Thursday, March 1, 2007

"The Difference"

Scott E. Page is Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute. He is the coauthor of Complex Adaptive Systems (Princeton) and a new book -- The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.

He applied the Page 69 Test to The Difference, and reported the following:

The page 69 test succeeds marvelously for The Difference. In the book, I bring logic to the study of diversity. The original title of the book was A Treatise on the Logic and Understanding of Diversity, then those darn marketing people at Princeton got a hold of it. On page 69, you’ll see some of that logic in action. I’m explaining how people can combine good solutions to create even better solutions. It’s a central idea in the book – that two heads are better than one – provided, of course, that the heads are different.

I’m describing the work of one of my colleagues, John Holland, who developed a search technique that borrows from evolution called genetic algorithms. In the example, which involves recipes for jambalaya, I show how lists of ingredients, encoded as long strings of 0’s and 1’s can be conceptualized as Jambalaya DNA. The example demonstrates how by “mating” two jambalaya recipes, you might get an even better one.

Page 69 is also representative in that the chefs in the example, Noah, Emily, Katie, Joey, and Natalie, are some of my young nieces and nephews. To help remind myself of what’s important, I sprinkled the names of family and friends throughout the book. A few adults sneak in, like my parents, but for the most part, the names belong to shiny, happy children. A highlight of now having the physical book is seeing these children, some of whom have just learned to read, see their own names in a real book. Some have been so excited that they’ve burst out “I’m famous.” Others have been more reserved but their faces cannot hide their joy.

Many people see diversity in political terms. As a result, discussions of diversity make them uncomfortable. In the book, I show the pragmatic implications of differences in how we think about the world and how we go about trying to improve it. Children see diversity as fun, and interesting. They think it’s neat that people look differently, act differently, and think differently.

The book makes a serious contribution to social science. It changes how we think about diversity by constructing a logical architecture. I’m embarrassed to say that Princeton Press refers to it as a “landmark book” so I’ve taken to reminding people that landmark restaurants serve both waffles and chicken.

The Page 69 test shows that social science need not be dull: mating jambalaya recipes; hangin’ with the nieces and nephews. I’m cool with that.

I might add that serious readers should look at page 42. There, I pose a more fundamental question about life, the universe, and everything.

Read excerpts from The Difference.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Series.