Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Musing on the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect is simultaneously the greatest indictment of efforts toward systematic and sweeping change and the greatest tribute to human nature.  It is an indictment of systematic efforts because it tells us that most things will not work as well as the pilot projects that had passionate people involved in something that they truly believed would work.  It is a tribute to human nature because it tells us that if people think they're doing something that matters they'll do better.

The "selfishness" of virtue

In Chapter 8 of Part 2 of Volume 2, de Tocqueville notes that Americans of that time were quite adamant that ethical behavior was in their self-interest.  To a large extent that is obviously true.  A reputation for honesty, for instance, can serve one well in the long-term.  However, when we go beyond mere honesty to benevolence, I'm not convinced that virtuous behavior will always overlap self interest.  To be fair, de Tocqueville doesn't make such an assertion, he merely remarks that Americans were public and vocal in their insistence that virtue served self-interest rather than being a thing that is good in its own right despite the cost.

I think of this in debates over what academic merit and accomplishment really mean.  We know that measures of academic accomplishment track with measures of advantage in life, and to the extent that academic accomplishment is the path to many opportunities for advancement this is a self-sharpening effect of advantage or disadvantage.  One remedy embraced by some is to question how much academic accomplishment, by whatever measure, really matters.  If the question is whether a particular measure is flawed or inadequate, I'm inclined to say that the answer may often be "yes."  If the question is whether academic accomplishment is of huge importance in non-academic pursuits, I think the answer is obviously "Often not."  But if the question is whether a track record of academic accomplishment is of any relevance for success in further academic endeavors, well, would you hire a sales manager who's never sold anything?  One needn't think that academic accomplishment is the only thing that matters in academic endeavors in order to agree that it is at least a significant thing.

However, if we were to say that academic accomplishment does matter but we are nonetheless extending people an opportunity because they accomplished less but they accomplished it under trying circumstances, we would be saying that we are acting out of benevolence rather than self-interest.  There is certainly a way in which openly proclaimed benevolence can be obnoxious, but one could make a simple statement of values and leave it at that, and be honest without blowing trumpets over their benevolence.  However, many academics don't want to do that.  They don't want to admit that they compromised for benevolence, so they instead claim that their stance is both self-interested and enlightened, and then proceed to pat themselves on the back for it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I will show you fear in a handful of books

In Chapter 15 of Part 1 of Volume 2, de Tocqueville takes on a surprisingly elitist tone.  It's a short chapter, just a couple pages on why the classics are so important to read (mostly because democracies aren't producing anything of equal worth, in his view), and near the end he writes something that evinces a surprising fear of over-educating the masses:
A persistent education in the classics alone, in a society where everyone was always struggling to increase or preserve their wealth, would produce very sophisticated but very dangerous citizens; for their needs would be prompted every day by their social and political state, which their education would never satisfy, and they would disrupt the state in the name of the Greeks and Romans, instead of enriching it with their industriousness. 
It is clear that in democratic times, individual interest, as well as the security of the state, insists that the education of the masses should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary.
Greek and Latin should not be taught in all schools; but it is important that those destined by natural endowment or wealth to cultivate or appreciate literature should find schools where they can achieve complete proficiency in classical literature and deeply imbibe its spirit.  A few first-rate universities would be more effective in reaching this goal than numerous poor colleges where badly taught and superfluous studies obstruct the establishment of necessary ones.
I find it interesting that he thinks a liberal arts education would produce a class of unproductive agitators.  I could make a number of jokes about activists at this point, but they are a very distinct minority of the liberally educated, and many of them come from classes that would probably get a liberal arts education regardless of how public policy structured the education system.  From the standpoint of protecting the system from its discontents, I do NOT see a liberal arts education as a threat to public order.  If anything, when I look at mobs flocking to dangerous populists I kind of wish somebody would hand them a book.  For that matter, when I look at academic scientists buying into the latest fads and Right-Think, I wish that they too would pick up a book published more than a few years ago and actually read the whole thing, not just the excerpt published at Salon or Huffington Post or Slate or some other site frequented by Right-Thinking People.  (Notice how in one paragraph I managed to take swipes at the kids supporting Bernie Sanders, the Respectable Liberals supporting Hillary Clinton, and the yahoos supporting Donald Trump. My disdain for people is nothing if not universal.)

On the other hand, I've said many times that making it an imperative to hand diplomas to more people is a dire threat to the academy.  We will be destroyed not by the uncredentialed but by the uneducated. If people are not in a condition to be educated in the liberal arts and sciences or the advanced technical fields then a more pedestrian vocational track would be more advantageous for  them and for the academy.  The academy would be freed of the burden of trying to credential the unteachable and they would be able to go forth and get gainfully employed sooner rather than later.

