27 July 2012

Book reviews, Part 2 of ∞ : The Rational Optimist (continued)

It’s not every day that one reads a review in which a fan of a book pillories that same book. Alas, that’s what I find myself doing here. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is a wonderful read and I can’t argue with its central thesis, to wit: when ideas are left free to interact (‘have sex’ as he colorfully puts it), they create a wonderful synergy that leads to ever-increasing rates of innovation. This thesis in turn supports his optimism that the human race’s condition is steadily increasing and can be expected to continue improving at ever-faster rates, as long as we don’t stifle innovation.

Stifling innovation is where the stickiness begins, though. Conveniently enough, everything that happens to conflict with Mr. Ridley’s worldview and political philosophy, just happens to be exactly what is worst for innovation (and, by extension, humankind). Anything that runs afoul of his philosophy, which might best be described as an admixture of libertarianism, laissez-faire economics and neo-liberal approaches and attitudes, is perforce bad for innovation and thus quite deadly, to be eradicated as quickly as possible (though apparently not before pausing briefly to subject it to scathing sarcasm and dismissive ridicule). I get the impression that his political beliefs were changed sometime in adulthood and following a period during which he held very different positions, because usually only the converted show such rabidity in their attacks.

But again, despite his flaws and flashes of anger, I think Mr. Ridley is on the right track here, and I fully support his basic theses. But that doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to his work’s many, many flaws and inconsistencies. They need to be addressed, not to refute but rather to strengthen his overarching argument, because it’s one I wholeheartedly support. We need more optimism in this age of doom and gloom. All this defeatism is just leading to more defeats. We need a reason to look forward to what is in fact a brighter future. I hope that by pointing out where his arguments break down, the central thesis may be more solidly supported in future by employing sounder arguments.

Most of Mr. Ridley’s problems fall into a half dozen of categories: 1) straw-man arguments; 2) deception by averages; 3) self-contradiction, arguing one way to support a point here, then arguing the opposite way to make a different point, creating contradictions along the way; 4) glaring inaccuracies and oversights; 5) conflation/guilt by association used to attack positions (e.g. ‘Hitler was evil and a vegetarian; you are a vegetarian; ergo, you are evil'); 6) blind spots (moral, political, logical) caused by the dogmatic nature of this beliefs. Covering all of these in detail would require that I write a book of my own, but I do want to flag a few of the more egregious issues.

Straw Men of the World Unite! Mr. Ridley needs you! To refresh the memory: a straw-man argument is an oft-employed tactic in rhetoric in which one creates some absurd version of one’s opponent’s position, then attacks that absurd version, without ever having to address the real, original version of the argument, then using that sleight of hand to convince the audience of the absurdity of the opponent’s position. An exaggerated example: I say to you that it’s a good idea to include apples in school lunches, and you refute this position by say something like, ‘So I guess now all our kids are going to be vegetarians! What do you have against the meat industry? Do you realize how many jobs would disappear if you put the meat industry out of business? Why are you anti-jobs, Mr. Hughey?! Stop pushing your radical job-killing agenda on this community!’

