Saturday, November 27, 2010

The McCaskey Mess

Anyone who follows the Objectivist world probably has heard about John McCaskey’s resignation from the board of the Ayn Rand Institute over his Amazon review of David Harriman’s The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. I don’t have the time nor interest to rehash the gory details of this incident. Others have done an admirable job detailing and analyzing the tsunami of consequences that has washed across the shores of the Objectivist work. For anyone reading this who is not aware of these events here is a short and admittedly incomplete list. A list of links to other commentaries is provided at the end.

  • John McCaskey, who holds a doctorate from Stanford University in the history of science, who teaches at Stanford and who was a board member of ARI, wrote an Amazon review of David Harriman’s The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. (According to Wikipedia, McCaskey also “organized the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship, which provides grants for scholarly work on Objectivism in academia.”) His review starts with this statement: “Readers of the book should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves.” After explaining the reasons for this statement McCaskey concludes with: “The theory of induction proposed here is potentially seminal; a theory that grounds inductive inference in concept-formation is welcome indeed. But the theory is still inchoate. If it is to be widely adopted, it will need to be better reconciled with the historical record as the theory gets fleshed out and refined.
  • McCaskey resigned from ARI after Peikoff wrote a letter in which he said: “When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me – I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism – is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded, someone has to go, and someone will go. It is your prerogative to decide whom.”
  • Leonard Peikoff issued a subsequent letter explaining his position. He notes: Because some people have turned the dispute into a moral issue, I should state the full truth, which is not stated in the letter: I have, for years, long before Harriman’s book, condemned McCaskey morally: I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual.” He also states: “An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with ‘freedom’ for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology.”
  • Yaron Brook, speaking on behalf of ARI, posted a statement containing this: “The substantive issue that Dr. Peikoff raised—whether a person who does not support a central ARI project should sit on the Board—was itself a very serious one. In addition, the Board had the practical, moral, and fiduciary responsibility to avoid needlessly damaging our important relationship with Dr. Peikoff. Dr. Peikoff founded ARI, served as its first Board chairman, and has continued to provide ARI with moral, financial, and practical support over the 25 years of ARI’s existence. As Ayn Rand’s heir, he has been very generous in giving Ayn Rand’s materials to the ARI Archives, with much more planned for the future. In these and many other ways, Dr. Peikoff’s ongoing support is important to ARI; we are certainly interested in hearing his thoughts and analyses, and we give them due weight in our deliberations.” This could hint at stronger disagreements between McCaskey and ARI than was revealed publicly.
  • Craig Biddle, founder and editor of The Objective Standard, published a statement titled “Justice for John P. McCaskey”.
  • In turn ARI canceled a lecture series by Craig Biddle.
  • Biddle removed Yaron Brook’s name from the masthead of The Objective Standard.

In light of the above here are some observations.

  • I don’t see anywhere in Peikoff’s or Brook’s responses a direct challenge of McCaskey’s points about Harriman’s book.
  • I was not familiar with McCaskey before this controversy. After this story broke I visited his web site where a series of his publications, lectures and presentations are posted, most of which deal with the history of science or induction. As most people know Stanford has a strong reputation. It’s not like McCaskey is teaching at some no-name community college. If anyone among the ARI crew could test Harriman’s thesis it would appear that McCaskey has the qualifications.
  • When Peikoff states that McCaskey is an “obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual.” I don’t see an explanation how these traits, if true, are moral failings. Maybe Peikoff would argue that a person with these traits is lying to himself and others. I’ve met people who rubbed me the wrong way; I didn’t consider them to be immoral. Mistaken maybe. Or delusional. But not necessarily immoral.
  • As stated before McCaskey raised issues with the historical background in The Logical Leap, not with its thesis. Maybe he challenged the book’s thesis privately with his ARI colleagues. If McCaskey did harbor serious reservations at least he didn’t publicly broadcast it. Nonetheless, given his credentials and expertise of anyone in ARI I’d say McCaskey is qualified to question the book.
  • It’s also obvious to me that ARI is handcuffed because of Peikoff’s hold on Rand’s “materials.”

