Category Archives: Books

Management for skeptics

At some point near the end of last semester I checked out Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton from the SFU library.

As a graduate student I had access to term loans from the library so I took the book out knowing that at some point I’d get through it. The book is due back this week, so naturally I rushed through and finished reading it just before I have to send it back. So here’s my review.

imageThe book was written in 2006 and is Pfeffer and Sutton’s attempt to apply the techniques of evidence-based medicine to managerial practices. Pfeffer is a professor of organizational behaviour in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and Sutton is Professor of Management Science & Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School.

Browse any bookstore’s business section and you’ll find more gurus and magic solutions than even the health and self-help sections. This book attempts to lay out the basics of the scientific method for the business world: Hypothesize, observe, and evaluate. They argue that decisions need to be made by considering the best data possible and that all projects need to be designed to collect useful data to evaluate their success and failure.

The middle section, and the bulk of the book, is dedicated to debunking some common half-truths in the business world. They then offer some sound, evidence-based advice on each topic.

Specifically, they cover whether work and the rest of life should be treated as fundamentally different; they ask whether the best organizations have the best people; they analyse the effectiveness of financial incentives; they look at whether a focus on strategy will help or hinder an organization; they ask whether organizations need to constantly change; and finally they question the role of great leaders in the success of organizations. These are all called dangerous half-truths because while there is some evidence to support each assertion, there is also much that gets overlooked by reducing complex management decisions to catchphrases like “change or die.”

For example, in the Strategy is Destiny? chapter, they note that organizations do need to know where they’re going, but spending too much time on developing a strategy has caused many companies to ignore the implementation of that strategy. Similarly, in Change or Die? they point out that all change is risky, and those risks are often underestimated by those championing change, while on the other hand to stagnate in any industry is potentially even more risky.

The entire book will be familiar ground for those in the skeptics movement, but what’s nice is that this pushes into an area often ignored by skeptics – even within our own organizations. We like to talk about the need to base medical decisions on hard facts and reason, but that advice is no less true when it comes to making business decisions. So while most of the book may come off as common sense, following the evidence is notoriously difficult for our species.

Finally, I will note that many skeptics argue for science-based rather than evidence-based medicine. This distinction is meant to identify the need to include logic and reasoning in the decision making process. Pfeffer and Sutton acknowledge the need for more than just raw data, especially when no data is available. In such cases, they argue that an idea should be questioned skeptically before adopting, especially the hidden assumptions of an idea. They also seem hesitant to use the phrase science-based to avoid confusion with the subject of scientific management.

For more on evidence-based management, check out their website.

The old New Atheist

It turns out that Mark Twain wrote an autobiography of his life but decided that it shouldn’t be published until 100 years after his death (which occurred in 1910). Newsweek has posted an excerpt, and it seems like it’s a well timed release.

About once a year some pious public library banishes Huck Finn from its children’s department, and on the same plea always—that Huck, the neglected and untaught son of a town drunkard, is given to lying, when in difficulty and hard pressed, and is therefore a bad example for young people, and a damager of their morals.

Two or three years ago I was near by when one of these banishments was decreed and advertised, and I went over and asked the librarian about it, and he said yes, Huck was banished for lying. I asked,

“Is there nothing else against him?”

“No, I think not.”

“Do you banish all books that are likely to defile young morals, or do you stop with Huck?”

“We do not discriminate; we banish all that are hurtful to young morals.”

I picked up a book, and said—

“I see several copies of this book lying around. Are the young forbidden to read it?”

“The Bible? Of course not.”

I can’t wait to do this with the book club (although in the end it will be 3 volumes and half-a-million words).

Book review: Losing Control

Hot on the heels of Marci McDonald’s bestselling The Armageddon Factor, comes another expose on the religious right in Canada. I just finished Losing Control: Canada’s Social Conservatives in the Age of Rights, which was written by gay activist Tom Warner and published by Between the Lines.

Full disclosure: My review copy was provided at no charge by BTL publishing. Nevertheless, take my review as my honest opinion on this book.

