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February 10, 2009
Do Scientists Read Business Books? (Plus: Add a Circle to Dante's Inferno!)
The Wall Street Journal recently asked a whole list of CEOs , including Daniel Vasella of Novartis, for business book recommendations, and on the whole, it’s a saner selection than one might have feared (Peter Drucker, etc.)
Over at the Atlantic’s Business Channel (where I’m also contributing some occasional entries), a fellow blogger who operates under the name of “Harvey Wallbanger” noted that article and is in turn soliciting nominations for the worst business book. And yes, he opens with the grievously awful “Who Moved My Cheese”, which I was careful to stay ten feet away from at all times. (On a totally different note, I wonder how many readers I’d have by now if I’d started writing under the name of Harvey Wallbanger? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.)
To be honest, I’ve always had a bit of a nervous feeling about anyone in the sciences who really seems to enjoy pop business books. Most of the big sellers seem to be full of post hoc reasoning, sweeping statements that are backed up by weak or nonexistent evidence, and plenty of blatant padding. (Other than that, I like ‘em just fine, I guess). I think that a good scientist should always be asking “Hmm. . .I wonder if that’s true?” about every assertion, particularly when someone’s trying to sell you something or claims to be imparting some vital information. And it’s hard for me to reconcile that worldview with this sort of stuff:
(Gary) Hamel specializes in identifying a handful of currently sexy companies, drawing hasty conclusions about the reasons for their success, and then writing books with advice like "go non-linear," "listen to the periphery," and make your company "an opportunity-seeking missile." Later, when some of those companies fail, see their executives carted off to jail, or both, it's no skin off Hamel's back, because he's already penning his next breathless tome.
It's good work if you can get it, I suppose, though not perhaps if you care about where your soul goes after you die. (And if Dante was right about hell holding particular punishments for particular fiends, then there's a whole mess of Harvard Business Press authors who are likely to find themselves sitting on uncomfortable metal chairs for an eternity-long PowerPoint presentation on The New Economy 2.0.)
Now, I like that idea. In fact, I like it so much that I’m going to do something that I’ll probably regret: nominations are open in the comments for new slots in a Dante-style Inferno for various scientific and pharmaceutical sinners. At the moment, I’m picturing the Circle of the Clueless, wandering around for eternity trying to find their rear ends with both hands, but I’ll let the readership take it from there. . .
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