Sunday, June 24, 2012


This blog is now taking a break. There may be a few spontaneous posts during the summer, but regular posting will resume on Monday, August 20. That's when the next 16-Week Challenge officially begins. Start planning now.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Laurels and Laureates

"The popular scientific books by our scientists, aren't the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 42)

Thinking about it a little more, my brush with greatness was perhaps a bit disappointing. First, even though Kahneman now knows that there is something amiss with the sourcing of the story, he still tells it as though it really happened. Moreover, Weick's embellishment, setting the story in Switzerland, has led Kahneman to mistakenly describe the soldiers as Swiss. (This is probably to resolve the "cognitive dissonance" that anyone who knows a bit about European geography will feel on hearing about a group of Hungarian soldiers wandering around in the Swiss Alps.) Also, it is disappointing that, in the interview that Kahneman did with Haaretz, the interviewer, Guy Rolnik, introduces it as "the story Kahneman recalls when asked about the economic models at the root of the current financial crisis" and, to distinguish it from his usual source of anecdotes, explains that it "is actually taken from history, not an experiment." Well, it's not taken from "history". It was taken from a poem that retold a "story from the war" and was then distorted, by Weick, into "an incident that happened".

That is, although Kahneman had found all the information he needed to tell the story accurately (and source it properly), he still makes mistakes and resorts to the conventional attribution of the story to "the famous organizational psychologist Karl Weick". This, not incidentally, also reproduces Weick's appeal to authority when he tells it, namely, invoking the Nobel Prize-winning Albert Szent-Gyorgyi as the source. And this move is now available to anyone who wants to tell the story from here. They can cite (as Sears does) the Nobel Prize-winning economic psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Will we ever get this story out from underneath the heap of false credentials that have been heaped upon it? Perhaps someone should do an experiment to test the hypothesis that "any old map will do". But that would be hard work, of course.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I've Been Cited by a Nobel Laureate!

Yesterday, I found this panel discussion from the 2009 Digital Life Design conference, held in Munich. It features Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, and Nassim Taleb talking about the financial crisis. I had just found an interview with Kahneman in Haaretz, in which he tells the story of the soldiers who are lost in the Alps and find their way out using a map of the Pyrenees. Trying to find out if he had used it elsewhere, I found the story mentioned in Steven M. Sears' The Indominable Investor, who sets it up with the Munich conference appearance. A little more searching led me to the video.

My interest in it is of course that we here have a very distinguished psychologist telling a story that I happen to know is of doubtful provenance. Indeed, the story is at the heart of my critique of Karl Weick's scholarship in general. I wanted to know whether Kahneman had a better source than Weick. I didn't expect to hear him say this:

There is a story that is quite famous in organizational psychology. The famous organizational psychologist Karl Weick told it, I think, for the first time in 1982, and last night I googled it and found out that he had taken it from somebody else and not given ... never mind ..." (37:37)

He doesn't say so, but what he found was presumably the paper Henrik Graham and I published in 2006, or some of the surrounding discussion on the web, in which we show that (to complete Kahneman's sentence) Weick had not given Miroslav Holub (his source, that "someone else") credit for it, i.e., he had plagiarized it. In a manner of speaking then, I've been cited (not quite, but at least alluded to) by a Nobel laureate!

Interestingly, later in the conversation Taleb calls for a boycott of business schools who continue to teach students things we now know don't work, like Modern Portfolio Theory, just because they can't think of something else to teach them. "Nothing is better than something bad," he says (55:40). I.e., having no map at all is better than having a wrong map. Indeed, Kahneman makes the connection back to Weick's story explicitly:

You are describing business schools as giving students a map of the Pyrenees, basically, when they are going to be in the Alps. But it may turn out, you know, that they want that map. [... ] there is a short term appeal to what you want them to give up, and you have a problem there in trying to convince people to give something up without giving them a fairly specific alternative. (55:48)

Which is exactly my argument, except that mine works at a slightly more literal level. After all, business schools not only teach portfolio theory, i.e., a (metaphorical) "wrong map" of finance, but also sensemaking theory, which claims that "any old map will do", especially in a crisis. And as I pointed out in a recent working paper, in the mid-1980s, Weick discussed both that claim, and the Alps story that he takes it from as a moral, with Bob Engel, the treasurer of Morgan Guaranty. Morgan Guaranty is today known as JPMorgan Chase. Perhaps Wall Street literally thinks that any old portfolio will do?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


“...a trenchant critique of anthropology being accepted as a social science/ And not the art of educated observation/ And all the things that we can learn about ourselves in the context of someone else.” (Mike Kinsella)

We've been discussing the generalizability of ethnography over at OrgTheory. Specifically, Fabio Rojas has been arguing that if a study is organized to include a great number of field sites, like a significant number of high schools in New York city for example, and ethnographic writing (especially the taking of field notes) is properly "standardized", then generalizations are possible. For example, we could answer the question, "Do teachers treat boys and girls differently in classes?" The observations of each of the ethnographers (who have been sent out to different schools) could be anonymized and aggregated and interpreted by a team effort. Just as we can answer the question of whether going to an ivy league school will affect your future income based on survey data, we can answer this question about teachers "scientifically", based on ethnographic data.