Mr. Ridley most often employs this tactic when discussing environmental regulation. He argues against many green initiatives by taking them to the most extreme possible versions, then attacking those extremes. For example, he notes that to move completely away from fossil fuels, the UK would have to take measures that indeed sound absurd (e.g. covering 10% of the land with wind farms and areas the size of Lincolnshire with solar panels). His decision to focus on the UK in isolation makes his arguments even weaker, since the UK is unusually highly densely populated AND is a high energy consumer (giving an energy usage/land area ratio of 1.25 w/sq meter). Folks like Ridley speciously use this outlier as an example of why too much energy per square meter is required to make something like biofuel possible, as it only yields .5 p/ sq meter. If UK is the outlier, why is it a valid example? Yes, if we shut off fossil fuels tomorrow (an absurd notion) and used only current technology (equally absurd given the time frames for transitioning away from fossil fuels) and chose the mix of solutions that would work only in isolation (e.g. don’t put panels on buildings, but take up land dedicated solely to the panels), then yes, that would be nutty….so clearly the entire environmental movement is absurd and can be safely dismissed! Yay fossil fuels! How silly and juvenile. These scenarios he describes remind me of the old adage about current trends: if current trends can’t be maintained, they simply won’t be. If ‘at current trends’ the mile will one day be run in ten seconds, then clearly the current trend won’t prevail! So if with current technology we would one day have to tear up all green spaces to make way for alternative energy production, clearly that will never happen! He’s also rather absurd in his assumption that land area taken up by production of renewables is land area lost to people. It’s not a zero sum game: solar panels can occupy roof tops, for example; wind farms can be put offshore; ocean wave energy plants can be put in areas not readily accessible or even necessarily desirable to people.

      His stance on alternative energy also assumes no progress will ever be made in the efficiency of these sources, so, he seems to argue, why bother with them? By similar reasoning, we should never have bothered with oil or gas, because only deep-sea drilling, advanced extraction methods and (in the case of gas) hydrofracking have yielded the volumes we’re able to achieve today. But none of these techniques existed when we first started getting fossil fuels out of the ground. Only by investing in fossils over many years did we come up with these new techniques.

Inaccuracies. Any book sufficiently dense in facts and figures will inevitably contain some innocent mistakes. To make too much hay out of innocent oversights/errors is to descend into pedantry. But there are cases in Mr. Ridley’s book where one gets the sense that the oversights are almost willful attempts to prop up arguments with convenient lapses. For example, Mr. Ridley is very dismissive of theoretical scientific research and apparently finds it quite the waste of human effort and resources. He claims that all the useful technology in the world has come from practical research carried out with profits and gain in mind. What utter nonsense and bunk. And one needn’t look outside Ridley’s own work to find examples to support that opinion: he talks about the usefulness of the laser, but that device would not have come to be without a solid theoretical basis of work done by people who had no industrial applications in mind. And the modern world Mr. Ridley loves would scarcely even be possible without the breakthroughs of Michael Farraday, a man Ridley conveniently ignores but whose whole life was dedicated to work that can pretty fairly be described as theoretical. Without his work, without his discoveries, we’d have few of the modern marvels we take for granted.

Being a Libertarian, Mr. Ridley also conflates the amorality of market mechanisms with the amorality of its players. I'm a firm believer that markets are among the most efficacious means of achieving goals, but they rarely address the negative externalities  associated with them, so leaving them entirely to their own devices means too many people often get hurt in the process. So by all means, let markets do their magic, but where they fail to address human needs, apply corrective incentives (as opposed to punishments) to encourage better outcomes. Mr. Ridley sees that as too much of an encumbrance to free markets; I say markets aren't infallible gods and we shouldn't worship them as such.

Unemployment is a perfect example of this. The way our market system is set up, there simply can't be zero unemployment. If there were, inflation would soon spiral out of control. So if this imperfection of the market system is undesirable but also necessary, may we not mitigate its impact by helping the poor and unemployed? After all, we owe our prosperity to some percentage of people unable to get work. So why not address this negative externality associated with inflation control? 

I also take issue with Mr. Ridley's view that all government is just some stone around our necks. Through government we can accomplish greatness and handle tasks the market simply won't solve, such as roads, police, education, etc. And despite his silly statement to the contrary, no, 'some rich guy' wouldn't have gone to the moon without there first being a massive public investment in NASA. That was a perfect case of the groundwork needing to be laid by the public so that the private sector could follow. 

