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Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society Hardcover – May 1, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


David Brooks, New York Times
“[Manzi’s] tour through the history of government learning is sobering, suggesting there may be a growing policy gap. The world is changing fast, producing enormous benefits and problems. Our ability to understand these problems is slow. Social policies designed to address them usually fail and almost always produce limited results. Most problems have too many interlocking causes to be explicable through modeling. Still, things don’t have to be this bad. The first step to wisdom is admitting how little we know and constructing a trial-and-error process on the basis of our own ignorance. Inject controlled experiments throughout government. Feel your way forward. Fail less badly every day.”

Wall Street Journal
“[O]ffers much to digest.... Uncontrolled is at its most provocative…when Mr. Manzi considers the largely unmet potential of controlled experimentation to improve outcomes in social science and government policy.... A vigorous book, pulsing with ideas.”

Arnold Kling, National Review
“The ideas in this book are important.... This is a provocative book for people who are interested in how social science relates to public policy.”

“One of Hayek’s “old truths” is that individual freedom is an indispensible means to both human flourishing and material progress and that it is threatened by misguided government bureaucracy. We are fortunate to have it restated extraordinarily well in today’s language in.... Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled...His observations offer genuinely original insights into longstanding political and social problems.”

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
“This is a truly stimulating book, about how methods of controlled experimentation will bring a new wave of business and social innovation.”

The American
“This book is one of the most powerful challenges to progressive political impulses I’ve read in a while.”

The New Republic
“In the first two thirds of his book, Manzi describes the historical development of the RFT [randomized field trial] and its philosophical basis, and includes a digression on the philosophy of science. The argument will be familiar to empiricists and philosophers, but it may interest a popular audience, and is well done and readable.... A more ambitious argument emerges in the last part of the book. Manzi argues that the RFT — or more precisely, the overall approach to empirical investigation that the RFT exemplifies — provides a way of thinking about public policy. This is the most imaginative and interesting part of Manzi’s book.”

Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast / The Dish
“It’s a fresh, dense and fascinating exploration of what the policy implications of a true ‘conservatism of doubt’ would mean. I hope it can jumpstart a conservative intellectual renaissance.”

Kirkus Reviews
“A thoroughly argued, powerful study based on principles independent of the author's own conservative-libertarian views.”

Library Journal
“If social scientists entrusted with informing policymakers utilize more experiments, Manzi argues, the policies they create will be more effective over the long term. Simply put, adopting a trial-and-error methodology can help businesses, policymakers, and society as a whole. Backed by numerous pertinent examples, Manzi’s arguments are convincing. Recommended for anyone interested in policymaking or in how businesses make decisions.”

“This challenging book highlights the astounding advances in science and technology that have started to be used in social-program evaluations.”

Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
“If Uncontrolled were merely a restatement of the need for epistemic humility among wonks and legislators, interest in it might be confined to the right. The book is of broader interest, and may turn out to be important, because its author makes a compelling argument for an ideologically neutral method for improving policy, one that left and right might both plausibly embrace, even as it challenges both sides to rethink some of their reflexes.... [Uncontrolled is] the rare political book that goes out of its way to raise the most powerful objections to its arguments and to point out the limits of the reform program that it recommends.”

Kenneth Silber, The Daily Beast
“Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled is an intriguing investigation of the power, limits, and varieties of empirical knowledge.... [A] substantial part of Uncontrolled’s value is in its sharp thinking about how various disciplines seek reliable knowledge.... Uncontrolled offers useful advice for navigating a hard-to-know world.”

Arnold Kling, National Review
“The ideas in this book are important.... This is a provocative book for people who are interested in how social science relates to public policy.”

The American Conservative
“[A]s Jim Manzi persuasively argues in his insightful and well-written new book, Uncontrolled, humanity is terrible at foresight, and trial-and-error is the chief way humans develop reliable knowledge.... In Uncontrolled, Manzi provides an incisive and highly readable account of how trial-and-error experimentation in science and free markets lessens human ignorance, uproots bias, and produces progress.”

Steve Sailer, Taki’s Magazine
“In his impressive first book, Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society, entrepreneur/intellectual Jim Manzi has the makings of an airport best seller in the genre of Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Indeed, Uncontrolled is far more reliable than those two sometimes-dubious tomes.... Uncontrolled offers one of the most lucid and sensible historical overviews of the philosophy of science I’ve ever read.”

Reihan Salam, National Review Online
“[T]he most important book of 2012 (read it now so you can be ahead of the curve).”

David McKenzie, World Bank, Development Impact blog
“[I]nteresting reading.... The lesson of trial-and-error with thousands of relatively low-cost experiments designed to make marginal improvements is one that could be useful in many government bureaucracies (and indeed in our own bureaucracy).”