When I asked him to get more specific about his methodology, i.e., the standards according to which the field work was to be carried out, he referred me to Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Here’s something from the blurb:

[The authors] show how transforming direct observations into vivid descriptions results not simply from good memory but more crucially from learning to envision scenes as written. A good ethnographer, they demonstrate, must learn to remember dialogue and movement like an actor, to see colors and shapes like a painter, and to sense moods and rhythms like a poet. The authors also emphasize the ethnographer’s core interest in presenting the perceptions and meanings which the people studied attach to their own actions. They demonstrate the subtle ways that writers can make the voices of people heard in the texts they produce. Finally, they analyze the ‘processing’ of fieldnotes, the practice of coding notes to identify themes and methods for selecting and weaving together fieldnote excerpts to write a polished ethnography.

That last sentence is the sticking point, I think. What Fabio is suggesting is that the final “processing” of the “data” can be a collective enterprise, entirely separate from the literary arts and crafts of the ethnographer in the field (so like an actor, so like a painter, so like a poet). On my view, only the observer has the authority to “polish” the result into a proper ethnography, because only the observer is able to reverse the art of writing by “envisioning the scenes as written”, comparing it with memory, and then “make the voices of the people heard in the texts they produce”. In this sense, it is very different from statistical analysis of national data sets for example.

At bottom, I reject the idea that an ethnographer's field notes constitute data. They are not "given" to the researcher in advance of interpretation but emerge from the researcher's act of interpretation. That does not make it worthless, but it does make it unscientific. All the researcher can do now is to produce a "polished ethnography", i.e., a statement of his or her perceptions and interpretations, which we can then engage with based on our own perceptions and interpretations of social life. Obviously, there is something especially interesting about how one ethnographer reacts to the work of another, not least if both have done field work in New York City high schools. But the "generalization" that emerges comes from the subtle effects that such accounts and debates will have on our imagination if the study is widely discussed. This makes it much more like humanistic scholarship than scientific inquiry.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


"How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech." (Søren Kierkegaard)

As an academic you have to understand the importance of orthodoxy, i.e., "right opinion". Much of what is known in a particular field is not questioned, or at least not openly. In the Catholic Church at the time of Galileo, it was possible to engage in inquiry that assumed (at least to make the math easier) that the Earth moved. (Thanks to Andrew for suggesting the work of J.L. Heilbron on this subject.) But it was not possible to openly reject the dogma that the Earth did not move. Such a strong heterodox position needed much more evidence than Galileo could muster, and the Church needed time to assess the consequences of what would become the "Copernican revolution", which, sure enough, had a profound impact on how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Orthodoxy serves an important function in slowing down the pace of intellectual progress so that everyone can keep up. It does this by determining, not what you are allowed to think, but what you are allowed to say.

Monday, June 18, 2012


One thing that defines a field of research is a certain range of topics in which one may be legitimately interested. Serious historians don't wonder "Who killed Kennedy?" Serious biologists don't look for evidence of Intelligent Design. Serious psychologists don't study clairvoyance. Serious engineers don't look for evidence of the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center. The intellectual ethos of these subjects is such that in most cases you are not even able to arrive at mainstream conclusions (Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone, there is no evidence for ID, there is no extra-sensory mode of perception, fire alone brought down the towers). You are "beyond the pale" if you look at the question as though there even could be evidence. It shows poor professional judgment to do anything but write a popular essay disparaging such interests.

Interestingly, even among so-called "cranks", there is an acceptable range of opinion. It is one thing to think there must have been a "second gunman" and quite another to think that gunman was part of the UFO cover-up. It is one thing to argue that the flagellum is irreducibly complex and another to claim that our designers took you to their planet and explained the whole thing to you. It is one thing to design controlled experiments with Zener cards and another to demonstrate your powers alongside other abilities like bending spoons with your mind. It is one thing to adduce evidence of the use of nano-thermite in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and quite another to propose the use of high-energy "space beams".