Losing Control provides a good supplemental reading to the narratives provided by McDonald. While McDonald provides the detailed look into some of the cast of characters involved in the religious right, Warner adds an academic history in the events that date back to the formation of the modern rights movements in the 1960s.

Warner documents a shift in Canadian thinking from it’s Christian roots to a secular society that prizes individual and minority rights. This shift has obviously come hard for the social conservatives in the country, who have since rallied around various conservative parties, from the Progressive Conservatives to the Reform, Canadian Alliance and modern Conservative Party.

Warner breaks his treatment thematically, treating the abortion debate, repressive sexuality laws, gay rights and gay marriage in successive chapters. He finishes with some discussion about the social conservative inroads in politics.

Unfortunately, he only has passing references to the debates over evolution vs. creationism and school prayer, both of which have been hot topics for social conservatives.

In The Armageddon Factor, McDonald used mostly original research to compose her book, however the vast majority of Losing Control is based on 29 pages of third-party sources. This extensive bibliography provides a valuable resource for anyone wanting to get the dirt straight from the source.

I partially criticized McDonald for minor editorializing at points in The Armageddon Factor, and while Warner uses the mostly neutral term social conservative to refer to Canada’s vast network of religious right figures (which includes evangelical protestants, Catholics, conservative Jews, Sikhs and Muslims), he does end many of his chapters in a more of a warning style.

As an example, at the end of the chapter on regulating sexuality he states:

Sadly, there is no realistic reason to believe that members of Parliament will take the next logical step and actually decriminalize prostitution and repeal the repressive bawdy house sections of the Criminal Code. As has so often been the case in the past, the best hope for progress on those issues rests with the justices of the Supreme Court and their interpretations of the rights guaranteed by the Charter.

This is of course not to say that I disagree with anything Warner has to say, I’m with him almost the entire way through this book. He does come down firmly with the BC Civil Liberties Union and criticizes other gay activists who have used the Human Rights Tribunals to censor hate speech, to which I’m still undecided upon, but otherwise I’m in total agreement.

I think the greatest value in Losing Control is in its framing the battles with the religious right in terms of conflicting societal values. It’s secular rights (which include religious freedoms) versus theocratic ambitions to regulate morality.

One final chapter I was hoping for was for Warner to connect the dots (something McDonald attempted to do) and discuss the main organizations that have been active in the fights against progressive minority rights. Such organizations as REAL Women Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Catholic Civil Rights League and Focus on the Family Canada. At the very least, a brief perusal through the comprehensive index will identify the organizations that routinely come up in church-state separation debates.

Overall, Losing Control is a well-researched book that covers the history of social conservatives in Canada and the battles that have been fought and progress that has been made since the introduction of various Bills of Rights and the Charter. While not an outright replacement for The Armageddon Factor, it does make a good supplement for anyone who wants to dig a bit deeper into these issues.

Book Review: The Armageddon Factor

Sorry for the delay in posting this review, I was hoping to have this piece published in The Peak’s Arts section but they choose to go with a 2,000 word piece about a museum’s shoe exhibit instead, but that’s a whole different rant.

The Christians are coming!

In The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, Marci McDonald attempts to raise the awareness of our own growing Christian Right. She purports to show how they have quickly and subtly gained an alarming amount of influence in the government.

In the first chapter, McDonald outlines Stephen Harper’s personally religious history, a topic that is not spoken of very much by Harper of the media. Harper became a born-again after moving to Calgary and joining Preston Manning’s Reform Party movement. However, Harper, unlike Manning and much of the Reform Party, was more comfortable keeping his faith and politics mostly separate. McDonald notes that it was only later when, as leader of the new Conservative Party, Harper attempted to reach out to the evangelical communities.

