Tuesday, December 22, 2015

TERROR IN AMERICA: what the candidates ignore.
By Gary K Clabaugh, Ed.D.

During the fifth GOP presidential debate each of the nine presidential hopefuls assured voters that they would be much tougher on Islamic terror than President Obama. They advocated potentially counter productive things such as creating a database on all Muslim Americans and banning any Muslim from coming into the United States.

Then they made vows to “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion.” Drop so many bombs it will “make the sand glow in the dark.” Shoot down Russian warplanes should they dare enter a U.S. imposed Syrian no fly zone. And kill Islamic terrorist’s families —toddlers included.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this forum. Every one of these warlike candidates, none of whom ever volunteered for military service, “forgot” that since 9/11, American far right fanatics have committed twice as many domestic terror attacks, as have jihadists.
Here are the facts. Since 9/11 there have been 27 acts of terrorism in the U.S., killing 93 Americans. Native-born radical rightists committed eighteen of these attacks that killed 48. Violent jihadist attacks numbered 9, killing 45.[1] Paraphrasing Pogo, we have met the enemy and usually he is us.

Moreover, the U. S. terror risk actually is low when measured on a global scale. The 2015 Global Terrorism Index lists 35 nations, including China, Russia, and the United Kingdom at greater risk. In fact, China and Russia’s risk factors are nearly double ours.[2]

All nine GOP candidates took the opposite tack, creating the impression that a decapitation mad jihadist lurks in every American closet. The tactic is obvious. Scare the crap out of everyone in “the land of the brave,” then pose as the hard-boiled leader that this threat requires. Irresponsible, but it just might work.

Oh, and there is a postscript. During the just completed Democratic presidential debate, just like the Republicans no one acknowledged the domestic terror threat. They too focused on the ISIS and militant Islam menace. Only they weren’t as eager to get further entangled in the Middle-Eastern tar baby.

Yours truly,

Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.
Professor Emeritus, La Salle University


1. Deadly attacks since 9/11, international security, http://securitydata.newamerica.net/extremists/deadly-attacks.html

2. Global Terrorism Index 2015, Statista, the statistics portal, http://www.statista.com/statistics/271514/global-terrorism-index/

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Professors Who Indoctrinate: reconsidering one-sided instruction -- GKC

A worried émigrée from Israel recently asked me if I thought it was acceptable for her daughter’s university professor to consistently take an anti-Israel stance. His class deals with Israeli history and this professor, who is a Jew, consistently depicts Israel negatively. In his very first class, for instance, he unreservedly condemned the creation of Israel, saying it constituted a profound injustice to the resident Arabs.

Despite immigrating to America, this émigrée mom worries that her daughter, born and raised in Israel, will learn to despise the country of her birth. She also wonders if it is proper for any college professor to take sides on controversial issues that remain unresolved.

My initial reaction was to say that a professor’s should not take sides, but provide alternative perspectives and help students consider issues more critically. Upon reflection, though, I concluded that this answer leaves a lot unsaid.

In the first place, most students can, and often do, ignore instruction no matter how forceful or prolonged. I know a woman, for instance, who went through 8 years of Catholic schooling that was conducted by old style nuns who took no prisoners. Yet she is remarkably ignorant of Catholic doctrine.

I asked her, “Given years of religious instruction, how is it possible for you to be so uninformed about Catholic doctrine?” Her answer was, “I tuned them out.” I asked, “Why? She said, “I think it was when they told us it was a sin to save the life of the mother if it required sacrificing her unborn baby. That seemed wrong to me. I remember thinking, what if the mother has other children who love and need her? What of her husband? They also told us babies were born in a state of sin. What an evil thing to say about obvious innocents. That was a real turn off.” I said, “So you simply ignored years of additional instruction?” She replied, “Yep, pretty much.”

This is not a one-off example. It frequently happens that students receiving any kind of instruction do not internalize it. Plus it is common for them to “learn” things just to pass a test. Then they promptly forget it.

In my 46 years as a professor I taught thousands of undergraduates and was repeatedly astonished by how little of their previous instruction they actually remembered. Many found it impossible to convert their raw test scores, say, 29 correct out of 35, to a percentage. Most could not identify the principle combatants in World Wars I, II, the Korean War nor the Vietnam War. Few had any idea when the Great Depression occurred and a fair number of them did not know it even happened. Most could not find China on an outline map. One thought that France was our northern neighbor because, “people speak French up there.” Another thought that Heinrich Himmler must be the chap who invented that life saving maneuver for people who are choking.

