The Better Letter: You’ve Really Got to Want It

Do we want diversity of thought?

How are you doing this week? No matter how you’re getting on or how much you might need it, check out Survival, from NeedtoBreathe. 

If you like The Better Letter, please subscribe, share it, and forward it freely.

Share The Better Letter

Thanks for visiting.

You’ve Really Got to Want It

After the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the New York Fed commissioned a confidential study of itself to try to understand why it hadn’t spotted the behavior that led to the crisis. The study determined that the biggest problem was the Fed’s culture. As Michael Lewis summarized, “The Fed failed to regulate the banks because it did not encourage its employees to ask questions, to speak their minds, or to point out problems.”

The Fed should hire “‘out-of-the-box thinkers,’ even at the risk of getting ‘disruptive personalities,’ the report said. It called for expert examiners who would be contrarian, ask difficult questions, and challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Managers should add categories like ‘willingness to speak up’ and ‘willingness to contradict me’ to annual employee evaluations. And senior Fed managers had to take the lead.”

Had the Fed wanted to fix this cultural problem, as Lewis pointed out, it “would instantly have set out to hire strong-willed, independent-minded people who were willing to speak their minds, and set them loose on our financial sector.” I have regularly proposed that very concept for any organization, especially because it’s so easy to go along to get along. 

The Fed seems to have done no such thing except by accident, a few years later, in the person of Carmen Segarra. In her first Fed assignment, she found conflict of interest protocols at Goldman Sachs badly lacking. Her bosses pressured her to alter her review, but she would not. So, they fired her

Quite apparently, the Fed did not do a very good job of implementing the recommended changes, if it even tried.

By this point, most of us have at least a passing knowledge of behavioral finance and its lead actor, confirmation bias, whereby we see what we want to see, accept these desires as truth, and act accordingly. As Oxford’s Teppo Felin points out, “what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – determines what is obvious.” Motivated reasoning is our complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more critically when we disagree with them than when we agree. Upton Sinclair offered perhaps its most popular expression: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

The report demonstrated the difficulty (on account of regulatory capture) in overcoming these tendencies at the Fed and on an institutional basis generally. According to Danel Kahneman, organizations are more likely to succeed at overcoming bias than individuals. That’s partly due to resources, and partly because self-criticism is so difficult. Perhaps the best check on bad decision-making we have is when someone (or, when possible, an empowered team) we respect sets out to show us where and how we are wrong. Within an organization that means making sure that everyone can be challenged without fear of reprisal and that everyone (and especially anyone in charge) is accountable. Most fundamentally, it requires a diversity of thought.

None of that happens very often. Kahneman routinely asks corporate groups how committed they are to better decision-making and if they are willing to spend even one percent of their budgets on doing so. Sadly, he hasn’t had any takers yet. Smart companies should take him up on that challenge, of course. So should the Fed.

In addition to the challenges outlined above, individuals also face the most pernicious of the various behavioral and cognitive difficulties we all face — our tendency to think that such common foibles don’t apply to us personally. That’s why overcoming these inherent weaknesses is so difficult.

Critical thinking is impossible without sufficient subject matter expertise, and such expertise mandates the understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, subtleties, and consequences to all the underlying positions and viewpoints relating to a particular decision. We all love to be right and quite naturally think we are right. Better decision-making means challenging assumptions. It demands a real diversity of thought. 

That’s really hard, but that is what makes it great. 

As I have noted before, we are social creatures, made for community, who instinctively group like-to-like in relatively small numbers. The vast majority of us think opposites attract, but that’s not what the research shows. We readily recognize and congregate into affinity groups, echo chambers, and mutual admiration societies with our “alsos,” as in also went to Duke, also played lacrosse, also loves/hates Trump, also knows Dick. It should surprise nobody that the Segarra case was replete with incestuous interrelationships between and among the Fed, Goldman, and the courts.

What that means is that we, like the Fed, don’t generally want diversity of thought.

Harvard claims that it is committed to a diverse workplace and says its “commitment to diversity in all forms is rooted in our fundamental belief that engaging with unfamiliar ideas, perspectives, cultures, and people creates the conditions for dramatic and meaningful growth.” It claims diversity as “a defining characteristic” and the “engine that drives excellence.” 

Harvard is lying.

We know it’s a lie because actions speak louder than words. As the Apostle James said, faith without works is dead.