For every subject there seems to be a community of peers. You choose the company you'll have to keep in part by your choice of subject matter. You may as well do that consciously.

Friday, June 15, 2012


"The trick is not to get rid of the butterflies," I tweeted; "the trick is to get them to fly in formation." Until I Googled it a little later, I honestly thought it was my grade-seven band teacher's original epigram, or at least that it was rare, but I doubt that all 181,000 search hits can be traced back to Mr. Orr. It's a familiar saying, it turns out, that is used in all sorts of performance-related situations.

This has reminded me how much of my advice can be traced back to simple pieces of practical wisdom that has been circulating for ages and ages. For example, I often cite Henri Bergson's remark: "Time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once." By quoting a major philosopher, I'm giving it a certain "depth" I suppose. Earlier this year, however, Bob Sutton used it in a response to a comment on his blog as though it was a familiar saying, which I'm sure it is. "I guess that my reaction is that 'time was invented so you don't need to do everything all at once'," he said. Sutton and Bergson are saying the same thing. Or, rather, Sutton's version states explicitly what I draw as an implication from Bergson's.

There are, to my mind, two important differences between Bergson's version and Sutton's that make the former sound profound and the latter sound like a cliché. The first is that Bergson's statement is ontological while Sutton's is mythological. Bergson says "Time is..." while Sutton says "Time was invented..." We must presume that one or another god did the "inventing". It's a story rather than a theory. The second is that Bergson's remark is a statement of fact while Sutton's is a guide to action. Bergson remains aloof to the world of practice and let's you draw the obvious practical implication yourself.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Soul-destroying Labor

"Today we need to persuade our critics that the time we spend consuming the scholarship of others is worth the investment, and that the relative brevity of the time we spend in the classroom is justifiable. Then, perhaps, the self-reported 50-to-55-hour work week claimed in so many faculty surveys will become more believable." (Bruce B. Henderson)

In the 1980s, Robert Boice got faculty members to estimate their workload at around 60 hours per week. But when he asked them to keep records of actual work-related activity they came up with a mere 30. They had especially overestimated their research-related activities (including, of course, their writing), and I think Tara Gray's interpretation of the result is dead on. "These faculty members were working 30 hours per week and spending another 30 hours worrying." Their self-reports weren't lies, they were just counting a great deal of unproductive time in their estimate of the effort they put in. I tell this story at my writing seminars and I am always quick to assure participants that my goal is not to teach them to convert those 30 hours of worry into 30 hours of work. I do not want to make the surveys Henderson mentions more "believable". On the contrary, like Jonathan Mayhew, I think they should be ridiculed.

As a scholar, a worker in the "spirit", you are by definition to avoid soul-destroying labor. You should spend a great deal of your time actively engaged in activities that keep your mind healthy. This means going for walks, getting some exercise, reading good books (not just scholarship), listening to music, watching films, etc. You should also seek out the company of intelligent people and, well, enjoy that company. Talk to them. You should make good company of yourself for them as well, i.e., give them your time in conversation. You are not just "consuming the scholarship of others", and it is not just an "investment". It is work on what Jonathan calls your "scholarly base".

It is in many ways a privileged and somewhat "leisurely" life to be a scholar. We should not try to make our administrators and publics believe otherwise. We just have to ask ourselves how we think an expert in Joyce or Proust, or World War II, or how people make sense of their organizational reality should live their lives. Should they be engaged in "productive" activities 50 hours every week? Or are we going to give them a break? The problem with Henderson's suggestion is that it grants "our critics" the basic and mistaken assumption of their argument, namely, that intellectual labor is as tangible as any other kind of work. (What I'm saying doesn't just go for academics by the way: many "creative industries" need to stop worrying about whether or not their employees are being kept busy enough.) There are tangible aspects, to be sure, and I can help you manage your time to be more effective about them. But if they only fill up 20 or 30 hours a week, that's plenty.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Arts and Crafts

"Writing is not an art," a PhD student objected after reading last week's post: "it's a craft." Naturally, it depends on what you mean by "art" and what you mean by "craft".