Gary Gutting, The New York Times, Opinionator, The Stone
“[Jim Manzi] offers a careful and informed survey of the problems of research in the social sciences.”

About the Author

Jim Manzi is the founder and chairman of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company. Prior to that he was a vice-president at Mercer Management Consulting. He is currently a contributing editor at National Review, where he writes about science, technology, business and economics, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and serves on a number of other corporate and non-profit boards. He has also written articles for a variety of political publications including the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic, and Slate. His work is regularly covered widely in the blogosphere, and his articles on why Republicans should acknowledge global warming and “Keeping America’s Edge” have become much-debated “must reads.” He lives in Paris.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046502324X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465023240
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #259,594 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This ambitious book takes an interdisciplinary approach to discuss: (1) the scientific method; (2) why the scientific method cannot be mindlessly applied to any discipline or subject matter; (3) how the scientific method has been frequently invoked, but not effectively applied in the social sciences; (4) the limits of applying the scientific method to develop, test and improve business practices and strategies; (5) why the development and testing of public policy cannot be done within the constraints of the scientific method; and (6) how the inability to apply the scientific method to various subjects does not preclude using non-experimental methods of analysis to study, develop, and test business practices and public policies.

The author's discussion and analysis reflect an intriguing mix of: (a) scepticism about the general applicability of scientific methods to subjects beyond traditional sciences; (b) enthusiasm for encouraging the trial-and-error use of non-experimental methods to tackle business, political, and social issues and problems not susceptible to scientific methods; (c) apparent ambivalence about how to promote a willingness to experiment, engage in trial-and-error projects, and take risks, but still maintain a realistic and humble attitude about the limits of various non-experimental methods; and (d) cautious optimism about the ability of businesses, government officials, and the general public to improve their decision-making and goal-setting efforts.

The author makes a strong and very credible presentation about the limits of the scientific method, and the limited applicability of the scientific method to matters beyond traditional science.
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23 of 30 people found the following review helpful By George Bush HALL OF FAME on May 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Author Manzi tells us that too often we allow policies to be guided by inflexible ideology. His alternatives include software that incorporates the experimental method for guiding business decision-making, and now this book that argues the same methods could be applied to important social issues.

Much of Manzi's material within the book is taken up explaining why simply using historical data, surveys, etc. is inadequate at best, due to the substantial and unquantified impact of factors not included within the 'model.' Similarly, regarding multiple linear regression analyses, the seemingly favorite tool of everyone with access to a computer and SPSS software. (Added problems with regression analysis - the need to incorporate non-linear variables such as binary zero-one to account for the presence/absence of a specific attribute or policy; interactions, and factors better represented as exponential variables, etc.) Thus, Manzi's rationale for instead using controlled experiments.

He cites Capitol One (credit-card firm that reportedly conducts 60,000 experiments/year), Gary Loveman's management at Harrah's Entertainment, and Google's sophisticated programs for evaluating alternative ad wording, etc. Unfortunately, he failed to elaborate on how any of those three leaders have utilized randomized experimentation. 'Uncontrolled' would be stronger if he'd also pointed out that there's a danger in these approaches - simply that the firm/government entity becomes overly focused on incremental improvement instead of breakthroughs.
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Format: Hardcover
In the social sphere, all governments can do is transfer wealth. The underlying question is whether a particular transfer of wealth is a good idea. Because very few government social programs work, the answer is "usually not". Jim Manzi's new book, "Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society" has a detailed discussion of this. Welfare-to-work was one of very few successful government social programs, and now President Obama has gutted it with his waivers.

Manzi says, in part, "But the [Obama] stimulus situation was even worse. It was clear at the time that we would not know which of them [Nobel-Prize winning economists arguing for and against the stimulus] was right or wrong even after the fact. . . The key problem is that we have no reliable way to measure the counterfactual-- that is, to know what would have happened had we not executed the policy-- because so many other factors influence the outcome. This seemingly narrow and technical issue of counterfactuals turns out to be central to our continuing inability to use social sciences to adjudicate most policy debates rationally. This statement is not to make the trivial point that social sciences are not like physics in some ineffable sense, but rather that the social sciences have not produced a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable rules that would allow us to predict the effect of such proposed government programs." Manzi then argues for funding small, experimental social programs with rigorous measurement of outcomes at far lower cost than the current massive social programs that now are failing. That would build a body of data about what works in social programs, and what doesn't, knowledge that we currently lack.

Liberals make an appeal to emotion for their social programs. Manzi is saying that emotion is a poor approach to design and implementation of successful social programs.
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