External World General

Doing ourselves no favours

While I have no data on this, my impression is that the average person takes a somewhat fundamentalist or absolutist view on morality, by which I mean that they subscribe – in theory, if not in practice – to a core set of fundamental or foundational principles, where “being good” is a matter of maximising their adherence to those principles. This may however be a mistake, and furthermore, a mistake that can result not only in decreased happiness for the person herself, but also in their incurring increased harms on others.

General Religion

SA Courts: urgently seeking garden gnome experts

In August 2008, an angry 18 year-old schoolboy in Krugersdorp killed a fellow pupil with an ornamental sword, bought by his father 3 or 4 years previous to the incident. The schoolboy, Morne Harmse, also attempted to kill a three other people during what some papers referred to as his “rampage”, including another pupil and two gardeners.

The reason I’m writing about this nearly a year after the incident is that sentencing is due to occur this coming Monday (see end of post for a correction of this date), and the newspapers are reporting that “expert witnesses”, including “occult crime specialists”, will be called to testify before sentencing. At this point, you’d be justified in wondering what the hell an “occult crime specialist” is, and how the testimony of one could possibly add value in a case like this (or any case, for that matter).

External World General

A flight too many

After leaving Cape Town at noon on Saturday, I finally arrived in Lake Tahoe at around 9pm (SA time) on Sunday. That’s too much flying for one weekend, and not an experience I’ll want to repeat anytime soon, especially considering that American toddlers are even noisier than normal ones. Furthermore, American parents seem somewhat reluctant to shut the damn things up. In this case, perhaps that’s because the parent in question was too busy changing the nappy of one of her noisy brood, right there in the seat, two rows ahead of me.


Geisha wok and noodle bar, Greenpoint

Just back from a lunch at Geisha, of which food24 says:

Michelin-star Irish chef Conrad Gallagher has introduced fusion sushi to ensure Geisha Wok & Noodle Bar remains firmly at the forefront of global food trends.

The first in Cape Town to take it to this level, Geisha’s menu is the culmination of months of work and research with chef colleagues, regular customers, foodies and sushi lovers who tasted, sampled and gave valuable input and suggestions.

Having eaten there a month or two after it opened (at the previous venue), and having been impressed by the attention to detail in terms of both service and food on the plate, it’s sad to report that “global food trends” seem to now include a winelist where only one of the 6 listed chardonnays was available, and where the food was mediocre at best. It’s another link in the chain of evidence which is telling me to simply boycott restaurants that are offering specials, or at least to ignore the specials and order off the main menu.

Cape Town is a strange beast in terms of dining out – most patrons seem to consider a “good meal” equivalent to a good experience, and thus conflate the pleasures of the company or the view with the quality of what was served, and how it was served. This is surely the only explanation for the continued survival of all those horrible eateries on the Camps Bay strip (surely better placed in an airport departure lounge, at least in terms of food quality), and part of the explanation as to why a Michelin-starred chef can associate himself with this sort of mediocrity.

I’ve got no problem with a good view, and certainly enjoy good company. But most of the time, I go to a restaurant hoping for a good meal – and increasingly often, only find that at places that a) don’t serve half-price sushi/cocktails, and b) aren’t positioned in some sort of ready-made Kodak moment.

General Politics

SA Elections: The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign

The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign has me (a historical DA supporter) concerned – so much so that I was compelled to agree with 6K, which is rare on matters political.

The DA probably has the best pollsters and analysts of all the SA parties, but they got this one wrong. I’m convinced that it will be a vote-loser. As “Dismayed” comments at 6000 miles… (linked above), it will only appeal to a small set of current DA voters, and perhaps turn a few current DA voters off too.

Helen Zille has done a great job of undermining the negative perceptions of the DA under Leon, particularly the perception that they were all about being “anti”, rather than building their own profile as a party fit to govern. The campaign (until “stop JZ”) was great, as it did exactly that – far less carping about what others were doing wrong, and far more trumping of the DA’s virtues as a party ready to lead.

“Stop JZ” is uncomfortably reminiscent of the “Fight back” campaign, easily caricatured as “Fight Black”. The undecideds who were thinking that maybe the DA is no longer a “white” party, and that perhaps it’s time to give them a chance, have now been given a firm shove away from voting DA.

To be clear: I do think Zuma should be” stopped”. Not necessarily stopped from being President, but stopped from riding roughshod over the rule of law, and stopped from undermining some of the values people have fought so hard for in SA’s short democratic history. But our best chance of stopping him – and cynical populist rabble-rousers like Malema – is to create a genuine democracy in this country, where it’s feasible that someone other than the ANC can win an election. The only power the voter has is that parties and leaders feel that they can be (and are being) held to account for their actions, and for as long as the ANC is guaranteed election wins, that’s not going to happen here.

To make that happen, we need to strengthen the opposition, and the opposition is not strengthened by confirming the prejudiced view of the majority of the population: that the DA is a shrill, reactionary – and white – party. I do not believe that the DA fits this prejudice, but can certainly understand why some people believe it. The average voter makes their cross based on these perceptions and prejudices, not necessarily on a careful weighing of options. We simply don’t have the maturity to be that kind of democracy, and nor do most of our population have the educations that those sorts of choices presume.

