Why Old Wisdom Matters

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As a result of the kind of serendipity that Twitter at its best can bring, I found myself this morning reading an article titled “A Zero-Math Introduction to Markov Chain Monte Carlo Methods.” Heady stuff to start the day, I know. Here’s the opening paragraph that greeted me after I clicked:

For many of us, Bayesian statistics is voodoo magic at best, or completely subjective nonsense at worst. Among the trademarks of the Bayesian approach, Markov chain Monte Carlo methods are especially mysterious. They’re math-heavy and computationally expensive procedures for sure, but the basic reasoning behind them, like so much else in data science, can be made intuitive. That is my goal here.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s exactly what I was thinking at that point too:


The article had lots of charts, and reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s insightful book, Fooled by Randomness, so I pressed on. What has me mentioning all of this now (because I know you’re asking yourself…) is this:

That is an example of a Galton Board, which is a device named for the 19th Century English scientist Sir Francis Galton. Through its use of balls, pegs, slots and the resulting bell curve at the bottom, this simple contraption elegantly illustrates a counter-intuitive fact of life:

At scale, seemingly independent and randomly occurring events conform to a discernible pattern over time.

This is why the events of human history appear cyclical, whether it is the rise and fall of empires, the growth and recession cycles of economies, or the “hype cycle” of new technologies. It is also why large scale human behavior can be charted and predicted (hello Big Data!) even as individual human behavior is impossible to predict with any more accuracy than random chance. The truth of the aphorism “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it” is not due to some fatalistic determinism running the universe. Instead, it is in the recognition that history tends to repeat its patterns, and will continue to do so without intentional intervention. Think of George Santayana’s quote as an invitation to interfere with the way history’s Galton Board works.

This fact of life is why old wisdom matters. Reading the insights of those who walked before us is valuable even though the circumstances of their lives were so different because the pattern of life they dealt with may be the same one we are facing now. This is why the Old Testament is worth reading even though its setting is a pre-modern, patriarchal culture very different from our own. This is why the philosophies of Aristotle, the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the speeches of Frederick Douglass are worth reading. It is even why reading about corporate organizational leadership from the prehistoric days of 1982 is still worth doing.

New ideas are always needed, and breaking away from the straight jacket of conventional thought is a noble endeavor. But, let us not forget the value of old learnings. While the particulars of this modern life are galactically different from the ones faced by those who came ages before us, the patterns of their lives and ours are not so different.