But it was still hard for McDonald to measure the level of influence the Christian Right has had under Harper’s consecutive minority governments. There have been few socially conservative policy changes, and of those most have disappointed the very factions McDonald seeks to expose. Harper has repeatedly turned away from the abortion debate and upon winning his first minority government in 2006 he quickly allowed for his promised free vote on same-sex marriage – a vote that was actually earlier than many evangelicals had wanted, since it provided them less time to mount a defence. Similarly, by breaking his fixed-election date law in 2008, Harper killed several of his caucus’ private members bills, including an unborn victims bill that was called the “first winnable abortion bill” in years.

However, McDonald does point out that perhaps Harper’s greatest success has been in his “incremental” changes, evidenced by his countless appointments of partisans and born-agains to all levels of courts, the senate and the civil service. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, Harper counts many evangelical leaders, including the former leader of Focus on the Family Canada, Darrell Reid.

Similarly, Harper has been able to make many changes by the mere stroke of a pen. In recent months Harper has cut funds to Status of Women Canada and KAIROS, a social justice charity that apparently represented the wrong-type of Christians for this government (like McDonald has been told she is). He has sent tens of millions of stimulus dollars to Bible Colleges and after he cut funding to abortions for overseas aid, a crowd of 15,000 pro-lifers rallied on the steps of the House of Commons.

McDonald also briefly discusses the so-called “Christian Left,” which included Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian medicare. She points out how both Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP leader Jack Layton have reached out to various faith communities through acts like the revival of the NDP Faith and Social Justice committee. Contrary to some interpretations, it does not seem to me that McDonald is against these, or even Harper’s, attempts to dialogue with people of faith in principle, but merely that she hopes that such activity is acknowledged publicly.

The Armageddon Factor is an enlightening read, regardless of your personal views, but unfortunately the book strays from neutrality enough that it reads as a bit more than just a who’s who of the Christian Right. My initial hope was that it could have been more like the documentary film Jesus Camp, which, for the most part, just lets the subjects speak for themselves.

Either way, the book does shed light on much of what has been going on in the dark. No democracy is served by secrecy and backroom lobbying. At the very least, this book will hopefully force Canadians to decide what kind of country we want this to be, because if we do not, there are those who have a scripturally-inspired version of what they think it should be.

Three days till Armageddon

Only three more days till Marci McDonald’s well-anticipated (at least by me and at least a few others) book, The Armageddon Factor.

From Radom House Publishers:

The Armageddon Factor
The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada
Written by Marci McDonald

About this Book

An urgent wake-up call for all Canadians who think that this country is immune from the righteous brand of Christian nationalism that has bitterly divided and weakened the United States.
In her new book, Marci McDonald documents the startling extent of the influence that the religious right already wields in Canada and shows how, quietly, often stealthily, it has provoked far-reaching changes in Canadian policies and institutions, including our public service, our schools and our courts.

In four short years, galvanized by their failure to stop same-sex marriage, not only have conservative Christians developed a permanent infrastructure in Ottawa, designed to outlast whatever party is in power, but they have done so by borrowing the rowdy style of the American religious right to which most of their leaders boast close ties. Their rise has been tied to the election of Stephen Harper and it is no secret that evangelicals have already re-shaped Harper’s foreign policy in the Middle East, guided by what McDonald terms the Armageddon Factor. But few Canadians are aware that a militant band of conservative Christians with a direct pipeline to Harper’s cabinet is also attempting to reshape the country’s social, cultural and even scientific policies, driven by a belief that Canada has a biblically ordained role to play in the final days before Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.

About this Author

MARCI McDONALD is one of Canada’s most respected journalists. The winner of eight gold National Magazine Awards, she is also the recipient of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ investigative feature award. A former bureau chief for Maclean’s in Paris and Washington, she has interviewed Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, and spent five more years in the United States as a senior writer for US News & World Report. A winner of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, her study of the backstage machinations behind the free trade deal led to her book, Yankee Doodle Dandy: Brian Mulroney and the America Agenda. Her controversial cover story in the Walrus, "Stephen Harper and the TheoCons,” [link added] inspired this book.

