Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stephen Jay Gould

Lets consider a passage from Stephen Jay Gould:

Q: In your book you examine the inability of baseball players to hit .400 anymore and argue that it's because hitting has improved.

A: The overall batting average has been about .260 throughout the history of baseball. But the variation around that average has shrunk. It's at least plausible that variation declines because play improves. A batting average is a comparison between hitting and pitching. So if everybody's improving, as long as they improve at the same rate, the batting average will remain constant. But it gets to the point where everyone is so good that there's just not much variation anymore. Hitting .400 in baseball is a good example because there's a "right wall," if you will, of human limits. Given how our muscles work, there's just so much that the human body can do. There will always be a few individuals who, by dint of genetic gifts and obsessive commitment and training, will stand close to that right wall. That's where Ty Cobb was in 1911 and where Tony Gwynn is today. But there is this limiting wall. What has happened in baseball is that all aspects of play have improved enormously. Back in 1911, average play was so far inferior to where Ty Cobb was that his batting average could be measured as .420. Today, Tony Gwynn is just as good, maybe even closer to the wall than Cobb was. But the average player has improved so much that Gwynn's performance -- equal to or better than Cobb's -- is not measured as high.

We can see that innate ability played a much larger role in baseball's past because the difference between the gifted player and the average player was so great but, since training techniques have improved as has our baseball farm system, the ability of the average player rivals the ability of the player with innate ability.

This is analogous to what I saw occurring in the sciences the only problem is what constitutes training techniques for the mind? This is not to say there are no gifted people for there are people who have an innate ability to work in certain fields but, what I am saying is that just like sports we can improve our ability to perform in a certain fields with proper training. This has been given empirical backing in the August 2006 issue of Scientific American:

Scientific American

This also does not imply we should not encourage gifted children to develop their abilities, for just as in sports children with innate abilities should be encouraged throughout their lives to reach their maximum potential. People also have to realize that gifted children do not necessarily become gifted adults, because by the time they reach adulthood many of their "average" cohorts have also improved their abilities. One only need look at the New York Times Article:

Prodigy Puzzle

The problem is that groundbreaking ideas don't occur in a vacuum, what good is it for Barry Bonds to hit a homerun (with no one on base) if the Giants are down by 5, for all his innate talent you need the entire team to perform to win a game. I believe the same thing occurs in science, much of the time ideas that advance a field dramatically are the culmination of years of research, and without that research groundbreaking ideas are not possible.

Newton's laws of motion were possible only after Descartes proclaimed only material causes may affect material objects. In fact the entire idea of Physics as a separate science was only made possible after Aristotle defined its boundaries. Calculus was made possible only after both geometry and algebra were well established. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity could only be rigorously formulated after Tensor Calculus was developed, which by necessity required Newton's or Leibniz's formulation of Calculus. Without the prior developments, Newton or Einstein would have to develop the entire background knowledge necessary before they could even think of formulating their ideas correctly.

Besides background knowledge one also needs the "right" ideas, this is where individual creativity and thought comes in. If one reads the above article "Prodigy Puzzle" one finds that neither William Shockley or Luis Alvarez were deemed prodigies yet both won Nobel prizes, while none of the Termite protege's won a Nobel. This goes to show that sheer intelligence does not a Nobel Laureate make, one needs ideas, especially the "right" ideas.



Post a Comment

<< Home