These kids were not dolts. They were middle of the pack freshmen and sophomores who, I’m sure, could easily master a complex new social media application in minutes. But many, perhaps most, manifested only transitory (long enough to pass the test) interest in what typically is taught in schools; and trying to transform their purely instrumental interest into an intrinsic one is akin to trying to make a dog happy by wagging his tail for him

I doubt my experience with this academic amnesia is unusual. I’ll wager that student ignorance of past instruction is common in higher education institutions across the country. And that applies to college students too. That’s why higher education senior staffers would rather fight a pack of rabid pit bulls than require their seniors to pass a core subjects test before they can obtain a degree.

How is any of this relevant to our émigré mother’s worries? Well, given the perishable nature of school taught knowledge, it seems highly unlikely that some preachy pedagogue is going to convert her daughter — or anyone else, for that matter. After our proselytizing professor delivers still another impassioned plea for the Palestinian cause you can bet his student’s overriding interest will be, “Is this going to be on the test?” I doubt any will go out looking for a photo of Yasser Arafat to hang on their wall. Of course, students who have positive convictions regarding Israel will be especially resistant to this professor’s preaching.

If a student is on the brink of disliking Israel to begin with, then our partisan professor might prove decisive. But the young lady in question is decidedly pro-Israel. So odds are she will not only reject her professor’s criticisms — including those that are well founded, by the way — but will become even more devoted to her former homeland. Oppositional reactions often occur when deeply held beliefs are challenged.

Is it proper for her professor, or any professor, to conduct class in a one-sided manner? No, not if the issues are multi-faceted. But taking sides does grant a professor the extravagance of self-righteousness. The only problem with that being he or she is setting too great a value on their ego and too little value on their responsibility.

For a more complete discussion of this and related issues, see Is Education Merely Indoctrination?

Best Wishes,
Gary K. Clabaugh
Professor Emeritus, La Salle University

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Public School Failure is a Symptom; not, a Cause. - GKC

Today’s school reformers charge that our public schools stink. No doubt some of them do. But what if their poor performance is symptomatic of a far more basic problem?

I once owned a home that developed cracks in the plaster on either side of the fireplace. When I patched them they quickly reappeared. This happened repeatedly. So I hired a plasterer who said he could fix them for good. But his efforts also failed. The cracks soon were back. Further investigation revealed that the homebuilder had skimped on concrete when pouring the fireplace footer. In consequence, as the ground froze and thawed, the fireplace moved and the plaster cracked. No amount of repair work would fix the cracks until this very expensive to correct footer problem was dealt with.

America’s low performing schools are like the cracks in my home’s plaster. No amount of fiddling will fix them because something far more basic is amiss. And, that “something” is America’s monstrous economic inequality.

Can such inequality actually cause poor student learning? Yes, and there is plenty of research that proves it. Today, in fact, as the gulf between America’s rich and poor quickly widens, so does the chasm in children’s educational achievement. Family income now almost matches parental education as the most muscular predictor of student academic success.1

How can anyone reasonably demand that no child be “left behind” when the wealth of the top 0.1% of our population equals that of the entire bottom 90%;2 Or compare what the average CEO makes compared to the average American worker. A study by the Harvard Business School found that Americans believe U.S. CEO’s make about 30 times the average worker’s wages. In actuality they make more than 350 times as much. This is more than double the ratio in any other country in the world.3

Now let’s see how inequality specifically impacts U.S. youth:

* Fully 44% of U.S. youngsters fewer than 18 years of age now live in low-income families.

* 22% of U.S. children live in academic achievement destroying poverty.4

* 6.2 million of them live in households lacking the means to regularly get enough nutritious food.5

* And 2.7 million have a parent in prison — where they help the “land of the free” achieve the world’s highest incarceration rate.

These and similar realities impact school outcomes in a wide variety of destructive ways. Here is just one of them: 10% of all school age children, the great majority of them poor, have undiagnosed vision problems;6 Even the most short-sighted of school reformers should be able to see that impaired vision blights learning. But do any of them acknowledge, much less address, problems like this? Nope. They proceed as if public schooling occurs in a vacuum.

And let’s not forget that:

* The reformer’s much vaunted charter schools don’t play by the same rules as traditional public schools. For instance, most can send problem students back to their traditional public school. Direct comparisons, which aren’t that flattering to begin with, are therefore bogus.

* The reformer’s cyber charters, that unintentionally facilitate religious fanaticism, are producing abysmal academic results;7

* Poverty area schools — desperately in need of additional resources — typically are starving for funds;

* Government officials, both state and national are fostering slap dash teacher preparation; and, of course, the most poorly prepared candidates end up teaching in America’s educational Calcutta’s.

