Random finds (2016, week 45–46) — On populism and loss of reason, rebels with a cause, and our over-reliance on data

Mark Storm
15 min readNov 18, 2016


Light, geometry and symbolism: how Jean Nouvel’s architecture reimagines culture. (source: Aeon Magazine)

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking.

On populism and loss of reason

“We have lost our reason, and our loss is no accident. Gradually, the contemporary West has become more and more dismissive of the power of reason. Caring for it less, we often find we have carelessly left it behind. When we do try to use it, we’re not quite sure how to do so. We have become suspicious of its claims, unwilling to believe that it can lead us to anything worthy of the name ‘truth’,” the English philosopher and, by now, a regular in these Random Finds, Julian Baggini writes in the opening pages of The Edge of Reason. A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, his latest book in which he attempts a rehabilitation, the first stage of which is to work out what reason really is.

We have expected too much from reason, he argues, while losing sight of the reasoner herself. Philosophers want as little as possible to depend on judgement, which is seen as polluting disinterested purity. Plato exhorted us to follow the argument wherever it leads, as if reason were an impersonal force inexorably dictating what we argue about and compelling the arguer to a single conclusion. But according to Baggini, there rarely is one. Judgement is “philosophy’s dirty secret,” and not just philosophy’s. Even in determining the truth of a scientific explanation, Baggini reminds us, there is no formula that enables theory, evidence or argument to reach right the way up to a determinate conclusion. Scientists variously favour observation over theory, and follow allurements of beauty, elegance and simplicity.

When asked in a recent interview with The Irish Times in what way Baggini thinks reason is under fire, he answers: “First and most recently, the widely documented loss of faith in experts and elites assumes that having greater knowledge and experience in thinking about issues counts for nothing and could even get in the way of a superior common sense. The brain is seen as having failed us and so the gut is trusted instead.”

“We seem to be developing an allergy to expertise, widening the gulf between a know-it-all liberal elite and regular, down-to-earth folk. Politicians wield the term ‘common sense’ to exploit that divide.” — Rhodri Marsden

In What is common sense?, also Rhodri Marsden argues that, in the West, we seem to be developing an allergy to any form of expertise, widening the gulf between a know-it-all liberal elite and regular, down-to-earth folk. According to Marsden, “politicians wield the term ‘common sense’ in an attempt to exploit that divide, and we see the same strategy used by the British media; right-wing columnists such as Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson will ‘tell it like it is’ or ‘call it as they see it,’ and we either cheer or hiss, depending on our political hue. The comedian Al Murray, in his guise as the xenophobic, self-contradicting Pub Landlord, has mined a rich seam of gags by satirising this kind of thinking, recycling phrases such as ‘it stands to reason.’ ‘it’s staring you in the face’ and ‘it’s common sense’ as he makes a case for British superiority, or bemoans the confused thinking behind hummus.”

“One thing is evident,” Marsden writes, “arguments that appear to lack sophistication certainly don’t lack appeal” — something that both the British EU referendum campaign and the recent American presidential elections have made absolutely clear.

According to Leave campaigner and Conservative MP Michael Gove , the British people “have had enough of experts.” (Photograph: Getty)

In the final chapter of The Edge of Reason, which is entirely about political reason, Baggini writes about the threats to (political) pluralism, which role is to “balance and negotiate between competing claims and demands so as to enable many compatible goods from different incompatible positions as possible.” Political pluralism isn’t the same as democracy, and democracy in itself is far from sufficient to create a fair and decent pluralist society. In a democracy, a majority could promote only its own interests and ignore those of minorities, abandoning pluralism. In order to avoid slipping into this kind of ‘majoritarianism,’ “democracy needs to be combined with some kind of embrace of pluralism, so that it becomes a means of negotiating different interests and visions of the good life and not merely a way of deciding collectively which one path to follow.” Yet, in many Western democracies, pluralism is under serious threat from populism, which isn’t limited to authoritarian movements or the fringes of Western society anymore, but has, by now, infected mainstream politics.

Populism is not defined by right and left, nor even by the virtue of its goals: think Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Populism is rather a way of doing politics that has three key features. First, as already mentioned, it has a disdain for elites and experts of all kinds. Second, it supposes that the purpose of politics is simply to put into action the will of the people, who are seen as homogenous and united in their goals. Third, it proposes straightforward, simple solutions to what are in fact complex problems.

