Friday, June 08, 2007

Never Miss an Opportunity to Slag Those Dumb Medievals

In the ongoing record of medieval-bashing, I add Exhibit #753, from the otherwise stellar book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap--And Others Don't, by Jim Collins. In this passage, Collins is trying to explain why he didn't want his research team to concern itself with analyzing the leadership of companies that went from good to great:

To use an analogy, the "Leadership is the answer to everything" perspective is the modern equivalent of the "God is the answer to everything" perspective that held back our scientific understanding of the physical world in the Dark Ages. In the 1500s, people ascribed all events they didn't understand to God. Why did the crops fail? God did it. Why did we have an earthquake? God did it. What holds the planets in place? God. But with the Enlightenment, we began the search for a more scientific understanding -- physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth. Not that we became atheists, but we gained a deeper understanding about how the universe ticks.

Similarly, every time we attribute everything to "Leadership," we're no different from people in the 1500s. We're simply admitting our ignorance. Not that we should become leadership atheists (leadership does matter), but every time we throw our hands up in frustration -- reverting back to "Well, the answer must be Leadership!" -- we prevent ourselves from gaining deeper, more scientific understanding about what makes great companies tick.

How many things are wrong with this passage? Oh, a lot.

(1) The Dark Ages: specifically the time without an emperor of either Roman or Holy Roman character, so 476-800; more generally, it could refer to 500-1000. Collins refers to the 1500s.

(2) So let's take Collins up on the 1500s. Some scientific things done in the 1500s: invention of the watch, Copernicus posits heliocentrism, Paracelsus publishes the first manual of surgery, Olaus Magnus produced a map of the world, Michael Servetus discovers the pulmonary circulation of the blood, etc., etc., etc.

(3) But maybe Collins didn't mean the 1500s (though he mentions it specifically twice). Maybe he meant the genuine Dark Ages. Now just consider this claim: "In the [Dark Ages], people ascribed all events they didn't understand to God." Really? That's just an enormous claim to make. Also, maybe the Dark Ages didn't produce any good "science" because there was no civilization. Why wasn't there civilization? Barbarians. Why were there barbarians? No more Roman empire. Why no Roman empire? A long story, but St. Augustine's answer was, "Don't blame the Christians for your stupid mistakes" (see City of God). So if I have to attribute a main cause to lack of scientific progress in the Dark Ages, I'm going with "Lack of civilization" not a preternatural desire on the part of everyone to say "God did it."

(4) The claim that assuming "God did it" holds back "science." Notice the complete absence of evidence. But that's the point of this whole example: "Isn't it obvious that saying 'God did it' holds back science? I mean, look what happened in the Dark Ages?" And though we don't have to be "atheists," according to Collins, our scientific understanding of the world is hindered by a certain belief in God. Question: Which matters more, scientific understanding or knowledge of God? Of course, you say, a false dichotomy. True! But when push comes to shove, if Collins is right about belief in God (in certain contexts) holding back science, then one will have to choose.

(5) There's a certain tension in the passage. Collins says that the Dark Agers said God did everything they didn't understand. In the Leadership (note the consistent capital letter) analogy, he says that "every time we throw our hands up in frustration -- reverting back to . . . ." But Collins's characterization of the Dark Ages is that people weren't throwing up their hands in frustration; they were gladly throwing up their hands, inviting the God explanation.

(6) I suppose the worst thing about this passage is that it was actually printed. And by that I mean that it had to pass through the hands of a number readers and professional editors; I'd guess at least ten for a publisher the size of HarperCollins. And no one thought to say, "You know, your analogy about God and Leadership depends on a caricature of belief in God."

(7) A large claim of my own. One reason the science of the Enlightenment exploded was because of the background assumption that the universe is orderly, which itself depends on the existence of God. (Not until Darwin (1800s) do we get a real challenge to that assumption.)

Leaving the abuse of the Dark Ages, a comment on another assumption, namely, that there can be and should be scientific understanding of "what makes companies tick." I suppose that assumption depends on what is meant by "scientific." There is no doubt that Collins and his team did an immense amount of research for his book. But here's a claim: Everything Collins says in his book can be derived from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. His points about ego, friendship, hard work, common sense, character, all of it.

Question: Is Collins's understanding of what makes companies tick "deeper" than Aristotle's?


Thorgersen said...

This is slightly off topic, but I seem to remember reading about some other civilization that saw itself as "a continuation of the Roman Empire with no discernable breaking-off-point in administration, political theory, judicial practice, ruling imperium, economics or culture" and even went so far as to keep calling themselves "Romans" all the way up to the, oh, mid-1400s or something like that ... but darned if I can't remember what we call those guys. Maybe it was the "Dark Empire" or something like that.

bourgeois wife said...

Forgive the ignorant, Jesse. I have no idea what you're talking about. Care to elucidate?

Thorgersen said...

Sorry, I get worked up -- and thus cagey and ranty -- about the idea of the Dark Ages because of that part of the Roman Empire that we now call Byzantium. A pox upon Collins and his researchers.

Ladybug said...

Wow, kudos to Collins for managing to annoy me on two fronts: (1) mindlessly perpetuating the 'conflict' thesis between science and religion in a way that only confirms his naive faith in scientism and (2) calling the 1500s and the millennium prior to it the 'Dark Ages' (a clear self-congratulatory smear invented by the so-called Enlightenment that starts guess when).

This might interest Burglar: in a book I read a few years ago called Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century, Denis Alexander (a Cambridge scientist who goes to our church) debunks the 'conflict thesis' in part by claiming that, in the famous case of Galileo, the conflict was less one of science and religion and more one of experimental natural philosophy (read: modern science) versus a natural philosophy in which the knowledge of the natural world was gleaned from the wisdom of the ancient philosophers (i.e., between strongly-held commitments to two different philosophies of science, with the traditionalists more on the side of the likes of Aristotle than St. Paul). Or another way of thinking about it involves it as an issue of two competing theologies about the relationship between faith and the natural world as natural philosophy pulled away from the authority of the ancient world, and thus from what from that world the church had absorbed in its worldview. Here's some qts from the book:

"Certainly Galileo clashed with the medieval Church...but it was a clash which sprang directly from the roots of his own faith, and which was opposed to the church's defence of Aristotelian cosmology, not to religious belief as such" (85).

"Galileo launched a frontal attack on the very idea that natural philosophy was to do with the rediscovery of the beliefs of ancient authorities, and that these beliefs were normative for succeeding generations" (97)

And, interestingly enough, the roots of the 'conflict thesis' that Collins so glibly assumes are ones that only go back to the 19th century, not to the 16th or 17th.

Benedictus said...

Speaking as a medievalist, it's amazing what a long life these claims have, even after they've been discredited a thousand times over.

Two good book recommendations:

Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, 2001

Marcia Colish, The Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition. Yale, 1997


Burglar said...


Thanks for the book reference. I'll check it out, though from your description it doesn't sound like it goes to the heart of the matter. What's the heart of the matter? Good question. I'm working on a post now on the philosophy of science, in particular Husserl's reconstruction of Galilean science. It will appear sometime by the end of the summer.