Reason Writers Around Town: Ronald Bailey Reviews Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled


Experiments are the only way to reliable knowledge

Jim Manzi is a founder and chairman of Applied Predictive Technologies, a business analytics consultancy, and an editor at National Review. Ronald Bailey reviewed his new book, Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society for The American Conservative magazine. From the review: 

Human beings crave certainty. Throughout history, assorted shamans, haruspices, auspices, astrologers, sibyls, kaballahists, pyromancers, Hegelians, Marxists, palmists, tarot-card readers, stock chartists, and computer modelers have made good livings off of the apparently limitless market demand for more certainty and reduced risk. But as Jim Manzi persuasively argues in his insightful and well-written new book, Uncontrolled, humanity is terrible at foresight, and trial-and-error is the chief way humans develop reliable knowledge.

Manzi begins with a telling example from the beginning of his business-consulting career. A retailer wanted to know if extensive plans to remodel its stores would result in enough profits to justify their costs. Young computer whiz Manzi crafted a complicated model taking factors like consumer research and competitive benchmarking into account and with great pride presented its output to a senior partner. The partner listened and then responded, "Okay, but why wouldn't you just do it in a few stores and see how it works?" Manzi confesses, "This seemed so simple that I thought it couldn't be right." This encounter turned out to be the beginning of wisdom.

In Uncontrolled, Manzi shows how applying randomized controlled trials to business problems has worked to increase profits and improve processes. He advocates doing the same thing to government programs to sort through failed social policies to find those that work. Bailey applauds the idea, but has some public choice concerns about how government experimentation would work out in practice. 

Go here to read the whole review.