The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk

After I finished The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, I thought of something a graduate student in English had told me: A little Derrida goes a long way and a lot of Derrida goes a little way. It was literally true. A few sentences by Derrida, you could think about for days, maybe productively. A whole book by him was baffling and irritating. A lot of Jeffrey Sachs goes a little way, I thought.

When it came out (2005), I thought The End of Poverty by Sachs was the ravings of a lunatic. Munk’s book shows I was right but I had to admit that George Soros giving Sachs $100 million or whatever to put his ideas into practice (to “test” them) was considerably more interesting than the activities of the other billionaires Munk had written about before Sachs. Soros had an advisory board whose reaction to Sachs’s ideas was the same as mine but Soros overruled them. Soros was right. A tiny bit was learned from spending all that money, which is better than learning nothing. Certainly I learned more than if the money had been used to buy a private jet.

As an assistant professor doing animal learning experiments, I saw over and over that it was incredibly hard to learn anything. Anything. No doubt all science professors who are honest learn this. But then I saw something that is less easy to see: If doing the “right” thing pays off worse than we expect — Sachs’s flamboyant failure in Africa is an example — then doing the “wrong” thing should pay off better. If spending an enormous amount of money we learn less than expected, then when we spend very little money we should learn more than expected. This is the upside of ignorance. The less you know, the easier it is to learn more. And we know much less than famous professors, such as Sachs, say we know.

My personal science is the polar opposite of what Sachs did. He tried to help others (poor Africans), I try to help myself. He tries to help people he knows almost nothing about, I try to help myself — and I know a lot about myself. He tried to do something big (end poverty). I try to do something small (e.g., sleep better). What he did cost millions of dollars. What I do costs nothing. I can test a new idea about how to sleep better in days. Sachs took years to test his ideas. For me, failure costs almost nothing. Sachs’s failure cost him years of his life. You have to be an extraordinary person with great talent to do what Sachs did. Whereas anyone can do personal science.

8 Responses to “The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk”

  1. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    I think I’ve previously posted a comment on this subject, but I’m excited about a new charity called “Give Directly”. This organization has the radical idea that you can alleviate poverty by giving away money, with no strings attached.

    Here’s a recent article from Forbes magazine:

    Give Directly’s Breakthrough ‘Free Money’ Model Grows As Evidence Mounts

    Give Directly has an extremely simple model – find poor people and give them money. That’s it. It’s a radical idea which sometimes rubs people up the wrong way – a popular refrain is, won’t people just drink the money? But the program, which gives extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda $1000 split over two payments and transferred by mobile phone, is gaining ground thanks to the data it’s gathered backing up its claims. [...]

    The system works by removing the usual arbiter, an NGO, and putting money straight into the hand of poor people to spend on whatever they want. Faye hopes the approach will make donors think about more about giving to non-profits – will they do more good with the money then the poor could do themselves?

  2. MJB Says:

    “I saw over and over that it was incredibly hard to learn anything. Anything. No doubt all science professors who are honest learn this.”

    I remember a Richard Feynman video where he said the same thing.

  3. Seth Roberts Says:

    “I remember a Richard Feynman video where he said the same thing.”

    That’s interesting! I do not remember Feynman ever talking about this. Can you remember the video?

  4. aretae Says:

    “I saw over and over that it was incredibly hard to learn anything. Anything. No doubt all science professors who are honest learn this.”

    This also was the line I was going to comment on…but I see it’s also been noted by MJB.

    “We’re wrong a lot” is at this point the center of my epistemology. You say it very well here.

  5. Valerie Says:

    I think I saw the same video with Feynman. He was commenting on nutrition science, how the so-called knowledge on nutrition was not solid, the scientists behind it had not done the hard work that is needed to truly figure things out.

    In a related vein, I sometimes see professors who publish several articles per year, or a few hundreds over their careers. I have a very hard time imagining that they have a significant contribution to make to science (the criteria to have an article published, I was told in graduate school) several times per year, or a few hundred times during their careers. As a professor yourself, what do you think happens? Do you believe those publications are honestly meaningful? Did all the authors really contribute?

  6. Cliff Styles Says:

    That last paragraph is the pithiest summary of your thinking, and nails why I keep coming back to your blog. It may be the most important paragraph I will read this year, I am passing it around to everyone I can think of with my evaluation attached. It’s a Seth Roberts coda, at the end but not an ending.

    Seth: Thanks, Cliff, that’s nice to hear. Yes, this blog is a long exploration of that point of view. If I had to do it all over again, I would have named it Personal Science.

  7. Seth Roberts Says:

    “As a professor yourself, what do you think happens? Do you believe those publications are honestly meaningful? Did all the authors really contribute?”

    I believe that the distribution of progress per article follows a power law: A very large fraction of articles contribute very little (make little or no progress), a very tiny fraction of articles make great progress. I also believe the same distribution holds for individuals: If someone has written a hundred papers, and you measure how much progress each paper made, the distribution of those measurements will follow a power law. The problem is with the SLOPE of that power law distribution (relatively flat slope = high average progress per paper, steep slope = low average progress per paper). I think there are aspects of the system, especially the pressure to publish, that make the slope steeper (= reduce average progress per paper).

  8. John Smith Says:

    My Take:

    We learn almost automatically that which is stored in our DNA. In other words, what our parents knew, we can pick up on without effort. So we unfold as we grow into adults just as a blow-up Santa Clause does on Christmas Morning.

    But beyond that, we have to work at it, as in learning what other DNA strings know, and there is far too much of that for us to ever take it all in. So we specialize and avoid all information not relevant to our specialty.

    Once all that has been rummaged through, we are in very creative territory, and only when we are aware of the question will we pick up on the answer. This may take much pain and suffering to attain. This is why two people hearing the same lecture pick up on different points. Unless we are ready to take on new ideas, they will just float on over our heads.

    Usually the answers to the ‘exotic’ questions will be obvious in ancient texts but having been committed to maxims and clichés are usually ignored. There is nothing new under the sun, only new ways to express the same form.

    In effect we can learn as much as we are willing to.