Finally, I take issue with Mr. Ridley's anti-tax extremism as it ignores the role taxation plays in leveling the playing field. (Leave aside for the moment the fact that there is simply no evidence that cutting away taxes and regulation creates jobs.) Unfettered capitalism in low-tax environments is leading to ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor that won't just go away and that are holding us back, meaning the optimistic world Ridley inhabits simply can't be maintained if people like him get their way and the gaps keep widening between rich and poor. Mr. Ridley would counter that 'on average', we are all getting richer, but that's meaningless if that average moves up only because the top 1% are gaining much more even as the poorest lose out. If I have 100 apples and you have one apple, and I get two more apples while you lose yours, then on average our little group has gotten richer (going from an average of 50.5 to 51 apples per capita)....but under the circumstances, do you care? Mr. Ridley would say huzzah, we're all richer! I don't buy it. 


So, in conclusion, I think Mr. Ridley's overall message is a sound one and I fully support the idea that innovation is the driver of our better tomorrow. But he is too blinded by partisanship and ideology to see that there are limits to the model he describes and supports.

09 July 2012

Why I Don't Believe

A friend of mine posted a link the other day to an article about so-called 'Out-of-ordinary experiences' (e.g. religious epiphanies) and why they shouldn't be dismissed as kooky, why indeed they should be fêted and cherished. I read the piece with mild interest, then moved on. But I couldn't get the article out of my head. For some reason it just nagged at me. Why did it bother me so much this idea that, whatever their provenance, such experiences should be embraced? Forced to confront the idea consciously, I had to spell out to myself what was wrong with this line of reasoning. Finally, it boiled down to this: treating 'Out-of-ordinary experiences' as something to be validated and embraced is dangerous not because of the value they serve to the person experiencing them, but for the harm to which they lead for everyone else. If my belief that the Almighty is whispering career advice to me ends with me trying harder at work, then fine. But it rarely ends there, does it? It usually leads to things like 'well, if God wants me to do this, and God's will is supreme, then anyone standing in my way must be evil; ergo, I am divinely mandated to remove that person from my path at any cost.' Eventually, your experience of divine communication almost always ends up hurting someone else. We don't hear a lot of stories about God saying, 'hey, just stop being such a jackass, be nice to everyone and leave them be', do we? Invariably, God always communicates something that, sooner or later, gets translated into bad news for someone else.

All this gets me to thinking about why I am a non-believer. I didn't start out my life as one. Quite the contrary. I grew up in the American South, the Bible Belt. As a child, I attended a very strict, conservative, Southern Baptist church. And it suited me just fine at the time. I was fervent in my beliefs as a child. I saw Satan as a very real enemy, someone who used things like rock music to bend sinners to his will.* I even wanted to be a preacher at one point. But starting at about age 15, I started to question things. The first impetus for questioning came from my sense of justice, combined with a growing sense of history. I remember being horrified when I realized that, for example, according to the logic of the church, all people born outside the Middle East before Christ, and outside of Western Asia, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East up through the 15th century, were all burning in hell for the crime of having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time (since they couldn't possibly know Christ). I also began wondering about other accidents of birth: given that most people in the Middle East grow up to be the same religion (Islam) as their elders and given that most people in my country did the same with Christianity, then had my soul been saved only because I was 'lucky' enough to have been born here v there? What a random way to decide the fate of a human soul. How could a just God allow this?

Terribly conflicted but desperate to conserve my faith, I finally sought out the advice of my religion's equivalent of a pope: Adrian Rogers, the president of the American Southern Baptist Convention and, as it happened, the pastor of my church (Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, where I grew up). He kindly made time in his busy schedule to meet with me at his office at the church in midtown. I posed all these questions to him, expecting that this font of Christian wisdom would put all my doubts to rest and I wouldn't have to keep lying awake at night thinking about 10th-century Native Americans burning in hell. He had no answers. He spouted some clichés, gave stock answers that addressed none of my concerns, then sent me on my way with the words, "I know God has great plans for you, young man."  With those patronizing words - he practically patted me on the head - religion started to die in me. It took a lot longer (about another 15 years in fact) before I self-identified identified as atheist - after all, life is not a TV drama wrapped up in 44 minutes after one meaningful epiphany - but that was more about labels and exhausting other possibilities than holding out any real hope that I could un-lose my religion. The last nail in the coffin of my faith came from living outside the South for many years, experiencing things that caused me to question my belief system even more.

