Science and Democracy

The impact of technical matters in the public realm has been accelerating over the past century. Policy makers need to make decisions about matters that can be informed by science, mathematics, and economics. Yet each of those decisions must also reflect subjective priorities, personal beliefs or societal values as well. In 1952, noted political philosopher John Dewey observed the damage that can be done by confusing these two different realms: “Holding science to be an entity by itself . . . and then blaming it for social evils, . . .with a view to subordinating it to moral ideals, is of no positive benefit. On the contrary, it distracts us from using our knowledge and our most competent methods of observation in the performance of the work they are able to do.” That is, by failing to recognize that there are moral dimensions beyond the scope of science, we risk sacrificing the important contribution that science can make. C.P. Snow identified the growing chasm between the sciences and the humanities in 1959 in his talk “The Two Cultures,” weakening the contribution both sides can make to an understanding of the world. And in 1962, President Kennedy acknowledged the challenge this way: “Old sweeping issues very largely have disappeared. The central domestic issues of our time are more subtle and less simple. They relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals–to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy urged the country to “face technical problems without ideological preconceptions,” and to focus on “the sophisticated and technical issues involved...

Crowdsourcing Case Study – Ushahidi

A new software application called Ushahidi exemplifies the possibilities of widely dispersed participation and input. Started in Kenya, its name is Swahili for “testimony.” It came about in response to the troubled Kenyan election of 2007. A post from a reporter trying to track violence led to a volunteer network of technology experts creating the platform in a matter of days. It uses cellphone reports to map information from people who call in. In Kenya, the information was related to violent events in the aftermath of the election. The system was able to gather more information faster than the traditional sources of news reporters or election monitors. Ushahidi was subsequently used in the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile to find people trapped by the quake and help direct rescuers to the right locations. It has also been applied to monitoring elections in India and pinpointing roadblocks after the blizzard in D.C. Sourced from an unlikely place well outside the usual technology bubbles, Ushahidi has no patent protection and remains open source, so it can be adapted to future situations. Designed to work on cellphone technology that is widely distributed, it can be deployed in parts of the world that do not have standard internet access. This fast-moving, practical application that saved lives suggests the power that new networks, both technical and social, will bring to bear on improving the quality of life around the world. See a New York Times article about Ushahidi here, or learn more at their...

Developing Talent

Every business knows it needs to exploit its competitive advantages. But some large organizations may be overlooking one of their most important advantages, according to Jonathan Hoyt, a Principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Leadership Consulting practice, and a Coro alumnus: Large organizations can systematically develop their next generation of top leadership from within, but many aren’t doing the right things. Jonathan took time recently to talk with Coro National about developing talent. CN: What do we know today about developing the top tier of talent in organizations? JH: The last 30 years of research have shown that exceptional leadership comes from experience, not from attending leadership classes. 70% of what leaders learn is acquired through work experience, 20% is learned through relationships (mentoring and coaching), and 10% comes from what most people think of as “leadership development” – structured learning in training or classroom settings. CN: What kinds of experiences make the difference? JH: The way to trigger explosive development of talent is to move people around deliberately. Organizations shouldn’t just wait and see if people string together the right set of experiences. They should identify high-potential individuals early in their careers and move them around systematically. For example, a company may take someone from an engineering function and have her manage a new business line, then run their customer service function, and include stints overseas to manage in different cultures. Other great experiences are to assign someone to run a turnaround project for a failing business line or a start-up operation. This gives them an understanding of all facets of the business and helps build a complete set...

New Media and Civic Engagement

“The Internet and Civic Engagement”: In the fall of 2009, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released the findings of their research on how – or if – the internet was changing the shape of political involvement. Working with data collected in 2008, they found that the internet had not yet changed the patterns of what economic groups participate in political activity. Online as offline, people with higher incomes reported more political engagement. The report details the types of political activity people engaged in online, and confirms the expectation that internet politics is dominated by younger users. View the full report here. Mobile media and public affairs: The Aspen Institute has examined how mobile technology – all of the connections we can now make through our cell phones – is creating new ways for people to get involved in their communities. Their report, Civic Engagement on the Move, “looks at how leading edge practitioners are using mobile media to engage citizens to solve problems, bridge differences and strengthen community.” Visible Vote: A new application called Visible Vote is available for use through Facebook, iPhones and Blackberrys, and has a Windows version in the works. It allows users to tell their federal elected representatives how they would vote on bills that Congress is considering, and to indicate general approval ratings. Perhaps most interesting, it provides links to every bill that has been proposed, including summaries from the Library of Congress, links to news coverage about the bill, and the entire text of the legislation. In an era when attention spans are shorter and shorter, and opinions formed and expressed with little information,...

“Predictably Irrational”

Dan Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT. The growing field of “behavioral economics” integrates current research on brain science and psychology with economic decision-making, and largely rejects the traditional theory that economic behavior is based on rational decisions. Through original research and reports of other studies, Ariely’s 2008 book, Predictably Irrational, illustrates our numerous patterns of behavior that don’t make sense logically, but that we repeat nevertheless. For example, we latch onto random pieces of information and connect them to decisions as if somehow they were related. He illustrates this effect, called “anchoring,” with an experiment that asked participants to note the last two digits of their social security numbers, and then decide how much they would pay for a variety of products. Students with the highest social security numbers were willing to spend up to 3 times more on products than those with the lowest numbers. The book proceeds through a look at procrastination and some helpful – though artificial – ways to overcome it; our tendency to assign more value to something the minute we “own” it, even if nothing has changed from when we were considering its value in the first place; our unwillingness to close off options, even when prolonging them comes at a visible cost; and how we may pass up what we really want in the company of others, either to show our independence or to show we are part of the group. Several of his experiments demonstrate how our perceptions are shaped by our expectations. Everyone is familiar with the “placebo effect,” the ability of dummy treatments to make...

The Brain That Changes Itself

Surprisingly, research on how the brain is structured goes back 400 years. But contrary to past beliefs, neuroscientists are now demonstrating that the brain can continue to reshape itself throughout our lifetimes. The brain was previously believed to act like a machine, with specific parts that performed specific functions, and that once the brain was mature, its structure never changed. Norman Doidge provides a thorough and readable accounting of the new science in his book The Brain That Changes Itself. (New York: Penguin Group. 2007) Numerous experiments have now shown that the brain can reorganize the connections among the neurons; that while different areas do generally perform different tasks, those areas can change in size and when damaged, areas can over time develop functions not typically associated with them. For example, blind people can begin to see, using the visual processing portions of the brain, when a camera’s signals are connected to transmitters placed on the tongue. The signals bypass the optic nerves and stimulate the visual processing center of the brain. This theory of “neuroplasticity” of the brain in adulthood was highly controversial when it was first proposed in the 1960s and 70s. Research is still emerging and the implications are still largely undiscovered. It does seem however, that changing the adult brain takes longer than the immature brain. People who have relearned speaking and walking after strokes, or overcome long-term learning disabilities require extensive practice that extends over hours, months and years. These findings have direct applications for our well-being in the present, changing our behavior, and maintaining mental health in old age. Patients in psychotherapy have...