“Where Good Ideas Comes From: The Natural History of Innovation,” S. Johnson (2010)

Steven Johnson, a Gladwell-esque science writer, recently put out this best-selling book about where inventions come from, an effort I’m glad to see. This site is a not a collection of book reviews, so I’ll reserve most of my comments to those which are interesting to the economic researcher working in this field. That said, I think popular science books should do two things: introduce a handful of stylized facts developed by researchers, and present them in a manner interesting enough for lay readers by using anecdotes, clever stories, etc. This book is good on the second count, but not great on the first. Looking through the (lengthy) works cited, you won’t see Hicks or Griliches or Rosenberg. There are many points about patent trolls, but there doesn’t appear to be any presentation of whether patent thickets actually exist, of how patent races can lead to too much inventive activity, etc. The final chapter of the book contains a small bit of original research, where Johnson categorizes a bunch of important inventions over the past few centuries and finds that many of them are done by groups working in a non-market environment, but there is no further discussion of when markets are useful for inducing invention, when mechanisms like patents might be harmful even if they did induce invention, or which fields are particularly amenable to non-market invention. These are all questions which have certainly been discussed, at length, in the economics literature.

That said, it’s not all bad. The anecdotes are often entertaining, and I learned about a pair of non-economic studies which are certainly worth citing in the future.

First, as I think economists of innovation are aware, the notion of the “heroic lone inventor” is not and has probably never been true. Johnson cites a psychologist named Kevin Dunbar who took lengthy videos of work in actual scientific labs, annotated them, and discussed when breakthroughs tend to be reached. It turns out that lab meetings tend to be the most creative time. In the same chapter, he gives a number of anecdotes along these lines.

Second, Johnson has a chapter on another popular misconception about invention: that it comes in a “flash of insight.” Certainly pieces of the puzzle fall into place through serendipity – penicillin is supposedly “discovered” when a petri dish is left outside and mold grows – but the simple story generally overlooks the years of related research that completes all but the final piece of the puzzle. That is, high energy physicists rarely happen to discover new chemical compounds, and plant biologists rarely stumble onto new option pricing formulas. What’s particularly interesting in Johnson’s book is a study by a historian of science of Darwin’s diaries (or “commonplace books”, the 18th century equivalent of this type of weblog!). Though Darwin claimed in hindsight that certain ideas struck him out of the blue, a reading of his diaries shows that the development of natural selection actually occurred more prosaically: one piece of data here, one thought there, and so on over a decade. This is a good story to bring up when you’re asked why economists “just don’t ask businessmen why they do something,” a critique I’m sure all theorists have heard at some point. The answer is that people often don’t know why, that they misinterpret their own past, that they rationalize, etc., and that all of these problems occur even if people have no incentive to lie, as in the case of Darwin’s autobiographical writing.


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