* America’s middle class, the main reservoir of successful public school students, has been evaporating since the Reagan years.

Sure, some educators accomplish less than can reasonably be expected. But this typically occurs only after they have unsuccessfully struggled with the effects on their students of toxic inequality. Not being saints, some eventually give up and dysfunction sets in. But, they weren’t without hope when they began teaching. They gave up only after bitter experience repeatedly crushed their hopes.

We hear a lot about teacher accountability these days. But why should educators be held accountable for cleaning up the god-awful consequences for children of bottomless greed? Greed, by the way, that is aided and abetted by the best government money can buy? It isn’t public educators, but plutocrats and their pet politicos who should be held accountable for the soul-destroying, academic achievement smashing misery that their policies and procedures produce.

It’s not that children badly damaged by social injustice, plutocratic greed and bought politicians can’t be successfully taught. Given an orderly environment, thoughtful innovation, adequate training, on-going support for both teachers and students, unusually devoted staff and uncommonly wise leadership, success is possible. But, considering present-day resources and priorities, what are the odds of getting any, much less all, of this in quantity?

Reforming “failing” schools is chasing a will-of-the-wisp. So-called school failures seldom are school failures at all. They are just another of the numerous foul and rapidly metastasizing consequences of the preposterously unfair way our nation’s wealth is distributed.

-- Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D
Professor Emeritus, LaSalle University


1 Wither Opportunity? rising inequality, schools and children’s life chances, Edited by Greg Duncan and Richard Mumane , Russel Sage Foundation, 2011, PP. 91-92.

2 Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Exploding wealth inequality in the United States, Washington Center for Equitable Growth, http://equitablegrowth.org/exploding-wealth-inequality-united-states/

3 Roberto Ferdman, The Pay Gap Between CEO’s and Workers Is Much Worse Than You Realize, The Washington Post, September 23, 2014,

4 Child Poverty, National Center for Children in Poverty, http://www.nccp.org/top5cs/childpoverty.html

5 Hungry Children Suffer, Nokidhungry, https://www.nokidhungry.org/problem/hunger-facts

6 Heslin KC, Casey R, Shaheen MA, Cardenas F, Baker RS. Racial and ethnic differences in unmet need for vision care among children with special health care needs. Arch Ophthalmol Chic. 2006;124:895–902.

7 New Report: cyber charter schools’ Performance is Dismal, October 29, 2015, http://dianeravitch.net/2015/10/29/new-reports-virtual-schools-performance-is-dismal/

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Artificial Intelligence Weirdness. Need categorizing relate to visual cues?

... humanity shouldn’t assume our machines think as we do. Neural nets sometimes think differently. And we don’t really know how or why. -- David Berreby[1]

New Memories Never Formed. I have a neighbor in my retirement community[2] who had a stroke three years ago that seems to have impaired her ability to retain recent memories. I have conversed with her on several occasions. On each new occasion we meet she asks me, “Who are you? Have you been here long?”

When I bring an old (pre-stroke) friend of hers with me to visit her, see recognizes the friend immediately and then asks him or her, “Who is this person you brought with you?” And so it continues, although I do not dress or look different so far as any others in my community are concerned.

Read Some Plato! So what’s new? No recall, no recognition. No recognition, no identification! Even Plato knew that! And wrote about it, too. Read up!

Not so fast! That’s a quick response, but an inaccurate one. It’s only part of the story, because recognition needn’t depend on recall. An example: however hard you look, you can’t recognize the 46th President of the United States. Why? Because he or she hasn’t been elected yet, even though he or she exists right now. There is not even a likely candidate for the position, eight or so years down the road, to guess about.

But once someone is sworn in on January 20th, 2025 as POTUS, you will, little doubt, -- barring a brain stroke -- recognize him or her as such, whether or not you have seen him or her in person. [3]. Such recognition requires neither memory (the first time) nor visible presence -- eg. a TV picture will do.

Weirdly Inhuman Artificial Intelligence. David Berreby in his article "Artificial Intelligence is Already Weirdly Inhuman gives some surprising examples of how neural-net computers consistently "miscategorize" visual input data. Two (to humans) almost identical pictures of a dog are classified as a dog and a giraffe. Two relatively random patterns of speckles, discernably quite different to humans, are categorized as a starfish and a cheetah. Berreby comments that no one has yet an explanation to offer for these results.

