Random finds (2017, week 32) — On Secrets of Silicon Valley (part 1), Google and diversity, and a case of scientism

Mark Storm
Living the simple life in Dungeness — Beautiful architecture by architects Rodic Davidson.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne


Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity. With this week …

In Secrets of Silicon Valley, a two-part documentary series for the BBC, tech writer Jamie Bartlett tries to uncover the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. Part 1, The Disruptors, contains a poignant interview Sam Altman, who runs Y Combinator. He tells Bartlett that anyone who questions the wisdom of where we are heading is “anti-progress,” and finishes this nonsense with a long and chilling stare. Part 2, The Persuasion Machine, will be aired Sunday, August 13th at 8 p.m. (BBC Two, also available on BBC iPlayer).

The other, not so ‘secret’ thing about Silicon Valley, is the continuing debate about diversity, or, to be more precise, the lack of it. This week saw another chapter with a memo written by an anonymous Google employee. According to Ian Bogost, Google’s office culture is only part of the problem, while Julia Carrie Wong explains why all talk about diverse hiring inevitably becomes a discussion about ‘the pipeline.’

And also … professor of philosophy and Stoic scholar Massimo Pigliucci on the kerfuffle between two acclaimed academics, Michael Gervais about the difference between mastery and achievement, much needed Stoic thoughts from Barack Obama, and, to finish off with, beautiful coastal architecture by Rodic Davidson.


Secrets of Silicon Valley

The tech gods in Silicon Valley are selling us all a brighter future, but could the disruptive forces they are unleashing actually herald a much darker future?, tech writer Jamie Bartlett wonders in The Disruptors, the first of a two-part BBC series in which he explores what makes Silicon Valley such a force for change in all our lives.

Jamie Bartlett in front of Apple’s new $5 billion HQ. (Photograph: Tristan Quinn/BBC)

His search for answers starts with a visit to Rainbow Mansion. Home to “a bunch of global nomads who have come to Silicon Valley to pursue their dreams,” it calls itself “an intentional community of people working to optimise the galaxy.”

“Every Sunday night the Mansion hosts experts speakers. People come from all over Silicon Valley to share ideas. You can’t move without falling over a plan to solve one of the world’s pressing problems. Among this slightly cultish crowd, I found a man who scaled the heights of Silicon Valley. Bill Hunt created five start-ups he sold for half a billion dollars.” When asked what Hunt thinks is Silicon Valley’s attitude towards change — towards changing things, changing how industries work, changing how society works — he says, “There is a mind-set here that’s very focused on disruption. What can you do such that you’re not just talking about how we can make money, but how can we do things in a new way, in a better way, that makes the world better, both financially and socially? It’s thinking about, like, how do we get rid of this previous industry, this previous architecture, this previous system, and find a new way to do it, a way that’s better?”

“Rainbow Mansion represents what the dream of Silicon Valley is,” Bartlett tells us. “The idea that, just armed with a bit of technology and a thought about how to change the world, you can actually make it happen. That you can completely transform the way in which things are done, and that you can use technology in a way that will radically improve the lives of millions of people.”

The same fervour can be heard from the tech gods too. According to Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky, “To be disruptive means you’re changing the world.”

“It all sounds so hopeful, but behind Silicon Valley’s ideals of disruption is a more traditional business reality. Cold, hard cash. Start-ups are drawn to Silicon Valley because of another vast industry, venture capital. Financiers who gamble billions of dollars on young companies in the hope of finding another Facebook or Google. But investment has a consequence. The founders of the two most valuable start-ups here, Airbnb and Uber, have attracted billions of dollars of venture capital. Even though Airbnb has only just begun to turn a profit, and Uber has been losing billions.

Maybe more than profit, venture capitalists want to see the potential for profit, and that creates a huge pressure on these companies to show that they’re always growing. Increasing the number of customers as quickly as possible — ‘killing it,’ as they say here — is the start-up mantra. But was does it mean for Silicon Valley’s mission to build a better world?”

Bartlett takes us to San Francisco, home to Uber and Airbnb, to meet Uber’s Head of Transportation Policy, Andrew Salzberg.

