September 8, 2007

I was attempting to explain Durkeim’s concept of Anomie (literally without law) to my daughter yesterday, and recommended her to three novels from France, Russian and Germany that to my mind explore the consequences of the concept better than any sociology text book (I should say that I have a philosophers prejudice against sociology as a discipline). I was reminded of that conversation this morning when the quote below from Bertrand Russell popped up in the RSS feed. I thought how apposite it was to many of the issues we face working with organisations, but I also realised that the implications intended by Russell, may be less relevant to decision making in the modern age.

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.

Now I have never been wild about Russell’s Philosophy of Language, but politically and ethically he was one of the giants of the last Century. For those who don’t know he was Welsh, his ancestors being linked to takeover of the English crown by the Welsh in the 15th Century through the dubious claims of the Twydr family. I was bounced on his knee during the first Aldermaston March. My mother took me, but I think I would have gone in my own right had I been old enough to have any idea of the issues, but that is not enough to claim a relationship.

That said, the quotation, other than the last sentence seems to be accurate. You see this all the time when you look at decision making in Government and Industry. You can see it in the responses of Bush and Blair to the evidence leading up to the invasion of Iraq. If we are all honest, we can see it in our own decisions. I remember when my wife and I bought our current house, we built a balanced score card of the features we needed and scored each property. The one we bought started off very low on the score card, so we started to play with the parameters and low and behold it ended up on the top. We went with our instinct, and manipulated the context of the facts to match the need.

Despite the quote, it does not follow that to make decisions in such a way is always wrong. There is a big difference between ignoring evidence and realising that the decision space is not encompassed by that evidence. The problem with many an approach (and I would include evidence based policy and outcome measurement as practiced in UK government here) is that they assume that their models can cover all the relevant criteria, and that they can determine in advance what outcomes are desirable. We need models that avoid a false dichotomy between intuition and evidence, or the all too popular (and all too nonsensical) rational-emotional dichotomy used to excuse more poor reasoning than anything else in organisations these days.

On the subject of myth, I think here we face the problem that Russell belongs to that generation to which people like Dawkins are a primitive throw-back. The period where the belief in science and the power of rational was universal amongst anyone with education and intelligence. I would exclude from that category by the way the respectable residents of New York who used the legal system to overturn Russel’s academic appointment there in 1940 on the grounds that he was morally unfit.

Now that approach to science was understandable given the excitement of the time, but science itself has progressed from the rational causal models of the Enlightenment to more flexible models such as those of complexity. Our understanding of the role of language has moved on from the rigid structures of logic and ideal concepts (such as those of Russell). We know that language is an evolving and emergent phenomena, and that abstract concepts such as myths have been critical to the evolution of our intelligence. The ambiguity of myth provides a structure that can guide us during times of uncertainty. Values, ethics and the like arise from and are reinforced by the myth-type stories we tell within our societies. Without such forms we are victims of the anomie evidenced by those novels I referenced earlier. For those curious enough to have read thus far they are: Camus The Stranger, Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment and Hesse Steppenwolf

Having made those suggestions I was later accused of having copied them from the Wikipedia entry on the subject. I hadn’t, although the entry makes the same choices so I suppose that is corroboration. Having defended myself with the evidence (to wit we had this conversation in the kitchen and I did not go near my computer : facts in context), I then went on to argue that many of the great issues in philosophy, in particular those associated with ethics and aesthetics, are much better, and more rigorously handled in literature than in the journals of philosophy let alone those of sociology.

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