How to reach the South Pole before your rivals do

English: Last expedition of Robert Falcon Scot...
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It’s 100 years since the British explorer Captain Scott reached the South Pole only to realise his rival Roald Amundsen had just beaten him to it. On the return journey he and his party died, but not before writing about it in journals, thus creating an enduring myth of ‘heroic failure’.

In his ‘Message to the Public’, Scott saw his party’s demise as the result of improvident weather:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last”

 Amundsen for his part was typically phlegmatic about his own achievement as contrasted with Scott’s:

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”— from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

So which was it, luck or judgement? Amundsen clearly didn’t believe in luck. For him it was all down to the planning. This anti-Fatalist stance certainly paid off, but of course it was an appraisal made after the event.

The irony to this little tale is that in 1928 while Amundsen was attempting to rescue another explorer whose air ship had gone missing near the North Pole, his own seaplane went missing. The wreckage was found but Amundsen’s body  never was. So which was it this time: bad luck or bad judgement?

Amundsen's Latham 47 sea plane, shortly before its disappearance in 1928

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Why do People play the Lottery?

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Well, why do they? It’s the kind of question only those who don’t do it would bother asking. I admit I’m one of them. The lottery is a mystery to me – self-evidently daft,  like a slow-motion version of taking a pile of cash and setting fire to it. Why would anyone do it?

One way of answering this kind of question is presented by science journalist Jonah Lehrer: let’s ask some behavioural economists!

The chief conclusion is as follows:

In two experiments conducted with low-income participants, we examine how implicit comparisons with other income classes increase low-income individuals’ desire to play the lottery. In Experiment 1, participants were more likely to purchase lottery tickets when they were primed to perceive that their own income was low relative to an implicit standard. In Experiment 2, participants purchased more tickets when they considered situations in which rich people or poor people receive advantages, implicitly highlighting the fact that everyone has an equal chance of winning the lottery.

An Unsafe Bet

Jim Orford has a book out entitled An Unsafe Bet? The Dangerous Expansion of Gambling and the Debate we should be having. In it he identifies eleven commonly used discourses of gambling. Of these six discourses broadly support the liberalisation of gambling and five support the increase of restrictions on gambling. Orford is fairly relaxed about this typology and even says: ‘Other people would no doubt produce a different list’ (123).

This to Fourcultures is as a red rag to a bull, so here goes.

Source: Orford 2011:124

False Signal?

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean

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“My father told me the oceans were limitless, but that was a false signal.”

NYT on collapsing fish stocks in the South Pacific.

In Mackerel’s Plunder, Hints of Epic Fish Collapse

 

Science communication and conservative values

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Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

Leadership Mismatch – what Napoleon can tell us about the evolution of leaders

Elba seen from Tuscany

The Emperor Napoleon was a consummate manipulator of other people’s expectations regarding leadership roles, and here’s how you can be too…

In an RSA lecture Matthew Taylor engages Mark van Vugt, author of Selected, over the salience of Cultural Theory to van Vugt’s evolutionary theory of leadership. [about 30:00 in]

Professor van Vugt’s idea is that evolution has primed humans for particular types of leadership which are not now particularly helpful. There is a kind of mismatch between the leadership relevant to Stone Age peoples and the radically altered demands of today.

He and his collaborators identify two key types of leadership justification:

  • The first is the ‘servant’ leadership approach , which claims that leaders benefit the group at a cost to themselves.
  • The second is the ‘selfish’ leadership approach, which says the opposite – that leaders benefit themselves at a cost to the group.

Source: Gillet, J., et al. 2010

According to social psychology there are two dominant understandings of the evolution of leadership. The first sees leadership as a kind of by-product of the struggle for social dominance. The struggle for dominance takes place because the winners secure better access to ‘reproductively relevant resources’ (I think this means mates). The dominant individuals by definition ‘occupy the top positions in the hierarchy’ and therefore ‘can exercise power over lower-ranked individuals’.

The second approach sees leadership not as a by-product of dominance battles but as a key aspect of group coordination: Leaders are useful to their followers ‘because they can reap the benefits of being in a highly coordinated and cohesive group.’

If these are the only two versions of leadership allowable, we have a big problem. The ‘selfish’ dominance model fits very well with the Individualism worldview of Cultural theory. In this worldview the purpose of leadership is to advance the individual. While not everyone actually is a leader, everyone theoretically could be. The individualist exhortation is to find the niche within which it is possible to fulfil one’s leadership potential. A hundred business speakers’ careers have thrived on this approach (a recent example of this trope in full swing is to be found in Seth Godin’s Lynchpin and Tribes books – strap line: we need you to lead us).

The ‘servant’ coordination model fits very well with the Egalitarian worldview of Cultural Theory. In this worldview the purpose of leadership begins and ends with the benefit of the group as a whole. Ideal leadership is somewhat communal (for example the group of presbyters who lead a Presbyterian church, replacing the individual bishop with a leadership group. The presbyters hire and fire the minister, not the other way around). Ideal decisionmaking is consensual, in which all make the leadership decisions (for example in a Quaker business meeting).