In the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ (defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief) international word of the year. (Source: The Guardian)

“Populist discourse undermines all the key underpinnings of political pluralism,” Baggini writes. Its logic is toxic as it denies the possibility of meaningful disagreement about issues of major political significance. “In place of reason, it puts conviction; in place of evidence, the seeming self-evidence of common sense.” However, the threat from populism doesn’t come directly from populist parties. It comes from “the way in which mainstream politics is increasingly being conducted in the populist mode. The rise of populist parties has exacerbated this problem, by encouraging mainstream parties to adopt their rhetoric.”

But the root of the problem lies deeper than this. The root is a shift from real politics — from the messy compromises between competing interests — to political consumerism, which is nothing more than giving people what they want without the mediation of politicians or experts. This inevitably leads to policies that are being driven by opinion polls. The irony, says Baggini, is that “precisely by trying to pander to the will of the majority, the mainstream political parties have caused a dislocation between political elites and the public, creating the conditions for populism.” No matter how hard they try to give people what they want, mainstream parties will always belong to ‘them’ whose job it is to serve ‘us.’

“Populism leads to the promise of simpel solutions that cannot be delivered, while removing from the public square the more nuanced kind of discourse that is needed to explain why it can’t work.” — Jullian Baggini

“This means we are living in a dangerous time for genuine democracy. The populist mode of politics — which is in essence an anti-politics — has has become part of ordinary politics. This insidiously undermines the very foundations of a democratic, pluralistic state, replacing any sense of the need for reasoned dialogue, compromise and accommodation with the simplistic idea that the governments’ role is to reflect the clear, unified will of the people.”

What is needed to counter populism and protect pluralism is “nothing less than a renewal of politics as an arena of difference, debate and diversity, where everyone’s interests and concerns are included.” Politics, Baggini argues, must become centered around reasoned discussion. To achieve this, mainstream politicians must refuse to tell people what they most want to hear. “It’s a bitter pill but it can be sugared by celebrating the ability of already existing pluralist nations to accommodate different values, without losing those core values which allow for the rule of law and respect for the rights of all. Even is we are pessimistic about the chance of changing our political culture to make it more reasoned, we have little choice but to try.”

Reason might seem to be a meagre defense against such dangers, but it’s the only one we’ve got.

More on reason in Reasons for Reason by Michael P. Lynch in New York Times (2011).

“Without a common background of standards against which we measure what counts as a reliable source of information, or a reliable method of inquiry, and what doesn’t, we won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values.” — Michael P. Lynch

On rebels with a cause

Being a rebel with a cause will boost your career and enrich you personally, says Francesca Gino, who is “a curious behavioral scientist” and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

According to a survey conducted by Gino of more than 1,000 employees in various fields, less than 10% reported working at companies that actually encouraged challenging the status quo. “Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation,” Gino writes in Let Your Workers Rebel.

The pressure to conform increases as people advance in their careers; sheep are easier and more efficient to manage than wolves, and most of us simply prefer to follow the herd. A study on peer pressure by psychologist Solomon Asch from the 1950's found that 75% of people will pick an answer they know is wrong just to fit in.

In a notable passage of Hamlet, Polonius exhorted his departing son, Laertes, to live to the full extent of his humanity: “This above all: to thine own self be true, […] Thou canst not then be false to any man” (Shakespeare, 1603/1885, Act 1, Scene iii). Not just the province of a Shakespearean turn of phrase, the desire to be authentic — to act in accordance with one’s own sense of self, emotions, and values — seems to be a driving force of human nature (Gecas, 1986, 1991). (source: The Moral Virtue of Authenticity: How Inauthenticity Produces Feelings of Immorality and Impurity, by Francesca Gino, Maryam Kouchaki, and Adam D. Galinsky.

Our perception of what is acceptable to others influences how we dress, what we say, what feelings we express, whose views we agree with, and even how we process information. This desire to conform compels us to go along to get along; it seems easiest, wisest and most polite. But according to Gino, people are more successful and fulfilled if they adopt constructive nonconformism and are true to themselves. This will in turn, also benefit the organization they work for.

