I listened to the eminent evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins promoting his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, on the radio. He discussed the role of scientific method and evidence, particularly in relation to the Brexit vote. He began by saying that nothing so important as staying in, or leaving the EU should hinge on a binary yes/no vote. But he then went on to extol the virtues of scientific method, which in his radio interview, and in the introduction to the book, he argues should be the preeminent method for making decisions about the world, including Brexit. We should seek out the evidence, public and private, and make our decision according to that. For Dawkins, scientific method is predicated on removing prejudice and gut feeling, indeed all feelings, from rational decision-making and is as relevant to making political decision making as it is to discovering more about the natural world. The best example of a method which does this is the double blind randomised control trial, the gold standard of medical research. He declared that he didn’t want his politicians to be emotional, but rather he wanted them to make the best possible decision, rationally, and on the basis of the best possible evidence. Continue reading
If you can prevent yourself following the footnotes to the end of the post, try and guess who offered this critique of scientific method when applied to the social:
“Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.”
Perhaps this is a quotation from a post-Marxist sociologist, or a post-modern relativist worthy of being mocked by natural scientists such as Alan Sokal?
How about this quotation from the same person on the limitations of modeling social phenomena using statistical methods:
“Statistics of limited use because it proceeds on the basis of reducing complexity: it deliberately ignores the structure into which the individual elements are organized. We can talk in generalities, if, all things being equal, certain patterns will occur. We should have developed beyond the understanding that we are in search of simple regularities which will help us with predicting events. The idea that to be scientific we have to produce laws has proved very harmful.”
Maybe these are the thoughts of a famous social anthropologist or a critical management scholar?
Or lastly, the observations of our eminent mystery guest on social complexity:
“Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known by anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. Consequently, the concept becomes particularly important when we turn from mechanical to such ‘more highly organized’ or essentially complex phenomena as we encounter in the realms of life, mind and society. Here we have to deal with ‘grown’ structures with a degree of complexity which they have assumed, and could assume only because they were produced by spontaneous ordering forces.”
Perhaps this is a contemporary of Norbert Elias, another process sociologist? Or perhaps another pragmatist arguing that ‘mind and culture developed concurrently rather than successively’? Continue reading
The UK is experiencing a big series of changes which are being introduced at breakneck speed by the new coalition government. The most dramatic changes are taking place in the public sector: schools are being heavily encouraged to become academies which are independent of local authorities: health budgets will be transferred to GPs; the financial settlement on local authorities is being drastically cut back which will lead to widespread loss of jobs, and even the defence forces will be scaled back. This will be accompanied by a huge hike in fees for students wanting to study at university, accelerating the transition from understanding education as a public good to privatising and individualising it. One theme of justification put forward by the current government, which is a familiar one amongst conservatives everywhere, is that the public sector is ‘unproductive’ and ‘crowds out’ the private sector. Cutting back the public sector thus allows the private sector to flourish just as cutting back shrubs in the garden enables border plants to thrive.
All governments are ideologically committed even when they are pretending not to be. So for example the Blair government in the early years talked of having moved beyond ideology, following Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor, Anthony Giddens: not left, not right, but what works was the mantra for at least the first term (Giddens’ work Beyond Left and Right: the Future of Radical Politics was published in 1994). There was much talk of ‘evidence-based policy’ until a series of high-profile occasions where government ministers took decisions that seemed to fly in the face of the evidence they were being offered by leading scientists (see previous post). What Giddens was suggesting, and what the new Blair government wanted to believe, was that it could be possible to come up with policies with which all rational-thinking people could agree. Somehow political policies could be ‘objectively’ correct, because they were based on ‘the evidence’. The idea, then, is that evidence interprets itself: the ‘science’ , according to ministers, speaks for itself. What policies meant in terms of value propositions were thought to be of secondary importance, or of no importance at all, until of course the values-implications of certain courses of action became obvious even to government ministers themselves and could not contemplate carrying them out despite ‘the evidence’. Continue reading
In an article coming out next month (Vol 30, 2010) in the Journal of Public Administration and Development I responded to an invitation to write about the future of development management from a complexity perspective. This involved forming a view as to whether there is such a thing as development management, as well as dealing with ideas about how the future arises from the present. On what basis might one predict a future for anything, and what would these predictions say about our theories of causality?
