After I finished The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, I thought of something a graduate student in English had told me: A little Derrida goes a long way and a lot of Derrida goes a little way. It was literally true. A few sentences by Derrida, you could think about for days, maybe productively. A whole book by him was baffling and irritating. A lot of Jeffrey Sachs goes a little way, I thought.
When it came out (2005), I thought The End of Poverty by Sachs was the ravings of a lunatic. Munk’s book shows I was right but I had to admit that George Soros giving Sachs $100 million or whatever to put his ideas into practice (to “test” them) was considerably more interesting than the activities of the other billionaires Munk had written about before Sachs. Soros had an advisory board whose reaction to Sachs’s ideas was the same as mine but Soros overruled them. Soros was right. A tiny bit was learned from spending all that money, which is better than learning nothing. Certainly I learned more than if the money had been used to buy a private jet.
As an assistant professor doing animal learning experiments, I saw over and over that it was incredibly hard to learn anything. Anything. No doubt all science professors who are honest learn this. But then I saw something that is less easy to see: If doing the “right” thing pays off worse than we expect — Sachs’s flamboyant failure in Africa is an example — then doing the “wrong” thing should pay off better. If spending an enormous amount of money we learn less than expected, then when we spend very little money we should learn more than expected. This is the upside of ignorance. The less you know, the easier it is to learn more. And we know much less than famous professors, such as Sachs, say we know.
My personal science is the polar opposite of what Sachs did. He tried to help others (poor Africans), I try to help myself. He tries to help people he knows almost nothing about, I try to help myself — and I know a lot about myself. He tried to do something big (end poverty). I try to do something small (e.g., sleep better). What he did cost millions of dollars. What I do costs nothing. I can test a new idea about how to sleep better in days. Sachs took years to test his ideas. For me, failure costs almost nothing. Sachs’s failure cost him years of his life. You have to be an extraordinary person with great talent to do what Sachs did. Whereas anyone can do personal science.