Concentration of Wealth

WEALTH IN THE USA

WEALTH IN THE USA (Photo credit: er00mb0b)

In early 2014 Oxfam International released some interesting statistics regarding the distribution of the world’s wealth. Here are some of the highlights:

 

  •          1% of the population owns about 50% of the wealth.
  •          This 1% owns $110 trillion.
  •          $110 trillion is 65 times the wealth owned by the bottom (economically) 50% of people.
  •          The bottom 50% owns the same amount of wealth as the top 85 wealthiest people.
  •          In the United States, the top 1% received 95% of the growth since 2009 while the 90% lost wealth.

That there is an extremely unequal distribution of wealth is hardly surprising. In my very first political science class, I learned that every substantial human society has had a pyramid shaped distribution of wealth. Inevitably, the small population of the top owns a disproportionally large amount of wealth while the large population at the bottom owns a disproportionally small amount of wealth. This pattern holds whether the society is a monarchy, dictatorship, communist state or democracy.

From a moral standpoint, one important question is whether or not such a distribution is just. While some might be tempted to regard any disproportional distribution as unjust, this would be an error. After all, the justness of a distribution is not a simple matter of numbers. To use an easy example, consider the distribution of running trophies. Obviously enough, there is a very unequal distribution of such awards. First, almost all people who have them will be (or will have been) runners. As such, most people will not have even one trophy. Second, even among the population of runners there will be a disproportionate distribution: there will be a fairly small percentage of runners who have a large percentage of the trophies. As such, there is a concentration of running trophies. However, this is not unjust: the competition for such trophies is open, the competition is generally fair, and a trophy is generally earned by running well. Roughly put, the better runners will have the most trophies and they will be a small percentage of the runner population. Because of the nature of the competition, I have no issue with this. There is, of course, also the biasing factor that I have won a lot of trophies.

Those who defend the unequal distribution of wealth often endeavor to claim that the competition for wealth is analogous to the situation I presented for running trophies: the competition is open, the competition is fair, and the reward is justly earned by competing well. While this is a plausible approach to justifying the massive inequality, the obvious problem is that these claims are not true.

Those who start out in a wealthy family might not make their money by inheritance, but they enjoy a significant starting advantage over those born into less affluent families. While it is true that a few people rise from humble origins to great financial success, those stories are so impressive because pf the difficulty of doing so and the small number of people who achieve such great success.

There is also the obvious fact that those who hold wealth use their influence to ensure that the political and social system favors the wealthy. While this might not be aimed at keeping people from becoming wealthy, the general impact is that existing wealth is favored and defended against attempts to “intrude” into the top of the pyramid. Naturally, people will point to those who succeeded fantastically despite this system. But, once again, these stories are so impressive because of the incredible challenges that had to be overcome and because such stories are incredibly rare.

There is also the obvious doubt about whether those who possess the greatest wealth earned the wealth in a way that justifies their incredible wealth. In the case of running, a person must earn her gold medal in the Olympic marathon by being the best runner. In such a case, there is little doubt that the achievement has been properly earned. However, the situation for great wealth is not as clear. Now, if a person arose from humble origins and by hard work, virtue, and talent managed to earn a fortune, then it seems fair to accept the justice of that wealth. However, if someone merely inherits a pile of cash or engages in misdeeds (like corruption or crime) to acquire the wealth, then it seems reasonable to regard that as unjust wealth.

As such, to the degree that the competition for wealth is open and fair and to the degree that the earning of wealth is proportional to merit, then the incredibly unbalanced distribution can be regarded as just. However, it seems evident that this is not the case.  For example, a quick review of the laws, tax codes, and so on will show quite nicely how the system is designed to work.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the distribution of wealth is actually warranted on grounds similar to the distribution of running trophies. That is, suppose that the competition is open, fair and the rewards are merit based. This still provides grounds for criticism of the radical concentration of wealth.

One obvious point is that the distribution of running trophies has no real impact. After all, a person can live just fine without any such trophies. As such, letting them be divided up by competition is fine—even if most trophies go to a few people. However, wealth is another matter. At the basic level, a degree of wealth is a necessity for survival. That is a person needs it (or, rather, what it can buy) to survive. Beyond mere survival, it also determines the material quality of life in terms of general health, clothing, living quarters, education, and entertainment and so on. Roughly put, wealth (loosely taken) is a necessity. To have such a competition when the well-being (and perhaps the survival) of people is at stake seems to be morally repugnant.

One obvious counter is a variation on the survival of the fittest arguments of the past. The basic idea is that, just like all living things, people have to compete to survive. As in nature, some people will not compete as well and hence they will have less and perhaps even not enough to survive. Others will do better and some few will do best of all.

The obvious reply is that this sort of competition makes some degree of sense when resources are so scarce that all cannot survive. To use a fictional example, if people are struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, then the competition for basic survival might be warranted by the reality of the situation. However, when resources are plentiful it seems morally repugnant for the tiny few to hyper-concentrate wealth while the many are left with very little. To use the obvious analogy, seeing a glutton stuffing herself with a vast tableful of delicacies while her guards keep people away so her minions call sell the scraps would strike all but the most callous as horrible. However, replace the glutton with one of the 1% and some folks are quite willing to insist that the situation is fair and just.

As a final point, the 1% also need to worry about the inequality of distribution. The social order which keeps the 99% from slaughtering the 1% requires that enough of the 99% believe that the situation is working for them. This can be done, to a degree, by coercion (police and military force) and delusion (this is where Fox News comes in). However, coercion and delusion have their limits and society, like all things, has a breaking point. While the rich can often escape a collapse in one country by packing up and heading to another (as dictators occasionally do), until space travel is a viable option the 1% are still stuck on earth with everyone else.

 

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A Fair Price for Drugs?

A pill

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are about three million Americans and about 170 million people around the world infected with Hepatitis C. In the recent past, the cost of treatment could be up to $300,000 in extreme cases. A new drug, Sovaldi, would reduce that cost to about $84,000. On the face of it, that seems like a great deal. However, the company manufacturing the drug has generated some outrage. The reason is simple: the company, Gilead, plans to charge $1,000 per pill.

While $1,000 for a pill might seem exorbitant, Gilead has made the reasonable point that they have the right to recover the cost of developing the medicine. This is certainly correct—the expense of developing a product can be legitimately passed on to the customers.