Harvard’s marketing literature focuses on the diversity of its students, but they are customers. Harvard’s faculty has essentially no diversity of thought. As in 2018, a 2020 faculty survey found that the vast majority of the Harvard faculty are liberal or very liberal while barely one percent are conservative. As Princeton’s Robert George reports, “It is scarcely news that at many colleges and universities dominant opinion is far to the left.” What’s news is that Harvard has two evangelical Christians among its 2,400 faculty.

As of 2007, nearly 37 percent of professors at elite research schools like Harvard were atheist or agnostic despite being only seven percent of the population at large. A couple of months ago, in response to an op-ed in The Washington Post criticizing the evangelical response to COVID-19, Harvard’s Steven Pinker called orthodox Christian belief “a malignant delusion.”

Not surprisingly, most professors do not see themselves as hostile to faith, but they are far more likely to dislike conservative Christians more than other religious groups. Harvard Law School’s Mark Tushnet argues that conservatives should be attacked aggressively (“taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945”).

All of this is consistent with in-group favoritism, whereby members of a group favor their own. It applies to friends, teams, clubs, schools, towns, political parties, religious organizations, ethnic groups, and nations.

Journalism has the same problem. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker famously commented, after the 1972 Nixon landslide, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

In her recent resignation letter, Bari Weiss describes a staff at The New York Times for which “intellectual curiosity — let alone risk-taking — is now a liability.” Her former colleagues claim to be threatened by people who see things differently. The Atlantic hired Kevin Williamson expressly to provide some diversity of thought and then fired him shortly thereafter when he provided it. Andrew Sullivan sees the same thing at New York magazine while Slate doesn’t even try to hide its lack of diversity, reporting that not a single staffer voted for Donald Trump, although Evan McMullin and Jill Stein each got one vote.

Pretty much all of us claim to want to know and hire well-educated, well-informed people capable of critical thinking but are aghast when just one of those people sees things differently. It’s not usually seen as a question of fact or truth, but one of morality. Moralizing manufactures certainty out of chaos, and creates cardboard characters of us all.

We crave and believe in certainty – whether from God, Mom, science, or somewhere else – but find it all too seldom. In what would have seemed colossal irony to past generations, the mathematics of uncertainty consumes modern life: from probability to statistics, from quantum mechanics to chaos theory. In a world that is highly uncertain, the importance of hedging your bets is magnified. Diversification is king. Diversity of thought is crucial.

But nobody seems to see it that way.

Every media outlet and every moron on Twitter is out to tell you what to think, what to believe, and what to buy, not necessarily in that order. They don’t tell you that what they really want is the conflict, the hatred, and the vitriol. That’s what gets eyeballs, clicks, and views. Honest engagement seeking truth simply doesn’t pay. The only unpardonable sin is indecision. Contempt for the opposition – for the audience at large – is de rigueur

“[T]he basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people,” as the great writer Marilynne Robinson said. Forgiveness and the intentional relinquishment of power are fundamental to creating or rebuilding the spirit of trust that is necessary for people with wildly divergent views to get along, much less prosper together. Good faith is required.

There is much in Yuval Harari’s Sapiens that I find maddening and just plain wrong (more on that in a subsequent TBL, I hope), but one point with which I wholeheartedly agree is his contention that humankind’s greatest asset is an ability to build trust through a shared commitment to pro-social, cooperative fictions. Narrative fidelity is all. As Jesus taught with His parable of The Good Samaritan, we need to make a conscious effort to write different kinds of people into our stories.

We’re never going to be completely right. That means improvement always requires a journey. And we never get anywhere without challenge and change.

You’ve really got to want it.

Totally Worth It

Charming (and don’t miss the comments). A woman refused to wear a mask and threw a fit inside a Panera Bread, claiming if people can smell farts through their pants then masks can't prevent the spread of coronavirus. On the ground in Portland. Sanitation worker gets into Harvard Law. The coolest thing I saw this week. The ugliest. The scariest. The saddest. The creepiest. The funniest. The most heartwarming. The most underhanded. The most uplifting. Confirmation bias in the wild. Baseball is back. Capitalism finds a wayGaming out the presidential election. What the science of visual illusions can teach us about our polarized world. Regis Philbin died last week after a lifetime in the entertainment business; watch the greatest moment from his show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, below. Spoiler Alert: It isn’t the winning.

When I listed great covers a few weeks ago, I missed one: Smells Like Teen Spirit in classical Latin. 


For this week’s benediction, listen to Wintley Phipps sing of grace leading John Lewis home. 

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

Share The Better Letter

Thanks for reading.

Issue 24 (July 31, 2020)