To call scholarly writing an art is, of course, an attempt to elevate it by association with, for example, poetry. But we should remember the great effort that modernist poets made in the early twentieth century to recover their art from triviality by referring to themselves as craftsmen. We generally think of art as the pursuit of beauty and craft as the pursuit of utility. The "fine arts" make beautiful things, while our craft traditions make things we can use. It is the stylistic ideal of modernism, however, to bring these two pursuits together. "One definition of beauty," writes Ezra Pound, "is: aptness to purpose." As a poet, he traced his tradition back to the troubadours, the most famous of whom perhaps, Arnaut, was praised by Dante as "the greatest craftsman [il miglior fabbro] of the language". But it is worth keeping in mind that poetry held a much less, shall we say, decorative place in society during the twelfth century than it does today. It was very much a part of the "media" in which social life went on (they didn't have television or newspapers, of course). Poetry had a purpose, and its beauty was indeed to be apt to it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Concepts and Objects

The logician Gottlob Frege defined concepts as functions that take objects as arguments to yield truth-values. That sounds more difficult than it really is. Consider the function "x + 3", which lets you put a number in the place of x to yield a numerical value. So if x = 7, the function yields 10 as its value. Now consider the function "x is a horse". What Frege suggested was that if you put various creatures in the place of x then the sentence will become either true or false. "Smarty Jones is a horse" is true, while "Thomas Basbøll is a horse" is false, Just as "7 + 3" is 10, while "5 + 3" is 8. The same function yields different values when given different arguments. When the value of a function is either true or false then the function is a concept and its arguments are objects.

One of Frege's most fascinating contributions to modern philosophy was the idea of a Begriffsschrift, a "conceptual notation". He tried to develop a way of writing our concepts down in such a way that their truth-functionality, if you will, could be easily surveyed. Unfortunately, it looked like this:

(Source: Frank Hartmann)

My hope is that our prose can approach the (logical) clarity of this kind of presentation while overcoming its (epistemic) austerity.

One way to test your prose for clarity is to ask yourself what concepts and objects are distributed on the surface of the page. Just as there will be a finite number of paragraphs (and, therefore, a finite number of knowledge claims), there will be a finite number of concepts and objects. You should be able to make a complete list of the conceptual and objective content of your text. You should even be able to extend that list to include some of the concepts that are relevant to the named objects but are not at work (functioning) in your text, and some of the objects that are not named in the paper but nonetheless yield true statements when the concepts that are at work in your paper take them as arguments. All this will help you realize the promise of what Frege called "perspicuity" (Übersichtlichkeit) on "the two-dimensional expanse of the writing surface". Even in prose.

Monday, June 11, 2012


"The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having made the admission, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, for they will not acknowledge that it is their present way of life which prevents them from ever creating anything different or better." (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 1)

It is important to keep in mind that The Unquiet Grave is a book of notes made by a man who is not well. "Something is badly wrong," Connolly tells us in his introduction; "he has lost touch with his sub-conscious self, the well is obstructed; he is reminded of a gull fouled with oil" (p. xiv). The plot (such as it is) revolves around "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" (p. xiii), and it is with this in mind, I think, that we should interpret his opening remark.

Iridescence is the property of surfaces that change their color in shifting light; the rainbow colors on soap bubbles are the classic example. Now, we can dismiss that effect as "superficial" or we can simply appreciate its beauty. It is of course true that many writers are prevented from writing by the way they live, but part of the problem is surely the idea that only a masterpiece is "of any consequence", combined with a "bitter, doubting attitude" (p. xiv). My advice (and, like I say, ultimately Connolly's) is not to abandon your self-styled iridescent mediocrity, i.e., work on that journal article you are writing (or intending to write), but rather to let its iridescence soothe your melancholy and enable you to write. How do you know that it is not the masterpiece you're thinking of?

Friday, June 08, 2012

Writing is Not a Science

I often say that you will not become a good writer by believing what I say. You will become a good writer by doing what I say. It is a mistake to think that there is some important body of "knowledge" about writing that we must acquire. The truths that are known about writing are platitudes and learning them does not make you a good writer. "Write every day." "Think about your reader." "Omit needless words." Strictly speaking, these truisms are not even true, since you will have to break every "rule" of writing at some point in order to write well, which is to say, to put words together in meaningful ways on a page. The text you are writing is not merely the "object" of a "theory". It is a comportment, a manifestation of your style. A text can be read and read again, it can be read slowly or quickly, and it must be written in a way that sometimes makes it open to these acts of reading, and sometimes resists them. Writing is not something we know how to do, it is something we master. It is an art, not a science.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Arts and Sciences

The liberal arts are not social sciences. While the social sciences attempt to know about social life, the humanities are trying to understand the human condition. The difference may appear subtle but it is quite obvious when we look at the consequences for research practices. In social science, research is shaped by theories and methods, i.e., by perspectives that guide the attention of researchers toward particular objects and approaches that structure their activities in particular ways. The social sciences gain access to their objects by generating data, which they then subject to analysis. In the humanities, by contrast, research (or what is much more accurately called "scholarship") is guided by a comprehensive style, i.e., a way of reading and writing, as well as thinking and feeling, about what it means to be human. They do not really have an object. Where a science tries to overcome our ignorance, an art seeks to improve our ability to imagine. The only relelevant "data set" here is the imagery that is made available by our literature. And the only relevant form of analysis is to think on it seriously in the light of experience.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Clarity is Difficult

