The crime of reason: And the closing of the scientific mind is a book that has gripped me since I heard the author discuss it in a podcast with the lovely Dr Moira Gunn. It central message is a sad one for me as the book describes, in detail, why modern society is dismantling the freedom of scientific inquiry. Worse still, the book also describes why such dismantling is necessary.
I must quote this story from the book though which gave me such warm feelings about physicists, bless them:
In March 1986, Las Vegas newspapers buzzed with rumors that the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino had suffered its worst weekly take in history – including the week of its terrible fire. MGM had made the mistake of hosting a big physics conference. The scientists, it turned out, didn’t care for neon cowboys, tiger shows, topless barmaids and other distractions. In fact, they complained after returning home that these things had interfered with their concentration at seminars. Vegas cabbies got real mileage from this story and presumably generous tips too. No Las Vegas hotel has ever invited the physicists back.
I am saving a rant about the excesses of evidence-based medicine for another day, but first, I am reading a hilarious about what we can learn from an Amazonian tribe. The Piraha tribe’s language includes a laudable emphasis on searching for evidence behind each statement. The book, Don’t sleep, there are Snakes, is by Daniel Everett who went to live with the tribe as a Christian missionary and returned… an atheist.
Here is a quote from a lecture he gave explaining why it was they who converted him. It is worth listening to Everett’s amusing rendition.
Three suffixes are very important, and they tell you how you got your evidence. So every verb has to have on it the source of the evidence. Did you hear about it, did you see it with your own eyes, or did you deduce it from the local evidence. So if I say “Did John go fishing?”, they can say “John went fishing pee-eye”, which means “I heard that he did”, or they can say “John went finishing sibiga”, and that means “I deduced that he did”, or they can say “John went fishing tah”, and that means I saw.
In some respects they are the ultimate empiricists. Or, like people from Missouri, The Show Me State.
Part of this culture value of the Piraha, the immediacy of experience, is reflected in this word imitpeeo, produces a value to keep information slow, and to keep it verifiable. It must be witnessed.
So, as a Christian Missionary, which I no longer am, and if you read the book, you will find out what they did to me. They actually demanded evidence for what I believed. And then I realised I couldn’t give it as well as they wanted me to give it. So this changed me profoundly.
But I remember telling them about Jesus one time. So they said, “So Dan, this Jesus, is he brown like us or is he white like you?”
– “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.”
– “So what did your dad say, your dad must have seen him.”
– “No, he never saw him.”
– “Well what did your friends say who saw him?”
– “I don’t know anybody who saw him.”
– “Why are you telling us about him then?”
I am always on the look-out for technologies that let me read more during the day. At medical school, e-books from Peanut Reader on my Palm meant I could read while waiting for clinics to start. When I could walk to work in the USA, audio books from Audible (fair DRM policies) and EMusic (unlocked MP3 files) meant I could listen to books easily. And while commuting to work on the metro in DC the Kindle was a beautiful solution (one that my father loves too, even though he pines for the Arabic version).
With my Google Phone, it is a pleasure to have discovered DailyLit. It is a simple concept: you subscribe to a book and they send you installments by e-mail. The site lets you choose when to receive those installments so as to suit your schedule. What I love about it is that these installments are snack-sized – it takes five minutes to read each one – but the schedule keeps you going. So every day, I read parts of three books just as I wake up, a time I used to spend semi-conscious, unable to pick up my Kindle, but that is now quite comfortable to read with on my phone.
The books they have are quite good. Rather than the usual strategy of e-book vendors of having best-sellers – forgetting that people who like e-books love to read, and that those who love to read hate the trash that makes it to best-seller lists – they have put together a small, eclectic selection of intellectual books. Many are free, although I just paid for India Arriving, a book I still cannot describe but am absolutely gripped by.
