The lecture is by Isaiah Berlin, delivered at Oxford University in 1955. The subject is Alexander Herzen, and more specifically his masterpiece My Past and Thoughts, written in 1868.
Listen to this episode
"René Le Berre, a French entomologist who helped inspire an international campaign that saved millions of West Africans from the parasitic disease river blindness, died Dec. 6 in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer on France’s western coast. He was 78.
Onchocerciasis, the formal name for river blindness, had once been a scourge in the fertile river basins of tropical Africa."That obit is from the NYT.
"I mean, S&P, Moody’s, Fitch, these people all rated securities that apparently completely tanked. So there’s obviously something in the demand for expertise, the imprimatur, which is not really about the fact that they do a good job. By the way, those organizations are not transparent either, just as the Wine Spectator isn’t. So there’s some similarity here that I think probably gives us a little insight into things that are much broader than wine and food."That is Orley Ashenfelter of Princeton University, quoted by Stephen J. Dubner in a recent Freakonomics column in the NYT. Experts have shown themselves to be no better than regular people in terms of guessing the price (and presumably, quality) of wines in blind taste tests. Professor Ashenfelter argues that the same phenomenon extends into many other arenas.
"The larger lesson is that the brain is a deeply constrained thinking machine, full of cognitive tradeoffs and zero-sum constraints. Those chess professionals and London cabbies can perform seemingly superhuman mental feats, as they chunk their world into memorable patterns. However, those same talents make them bad at seeing beyond their chunks, at making sense of games and places they can’t easily understand."That is from a piece by Jonah Lehrer in Wired (HT: April Harding). People who have deep expertise in certain areas often have difficulty incorporating new information from outside their narrow expertise. This is why it is important to have a good mix of both experts and crowds in many endeavors, especially social ones. It is not either-or, but both-and. Finding the balance is the key.
"In the final chapter, Seeley suggests five lessons we could learn from bees.
• Compose a decision-making group of individuals with shared interests. Here bees have a higher stake than us: all members of a colony are related (sisters) and nobody can survive without the group.
• Minimise the leader's influence on the group. Here we humans have much to learn.
• Seek diverse solutions to the problem. Humans realised only recently that diversity is good for a group.
• Update the group's knowledge through debate. Here again, bees are superior to us, as each scout's "dances" become less effective with time, no matter how good a new site is, while stubbornness can lead humans to argue forever.
• Use quorums to gain cohesion, accuracy and speed. Impressively, bees came up with this concept long before the Greeks."That is Tyler Cowen, discussing Thomas Seeley's new book Honeybee Democracy. These points resonate with my own experience.
"But I’m trying to hold my beliefs lightly, in the long view that almost all of them, I’m sure, will one day be seen as very naive or even completely misguided.That is from a very nice post about "smart aid" by David Week. Any serious aid worker is constantly trying to infer principles about what works and what doesn't, and then to have those principles guide his/her actions. Naturally, many of us want to tell others what we have discovered about what is effective and what is a waste of time and resources. But we should realize, says Week, that we will often be wrong, and that should be very humbling.
The purpose of holding them lightly is not to drop them completely, but just make it more difficult to beat other people over the head with them, more difficult to hold on to them when they’re clearly not being helpful, and easier to swap for other ideas, when those new ideas appear promising."
"In general I fully support transparency, but these people could lose their jobs."her why some of the best aid bloggers out there were anonymous. She is right, of course. But it is also a shame. If there is a common thread running through our understanding of effective aid, it is the need to experiment, learn, and adapt. This means admitting to - rather than hiding - things that don't work, so that we can learn from them. The anonymous bloggers I was referring to talk about the reality of aid work, warts and all. They have a following because their readers know that they are speaking the truth. But their employers could not tolerate the truth, so these bloggers have to remain in the closet.
