Failure Studies

Every once in awhile, an established social scientist proclaims the need for a new interdisciplinary approach to solving the world’s most pressing problems. This week’s entry comes from Tyler Cowen, writing with Patrick Collison. Their objective? Progress Studies.

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

There is a lot going on here. The simple response is the tired “yes, Tyler” response that I suppose that most people currently employed in disciplines like political science, economics, public policy, sociology, operations research, business, history, classics, etc. will have upon first read of this Progress Studies manifesto. The big questions they have identified—why did great civilizations emerge when they did and where they did? Why did the Industrial Revolution start in northwest England? Why is Silicon Valley in California? How do you train brilliant people? What incentives are appropriate for joint effort?—have been asked and answered across the disciplines, literally for centuries. We do not lack for theories or evidence on these questions.

Maybe a slightly deeper response would be to focus on their call for a discipline of Progress Studies (if not departments of Progress Studies). What would a discipline do that the eclectic mix of interdisciplinary approaches—which is, of course, the status quo—does not? The answer is not clear, because Collison and Cowen probably haven’t thought seriously about what it means to be a discipline. Here is a clue: the word discipline ought to be taken rather literally, as a way of thinking that “disciplines” inquiry and exploration. One does not generate a discipline like economics by saying “somebody should study how markets work! Our discipline will study how markets work.” One creates a discipline by specifying a set of tools, methods, or procedures through which to study markets. Samuelson, not Smith, created the modern discipline of economics as we know it. (My guess is that Collison and Cowen don’t really mean a discipline, just something more like interdisciplinary centers or programs.*)

But a third response might be to question the very premise that we need to study progress. My only-slightly tongue-in-cheek response is that the most pressing task is not how to create progress, but rather how to prevent failure. By “failure,” I mean economic, social, or political forces that destroy the social bases of human flourishing. The question of why Rome fell is at least as interesting as how Rome rose; the problem of how to stop global warming is more important than the problem of generating another Silicon Valley in Singapore. I would suggest we inaugurate instead the discipline of Failure Studies.**

There is, after all, a school of thought that believes that predicting, organizing, or incentivizing radical innovations that transform the human condition is impossible. That school does believe, of course, we can try to set up rules to prevent us from stagnating or destroying what we’ve created.


* Read: “fiefdoms.”
** Or: Centers of Failure Studies.