So why don't I believe? There are many reasons, some to do with the nature of deities, others to do with the nature of belief itself, others to do with how Christianity works in practice.

The nature of eternity. I don't think believers really think this through. One hundred years is a very long time to live. Many people who live that long get frankly bored with life and are ready for death. Now multiply that times a trillion. Then multiply that by a trillion a trillion more times. Add more zeros than there are stars in the sky. And you're still no closer to the infinite amount of time that eternity entails. Eternity is temporal infinity. Can you imagine existing that long? Imagine getting to understand the internal structure of every atomic particle that has ever existed or will ever exist and STILL having eternity to look forward to. Sounds maddening to me. I can't imagine any loving deity would subject anyone to such torture. So when Christians talk about their castles in heaven (as though heaven were just prime real estate for churchgoers), ask them how many trillions of trillions of centuries they could stand to live in even the most beautiful chateau before madness set in.

Polytheism that masquerades as monotheism. Dance on the pinhead all you want: if you step back and really look at the whole Jesus thing, it just doesn't make any sense at all for a religion claiming to be monotheistic. Christians were desperate to follow the monotheistic tradition of their parent religion, but still allow for this 'blood of the son' thing. So - and mind you, this was a sophistry added several centuries AFTER the fact - they came up with the Trinity, a bizarre logical morass in which there is only one god, but 'he' (more on that pronoun later) has a son - but no wife...single dad? - and a holy spirit. Now, I kind of get the logic of the holy spirit, since one could argue that it's just a question of god having a soul himself (though that particular approach doesn't seem to be the one taken by Christians). But a son? Really? Did he create this son himself, in which case Jesus was not eternal? If Jesus is eternal, then how did his dad beget him? And if they are one in the same, how is it one is the son of the other?**

Killing a son who isn't a son to pay a price that you made up yourself. Wait, what? So god is an all-powerful, supreme overlord who created the universe AND wrote the rule book. And into these rules, he decided to put a clause stating that things like knowledge and sex are bad. And when humankind discovers these things (from a snake, mind you, and a snake that he created himself to boot), he punishes them and sends them out into a cruel world.***  To pay the price for doing a thing that an omniscient god must have known they would do in the first place, humankind has to make all sorts of weird animal sacrifices for the next few millenia. But then one day, to pay the price god himself established to begin with, he has to make humankind kill his only son. Seriously, if you came from another planet and somebody told you this story, you'd laugh out loud at the sheer silliness of this tale. But since you grew up hearing it from such a young age, it all makes sense. But if some psychopath murdered his son and claimed it was to make up for something he made you do to begin with, that man would end up in jail, and rightly so.

What does god do with a penis? This one is one of the craziest of all. We refer to god as a male, as a father, and one after whose image men were fashioned. So given that what makes a man a man v a woman are his male genitalia and male hormones, are we saying god has a penis and testosterone? What does he do with those things? The penis is used for waste removal and sex. Which of these two things is god doing? Both? Neither? If neither, in what sense is he a male (and why the penis)? If he isn't a male, is the bible false and in what sense is he a father? If you're going to espouse Christianity as a story of literal truth, you aren't allowed to dismiss these questions. They require answers. And if you are a Christian who dismisses the literalness of the stories, then in what sense are you really Christian? And how do you decide which stories are literally true v just allegorically useful? Doesn't elevating yourself to editor of holy scripture seem rather arrogant?

