Friday, December 21, 2018

Scott E. Page

Scott E. Page is the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics, at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute.

His new book is The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You.

Recently I asked Page about what he was reading. His reply:
I recently finished reading The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah, which I cannot recommend enough. Appiah decomposes identity through six (partially overlapping) categories: classifications, creed, country, color, class, and culture. I found his description of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as ways that we respond to the natural world. Each of us sees our own way as natural and those of others as unnatural. How we walk, greet, engage. What we wear and eat as well as how we wear clothes and how we eat. These are all habitus. Appiah does such a wonderful job of sharing his erudition, wisdom, and cosmopolitanism without coming across as pompous. Instead, he embodies an enlightened tolerance that we might all emulate. The book is approachable to anyone and a fabulous companion read with the novel In Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, which also focuses on culture, class, and habitus in conflict.

Rahman’s story centers on a dialogue between two reunited former mathematics students — one from a wealthy, socially connected family and one from a poor family. Both English. One born in Bangladesh, one of Pakistani descent. The book drips with ideas and insights—such as characterizing trust as agreement with expectations—and engages, rather than merely tossing in, hundreds of literary references ranging from Eliot to Melville. All the while, Rahman masterfully crisscrosses broad themes of Empire, love, friendship, and class through the lenses of the aftermath of the 2008 financial market collapse and international development.

Contrasting In Light of What We Know with The Lies That Bind reveals the strength of each form. The nonfiction personal account of Appiah goes deep into the social science literature. It categorizes. It dissects identity much like a modern team of scientists might describe the various systems (circulatory, skeletal, etc..) in a frog. In Rahman’s story, we feel the mismatch of habitus though narrative. And narrative has so much more emotional power. Near the end of the book, Zafar, the friend of the narrator who has raised himself from poverty, realizes that the reason that his aristocratic fiancĂ© Emily leaves the crust of her pizza on her plate is because it has come into contact with her hands.

I read these books in parallel, which were Kwame and Zafar not such strong voices, would have been confusing if not impossible. I followed them with The Rise of the Meritocracy sent to me by my friend Joseph Vining, a law professor. For those who do not know this book (I did not which is why Joe sent me a copy), it is a dystopian novel / sociological satire written by Michael Young in 1958. Young, in fact, coined the term meritocracy, which may explain why I was reading the book’s 11th edition.

Young describes a meritocratic England from the vantage point of 2034. Appiah’s six C’s, most important among them class, have been replaced by a meritocracy, where IQ + effort determine the school a person attends, his level (among 221!) in a large organization, and his social standing. Young describes the sociological, political, and economic transitions required for this to happen. The first step involves creating a school system that at first provides equal opportunity to everyone, and eventually allocates access based on ability.

Unexpectedly (unless one is a sociologist), merit results in even greater tensions across the social strata. When class is based on heredity, the rich know they owe their place to luck of birth and the poor can take solace in the possibility that they might have been successful if only they had more opportunity. In a perfect meritocracy, where standing is earned, those at the top see no need for humility. And, for those at the bottom, if they only had the cognitive ability, they would rise up….

I was amused to learn that Young, who died in 2002, eventually became a Lord, and was lauded for helping the Labour Part to reform the educational system.
Visit Scott E. Page's faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Model Thinker.

--Marshal Zeringue