Sunday, 18 May 2014

Is there really such a thing as 'low hanging fruit'?


It was only after I started getting interested in intelligence research about seven years ago that I heard the phrase 'low hanging fruit' being used as an explanation.

The first time was, indeed, a suggestion that the field of intelligence research itself was full of low hanging fruit - easy pickings - because most people were too afraid to work in the field.


Since then I have been hearing the phrase more often, especially as a way of explaining why scientists in the past seem to be so much better than scientists nowadays.

The implication is that the breakthroughs of the past were more frequent because the problems were easier to solve and the answers were more obvious, whereas nowadays it is supposedly harder to make breakthroughs than in the past because the problems are much harder...

Or, to put it another way, the 'low hanging fruit' notion assumes that it is easier to make significant breakthroughs when the field is new, virgin territory, unexploited - supposedly breakthroughs are simply waiting there to be 'plucked' by the first person who stumbles upon them.


The 'low hanging fruit' argument is built on many assumptions - most of which are false.

1. That creativity is relatively common.

2. That creative ability is constant across time, place and circumstances.

3. That history is progressive (assuming that modern people and circumstances are overall 'better' than those of the past).  

4. That an analogy of creativity as picking fruit makes sense.

I disagree with all of these. 


To decide whether people of the past were (as people) better, worse or the same at making creative breakthroughs it is necessary to understand creative breakthroughs.

This means that we must study creativity - via history and biography and acquaintance with creative people - and understanding creativity requires some minimal level of creativity otherwise it could not be recognized.

But my judgement is that 1. creativity is rare - and even mundane levels of creativity are uncommon.

Furthermore, 2. there are many eras, places and circumstances when creativity is apparently absent. And 3. there is really nothing to suggest that creativity is progressive, and the amount of it accumulates through time within any culture - rather creativity seems to come in blips - in creative eras whether shorter or longer, and then may disappear. 


But my major disagreement regards the nature of the creative process itself, and the cognitive difficulty of making a significant breakthrough.

Most people are not creative, and few people have struggled to solve a problem for more than a few minutes (and that includes nearly all so-called 'scientists' - who simply get their problems from other people and try to solve them by following recipes).

Experience and knowledge of creative insight and invention makes it clear that breakthroughs are very very hard to achieve.

The simplest breakthroughs (i.e. simple in retrospect) are, in fact, by far the hardest to make - as should be obvious from the fact that despite the simplicity of the solution, nobody had actually made the breakthrough!

And, the more (potentially) important the breakthrough is, the bigger the difference between the difficulty of solving the problem and the ease of understanding and using the solution.


The best and most important technological breakthroughs have often been astonishingly simple - once achieved. Things like the spade, bow and arrow, wheel, arch. We know of  cultures that failed to discover these for centuries - yet as soon as they were discovered they spread 'like wildfire'.


The pattern of creativity is that it is very hard to discover things; yet sometimes very easy to understand, use and exploit them after they have been discovered.

Therefore it is clear that creative discovery is nothing like picking fruit!


Indeed, experience suggests that creative people who have themselves experienced creative science will never dismiss past breakthroughs as 'low hanging fruit'.

To regard the simple, major work of the past as akin to plucking low hanging fruit is, indeed, evidence of either an uncreative mind (such as the vast majority of people have) or a potentially creative person who has not yet actually achieved anything creative.

It is okay to speculate about whether or not major breakthroughs of the past were analogous to 'easy pickings' - a matter of scooping-up goodies that were just waiting to be gathered by the first person to stumble-upon them - but anyone informed and competent will swiftly conclude that the 'low hanging fruit' explanation is arrogant, blind, complacent, foolish nonsense.



Thursday said...

1-3 are irrelevant. Even if they are all true, that doesn't mean the low hanging fruit analogy is false.
4. The analogy means the easier (though this does not mean they are easy) problems will get solved first, which is just common sense.

All of this means that it is very difficult to disentangle the causes of a decline in new discoveries.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th "1-3 are irrelevant. "

that should be rephrased as your not (yet?) understanding their relevance - because they are in fact a *major* reason for the LHF write-off. Many modern people simply cannot accept - a priori - that we are less able than previous generations. To believe we are less smart and/ or creative strikes at the very root of their world view.

"the easier (though this does not mean they are easy) problems will get solved first, which is just common sense."

But that isn't what LHF people are actually saying - they are saying that a problem which seems easy in retrospect and after it has been solved was (therefore) easy.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

No, "easier" problems most certainly do not get solved first! (Can you give even a single example of that ever happening in the history of science?) Very difficult foundational problems have to be solved before it is even possible to approach most of the "easier" ones. The vast majority of "easier" problems are easy only within the context of a conceptual and/or technological framework which has already been constructed by the creative geniuses of the past.

pyrrhus said...

Our backward looking evaluation of how "easy" a problem was to solve cannot mean anything, since we won't understand the context. Indeed, the most fundamental problem of creativity may well be to recognize that there is a "problem" to solve, rather than a resulting invention.

James Purcell said...

The development of calculus in the late 17th and early 18th century would be good example of how the LHF assumption is deceiving,take for instance Leibniz's Transcendental law of homogeneity,it looks very simple and quite understandable,but the metaphysical assumptions are revolutionary and not obvious at all.I personally think that only highly intelligent societies with a deep intellectual and philosophical tradition could reach this level of sophistication.

Karl said...

I can't recall any complaints by Newton about Copernicus or Galileo or Descartes or Kepler having stripped the orchard of the low-hanging fruit. Newton's similes were the child gathering pebbles by the seashore, and most memorably, standing on the shoulders of giants.

terry fraser said...

I am glad you made the comment about low hanging fruit and that there is creativity needed in the aspect rather than just being easier because of the field being new.