A working hypothesis based on Cultural Theory would be that these (dominance vs. coordination or selfish vs. servant) are only two of the possible four worldviews or cultural biases available. They are the two which fit along the Group axis. Strong Group is associated with servant leaders, which weak group is associated with selfish leaders. However, in Cultural Theory there is another axis, the Grid axis, which considers the relative significance of regulation, rules, expected social roles. A strong Grid approach to leadership makes leadership strongly deterministic. Weak Grid leadership takes little account of (or actively disparages) organised institutions of leadership. Weak Grid leadership produces two varieties just described – Selfish (Individualist) and Servant (Egalitarian). The two strong Grid leadership patterns are Hierarchical leadership and Fatalist leadership.

We could say that on the Grid axis we are measuring over-determined leadership vs. under-determined leadership.

In over-determined leadership there is a pre-established understanding and expectation of what the leadership roles will look like. In the struggle for dominance would-be leaders are not creating the social hierarchy from scratch, instead they are following well worn upward steps. The over-determined leadership contest asks, for instance ‘who will be the next king?’ The role of monarch already exists, it is well-defined and the would-be leaders vie with one another to fill the pre-existing role. Thus the nature of leadership itself is almost entirely unproblematic. A strong grid organisation will have an ideology that assumes the leadership roles are fixed eternally. This is certainly true of the monarchy, where it is mythologised that successive rulers all descend from one another (yet a brief overview of any monarchy will quickly show this to be a fabrication). But it is also true of a modern bureaucracy in which the name plate on the office door or car parking space shows the job title eternally unchanged but the individual title holder ephemeral (again, an examination of actual workplaces shows this to be a fiction – in many workplaces the individuals outlast the management reorganisations that create and destroy their job titles and whole departments regularly and almost ceaselessly).

The under-determined leadership contest, in contrast, actively worries about the nature of leadership itself. Roles, expectations, precedents are all much more fluid and subject to reinterpretation. Instead of slotting into a given role, weak Grid leaders bring with them their own leadership style. A clear example is Napoleon Bonaparte, who went from being a Corsican nationalist lieutenant Colonel to being a French republican captain then General then First Consul in a Republic (he wrote his own constitution) to Emperor in a self-created empire (he crowned himself and subsequently made kings of his brothers, brother-in-law and son). His political formation was in weak Grid Corsica: “As the nation [Corsica] was perishing I was born” (McLynn 1998: 37).

Napoleon was a consummate manipulator of other people’s expectations regarding leadership roles. On his return to France having escaped from the Isle of Elba (see photo at top) he faced unarmed and alone the French 5th Regiment that had orders to re-arrest him. “Here I am.” he told them, “Kill your Emperor if you wish.” Instead they shouted “Vive l’Empereur!” and marched with him to Paris to depose Louis XVIII (McLynn 1998: 605).

Mismatch hypothesis: ‘our modern environments look very different from our ancestral environments’ Example: why do we tend to vote for taller political candidates when height has nothing to do with their job as politicians.

The assumption being made here is that we are genetically predisposed to be impressed by tall people because our Stone Age ancestors were. But this is a cognitive trap, since it no longer matters how tall the leader is.

A counter-suggeston is that only certain cultural biases are interested in the height of the leader.  Individualist leadership is definitely interested, but only to the extent that height can be used as a proxy for individual prowess. Hierarchical leadership is impressed largely because height (like gender, race, age etc) is one more easy item to rank. Egalitarian leadership is quite unimpressed by height (in Australia, this tendency is known as the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and any potential leader who stands out above the crowd will be ruthlessly cut down to size). Fatalist leadership knows full well that one’s height is the luck of the draw.

Interestingly, despite his many and various leadership achievements, tall is one thing Napoleon wasn’t.

My suggestion: it’s the environment that creates the leadership much as the terrain creates the apparent complexity of the ant’s path across the beach (Simon 1969: 24-25; cf. Agre 1997: 56)

References

Avolio, B., Walumbwa, F. O., Weber, T. J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 421-449.

Gillet, J., et al. Selfish or servant leadership? Evolutionary predictions on leadership personalities in coordination games. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.003

Frank McLynn 1998 Napoleon . London: Pimlico.

Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja 2010 Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters. London: Profile.

Image Credit: CC, adapted from Gabriele Delhey/Wikimedia

A typology of disagreement

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry. France...

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How are differences of opinion to be characterised?

That is to say, if there is more than one opinion, what is its status in relation to the others? Are there different types of difference of opinion? It’s hard to write about this matter because as soon as we do so we resort to language that is essentially metaphorical. These metaphors condition our thought and tend to beg the questions. So, for instance, to use the term conflicting opinions or competing opinions or incommensurable opinions is to assume that conflict, competition or incommensurability is a given. Of course, ‘opinion’ itself is a matter of opinion. One person’s opinion is another person’s fact. Even the term difference is somewhat metaphorical. What if it turns out our opinions don’t actually differ, after all? Perhaps by means of  Hegelian synthesis or some such trick, they can be reconciled to one another.

