Bill Gates, the co-founder of the company I work for and a personal hero of mine, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “My plan to fight the world’s biggest problems.” It’s an exciting piece because it ties together several of my recent posts very well.
Science allows us to predict, control, and improve variation in the world. In order to actually make progress to these goals, it’s important to establish exemplars of great work. This is enabled through operational definitions that allow concepts to be measured. The quest for progress in science collapses when measurement becomes too difficult tor too expensive.
But the reverse is also true: progress in science begins when measurement becomes accessible.
Bill Gates’ op-ed is so awesome because he brings us back to the real world. When someone says “science,” others thinks of some cartoon view of men in white coats in a laboratory. When someone says that goal of science is the prediction, improvement, and control of variation, someone else will say that such is a “very narrow definition of science, downgrading as it does understanding and explanation.”
But the person who writes you write like Bill Gates does — who never even bother with the word “science” and hammers in that improvements are real:
Such measuring tools, Mr. Rosen writes, allowed inventors to see if their incremental design changes led to the improvementsâ€”such as higher power and less coal consumptionâ€”needed to build better engines. There’s a larger lesson here: Without feedback from precise measurement, Mr. Rosen writes, invention is “doomed to be rare and erratic.” With it, invention becomes “commonplace.”
In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goalâ€”in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.
This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money investedâ€”and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our sideâ€”but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.
An innovationâ€”whether it’s a new vaccine or an improved seedâ€”can’t have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it. We need innovations in measurement to find new, effective ways to deliver those tools and services to the clinics, family farms and classrooms that need them.
… that’s the sort of person who can make a difference. The theory of science, measurement, and improvement are all left below the surface. What is left is a how-to guide to build a better world.
I write this blog for selfish reasons, I enjoy learning about the world. Bill Gates does what he’s doing to change the world.