Monday, July 27, 2015

Playing Chess with the Devil

I love this quote (with my amendments for economists)  from the NY Times article about Terrence Tao. 
The true work of the mathematician economist is not experienced until the later parts of graduate school, when the student is challenged to create knowledge in the form of a novel proof piece of research. It is common to fill page after page with an attempt, the seasons turning, only to arrive precisely where you began, empty-handed — or to realize that a subtle flaw of logic doomed the whole enterprise from its outset. The steady state of mathematical economic research is to be completely stuck.
It is a process that Charles Fefferman of Princeton, himself a onetime math prodigy turned Fields medalist, likens to ‘‘playing chess with the devil.’’ The rules of the devil’s game are special, though: The devil is vastly superior at chess, but, Fefferman explained, you may take back as many moves as you like, and the devil may not. You play a first game, and, of course, ‘‘he crushes you.’’ So you take back moves and try something different, and he crushes you again, ‘‘in much the same way.’’ If you are sufficiently wily, you will eventually discover a move that forces the devil to shift strategy; you still lose, but — aha! — you have your first clue.
That's pretty much how I feel about research. Another analogy is that research is like solving a Rubik's Cube: You're about to put the last piece in place and you find you have to go back 25 moves and start over.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Settle for Lipsey's second best theorem (hehe)

  3. What strikes me about the story of playing chess with the devil is its strong similarity with the tatonnement process that Nick Rowe uses to explain the Woodford-Garcia slides. While it's a nice way of showing how economic research is done it seems doubtful as a theory for how inflation expectations come into existence.

  4. Roger, I'm neither a mathematician, an economist nor a scientist (I'm an engineer).

    But I'm surprised that you don't think science isn't a better analogy than mathematics for the field of economics. After all science is the use of inductive logic and observation to create accurate approximate models of objective reality, whereas mathematics is purely axiomatic and deductive and doesn't necessarily have anything at all to do with objective reality.

    Supposedly economics is trying to find true claims about objective reality, right? Just like science? ;^)

    1. Tom
      I'm sure that the natural sciences are the same. I see 'playing chess with the devil' as a metaphor for the creative process. As for the subject matter of economics: yes -- we are on the same page.


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