Uber’s vision is “getting away from everybody needing to drive their own car everywhere they go,” Salzberg explains. This, he believes, will have positive consequences for how cities are designed and laid out, “from the amount of parking that we have, to the amount of fatalities on the road, as well as the environmental impact.” Does this make Uber a social mission or is it a profit-making company?, Bartlett wonders.

Uber is here “to make money as a private business,” Salzberg answers. “But as you start to get into different places, and you change how people use vehicles, then you have all these other effects that you start to open up.”

It seems there is no contradiction between chasing profit and claiming to be working for the good of humanity. “But disruption means what is says,” tells Bartlett. “Around the world, traditional taxi drivers have taken to the streets in protest of Uber undercutting their prices. It’s a classic example of Silicon Valley disruption — destroying old industries by providing a popular, cheap alternative. But the social cost of this disruption goes much further.”

Barlett takes us to India, home to more than a billion people and Uber’s top target for global growth. In Hyderabad, he explores the reality behind Uber’s promise to a new kind of flexible job, empowering its drivers, and sees for himself the human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision.

“With no profits and under huge pressure to grow against a strong local rival, Uber ran adverts on billboards and in the press, promising drivers up to £1,100 a month, around four times what these drivers had been earning.”

An Indian Uber commercial (2016) — “UberSHAAN is aimed at expanding access to economic opportunities and bringing down entry barriers for micro-entrepreneurs.”

But as car ownership in India is low, especially among those likely to drive for Uber, the company helped drivers borrow money to buy brand new cars. However, “[a]s the numbers of Uber drivers rose, the number of customers didn’t keep up, so earnings fell. With a ready supply of drivers, the company cut incentives too,” leaving many drivers with huge debts and no prospect of a substantial enough income to pay these off.

When Bartlett asked a former executive if Uber should have been more open with the drivers about how their salaries or incentives might change in the future, he answers, “Obviously, yes. Drivers were misled.”

“The mantra of Silicon Valley is that disruption is always good. And through smartphones and digital technology, we can create more efficient, more convenient, faster services. And everyone wins from that. But behind that beautifully designed app or that slick platform, there’s a quite brutal form of capitalism unfolding, and it’s leaving some of the poorest people in society behind.”

Back In Silicon Valley, Bartlett realises how much energy these tech titans devote to presenting themselves as the heroes of the people, taking on all kinds of vested interests.

“One of the most remarkable branding tricks of the 21st century has been the way that Silicon Valley has managed to persuade us that they’re not like other companies. I mean, when you think about banks, or big pharma, oil, you imagine them as driven only by profit. And yet Silicon Valley, we imagine, is different. They are puffed up with social purpose to improve the world, that they’re the good guys. The founders of Airbnb for example, are connecting the world, not simply allowing people to advertise holiday lets.”

Never A Stranger — Airbnb’s first global campaign (2015).

In San Francisco, Bartlett visits Airbnb’s HQ, where he meets with its Head of Global Policy, Chris Lehane, who, as Bill Clinton’s spin doctor, managed the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Bartlett wonders if Airbnb sees itself as ‘a big business.’ But despite being a global tech giant valued at around 31 billion, Lehane says, “We do like to think of ourselves as a different type of company. The founders’ initial ideas was make money off of what is typically your greatest expense, which is your housing, […] and that still remains true today. You know, over half the people who are on the platform are low to moderate income people, regular people. They use it to cover basic expenses, including the cost of their housing.”

He adds, “Our founders, they came u with a real vision here, and the vision was to be able to use the platform to connect people to people. We like to say, we are of the people, by the people, for the people, but really the use the platform so that people can spend time with one another. You think about what’s going on in the world today, and people are talking about building walls, closing doors, putting up barriers. A real question of whether we are going to have an open society or a closed society, and this is a place that is really focused on using technology to help create an open society.”

According to Bartlett, “Airbnb claims to be on the side of the little people, and the only losers from their disruption are traditional hotel owners. But that’s not how it feels in Barcelona” where a growing number of residents are protesting against the influx of visitors, which they believe is damaging the integrity of their city.

