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How the Scientific Establishment Generates Bad Science, and What We Can Do About It

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” - 孫子

What is this?

This is a web site for a session I am organizing for the April 2017 Day of Action at MIT. This session focuses on two topics: (1) How to effect organizational change (2) Bad science.

What is this session about?

Did you know that Cambridge helped Trump win the election? Westboro Babtist Church has done more to forward LGBT rights than most liberal activists groups? Many attempts at activism have opposite of the desired effect. We will briefly discuss how to work to effectively influence organizational systems (whether government, corporate, or otherwise) through both hard tactics and soft tactics.

Concretely, we will focus on applying this to an area close to home – bad science. According to Pew, roughly half of the US population does not believe in human-caused climate change. The public has developed a healthy distrust of science. Unfortunately, much of this skepticism is justified. Science, especially as presented in K-12 classrooms, popular press, and popular books, is quite often quite wrong. This undermines the credibility of science even when it is right. We will work in small groups to explore some of the issues in the scientific establishment, and try to come up with ways to address them.

A draft curriculum with recommended pre-work is available. Session limited to 30 participants.

This session was inspired by Fake News, Concrete Responses at Harvard, and is intended as an inwards-facing version of the same event.

Pre-work and References

Pre-work is not required but recommended. In particular, there are two entertaining videos which might be helpful to watch before the session. This Video Will Make You Angry discusses how protests act to mobilize the opposition. Rules for Rulers is a summary of the (very excellent) Dictator’s Handbook, which gives a popular game-theoretic explanation of what is required to come to and maintain power. Both of these fall under the category of hard tactics. Note that these resources are one lens; can be misleading when used in isolation.

Two good references for soft tactics include Building Relationships from MOR Associates, an organization which specializes in leadership training, and the classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People

Broadly speaking, effective change tactics require understanding the parties involved, their motivations, and predicting the effects of our actions. Other good references include Getting to Yes, which focuses on how to understand the opposition, and come up with solutions which meet the needs of all parties involved.

When reading these books, remember that changes often happen behind-the-scenes. The most visible protests are rarely the most effective.

Why should I attend this session?

In college at MIT, most of us had poor soft skills, and didn’t really get what soft skills were. MIT’s training in soft skills was limited to “communications intensive” courses and groupwork, which didn’t really do the job especially well.

This gap held me back (in the words of one mentor, as I was starting a new organization, I was “like a bull in a chinashop”). Since graduation, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand, both theoretically and practically, how to effectively effect organizational change.

I have been increasingly successful at this effort. I have been involved in three initiatives as a co-founder or early employee. All broke the $100 million mark. Through that journey, I learned much more about soft skills required in the real world. I’d like to share some of that knowledge. A few of the things I’ve done (like edX, which I proposed to the provost of MIT in the early fall of 2011) resulted in profound institutional changes.

In that time, I have also become increasingly critical of the academic establishment. In my half-decade experience as the Chief Scientist of edX, I have experienced many shortcomings of academia and academic research. I thought it’d be nice to run a session to see if we could figure out how we might be able to work to effect positive change.

Tentative Session Structure

Group Topics

About this page

This is a github page, which means you are seeing everything I am working on in realtime. Depending on when you look at this page, it may or may not reflect the final session, and it may be in various levels of undress. It also means you’re welcome to contribute, or reuse in other places.