Optimization Pro and Con

Written by: Paul Rubin

Primary Source: OR in an OB World

A tweet by Nate Brixius (@natebrix) led me to read the article “The Natural Order and Divine Order of Optimization” published by the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, a rebuttal/counterpoint to a New York Times Magazine article titled “A Sucker is Optimized Every Minute“. The former sings the praises of optimization (somewhat) and the latter vilifies it (somewhat).

As someone whose research focuses on optimization, I’m generally in the pro camp, but I’ll concede that it can be overdone. One of my favorite quotes is of rather fuzzy provenance. I’ve seen variations of it from multiple authors, phrased as a monologue by, variously, a Zen master, a playboy or a dying man (but not, so far, a dying playboy Zen master). The version I recall:

I had my chances to marry, but I was looking for the perfect woman. Then one day I found her; but she was looking for the perfect man.

Optimization is fine for some things, inappropriate for others, and (like everything else in life) not a good idea if taken to an extreme.*

* I’m rather proud of myself that I resisted the nearly-inevitable “extreme point” pun there.

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I'm an apostate mathematician, retired from a business school after 33 years of teaching mostly (but not exclusively) quantitative methods courses. My academic interests lie in operations research. I also study Tae Kwon Do a bit on the side.

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