Along with this book, I heard from a friend that Ms. McDonald will be appearing in Calgary on May 18 for the Council of Canadians: Calgary Chapter along with Donald Gutstein, author of Not a Conspiracy Theory. Hopefully we can get them out to Vancouver in the near future.

Communism is dead

After getting barely a bit into the Communist Manifesto, you start to realize that it hasn’t aged well at 160.

I just finished the epoch by Marx and Engels, although that word is deceiving because all-in-all it comes in at a mere 42 pages. My opinion: things have changed a lot since they wrote this manifesto.

The first major problem I encountered was that they assume this diametrically opposed class war. It’s the “us versus them” mentality that has led to many conflicts throughout time. The communists (I’ll use this word to denote the position taken by the manifesto) argue that the only way for the working class to ever gain anything is to destroy the current system. It’s a hugely false dichotomy now, however, may have rung truer in another time.

Today (in Western culture), there is no proletariat-bourgeoisie class rivalry. There is essentially a spectrum of wealth from the homeless to the worlds richest – and most are above the poverty line today.
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Sex sells atheism?

There’s a new [tag]book[/tag] out by lawyer [tag]Geoff Henley[/tag] entitled “[tag]Beyond Reasonable Doubt[/tag]: A Lawyers Case for Disbelief in God” and rather than resort to traditional advertising means, he’s created a series of sexed-up [tag]YouTube[/tag] [tag]videos[/tag] to help him sell.

The first I came across was the [tag]bikini[/tag] girls [tag]cat fight[/tag] over [tag]atheism[/tag]:

The sequel to the cat fight features the [tag]girls kissing[/tag] and making up:

Finally, there’s the sexy woman in a towel arguing about the [tag]Bible[/tag]:

Check out his website for more on the book.

Mere Christianity: Just plain awful

I have grudgingly finished reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. I say grudgingly because although I went in hoping for strong, articulate reasons to believe theism, and specifically Christianity, at the end I was left with a tired confused man, who writes from a sexist post-war (WWII) viewpoint, rambling about what helps him sleep at night.

The arguments for Christianity break down as follows:

(1) There can be no morals without God.

This is actually his big one. It’s what made him go from “atheism” to Christian apologist. Never mind that it doesn’t take too much reading in moral philosophy before you realize how pathetic of an argument this is, he doesn’t even articulate it well!
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The Secular Conscience

I finished reading the Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey, and I don’t think my mere words can do justice to the secular philosophical poetry that the man can write.

The basic arguments of the book are:

  1. That secular liberals have lost their soul in being unwilling to debate religious/moral issues in the public square. This was done in the mistaken ideas of “privacy” of religion and “liberty” to believe anything and not be offended. Basically this is seen in extreme efforts to accomodate “multiculturalism” and endagers our free speech, but also prevents us from speaking out for abortion rights, stem cell research and other topics.
  2. That all ethics and morals come from a collective secular conscience that is accessible to all (or at least most, excluding sociopaths). He discusses much moral philosophy in that latter chapters that just build on his earlier arguments. For Dacey, all morality must be derivable from reason which is available to everyone.

I’m going to write a bit more on a few philosophical ideas that sprung from this book, and I highly recommend it to everyone, especially leftists, secularists and anyone who associates with the “freethought” movement.

And if you get a chance, see him speak, he’s sensational.

No defense for Onfray

I am giving up attempting to get through Michael Onfray’s “In Defense of Atheism.” He started off strong, and often sounds very bitter and spiteful toward religion, however there isn’t much more to him than arguments you could find elsewhere (and stated more enjoyable and eloquently).

I liked his review of materialistic and atheistic philosophers through the ages and the often repressed view that needed to be said, but beyond that I found little to keep reading for (FYI I quit after just entering the section on Christianity which made quite a few major accusations with no referential backings).

There are much better books out there discussing atheistic philosophy, look for them.

It also doesn’t help that I have Austin Dacey’s The Secular Conscience and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on my shelf (the former I look forward to reading, but the latter I will read in its entirety).