When asked for a reaction, Lehane explains that regulators and governments will have to catch up and change their policies to take account of this new reality. Bartlett sees this as “a classic argument from the disruptors. In fact, Silicon Valley seems to have a pretty dim view of governments in general. That is most evident when it comes to tax. You can get an idea of Silicon Valley’s attitude to tax by looking at how the companies behave in their own back yard.”

Lawrence ‘Larry’ E. Stone is Assessor for Santa Clara County, home to almost all the major corporations in Silicon Valley. These corporations pay a local property tax at a rate of one percent of the value of all their buildings and equipment. It’s the job of Stone and his team to work out the value of this property. As is turns out, most major corporations dispute the value of their property. Santa Clara County has about 70 billion dollars of assessed ‘value at risk’ that is being appealed or disputed, mostly by major corporations, says Stone. Apple alone disputes the 6.8 billion dollar assessment, claiming it’s only worth 57 million. “They are disputing 99 percent of their value,” according to Stone. If Apple’s appeal succeeds, 68 million of tax would be slashed to just over 0.5 million. And Apple isn’t the only tech titan filing local property tax appeals.

“Around the world, tech giants have been accused of aggressively minimising their tax bills. The EU is demanding Apple pay up to £11 billion of tax it says is owed to Ireland. But how they deal locally with these issues […] says something about the culture of these places, the general approach of always trying to minimise the tax they pay or trying to work around governments. It makes a lot more sense when you come here and you see how a company like Apple behaves in its own back yard.”

“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Detroit was the envy of the world. Today, Detroit is in bankruptcy. We could go the same way if we don’t solve our public education and if we don’t resolve the commitment to the community as a people, as citizens and corporations.” — Lawrence ‘Larry’ E. Stone, Santa Clara County Assessor

“Of course, there’s nothing new about technological disruption. Steam power, electricity, production lines destroyed the industries that existed before them and forced governments to change. The world survived, life got better.” The question now is whether the Silicon Valley revolution will be different. The next wave of disruption could tear apart the way capitalism works, and, as a result, the way we live our lives could be utterly transformed.

Next stop, early morning Orlando, Florida. Here, Bartlett meets with Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO and founder of Starsky Robotics which raised 5 million dollars to solve the primary logistical challenge for the trucking industry by taking drivers off the road and putting them in an office. Riding shotgun in a self-driving truck for more than a hundred miles on a highway, Barlett asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption — the automation of millions of jobs — will mean for all of us. Does Seltz-Axmacher worry about the possible downsides of automation? But Seltz-Axmacher is confident that “we will inevitably find more things to do as jobs.”

Stopping en route to solve a technical problem, Bartlett contemplates, “That’s exactly what Silicon Valley is about. One you are out there doing it and you’re dealing with real-life problems, things going slightly wrong and fixing them up, you ca them demonstrate to the world that we have made this thing work. We’re not going to wait around for all the regulations. And then, almost by virtue of demonstrating its power, it forces the world to change around it. And I think that’s what happens when you take this kind of disruption philosophy, this idea of Silicon Valley, getting out there, changing things and the making the world catch up with them. That’s why they have conquered the world.”

But history may not be a good guide to the consequences of the next wave of disruption. The difference is that Silicon Valley is using data and software so machines can learn how to do things better than humans. “So, how far is this going?,” Bartlett wonders.

To answer that question, Bartlett is meeting the Australian data scientist and entrepreneur Jeremy Howard, the founder at Enlitic, an advanced machine learning company that helps combat the shortage of doctors and radiologists in the developing world.

“It turns out that figuring out what’s wrong with you and figuring out how to make you better is just a data problem,” he says. Howard uses deep learning software to diagnose cancer from medical images. “The software learns from examples to identify patterns, like we do. It spots problems by inferring from what it has learned, becoming evermore accurate. […] The software that I built takes about 0.02 seconds to look at a CT scan [it takes us, humans, 10 to 15 minutes],” Howard says. “So we can look at a million CT scan like that, and because we’re using neural networks, deep learning, to do it, it can literally develop the same kind of intuition a radiologist has. Within two months, we had something that beat [a panel of] the world’s best radiologist to diagnose lung cancer.”

According to Howard, the next wave of technology could make work more efficient by removing us humans altogether. “People aren’t scared enough, you know,” Howard adds. “Far too many [smart] people are sounding like climate change denialists. They’re saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, there will always be more jobs.’ And it’s founded on this purely historical thing of like, ‘Oh, there’s been a revolution before. It was called the Industrial Revolution, and after it there was still enough jobs. Therefore, this new, totally different, totally unrelated revolution will also have enough jobs.’ But it’s a ludicrously short-sighted and meaningless argument, which incredibly smart people are making. The totally utopian and dystopian futures are like very clearly in front of us. And very clearly we could head down to either. Honestly, the status quo — do nothing and we end up there — will definitely be a dystopia, which is a tiny class of society owns all of the capital and all of the data, and everybody else has no economic value, is despised by the class that has things because they’re worthless, and massive social unrest.”

Howard is the first person who is “very, very plain about what’s happening. This technology is exponentially improving, it’s going to change everything and we ought to be pretty afraid about that,” Bartlett says. He now wants to find out how far those at the top of Silicon Valley are really thinking about how automation will change all our lives

So, he heads for Y Combinator which provides early stage funding for start-ups. There, Bartlett meets Sam Altman, Y Combinator’s President. More than anybody else in Silicon Valley, Altman is considered to be able to predict the future. “He’s like a kingmaker of Silicon Valley. He gets to choose what the big companies of tomorrow will be,” Bartlett tells us.

[JB] You’re considered, I think, in Silicon Valley as one of the people that sees the future better than most. So, what are you seeing?”

[SA] A friend of mine says the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that is a thought that was always stuck with me.

Thinking about what the future could be like after automation takes away the jobs of millions of us, Altman says …

[SA] We’re going to need to have new redistribution, we’re going to need to have new social safety nets. One thing, one product that I’m funding that we’re doing at Y Combinator is to study basic income, and what happens if you just give people money to live on. Because we have this world, we have huge wealth, but it’s very concentrated. What happens if you just give people money and say, you know, here’s enough money to have a house and eat, and to have fun?

“Technology magnifies differences, and it’s been replacing or obviating jobs for a long time. But what happens as that case accelerates? I’m not one of these doomsayers who says, ‘There will be no jobs.” — Sam Altman (Photograph by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

[JB] But do you think people would find fulfilment and all the other things, dignity in work for example, under a system where there’s a small number of very rich people, and they’re being given money to find things to do with their time? I mean, it sounds pretty terrible, pretty terrifying to me.

[SA] You have a very pessimistic view of the future. I hope you’re wrong. I believe that someone, you know, doing mechanical labour is not the best fulfilment of their dreams and aspirations.

[JB] But the problem, I think, or the thing that makes me pessimistic or nervous, is that society will have to change dramatically, and that’s quite worrying.

[SA] Look, I believe society will have to change dramatically. I think we’ve been through many of these changes before, and, look, I understand that people have this spirit of, ‘I’m going to hang onto the past at all costs, I hate progress and I hate change.’ And I hear that from you, I get it.”

[JB] It’s not that. It’s not hating progress. What if the progress that you’re, not just you, but the community here’s creating, is not what other people want?

[SA] There are 40 million people in the US that live in poverty. If technology can eliminate human suffering, we should do that. If technology can generate more wealth and we can figure out how to distribute that better, we should do that.

[JB] I think it’s an important job for journalists to try to ask about the negative possibilities of this stuff.

[SA] I think if you continue this thrust of, shouldn’t we stop progress, no-one’s going to take you seriously, because people want this stuff, and people don’t think we should still have people in poverty. People don’t think that we should take away our iPhones and take away Facebook. So I think you can add a really important voice, but I worry you’re going in the wrong direction with this, like, anti-progress angle.

Former Facebook executive Antonia Garcia Martinez at his remote island hideout, ready in case automation causes social breakdown. (Photograph: Tristan Quinn/BBC)

For now, Bartlett’s journey ends in the remote hideout of former Facebook executive Antonia Garcia Martinez who has literally armed himself with a gun because he fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. Garcia Martinez believes not enough technologists are speaking out and informing the general public. “You don’t realise, we are in a race between technology and politics, and the technologist are winning, they are way ahead. They will destroy jobs and disrupt economies way before we even react to them. And what we really should be thinking is about that.”

Bartlett ends The Disruptors by saying, “Preparing a survival plan is extreme. The coming wave of disruption could bring great benefits. But there’s a risk Silicon Valley’s promise to build a better world could inflict a nightmare future on millions of us. Politics, in the end, has to be able to take control of this technology, regulate it somehow, slow it down if that’s what people want, but make sure that the technology is being built for people, in a way that people want, in a way that society wants, and not just in the interests of a tiny number of incredibly rich people from the West Coast of America.”

To be continued next week …


Google and the lack of diversity

This week saw another chapter in the continuing debate about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s tech industry. But according to the author, game designer and professor of interactive computing Ian Bogost, Google’s office culture is only part of the problem.

“The Googler’s complaints assume that all is well in the world of computing technology, such that any efforts to introduce different voices into the field only risk undermining its incontrovertible success and effectiveness. But is the world that companies like Google have brought about really one worthy of blind praise, such that anyone should be tempted to believe that the status quo is worth maintaining, let alone celebrating?,” Bogost wonders in A Googler’s Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core.

“[I]t’s reasonable to sneer at the anonymous Googler’s simple grievances against workplace diversity. Supposedly natural differences between men and women make them suited for different kinds of work, he argues. Failure to accept this condition casts the result as inequality, he contends, and then as oppression. Seeking to correct for it amounts to discrimination. Rejecting these premises constitutes bias, or stymies open discourse. The Googler does not reject the idea of increasing diversity in some way. However, he laments what he considers discriminatory practices instituted to accomplish those goals, among them hiring methods designed to increase the diversity of candidate pools and training or mentoring efforts meant to better support underrepresented groups.

Efforts like these are necessary in the first place because diversity is so bad in the technology industry to begin with. Google publishes a diversity report, which reveals that the company’s workforce is currently composed of 31 percent women, with 20 percent working in technical fields. Those numbers are roughly on par with the tech sector as a whole, where about a quarter of workers are women.

Racial and ethnic diversity are even worse — and so invisible that they barely register as a problem for the anonymous Googler. […]

Given these abysmal figures, the idea that diversity at Google (or most other tech firms) is even modestly encroaching on computing’s incumbents is laughable. To object to Google’s diversity efforts is to ignore that they are already feeble to begin with.”

“All told, the business of computing is infiltrated with a fantasy of global power and wealth that naturally coheres to the entrenched power of men over generations. To mistake such good fortune for inborn ability is to ignore the existence of history.” — Ian Bogost in A Googler’s Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core

“Men — mostly white, but sometimes Asian — have so dominated technology that it’s difficult even to ponder turning the tables. If you rolled back the clock and computing were as black as hip-hop, if it had been built from the ground up by African American culture, what would it feel like to live in that alternate future — in today’s alternate present? Now run the same thought experiment for a computing forged by a group that represents the general population, brown of average color, even of sex, and multitudinous of gender identity.

Something tells me the outcome wouldn’t be Google and Twitter and Uber and Facebook. It’s depressing that it takes a determined exercise in speculative fiction even to ponder how things might be different were its works made by different hands.”

“One thing that will be clear is that the new culture wars will only grow more intense in Silicon Valley,” says Josh Horwitz in Google fired the author of the “anti-diversity” memo — and as a result, proved his point. (Photograph: Reuters/Morris Mac Matzen)

All talk about diverse hiring in Silicon Valley inevitably becomes a discussion about ‘the pipeline,’ Julia Carrie Wong writes in Segregated Valley: the ugly truth about Google and diversity in tech.

“The pipeline, the story goes, is the steady stream of able and willing workers that are pumped out of colleges and universities each year, computer science degrees in hand, ready to populate the tech company campuses that dot the suburbs of the Bay Area.

It’s not the fault of tech companies that the pipeline is overwhelmingly filled with white and Asian people, Silicon Valley’s defenders claim. It’s the fault of the education system. ‘Minorities are the minority by far in computing programs,’ conceded Dr Juan Gilbert, chair of the computer science and engineering department at the University of Florida.”

But there’s a problem with that argument, says Wong. “[B]lack students are earning computer science degrees at higher rates than they are being hired by Silicon Valley companies. In 2014, they received 9.7% of the bachelor degrees awarded in computer science, according to the National Science Foundation. ‘If the pipeline doesn’t lead anywhere, then all that work is for nought,’ said Catherine Bracy, co-founder of the TechEquity Collaborative. ‘The people who come out of those programs need to be able to find jobs in the industry.’

Silicon Valley companies don’t want students with computer science degrees from just anywhere, said Leslie Miley, the director of engineering at Slack. The founders and hiring managers […] want students with degrees from the same schools they went to.”

This preference for an elite resume severely restricts the so-called pipeline — and results in a much less diverse group of candidates for Silicon Valley jobs, Wong concludes.


And also …

It all began with a short BBC cartoon, aimed at an audience of children, and explaining basic facts about Ancient Roman life in Britain. It sparked a war on Twitter, involving two high-profile academics: historian Mary Beard and statistician Nassim Taleb.

“The kerfuffle began in earnest when Mary Beard tweeted that the video was ‘indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.’ Which I would have imagined is uncontroversially the case, since it is well known that the Roman Empire as a whole was highly diverse, and we have direct historical record of, for instance, one Governor of Britannia — Quintus Lollius Urbicus — who likely was a Berber from North Africa (specifically, modern Algeria). And Urbicus, based again on historical documents, was not an isolated case,” writes the professor of philosophy and Stoic scholar Massimo Pigliucci in Beard vs Taleb: Scientism and the Nature of Historical Inquiry.

After Beard’s modest comment comes this retort from Taleb: “Historians believe their own BS. Where did the sub-Saharan genes evaporate? North Africans were light-skinned. Only ‘Aethiopians,’ even then.” Adding, “We have a clear idea of genetic distributions hence backward composition; genes better statisticians than historian hearsay bullshit.”

“Setting aside the second use in a row of ‘bullshit,’ Taleb is simply wrong here, and I say this as a population geneticist, and despite his impressive-looking tables of statistical data, which he proceeded to Tweet shortly thereafter,” Pigliucci writes. “No, we don’t have a ‘clear idea’ of ancient genetic distributions, because we only have DNA data from modern populations, and a lot of assumptions and guesswork has to go to infer ancient population DNA profiles from current ones [see also Jennifer Raff’s If Mary Beard is right, what’s happened to the DNA of Africans from Roman Britain? in which she explains why a genetic legacy might not be seen in contemporary populations]. That is, genes are not ‘statisticians,’ they are one — important, but limited — piece of information about human history. And one can just as easily bullshit with statistics as one may with ‘anecdotal data.’ (Moreover, historical documents are not anecdotal data, they are individual pieces of evidence. Historical work is very akin to forensic work. Imagine a CSI operative looking at fingerprints clearly linking a suspect to a crime scene, shrugging her shoulders, and tossing them aside on the grounds that they are ‘anecdotal.’)”

“It feels very sad to me that we cannot have a reasonable discussion on such a topic as the cultural ethnic composition of Roman Britain without resorting to unnecessary insult, abuse, misogyny and language of war not debate (and that includes one senior academic). It’s a bit of a bleak outlook for how we might talk about modern ethnic diversity.” — Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, in Roman Britain in Black and White

“Genetic data is subject to interpretation like any kind of data. When something as trivial as a five-minute children’s video can inflame the culture wars, so will any genetics study that even touches on notions of race and ethnicity.” — Sarah Zhang in A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Besides, Pigliucci continues, “Nowhere did Beard claim that the presence of dark skinned individuals was ‘typical’ in Roman Britain. She only stated that there was such presence, period. For that kind of modest claim, and despite Taleb’s disdain for it, ‘anecdotal’ evidence is enough.”

“If anything,” Pigliucci argues, “Beard did not go far enough when explaining to Taleb the nature of historical evidence. Although historical research can and does benefit from statistical analyses […], history, like palaeontology and astronomy (the latter two obvious examples of historical sciences) can and do arrive at solid conclusions without statistics.”

“Welcome to Science Hell, Professor.” (Illustration by Tom Gauld)

But why should we care about this exchange between two academics?

According to Pigliucci, “it is representative of a malaise that has stricken a good chunk of academics […] and an increasing portion of the general public: scientism.” It’s mistake is “to elevate scientific knowledge and data crunching to a level of certainty and competence they most definitely do not have, while at the same time dismissing every other approach as obsolete nonsense.” And that’s exactly what Taleb does, Pigliucci argues.

“But human knowledge and understanding are not zero sum games. On the contrary, they work best when we expand, rather than artificially or ideologically limit, our methods and sources of evidence. The scientistic game is foolish not just because it is incoherent (what statistical, empirical evidence do we have that scientism works? What does that even mean?), but because it is dangerously self-serving. It makes a promise on behalf of science that science cannot possibly maintain. And this in the midst of an already strongly anti-intellectual climate where half of the American public, for instance, rejects the very notion of global warming and does not believe in the theory of evolution.

[…] Taleb, Beard, myself, and every other academic who takes the trouble to write for the public have a moral duty to be constructive, courteous, and careful with our evidence and arguments, practicing what is known as virtue epistemology. That, not name calling and insulting, is the way forward, in history, statistics, or any other field.”

As Mary Beard said, “We should reflect, I think.”


In Why True Mastery Isn’t About Achievement, Michael Gervais discusses with Angela Duckworth how a gritty mentality will bring you success, and how to walk the path of a master.

“Achievement, for me, is the demonstration of an advance in performance. It’s also popular in the sense that he or she “achieved” a certain amount of money or fame, or a certain outcome that they were working toward. For me, achievement is tangible, and it’s something that others can recognize.

Mastery is more of a path, and it’s about progression, about the long game toward a deep understanding of both self and craft. I think the difference between the two is the orientation of the requirement for outcome. For people in the path of mastery, outcome happens as a secondary expression, and for those that are oriented toward achievement, outcome is the primary goal.”


Some much needed Stoic thoughts from Barack Obama in a 2014 article by David Remnick for The New Yorker, Going The Distance:

“‘I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,’ Obama said. ‘I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.’”

Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States (2009—2017).

London-based Rodić Davidson Architects has built one of several architect-designed properties on the vast seaside landscape of Dungeness beach in Kent, England. Replacing an old fisherman’s cottage, North Vat is a two-storey home made up of three adjoining cabins, each with gabled profiles and dark-stained larch walls.

The architects wanted the building to reference Dungeness fishing huts and their bitumen-stained walls, but also to “break away from conventional layout and form.” Breaking the building up into three black-stained timber cabins was their way of achieving this.

“Our piece celebrates the inherent beauty of simple, ‘elemental’ forms, and explores how these can create complex spaces and experiences within a cluster,” according to Siniša Rodić. “All architectural clutter is removed in favour of creating this almost abstract composition.” (source: Dezeen)

Beautiful architecture — North Vat on Dungeness beach in Kent, England. (Photographs above and below by Rodić Davidson Architects)

“Politics, in the end, has to be able to take control of this technology, regulate it somehow, slow it down if that’s what people want, but make sure that the technology is being built for people, in a way that people want, in a way that society wants, and not just in the interests of a tiny number of incredibly rich people from the West Coast of America.” — Jamie Bartlett in Secrets of Silicon Valley


“The mistake of scientism is to elevate scientific knowledge and data crunching to a level of certainty and competence they most definitely do not have, while at the same time dismissing every other approach as obsolete nonsense.” — Massimo Pigliucci in Beard vs Taleb: Scientism and the Nature of Historical Inquiry

Mark Storm

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leadership confidant | executive mentor | leading a life of questioning and critical thinking | varius multiplex multiformis

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