Econtalk: Patrick Collison on Innovation and Scientific Progress

Full podcast here

  • This conversation is based on an article Patrick wrote about the pace of innovation: Science Is Getting Less Bang For Its Buck [0:54]

  • The hypothesis that the data strongly supports is that the rate of progress is declining very rapidly on a per person, per hour, and per dollar basis. On an individual basis our productivity seems much lower[6:53]

  • What is the world going to look like in 100 years? In 1000 years? I think the single most important input into that prediction is what is the aggregate rate of progress in science going to be between now and then? [8:51]

  • I encourage any listeners to read this paper Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?[18:38]

    • The central conclusion is that not only is per person and per dollar productivity declining but that it is declining exponentially. This should be at the very least thought-provoking for us and I think moreover quite concerning. [19:04]

  • We do know that the number of working scientists has increased enormously. I think a valid question to ask: for that increase have we gotten a proportional increase in the rate of discovery? That should not be a hard question to answer. [29:02]

  • How we produce knowledge today... how our scientific industrial complex works is not optimal. [36:16]

  • If you read the biographies of those that have made some of the most important breakthroughs -there is a freewheeling nature to them that seems far less prevalent today. [41:41]

  • I do wonder if groupthink has become more potent over the last few decades. [44:53]

  • It is certainly not obvious that we do have 100 Shakespeares today. But if we take a broader view that Shakespeare was an entertainer - it is not clear to me we don’t have 100 Shakespeare’s. Think about digital artists, YouTube stars, video game designers, funny twitter accounts. Of course most of these things don’t have the luster and status that Shakespeare now holds but that takes time. Status always lags. [55:33]

  • Not only is it potentially the case that some kind of committee might not have been willing to take a bet on Stripe - it WAS the case that most such committees we approached [VC firms] were extremely unenthusiastic about the prospects of two near teenagers entering the financial industry. They told us in no uncertain terms that they thought the idea was pretty foundationally ill-conceived. [1:04:30] 

  • It was only because of a couple of specific individuals - Paul Graham and Peter Thiel - who were willing to place that bet. If that had not happened there would be no stripe. Our success was sufficiently implausible. [1:04:48]

  • A great screed against monoculture: Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed [1:10:19]