S.

      It’s as easy to determine the answer to the question “Does God exist?” as it is to determine the answer to the question “Does Santa Claus exist?”.

  • Robert Koslover

    In regard to what deep questions one should attack, allow me to paraphrase the guidance I received from a very practical professor back in graduate school: “Can you get it funded?” Heh! Of course, there is more to the question than that… but perhaps only a little more!

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I was just watching a video by the world’s most renown intellectual Noam Chomksy and I noted his speech crossed political science, economics, sociology, history, and mentioned several disparate ‘facts’ in each of these domains. The key to being persuasive seems to be to have an argument that is irrefutable, because no fact is essential, and they are so disparate facts no one can refute a significant proportion of them definitively. That is, appearing to have a fusillade of facts is very persuasive, and Chomsky has suggests many. So, the big issue (eg, anarcho-syndicalism?) is promoted via zillions of supporting facts. The big pitch hidden behind a million little assertions. The big question is really a lot of little ones.

  • Robert Ayers

    A few years ago, I corresponded with the late Bohan Paczynski, an astronomer at Princeton. He told me (I paraphrase from memory) “My secret for success is to find and work on the easy problems. Everybody else is drawn to the hard problems.”

  • Adam

    “and the other goes to those who can talk thoughtfully about a wide range of big topics, even if they make no progress on them.”

    On a personal note, when I was a graduate student in a cognitive science program, I found myself becoming this guy. I loved being in grad school, and going to seminars and talking and debating issues, and reading widely in computer science, psychology, anthropology and neuroscience. But when it came time for me to do my own research I really struggled to find tractable questions that I could make progress on. So, after I got my masters and left ABD. Robin, can you offer any advice to those who are in this second category? Is it possible to have a successful academic career following this path?

  • Maybe it’s all about evolutionary psychology. It makes evolutionary sense that there should be some genetic variation that leads to some people caring more about broad social status, and others caring more about social status within their narrow circle of peers. The intellectuals who care about broad social status will compete to be the big decisionmakers and thought leaders, the ones who care about narrow social status will be the technocrats whose ambition is limited to informing the thought leaders. That way the technocrats don’t waste resources competing with the thought leaders and would-be thought leaders.

    So, maybe it’s no more cosmic than just that you and Landsburg are genetically predisposed to want the respect of the whole world. Whereas, someone like a nerdy econometrician is genetically predisposed to want the respect of people like you, Landsburg, and other nerdy econometricians, but not to really care about the respect of people beyond that.

    If something like that is the case, the right question might be a little different. It’s not so much, which questions should you tackle conditional upon the fact that you are intellectual? It’s more, should you identify as an intellectual conditional upon the kind of questions you would be predisposed to then want to tackle?

  • There is a short review of The Big Questions over at Marginal Revolution. I have only read a part of the book yet, but it’s very easy to understand (even I do, I hope) and features some interesting thoughts. Steven Landsburg seems to be arguing in terms of the Mathematical universe hypothesis throughout the book. The basic tenet seems to be that mind is biology, biology is chemistry, chemistry is physics, physics being math. Mind perceives math, thus the universe exists physically. Erase the “baggage” and all that’s left is math. There has been a really nice plain English description of this idea being posted on recently. Though everybody who has read Greg Egan’s Permutation City is already familiar with it.

    Anyway, Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests another, supposedly much better book, all about big questions:

    Gary Drescher’s “Good and Real” is an example of this sort of Deep Book done right. Landsburg seems to make a lot more errors – like he tried to write Good and Real but failed.

    More here: Good and Real – Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics

    And here is an interesting exchange on between Steven Landsburg, author of The Big Questions, and other members.

    Another book concerned with big questions might be Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons that I came across by this blog post.

    • The interesting exchange between LW and Steven Landsburg seems concerned with whether arithmetic is more complex than a squirrel 🙁

  • Oh and what came to my mind about big questions. Are not all questions big questions?

    “If any one of you will concentrate upon one single fact, or small object, such as a pebble or the seed of a plant or other creature, for as short a period of time as one hundred of your years, you will begin to perceive its truth.” – Gray Lensman

    “One of your very early philosophers came to the conclusion that a fully competent mind, from a study of one fact or artifact belonging to any given universe, could construct or visualize that universe, from the instant of its creation to its ultimate end…” – First Lensman

  • David Brown

    “Far too little status, relative to the effort required, awaits those who actually make progress on big problems …” In mathematics, a big problem might be the Riemann Hypothesis (RH). Partial success related to RH seems to have paid off for many mathematicians, but a huge amount of failure might underly such partial success. In theoretical physics, the problem of unifying quantum field theory and general relativity theory has paid off for many researchers in M-theory. The greatest mavericks in such unification attempts might include Fredkin and Wolfram. Is the problem that the judges of the greatest paradigm breakers must necessarily be paradigm upholders? Also, do the would-be paradigm-breakers tend to be megalomaniacs or obsessive/compulsives who never know when to give up?

  • Anthony, yes current academia has poor incentives for working on big questions, and Robert and Adam agree. This makes it all the more the shame that when people choose to ignore academic incentives and work on them anyway, they waste their efforts spreading across too many big questions.

    Eric, yes, that suggests (similar to Quiet’s thought) that we are primed to be persuaded by those with broad intellectual status – apparently that was more the kind of smarts our ancestors wanted to see from their thought leaders.

    • michael vassar

      Reality isn’t separated into disciplinary boxes. Historically, to what degree have the people who made the most progress on big questions specialized?

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  • a friend

    Robin, you’re looking in the wrong direction. The goal of your intellectual project is to achieve a certain social status? No.

    Why do different people perceive society as demanding different things from them? Because people use their their imagined picture of society to their own unconscious ends.

    The question of where to focus intellectual efforts is an ethical question of fundamental importance. (Which does not mean it has anything to do with other people.)

    This is the most important thing you’ll read all spring. Reread it.