If Christians truly believed, they'd go around sobbing in horror all the time. If I really, truly, honestly believed that my spouse or child or parent or even acquaintance was going to spend all of eternity in searing agony, I simply couldn't cope. If I truly believed for one second that some or all the people I loved had that kind of future ahead of them, I simply couldn't function. I would have to spend every minute of every day doing everything humanly possible to stop that fate, and nothing else - not work, not play, not money, nothing - would distract me from that goal. After all, who cares about my 70-odd years on this planet compared to an eternity of agony for everyone I care about? Since few Christians behave in this way, I doubt the sincerity of their belief.

If Christians truly believed, their suicide rate would be higher. If I am meant to endure for eternity and life here on Earth is under a century - and a tough century at that - and I am 100% convinced that my death will bring me to blissful communion with a god, why not just kill myself? Yes, it's a sin, but committing this one sin would keep me from committing a lifetime of sin, so the net effect will be less sin, not more. And if Christians are willing to overlook things like getting tattoos and failing to stone their neighbors to death for working on the Sabbath, then surely they can overlook this one sin as a small price to pay for being with god sooner? But of course they do not behave this way  - and I am glad they don't as I'd miss my Christian friends terribly. This tells me they can't believe all that fervently in the future that awaits them after death.

I don't need to believe to be a good person. In fact, not believing is what makes me a morally centered person. There is a very twisted rationalization for belief that says that one must believe in order to be good, the reasoning being that only god can confer morality. What silliness. In my experience the exact opposite is true. If I know that god will forgive me for every horrible thing I can think of, just by me asking him for that forgiveness, then I can commit any sin I want! I can rob, kill, pillage, whatever I like, because god will just forgive me with a simple prayer. And anyway, who cares, because what really matters is eternity, right? I mean, killing is bad, but if that person is going to heaven anyway, I have done him a favor, and god will forgive me. But if I reject the idea of god-given forgiveness and I believe life ends with death, then I must do everything I can to ensure I lead a good life, because it's the only one I (and those around me) will ever get, and no one will remove my guilt if I do something evil. If this life is all there is, I must work hard to make it the best I possibly can, and since humans tend to feel worse when they commit bad acts and cause suffering around them, being good just makes sense. This is my response when Christians say that without a god there is no morality, or when they make silly claims like, 'well, if there's no god, why don't we all just go around murdering, raping and pillaging?!' I also want to ask them: what kind of person are you if the only things stopping you from doing horrible things are a god and an ancient text full of contradictions and its own slate of horrid acts? Bottom line is that if fears of retribution and promises of eternal rewards in the afterlife are the only things keeping you from being a horrible person, then I have bad news for you: you already are a horrible person. 

So that in a nutshell is why I don't believe in a Christian god. If you do believe, I don't begrudge you that and I won't try to dissuade you. If it works for you, go with it. Just make sure your faith makes you a better, not a worse, person, and don't use god as an excuse for doing harm to others. Stick to that common-sense rule and we'll get along just fine!

One final note. On the rare occasions I discuss my (lack of) faith with people, I hear a lot of 'well, I don't believe in the literal truth of the Bible, just its message of love and God's mercy.' To that I say, 'then you clearly haven't read this book.' Unlike what I suspect is the vast majority of Christians, I have in fact read the Bible cover to cover. I would say its ratio of hatefulness and bigotry to its goodness and forgiveness, is pretty staggeringly high. And if you don't believe in its literalness, what do you need with the book anyway? Why can't you just be a good person and, if you think it's really necessary, commune with your deity without all the added fairy tales? (Admittedly, I think the god is part of the fairy tales, but the point stands.)

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Footnotes:

*There was an upside to this. Since I avoided popular music until the age of about 15, my entire musical world consisted of classical music. So while the churchiness didn't stick, I can at least be thankful to religion for my lifelong love of Beethoven and Wagner.