More importantly, while my take on things may seem very elitist, a more robust foundation for an egalitarian society would be built in several layers over multiple generations.  Move people from low-skilled service jobs to higher-skilled service jobs that they can obtain with a year or two of post-secondary education, and let them save enough to get mortgages, so that the family builds up some assets.  Then focus on moving some portion of the next generation to four-year degrees, and some fraction of the generation after that to professional and graduate degrees.  That's not to say that an individual should be restrained from jumping ahead of that gradual curve, but public policy should focus on gradual progress so that there are multi-generational foundations.  My great-grandfather came here on a boat from southern Italy*, my grandfather was the exception who got a college degree while his siblings ranged from high school drop-outs (not a badge of shame back then, and not a barrier to middle class comfort and respectability), my mother also got a graduate degree, and I got a graduate degree.

My take on all of this is that it's probably in the material interests of most people to encourage a vocational path, but liberal education is NOT a threat to public order.  de Tocqueville over-states his case.

*The very fact that my family is considered "white" these days is a fascinating window into American cultural evolution.  Poor, dark-skinned Catholics speaking a Latinate tongue and adhering to a macho Mediterranean culture were not always considered "white."  It is rather bizarre that my family is considered respectably white while the people crossing our southern border are considered something else, despite their remarkable similarities to southern Italians.

de Tocqueville on questions of science, science and progress

Chapters 10 and 15 in Part 1 of Vol. 2 of Democracy in America have some points that I find particularly worthy of using as a lens for modern academia.

In Chapter 10 de Tocqueville argues that a more egalitarian society will be a more economically competitive one (on this point I completely agree with him) and thus people have less of the leisure time that is so necessary for intellectual contemplation, insight, and advancement.  He thus argues that democratic societies will make most of their advances in the applied sciences rather than the basic sciences.

I partly dissent, and not because the second half of the 20th century saw such great scientific advancement in the US in spite of being a time of comparative economic equality and rising racial equality.  The middle of the 20th century was something of an anomaly in US history, with great prosperity enabled by the fact that the US had better infrastructure than anyone else in the post-WWII era.  That fact alone means that de Tocqueville's analysis of economic competition in egalitarian societies does not really apply to the 20th century US; we were very far from the sort of equilibrium that he was envisioning.  In fact, it would seem to support his case, precisely because it was an exception to his economic assumptions and a counter-example to his assumptions about scientific progress.  Instead, I partly dissent because he give short shrift to the relationship of the pure and applied sciences.  Advances in the applied sciences make advances in the pure sciences cheaper.  Imagine studying pure questions in turbulence without the insights enabled by modern computing power or high-speed cameras.  Imagine doing the purest work in cell biology without bioinformatics infrastructure built on our computing industry, the vast infrastructure of lab equipment suppliers who have made things cheaper and faster to compete for the budgets of labs and companies doing applied research, or the tools of modern microscopy and lasers.  How many people realize that the multi-photon microscope, a beautiful tool of neuroscience, would not be possible without the advances in pulsed laser technology enabled by the telecommunications industry?

On the other hand, it is definitely true that a leisured class, whether born into leisure or elevated to it through the academic system, is an invaluable element of a basic research apparatus.  In that regard, it is interesting to look at the structure of the modern academy.  It has become more and more unequal, with a class divide between high-status researchers (who do have a certain amount of time for contemplation) and low-status adjunct instructors, and a shrinking middle class that try to bridge teaching and research.  This certainly seems to mirror the aristocratic arrangement that de Tocqueville regarded as necessary for basic research.  However, even (especially?) the biggest of the bigshots seem to spend more time working on funding proposals than contemplating science.  The system has the superficial appearance of an aristocracy of philosopher-kings, but the reality is much less romantic.  OK, if there's one major theme of this blog it's that the past was never all that romantic compared to the present, but at the very least the current system demonstrates that pure research isn't really a product of leisure.

A more interesting place to look is at graduate study.  The best part of graduate school is that after a few hurdles it is largely unstructured.  I think every PhD looks back on graduate school and thinks "Man, if I'd known then what I know now I would have made better use of that unstructured time!"  The purpose of that unstructured time is to let the embryonic scientist enjoy an interlude of leisure (albeit impoverished leisure) so that they might focus on learning.  It is thus interesting to note that the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program is putting more and more burdens on graduate students.  When I applied in 1998 they basically wanted to fund smart and motivated students, and the applications were almost trivial.  Nowadays they want research plans and outreach plans ("Broader Impact").  Honestly, since leisure is wasted on the young I sort of get why they want to give bright young minds more structure.  I still think it's a mistake, but I get why they do it.

Now, if we look at graduate research fellowships through the lens provided by de Tocqueville, we must note that there is no organization more openly devoted to a semblance of democratic spirit and social equality in science than the National Science Foundation.  Their Broader Impact Criterion is, for good or ill, all about that.  Making graduate students engage in Broader Impact projects is not only in keeping with the social goals of the NSF, but it also keeps graduate students in a state of hustle and multi-tasking.  They can't just focus on their subject, they must also show people their public impact.  You can like it or dislike it, and it's not the same as the commercial competition that de Tocqueville considered, but it's clearly different from a vision of graduate study as sheltered time.

I can't say that anybody consciously decided that graduate study should be a time of greater structure for the sake of democracy, but it is interesting to see this pattern noted by de Tocqueville in one context show up in another, and via the intervention of an organization whose mission and viewpoint match the democratic spirit that he described.