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 The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Ought" can stand irrespective of "Is"

One will often hear it asserted that diversity improves team performance and even corporate performance.  Surely there are situations where this is true--an ad campaign designed by a team of white guys from the Midwest would probably not do terribly well in New York or Los Angeles--but it is often presented as a universal truism.  Well, a recent meta-analysis argues that diversity probably does not, as a general rule, improve team performance, though it may very well be advantageous for certain types of tasks.

Some readers* may feel threatened by this finding, or may be tempted to argue with it, but there is no moral content to that finding. The statement "People ought to be inclusive in their recruitment and hiring practices" can be defended on simple moral grounds, irrespective of the truth value of the statement "A diverse team is more productive than a homogeneous team." An "Ought" statement cannot be derived from an "Is" statement.  I am quite comfortable believing that fairness and inclusion are morally defensible irrespective of whether they are, According To A Recent Study, profitable.  Morality isn't always profitable, and doesn't need to be profitable.  If it were profitable we wouldn't call it "morality", we'd call it "self-interest."  A stable society will certainly try to align morality and self-interest as much as possible, but they needn't be 100% in alignment.

The fact that this type of social science might discomfit people is part of the modern zeitgeist.  On the right, "morality" seems to be about judging other people's sex lives; in all other aspects of life the right believes that the only morality that matters is the morality (such as it is) of the market.  Consequently, the right needs to be sold on the market value of diversity.  On the left, I think that the belief in some concept of inclusion and diversity is sincere, but they aren't really comfortable with moral language.  The Boomers rebelled against the morality of their elders, the educated members of Generation X (my generation) were taught to embrace subjectivity, and the Millenials seem to be afraid of having their values challenged, so everyone is ill-equipped to deal with "is/ought" distinctions from a left-leaning perspective.  The Boomers would feel stodgy saying "ought", we Xers would feel anti-intellectual saying "ought", and the Millenials would be fine with "ought" but would need to see a trauma counselor if somebody disagreed with them.  So we're all more comfortable if social science simply tells us that our value preferences are also perfectly congruent with everyone's self-interest, because then there's no need to debate "ought" statements.

If, however, we recognize that there's no "is" statement that can refute or prove an "ought" statement, and if we are comfortable with the divide between morality and self-interest, then a meta-analysis questioning the direct material benefits of diversity needn't threaten our value system.  But this would require us to have confidence in our value system, rather than to be timid about it.

EDIT:  I just realized that a few months ago I had blogged about a related point made by de Tocqueville.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

*Here I generously assume that I have readers.

Free college? Fine. Whatever. Free for everyone? Hell no.

Phil Ebersole has an excellent post up about the difference between free college and free college for everyone. I endorse his central point.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Haidt, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 has many more examples of how people reach snap judgments.  The most interesting experiment, though, is the one at the end:  Instead of letting people respond to a moral dilemma (and an argument about the dilemma) right away, the experimenters forced people to wait 2 minutes before responding to the argument about the dilemma.  People actually changed their minds when they paused to think.  Besides being a hopeful statement about human nature in general, it's also a counter to the zeitgeist about the power of our subconscious.

Haidt, chapters 1 and 2

I don't have it in me to exhaustively recap, but Haidt's main point so far is that moral judgment comes from quick intuition, and then we slather reasoning on top of it.  Well, not you, of course.  You, dear reader, are the epitome of reason, and you have carefully thought through all of your moral and political stances.  But everyone else out there--you know, the people less thoughtful than you--they most certainly do proceed from moral intuition and hunches, and put their ethical reasoning in after the fact.

I find this to be useful outside of the moral domain, in terms of understanding persuasion.  Too often at work people want to treat the layers above us as some sort of deterministic machine, and they're looking for the consistency so that they can reliably turn the lever and get what they want.  But people don't work that way. They have their hot buttons, their emotions, and then also their cooler, calmer side.  Different things come into play at different times, and you have to gauge all of those before you can successfully engage in persuasion.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Next book: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

My next book will be The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.  This book explores the psychology understanding political stances.

Lindberg, final thoughts

With the exception of Ibn Al Haytham and Archimedes, ancient science just doesn't do it for me. Not at all.  But I plowed through to the end.  If I had to take away one thing, it would be this:  Ancient and medieval science might not have left us with many ideas that survive to the present in a robust form, but they laid the intellectual groundwork for having scholarly classes who would devote serious thought to the natural world and the application of logic and mathematics to questions about the world.  That's not something to sneeze at.  To this day, the most fertile grounds for producing scientists are often liberal arts colleges, who recruit students of a certain intellectual bent.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Anti-Intellectualism in American Childhood

Yesterday I was hanging out with some friends and their 5 year-old.  The kid wanted to watch a cartoon, so we put on Magic School Bus, a show from the mid-90's about a group of kids and their teacher who go on adventures in a magic school bus, learning about science along the way.  The show is excellent in many respects:  The content is factually accurate (obviously no real school bus could turn into a submarine that can survive in lava, but the stuff they learn about volcanoes is accurate), the group of kids is diverse by multiple measures, the science teacher is a female role model, and it seems like a fun way to learn about science.

So what is bugging me about this show?  They repeatedly made fun of the class bookworm, Dorothy Ann.  Yes, I can appreciate a message of "Go out there and explore and experiment", and I concur that in real science the answers aren't typically found in books, but it seems like this point could have been delivered without repeatedly making fun of the kid who really likes to read.  I almost felt like I was having lunch with my colleagues!

What I find fascinating about this is not that somebody somewhere out there felt like making fun of the kid who reads (that's life in America) but that this message made its way past a group of people who obviously put a lot of work into vetting the show for positive messages.  They were (rightly!) fastidious about making sure that kids had a diverse cast of role models to encourage them to explore STEM, but in all of this vetting for positive messages nobody thought "Hey, maybe we should go easy with mocking the bookworm."  This tells you much about American culture.  Hofstadter was right.