The unbearable lightness of grey academia: note to self

Wikipedia defines ‘grey literature’ thus:

Materials and research produced by organizations outside of the traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels. Common grey literature publication types include reports (annual, research, technical, project, etc.), working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations. Organizations that produce grey literature include government departments and agencies, civil society or non-governmental organizations, academic centres and departments, and private companies and consultants.

Some of it is excruciating or just hard to take in. But there you go, no-one mistakes an annual report or many documents for anything less than bland contentless pabulum with some information that might be useful to someone if they know what to look for. And, on the upside, grey literature is often informative and unpretentious. Reports from ABS, BOM and other technical bodies are grey literature.

But there’s an active academic literature that seeks a similar audience. And here’s one formula for the worst of it. You wade into some topical area. You make some distinctions. You deal in ideas that might be the subject of learned investigations in specialist disciplines, but you take things pretty much as given. You might then do some research to get some ‘data’. You might count up the number of a certain type of organisations who have chosen to do Y and how many have chosen to do not Y. You then give talks and consult to said organisations or to those thinking and talking about them.

It’s all kept at a very general level, there are few if any examples and if they are, they’re cursory — illustrative, rather than to interrogate anything. Then you might call for more research. Here is a blog post whipped up from such an approach.

The rise of Knowledge Brokering Organisations (KBOs) has changed how decision-makers access evidence. Whereas in the past, decision-makers might have relied on internal research services, or favoured academics providing them with the latest research, governments across the world have invested in new organisations that can synthesise existing evidence of ‘what works’.

I’ve thought about What Works Centres. Do they work themselves? I have my doubts and set out what they were here. I’d go a little further here and say that they’re a good idea on a napkin. A good beginning to a discussion that might have led to some worthwhile institutional development. But the kinds of issues I’ve raised should have been a live part of their development. For instance, it’s telling that we speak about What Works rather than who made it work or where it worked and where it didn’t. Because it’s likely that, if something difficult is being done, it will be difficult to narrow it down to a stable, replicable ‘what’ and you might like to think more about promoting the agency of those who’ve done things that work. But then that would be more disruptive than putting out lists of decontextualised tips and tricks.

Of course people continue to say things like I said, but very much at the ‘ideas’ level. The What Works Centres themselves don’t seem to be wrestling with them, trying to transform themselves into things that might work better. (Or perhaps they are and I haven’t heard — that would be unsurprising.)

Here’s some more:

KBOs have emerged in countries with different political and policy systems. In all those countries, governments claim a commitment to ‘evidence-based policy-making’ and have invested funding to develop their capacity to use evidence, be that within government itself (for politicians and civil servants) and/or for practitioners such as teachers, doctors.

Explaining their emergence, our interviewees described various drivers, such as a charismatic individual inside or outside government pushing for the need for a new KBO, and the decreasing internal capacity of government and other decision-makers to fill this evidence function. Others spoke of KBOs being created to show that policy-makers cared about an issue and were aware of the lack of good quality evidence in that area.

And on it goes. Half-ideas lie strewn around. Another is social impact bonds. A good idea of sorts, but really only the beginning of something workable and obviously useful.

And on it goes. Reportage as analysis.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Philosophy | Leave a comment

From repressive tolerance to repressive diversity

A brilliant illustration of the broad terrain of both concepts. It’s telling (and sad for a left leaning centrist like me) that this comes from the very right wing Claremont Institute. (Though their artist may have got it from somewhere else). John C. Eastman is on the board. He’s the guy who came up with the plan for getting pro-Trump electors to the electoral college, rather than the electors representing people’s votes. And note the great quote from the late, great Abraham Lincoln. “”No policy that does not rest on some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained.”

Herbert Marcuse coined the expression ‘repressive tolerance’. It took off — as well it might. It’s an important idea, providing one keeps in mind that there are very few situations in which repressive tolerance isn’t better than repressive intolerance! Indeed, showing the motivated impatience so typical of Western intellectuals, Marcuse showed how you can take the idea and retrofit it to — well whatever you like.

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.

Voila! Job done. Bob’s your uncle.

Anyway, this leads me to coin the expression repressive diversity. And I’m not sure it is better than its opposite. As the Sydney Review of Books informs us:

Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian essayist and researcher whose writing explores class, capital, intergenerational trauma and diaspora.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with any of these subjects. But how come they so dominate the discussion of difference? Could that be a kind of cultural dominance itself? Note how the blurb could be about any difference or deviance from what was honoured in the dominant culture whether it was based on sex, gender, race, disfigurement, disablement, neurodiversity and on and on. So really, each of these exercises is primarily about the dominant culture and its endlessly rehearsed inadequacies — though those inadequacies are invariably against some theoretical (and so utopian) standard rather than by comparison with other existing cultures.

