Category Archives: Knowledge Creation

The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions

Nice People Are More Likely to Follow Orders that Hurt Others
[Via Big Think]

A new psychology study published this month in the Journal of Personality has revealed a dark truth about the nicest and friendliest people in our society — they are probably more capable of doing the most horrific things if ordered to.


The title of the paper tells all: Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm.

Communities of nice people can be made to do awful things. If everyone is nice, no one will be impolite enough to tell the community it is doing wrong.

We all need to find ways to value the rude, contrarian and disagreeable people in our communities. They may be the ones who prevent the community from doing great harm.

Nice people are usually the ones that follow the social norms best. They get along with everyone because they follow the rules. That is why they are seen as nice. No disruptive behavior for them.

It is easy to be seen as agreeable if you never question others or their behavior. 

As the researchers state:

Those who are described as ‘agreeable, conscientious personalities’ are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while more contrarian, less agreeable personalities are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

It is easy to be seen as disagreeable if you question others or  their behavior.

Amazingly, those who are seen as less agreeable  are less likely to harm others. They dug their heels in and refused to submit to authority or social norms.

I expect part of the reason they are seen as less agreeable is that they are rude enough to shirk social norms, the same social norms the agreeable people follow so storngly.

A community with only nice people can suffer from epistemic closure,where all those nice people can be made to do really awful things

Because they do not want to appear rude and thus be less likable by telling everyone else they are doing something harmful. It will never realize that the Emperor has no clothes.

It may be that rude people are the most important ones in a community, needed to keep it on an ethical path.

Yet they are often the ones cast out first, because they are so ‘rude.’

If this research holds up, it would suggest that trying to create a community where everyone is nice and no one is rude could well produce a community capable of doing great harm.

So value and support a few disagreeable people in your organization – the ones that upset some people – in order to have a well-balanced community that will not do something harmful or stupid.

Try to determine why they are disagreeing and engage with that, rather than dismiss them because they act contrary to social norms.

Some rude people are purely disruptive and disrespectful because the attention makes them feel important. But many are actually trying to help the group see where the danger lies, to prevent the group from doing harm.

It takes more work to deal with disagreeable people – it is part of what makes them disagreeable – but they may be critical for the community’s success.

Value those committed yet disagreeable people. They will help the community best in the long run.

Image: Paul Downey

More insight into Pixar and Steve Jobs

Pixar’s Ed Catmull: It was the changed Steve Jobs that made Apple great
[Via MacDailyNews]

Michal Lev-Ram reports for Fortune, “For our recent cover story on Disney, I sat down with Ed Catmull at Pixar headquarters. Here is an edited excerpt from our conversation in October, which ranged from Pixar’s rocky beginnings to Disney’s use of technology to the late Jobs.”

A snippet:

The thing that the general public has missed is that there is a perception of ‘bad boy Steve’ when he was younger and that that behavior led to this giant success at Apple. But while Pixar was going through its rocky beginnings, the reality is that Steve was learning and changing dramatically. About 15 years ago he figured out things and we saw the change in the person. He became very empathetic and changed the way he worked with people. And after that point everybody that was with Steve stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was the changed Steve that made Apple great, not that guy. It’s like the classic hero’s journey, except people didn’t know that.


I’ve written before about Pixar a lot. It has been a hallmark of the 21st century company. Apple is one also and Jobs is a big reason. I wrote a long, three part series on the Synthetic Organization based on Pixar.

As discussed in the original article, Pixar views each  movie as a reason to incorporate new technology, to solve a new problem. DIscussing the new movie coming out:

So that group has to solve the problem for how they make that work, and how you do exaggeration and carry the emotions with those kinds of characters. Every film has new technical problems that we have to solve.

“Every film has new technical problems we have to solve.” Hierarchical authorities – which is how 20th century companies were organized – are designed to take action, not to solve problems. Distributed democracies – which are strong in 21st century organizations – are designed to solve problems, but not really for taking actions.

Pixar has created a company with a tremendous balance between the authoritarian need to get things done and the democratic need to solve problems. Strong leadership from Lasitter and Catmull at the top permits difficult problems to be solved. 

