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Charlie Munger on Avoiding Computers

People calculate too much and think too little.

An anecdote found in Seeking Wisdom, that reminds me of a funny story from university and the use of calculators.

First the excerpt. When asked if he used a computer, Charlie Munger said:

I’m a follower of what I call the Thomas Hunt Morgan school. Morgan was one of the great biologists in the history of the world who figured out a lot of genetics [Morgan established that chromosomes carried the units of inheritance] with very slender resources in a so-called “fly room” – first at Columbia and then at Caltech. And when Morgan reached Caltech, he did something that was very peculiar. He banned the Friden calculator – which was the computer of that age – from the biology department. Everybody else at Caltech used the Friden calculator endlessly for all kinds of statistical correlations and much else. Morgan banned it.

And they asked, “Why are you doing this?” He said, “I’m so located in life that I’m like a gold miner in 1848 who could just walk along the banks of the river and pick up enormous nuggets of gold with organized common sense. And as long as I can do this, I’m not going to use scarce resources in placer mining.”

Well, that’s the way I go at life. I think if you get the big points with organized common sense, it’s amazing the placer mining you never have to do…

But is there still enormous gain to be made with organized common sense that doesn’t require a computer? I think the answer is “yes.” Are there dangers in getting too caught up in the minutiae of using a computer so that you miss the organized common sense? There are huge dangers. There’ll always be huge dangers. People calculate too much and think too little.

OK now the story.

When I was in first-year calculus at university we had a special treat, the Dean of the Mathematics department was teaching our class. On the first day of class, he said that while we could use graphing calculators he discouraged them saying they would ultimately inhibit our learning and lower our grade. No other comments were made all year on this. Well, of course, I disregarded this comment, arguing I was never going to need calculus again, and took the easy way out. When I showed up for the final exam, there was a note on the first page saying “Calculators are not permitted.”