1) Starts and ends with the needs of those affected by poverty, disaster, and conflict (a.k.a. “the poor”, “aid recipients”, “program participants”, “beneficiaries”…). ...[I]f we’re to do it right, if we’re to plan and implement good aid, our starting point needs to be those whom we seek to serve. If that starting point is anything else (for example, the needs of a particular donor, surplus of something…) then a recipe for bad aid has already been started.This requires listening to what communities themselves want. And then listening to how they feel that projects are being implemented. And then listening afterwards to what they learned.
"He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed."That is from a recent article by David H. Freedman in the Atlantic Monthly sent to me by my friend April Harding. The "he" is Professor John Ioannidis, who has done as much research on this topic as anyone in the world. Here are some other key quotes from the article:
... he was struck by how many findings of all types were refuted by later findings.
“I realized even our gold-standard research had a lot of problems,” he says. Baffled, he started looking for the specific ways in which studies were going wrong. And before long he discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals."
... 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials...
“You can question some of the details of John’s calculations, but it’s hard to argue that the essential ideas aren’t absolutely correct,” says Doug Altman, an Oxford University researcher who directs the Centre for Statistics in Medicine.
If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Usually what happens is that the doctor will ask for a suite of biochemical tests—liver fat, pancreas function, and so on,” she tells me. “The tests could turn up something, but they’re probably irrelevant. Just having a good talk with the patient and getting a close history is much more likely to tell me what’s wrong.”
"Professionalism may have less to do with your job title/organizationThat is from Saundra Schimmelpfennig's excellent , and more to do with how you approach aid/development."post over at Good Intentions are Not Enough. There has been a lot of commentary on Nick Kristof's recent NYT Magazine article about "DIY" foreign aid. The heat:light ratio of that commentary has been high. Saundra's common sense in summarizing the apparently diverging views on this topic is most welcome, because it shows that there is more consensus than might be apparent. Here is more:
"There is a need for fresh perspectives and a variety of ideas and approaches. However this must be tempered with knowledge of the factors that led to success and failures in the past so the same mistakes are not constantly repeated."I recommend the whole post.
Aid is made less effective by the incentives which aid agencies face, which they in turn transmit to their staff. In large part, these unhelpful incentives are a consequence of lack of information about results. If we can measure results better, and if we can use this to simplify the management of aid (and not simply bolt additional reporting on to existing bureaucratic processes), this will enable more decentralised decision-making, respect country ownership, make the jobs of aid workers and government officials more rewarding, improve the effectiveness of aid, and so reduce poverty faster.That is from Owen Barder's post Incentives, Results, and Bureaucracy in Foreign Aid. If you have never worked in a large aid organization, this piece will help you understand the pressures that even the best aid workers face. And if you have worked in one of these organizations, you will find that Owen offers a ray of hope that might (just might) allow you to stop spending so much time on internal process and start spending more time on what we all care about: results.
"Today, transparency is not used enough as a tool for helping organizations to learn, improve, and adapt—to hold themselves accountable to themselves first! Far more frequently, it’s used to find fault and even punish . . . But don’t we have to dig for the truth and ferret out the facts as to what is (and, equally important, is not) working so we know how to improve?"That is Mario Morino, in his latest column. He goes on to say:
"Transparency is about our value set and how we act on it—not about checking a set of boxes or posting a set of documents on a website. It is about the honesty, openness, and integrity we live by in governing and running our organizations and doing our jobs."
One of my colleagues told me this morning that it is National Coming Out day. So I am going to come out - for equal rights for gays and lesbians and for marriage rights for all men and women, regardless of sexual orientation.
"Which donors give aid well and which need to improve? These (and many more specific) questions are addressed in a new report issued by the Center for Global Development and the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development Program. The report is authored by Nancy Birdsall and Homi Kharas and is designed to be updated and published annually. For data nerds there is plenty to get excited about. For starters they use information from the AidData database in order to construct many of their aid quality indicators! "
The same skepticism about “one size fits all” that made “Washington Consensus” two dirty words should be taken to the range of “expert” advice in sectors from education to health to public sector governance to “institution building.” All of which is mostly just repeating the conventional wisdom and closing off, rather than opening up, space for novelty and innovation.That is from a very nice piece by Lant Pritchett over at AidWatch about President Obama's recent speech about US development policy, which he applauds.