The article details very quickly how this is done – keeping two separate animation groups who each have to figure out solutions themselves, instead of depending on another. Diversity, smart people and low hierarchy.

So now we have two great animation studios. And Jobs learned how to accompish this while working at Pixar and neXt. Instead of being the authoritarian at the top – as he was so often  in his first stretch at Apple –  he began to create a culture that allowed talented individuals to solve difficult problems. 

This is the key – very strong leadership that works with the distributed democracies solving problems. There needs to be hierarchy to get things done but there also needs to be ways to route around the hierrchy to solve problems, to get answers from anyone.

Image: Brett Jordan

Large city, small town – human social networks are very similar but can carry very different information loads

Even in large cities, we build tightly-knit communities
[Via Boing Boing]

A study of group clustering–do your friends know each other?–shows that it does not change with city size. [via Flowing Data]



An average person in the small town (population – 4233) has 6 connections who have a 25% chance of knowing each other. In a large town (population – 564.657), the number of friends is 11 but the chance that they will know each other remains 25%.

This fits a lot of previous data – the majority of any community connect with one another to a very high degree. The difference between living in a large city or a small town lies in how big the network is, not in its shape.

And, it shows that the size of the network increases faster than the size of the community. Not only are there more people to connect to in a large city. People in a large city connect to more people than those in smaller groups.

But the chance that those people know each other remains about the same. That is, the structure of the social network does not change. No matter the size of the town or the size of the network, about 25% of the people will know each other.

city size.png

Interestingly, as the size of the town increases, the networks get larger, and people make contact with other people in the networks more often. So not only are the networks scaling ‘linearly’ but the total number of contacts increases super-linearly.

If we look at the total cumulative calls made, we see that more calls are made to more people in large towns than in small towns. 


What they were then able to show in the paper is that because of the types of connections seen in bigger cities, information spreads much more rapidly here than in smaller communities.

In a world dealing with rapidly changing environments and increasingly more complex problems, the ability to move information around rapidly so as to create knowledge and wisdom becomes critical.

But it also shows that people in large cities are not isolated at all but maintain rich connections with others. We live in communities that are about as tightly knit in large cities as in smaller ones. They are just larger.

Balance – we need both authoritarian hierarchies and distributed democracies


 Complexity of Life

How do we shift to a more agile organization? Podio a Case Study
[Via Robert Paterson’s Weblog]

Most people would agree that many organizations today are too stiff, too slow and too disconnected to do well in the complex world we live in now. 


Many large organizations have placed their bet on a new technology platform that will connect all their people’s work. Some think that real change can only come from the bottom up. Many feel that any form of hierarchy is outdated. Some talk about culture but are not clear about what this means.

Few are making any progress. So what is the better way to go? 


Great discussion. We are out of balance dealing with complex problems because authoritarian hierarchies –so important for 20th century processes – are seen as the only way to get things done.  Maybe for simply processes but not the complex ones facing us.

Distributed democratic approaches using social networks are all the rage. For the first time in 10,000 years we have major tools that leverage these inherent activities of humanity’s culture. They can now overpower hierarchies especially when examining complex processes.

But, they alone cannot solve what we face. Disctibuted democracy is great at cranking the DIKW cycle to get to knowledge. The problem arises because they often want to keep turning the cycle than actually take an action.

They can spend too much time talking and not enough time doing. I’ve written about the need for a Synthetic Organization, one that is leader-full bit leaderless. 

We need some aspects of hierarchy to get things done. It is finding the right balance, designing feedback to permit leader-full approaches to survive while preventing the accretion of power that hierarchies can produce.

I have worked at organizations that found the right balance. We just did not have a firm understanding of why it worked.

Now we are getting much closer to defining how to create the balance between the two key aspects of human social interaction – authoritarian hierarchy and distrubuted democracy.

The groups that accomplish this will be the ones that truly helpus solve complex problems.

Fundraising for our #CrowdGrant project, Consider the Facts, is almost over

Asteroid crowd funding 001

Consider the Facts: moving people to deliberative thinking is an experiment in several ways. The project itself involves experimentation to examine a hypothesis.