It is important to understand that not even the neural network computers jump directly from light-input-patterns to category-outputs. The “visual” inputs are processed through various algorithms which, depending upon certain conditions, yield categorical outputs. As the examples of the dog, giraffe, starfish and cheetah show, there appears to be something going on in either the inputs, or the algorithmic processing that does not “replicate (?)” or “parallel(?)” the human processes. (We can’t even assume there are some well-defined isometrical relations[3B] between the human and the computer processes: thus the bracketed question-marks. -- my comment, not Berreby’s.)

Let check some possible ways of dealing with this “weirdness.” Are the computer visual-inputs sensitive to light frequencies that human eyes are not? Are there internal interference phenomena that are different in humans than in computers? Clearly there are algorithms (actually, heuristics) that humans learn to use for identification that might not yet be available to computers, especially those that depend upon conditions of social interaction or on multisensory input coordination. (This is difficult stuff. I really don’t begrudge AI researchers the personification of their apparatus, i.e. as thinking, seeing, etc., if it keeps up their enthusiasm.)

Some Human Identification Algorithms. For many, many English categories of objects that are visually discernibly different, we have hosts of subcategories. These subcategories enable us to practically recognize two objects as “the same,” i. e. “time-pieces, ” which have quite different appearance and functioning parts, e.g. a sundial, an hour-glass, and IPad. Meta-categories such as “purpose” or “typical use” and the like help us to sort-out discernably different time pieces into practical categories.

It’s important to note that “recognition” is not a unique process. We use the term to indicate both
a. our experience of visual -- more generally, sensory -- familiarity based on previous experience, i.e. recall; and,

b. an act of participation in a social practice of equal treatment, i.e. acknowledgement: this thing shall be treated, under certain circumstances, as a “time piece.”
(See Two Senses of 'Recognize'.)

It is important to understand that categorization for adult humans, except for the most basic uses, e.g. learning to identify paradigmatic examples, is not based substantially on recall, but on processes that establish recognition-equivalence.[4].

This requires one or more meta-sets of algorithms (or heuristics) that are called into play to work on items pre-processed by lower level algorithms.

The following categories, which could be used as algorithm names, are meta-set indicators: aging, larval, decrepitating, disguised, worn-out, broken, in-process, unintentional, illegal, shrunken, decayed, inebriated, etc. Paradigm objects subjected to the algorithmic meta-set processes, may be identified as recognition-equivalent to the paradigm members despite substantial deviation in appearance. [5].

Addendum 8/15/16: for an interesting new article see AI's Language Problem MIT Technology Review 8/9/16

--- EGR

P.S. For Additional Articles on this site pertinent to AI, see

Autonomous Car Collides with Bus: an illusion of abstractions?

Behavior, Action, Pattern and Structure

Cause & Effect: essential belief, misapprehension, moral hazard?

Concept as Abstraction. A hindrance in developing intelligence?

Functional Analysis of Behavior, The: theoretical and ethical limits

Hard Wired Choice?

Mathematics of Behaviorism, The: an informal examination.

Measurability and Educational Concerns

Recognition and Knowing

Self-Driving Cars, Run-Away Trams, & "Unavoidable" Accidents

Similarity: not a given; but, a composition.

"The Stimulus" remains a Hypothetical Construct; or, Guessing At What Elicits Behavior

Stringencies Generate Dysfunctions: a problem for Artificial Intelligence, too.

"Thinking" Like Computers Do


[1] Berreby, D Nautilus 8/8/2015 Artificial Intelligence is Already Weirdly Inhuman

Many AI enthusiasts use the verb, “think,” somewhat over-enthusiastically -- perhaps for promotional purposes. But is this only a stretched metaphor? Why is it important to stretch it? Do computers “think” in any way recognizably as do humans, or animals? For some discussion on this issue see "Thinking" Like Computers Do

[2] See Foulkeways at Gwynedd

[3] see Part 3: Recognition and Knowing

[3B] see Isomorphism: Program, Structure, and Process -- a catalog

[4] See Recognition-Equivalence

[5] See Dimensions of Individuation. Such dimensions can be used to identify the algorithms applicable to the superset of individuals under consideration. So, for example, when considering a professional football team, we might ask How can we tell the half-backs from the full-backs? Or, How can we identify individual contract-holders?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Charades of Evaluation: mis-connecting cause and effect

"…passing a failing student is the #1 worst thing a teacher can do. … Changing grades is the most undermining contribution to a student’s failure, but above all else – it invalidates your data. Putting aside creating and submitting inaccurate school data for the moment, entering a 'false grade' will make it virtually impossible to reliably measure any improvement of your skills as a teacher. Your improvement will now be based on unsound and worthless data." -- M. Cubbin (8/2/15) The Business of School

"… Is the Customer Always Right?" -- Farrington, Frank (1915) in Merck Report, Volume 24 pg 134-135

Pseudo-Evaluation. Data are not fundamental. On their face, data cannot be distinguished from outputs of a random number generator. Data are like shell chips on a beach mixed in with sand; or, like foam on the tide. (For an article relating “data” and “objectivity,” see Can Criminal or Immoral Behavior Be Dealt With Objectively?)