I want to highlight Henry Ford’s autobiography though, which is available free of charge as it is out of copyright. I knew the man was clever, building a huge company by using suppliers’ credit and customers’ cash to eliminate his finance needs, and that he did a lot of good, including paying the first high salaries for factory employees, but I did not know that he was such a deep thinker. The book is a pleasant surprise and there is much to quote but I will stick to this section because it is making me rethink the software design for my company‘s products (you will have to ignore the misogyny, he was still a product of his time):
My effort is in the direction of simplicity. People in general have so little and it costs so much to buy even the barest necessities (let alone that share of the luxuries to which I think everyone is entitled) because nearly everything that we make is much more complex than it needs to be. Our clothing, our food, our household furnishings–all could be much simpler than they now are and at the same time be better looking. Things in past ages were made in certain ways and makers since then have just followed.
I do not mean that we should adopt freak styles. There is no necessity for that Clothing need not be a bag with a hole cut in it. That might be easy to make but it would be inconvenient to wear. A blanket does not require much tailoring, but none of us could get much work done if we went around Indian-fashion in blankets. Real simplicity means that which gives the very best service and is the most convenient in use. The trouble with drastic reforms is they always insist that a man be made over in order to use certain designed articles. I think that dress reform for women–which seems to mean ugly clothes–must always originate with plain women who want to make everyone else look plain. That is not the right process. Start with an article that suits and then study to find some way of eliminating the entirely useless parts. This applies to everything–a shoe, a dress, a house, a piece of machinery, a railroad, a steamship, an airplane.
As we cut out useless parts and simplify necessary ones we also cut down the cost of making. This is simple logic, but oddly enough the ordinary process starts with a cheapening of the manufacturing instead of with a simplifying of the article. The start ought to be with the article. First we ought to find whether it is as well made as it should be–does it give the best possible service? Then–are the materials the best or merely the most expensive? Then–can its complexity and weight be cut down? And so on.
There is no more sense in having extra weight in an article than there is in the cockade on a coachman’s hat. In fact, there is not as much. For the cockade may help the coachman to identify his hat while the extra weight means only a waste of strength. I cannot imagine where the delusion that weight means strength came from. It is all well enough in a pile-driver, but why move a heavy weight if we are not going to hit anything with it? In transportation why put extra weight in a machine? Why not add it to the load that the machine is designed to carry? Fat men cannot run as fast as thin men but we build most of our vehicles as though dead-weight fat increased speed! A deal of poverty grows out of the carriage of excess weight. Some day we shall discover how further to eliminate weight. Take wood, for example. For certain purposes wood is now the best substance we know, but wood is extremely wasteful. The wood in a Ford car contains thirty pounds of water.
There must be some way of doing better than that. There must be some method by which we can gain the same strength and elasticity without having to lug useless weight. And so through a thousand processes.
Sometimes YouTube reminds me of Judge Dredd. Around the age of 13 or 14, I fell in love with the The Judge Dredd role playing game. At that age I floated towards the darker futuristic RPGs like Paranoia and Shadowmancer rather than the fantasy fluff of Dungeons and Dragons. The game is set in MegaCity One and is well summarized in The Indepedent newspaper:
In the 22nd century, the story goes, most of the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable radioactive desert (in 1977, post-apocalypic futures were the only kind imagined). The population of the world is crammed into a few Mega-Cities, where tens of thousands of people are housed in skyscraping City Blocks. Unemployment is total, and the unhinged citizens pass the time in ever crazier ways. They have plastic surgery to make themselves ugly; they eat until they weigh half a tonne each; they take up spot-welding as a hobby; they fly around on jet-powered surfboards. Mostly, they shoot each other, or are shot by the judges, the unaccountable, unemotional government / police force.
This was what the future of mass unemployment looked like with computers and robots doing the serious work and humans left with nothing but frivolity to fill their time. Many of the videos on YouTube hint at this dystopian outcome of surplus time.
But Clay Shirky offers a different vision of what he calls the cognitive surplus in his wonderful book Here Comes Everybody. This is one of the few books that I bought in paper and almost every line in every page is underlined as Clay has such a wonderful way with words. Watch this extraordinary video of him speaking (or read the transcript):
Starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialized world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.
Society never really knows what do do with any surplus at first. (That’s what makes it a surplus.) In this case, we had to find something to do with the sudden spike in surplus hours. The sitcom was our gin, a ready-made response to the crisis of free time. TV has become a half-time job for most citizens of the industrialized world, at an average of 20 hours a week, every week, for decades.
Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.
The value in media is no longer in sources but in flows; when we pool our cognitive surplus, it creates value that doesn’t exist when we operate in isolation. The displacement of TV watching is coming among people who are using more of their time to make things and do things, sometimes alone and sometimes together, and to share those things with others.
So what kinds of things are possible with this cognitive surplus? Recently on YouTube I am finding an increasing number of beautiful videos by amateurs who wanted to teach. Diabetic children make videos showing how to inject insulin, exercise instructors demonstrate four-minute workouts, and enthusiasts explain wikis.
Which is why I was so interested to read the book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. It is a cornucopia of companies collaborating with crowds and he mentions a few in this Tech Nation interview.
InnoCentive, for example, allows companies to post bounties for problems they have not been able to solve internally. People from around the world compete to provide solutions, make money, and basically enjoy using their congitive surprlus. Take Mrs. Sgargetta, an Italian scientist who left academia to look after her family. After she finishes making dinner for the children and putting them to sleep she runs chemical experiments in her kitchen.
In the four years following Sgargetta’s first encounter with InnoCentive, she solved two InnoCentive challenges. In one she invented a type of dye that turned dishwater blue after the correct amount of detergent had been added. Although InnoCentive “seeker” companies are supposed to remain anonymous, Sgargetta later discovered that P&G had filed a patent referencing her and her discovery. She netted $30,000 for her kitchen-brewed coup.
What did you do with your surplus after dinner last night?
I often think about what I would like to teach my children. Aside from the lessons I hope to pass on to them that I learned from my parents – a love of learning, a respect for others, and a commitment to doing the right thing – I hope to teach my daughter (or, hopefully, daughters!) to be arrogant.
For the rest of this post you should know that I do know that everyone is different and that generalizations should not be used against individuals. But there are some worrying generalizations about women that I would hope to teach any daughter of mine to avoid.
First, Women Don’t Ask. That is the title of a book by two women who were furious when their research uncovered how rarely women ask for raises. Because they do not ask for raises as often as men do, they do not get raises as often as men do. And then it becomes a vicious cycle as these women’s contributions are automatically discounted when applying for jobs because employers measure the quality of the applicant by their previous salary, and base their salary offers on salary history.
Fortunately, this problem can be cured by education. When the authors share the data with other women about how often their male colleagues ask for raises while doing the same quality work that the women do, these women start asking for raises. And part of the wage gap begins to disappear.
The arrogance that allows men to ask for raises is more difficult for teach for entrepreneurship.
But I think it is responsible for an important phenomenon I saw at all the start-up events I attend. There are almost no women.
Over the last few months I have gone to several of these events in San Francisco, DC, Cambridge and London. Even in San Francisco, where I expected everyone to have a business plan just like every waiter in L.A. has a script, there were very few women attending Startup School. At TechCrunch UK‘s event in London Alicia Navarro was the only woman panelist and one of the very few women at the event. Later on in I heard her bemoan the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship.
I think this is because entrepreneurs require an inappropriately high confidence in their chances of success. The data shows that they are wrong, on average, at estimating their chances. And I think that men tend to have that inappropriate self-confidence more often than women do.
Now, this is not to say that every habit from men ought to be copied (for example, their response to urinals). But this one is important.
One of Grameen Bank‘s noble aims and notable achievements is their focus on lending to women. It is a real pleasure to hear Muhammad Yunus describe the outcomes in this interview with Ashoka. This is targeting women for entrepreneurship for poverty-reduction.
But the people who to come these events are mostly in wealthy families in wealthy countries and their entrepreneurship is for wealth-generation, not poverty-reduction. Perhaps the ratios are different for social entrepreneurship where more women might participate in the generation of social capital, and I am interested to learn how many women will attend Social Innovation Camp in London. But I want my daughters to have just as good a shot at wealth-generation as my sons would.
I do not know what the approach is, but it is important to get right. So for my daughters, it begins with teaching them to be as arrogant as men tend to be about their chances of success.