It comes as a great surprise to me, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ll be voting DA tomorrow.


Dennett in South Africa

While it’s unlikely that any real person exists who a) hasn’t heard about this and b) would only learn about it here, I’ll nevertheless urge anyone who is/can be in Cape Town (31 March) or Stellenbosch (1 April) to attend these lectures by Daniel Dennett. I went to Durban last week to hear his talk on Religion as a natural phenomenon, and will certainly be attending both lectures in the Cape – he’s a wonderful speaker, and as any of you who have read his books know, also a thinker well-worth paying serious attention to.

Also, he worked the Sax Appeal debacle into the Durban talk – since then, I gave him copies of the cartoons, as well as the VC’s response and my comments on those. So there’s a chance that this may get a more thorough airing in Cape Town.

Academia and teaching General

Teaching EBMgt: developing better managers, or educating critical thinkers?

On the Facebook group Evidence-Based Management, Laura Guerrero asks:

In terms of the big picture, I wonder what people think in terms of why we ought to teach using EBMgt.

I hear people talk about studies and research. The way they talk about these suggests to me that they do not understand what they are or how to evaluate them. For example, there is a study that says that plastic water bottles leak a substance in to your water and this is bad for you.

Here in Canada, a number of people threw out their water bottles and bought metal water bottles and now city parks want to ban bottled water. A number of stores have stopped selling this type of plastic bottle. I wonder if people have a sense of what ‘bad for you’ means, how this finding was reached, whether they should trust their morning news anchor to deliver scientific news, and so forth.

I wonder if it is my responsibility as a professor-to-be to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers and skeptical consumers of information. In other words, I think that EBMgt is important to develop better managers who will make better decisions. But I wonder if there is also a bigger purpose: to educate critical thinkers.

The students in my Evidence-Based Management course at the University of Cape Town are almost all just out of secondary school, and I suspect that my answer to Laura’s question would be very different if the course was being taught to graduate students in an MBA class. Generally, I’d have to argue that teaching Evidence-Based anything would require the students to have some understanding of what evidence is, when it is needed, and what to do with it. So while we would hope that graduate students know some of this already, we can’t take that knowledge for granted. If your students don’t understand the basics of scientific reasoning, teaching them EBMgt may well end up being a simple installation of various principles that they could proceed to treat as dogma, thereby remaining as uncritical as they were when starting the course. So yes, where students don’t have the knowledge in question, it would be a professor’s responsibility to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers first, before embarking on any discussion of application of principles in critical reasoning, such as EBMgt.

The job is perhaps easier at undergraduate level, such as in my course. There, it’s almost invariably the case that students have not been exposed to the principles of drawing conclusions based on the available evidence, and are quite comfortable with holding contradictory or incoherent beliefs, simply because they have never been exposed to the contradictions or incoherencies. In this context, teaching EBMgt starts with general principles of scientific thinking and critical reasoning, and often ends there too, because as anyone who teaches this material work knows, there is much work to do in terms of undermining the prejudices and lazy thinking habits that permeate the cognitive processes of the average student. It’s only once the fundamentals of reasoning are in place that we can begin to talk, and think, about more complex cases of evidence-based reasoning in professional practice.

A fantastic recent book that I’ll be adding to my course as suggested reading is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which does a terrific job (as regular readers of his blog and Guardian column will know) of highlighting and explaining some of the obvious ways in which our species makes life so much harder for ourselves, through constantly believing the most crazy things simply because we’re too lazy (and often unprepared) to think about them.

Developing better managers is certainly a positive result, but it pales into insignificance when compared with developing better thinkers more generally. Some of those thinkers may go on to be good managers, but in the meanwhile, we’ve also hopefully helped to produce a few good teachers, plumbers, doctors and parents.


Further work on food?

Modernity equals, to some extent, a situation of a plethora of choices with very little guidance as to which choices to make. Traditional moral scripts fail, yet self-identity still develops through the choices we make. Our relationship to food expresses many of those choices, and to some extent, becomes an application/manifestation of virtue, especially with regard to organic food/slow food/cloned food. Of relevance here: risk society & conspicuous consumption.

Experiment: to what extent do food choices reveal conceptions of personal identity?


How safe is safe enough? Cloned food and moral panics

Weeks prior to the FDA’s declaration that milk and meat from cloned animals was safe for human consumption, the Wall Street Journal observed that consumers have a history of being cautious in adopting technological innovations in food. Pasteurised milk took years to gain acceptance, and “some consumers and consumer groups still refer to genetically altered foods, like those that contain genetically modified corn or soybeans, as ‘Frankenfood’” (Zhang et al., 2008), more than a decade after such products appeared on the market.


Preliminary thoughts

Much of what I’ve been interested in over the last decade or so has revolved around epistemology, and in particular virtue epistemology – in other words, questions around what it is that we should believe, and how we should form our beliefs. These are normative questions, and raise a whole bunch of issues relating to the extent to which we are in fact able to be rational epistemic agents; what such agents would look like; and whether we would want to be disposed in this way at all.