Far more important to know is what the processes are by which the putative data are collected. And even more critical is knowing which theories connect the data and collection process to what supposedly they indicate.

Much “data-collection” is like trying to identify proportions of bird-species during a fall migration. If the process were merely to tally varieties of southward flying objects, we might well end up confounding red-winged blackbirds with jet planes and monarch butterflies. (See Is It Really a Test? Or Just Another Task?)

In the above epigraph, Cubbin presumes a connection, presumably ideally possible, between school grades, student failure, and teacher skill. Using teachers as graders cuts costs, but is begging for inconsistency: not, because teachers may not “know their stuff.” But, because many institutional processes can overrule even the best of teachers’ judgments, e.g. administors’ prerogative, special education policies, or political involvement in the grading process. There is little consensus, when interest-group push comes to shove, on either goals or concepts appropriate to education. (See What Does a Consensus Mean, Anyway?" )

Requiring teachers to grade then grading the teachers is like judging baseball coaches using their players' batting averages. There will likely be only a tenuous, if any, connection between the data and any causal relationship to coaching (teaching) efforts. (See Power Failure: Losing the Series; Blaming the Bat Boys )

The Diploma-Holder Markets: is the customer always right? An important assumption Cubbin seems to make is that markets for test-passers are comprised of persons looking for those who possess certain proven skills. This is only a minor proportion of the markets for certificate- or diploma-holders.

Consider these other markets for whom actual skill levels are a distant, if even, a second consideration to applicant grade-point average:
a. Colleges, public, private or commercial, who have external, e.g. federal, or foundational, funds available for applicants with a certain grade-point average -- especially if the recipient institutions have tight budgets;

b. Institutions legally required to have certified staff but faced with employee scarcities, e.g. hospitals, clinics, civil-service;

c. School districts needing both adults certified as teachers, and students with birth and health certificates, in order to be run at even somewhat remove from peak efficiency;

d. Government administrations pursuing certain public policy initiatives that depend on items a, b and c, preceding; e.g. special education, affirmative action, STEM (Science, Technology & Mathematics); and last but not least,

e. the children applicants, legacies, to colleges which favor (paying) parents who are past graduates.

If skills really counted, there would be something like board standard examinations to be passed; normally, to be retaken at standard intervals. Teacher grades would not be accepted in place of board exam results. (See The Dangers of Diplomas)

But where the sheepskin alone is most important, rarely will the sheep’s diet be.

For examples and to pursue the issues raised in this essay, see

1. “Data-Driven”: a slogan to distract from organizational disagreement?;

2. Classification Error in Evaluation Practice:
the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy

--- EGR

Thursday, February 26, 2015

MCEO's: Types & Treatments:
Handling Special Means-Ends Conflicts

"The total motivation of a cooperative system ... hence the efficiency of a cooperative effort is dependent upon the efficiency of the marginal contribution, or is determined by the marginal contributor." -- Chester I. Barnard, The Functions of the Executive, p. 44.

Types of Mutually Cost-Enhancing Objectives, (MCEO's). How should we deal with MCEO’s, if we have to deal with them at all. Sometimes it’s wiser to ignore the “elephants in the room,” and “let sleeping dogs lie.”

But if we have to face them, it might help to sort them out in terms of how much they require of well-accepted technical resources; and, how much they require of “political support.” By “political support,” I mean negotiation with and participation of persons who would otherwise not be concerned by the problem at hand, and would likely not normally want to be bothered with it. (This rarely comes without any expectations of future reciprocity!)

Comments on the Term, “Political.” By “political” I mean to indicate behavior aimed at securing concessions about, or participation in dealing with perceived problems, e.g. with MCEO’s. No disparagement of those who engage in political behavior is intended. In fact in those positions in an organization that deal with the outside world, a good deal of political behavior is both expected and necessary.
However, Barnard’s insight above in the epigraph offers wise caution: many hats under the same tent may not be an indicator of strength -- only consider the ideological mish-mash of the present major American political parties. The sloganeering of politically active persons tends to distract from as it creates false consensus among those who are most likely to be the “marginal contributors” of support for more centrally important objectives. Size, diversity and unity tend to be MCEO's in the pursuit of organizational power!

