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.


Andrew Shields said...

Why is the authority of the great poet Miroslay Holub insufficient? Too bad he didn't win the Nobel (say, instead of Seifert).

Thomas said...

Well, a lot here depends on stealing the poetry without citing it as a source. To repeat my answer to your comment on the previous post: Poetry, when presented as such, does not dominate the imagination, it liberates it. In order to dominate the imagination you have to invoke an epistemic authority, like a Nobel-winning scientist. But maybe you're right: if the poem is written by Nobel Prize winner it might have worked. Weick does cite Neruda accurately (though it hasn't had nearly the same influence as his theft of Holub's poem.)

Andrew Gelman said...

Andrew S.:

Just to be clear, the damage has arisen because Weick and others have presented the story as if it were true. Holub's poem clearly identifies it as a "story," not necessarily "something that happened." Also, the lack of citation of the story has liberated its retellers to alter it to suit their taste, thus destroying its ability to falsify people's preconceived notions.