Tag Archives: Philosophy

The University Isn’t Going Anywhere

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There is a lot of talk going around about how universities are broken, and Silicon Valley is going to put the Ivy League out of business. Certainly change is afoot, and continued tuition hikes at twice the rate of inflation are ridiculous. Online universities like Udemy and the Miverva Project are interesting, and may even succeed, depending on whether success is measured in teaching students or in making tons of money. But if success is measured in pushing the existing elite universities out of their current position, don’t hold your breath.

Kevin Carey wrote a piece in The New Republic saying how the roster of leading companies has completely changed over the last century but the roster of leading universities has not. American Cotton Oil is gone, but Harvard remains. Carey states that this is unsustainable; education should be as prone to disruption as business.

But there is a deep flaw in Carey’s analogy. Companies go out of business mostly because people no longer want their products. When was the last time you bought cottonseed oil, or film for your camera? But people still want what universities are offering, especially elite universities. Is education still valuable? Yes. Is a Harvard degree still valuable? Yes. I don’t want any cottonseed oil, but I sure want my kids to get a Harvard education and diploma. And as long as the desire for education and prestige remains (ie. as long as human nature still rules), the elite universities will remain so.

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CEOs: Imagine You Are The Janitor

OK, I promise this will be the last entry on cultural change. At least for a while.
But I wanted to return to the topic that started this arc: changes in corporate culture. You might recall how I postulated that a company could change its culture only if that change started at the top. The CEO needs to live the culture that he wants the whole company to have.

But that raises a question: can a CEO, from his top of the heap position, even successfully think through cultural issues? Go back to my prior example, where there is a culture of being late to meetings because the CEO is always late to meetings. If the CEO is always late, but nobody is late to the CEO’s meetings (because he is the boss, after all), then maybe he doesn’t even realize that this culture exists, and that it wastes everyone’s time. His time isn’t being wasted, so perhaps he doesn’t even see the problem.

If this is true of the CEO, it is likely true of other high level executives, depending on the size of an organization. So how can these oblivious executives work to develop a functional corporate culture? Here I turn to the work of John Rawls, a titan of political philosophy.  Rawls tried to develop a political system that maintained the liberty of markets while countering the tendency of market economies to perpetuate economic disadvantages.

In his masterwork, A Theory of Justice, Rawls balanced these two competing strands through an invention he called the veil of ignorance. Rawls suggested that policy makers devise policies via a thought exercise in which they ignored their actual station in life and imagined how the policy would affect the least advantaged person in society. By operating behind a veil of ignorance as to how policies would affect them personally, they would develop policies that were fairer to everyone.

Maybe CEOs and other top executives should sometimes step behind a veil of ignorance. As a thought experiment, it’s not really that hard. Ask yourself “How would the average employee feel about this? What about the lowest ranking employee?” Only a CEO whose ego has been stoked to l’etat c’est moi proportions will not be able to imagine how his underlings might feel. In the case our always late CEO, surely he will recognize how people feel when he is always late to their meetings.  And if he is so Louis XIV that he is truly unable to imagine how others might feel, then that company’s culture is utterly doomed and everyone should just leave.

The Calculus of Romance

I’m not using calculus metaphorically in that headline. I really want to talk about calculus and romance, specifically differential calculus and romantic relationships. But this needn’t be a math lesson; you can follow the links to Wikipedia for the full details on how calculus works, or take lessons from the Khan Academy.

Generally speaking, a derivative is a measure of change, and you can take derivatives of derivatives. So a first derivative describes a function, measuring the rate of change of that function. In the graph below, the first derivative is the tangent that measures the slope of the function. A second derivative describes the rate of change of the first derivative, a third derivative describes the second, and so on. You get the point.

Illustration of derivatives

How on earth does that relate to romance? Well, consider a romantic relationship to be a function, moving along the X-axis of time. When you are discussing your relationship (which you hopefully do sometimes), that is like the first derivative – describing the trajectory of your relationship. Sometimes you may talk about how you talk about your relationship, improving your communications skills. That is the second derivative. But if you are having real problems communicating, you may talk about how you talk about talking about your relationship. That is the third order derivative, and it’s bad.

Nobody likes higher order derivatives, and nobody likes talking about talking about talking. So make sure you get those second derivatives right!

Are Successful Religions Just Lucky?