Ezra Pound reports that when Yeats asked Aubrey Beardsley "why he drew horrors", the illustrator replied simply that "beauty is difficult" (Pound, Canto 80). So is clarity. Indeed, there is a sense in which clarity just is the beauty of scholarly writing, its highest stylistic virtue. The best way to achieve it is to say what we mean through a series of assertions, i.e., statements of fact we believe to be true. At one end, therefore, the difficulty lies in the nature of the idea we are trying to express, sometimes in the obscurity of the facts we are going to have to state. At the other end, the difficulty lies in the limitations of language—more precisely, the limits of our mastery of the language. (It can be argued that the expressive resources of the language are limitless.) It is always possible, however, to attain clarity by compromising the idea. Failing to state one fact, we might state another one, a less obscure one. The result may be perfectly clear prose, but we have of course sidestepped the difficulty. Overcoming the real difficulty of scholarly writing is hard work that requires repeated effort, one statement at a time.

Update at 8:02 AM: I've struck the last sentence because the paragraph seems to me to end more squarely with the previous one. The idea in the last sentence (now struck) actually deserves another paragraph, namely, the one I wrote yesterday.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Duration and Repetition

Mastery does not come from how long you do something, but from how often. The quality of your writing does not depend on how many hours you devote to it as much as on how many occasions you give yourself to practice. Writing for eight hours on a particular day will not improve your style. On the contrary, it is likely to cause fatigue and injury, leaving your style weaker and clumsier than when you began. Writing for one hour, eight days in a row, by contrast, will build grace in your prose. Grace comes from being much stronger than a given task requires and strength comes, not from the exercise itself, but from the rest you get afterwards. It is because it is the regular alternation of activity and inactivity that develops your skill in any craft that repetition in training is so important. It is all about discipline, not endurance.

Monday, June 04, 2012


Just as it is the doctor's job to heal, it is the scholar's job to know. Scholars don't have to know everything, of course, and every job involves some knowledge, but scholarship is oriented around knowledge in a special way. Where other people apply knowledge to the problems of living, scholars conserve knowledge and manage its development. They know enough about their area to recognize a novel idea, for example, and to evaluate it when it arises. They also know enough to be able to decide whether an event challenges our presently held beliefs. They carry out these functions in conversation with other scholars, and we call this discourse. They may contribute to "the growth of knowledge" either by validating a new idea in the discourse of their field or by invalidating and old one. But this is by no means a frictionless affair; scholars will often meet resistance from others who know as much as they do. In practical terms, then, their knowledge is just their ability to hold their own in conversation with their peers.

* * *

This is the first in a series of one-paragraph posts. The goal is to write each of them in 30 minutes. They should be about six sentences long and under 200 words. This one is 178 words long and consists of 8 sentences. [Update at 11:39: I just removed a word and added a period.]

Friday, June 01, 2012

Quality and Quantity

I've been rereading past posts on this blog and finding an annoying amount of errors. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, however, given the way the posts have been written. For the past few weeks, I've been writing 250-650 words in a 30 minute session, to be posted at 7:00 AM. Sometimes, I must admit, I've been pushing myself a bit too hard, writing right up until 6:59, and posting without really having proofread it. I often go back during spare moments to reread posts later in the day, fixing typos if I find them. What is annoying, then, is going back, weeks or months later, to find that even after all that, errors remain.

What I should be doing is to write for only 22 minutes and then edit for another five. I could then spend the last 3 minutes on technical issues, like links and formatting. Also, I could confine myself to a word limit. That's my plan for next week then. I'm still going to write for 30 minutes, but from now on I will write only one 200-word (or less) paragraph. (Notice that I'm already on my second paragraph in this post.) In short, I'm going to shift my focus from quantity to quality. And I'm going to practice more exactly what I preach also when working on this blog.

A blog is not really a place for scholarly writing. One of the reasons that I've been trying to write more than a single prose paragraph is to keep things light and playful around here. But I think I can accomplish that goal at the level of content, while still forming each post in an exemplary manner. So those are the new rules. Each post next week will take 22 minutes to write and five minutes to edit. It will consist of roughly 6 sentences and no more than 200 words. It will state a single fact I know and tell you how I know it.