It needs to get as much input as possible from the people who will actually use the stoves. The stoves will need to be as much like existing stoves as possible, to minimize the change in cooking style required to use them. In particular, women need to be able to cook traditional foods that are appealing to their families. Listening to the women who’ll cook on them is the best way to do that.That is from a nice guest post by Alanna Shaikh, commenting on Hilary Clinton's recent speech at the UN promoting improved cookstoves. Many people are unaware that breathing poorly ventilated cookstove fumes kills an estimated two million people a year.
That is from a nice article by Cynthia Gibson in the Non-Profit Quarterly. As someone who studied economics and cost-benefits analysis in grad school, I probably appreciate and rely on data more than most. But at the same time, I also realize that data is not what determines most decisions - even at so-called expert aid agencies and foundations.
"There is no such thing as the Western world and the developing world." – Hans Rosling
Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.That is from an article by Joe Keohane summarizing a number of recent studies about human nature.
If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.Alas, that does not seem to be the case:
Rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs.When someone does not agree with us, we are often tempted to redouble our arguments to convince them we are right. Aid agencies often offer carrots and sticks as well. The research points to why that often does not work either:
The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.Is it time for us to let go of the idea that facts and good analysis can convince people? I hope not. But on the other hand, the Buddha realized that he could only be enlightened if he faced reality rather than ignoring it. The question is how best to combine human nature with facts and analysis to help society progress.
I have learned that the community had the answer. They even told me so, though I ignored it at first. But they left it up to me to figure out the 'how.'That is from a nice paper that Jim Hennigan sent me by David Gaus, titled The Rural Hospital in Ecuador. It's about how a highly trained doctor and public health expert came to Ecuador with his own well developed sense of what should be done.
Teams from Virginia, North Carolina and Winterthur, Switzerland, with roots in the world of auto racing have won the first Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, the $10 million competition aimed at advancing the technology for more fuel-efficient vehicles.That is from today's New York Times. One of the benefits of challenges like the X Prize is that anyone can participate, and often the winners come from non-traditional places. In this case, who would have thought that the winners would come from the auto racing industry, which is known for sacrificing fuel consumption in favor of speed. And while the second and third place winners used electric engines, the first-place team relied on a not-so-new approach called internal combustion.
"Calls for aid reform assert that better evidence will lead to better policy."
“When you break that paradigm of litigation and give patients the chance to understand the human element of the other side — of the doctor and what they are struggling with — you find that people are far more forgiving and understanding than has been typically assumed,” said Richard C. Boothman, one of the study’s authors and the medical center’s chief risk officer, who devised and carried out the disclosure program. “We have given patients no alternative but to sue, and then we use the fact that they sue to show how opportunistic and awful they are.”That is from an article in the NYT about a new approach being taken by the Univ. of Michigan Health System. Instead of circling the wagons and taking refuge behind the lawyers when a mistake is made, the hospital staff admit the mistake to their patients and talk about what they have learned and what they are going to do to avoid the same mistake in the future. Sometimes they compensate the patient or family, but that is worked out directly rather than via a lawsuit.
"That openness has in turn created an environment where patient safety and patient care, not avoidance of litigation, have become the priority."
“We dump hardware down and hope magic will happen,” said Michael Trucano, senior information and education specialist at the World Bank, whose offering to FailFaire was a list of the 10 worst practices he had encountered in his job.Trucano won the award for best failure at a recent Failfare gathering at the World Bank that was co-hosted by MobileActive. Earlier I blogged about the product pileup of things the aid industry invents that people don't want. Events like this at the World Bank are encouraging, because talking about failure is the first step toward not making the same mistakes again and again.
That is Saul Griffith, a wunderkind inventor who created a new way to make eyeglasses on an inexpensive device in developing countries. For that invention and others, Griffith won a MacArthur genius award. The eyeglass machine was a great invention; unfortunately, the real constraint turns out to be testing eyes and writing accurate prescriptions rather than making the lenses.