Religion scholars have long said that what separates a religion from a sect is success. In other words, religions all start as small sects; if they stay that way, we never hear about them, but if they grow, then over time they become a religion. But these scholars haven’t really discussed what makes one sect succeed and one not, or if they have, it’s in the context of ex post facto justification of the success. History is written by the victors and all that.

Adherents of most faiths say that their religions have grown because they are right. The religion is the word of god, and so naturally it gains more and more followers. Non-believers, and even some adherents who see a religion as metaphor rather than the literal word of god, would say that their church has grown and lasted because it provides wisdom and values and spiritual succor.

But what if they are all wrong, and the successful religions were simply in the right place and the right time. What if religions succeed purely based on random luck?

This hypothesis of religious randomness is based on the work of Duncan Watts, a sociologist who I’ve mentioned before, in the context of showing that Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point theory of “influencers” is fatally flawed.

Watts studies cultural phenomena and social networks, especially how trends and memes spread across a culture. He is perhaps best known for his work on “hit” music, in which the popularity of a song in an experimental population is self-propelling. People like a song because they see that other people like it. So once a song gains some initial popularity, in Watts’ experiments that song was almost certainly going to become a hit, because its early popularity propagated itself across the culture.

More importantly, what Watts discovered was that the initial burst of popularity, which destined the song for hit status, was not due to the musical quality of the song or the votes of initial “influential” listeners or any other objective measure. It was random. Watts ran his experiment over and over and over, and which songs became hits was a random walk. Here is the money quote from an NY Times article:

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors.

So let me break it down for you: purely at random, a song gets an initial burst of popularity. Not because it has a great melody, or words that speak universal truths, but because for whatever reason a bunch of people chose that song one day. Based on that initial popularity, other people start to like the song (“it’s popular, so it must be good”), and soon enough, the song is a hit. To wit: Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.

The application to religion is pretty straightforward. Any religion – Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, whatever – has to get an initial burst of popularity. A few people start following the leader. Other people notice the following and start to tag along (“old Mr. Dalrymple is following, and he hates everything. It must be good”) and next thing you know, the small sect with a single leader becomes an established religion.

But why do people start following that one leader? Our traditional reaction is that it’s because he had something great to say. But if we follow Watts’ work, maybe it’s just random. Maybe Jesus gave an early sermon next to a lemonade stand on a hot day. Maybe Joseph Smith’s talk about his golden tablets attracted the prettiest woman in town, who then attracted a bunch of men.

Certainly there were plenty of other preachers right around Joseph Smith. His part of New York was called the “burned over district” because it was so frequently swept by religious fervor. So why did Smith’s story stick, and lead to a worldwide faith, when other preachers fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s because Smith’s story of the angel Moroni was the direct word of God. But the experimental data suggest that it was probably just random.

Are there examples of religions that didn’t have the lucky jump to popularity? I’m sure there are, but we don’t know about them. If a preacher only gets to 10 followers, then he is unlikely to make it into the history books. Religions that we know have disappeared – the Greco/Roman pantheon, for example, or Shakers – were reasonably successful in their day; they just suffered from conquering and celibacy problems. But go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, or listen to the speakers on sidewalks in America, and you might see a preacher who has great ideas but just hasn’t caught the lucky break that will turn him into the next Joseph Smith.

Street preacher

Readers have undoubtedly noticed that for established religions there are two concepts at play here: success and longevity. Not only are the established religions successful, but they have been around for many, many (sometimes MANY!) years. A religion could be successful in terms of popularity, but then not have what it takes to last. The success that I’m talking about in this post is the growth from tens of followers to thousands. This is the equivalent of going from an average song to a hit song and thus is, as Watts demonstrated, random. However, the extension from a popular sect to a long-lasting religion is more than just popularity; it’s like the difference between being Fountains of Wayne with Stacey’s Mom and being U2. Longevity demands continued provision of a quality experience, whether that is through great songwriting or spiritual relief.

Does Morality Vary By Culture?

Those of us who have grown up in a single culture (ie. almost all of us) often forget that our worldview is culturally mediated, and that people from a different culture might see things entirely differently. Not that we should be required to understand, or try to incorporate, other worldviews, but it can often be instructive to see how other cultures view things. For example, I recently read an interesting article about how morality operates in the Confucian worldview.

