A Firedoglake Book Salon on Scott Page’s The Difference

Scott-page-the-differenceHosted by Cosma Shalizi:

Scott Page is a professor of political science and economics at the University of Michigan, where he’s also the associate director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. (Disclosure: I worked for Scott when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Center, and I’m also external faculty at SFI, so take my enthusiasm with salt to taste.) Scott’s written lots of academic papers, and co-written a textbook, but The Difference is, well, different. It’s a serious, but also playful, look at the power and virtues of diversity when it comes to solving difficult problems. It draws together many insights from many different academic disciplines, without requiring any special knowledge of its readers, just willingness to stretch their minds a little.

All very well, you say, but it’s a lot more abstract than most books which show up here: why should you spend your time reading about heuristics and preference aggregation and so forth? For two reasons: to help us persuade others, and to acquire tools for us to use ourselves.

Most progressives have embraced diversity as a value, but there seem to be competing considerations. A common objection — my guess is it’s even often sincere — is that we shouldn’t care how diverse the people who do X are, but just how good they are at X. If those who have discovered and developed their abilities to do X happen to be mostly privileged, that’s just part of what “privilege” means, and the thing to worry about is unfair privilege, not lack of diversity. This is a general objection, and it calls for an equally general, that means abstract, rebuttal.

Implicitly, the objection assumes that there’s a best way to do X, that there’s One Right Answer, and that the best results, the closest approach to the optimum, will always come from the person who’s best at the job. Some advocates of diversity deny the first premise, the One Right Answer bit. This leads to tedious arguments about relativism and other reminders of the unfun parts of the 1990s. Page doesn’t go there; instead he shows that the other premise is wrong, because it ignores complexity.