The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking | The New YorkerTheory-free advances in pharmaceuticals show us that, in some cases, intellectual debt can be indispensable. Millions of lives have been saved on the basis of interventions that we fundamentally do not understand, and we are the better for it. Few would refuse to take a life-saving drug—or, for that matter, aspirin—simply because no one knows how it works. But the accrual of intellectual debt has downsides. As drugs with unknown mechanisms of action proliferate, the number of tests required to uncover untoward interactions must scale exponentially. (If the principles by which the drugs worked were understood, bad interactions could be predicted in advance.) In practice, therefore, interactions are discovered after new drugs are on the market, contributing to a cycle in which drugs are introduced, then abandoned, with class-action lawsuits in between. In each individual case, accruing the intellectual debt associated with a new drug may be a reasonable idea. But intellectual debts don’t exist in isolation. Answers without theory, found and deployed in different areas, can complicate one another in unpredictable ways.