Should the dominant culture be more broadminded and inviting? Sure should. But then we should all be kinder. I should have been kinder yesterday. So should you. But what about all the things in a person’s history that might be different that might enrich our lives rather than simply provide a benchmark by which to grade our own culture’s intolerance? They’d be particular things, and having articulated them, one might find connections between them, and between them and the dominant culture. But they wouldn’t be, in the first instance, generic ones.

Posted in Political theory | 4 Comments

The Pamela Paul Effect: Books betray us, yet still we cling to them

Echoes of an earlier age

Many of us own thousands of these. They cost too much, too many have too much filler, and our bookshelves allow only the crudest form of search function.

Many of us still venerate books. The evidence says they are not very good at what is supposed to be their primary job: putting new ideas in our heads. We are slowing developing new ways to achieve this old aim.


I’d better just come out and say it: compared to the emerging alternatives, I don’t think most books work very well. In 2023, we have a great many potential alternatives, and we need to keep exploring them. Eventually, I expect that search to pay off, perhaps in a big way.

If you have a view about whether books actually help people take in new ideas and perspectives, tell us in the comments.

But first, here are takes on books’ shortfalls, from four critics.

Deirdre McCloskey: “Look, everyone has this problem”.

The latest person to remind me of books’ weaknesses is Professor Deirdre McCloskey, the polymathic former professor of just about everything (economics, English, communication, philosophy, history and classics) at universities from Harvard to Rotterdam.

McCloskey is not really an enemy of books. She couldn’t be: so far she’s written 18, co-authored another, edited or co-edited nine more, and has another soon to go to press. Her book Economical Writing is widely considered (including by me) to be the best book yet written on the art of writing for the social sciences.

But the last time I talked with McCloskey, she revealed that she often struggles with reading books. She spoke to me for a podcast series I’ve started, called Shorewalker on Reports; indeed, I gave her a whole episode of her own. She’s great fun. Here’s a transcript of part of that episode (and if you like it, please subscribe in Apple, Google, Spotify, Pocket Casts or by dropping the RSS feed into your podcast software):

(David Walker: One of the most useful ideas in ‘Economical Writing’ … is that readers are sort of lost and unsatisfied a lot of the time.)

Deirdre McCloskey: All the time.

(David Walker: Almost nobody ever says this.)

Deirdre McCloskey: You’re always confused. I am, aren’t you? (DW: Yep.) I read something; half the time I don’t know what I’m reading. I forget … wait, wait, what’s …  what’s this mean … what?

(David Walker: And I discovered slowly … that a lot of people, like me, don’t finish many of the books that they start.)

Deirdre McCloskey: I don’t ever finish a book. Continue reading

Posted in Information, Literature, Media, Methodology | 2 Comments

Elite Capture: how Christianity wrote the playbook

This is one of the best podcast interviews we’ve done. We discuss Peter Heather’s marvellous book “Christendom: the triumph of a Religion”. It covers the thousand years from the time Christianity becomes embedded in the Roman Empire, via Emperor Constantine’s conversion. Heather’s book shows how much Christianity was spread not by those ‘meek’ whom Jesus would have inherit the earth but by the powerful for whom converting now offered improved relations with the emperor’s court.

Over time, and through the period of Charlemagne it infiltrated European life via various drives for Christian piety. By the 12th century, the Church had deeply infiltrated people’s lives through the seven sacraments — which marked the rhythms of people’s weekly lives and the major milestones of their lives — they included baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, and marriage. And by the 12th century, the church was in many ways more powerful than any king or emperor, controlling the universities, and religion across Europe. The church is also the template for a specific organisational form — governed across nations by a single kinglike officer supported by a skilled bureaucracy administering an elaborate and time-honoured legal code.

Here are the chapters and timestamps of the discussion.

  • 00:02:48 Emperor Henry IV meets Pope Gregory VII
  • 00:06:23 Rise of the papacy
  • 00:10:20 The modern world and monarchy
  • 00:13:30 Ancient constitutions and power-sharing
  • 00:18:47 Positive decisions about Christian beliefs
  • 00:21:39 Christianity’s preoccupation with doctrine
  • 00:25:21 Practical piety and purgatory
  • 00:30:04 Late development of afterlife vision
  • 00:33:25 Syncretism in early Christianity
  • 00:38:38 Church revenues and charitable purposes
  • 00:41:15 Lack of trained priests
  • 00:45:13 Spread of religious rules
  • 00:48:22 Conversion and power dynamics
  • 00:52:03 The church as a separate institution
  • 00:56:24 The irony of secularism
  • 00:58:58 The Christian church and connection

A full, machine read transcript is below the fold. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, History, Religion, Sortition and citizens’ juries | Leave a comment

Why ESG is a puppet show and what to do about it

The more I’ve thought about sortition or as I call it “representation by sampling” the more profound I find the ways it differs from representation by election. The latter is inherently competitive and performative and both these things tend to undermine the bona fides of people’s contribution to discussion. They minimise rewards for listening and maximise the rewards for assertive speech.

Performance, especially performance before those with greater power saturates our daily lives. This is illustrated in the opening of one of my favourite passages. It’s from an anonymous local government bureaucrat.

I spent 10 years of my life writing. I wrote neighbourhood plans, partnership strategies, the Local Area Agreement, stretch targets, the Sustainable Community Strategy, sub-regional infrastructure plans, funding bids, monitoring documents, the Council Plan and service plans. …

I have a confession to make. Much of it was made up. It was fudged, spun, copied and pasted, cobbled together and attractively formatted. I told lies in themes, lies in groups, lies in pairs, strategic lies, operational lies, cross-cutting lies. I wrote hundreds of pages of nonsense. Some of it was my own, but most of it was collated from my colleagues across the organisation and brought together into a single document. …

Why did I do it? …1ecause it was my job.

No matter who I read this to, it always elicits a shock of recognition including those who don’t work for bureaucracies. School kids recognise it in their endless performances of their capabilities.

The Greek political principle of parrhēsia is directed specifically against this kind of tendency — it is the taking of risk to speak truth to power and it is speech that is heedless of reward or punishment.

The Greek political principle of parrhēsia is directed specifically against this kind of tendency — in our language it is the taking of risk to speak truth to power. But it is a distinctly modern form of speech — in which the warrant for its truthfulness (whether scientific or political) is not its persuasiveness to others, but it’s truthfulness to the speaker — it is the speaking of one’s own truth, and that truth is demonstrated by the speaker’s heedlessness of the consequences of his truth-telling.

In any event, in the discussion recorded above I argue the scope for sortition to help us escape from this trap. The audio file is also available here.

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Posted in Democracy, History, Sortition and citizens’ juries | Leave a comment

I have seen the off-ramp and it works

From my Substack newsletter.

Extraordinary images are being detected within the early pictures taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. As you know, the JWST went in search of exoplanets. Anyway at about the same time I was seeking an AI artist to illustrate the phenomenon of corporate anti-thinking. You know the kind of thing where grown people, some of them quite intelligent sit around and agree on their ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ — each of which can be agreed in an hour’s discussion and expressed in a single short sentence. They then agree on their five favourite values.

Anyway, on applying advanced upscaling technologies NASA scientists are decrypting within JWST images off-ramps from reality on our galaxy’s exoplanets.

Even more exciting, when the castle is upscaled it turns out it’s really a jumping castle.

It’s believed that executives are floating weightless inside the castle, but NASA scientists were reluctant to preempt the results of a probe which is believed to be imminent.

Posted in Humour, Philosophy | Leave a comment

Four ways to fix the world

A while back I condensed a bunch of things I have been thinking about into four ideas which I explored with Peyton Bowman in these two discussions. In discussions with philosopher and school teacher Martin Turkis, it occurred to me it would be interesting to see if I could write them out in a summary form that could be understood by high school students and then see what Martin’s students thought of the ideas. I think this is a better test of their worth than whether they can be published in some learned journal. We then talked about the upshot of it all in the discussion recorded above.

If you prefer to imbibe through audio only, here is the mp3 file.

Four ways to fix the world

Every society evolves unique ways for people to live together happily and productively. But they change over time. Modernity has eclipsed these four ideas.

Recovering them can make us happier and more productive. 

As some Troppo readers may know, I regard most diagrams as a kind of disinformation. Unless that is, their representations add a little to understanding the relationships being depicted, which is (arguably) true here.  

Isegoría  

Isegoria was a foundation of ancient Greek democracy. It meant not freedom but equality of speech. 

Our institutions mostly fail to honour those of lower status. Yet, those people do most of the work, so they understand it best. Toyota understood this and empowered workers on the production line to measure their performance and endlessly optimise it, quadrupling their competitors’ labour productivity. Quadrupling!

More generally amongst those in charge — for instance in congress/parliament, in management and on mainstream media — university graduates outnumber the less educated 20 to one compared with 50:50 in the population. 

Thus, many feel their voice and perspectives are unwelcome or unpersuasive in public speech. When they do participate, they’re often belittled as racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc.

Banishing their concerns from polite discourse isn’t just undemocratic; it sets off toxic culture wars. Those concerns should be welcomed in the search for democratic ‘win-win’ responses. 

Parrhēsia

Our concept of freedom of speech helps build a ‘free market in ideas’. But we’re starting to learn that, if the best ideas are to win out, they need to be received and considered in good faith. 

The ancient Greeks understood our weakness for flattery. And the way those in power demand to be flattered.  Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Isegoria, Sortition and citizens’ juries | Leave a comment