Today's Idea: A New Society of Fellows

Acedemics,Ideas — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:51 am

Before he stepped down as Harvard's president in 1933 and with Nazi rumblings overseas in Germany, Abbott Lawrence Lowell wished to break the stronghold of the German Ph.D. degree on American academic life, believing it stifled creativity with its overlong list of formal requirements. Lowell designed the Society of Fellows as an alternative to the Ph.D. Its relative freedom encourages members to pursue lines of thinking that transcend traditional academic disciplinary boundaries and allow them to focus their attention on larger questions more fundamental to society. [Wikipedia]

Now, today, you're required to have a PhD to apply to be a Junior Fellow! In this time when everyone is talking about interdisciplinary studies, why doesn't this program exist somewhere as originally designed?

The US ought to have a program that compares favorably to the All Souls Fellowship, which I imagine this would. Now keep in mind that there are institutions that have such programs -- Demos, New America Foundation, etc -- but academic institutions are unique in the freedom they can give. There can be no doubt that part of the reason lies with the greatness of university libraries and the faculty. As for the faculty, one wonders if they would accept the brilliance of one not formerly initiated, but that is all the more reason to accept the best.

It reminds me, but would not be identical to what Cesar Hidalgo says about Media Lab:

At the Media Lab, the whole goal that I see is that I have to be creative and I'm free to be creative, and I'm not constrained to a subject category. I don't need to be creative in chemistry, or I don't need to be creative in physics, or I don't need to be creative in policy. It's not about a subject category, the criticism of: well that is not, from the subject, it's not valid. What that creates is a group of people that have interaction between artists and technologies and designers and theoreticians and thinkers, and experimentalists, which all share a pursuit of freedom and of new ideas.

I find that it's a little bit paradoxical because this idea of pursuing creative freedom is the oldest idea in academic. The idea of an academic is someone that is doing something that nobody told him or her to do, someone that is running with his ideas and trying to make them happen. There might be people that think that those ideas are not worth even pursuing, they don't make sense. It might be that those ideas are not going to have applications in the next 200 years. Who knows? But it's an academic who will go away with his/her ideas, or take them where he or she wants.

I would say that this is something that nowadays is a little bit lost in academia, because there are subject categories that constrain the departments much more heavily, in many cases. The Media Lab doesn't have that problem. The Media Lab is a bit of the solution to that. We're going to do something that has to be cool, it has to be interesting, it has to be important, but we don't care in which subject it fits.

Security Isn't Free, Either

Economics,Ideas,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:30 am

On the tradeoff between risk and reward. It begins with a simple anecdote:

I once heard a Harvard professor give a talk describing the yumminess vs. safety scale for food regulation. Yummy food (yes, I’m quoting here) is frequently unsafe, and safe food rarely yummy. Head to the Texas border, he said, to see it in action. The same ingredients are used in burritos on either side of the border, but the Mexican version, with its unpasteurized cheese and fresher, unmedicated chicken, bursts with both flavor and, occasionally, Salmonella. The American version is recognizable as a burrito but has little taste in common with its more daring cousin. We’ve sacrificed some deliciousness in favor of safety.

But don't be fooled, this guy has things to say:

Such questions are the stuff of nightmares and of responsible government, and the abilities to humanely understand, resolve and – most of all – explain their nuances are the differences between great leaders and tyrants.

I have been very interested lately in thinking about risks and too which extents government should go to mitigate them. I don't have anything fully formed on the topic yet, but is pretty obvious that as the limit reaches probability zero on any risk the cost function approaches infinity. That is, it gets more and more expensive to decrease smaller and smaller risks toward making something not happen with probability one. That might be worth it if the risk is nuclear attack on New York, but it makes less sense in the case of things the government avoids just because they look bad.

Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer.

Ideas,Science — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 2:29 pm

I am not interested in the particulars of Jonah Lehrer's story; however, I am very interested in the inability of scientists to convey science to the public and for journalists to understand science (The main thesis of this article in New York Magazine). Is it that science is just too messy and complicated? What role, if any, could journalist play in presenting and drawing social implications out of science? Malcolm Gladwell writes well, and for that I respect him, but he has essentially simplified complex scientific discussion in to one-sided, absurdly broad, phenomena. Should he stop or does his popularization of science, even if wrong, help the cause?

Today's Idea: Bloomberg-Soros Political Fellowship

Ideas,Politics — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 9:46 am

It's like a MacArthur. You get a call one day. You've been selected. You'd make a great public servant, even if you don't know it. You'd get some training, like DCCC and NRCC and when you run you get two million spent by the super-pac run by the best. They've done the analysis. They'll provide funding. They've lined up endorsers. You've never thought about politics, but they've got your back. Say what you want to say, make a difference in the world: run the campaign you don't mind losing. And if you win, make it real. For 100--150 million, Bloomberg and Soros could not just give some politicians a leg up, they could change the discourse to a more centrist, pragmatic, and socially progressive one.