MIT (5): Meeting With Charlie

I had tried to arrange a meeting with Prof. Charlie several times, but his demeanor was always stand offish, distant, and strange. As a student, it’s easy to take this kind of behavior personally, so I dismissed it initially. But as I walked to Charlie’s office for our meeting, I was hoping for an A, which would have given me four A’s for my first four classes, which would have been an auspicious start to my new career in political science. The meeting was in Building 20, a “temporary building” from WWII that had somehow managed to survive past the cold war. The floors in the hallway outside Charlie’s office were worn, wavy wood and walls were made of decades old plywood. Charlie’s office was spare and dimly lit. I sat in a chair in front of Charlie’s desk, where he told me my paper deserved an F. I was surprised.

He said that he had checked up on my other grades. This was surprising because when he found the three A’s, I expected that this would cause him to think that maybe my paper had a point. Instead, Charlie was just looking for information to support his point, that my paper was flawed and that I was flawed. When the information didn’t agree with his assessment, he immediately discounted it in a process called, “selection bias.”

I was caught off guard and off balance. I thought we would discuss the content of the paper, identify what was good and bad, what needed to be worked on, and perhaps be assigned some additional reading. I expressed to Charlie my expectations, and he said that was not possible. My head was spinning, and Charlie sensed that, so he said to come back in a few weeks and we would discuss next steps. I left the meeting, Charlie’s office, Building 20 and walked across the dark December MIT campus with my head spinning. How could I have gotten this paper so wrong?

I went home and reviewed the logic, and it all made sense to me. Hayek’s thesis that over-centralization of information prevented political and economic systems from working effectively was recognized theoretically with a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1974, and fall of the Soviet Union because of socialism seemed to provide a significant and relevant empirical case. This seemed to me to be a highly relevant and applicable argument because it connected human rationality — specifically, bounded rationality — to politics. Moreover, the fact that extreme democracy, having people vote on all important issues, would place a premium on the packaging and transmission of information via the mainstream corporate media rather than Soviet-style planning commissions, seems to have changed the type and form of the informational bottleneck while giving it the appearance of distributed cognition rather than solving the actual information processing cognitive problem.

I made another appointment with Prof. Charles prepared with my argument and sat again in front of his desk. He said that the paper couldn’t be salvaged or rewritten. I said that I disagreed because that I was trying to do was this. Before I could defend my paper, Prof. Charles interrupted me, by raising his voice and shouting, “You’re paper meant nothing — Nothing!” His emotionally reflexive outburst left me a little stunned. Quite frankly I expected more professional behavior from a tenured MIT professor. Charles gathered himself and said that he was going to give me an incomplete for the class, I could not rewrite the paper, and that was final.

I left Charlie’s office for the second time, but for some reason I felt better than last time. First, there was nothing to do but focus on next semester’s courses, so there was an increased clarity of purpose. Second, I wasn’t going to forget about the problem, instead I was going to park the problem because Charlie didn’t actually refute the paper, he ended the conversation with an emotional outburst, which raised several questions. Why was he so upset? And why wouldn’t he talk about it?



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