The article argues that development management borrows heavily from management ideas that prevail in other sectors, particularly but not exclusively, New Public Management. In other words, many of the concepts, assumptions, grids, frameworks and instruments of management that get taken up widely in the public sector, and in the private sector, are also widely used in development organisations. One is just as likely to find managers in development organisations talking about their ‘niche’ and their ‘brand’, undertaking strategic planning, setting ‘stretch targets’, and worrying about effectiveness and efficiency as in any other sector. There are obvious differences, but at the same time managers in development organisations are working with very similar theories, implicit or explicit, to those adopted by managers in all kinds of other organisations. Is this such a surprise if they have management qualifications from the same business schools?
I have just finished reading Gillian Tett’s book on the financial meltdown: Fool’s Gold: how unrestrained greed corrupted a dream, shattered global markets and unleashed a catastrophe. Tett is a deputy editor on the London-based Financial Times and has written a perspective on the crisis largely from the point of view of a group of bankers in J.P.Morgan whom she claims invented and promoted some of the financial instruments that eventually led to such an earthquake for all of us.
What is there to find in this account from the perspective of someone who takes an interest in complex social processes, power and paradox?
I recently served on an interview panel for a senior management post for a small not for profit. It was an interesting experience for encountering in condensed form how a sample of candidates, all with pretty good experience and qualifications for the job, understand the practice of management.
The first thing three of the five candidates picked up on is the fact that the organisation’s strategy document is not written conventionally. It does not have a vision, mission and values statement from which all work is understood to flow. Instead it sets out an overview of the work currently undertaken, has an assessment of some of the difficulties the staff have encountered in carrying out the work and goes on to set out some areas of future work, grouped under themes, which staff would like to find out more about over the next year. There are areas for concern, exploration and research, but no targets, no KPIs, and no performance indicators. The candidates were asked to review the strategy critically, and for three of them the strategy was inadequate if there was no vision, mission and values. How could you know where you were going if you didn’t set a direction? What was interesting about this for me was not so much their orthodox understanding of what a strategy should be, but their lack of curiosity. So one of the things they might be telling the interview panel is that if the organisation wants to be recognised in the community of other organisations also producing strategies, then it would need to produce a document that looked similar to everyone else’s. And it might be good advice. Continue reading
John Seddon’s book Systems Thinking in the Public Sector is a well-written and powerful reminder of the limitations of targets and performance measures in public services. Targets, he argues oblige managers to pay attention to the wrong things, what politicians require rather than what local service users need and this leads to perverse consequences. Targets prevent staff from dealing with the variety of what they encounter by obliging them to serve inflexible and predetermined rules which have been set by someone else sitting outside the situation that local staff and managers are dealing with. Targets and performance measures arise out of an ideology of control and a pessimistic assessment of public sector staff: that if civil servants are not standing over them with exacting standards then somehow they won’t do their jobs properly. It has resulted in what he describes as an army of bureaucrats whose job it is to specify, inspect and report compliance on targets and measures which are driving public services away from what the public really wants and needs. In these ways this approach has contributed hugely to waste and cost.
He describes the difficulty he has had of getting many of his ideas accepted because setting targets has become axiomatic – to suggest that setting targets is the cause of many of the problems rather than the solution to the problems is to present oneself as being eccentric. Seddon points to the ways in which other ungrounded idelogical obsessions, that consumer ‘choice’ is the best way to develop services, that IT is always a cheaper option, that the private sector will always deliver a better deal for service users, have come to dominate decision-making and management in the public sector. Continue reading