In the case of Sovalidi, Gilead “developed” it by buying the company that developed it for $11 billion. While this is a certainly a large sum of money, if 150,000 people are treated at the asking price of $1,000 per pill, the company will have recovered what it spent to buy the company that developed it. This is a not uncommon practice in areas with high initial development costs. For example, new technology initially comes at a premium price and then the price drops as a company recovers its development costs.

When asked if Gilead would reduce the cost once it recovered its money, the vice president of the company said, “”That’s very unlikely that we would do that. I appreciate the thought.” One way to justify this is by contending that the cost of producing the pill warrants keeping the price high. After all, the cost of production is clearly a legitimate factor in calculating a fair price for a product.

However, the drug is most likely fairly cheap to produce. According to Andrew Hill, who is in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, the cost per treatment would be $150-250 per person. If this is correct, the company would be making truly massive profits off a drug that is rather cheap to produce. On the face of it, such a mark-up would seem to be unfair.

It might be contended that the free-market will sort this out. However, there are two major concerns here. The first is that Gilead’s ownership of the drug rather limits the competitive force of the market. Until another company produces a competing drug, Gilead has an effective monopoly. Competing companies would need to spend considerable sums to develop a competing drug and they would have to avoid infringing on the ownership rights of Gilead. Whether this is seen as wrong or not depends on how one looks at the matter. On the one hand, there is the view that a company has the right to its government enforced monopoly and can use this to charge any amount it deems fit until competition forces it to reduce prices. On the other hand, there is the view that it is wrong for a company to use the coercive power of the state (the state ensures that the drug cannot be copied and sold by others) to exploit the very citizens that the state is supposed to protect from exploitation. The second is that the treatment is not a luxury item for the patients but a necessity—without it they risk severe illness and death. As such, the customers are coerced by their condition and this is being exploited by Gilead. If Gilead were selling $84,000 watches or cars, people could elect to buy them or not—so Gilead would need to make the product match the price. In the case of medicine, Gilead can set its price and give people a choice between buying and dying.

Interestingly, Gilead does plan to offer lower prices in countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and China. While the price is not set, the estimate is that “It’ll be from the high hundreds to low thousands for these types of markets.” This rather obviously indicates that Gilead could sell the pills for less in the United States. This lower cost could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Gilead is being nice by offering people in these other countries a price break. Another is that Gilead knows that it will simply not be able to sell the pills for $1,000 each in such countries and are settling for taking what they can get. That is, some profit is better than none.

If Gilead is giving patients in these countries a real break—that is, selling the product with a very narrow profit margin, then the company would seem to be acting in a laudable way by providing an important treatment while only making large profits. However, given the estimated cost of providing the treatment ($150-250) the company would be making very large profits by selling the treatments for the high hundreds to low thousands. The company would also be making what might be regarded as obscene profits in countries like the United States where the pills would sell for $1,000 each.

Given that Gilead would recover its costs quickly and the actual cost of providing treatment is relatively low, what remains to be determined is what would warrant charging such a high price for a essential treatment.

Alton presents a standard reason for this:  “Those who are bold and go out and innovate like this and take the risk — there needs to be more of a reward on that. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for people to make that investment.”

Alton’s basic point is reasonable. Developing new medicines is a risky business since most drugs never actually make it to being a sellable product. As such, this increases what companies must spend to actually develop a product they can sell.

One point of concern is the degree of risk that Gilead took when it bought the company that developed the drug. If that company took risks and developed the drug, then that company certainly earned the right to recover the cost of the risks it took. However, it is not clear that Gilead was bold, innovative and risk taking by buying that company.

Another point of concern is determining the cost and value of risk. That is, sorting out how risk taking legitimately contributes to a higher price. Oversimplifying things a bit, it would seem fair to consider the cost of legitimate attempts to develop drugs that failed as part of the legitimate operating expenses of a company and thus these can justly passed on to the consumer. However, as noted above, Gilead will recover the cost of buying the developer of the drug quickly and hence will lose the justification that it must charge a high price in compensation for its risk. Even if it is granted that risk taking warrants charging high prices, this should not warrant the high prices when the cost of the risk has been recovered. At that point a new justification would be needed for the high price. In the case of the medicine, the cost of providing the treatment would not warrant the high price. Also as noted above, the market is effectively not free since the state ensures that Gilead has a monopoly on the medicine it bought and the patients are coerced by their illness. If the patients tried to produce the medicine on their own by copying the pills, the state would send police to arrest them and they would face severe legal action.

It could be replied that $84,000 is a bargain compared to the current cost and this justifies the high price. To use an analogy, if one surgeon charges $300,000 to do a procedure and I will provide the same results for $84,000 then that seems like a good deal. However, if it only costs me $250 to treat the person, that would hardly seem to be a fair price. It would be a better price—but better is not the same as fair.

I freely admit that I have not settled the matter of what is a fair price. However, it does seem clear that $1,000 per pill is not a fair price.

 

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A Latina Takes on the “Philosopher King-Maker”

Here is a story I reported a while ago, but which the business of life prevented me from publishing until now. It is still an important story about a recent incident in the history of professional philosophy. The past year has seen an increased awareness and discussion of the poor climate for women and minorities in the field of philosophy. I offer you another story about a struggle to diversify this field that remains woefully mostly white and male. *A note to the reader: the reporting for this story ends in October 2012, and so some statements or facts may now be obsolete.

***

Professor Linda Martín Alcoff stared wide-eyed at the computer screen. It was the end of July 2011, and she had recently been elected vice-president of the American Philosophical Association’s eastern division, which is the largest and arguably most influential of the three divisions. Barring any catastrophe, she would automatically assume the presidency next summer. Of the 102 presidents in the division’s history, only 11 have been women. She would be the first Latina.

A friend had emailed her a link. She clicked. Up on the screen was a poll asking whether Alcoff should be disqualified from becoming the president. It was posted on the blog of Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who is considered by many to be one of the most powerful political players in the field. Leiter thought Alcoff should be ousted.

The blogosphere lit up. As she sat at the computer, Alcoff read the streams of comments. “It was getting to be a feeding frenzy,” she says.

“It was hard to watch,” recalls her friend and collaborator William Wilkerson of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

A couple of weeks earlier, Alcoff, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center of Philosophy, Wilkerson and another philosophy professor Paul Taylor at Penn State University, had published the Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Programs, an online rating of Ph.D. programs in philosophy.