Michael Ruse, author of Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, has written about the ways in which we can characterise the debate between science and religion.  He identifies four approaches, namely:

  • Warfare
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration

The contribution of this post is to suggest that these are not merely choices freely made but are pathways already prescribed by social circumstances. We can’t just wake up in the morning and decide that today the relationship between science and religion will be conflictual, and that tomorrow it will be dialogical. The social environment in which the relationship exists conditions to a large extent the way it is characterised. Our pre-existing assumptions and ways of organising make particular lines of reasoning seem ‘natural’ rather than ‘forced’. This point matters because of our tendency to see things as being ‘just the way they are’, without further reflection. If science and religion appear to be in conflict, we tend to jump straight to ontology (‘they just are in conflict – that’s how it really is’), without reflecting on our epistemology (‘how do we know how it really is?’). It is hard to see how the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers could stop being combative, or how the likes of the Catholic Church could stop trying to be all-encompassing. Notice that method and conclusion amount to the same thing.

The relationship between the four approaches identified by Prof Ruse can be clarified by means of Grid-Group Cultural Theory, under which rubric much thought has already gone into the cultural biases, or worldviews which shape our disagreements. Viewed in this context the religion/science debate tells us as much about the institutional framework of the debate as it does about the truth of the matter.

Approach     Metaphor     Typical institution       Cultural Bias

Warfare            Competition    the market                            Individualist

Independence Isolation          courtroom/prison              Fatalist

Dialogue          Consensus       deliberative democracy     Egalitarian

Integration     Nested Truth    bureaucracy                         Hierarchical

The dialogue approach is in the spirit of deliberative democracy, or of Jurgen Habermas’s communicative action.

The Integration approach is in keeping with Donald Davidson’s ideas expressed in his seminal article ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’. Differences of opinion are subordinated to a hierarchical concept of Truth.

The independence approach is in keeping with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of separate paradigms, or the idea of separate (perhaps overlapping) magisteria.

Finally the warfare approach is closest to an understanding of knowledge as competition, with the survival of the fittest and ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

My suggestion is that these types of disagreement don’t just apply to the science and religion debate, but to all disagreements. Michael Ruse has successfully described the totality of parsimonious ways in which a disagreement may be characterised in any field. These relate closely to the ideal type worldviews or cultural biases of Cultural Theory. An interim conclusion is that while you can have any facts you like, your choice of difference of opinion is strictly limited (Prof Marco Verweij’s ‘constrained relativism‘ perhaps).

Dirt – is it ‘matter out of place’?

Keep calm and pick up a broom

“The Wellcome exhibition starts with a quote from Mary Douglas, the great social anthropologist who wrote Purity and Danger. Dirt she defined as “matter out of place”. She remains a key thinker, prefiguring many of the bigger, better known French structuralists. In analysing taboos about the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, Douglas makes us see that context is everything. Dirt, then, is in the “eye of the beholder”.” [The Guardian]

Admirers of the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have appreciated the exhibition on dirt, which took place in 2011 at London’s Wellcome Gallery.

If dirt is a matter of cultural bias, the question of who cleans up becomes an important indication of social organisation.

Egalitarianism: Everyone cleans up; strong group motivation based on moral imperatives. Recent example: Egyptian revolution – the protesters cleaned up after themselves. Cleaning denotes status. Anyone seen to be not cleaning is morally inferior to the group.

Fatalism: No one cleans up. Why bother, it will just get messy again (and keeping it messy is an important, unstated method of social protest). ‘Mattter out of place’ isn’t ‘dirt’ – it’s a succinct description of the whole of life. Ability to cause dirt to someone else’s property denotes status. Example: graffiti.

Individualism: I’ll clean up! (There’s brass to be made from muck). Example: the entire recycling industry. The rag and bone man of my childhood.

Hierarchy: cleaning denotes status. The cleaners are socially lower than the cleaned. This is made to appear self-evident,obviously true, inevitable.

Mary Douglas saw dirt as ‘matter out of place’ not because dirt simply is matter out of place, in some essential or definitional sense, but because she tended to align herself with an Hierarchical view of the world. In hierarchical institutions ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is a key maxim. The parade ground, for instance, is proof that neatness, order and regimentation is everything. The strong assumption of the Hierarchy is that the army that walks together the most neatly is obviously the most intimidating and the most likely to win a battle. Extremely clean, neat, ironed and polished uniforms will definitely go a long way to providing certainty about a nation’s capacity to repel invaders.

Individualism will see dirt as matter under-priced. Treasure from trash is a leading business model.

Fatalism will see dirt as inevitable – and take a quiet, stoic pride in it.

Egalitarianism will see some kinds of dirt as proof that ‘we’re all in this together’. But large scale trans-national dirt like radiation or carbon dioxide is seen as a threat against which we need to all pull together as one.

See also: The Toxicity Panic

Image credit: Brett Jordan/Flickr