Political-Technical Contrasts. Political behavior contrasts with technical behavior in that the former is important in contexts where consensus is (feared to be) lacking. It is an attempt to get people “calmed down” or “on board” with a proposed action. Technical behavior can only be employed within a context of consensus, or at least, of no anticipated resistance.

The two types of behavior, technical and political, are easily recognized by their language. Technically engaged people “deal with problems.” Politically engaged people “confront challenges.” Political language is generally euphemistic, cajoling, ambiguous and runs a high risk of creating a false consensus effect..

For technical purposes, bad news is not disregarded -- it may still contain important information. Technical statements tend to be unambiguous. There is every effort expended to found a decision consensus on carefully considered understandings.

Freedom of Action. Another way to think about the technical-political distinction is this: Can you just go ahead and deal with the MCEO with the resources you have at hand? Do you have the authority to define your goals and the means to effectively pursue them? Can you rely on your superiors' agreement with your actions, should you have to inform them?

Or, are you going to have to inveigle others’ (reluctant) assistance and thereby have to share information you would otherwise have kept to yourself? And also, might you end up having to return the favor at high exchange cost? (Will you fall into an unbounded decision fractal out of your control?)

The approach we will offer here is that you sort out your MCEO’s this way:
1) Logistic-tactical MCEO’s;
2) Structural MCEO’s; and,
3) Criterion-based MCEO’s.
Let's see how they differ in important dimensions.

Logistic-Tactical MCEO’s. These are everyday kinds of conflicts, easily recognized with very familiar ways of handling: for example, increasing the budget, or reallocating resources. Such solution-ideas are so familiar that off-beat problems tend to get pigeon-holed as logistic-tactical, sometimes causing failure. But, when all you have is a “logistic-tactical-hammer,“ every MCEO is a “nail.”

Example A: Your department has a scheduling and space conflict with another department, planning, as you are, to do some staff development next Tuesday at 2PM on December 20th. There are both space and time options, but not the most convenient ones for both parties. This is an easily recognizable, mostly technical problem. Some politics may be involved in dealing with the convenience issue.

Example B: Your department has a scheduling and space conflict with another department, planning, as you are, to do some staff development next Tuesday at 2PM on December 20th. There are no space and time options during the work day any day next week . This is an easily recognizable, but, likely, a much more political problem than in example A and harder to deal with. There may be not only a holiday issue, but a comp-time issue, among others, e.g. building access and security.

Structure-Related MCEO’s . There are four commonly recognized types, This kind of MCEO is familiar but most often considered idiosyncratic rather than a common structural fault. Individual people are blamed for foul-ups actually precipitated by organizational practices and structures.

Summarizing the work of several researchers, March & Simon in Organizations (NY, Wiley, 1958) write the that by mere virtue of their complexity, complex organizations run up against
Four Basic Internal Conflicts. These are
• (Merton) Following policy vs. sensitivity to individual differences, e.g. disregarding special circumstances or applying policy inappropriately.

• (Selznick) Delegating authority vs. pursuing authorized goals, e.g. disagreements over unanticipated costs incurred from the exercise of the authority delegated.

• (Gulick) Process vs. product, e.g. production is speeded up and quality control is relaxed. Corporate merger generates exit of top management.

• (Gouldner) Power vs. morale, e.g. The desire to hide power-relations -- “your boss is your confidant” -- may conflict with getting more than minimal cooperation from organization members. If you don't fume, they don't work!

This situation may arise when there is a great disparity between what workers and their superiors expect the job to be, especially if the workers are professionals who expect a certain right of decision-making participation. (See Leadership: One Size Fits All? Do goals, means and organization even matter?)

Because the MCEO’s generated by these basic conflict types tend to be highly political, they often are treated as blameworthy technical foul-ups. Unless structural influences are recognized as such, these MCEO’s are very difficult to deal with, and may be brushed off as, merely, “personal politics.”

All structure-related MCEO’s are political: they touch not only on chain-of-command issues, but also on the adequacy of policy formation and implementation; and, likely, on a host of long seated organizational traditions. For such reasons, it is rational, although sometimes narrowly selfish, for well-ensconced organizational leaders to protect their position by using the pidgeon-holing opportunities offered by the logistic-tactical model of MCEO.

Criterion-based MCEO’s. These are most likely the “elephants in the room.” These are conflicts based on perceived (and often, real) impossibilities, deriving from our linguistic usage, from legal and other traditions, or from our scientific practices. Here are some examples:
1. You can’t be physically present to represent your company both in New York and San Francisco at the same time. (Think about sales presentation scheduling.)

2. You can’t drive your car at the highest possible speed and, at the same time, reduce fuel consumption to its idling minumum. (Automotive science cannot overcome this.)

