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Friday, 10 December 2010

Copernicus, Muddling Through

Revolutionary Ideas

The story of how Nicolas Copernicus overturned centuries of dogmatic adherence to an Earth centred cosmos is well known – too well known, perhaps. Copernicus’ ideas didn’t come out of the wide blue yonder in a sudden revelation; they arose out of the careful work of earlier scientists, paving the way for his final proposition.

Although our preferred methods of storytelling give preference to dramatic tales of sudden jumps the truth is nearly always much more gradual. Just as in science, corporations and industries tend to change slowly. Generally when they don’t there’s something either badly wrong or about to go badly wrong. We’re usually at our best when we’re incrementally muddling through, not trying to re-invent the world anew.

Circularity in Motion

Perhaps the oddest thing about the heliocentric model of the universe propounded by Copernicus is that it actually gave worse results in terms of prediction than the ones it superseded. The problem lay in the nature of the orbits around the sun that he chose for the planets: circular, as ordained by the followers of the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras when they weren't dreaming up annoying rules about right angled triangles. It wasn’t until that maverick genius and mystic Kepler stumbled upon the idea of elliptical orbits that the model became a genuine improvement upon its predecessors.

Although the placing of the Earth at the centre of the solar system was the main and original problem, the other was this insistence that all motion had to be pure and therefore circular. This led to the problem that the planets, as seen from the Earth, would sometimes start going backwards. If you believe that the Earth is stationary and the planets are rotating about it you’ve got a struggle to explain this peculiar backward behaviour. It’s for this reason the Greek for planet means “wanderer”.

In reality, of course, it’s caused by the Earth moving faster than, say, Mars and overtaking it. In order to explain this while keeping the Earth at the centre of the cosmos and retaining circular motion the Greeks scientist Ptolemy came up with a fabulous system of epicycles where the planets, while orbiting the Earth, would move in little circles of their own, so that sometimes they’d appear to be moving backwards even while orbiting our planet.

Wobbly Equants

Unfortunately as more and more details of the Solar System became apparent the system of epicycles became more and more fantastic as ancient astronomers incrementally added more complexity to explain new observations. In particular, to the annoyance of scholars everywhere, some of these epicycles had to be off-centre, an issue known as the “equant problem”, which ruined the idea of perfect circular motion in favour of a set of wobbly planets gyrating in a manner akin to a Hawaiian dancer.

Although the Copernican system cut through this complexity it couldn’t entirely banish epicycles, because it retains the use of circular orbits. Still, it did remove equants and hence make a generation of anally retentive astronomers very happy. Despite – and perhaps in spite of – these issues the Copernican system is a remarkable achievement and, from our vantage point, looks like a revolutionary jump.

Incrementally Muddling

The reality, of course, is almost certainly somewhat different. It looks very much as though Copernicus drew, incrementally, on the work of a group of Arabic scholars who’d already overcome some of the major issues associated with the Greek model – while managing to introduce their own significant errors. Like the rest of us Copernicus was muddling through, by drawing on the lessons of the past to invent the future. This paper on Copernicus and His Islamic Predecessors by Jamil Ragep gives an overview of the subject:
“Clearly there was more to the Copernican revolution than some clever astronomical models that arose in the context of a criticism of Ptolemy. There also needed to be a new conceptualization of astronomy that could allow for an astronomically-based physics. But there is hardly anything like this in the European tradition before Copernicus. The fact that we can find a long, vigorous discussion in Islam of this issue intricately-tied to the question of the Earth’s movement should indicate that such a conceptual foundation was there for the borrowing”.
Big Bang Banished

The idea that changes generally don’t happen in a Big Bang and, rather, are developed in smaller steps each building upon the other was outlined back in the 1950’s by Charles Lindblom who was interested in how administrators formulated policies. He contrasted this process of “muddling through” or incementalism by relying on the information that the administrator knows about with a broader and more general approach that sees them investigate all possible approaches and theories. Shockingly – at least to many contempories – he suggested that the former was a much more likely – and much more practical – method for proceeding.

When Lindblom returned to the topic in Still Muddling, Not Yet Through in 1979 he argued:
“Many critics of incrementalism believe that doing better usually means turning away from incrementalism. Incrementalists believe that for complex problem solving it usually means practicing incrementalism more skilfully and turning away from it only rarely”.
Now the Big Bang approach ought to be familiar – it’s the old idea that we take every piece of data into account when making a decision. Although behavioural psychology has now kicked this effectively into touch its successor, which argues that we try to do this and fail on account of bounded rationality – i.e. insufficient brain power – changes almost nothing. Incrementalism, though, accords rather closely with the ideas of satificing which we described in Satisficing Stockpicking.

Grand but Incomplete

Lindblom argues that we must always proceed on the basis of incomplete knowledge and that it’s better to accept this and move forward incrementally than it is to try and make big changes on the same basis: for however much information we acquire we will never acquire enough. Moreover he adds that this is often accompanied by “partisan mutual adjustment” – the process by which many people collaborate in a fragmented way such that it’s often difficult to figure out who decided what and why. Generally we can’t even decide how decisions are made, let alone why we make them.

It’s for these reasons that we should beware the politicians and business leaders who offer us fabulous new beginnings and grand visions. The truth is that these approaches will inevitably lead to unintended consequences; we cannot possibly judge the outcome of big changes. All too often those corporations that set out to re-invent themselves fail, with humbling results.

Build, Don't Destroy

Where change does work is if it’s done in small, manageable steps leading to measurable improvements. By focusing on details rather than visions and incremental changes rather than epoch defining business re-engineering the very best corporations can effectively continually re-invent and rejuvenate themselves. The future is most effectively built on the achievements of the past, not on its ruins. As Lindblom points out, philosophers of science:
“Have been revealing that in their scientific work scientific communities themselves characteristically practice both incrementalism and partisan mutual adjustment, though by other names”.
Which, of course, brings us back to Copernicus, incrementally building upon the work of various Islamic astronomers who’d successful devised ways of “fixing” Ptolemy’s nasty off-centre circles. This is, in truth, a much more likely scenario than this obscure Polish cleric suddenly having a Eureka! moment. Of course, it’s also a much less satisfying story: but when the aged astronomer is reputed to have received the first print of his revolutionary tome on his deathbed, do we really need more?

Related Articles: Satisficing Stockpicking, John Kay's Obliquity, Behavioral Finance's Smoking Gun


  1. I view the Shiller model (Valuation-Informed Indexing) as a revolutionary advance over the Fama model (Buy-and-Hold). But I agree with the point made in the article that it is best to move forward slowly and incrementally. We never know what we do not know and we never know as much as we like to think we do.


  2. The mention of Jamil Ragep's paper is misleading.