Jackson Pollock — Rebel With A Cause. (PEEK Films for Christie’s, 2013)

“Few leaders actively encourage deviant behavior in their employees; most go to great lengths to get rid of it,” Gino writes. “Yet nonconformity promotes innovation, improves performance, and can enhance a person’s standing more than conformity can. For example, research I conducted with Silvia Bellezza, of Columbia, and Anat Keinan, of Harvard, showed that observers judge a keynote speaker who wears red sneakers, a CEO who makes the rounds of Wall Street in a hoodie and jeans, and a presenter who creates her own PowerPoint template rather than using her company’s as having higher status than counterparts who conform to business norms.”

Gino’s research also shows that “going against the crowd gives us confidence in our actions, which makes us feel unique and engaged and translates to higher performance and greater creativity. In one field study, I asked a group of employees to behave in nonconforming ways (speaking up if they disagreed with colleagues’ decisions, expressing what they felt rather than what they thought they were expected to feel, and so on). I asked another group to behave in conforming ways, and a third group to do whatever its members usually did. After three weeks, those in the first group reported feeling more confident and engaged in their work than those in the other groups. They displayed more creativity in a task that was part of the study. And their supervisors gave them higher ratings on performance and innovativeness.”

Leaders shouldn’t ask, “Who agrees with this course of action?” or “What information supports this view?” Instead they should ask, “What information suggests this might not be the right path to take?”

In Let Your Workers Rebel, Gino provides us with six strategies that can help leaders encourage constructive nonconformity in their organizations and themselves. One of them is to voice and encourage dissenting views.

“We often seek out and fasten on information that confirms our beliefs,” Gino says. “Yet data that is inconsistent with our views and may even generate negative feelings (such as a sense of failure) can provide opportunities to improve our organizations and ourselves. Leaders can use a number of tactics to push employees out of their comfort zones.” She suggests to look for disconfirming evidence, create dissent by default, or identify courageous dissenters. But remember, not even rebels can break all the rules or create chaos on the job. Be flexible and agile, and rebellion will speed up processes and be appreciated, the professor promises. You’ll stand out, feel better about your work, and be more successful in your career as your true self emerges and your value becomes apparent.

A bit more …

The view that more information produces better decisions is at odds with the world around us.

According to James Bridle in What’s wrong with big data?, “big data is not merely a business buzzword, but a way of seeing the world. Driven by technology, markets and politics, it has come to determine much of our thinking, but it is flawed and dangerous. It runs counter to our actual findings when we employ such technologies honestly and with the full understanding of their workings and capabilities. This over-reliance on data, which I call ‘quantified thinking,’ has come to undermine our ability to reason meaningfully about the world, and its effects can be seen across multiple domains.”

‘More information’ does not produce ‘more truth,’ it endangers it. We cannot stand as dispassionate observers of supposedly truth-making processes while they continue to fail to produce dispassionate ends. Rather, we need to restate in new terms, in light of our technologies and in respect of them, the importance of acknowledging complexity and doubt in our thinking about the world.

“It has taken 20 years of blind faith in data to realise the limitations of this approach, and for advocates to start to make the case for those messier empiricisms once again. The highly successful pharmaceutical researcher Sir James Black, best known for his work developing beta-blockers to treat heart disease, coined the word ‘obliquity’ to describe this basic principle: ‘you are often most successful in achieving something when you are trying to do something else.’ In light of this realisation, many drug companies are today seeking to combine HTS with broader, human-led exploration of chemical space.”

In dark times, it’s tempting to give up on politics. The philosopher Charles Taylor explains why we shouldn’t.

“Plato proposed a republic run by enlightened philosophers, and Taylor has some ideas about what he might do if he were in charge,” Joshua Rothman writes in How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy. In big cities, he told me, it’s easy for people to feel engaged in the project of democracy; they’re surrounded by the drama of inclusion. But in the countryside, where jobs are disappearing, main streets are empty, and church attendance is down, democracy seems like a fantasy, and people end up ‘sitting at home, watching television. Their only contact with the country’s problems is a sense that everything’s going absolutely crazy. They have no sense of control.’ He advocates raising taxes and giving the money to small towns, so that they can rebuild. He is in favor of localism and ‘subsidiarity’ — the principle, cited by Alexis de Tocqueville and originating in Catholicism, that problems should be solved by people who are nearby. Perhaps, instead of questing for political meaning on Facebook and YouTube, we could begin finding it in projects located near to us. By that means, we could get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale. (It would help if there were less gerrymandering and money in politics, too)”

To Taylor’s way of thinking, the problem with this election wasn’t that it was divisive but that, for too many people, it felt meaningless. (Illustration by Rebecca Clarke)

“Real problems are difficult to solve,” says Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, in Anger, Disgust, Fear: Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame.