Since the mid-1990s, one ranking system for philosophy graduate programs has dominated the field: the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which was founded by Brian Leiter. It began in 1989 with an informal list Leiter circulated while a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Now, with an advisory board of over 50 philosophers, over 300 philosophers who participate in the annual survey, and Leiter at its helm as editor, the Gourmet Report’s influence is difficult to underestimate. Graduate students use it to decide which departments are worth applying to, and deans use it to decide whether to make hires and to invest more money into current programs. Philosophy departments have risen and fallen on the basis of its rankings. Leiter has been called the “philosopher king-maker.”

The Gourmet Report brought transparency to a field where a program’s reputation had been based primarily on word of mouth. Every year, he collects the opinions of philosophers in college and university departments throughout the nation, and then quantifies programs on the basis of such variables as department size and publishing output. Until the Gourmet Report came along, the University of Berkeley was considered by many to be the best program. Today it is tied at 14th with four other schools, and New York University is number one.

Not everyone thinks the Gourmet Report is fair. Critics argue it favors departments that focus on the philosophy of mind, and that it does not give much weight to programs that emphasize a plurality of views, such as those held by scholars in feminist philosophy, Africana philosophy, critical race theory, and Latin American philosophy.

“It attracts a Cartesian person, where one is disembodied from history, where one’s gender, sex, race, and sex identity are not considered as constitutive,” says George Yancy, a full professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, about the Gourmet Report.

Leiter disagrees. In his view, there is only good philosophy and bad philosophy, and most pluralist programs recognized in the Pluralist’s Guide are “generally inferior,” he wrote in an email in October 2012. “This is a judgment on the merits of work, a judgment based on considerations like argumentative and dialectical sophistication and perspicuousness, historical and cultural erudition, and knowledge of the history of philosophy.”

He also does not agree that the Pluralist’s Guide is really pluralist, “the guide is just a survey of teachers of philosophers who belong to two organizations, SPEP and SAAP.  I think it’s a great idea for the philosophy teachers in SPEP and SAAP to present their view of the fields they are interested in.  Prospective students need to be aware, of course, that they are getting a minority viewpoint, and that the programs recommended will limit their job prospects,” he stated in an email in April 2012. Leiter’s guide sets the tone for departments throughout the English-speaking world, and it has become a kind of gatekeeper for what matters in philosophy.

The Pluralist’s Guide is intended to be a corrective to Leiter’s report. Where The Gourmet Report restricts what counts as philosophy, Alcoff, Taylor and Wilkerson see themselves as broadening it. Leiter’s report, says Taylor, “tends not to register the breadth of opinion in philosophical circles about what counts as good philosophy.”

Alcoff, Taylor, and Wilkerson also see the Pluralist’s Guide as more inclusive because it evaluates subfields that Leiter’s report does not, including Latin American Philosophy and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Philosophy. “Let us not give assistance to the border control,” Alcoff writes on the Pluralist’s Guide website in reference to individuals who limit what counts as good philosophical discourse.

Alcoff thinks that by showcasing the intellectual diversity of philosophy programs, the Pluralist’s Guide will help diversify philosophers. “People of color and white women do all sorts of philosophy but if you look at who is doing feminist philosophy or critical race theory, it is mostly women doing the former and people of color doing the latter,” she says.

Philosophy is not a diverse field. Only 21 percent of professional philosophers are women, just ahead of physics (12 percent) and astronomy (17 percent). Minorities fare worse in this field. Of all professional philosophers, only 1.2 percent are Hispanic, 1.1 percent are black, and 0.1 percent are Native American.

Lionel McPherson, a prominent black philosopher at Tufts University who attended Princeton and Harvard for his undergraduate and graduate training, declared on Leiter’s blog in June 2011 that he would dissuade any black undergraduate from pursuing philosophy. He explained that he had simply experienced too much discrimination in his own career to recommend it to his black students.

“So what does that say about philosophy, half a century after the civil rights movement, decades after we’ve seen progress in other disciplines?” asks Professor Charles Mills of Northwestern University, another prominent black philosopher.

The Gourmet Report rankings provide further evidence that philosophy is a field of white men. Of the faculty at the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report, only 18.5 percent are women. Generally, the higher the program is ranked, the fewer women faculty there are. Only nine of the top 20 ranked programs in the Gourmet Report have a black faculty member.

The story of the controversies that arose around Alcoff and the Pluralist’s Guide is, in a way, a story about a power struggle over the nature of philosophical inquiry. Is thought pure, or does it have a gender, race and historical location? Have women and minorities largely not participated in this field because the questions that interest them or the ways they ask questions are considered unacceptable to mainstream philosophers who are mostly white and male?

Whatever the answers may be, one thing is certain: when the Pluralist’s Guide made its debut in the beginning of June 2011, Leiter and his allies in top philosophy departments were not happy with it.

“Linda is the best known of the three of us,” says Taylor, “and so she was the lightning rod that attracted most of the vituperation.”

***

Alcoff, 54, who has an easy smile and good sense of humor, has learned to overcome opposition. She was born in 1955 in Panama City to a Panamanian father and an American mother. Her parents were children of sharecroppers and mechanics who valued higher education. Her mother got an office job to support herself through school, and her father studied at the London School of Economics and became a professor at the University of Panama.

At age 3, her parents divorced, and Alcoff immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister. She says that compared to her sister, she had an easier time adjusting because English came easily to her and her skin was lighter.

Her mother remarried, but the family was poor. Despite their economic challenges, Alcoff’s mother still encouraged her to aspire to something greater. “Girls can be anything,” Alcoff says her mother repeatedly told her.

Alcoff did well in high school and became president of the student association. But then things changed for the worse. Two weeks after she turned seventeen, she got married and then dropped out of school. She describes the marriage as “pretty rocky,” and it lasted for 4 years.

Still, she went on to get her GED and then to Florida State University. She majored in philosophy, but by senior year her marriage was crumbling and philosophy was losing its appeal. She was more inspired by the civil rights movement and its efforts to end discrimination. She found it hard to focus on theory, she says, “when the world was burning.” She dropped out of school and moved to Atlanta where she knocked on the doors in the rural south to speak out against the Ku Klux Klan.

At age 22, she remarried and soon after had a baby. To make ends meet, she worked in a factory sewing shirt collars. She was paid for how many collars she made, and so she worked fast. As she threaded needles and mindlessly followed patterns, she found herself daydreaming about Sartre. She decided she wanted to return to philosophy.

In 1980 she earned her B.A. in philosophy from Georgia State, and then a couple of years later earned her master’s there, too. She enrolled at Brown University as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy.

By the time she arrived at Brown, she had two children and her husband supported them by working at a local factory where he punched holes in the metal interior of dryers. He worked 10 hour days six days a week. Fortunately, she made some good friends in the philosophy program who made spaghetti dinners for her family.

At one point during her doctorate work, her sons contracted chicken pox, one after the other. She was out of school for two weeks, and could not complete all of her work on time. An adviser encouraged her to lie about why she was out for so long. She says, “I asked for an incomplete and was instructed to lie on the form or risk not getting further support in the program, because some faculty doubted a mother’s ability to stay in grad school.”

When it came time to picking a dissertation topic, she knew she needed to steer clear of her true passion. “I knew that feminist philosophy would hinder my opportunities to get a job,” she says. She was probably right. Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at MIT, found in 2008 that 2.36 percent of content in top philosophy journals was devoted to feminist topics. Haslanger found roughly the same percentage of space was devoted to issues of race. Alcoff had broad interests, and so instead wrote her dissertation on epistemology.

In 1987, Alcoff landed a job right out of graduate school at Kalamazoo College, a small Midwestern college atop rolling hills. She was the first woman ever hired by the department. She left the following year and got a job at Syracuse University. Alcoff and another person were the first women hired in more than 20 years. She says the early years at Syracuse were sometimes rough, because she and the other woman in the department were often the subject of ridicule. She recalls one incident when she was checking her mail in the department. There were a few secretaries and graduate students around. In walked a male colleague who noticed her “Yale” sweatshirt she had picked up at a yard sale. George H.W. Bush was president at the time. The colleague said to her, “Oh look, another bush from Yale.”

“That level of stuff happened all the time,” she says.

***

It’s hard to say when the original idea for the Pluralist’s Guide first came about. Alcoff and Taylor believe that it was something already in the air in the field at large. But they do remember the moment their ideas became concrete. It was October 1, 2008, and they were seated by a window in an Ethiopian restaurant in Pittsburgh, awaiting their entrees. Alcoff remembers Taylor saying “Let’s do this!”

They were a diverse crew. A Latina (Alcoff), an African American (Taylor) and a gay man (Wilkerson, who joined them later). Rather than providing an overall ranking, as the Gourmet Report does, they decided to rate only subfields. They each picked a specialty area to oversee, Alcoff took feminist philosophy and Latin American philosophy; Taylor critical race, American Philosophy, and Africana Philosophy; and Wilkerson, LGBT philosophy.

Then came the question of how to rank the programs.

“I wanted our method to make it difficult to fetishize  numbers,” says Taylor. The Gourmet Report quantifies all departments numerically, which Taylor said felt too arbitrary. The Pluralist’s Guide ranks programs on a scale of one to five with five being the best. Rather than ranking them on their raw score, where a school that scored 4.8 would be better than one that received 4.7, they chose what Taylor called a “Consumer Reports model.” Those departments that received a score between 4 to 5 were “strongly recommended,” and those that earned 3.5 to 4 were “recommended.” All others went unranked.

In the next few years, they recruited board members to oversee each subfield, and found a Web designer. By July 2011, they were ready to publish the first batch of ratings. The results showed a trend: programs that the Pluralist’s Guide tended to rank highly were not ranked as highly by the Gourmet Report, and vice versa. For feminist philosophy, the Pluralist’s Guide strongly recommends the University of Kansas and De Paul University, but the Gourmet Report puts the University of Kansas in the bottom tier, and does not even list DePaul as a contender. Princeton University, which is listed by the Gourmet Report as one of the two top schools to practice the philosophy of race, is only “recommended” by the Pluralist’s Guide.

But it was not the results of these ratings that enraged the philosophical community. The Pluralist’s Guide also set out to rate programs on their quality of life for women and minorities in philosophy graduate programs. Alcoff and her colleagues sent surveys to faculty members throughout the nation. They were unable to derive enough statistically significant data on minorities or members of the LGBT community, but they did get enough on women. The survey on the Climate for Women in Philosophy included questions about the number of women in the department and more serious questions about the presence of sexual harassment.

What they found was shocking.

The programs that fared well in the climate survey tended to be programs that did not make the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report: Penn State, Duquesne, the New School, and the University of Hawaii. But there were some programs that did very poorly. Alcoff decided to create a new category for these schools called “need improvement.” There were only three schools to make the list, and they happened to be the top three overall departments according to the Gourmet Report: New York University, Rutgers University, and Princeton University.

Women graduate students at Rutgers were quick to respond. “My department’s bad reputation may have been deserved a while ago, but it’s not now,” said Lisa Miracchi, 24, a graduate student at Rutgers University. She calls herself “a feminist and a philosopher, but not someone who happens to do feminist philosophy.” She and many of her female colleagues were stunned when they got news that their department needed to improve its climate for women.

Days after the Pluralist’s Guide’s publication of the Climate for Women in philosophy survey, Miracchi collected opinions from the women in the philosophy program at Rutgers, and at the end of July 2011 drafted a statement that is now posted on both Leiter’s blog and the Pluralist’s Guide. “In numbers we are still the minority,” she wrote, “although it does not feel that way.” The letter closed with a request to remove Rutgers from the “needs improvement” list.

Alcoff chose to keep Rutgers on.

Meanwhile, another controversy arose. An anonymous student informed Leiter of a serial sexual harasser in the philosophy department at the University of Oregon, and said that a feminist faculty member was suppressing the information. The Pluralist’s Guide rates the University of Oregon “strongly recommended” as a women-friendly department.

Professors at the University of Oregon stated that the accusations were a result of a misunderstanding. Alcoff chose to keep Oregon on the list of recommended programs.

Leiter and others found Alcoff’s refusal to take Rutgers off the list but to keep University of Oregon on to be irresponsible. At the end of July, Leiter raised the question of whether Alcoff should be deposed as president of the eastern division of the APA. The poll was taken down a few weeks after it went up, but Leiter stated recently this spring 2012 that she is not suited for the job.

“My own opinion is that she should be removed from office, given that she can’t possibly represent the departments in the Eastern Division that her Guide defamed,” he wrote recently in an email. No president has been removed from office in the history of the APA, and there are no bylaws explaining how one would do it.

Deborah Achtenberg of the University of Nevada-Reno says that the desire to remove Alcoff from office is political. “I think it is interesting that there is a poll to exclude a Latina philosopher. Just when the APA is more inclusive, there seems to be an effort to undercut it,” she says.

Alcoff defends her decisions. She says there was a lot of conflicting information about the scandal at the University of Oregon, and she believes that there are enough supportive faculty members at the University of Oregon for a woman to do good work there. With respect to Rutgers, she says that faculty members and students at Rutgers told her in confidence that there were recently problems there. To remove Rutgers from the list, she believes, would be irresponsible.

“I felt an obligation to share the information,” says Alcoff.

Despite the controversies, Alcoff became president this July and will address the entire eastern division at a conference this December. Although the Pluralist’s Guide is no longer administering Climate Surveys, it offers suggestions on its website for how departments can do their own. After it’s rough start, the Pluralist’s Guide has had a positive impact, some philosophers say.

Gaile Pohlhaus, assistant professor of philosophy at Miami University, says her masters students find the guide very useful. “I have seen more talk about the degree to which philosophy marginalizes certain topics and certain persons,” she says, “and about what we can do to make it better.”

Rutgers University now has a webpage devoted to the climate for women in their department, and Miracchi and a few female faculty members are devising ways to ensure that the working environment remains favorable to women. She credits the Pluralist’s Guide for it. “I think the Pluralist’s Guide spurred a renewed enthusiasm for climate issues,” she says.

The Gourmet Report has added a critical race section since the Pluralist’s Guide was published.

On the West coast, at a conference on race in February 2012, Alcoff was approached after her talk by a black woman, Alisa Bierra, 38, who is a graduate student in philosophy at Stanford University and also associate director for race and gender at the University of California, Berkeley. Bierra thanked Alcoff for the Pluralist’s Guide. Bierra says she did so because the Guide’s focus on typically overlooked areas in philosophy is like a “breath of fresh air.”

Alcoff says comments like Bierra’s are what keep her going. “That’s why,” she says, “we’re never stopping.”

Tuna

Large open water fish, like this Northern blue...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The March 2014 issue of National Geographic featured Kenneth Brower’s article on Bluefin tuna. While the article has the usual National Geographic balance, it certainly led me to consider the issues raised by the handling of the tuna harvest.

Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity—primarily overfishing. While the dangerous decline of the tuna population is well-established, the powers-that-be are handling it in the usual way and are following the usual template that leads to resource depletion and perhaps extinction.

Like most industries, the tuna industry has a regulatory organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). Given the name, one might suspect that it aims at conserving tuna. However, critics jokingly claim that ICCAT stands for “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” While this might not be completely accurate, ICCAT does seem to act in ways that ignore scientific data and in favor of keeping the catch limits high.

For example, in tracking catch volume ICCAT divides the North Atlantic into western and eastern zones. The problem is that the management data is not accurate—the fish are treated as two distinct stocks that do not mix, but they actually do so. As such, fish caught in the western zone could very well be from the eastern zone and vice versa. As another example, the ICCAT models also fail to consider illegally caught fish—although this is apparently significant.

Like many regulatory entities, the ICCAT often elects to simply ignore its own scientific panel. In the case of ICCAT, catch limits are set considerably higher than the recommended levels for sustainability and it seems to ignore the fact that the actual catch levels are at least double the limits it sets. Scientists have recommended that the catch limits be reduced and that fishing be suspended during most of the spawning time for the fish. These recommendations have been ignored so far.

While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism, the recommendations are actually aimed at achieving sustainable fishing. That is, the recommendation is aimed at preserving the industry rather than destroying it.

It might be contended that the fishing companies would not engage in behavior that would destroy their industry. However, this is clearly not true. One reason is that there is a “strip mining” mentality in regards to handling resources. The basic idea is to get as much short-term profit as fast as possible and to not be concerned too much about the long term consequences. This approach is also fueled by the usual human tendency to discount the future and to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. For example, people often buy things they want (but do not need) on credit and end up suffering financially later. The same sort of mentality also applies to handling resources such as tuna. Or, as some might prefer, living creatures like tuna.

This also ties into the “move on” attitude which is the view that once something has been stripped of its value, the thing to do is simply move on to another area in which to gain fast and maximum profit. That these attitudes are prevalent is clearly shown by the way that other resources are often managed, such as fossil fuels and forests.

As such, it is certainly reasonable to believe that fishing companies and their regulators would engage in the seemingly irrational activity of destroying their own industry by overfishing. After all, this has been done before. At one time Monterey Bay had a thriving sardine industry and then in the 1950s this industry crashed in part due to overfishing. What has been already occurred can surely occur again, only this time with a different species. While the big financial fish can easily move on to new profits, there is always a terrible price paid by the little fish—that is, all the people who depended on the resources for their livelihood and now find them exhausted.

It might be contended that it is possible to keep moving on—that is, to shift to a new species once one species is eliminated. This is, of course, possible—but there is clearly a finite limit to how often this can be done since there are a finite number of species. It is also worth pointing out that human activity tends to hit many species at once, which will also reduce the ability to switch species.

It might also be contended that a solution will be found that does not require engaging in sustainable fishing—people like to point to past forecasts of doom that did not come true because of some innovation or invention. While human ingenuity is impressive, to simply assume that we will be able to solve every such problem would be mere wishful thinking.  Naturally, if there is a clear and plausible plan for solving the problem, that would be another matter.

In addition to ignoring scientific data, there is also the standard tactic of “massaging” science.  A common method is to make an appeal to uncertainty. The idea is that uncertainty in the data warrants simply sticking with business as usual.  In the case of tuna, the claim is that there is uncertainty about the stock assessments in terms of numbers and the impact of human activity. This uncertainty is then exploited to warrant expanding or at least maintaining quotas. The reasoning seems to be this: since the exact numbers and effects is are not known with certainty, the new limits suggested by scientists are not warranted—so stick with the old ones or set them higher. This same approach is taken with the environment in general, as has been the case with climate change. A general pattern is also to deny that humans are having the alleged effect and attributing it to other causes—and claiming that thus there is nothing we can do (other than staying the course).

In an interesting parallel with fossil fuels, biologists who are funded by the tuna industry have claimed that there might be as-of-yet undiscovered tuna spawning grounds so the fishing can continue at the current rate (or increase).  While this is possible, there is no actual evidence for this claim. However, this sort of wishful thinking (to be generous) allows business to go on fueled by false hope unsupported by facts.

Given the growing world population, effective management of resources is critical not only for the profits of the few, but the survival of the many. As such, action should be taken to ensure a sustainable harvest of tuna. However, it is most likely that business as usual will continue and the tuna population will crash as other fish populations have crashed before them.

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Spam

Sorry about the comment spam that keeps appearing.

I’m deleting it every morning and evening, and we’re using a spam filter that has already caught nearly 2,500,000 spam comments, but it keeps cropping up.

I realize it’s annoying. It annoys me too!

Love, Voles & Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essays I examined the idea that love is a mechanical matter as well as the implications this might have for ethics. In this essay, I will focus on the eternal truth that love hurts.

While there are exceptions, the end of a romantic relationship typically involves pain. As noted in my original essay on voles and love, Young found that when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. This was tested by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine how much the voles would struggle. Prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

Human beings also suffer from the hurt of love. For example, it is not uncommon for a human who has ended a relationship (be it divorce or a breakup) to fall into a vole-like depression and struggle less against the tests of life (though dropping humans into giant beakers to test this would presumably be unethical).

While some might derive an odd pleasure from stewing in a state of post-love depression, presumably this feeling is something that a rational person would want to end. The usual treatment, other than self-medication, is time: people usually tend to come out of the depression and then seek out a new opportunity for love. And depression.

Given the finding that voles can be treated for this depression, it would seem to follow that humans could also be treated for this as well. After all, if love is essentially a chemical romance grounded in strict materialism, then tweaking the brain just so would presumably fix that depression. Interestingly enough, the philosopher Spinoza offered an account of love (and emotions in general) that nicely match up with the mechanistic model being examined.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their affections and chained by who they love. This is an unwise approach to life because, as the voles in the experiment found out, the object of one’s love can die (or leave). This view of Spinoza nicely matches up: voles that bond with a partner become depressed when that partner is lost. In contrast, voles that do not form such bonds do not suffer that depression.

Interestingly enough, while Spinoza was a pantheist, his view of human beings is rather similar to that of the mechanist: he regarded humans are being within the laws of nature and was a determinist in that all that occurs does so from necessity—there is no chance or choice. This view guided him to the notion that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” To be more specific, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable.  In short, Spinoza engaged in what can be regarded as a scientific examination of the emotions—although he did so without the technology available today and from a rather more metaphysical standpoint. However, the core idea that the emotions can be analyzed in terms of definitive laws is the same idea that is being followed currently in regards to the mechanics of emotion.

Getting back to the matter of the negative impact of lost love, Spinoza offered his own solution: as he saw it, all emotions are responses to what is in the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have done something different in the past. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that what he is doing now might not bear fruit in the future. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past and present could be different and the future is not set. Once a person realizes that all that happens occurs of necessity (that is, nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be), then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains of love would be the recognition and acceptance that what occurs is determined.

Putting this in the mechanistic terms of modern neuroscience, a Spinoza-like approach would be to realize that love is purely mechanical and that the pain and depression that comes from the loss of love are also purely mechanical. That is, the terrible, empty darkness that seems to devour the soul at the end of love is merely chemical and electrical events in the brain. Once a person recognizes and accepts this, if Spinoza is right, the pain should be reduced. With modern technology it is possible to do even more: whereas Spinoza could merely provide advice, modern science can eventually provide us with the means to simply adjust the brain and set things right—just as one would fix a malfunctioning car or PC.

One rather obvious problem is, of course, that if everything is necessary and determined, then Spinoza’s advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators and not players. So, if one is determined to wallow like a sad pig in the mud of depression, that is how it will be.

In terms of the mechanistic mind, advice would seem to be equally absurd—that is, to say what a person should do implies that a person has a choice. However, the mechanistic mind presumably just ticks away doing what it does, creating the illusion of choice. So, one brain might tick away and end up being treated while another brain might tick away in the chemical state of depression. They both eventually die and it matters not which is which.

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Love, Voles & Kant

Español: Intercambio de anillos entre los novios

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In my previous essay I discussed the current theory that love is essentially a mechanical matter. That is, what we regard as love behavior is merely the workings of chemistry, neurons and genetics. This view, as noted in the essay, is supported by Larry Young’s research involving Voles. This mechanistic view of love has some interesting implications and I will consider one of these in this essay. To be specific, I will consider the matter of the virtue of fidelity.

While most of human history has involved polygamous relationships (such as those enjoyed by the famous King Solomon), the idea of romantic fidelity has been praised in song, fiction and in the professed values of contemporary society. Given Young’s research, it could be the case that humans are biochemically inclined to fidelity—at least in the sense of forming pair bonds. Sexual fidelity, as with the voles, is rather another matter.

While fidelity is praised, one important question is whether or not is worthy of praise as a virtue. If humans are like voles and the mechanistic theory of human bonding is correct, then fidelity of the sort that ground pair-bonding would essentially be a form of addiction, as discussed in the previous essay. On the face of it, this would seem to show that such fidelity is not worthy of praise. After all, one does not praise crack heads for their loyalty to crack. Likewise, being addicted to love would hardly make a person worthy of praise.

One obvious counter is that while crack addiction is regarded as bad because of the harms of crack, the addiction that composes pair bonding should be generally regarded as good because of its good consequences. These consequences would be the usual sort of things people praise about pair bonding, such as the benefits to health.  However, this counter misses the point: the question is not whether pair bonding is good (it generally is in terms of consequences) but whether fidelity should be praised.

If fidelity is a matter of chemistry (in the literal sense), then it would not seem to be worthy of praise. After all, if I form a lasting bond because of this process it is merely a matter of a mechanical process, analogous to being chained to a person. If I stick close to a person because I am chained to her, that is hardly worthy of praise—be the chain metal or chemical.

If my fidelity is determined by this process, then I am not actually acting from fidelity but rather merely acting as a physical system in accord with deterministic (or whatever physics says these days) processes.  To steal from Kant, I would not be free in my fidelity—it would be imposed upon me by this process. As such, my fidelity would not be morally right (or wrong) and I would not be worthy of praise for my fidelity. In order for my fidelity to be morally commendable, it would have to be something that I freely chose as a matter of will.

One obvious concern with this sort of view is that it would seem to make fidelity a passionless sort of thing. After all, if I chose to be faithful to a person on the basis of a free and rational choice rather than being locked into fidelity by a chemical stew of passion and emotion, then this seems rather cold and calculating—like how one might select the next move in chess or determine which stock to buy. After all, love is supposed to be something one falls into rather than something that one chooses.

This reply has considerable appeal. After all, a rational choice to be loyal to a person would not be the traditional sort of love that is praised in song, fiction and romantic daydreams. One wants to hear a person gushing about passion, burning emotions, and the ways of the heart—not rational choice.  Of course, an appeal to the idealized version of romantic love might be a poor response—much like any appeal to fiction. That said, there does seem to be a certain appeal in the whole emotional love thing—although the idea that love is merely a chemical romance also seems to rob love of that magic.

A second obvious concern is that it assumes that people are capable of free choice—that is, a person can decide to be faithful or not. The mechanistic view of humans typically does not stop with the emotional aspects (although Descartes did seem to regard emotions, at least in animals, as having a physical basis—while leaving thinking to the immaterial mind). Rather, they tend to extend to all aspects of the human and this includes what we would regard as decision making. For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that we actually do not chose—we simply seem to make decisions but they are purely deterministic. As such, if the choice to be faithful is merely another mechanistic process, then this would be no more praiseworthy than being faithful through a love addiction. In fact, as has long been argued, this sort of mechanistic view would take care of morality by eliminating agency.

 

 

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Love, Voles and Mechanism

English: Young bank voles (Clethrionomys glare...

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The prairie vole has attracted some attention recently because of research into love and voles. Researchers such as Larry Young have found that the prairie vole is one of the few socially monogamous mammals—that is, a mammal that pair bonds for extended periods of time (even for life). Interestingly, this pair bonding does not occur naturally in other varieties of voles—they behave like typical mammals and do not engage in this sort of pair bonding.

Larry Young was rather curious about this feature of prairie voles and researched it. He found that the brains of the voles are such that the pleasure reward of sexual activity becomes linked to a specific partner. The specific mechanism involves oxytocin and vasopressin, but the important thing is that the voles become, in effect, addicted to each other in much the same manner that a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes and associates pleasure with the trappings of smoking.  To confirm this, Young genetically modified meadow voles to be like prairie voles. The results supported the idea that the bonding is due to the chemistry: the normally non-bonding meadow voles engaged in bonding behavior.

Humans, unlike most other mammals, also engage in pair bonding (at least sometimes). While humans are different from voles, the mechanism is presumably similar. That is, we are literally addicted to love.

Young also found that prairie voles suffer from what humans would call heart ache: when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. Young tested this by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine the degree of struggle offered by the voles. He found that prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

This also presumably holds for humans as well. While it is well know that humans typically become saddened by the loss of a partner (either by death or a breakup), this research also presumably suggests that human depression of this sort has a chemical basis and that it could be “cured” by suitable treatment. This is, of course, what is often attempted with therapy and medication.

While the mechanical model of love (and the mind in general) might seem like something new, the idea of materialism (that everything is physical—as opposed to some things being non-physical in nature) is an old one that dates back to Thales. The idea that human beings are mechanical systems goes back to Descartes: he regarded the human body as a purely mechanical system, albeit one controlled by a non-material mind. Thomas Hobbes accepted Descartes view that the body is a machine, but rejected Descartes’ dualism. Influenced by the physics of his day, Hobbes held that the human being is a deterministic machine, just like all other machines and living creatures.

Perhaps the most explicit early development of the idea that humans are machines occurred in Julien de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine.  While La Mettrie is not as famous as Hobbes or Descartes, many of his views are duplicated today by modern scientists. La Mettrie held that humans and animals are essentially the same, although humans are more complex than most animals. He also held that human beings are material, deterministic, mechanist systems. That is, humans are essentially biological machines. Given these views, the idea that human love and vole love are essentially the same would be accepted by La Mettrie and would, in fact, be exactly what his theory would predict.

Interestingly enough, contemporary science is continuing the project started by philosophers like Thales, Hobbes and La Mettrie. The main difference is that contemporary scientists have much better equipment to work with and can, unlike La Mettrie and Hobbes, examine the chemical and genes that are supposed to determine human behavior. Without perhaps realizing it, scientists are apparently proving the theories of long dead philosophers.

The chemical theory of love does have some rather interesting philosophical implications and some of these will be considered in upcoming essays.

 

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Chance, Success & Failure

“The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.”

-The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt

 

Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...

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In a previous essay, I discussed the role of chance in artistic success using Matthew Salganik’s virtual world experiment as a focus. In his discussion of this experiment, Salganik noted that it was likely to have implications for success (and failure) in a much broader context. Sorting out the role of chance in success and failure seems both interesting and rather important.

One obvious reason why it is important to sort out the role of chance is to provide a rational basis for assigning praise and blame (and the possible accompanying reward and punishment). After all, success or failure by pure chance would not (in general) seem to merit praise or blame. If I win a lottery by pure chance, I have done nothing that would warrant being praised—aside from acquiring a ticket, I had no substantial role in the process. Likewise, if I do not win the lottery, I do not warrant being accused of a failure.

This also, obviously enough, ties into morality: chance can mitigate moral responsibility. If the properly maintained brakes on my truck fail as I approach a stop sign at a reasonable speed and I thus crash into an innocent pedestrian, I am not to blame—this was a matter of chance. Likewise, if my truck were to crash into a person attempting murder in the street, I am also not responsible for this fortuitous outcome.

Somewhat less obvious is the tie this matter has to setting rational public policy and laws. After all, to set public policy on such matters as unemployment benefits and food stamps without properly assessing the role of chance in success and failure would be a grave moral error. Suppose that, as some claim, people end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of factors that are within their control—that is, they essentially decide their way into unemployment or need. If this is the case, then it would be reasonable to set public policy to reflect this alleged reality. The general idea would seem to be that there should not be such support. To use an analogy, if someone throws her money away foolishly, I have no obligation to give her more money. Her poor decision making does not constitute my obligation.