3. You can’t win a chess game on the second move and at the same time not violate the rules of the game. (Compare this with insider trading.)

4. Only in an old punning riddle is a newspaper black and white and “red” all over. There are, still, no married bachelors. (Based on accepted language standards.)

These example show that some MCEO’s may not be able to be reconciled. That is why people avoid mentioning one or the other competitor in a criterion-based MCEO relationship. A solution cannot be concocted by ingenuity or effort because it is ruled out by, perhaps, physical law, or legal practice, or by common linguistic usage, among other things.

Imagine this situation: You, a person of much experience, acquire a position in Company X in its Department of Publicity and Promotion. You discover in short order that your boss, recently appointed, is the favorite, much indulged son of the owner (and CEO). Your boss’ lack of experience and skill is only outdone by his mania for micromanagement. You suspect that Sonny Boy is well-buffered (shielded) from much criticism or complaint.

Sonny Boy micromanages, and messes up. Several staff quit. Sales start to drop; clients fail to renew. What in the world is the matter? asks the CEO in a series of memos. But who would dare treat the CEO’s question as a technical inquiry, unless he or she were willing to risk losing their job. Would you bet that the CEO’s son is not buffered from criticism and go ahead to complain about his unprofessional interference? Or would you take extreme care to be very politic?

To examine these issues further, see Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making?

--- EGR

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Knowledge: The Residues of Practical Caution.

I knew very well that I possessed no knowledge at all worth speaking of. -- Socrates [1]

Knowledge Worth Speaking Of. Many people among those thought to be authorities on the matter claim that Socrates made a bald-faced self contradiction by saying, “I only know that I know nothing.” But he never said that. Actually, as Priscilla Sakezles well argues, the quote in the epigraph above is the only thing that comes close to it. It is no self-contradiction.

However, the quote is, we might say, vastly presumptuous. Such presumption was Socrates’ prerogative as a free, male citizen of 5th Century BCE Athens. Socrates finds he knows nothing about what he and those he would converse with would find worthy of mention. He allows that there may be knowledge, but only of those things he deems not “worth speaking of.”

What might these unworthy things be? Things that concerned females, laborers, or slaves -- even those slaves we would today call “highly educated.” One wonders how philosophers as “wise” as Socrates could govern in Plato’s Republic since their discourse as rulers would be either not worthy of comment or about what they do not know.[2]

Things Not Worth Speaking Of? Even today we protect varieties of belief by ignoring the presuppositions that support them. Those are often the “elephants in the room,” or what “any reasonable person would normally take for granted.” Those things may well, though infrequently, be false. Such evasion is often taken to be a “leadership” skill. (See MCEO’s)

Any defense lawyer -- or investigator -- knows and practices interrogation of the assumptions underlying witness testimony. “You say, you saw him assault the victim?” “Were you wearing your glasses?” Were you within reasonable visual range?” “Couldn’t he have just been a bystander?” … etc. (See Identifying Trans-ideological Epistemological Presuppositions)

Such interrogational skills might be taught in “Critical Thinking Education” but for the fact that schooling institutions, despite a long history of giving lip service to the idea, never seem to get around to implementing such instruction. No wonder. Much, if not most, “education” is about thought control, not thought liberation. (See Personal Liberation Through Education)

The Search for Knowledge in the Abstract: a Distraction? A definition, long criticized by Plato himself in the Theaetetus, has it that you know something if a. you believe it; b. you are justified in believing it; and, c. it’s true. The difficulty here is the third condition.

How do you determine if someone who believes something and is justified in believing it has knowledge? You have to find out if what he or she believes is true. But this just pushes it back into a potential infinite regress, since determining that belief is true is a subsidiary belief, which itself must be determined to be true. You have to know that you know that you know that …
(See The Truth Condition (Can it be known?))

Why Do You Think That? This is an important question when trying to judge someone to have knowledge. But who cares? Why even bother with this issue? Isn’t it just a pastime for theorists? No, not merely that. We will see below that it is the locus of the concerns of many people in many different kinds of institution. But first let’s look at the idea of Objectivity commonly thought to be allied with that of Truth.

To be objective is to aspire to knowledge that bears no trace of the knower -- knowledge unmarked by prejudice or skill, fantasy or judgment, wishing or striving. Objectivity is blind sight, seeing without inference, interpretation, or intelligence.-- Daston & Galison, p. 17 [3]

Daston and Gallison in their book Objectivity depict the origination of the concept of objectivity in the mid-19th Century as a development concurrent with the development of new methods and technologies of objects of scientific interest and their duplication and distribution to audiences of persons of similar interests and occupations.