But the process of raising money for research through crowdfunding is also an experiment. Can a group of people in the public sphere create, vet and support active scientific research? What is required to make that happen?

SpreadingScience has learned a lot and has some answers to those questions. One final one is whetehr we will reach our goal.

$25 would help a lot. Please help us answer that question.

Quiet spaces

solitideby ajari

Five Collaboration Tips from Introverts
[Via Greater Good]

In her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, attorney Susan Cain pits two starkly different work styles against each other. On one side, we have the pro-collaboration, open workspace plan camp. On the other, we have the solitude-is-good supporters clamoring to keep their offices. This debate on the best type of work style has important implications for workspace design and office environment. It also delves into fundamental questions about human nature. While we are social animals, drawn instinctively to work and cooperate with others, we are also territorial creatures who enjoy and guard our personal autonomy.


It is important to realize that extraverts should not dominate collaborative processes and that introverts need their space. Classically, extraverts need to speak in order to think. Introverts need quiet and time in order to think.Either does very poorly if kept fully in the other’s environment.

Where the App economy began

appby merfam

The Class That Built Apps, and Fortunes
[Via NYT > Home]

In 2007, the “Facebook Class” at Stanford created free apps for millions of users. But it also fired up the careers of many students and pioneered a new model of entrepreneurship.


I was at a meeting in 2008 where this class was first described. It was so fascinating I took no notes. Here is what I wrote afterwards:

I just listened to most of this (no notetaking) because it was just an incredible story. some good lessons. Many crummy trials better than deep thinking. Students that shared the most were also at top of lists of apps.

Generated close to $1 million in revenue, several companies started, etc.

Novelty is not best approach. Sometimes best to copy what is out there. Today’s metrics are not the best.

You can LEARN to create a winning app. many stanford’s teams were successful.

Used chaos cycle – trials, evaluate, assets, inspire, trials. Faster could run cycle, faster reached peak. like evolution.

Mass interpersonal persuasion now possible. Created $10 million in value in 10 weeks.

Better to have a rapid development cycle than think things fully through. The ones who shared the most made the most.

Rapid development cycles. Thse that share the most made the most. Learn what works instead of just decide before. Use chaos to your advantage.

What these students found in 2007 is now a part of the economy. Just look at the App Store. This approach to business will expand to many other areas.

Rapid cycles of learning and knowledge will produce better decisions.

Science loses to law – Why rhetoric is often more important than facts

[Crossposted at A Man with A PhD]

thinkerby Brian Hillegas

Is Reasoning Built for Winning Arguments, Rather Than Finding Truth?
[Via The Intersection]

How is this for timing? Just as my Mother Jones piece on motivated reasoning came out, the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences devoted an entire issue to the case for an “argumentative theory” of reason, advanced by Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Sperber of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris. You can’t get the article over there without a subscription, but it’s also available at SSRN, and here is the abstract:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences contains not only the paper by Mercier and Sperber, but also a flurry of expert responses and then a response from the authors. SSRN does too, and there is a site devoted to this idea as well.


Anyone who has seen a debate between a scientist and a creationist knows of this dynamic. Most creationist’s arguments take the form of legal rhetorical debates while scientists argue from a very different perspective. They usually present information and try to enhance the knowledge of the those around so they can make their own decision. Creationists argue to support their views using the same sorts of techniques used to validate a guilty verdict. The goal is not to impart information but to drive a decision using the best argumentative tools.

Science does not work that way. At least it tries not to. Thus is often loses in these reasoning sessions.

I would argue that the idea of reasoning used in this report is a very different one than a scientist would use when saying reasoning. Not that I disagree with its point and the idea that these sorts of reasoning arguments in a social setting could be very important for human survival.

But science – our tool for understanding the world around us – has spent the last 400 years moving away from these sorts of arguments and approach to reasoning. Science is not decided by who has the best argumentative personality or knows the best tricks of rhetoric. It is decided by facts that represent the natural world, not just our logical arguments.

Some of the most dramatic debates in science history actually rely on these sorts of reasoning arguments. The debate between Huxley and Wilberforce is one of them. Or Darrow and Bryan.