I’ve written before that ARI has done an admirable job representing Objectivism in various media outlets in a principled manner but without the extreme polemics that can alienate the general public. This affair will somewhat undermine those efforts and will provide additional ammunition to Rand’s detractors who feel Objectivism is a sham philosophy. I’m sure ARI will lose some supporters because of McCaskey’s treatment but I think it’s premature to predict ARI’s demise. They still will have the steady influx of new readers who will find references to ARI in Rand’s novels in addition to ARI’s distribution of 400,000 of Rand’s novels as part of their essay contest. (An advantage that The Atlas Society does not enjoy, not that this is the only reason for their struggles.)

I think this incident opened the eyes of some people who aligned themselves with ARI. They were caught by surprise by the reaction to McCaskey’s review and how he and others who took his side were treated. For others such an episode was not so surprising. It was just a matter of time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard - Review

The Heath brothers did it again. Earlier I reviewed their book Made To Stick dealing with how to create memorable messages. It stuck with me, becoming one of my favorites because the Heaths have the ability to condense their massive research into easy-to-remember principles. In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard they’ve aimed their same approach at change. Specifically, how do we change things in our lives? Almost all of us have tried to change something in our lives. Losing weight. Getting into better shape. Not procrastinating. But many of us even if we change we often slip back into our former habits. Why? Is there a way we can follow to increase the stickiness of change? The Heath brothers say there is.

The Heaths observe: “All change efforts have something in common: For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently. … successful changes share a common pattern.”

Before getting into the details of this common pattern Chip and Dan first tackle the nature of the key element of change: our brains. They rely on the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis (reviewed here). Haidt’s research lead him to conclude that the emotional side of our brain is like an Elephant while our rational side is similar to a Rider who tries to rein in the elephant and seems to be the leader. However the Rider’s ability to control the elephant is tenuous because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. The roots of our emotional mechanism are deep in our ancestry while the rational part of our brain evolved only recently in terms of our total history.

This approach treads into largely uncharted territory for Objectivists. The elephant side of our nature gets very little billing in the Objectivist literature. We hear precious little about the second half of the definition of man as a rational animal. In fact our rational side is supposed to be able to dictate all of our behavior and totally control the subconscious and the brain’s subsystems.

I’ll admit that there is a potential weakness in Haidt’s research methods as well as others who come to similar conclusions. Objectivists could argue that the people being studied have accepted their moral premises by unthinking osmosis and therefore allow their Elephant to rule the Rider. However even if the Objectivists are right the fact remains that our rational cortex represents a thin, recently added layer on a brain with many other mechanisms rooted deeply in the dark earth of our animal ancestry. At the very least these facts should lead us to conclude that maintaining our objectivity represents a far stronger challenge than Objectivists acknowledge.

The Heaths go on to say the Elephant often wants a quick payoff with minimal effort while the Rider plans for the future. “When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.” This ties into their advice later in the book.

The Heaths’ reach three conclusions about trying to switch using sheer will power and self-control.

  1. “Self-control is an exhaustible resource.” Meaning, our Elephant can wear out our limited supply of self-control.
  2. “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” When we give up we might write it off as being just lazy when we’re really wearing ourselves out.
  3. “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” If we don’t have a clearly defined and visualized end point we won’t know our ultimate goal.

These conclusions lead to their framework for change.

  1. “Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.”
  2. “Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. … So it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side – get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.”
  3. “Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. … When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.”

For each of these parts of the framework Switch lays out advice on how to accomplish them. For instance, in directing the rider we can find the bright spots to help our motivation, script the critical moves to clearly define key steps and point to the destination. To motivate the elephant we find the feeling associated with our goals, find ways to shrink the change to make them less daunting and, for managers and leaders, help your people grow. (This ties into having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.) To shape the path we can tweak our environment, build habits and rally the herd.

Once we follow the path laid out by the Heaths they tell us how the “keep the switch going.” They point out that we use a positive approach instead of punishment, citing the results of animal trainers who “set a behavioral destination and then use ‘approximations,’ meaning that they reward each tiny step toward the destination. … We need to be looking for bright spots – however tiny! – and rewarding them.”

Ultimately Switch shows that there is a lot more to changing than sheer will power and repeating positive affirmations. Change requires a variety of tools and techniques that help the Rider chart a course and keep the Elephant reasonably in line.

Bottom line: I highly recommend Switch. Following it advice will help make change easier when change is hard.