“Fantasies of purity and retribution are more consoling than the sticky and recalcitrant reality. We’ve known this forever: we tell ourselves comforting stories in which the ugly disgusting blameworthy villain is obliterated. The witch goes into the oven. Or, as in the book of Revelation, the pure people drive their hideous enemies into oblivion.”

“What is the other possibility? We know intellectually what it is: constructive problem-solving work, hope and cooperation. But how do we make this real in our hearts, when emotions prompt us to recoil from people with whom we need to cooperate?

There is no easy answer. Compassionate love is not a lovely sentiment, as Martin Luther King, Jr. often said. It takes patience, self-discipline and hard work. But if we understand that our emotions, despite their roots in natural tendencies, are also culturally constructed and malleable, we know that this work can bear fruit.”

After 1989, all the talk was of the ‘end of history’ in democracy and the market economy and today we are experiencing the emergence of a new phenomenon in the form of an authoritarian/populist leadership — from Putin via Erdogan to Donald Trump. Clearly, a new ‘authoritarian international’ is increasingly succeeding in defining political discourse. Was the German-British philosopher and political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf right in forecasting an authoritarian 21st century? Can one, indeed must one speak of an epochal change?

“The economic globalisation that Washington introduced in the 1970s with its neoliberal agenda has brought in its wake, measured globally against China and the other emergent BRIC countries, a relative decline of the West. Our societies must work through domestically the awareness of this global decline together with the technology-induced, explosive growth in the complexity of everyday living. Nationalistic reactions are gaining ground in those social milieus that have either never or inadequately benefited from the prosperity gains of the big economies because the ever-promised ‘trickle-down effect’ failed to materialise over the decades.” — Jürgen Habermass in For A Democratic Polarisation: How To Pull The Ground From Under Right-Wing Populism.

From Richard Branson to Bill Gates, ‘creativity’ ranks as one of the top ten traits of all billionaire entrepreneurs across the globe. This despite the fact that engineering, medicine, business and the professions have long held the high ground of traditional academic degrees. That said, will we soon see the demise of the MBA?

“Today’s successful engineer should be driven by business and technical knowledge together with art. We are living in a transition time and this time calls for new models, a new management mindset and new management tools. Art is an important, dynamic part of the mould that makes up the progressive business climate today. Should we be studying Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare at the same time as the management theories of Peter Drucker? One thing is for certain: relying on ‘business as usual’ in today’s landscape is as good as staying on board a sinking ship.” — Fiona (McIntyre) Fitness in Is a Master of Fine Arts the ‘new MBA’?

In Bolivia, the glaciers are melting. Samuel Mendoza is looking out of a window on the rooftop of the world. His whole life, Samuel worked where his father died. He became ‘the man of the ski lift.’ But the heyday has passed. From 2009 onwards, the snow has completely disappeared. The wheel stopped turning, the motor wasted away. Now, Samuel dedicates his days to the maintenance of the buildings and sporadically receiving a handful of tourists, while he continues to hope for the snow to return.

Samuel in the Clouds is a stunningly beautiful and impressive film by the Belgium director Pieter Van Eecke.

Giovanni Pintori (1912–1999) was an Italian graphic designer and painter, who is most famous for his advertisement posters for Olivetti typewriters dating from 1936 to 1967. His signature was a constant attempt to show, in quite a direct way, the complexity of technology and how it could enhance human creativity. Graphic metaphors were created through the combination of small elements in more complex systems, repeated visual patterns and color schemes. (Source: Dynamic Minimalism: Posters for Olivett by Giovanni Pintori, by Fosco Lucarelli for Socks)

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” — John Maynard Keynes



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought