Science, social science and problem solving

A guest post by John Green

A good friend, and a good scientist, has long bemoaned the paucity of scientifically qualified persons in upper echelons of power in the UK – and anywhere else for that matter. In his view (and mine, for what it’s worth) those who make plans for an unknowable future purely on ‘gut feeling’, ‘it worked before’, ‘it’s part of our tradition’, are rushing blindfold into the future. Any or all of those things might be true but our environment is constantly evolving, and the conditions that made for previous successful outcomes may no longer apply.

Science looks for evidence of how things happened in the past to try to predict what might occur in the future. We need people of vision who can speculate about what the future might hold for us but we also need those who can analyse and gain some understanding of what has gone before, who can experiment with the knowledge they have gained to highlight future scenarios and can monitor change and seek to correct for unanticipated deviations.

Another scientist, a friend of mine in later life, had gained distinction in his own field of aeronautical engineering and had then become a very effective civil servant; but he left the public service for industry because he judged that no scientist would ever reach the highest civil service rank, that of Permanent Secretary. That was in the 1950s. If anyone with a scientific education has climbed those dizzy heights in the intervening period it has never come to my notice. Scientific thought, evidence-based decision making, plays too little part in public affairs.

However, there is another side to this. Having been a member of a scientific society for over 70 years, and having used science in a half century working life, I retain a general interest in scientific issues in the media; and my impression is that the most senior figures, societies and organisations of ‘science’, which usually is taken to refer to the natural sciences,  are constantly asking for, pleading for, even demanding more and more funds. They promising tangible benefits but without much consideration of how the ‘benefits’ might impact on ‘society’. Scientists may regret that the educational background of lawyers, politicians, captains of industry, denies them the use of the rigour of scientific methodology or even a proper appreciation of advice from the scientific community. But the science bodies themselves appear to make little concerted effort to consider the potential impact of their explorations on the individuals and communities which comprise society as a whole. George Bernard Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft, in the play Major Barbara was a chemical manufacturer rather than a scientist but he said of the chemical which he offered for sale, ammonium nitrate, that what happened next was not for him to decide. Whether it was used as an explosive or as an agricultural fertiliser was neither his concern nor responsibility.

Natural, ‘hard’, science, biology, chemistry physics and so on, scarcely recognise the existence of social, ‘soft’, science, sociology, economics and the like, the study of the interactions between individuals and groups of individuals. And when it comes to research funding for science in the UK it has been reported that social science is funded by much less than a tenth of the sums lavished on hard science. This cannot be right.

Some years ago I happened across a paper on how to arrange a work station so that all the levers, handles and switches were in the optimum position for the operator. I knew of research going on into novel machinery and took the paper to the overall chief, someone I had known for years. I found that he wasn’t interested; he told me his people were looking to robot operation, which would have the additional advantage that, at least at that time, robots were not being recruited to unions with membership of the TUC. I did try to suggest that machine operators are also consumers. It seemed unlikely that robots would develop an appetite for the food, drink, and other consumables enclosed in the packaging the machines were being designed to produce. Operatives displaced from employment would no longer have the wherewithal to purchase those products – would the robots be laid off in turn? But my friend made it clear that was not his but someone else’s problem.

More recently I read a book which discussed how it might be possible to move to a more comprehensive measure of well-being than the crude and simplistic Gross Domestic Product, and such a departure might offer some insight into how ‘well being’ could be enhanced for the less advantaged in societies. I was able to follow the argument but there was some mathematical underpinning which was out of my reach. I have long practice in judging others whose mathematical dexterity far outstrips my own and this author has gained my trust but I thought that it would be interesting for someone with real mathematical facility to have a look, just to confirm to me that the sums added up, and I knew of just such a person who also had a similar outlook on life to my own. That person is a Nobel laureate whose mastery of complex mathematical theory underlay the work for which the prize was given, so I commended the economics book. Sadly, the response I got was, ‘Don’t do economics’.

Our world is one of increasing specialisation, full of those who ‘know more and more about less and less’. As editor of a journal aimed at helping those engaged in trying to avoid or contain workplace health hazards, I found it extremely difficult to find a reviewer for a book offering a general oversight of the subject. Generalists were either superannuated or as rare as hen’s teeth, everyone ‘active’ had a speciality and anything outside that speciality was foreign territory. Managers of every style of enterprise, public or private, charitable or profit-focused are hypnotised by the Friedman ethic that everything can be reduced to a cash equivalent, they know in immense detail the price of everything are entirely ignorant of the value of anything. Every activity is split out to cost centres and success is in accumulating more of them than the opposition. There was a story, some years ago, just possibly apocryphal, of a university which had within its biology school a department of chemical biology, and within its chemistry school a department of biological chemistry.

During the second world war the military set up Combined Operations in which the knowledge, ability and resources of people from different branches of the forces and even from different nations were brought together to take on a specific task. Once the task was complete the team dissolved and another team was created with a suitable combination of skills appropriate to the new task. A similar approach was made post-war in major reconstruction processes. The over-arching aim was, for Combined Operations, to win the war, for the reconstruction teams, to rebuild the country. Individuals subsumed personal interests for the greater good.

There is nothing novel about team working but the usual historical pattern has been of a leader with a team using their varied skills to work to the leader’s plan. The idea of assembling individuals with the perceived required skills and leaving the team as a whole to devise its method of working to a desired goal was not entirely novel and various attributions have been made as to its authorship – one, according to a Wikipedia entry, being the South African commander and later Prime Minister, Jan Smuts.   Multidisciplinary teams are in use in some areas of the NHS but the increasing specialisation and cost centre approach to management and budget allocation in organisations generally provides obstacles.

On the other hand the exponential expansion of available information in the digital age, whilst it feeds the appetite for even more ‘specialisation’ must also make an even stronger case for multidisciplinary team working and for gaining an understanding of how such teams can be assembled and enabled to work most successfully. Recently (August 2014) the Headmaster of Eton has used the pages of that learned educational journal the Radio Times to question an educational pattern judged on examination results based on papers which students take entirely on their own. He suggested that in China doubts are being cast about the even more disciplined strategy in that country and there are moves to look at what others, including the UK, have done and are doing which could lead to a more joined-up approach to the unresolved problems which we know to exist in our world and those, as yet unknown, which, experience suggests will confront us or our successors in the future.

An older and wiser colleague during the war (WW2) had to turn his hand to finding ways of keeping factories operating in face of bombing, of labour and material shortages whilst also devising ways of meeting requests to manufacture entirely novel items for the armed forces. He told me that when faced with a problem the most important thing is not finding the right answer but asking the right question.

John Green has had a half a century career applying scientific methodology  to problem solving in industry and commerce.

He says he worked at the ‘ragged edge’ rather than the ‘cutting edge’ of science. I have been corresponding with him for some years about my books and other matters. I’m grateful for his permission to post here these reflections on different modes of knowledge and joining them up.


Economies and economics

As part of the preparation for the new course I’m teaching at the University of Manchester this autumn, Economics for Public Policy, I’ve been looking again at Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions and Evolution by Sam Bowles. It’s a decade old now but still pretty unique in its approach, which is rooted in social interactions and institutions rather than the atomised individuals of the standard micro course. In other words, it’s about economies, and not ‘economics’.

It’s a graduate level text, but I’ve also started looking at a brand new undergraduate micro text, Microeconomics: A Fresh Start by Peter Dorman. It starts with some history of thought and then the assumptions of economic models, and the values and objectives of economics, before going on to institutions – of which markets are one example. Demand and supply and market structure come later, followed by bargaining power and market failures. There is a final section on applied economics challenges, such as poverty, ecological questions, financial markets. Although I’ve not worked through any of it in detail, it is hugely more appealing than the standard textbooks. I’m not teaching micro per se, nor have I worked through this in any detail, but would recommend anyone who is teaching the core undergraduate courses to take a look at this. There’s also a macro volume I’ve not yet looked at.

Sam Bowles is one of the leading lights of the CORE curriculum reform project, in which I’m also involved, and its Intro to Economics goes into the pilot phase soon. There are lots of different barriers to reform of the economics curriculum, the availability of better (ie. non-standard) textbooks being only one of them. It’s so encouraging, though, to see – only 2 years on from What’s the Use of Economics – several more realistic and humane approaches to economics being developed for use where it really matters, in the education of future generations of economists – and policy-makers, and bankers, and accountants, or whatever they go on to be from their undergraduate degree.

Some light holiday reading

The past week I was in West Wales with next to no connectivity, so it was a good week for reading but not for blogging. One of the books I read was the new paperback of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control.

It’s the story of America’s nuclear weapons; not so much the diplomacy and strategy of the Cold War, although there’s a bit of that for background, but rather how many accidents there have been. It’s a terrifying book because of the sheer number of explosions and leaks, and it seems only luck that has prevented there being a more serious disaster. And then it’s doubly terrifying when you close it and realise that this was the US only, and there are plenty of other countries with nukes, including a number with far less sophisticated scientists and management systems. Heaven only knows how many accidents there have been involving warheads in the USSR or North Korea, or what’s rattling around the FSU countries now. Still, as Schlosser points out, of the 70,000 nuclear warheads (70,000!!!) built by the US since 1945, none has detonated by accident or without proper authorization. “The technological and administrative controls on those weapons have worked.”

Having nuclear weapons involves one central dilemma, Schlosser explains. There is an engineering trade-off between making them ultra-safe to store and transport, and making them work every time if they need to be fired – because the whole logic of deterrence depends on there not being any dud ICBMs. The complexity of the weapons and the safety procedures developed around them – albeit often ignored by maintenance teams – also militates against the strict command and control hierarchy of the military. You can see why the top brass insisted that all instructions in case of accident had to come from them. After all, it seems mad to allow any improvisation where nuclear warheads are concerned. However, in a fast-moving, confused, uncertain environment when a serious accident is under way and an explosion could detonate a warhead, it also seems mad not to allow the men on the ground to make their own decisions – especially in the pre-web, pre-mobile days when communications from command posts were slow, and easily disrupted. Nuclear weaponry is really the opposite of the kind of engineering project described in Tim Harford’s Adapt. He argues that freedom to fail is a vital part of successful innovation. You don’t want freedom to fail when it comes to the H-bomb.

Command and Control has lots of fascinating detail. One bit I enjoyed was that the underground bunker created in Britain (described in Peter Hennessey’s The Secret State as well) had accommodation, a gold vault for the Bank of England’s reserves, a BBC studio – and a pub called the Rose and Crown. I will certainly follow up the reference to an article by Langdon Winner, ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’, which apparently asks whether certain technologies can only operate in specific political contexts:

“I shall offer outlines and illustrations of two ways in which artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in a particular community. Seen in the proper light, examples of this kind are fairly straightforward and easily understood. Second are cases of what can be called inherently political technologies, man-made systems that appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds of political relationships.”

So, overall, C&C is a gripping read, but I want to carp as well. Schlosser is a terrific writer, but this book really needed an editor. No character, no matter how minor, is introduced without his cv. There is so much technical detail that it derails the story. Most bizarrely, there is one particular accident that starts and ends the book, such an edge-of-the-seat tale that I’m sure Hollywood is already working on the film – but rather than simply presenting it as the opening and closing chapters, framing the meat of the book, it is woven in throughout the other chapters, and pops up at seemingly random points.

Still, well worth reading, and go and see the movie when it’s out, too.

Can’t do without Jane Jacobs

I’m sure I once had a copy of The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, but when my son asked to borrow it, I couldn’t find it. So I ordered a 2nd hand one from Abe and it just arrived – can’t do without one on the bookshelf. (No doubt the other copy will turn up soon….)

There’s a great quote from Herodotus to start with:

“I will tell the story as I go along of small cities no less than of great. Most of those which were great once are small today; and those which in my own lifetime have grown to greatness, were small enough in the old days.”

Guest review of Lean In

This is a guest review by Ian Bright, @brighteconomist, of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Behind every good book there is a mountain of research. It would be a mistake to dismiss this short book’s discussion of the problems women face in reaching senior management positions in business and public life simply because its story-telling approach is not to your liking. Its style was not to my taste but I read on regardless, drawn in by the footnotes that chronicle important research and details. The book’s strength is in this research, which naturally appeals to the economist in me.

There are 35 pages of small print footnotes accompanying 182 pages of text. These account for 19 per cent of the pages but add so much more of the content. I found myself continually flipping between the text and the notes. Anecdotes throughout are usually supported by academic research that indicates the problem is pervasive or that gives detail that would otherwise disturb the flow of the story being told.

Sandberg, currently Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, is one of the most senior and prominent women in global business. She holds a position of power and influence. It is appropriate that her stories provide the narrative for the text as they provide a way to shed light on the important issue of advancing women in the workplace and society. To her credit, she openly pays tribute to the contribution of Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, as the book’s lead researcher.

The book covers various issues such as the ambition gap displayed by women, the tension that can exist between success and likeability that can affect women particularly, the role of fathers/partners/families in child rearing and the role of mentors. Many issues are approached with an anecdote from Sandberg’s or a friend’s experience, but a close reader will be drawn to the footnotes for details.

The book’s title comes from the advice to “lean in” to tables when at meeting rather than to sit back or stay at the side of the room and therefore not participate. The advice to others – both men and women – in positions of management and power appears to be to provide the environment to allow more women to contribute. Even simple things such as ensuring toilets are available for women as well as men at meeting venues can play a part.

When story-telling to highlight an important topic, there can be a fine line between trivialising and getting the main message across. For some, this line will be crossed at times and they may be thinking “too much information”. For example, I would never ask a woman of a newly-born child “Do you need to pump?” But Sandberg notes that her writing partner, Nell Scovell, “was insistent that we keep searching until we found the right way to talk about these complicated and emotional issues.” Sandberg and Scovell are right. The issue of advancing women in the workplace is complicated and emotional. If it takes a story from a powerful woman to make the issues more accessible, acceptable and understandable, so be it.

For economists, there is an interesting insight into the working relationship between Sandberg and Larry Summers. Sandberg was a research officer for Summers when he was Chief Economist at the World Bank. Sandberg did not know how to use Lotus 1-2-3 (an early version of Excel spreadsheets) to complete a task. Her colleagues appear to have been amazed at her lack of knowledge and apparent unsuitability for the job she had been given. Summers took a different tack. He taught her how to use the software.

Further, for the economics profession this book has great relevance. Women are under-represented in the profession. This is generally accepted and even highlighted by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller in a tweet of March 1 referencing an article by Claudia Goldin titled “Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?” ( ).

Lean In won’t provide all the answers but it provides a way to think about this issue and how it can affect your working and family life.