Why It’s So Hard To Take A Punt

Pritpal S Tamber

January 15, 2017

A scramble of inter-related thoughts on why it's so hard to take a punt these days

I have a scramble of inter-related thoughts.  

First, I’m reflecting on an article that reminded economists that theirs is a field of social science, not natural science. They need to remember that by bringing uncertainty back into how they think and predict, and to be explicit about that uncertainty – especially with journalists.  

This makes me think of medicine. It’s a social science, not a natural one and yet we’ve become accustomed to the idea of precise knowledge. We need to stop kidding ourselves and return to embracing uncertainty, especially when it comes to social influences on health and sickness.  

This requires punting, taking a stab at stuff and seeing what happens. Somehow I’ve come across two articles about alchemy, the first (not online but in the beautiful Alpine Review issue 3) mentioning that Sir Isaac Newton looked into it as hard as he looked into what became physics and the second specifically about Sir Newton and how he punted on three fronts: physics, alchemy and theology.  

So we need to punt and we need the resources to punt.  

Money is a key resource. I feel that innovation in the U.K. is stifled by (among other things) a seemingly fully-developed social welfare system that effectively crowds out new thinking. The US doesn’t have such a system and it also has a significant amount of philanthropic capital, which resources social innovation in a way the U.K. can only dream of.  

The problem, however, is that how that money is being spent is increasingly shaped by the ideologies of the people that made it. This is well-argued in a piece in Social Stanford Innovation Review that argues that, increasingly, philanthropic capital is being used to “disrupt”, whereas perhaps what it should do is support public systems that have evolved through a democratic mandate.  

Ideas are another key resource (ones that underpin new practices, especially). However, as Robert Rowland-Smith argues (also in The Alpine Review), ideas seem to have become “content”, pre-packaged, consumable, competing for attention, less food for thought and more hard templates that others are asked to follow. 

The Innovation Unit in the U.K. argues that the rising need for mental health services is partly because we don’t make the space for new ideas, including making the time to come up with them. The view that a few experts can dream them up is plain wrong. Health is a social science, as I said, so there needs to be an inclusive process of collaboration that surfaces new ideas to punt on.  

Overall, I’m wondering about how we can punt. We need to re-embrace uncertainty, have an inclusive process for new ideas, have the space for those ideas to genuinely evolve, rather than be pre-packaged templates, and less ideological capital for exploration.  

I sense that I’m suggesting the impossible.  

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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