Reading on Friday 20 January

In more “post-truth” news, this article in the Guardian talks about the declining authority of statistics. I have a few thoughts on this.  First of all, the real issue here is declining trust in authority, not trust in statistics because people in general have never trusted statistics, they trusted the people with the statistics.  Mathematical knowledge has a tricky place in our society.  People who would balk at admitting illiteracy will happily, indeed almost proudly, confess a lack of aptitude for maths as if it confirms their normality.  This needs to change.  A good place to start is how we portray maths in fiction, the Rainman stereotype clings on (as an aside, this new film Hidden Figures, looks like it portrays a more positive image of mathematicians and they have sneaked this under the radar by making the film primarily about racism and sexism).  

A broader issue is that facts don’t convince anyone, stories do.  There have been studies (don’t have links to hand – if anyone is interested, comment below and I will dig them out) that show you can influence whether people believe a fact by telling them who said it (people are more inclined to believe politicians they support and disbelieve those they oppose).  This is reflected in the research mentioned in the article but is obvious to anyone who has studied the work of George Lakoff.  People vote with their values, not facts.  Don’t deride qualitative evidence, use it to illustrate the quantitative.  After all, in the absence of knowledge and context, statistics are just another story but not a particularly compelling one as they don’t engage the emotional link to values.

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Ethical Systems at NYU are at the cutting edge of research into business ethics and I agree with their ethos of good ethics being good for business.  This recent post on their blog highlights some research into the impact of CEOs with MBAs.  More research is required I think – are self interested, short termist people drawn to MBA programmes, do the programmes make people that way, or is there another element leading to both sides of the equation?

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I find myself in total agreement with this article in the Guardian but I was puzzled that the author didn’t mention Stoicism, which is completely in line with the article and enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment.  For anyone interested, Ryan Holiday (while not to everyone’s tastes!) has written a couple of books which serve as good introductions.  Also “Philosophy for life and other dangerous situations” by Jules Evans.

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