According to this article (and I should stipulate here that I am taking the article on face value, since it was written by an expert on the subject and published in a serious journal. I know virtually nothing about Confucianism, except what my fortune cookie tells me), in a Confucian world you cannot separate personal ethics from societal structure. The set of principles that structures society and guides the ruling classes “are mandated by Heaven, an abstract source of both natural order and human norms.” So too are personal ethics; they are part of the same system: “Heaven’s pattern for human affairs is what in fact works best, as a matter of natural logic.”

This has implications for how people should live, particularly those people who are in the power elite. The elites are held to a higher standard, because if they don’t follow Heaven’s pattern they “will inevitably undermine the basic solidarity and sense of fairness that every social order needs.” Leaders have a responsibility, to Heaven and to society, to follow the rules. If they “put their own private interests above the common interest, then they have lost their legitimacy.” Although this comes from a distinctly Eastern worldview, it is not that different than the very Western concept of noblesse oblige, or from the maxim of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

However, it’s also a significant distance from the dominant Western worldview, which is one of free enterprise, in which individuals pursuing their own self-interest will be guided by Adam Smith’s mighty hand into patterns that will benefit society. In our system, there is no duty to maintain the social order and the ruling elites aren’t expected to have higher moral standards than anyone else. In the Western view, the system takes care of all that.

I’m not saying that this Confucian system is any better than ours; merely different. But it’s certainly interesting the way the worldview plays out in how individual are supposed to behave. Of course, given the willingness of Chinese executives to put poison into milk just to make an extra yuan or two, it’s not clear that the Confucian system really works.

Religion and Politics is a New Mix

I recently went to hear a lecture by Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is best known as the author of Bowling Alone, a book about the decay of civil institutions in America. Putnam has a new book out, called American Grace, about religion in America and its intersection with politics, and his lecture was a summary of that book. The book is based on both historical study and a large survey of US citizens, and has two main theses:

  1. The mix of religion and politics in America is new and massively polarizing
  2. American religion is so diverse and tolerant, especially among the younger generation, that the above polarization will likely moderate over time

This post is about Putnam’s first thesis; I will add another post soon summarizing his second thesis.

Putnam started his lecture by describing the rise of the religious right and how this is a new development in America. Of course the founding fathers were – mostly – deeply religious men; that’s how people rolled 250 years ago. But historically you could not correlate a person’s religious belief with their political beliefs. There were devout Christians who were liberal and secularists who were conservative. The Democratic and Republican parties each contained a mix of religious beliefs and commitments.

Things began to change in the 1960’s, with the rise of hippies and free love and drugs and rock & roll (all the stuff my parents dug, man). In reaction to this libertine environment, conservative people moved toward more bedrock values, generally in the form of evangelical Christianity. These people got more serious about their religion and then certain church leaders (eg. Jerry Falwell) saw an opportunity to turn that movement into political power. As the religious right gained power there was something of a backlash, and non-evangelicals moved further toward secularism.

Thus you have significant movement to the poles – the religious right and secularism – without any growth in the center. And now you have, according to Putnam, significant correlation between religion and politics. Putnam says the best way to understand how someone will vote is to ask about their church-going, or vice versa. This plays right into the polarization that we are seeing in modern American politics. Of course, Putnam’s theory of religious trends is not the only explanation for the rise of the religious right and political polarization. There were also geographic, economic and racial trends at work. But religion clearly played a role, and this is Putnam’s bailiwick, so I give his theories some weight.

An interesting side note: Putnam says that according to his research, if a person’s politics and religion don’t match, they are more likely to change their religion than their politics. In other words, conservative people move to more conservative churches and liberals move to more liberal churches or to none at all. Given that religion controls your soul whereas politics affects your pocketbook, this is surprising, but the surveys say what the surveys say. Another, less interesting, side note: the waves of religion and backlashes toward secularism described by Putnam could make for a classic dialectic, with their thesis and antithesis, but there is no synthesis. Instead, the movement trends apart rather than together. This is further proof of my pet theory that Hegel was an idiot.

Here is a photo of someone bowling, possibly alone:

Nixon bowls, possibly alone

Congress Becoming a Parliament?

Jack Balkin has a great post describing how Congress, particularly the Republicans, are acting like a European style parliament. His forecast: more gridlock, worse policy, and a decaying country.