However, if chance (or other factors beyond the control of the individual) play a significant role in success and failure, then it would seem reasonable to shape policy to match this alleged reality. Suppose, as some claim, people do often end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of chance. In this case, public policy should reflect this alleged reality and such aid should be available to help offset chance.  To use an analogy, if someone stumbles across some muggers and is robbed of the money she needs to buy food for herself and her children, then her situation does obligate me—if can help her at reasonable cost to myself, I should certainly do so.

Thus, it would seem that sorting out the role of chance in success and failure is a rather important matter. Unfortunately, it is also a very complex matter. However, I think it would be helpful to use an example to show that chance does seem to be a major factor in success in factor. Since I am most familiar with my own life, I will do a short sketch of the role of chance in my success and failure.

As I mentioned in the previous essay on this matter, I have been accused of believing in choice because I want to get credit for my successes. As might be imagined, people who are successful tend to want to believe that their success is due largely to their own decisions and efforts—that they have earned success. Likewise, people who are failures often tend to blame chance (and other factors) as the cause of their failures. Both sets of people tend to also apply their view to the opposite of their situations: the successful also attribute the failure of the failures to the decisions of those who have failed while those who are failures attribute the success of others to chance. People do, quite clearly, embrace the narrative that pleases them most. However, what pleases need not be true. As such, while I like to believe that my success is earned, I am willing to carefully consider the role of chance.

One blindingly obvious factor that is entirely a matter of chance is the matter of birth: it is, if there is chance, a matter of chance that I was born in the United States to a middle-class family and that I was healthy and normal. It is also largely a matter of chance, from my standpoint, that I had a family that took care of me and that I was in a society that provided stability, healthcare and education. If I had been born in some war and poverty ravaged part of the world and had horrible health issues, things would obviously be much different.

The rest of my life was also heavy with chance. For example, I almost ended up a Marine, but budget cuts ended up preventing that and instead I ended up at Ohio State. I ended up meeting a woman there who went to Florida State University and thus I ended up in Tallahassee by chance. This allowed me to get the job I have—which was also largely chance (Florida A&M University needed a philosophy professor right away and I just happened to be there). I could, easily enough, go through all the matters of chance that resulted in success: meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time, avoiding the wrong people, and so on.

Of course, my desire to take credit for success drives me to add that I surely had a role to play in my success. While chance put me in the United States with a healthy body and mind, it was my decisions and actions that got me through school and into college. While chance had a major role to play in my getting a job as a professor, surely it was my actions and decisions that allowed me to keep the job. While chance has surely played a role in my book sales, surely the quality of my work is what wins people over. Roughly put, chance put me into various situations, but it was still up to me to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid dangers.

While my pride drives me to seize a large share of the credit for my success, honesty compels me to admit that I owe a great deal to pure chance—starting with day zero. Presumably the same is true of everyone else as well. As such, I think it wise to always temper praise and condemnation with the knowledge that chance played a major role in success and failure.

 

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The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck

The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a writer and someone who teaches an Aesthetics course, the cause of artistic success is a matter that I find rather interesting. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. In the course of the debate, I defended free will. The professor on the other side made an interesting point in claiming that I believed in free will because I wanted credit for my success. That remark stuck with me and I found it applied elsewhere, such as matters of luck (that is, chance that turns out favorable or unfavorable).

Since I have been a gamer for quite some time, I am well aware of the role (or roll) of chance in success. However, as the professor noted, I wanted credit for my successes and hence while I acknowledged the role of luck, I tended to minimalize its role. However, after having some modest success with my books and teaching Aesthetics for years, I came to accept the view that luck (that is, favorable chance) has a large role in success. Of course, this was a largely unsupported view. Fortunately, Princeton’s Matthew Salganik decided to investigate the matter of success and had the resources to do so.

In order to determine the role of chance in success Salganik created nine identical online worlds. He then distributed the 30,000 teens he had recruited for his experiment among these virtual worlds.  Each group of teens was exposed to the same 48 songs from emerging artists that were unknown to the teens. In return, the teens were able to download the songs they liked best free of charge.

One world was set up as the control world—in this world the teens were isolated from social influence because they could not see what songs their fellows were downloading. In the other eight worlds, they could see which songs were being downloaded—which informed them of what the other teens regarded as worth downloading.

This experiment was certainly well designed: each world is identical at the start and the test subjects (the teenagers) were randomly assigned to the worlds.  Given the quality and size of the experiment, the results can be safely regarded as statistically significant.

Given that the same 48 songs were available in each world, if quality was the defining factor for success, then it would seem to follow that each world should be fairly similar in terms of which songs were downloaded the most. However, Salganik found that the worlds varied a great deal. For example, 52 Metro’s song “Lock Down” was first in one world and 40th in another world. Salganik concluded that “small, random initial differences” were magnified by “social influence and cumulative advantage.” In short, chance was the decisive factor in the outcome. As a gamer, I certainly appreciated these findings and could easily visualize modelling this process with some dice and charts—like in games such as Pathfinder and D&D.

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

In terms of the specific mechanism of artistic success, a group of people will as a matter of random chance decide that a work is good. The attention of this group will attract more attention and this process will continue. Those who are drawn by the attention seem to engage in the reasoning that the work must be good and special because all the other people seem to believe that it is good and special. However, the work was

Interestingly enough, Leo Tolstoy seemed to have hit on a similar idea—although he obviously lacked the means to run the sort of experiment conducted by Salganik.  As Tolstoy said, “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as art, then a definition of art is devised to cover these productions.”  Tolstoy believed that approach failed to distinguish between good and bad art and thus he regarded it as flawed. With a tweak, this can be used to capture Salganik’s findings: “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as good, then it is believed by others to be special.”

Interestingly enough, the sort of “reasoning” that Salganik’s experiment seems to have shown is the Appeal to Popularity fallacy: this is the “reasoning” that because something is popular, it follows that it is good/correct. It also nicely matches the similar Bandwagon fallacy: that because something is winning, it follows that it is good/correct. Not surprisingly, this is grounded in the cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect: people have a psychological tendency to align their thinking with other people. In the case of Salganik’s experiment, the participants aligned their thinking in terms of their aesthetic preference and thus created a bandwagon effect. The effect is rather like the stereotype of the avalanche: a small, random event can set off a massive tide. Given that the process of selection is essentially not a rational assessment of quality but rather driven by cognitive bias and (perhaps) fallacious reasoning it certainly makes sense that the outcomes would be decided largely by chance. The same, if his experiment extends by analogy, would seem to hold true of the larger world.

 

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