Between Theorists and Empiricists

Image Source: Caleb Jones on Unsplash 


It seems to me that the central distinction in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering – Bomber Mafia – is that between theorists and empiricists. To boil it down to a binary choice is of course an oversimplification, but it is one that helps frame the difference between Hansell and Le May, the two figures from either camp who loom large in the book. At stake here, as it turns out, were the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who met a fiery fate in the aftermath of extensive fire bombings, topped off by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hansell, we have the theorist who believed against the evidence – or bad luck – that precision bombing was the way to execute a war that limited deaths. Le May on the other hand comes across as an empiricist who allowed the evidence lead him down the paths it did, albeit with disastrous outcomes for those concerned.

Outcomes and motivations differ for the theorist and the empiricist. The theorist is wholly concerned with what might be  possible – subject to the constraints of his/her field (eg  Theoretical Physicists who come up with all sorts of currently unfalsifiable claims ) – as opposed to the empiricist or experimentalist who is concerned with finding evidence to prove or disprove the grand, elegant notions of the theorist.

If one accepts that the empiricist follows the evidence down a path that leads to a real world impact and desirable outcomes, there looms the question of what constitutes a good outcome. Is the loss of thousands of lives a good outcome if they are the lives of the enemy/ the other rather than ours? Is a good outcome measured in monetary terms, or is there a way to value non-physical outcomes? These are questions I do not think the theorist worries about too much, existing – at least to me – in that rarefied space of thought.

As I plod along, firmly ensconced in mid-career engineering, these distinctions are ones that weigh heavy on my mind, as they have the potential to inform what steps I take next. I am truly at a cross roads of sort  – the question being whether I follow the head into theory or the heart into real world applications.