They focus on the practice of representing natural objects, e.g. birds, crystals, plants, for commercial, educational and scientific undertakings. They argue that the development of the new methods employed had an effect not only on the development of technical equipment, but also on what was considered proper research behavior and on the development of disciplinary boundaries. As the concept of “objectivity” fluctuated across two centuries, so, too, did the moral demands of proper research and the strength and definition of disciplinary boundaries.

Are the hand drawings of leaves by Carolus Linneaus less “objective” than deguerrotypes of those same kinds of leaves a century later? Are John James Audubon’s paintings of birds less “objective” than the photos anyone might take today with the portable cameras embedded in their IPads? Is every pixel of light captured by such cameras of scientific significance? Often not.

It turns out that what “objectivity” is depends upon not only the scientific (or other) discipline the researcher practices in, but the purposes to which the data collected is being put. Today the time has long been passed when we thought of scientific enterprise as being, generally, a collegial, cooperative undertaking pursued altruistically for the sake of knowledge alone. Strong economic concerns exert heavy influence on the direction and outcome of research, often quite independently of scientific norms.[3.5]

Academic Tribalism. Tony Becher in his book, Academic Tribes & Territories: the Cultures of the Disciplines[4] adds support to the anecdotal evidence offered by many who work in colleges, universities and corporate laboratories of an atmosphere of competition and animadversion nowadays encountered there.

In such an environment, income acquisition and disciplinary loyalty easily take priority over scholarship. Academics or scientists of every stripe guard their departmental “turf” as jealously as any competitors of a free-market economy, exacting tribal loyalty, rather than competence, from those acolytes not yet bound fast by dissertation requirements.

Pursuing objectivity does not get us any closer to knowing than does struggling with Plato’s test definition involving justified, true belief. Institutional tribalism tends to make the search otiose. (See Can Criminal or Immoral Behavior Be Dealt With Objectively?)

So What is Knowledge, Ideally? A short characterization is this: knowledge is the useful, most flexible, most unbiased, most communal set of beliefs held across communities who otherwise differ in some important other respects, e.g. basic values, religion, morality.

Knowledge is that honorific title we give to those beliefs we feel meet whatever criteria (authorities?) we are committed to for distinguishing (pronouncing?) what is true from what is false. (Clearly, the "we" is a variable.)

Some religious doctrines fit this characterization. But secular science adds this: whatever is claimed to be knowledge must also be shown to be so through some testable processes that allow for disconfirmation.

Knowledge: Domination and Evanescence. What some of us in the past -- or our forebears -- considered to be knowledge, we (some of us) dismiss as not involving knowledge, e.g. witchcraft, divine bloodlust, memorization(!). We do not know which of our presently designated items of knowledge will suffer the same fate. Such is the nature of knowing. We need not mourn its “relativity.”

But one confusing aspect of the term, “knowing,” induces such mourning: it is that we use the term knowledge autocratically, i.e. we dominate the beliefs of past peoples (and those who disagree with us in the present) by insisting that the verb “know” be usable in a contrary-to-fact construction. Of past beliefs we say, “If only they had known what we do today, they, too, would have recognized what we now recognize as being knowledge.”

However, we seldom, if ever, say, “If only we could know what people in the year 3000 will know, we could concede that some, maybe all, of what we think we know today is really not so.” A big if for a big concession: if we know something we might only, on this consideration, think we know it!

The Residues of Caution. If we did not have to worry about making a mistake, or of its consequences, we would have no need to be concerned about knowledge. Powerful autocrats may well be able to afford stupidity.

It is our taking caution to reduce error that generates the need to know. As we come to think that our cautions have been successful in warding off misfortune, so we accumulate a residue of beliefs for possible future use. This presumed armory against mishap we designate “knowledge.”

But what has happened to the Knowledge we have come, over the years, to know and admire? Is epistemology devolving into an anthropology of communication? Maybe so. Can we anticipate, then, even less camaraderie among the tribes of Academia?

--- EGR


[1] Sakezles, P. “Socratic Skepticism” available at http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/08-06-25/

[2] See Robinson, R “Plato’s Consciousness of Fallacy” Mind1942 reprinted in Richard Robinson, (1969) Essays in Greek Philosophy. Oxford. Pp. 16 - 38

[3] Daston, L & Galison, P (2010) Objectivity New York. Zone Books.

[3.5] For a compendium of external influences on research, see the blog Retraction Watch. See also Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank.

[4] Becher, Academic Tribes & Territories: the Cultures of the Disciplines Open University Press. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis, 1989