But these great debates are only remembered because the science was right, not that the argument was.

A large part of the modern scientific enterprise is to reduce this sort of reasoning to a minimum. Not that it is gone in the least. Scientists often use every single aspect of reasoning when discussing their work. But there have to be facts and a real connection to reality.

No matter how forcefully Pons and Fleischmann ‘reasoned’ about cold fusion, it did not make it real. That is why virtually every scientist will lose in a reasoned debate with a lawyer on a topic. We recognize that no matter how strong our arguments are, nor as data-filled, they will always be provisional at same level. That weakens them in a debate with someone having a hardened argument

There will always be a segment of grey, no matter how well defined the rest is. Reasoning from that viewpoint will almost always lose in a debate with someone who can argue from only a single shade.

When framed as a black and white debate, having shades of gray make you look weak along with your argument.

To win such a reasoning argument, a researcher often has to take a rhetorical position that is somewhat anathema to their viewpoint.

They have to remove the shades of grey that all researchers know exist. They must argue from a black and white view. But this often alienates other researchers while not really providing a satisfying argument.

I think this is why so many scientists are poor communicators – not when it comes to talking about the science but when it comes to arguing about decisions.

Science takes data and creates information. Transformation of information by the sorts of reasoning mentioned above results in knowledge. Knowledge allows us to make decisions. Wisdom is about making the right decision. Science can helps us with knowledge by providing information but it cannot always prevail in a purely rhetorical setting. It is good at creating information but not well prepared for the transformation of information into the knowledge needed to make a decision.

Perhaps what researchers need is not better communication skills but better training in how to present their scientific arguments in this sort of arena of reasoning – helping transfer the information they create into the knowledge needed to make the decisions in society.

I think this is where Mooney and Nisbet’s ideas of framing come from. Not to deny the science or to ignore the facts. But to find a way to permit scientific arguments to get a fair hearing in these sorts of argumentative settings that determine just what decisions get made.

We are working on getting researchers to be better presenters and speakers of their science. We need to actually be training them how to enter these reasoning arguments in a way that can benefit us all. Because their attempts at the moment are ham-handed and not helping move us forward.

They need to be given a rhetorical arsenal that allows them to enter these reasoning sessions that will be crticial for our survival.

BioScience on the Brink (Updated 5-3-2011)

Register for BioScience on the Brink in Seattle, WA  on Eventbrite

Check out the news section of the registration page to see why the Early Bird tickets are $3 off for a limited time.

What happens when the brightest researchers in Seattle get together to talk, eat, drink and listen to each other?

Join us May 24 for the organizational meeting of BioScience on the Brink. Science exchange overlooking Lake Union.

Seattle has a tremendous number of researchers working on a wide variety of projects covering biosciences. Meet some of them.

In both for-profit and non-profit research settings they are exploring problems in  global health, biotechnology, bioinformatics and much more. Discuss their work.

Science on the Brink will be an informal space for them to talk with peers and to hear presentations from this vast array of scientists. Exchange knowledge.

Science on the Brink will provide  a place where young researchers, working hard at the bench, can connect with other scientists who are perhaps developing novel drugs, designing clinical trials or perhaps even selling pharmaceuticals.They will be working at non-profit institutions or for-profit corporations. There might even be some interested laypeople in the mix.

The plan is to have an opportunity for networking with some good food and drink, along with a couple of short (20 minute) presentations by working researchers. This will generally not  be a place for CEOs and department heads to present. They have many opportunities to do that. These presentations will be for the younger scientists – the scientific leaders of tomorrow.

This organizational meeting is to gauge the enthusiasm for such an event and to discuss future ideas. We are asking for a nominal fee in order to cover some of the costs for food and for the venue. However, the ticket price will be discounted – and SpreadingScience will pay all service fees – until May 10.

The Eastlake Bar and Grill  is centrally located to the greatest concentration of researchers. It has a great deck overlooking Lake Union which should be fabulous in May.

This should be an invigorating meeting in a wonderful location. If you would like to have some critical input into the future of these meetings, be sure to attend.

Hurry. Space is limited.

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