Black swans, study trips and predictions

I’ve recently finished yet another book from Schiphol – ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A very funny and witty book it is, it makes you think a lot about the world we live in, and, if you’re me – helps you bring to surface and organise some half-conscious intuitions and ideas you’ve had had long before reading it. Go read it, really – I won’t do it for you.

For the purpose of this text let me just mention that the book is about our (= mankind’s)  inability make correct predictions coupled with insistance of making predictions anyway (and acting on them!). A lot of what we do is made of inpredictable stuff (like nobody predicted the existence of ‘black swans’ before stumbling upon them in Australia), yet many times we collectively behave as if weather, markets and societies were completely predictable. And for the umpteenth time we believe ‘the experts’ whose only ability lies in explaining why what has already happened was really inevitable and why is that that despite their previous predictions having been proven dead wrong we should firmly trust their new ones.

This made me mentally go back to my student times. You see, my university would encourage us to go on ‘study trips’ during the summer. You’d have to find 3 or 4 people interested in the same place as you, then write a research plan and voila – the uni pays for your plane tickets to Iran (or any other place).  There would be no real supervision either during your trip or afterwards. The only obstacle would be to get your research plan accepted, but as the students are usually extremely lazy, there was really no competition either. Just making the effort to write 5-10 pages of ‘project’ would be enough. Nobody’s gonna ask you if you have any prior experience in fieldwork, interviewing people, taking pictures of architectural details, read enough about the problem you’re going to research, know the language well enough to be able to talk to people etc. etc.

Now, I’ve never ever applied for this kind of thing. Not that I wouldn’t want to go, not that I wouldn’t need the money. It’s just I found the idea of writing a research plan troublesome. For the life of me I couldn’t make myself to write down what I expect to learn from the trip (and that’s what the plan was  supposed to be about). If I already know what is there to be found, what purpose does it serve to go there? If I don’t know what is there to be found, how can I predict what would I find? What if I made a prediction but then, out in the field, find a much more interesting topic? Pretending to be certain when I wasn’t seemed beneath my dignity. Silly me.

Of course, for most of the students taking time to apply for study trip funding it was all about having an exotic (and cheap!) vacations, not doing research. Their only worry was to get the money, so their focus was on making the project look good, not make sense. I mean recently I’ve been asked to support (ie. to write “yeah, it’s a great project and you should totally fund it”) such a project – it was about the language and customs of Iranian Georgians, yet they tried to link it to Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Nabucco gas pipeline and whatever else. I asked one of them if they were serious about it and he replied “Absolutely! We’ll be drinking only later, when we get to Georgia”. Sweet.

Anyway, I’d soooo like to see a proper study trip – you know, with a supervisor actually teaching the students how to do research, with the topic of research following up or expanding upon what they had already done in class, with the results being used afterwards (used in class, published)… Above all else – in a controlled, known beforehand environment, not based on ‘predictions’.

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