**These are exactly the kinds of questions children are smart enough to ask, before adults bully this logic out of them. Kids can smell bullshit much better than adults can, but they lose the ability to do so as they age because adults keep telling them the bs is actually caviar. You can see this when you hear kids asking quite reasonable (but superficially silly) questions of logic such as, 'Can God microwave a burrito too hot for him to eat?' This may seem like a childish question, but the logic it employs is quite valid and the underlying question deserves an answer that you can't provide. So you tell little Timmy to shut up and read his bible that for some reason still uses a translation done  in archaic English. Oh, dear.

***And then they found the human race from just two sets of DNA. Then magically a bit later in the same story, they suddenly have all these other people around. So....were their children coupling with each other? Or were the children reproducing with Mom and Dad? Either way, some serious incest going on there. So much for genetic viability.

16 June 2012

Travelogue: Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest

I was recently invited to speak at a conference in Paris, so as I usually do whenever business takes me abroad, I did some combining in order to feed my lifelong lust for travel. (I didn't set aside any extra time for Paris itself because I lived there for two years.)

Prior to Paris, I stopped through Barcelona, a city where I lived for a year back in the 1990s, and where I still have some friends. It was the first time back since I left in 1999, so it was quite the stroll down memory lane for me. I had dinner at the house of one old friend, then dinner out with another the next evening. For the dinner out, we ate at Tragaluz, which is one of my all-time favorite places to eat. The jamón ibérico and cochinillo asado were amazing. Indeed, all the food/wine was just as wonderful as I remembered it, as was the atmosphere (though they had remodeled, so the layout was different). I was only in Barcelona for a couple of days, so I had time for little else. Still, I did manage to take a long walk up from the Rambla to Montjuic, then down to Plaza de Espanya and back again, and to stop at the Fundació Joan Miró and spend some time there, which was a delight. I also squeezed in a quick trip to see my old flat in la calle Entenza, indulging in a bit of nostalgia.

Paris was, well, Paris. Unlike many of the other places I have lived, when I left Paris seven years ago, I was ready to leave. I didn't dislike the city, and I enjoyed living there while it lasted; but it was definitely time to move on. So coming back for the first time in seven years was a mixed feeling, a combination of homecoming and, well, not coming home. I was so busy with the conference that I scarcely had time to enjoy the city anyway, though I did make time the afternoon I arrived before the conference to go for a three-hour long walk around the city. And of course, I made time to have some French comfort food, the Gallic equivalents of hamburgers, fries and pizza: copious amounts of pâté, croques messieurs and escargots.

After Paris, I took two days off work (and the weekend) to try some new cities, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Normally, I dislike that peculiarly American habit of trying to see a city a day in a whirlwind tour; but I viewed this as more of a scouting trip, just an attempt to get enough of a taste to know if I wanted to come back for a proper visit.

My verdicts:

Vienna: To be frank, Vienna was underwhelming. I spent the day walking around the city center and hitting some of the 'must-sees' like the Staatsoper. Beautiful buildings all, but not of any better quality or of particular distinctiveness compared to what one sees all around Europe. (To be fair, I am sure the Staatsoper would have been far more impressive had I had the chance to see an actual performance in it.) And the throngs of tourists were just too much....I felt I was at Eurodisney, not a European capital. (It also felt oddly subdued for a place that was once the center of central European culture and capital of an empire. As someone I know put it so well, it "seems...to be a city of ghosts and repression.")

The place for which I had held out the most hope was the Secession gallery (so named because Gustav Klimt and his fellow modern artists in Vienna in the late 19th century seceded from the mainstream art scene to establish their own showings and, later, their own gallery). I love Klimt's work, and the gallery's most famous work (the Beethoven frieze) centered on my favorite composer. I was therefore expecting quite an experience here. Unfortunately, a combination of not being in the right frame of mind following my less-than-impressive trip to center city, and being in yet another place overrun by tourists, meant that this experience was as little enjoyable as my Vienna stay overall. So by mid-afternoon, I decided to cut my loses and head to Bratislava. Good thing, too: my trip there salvaged the whole day!

Bratislava: Bratislava is very close to Vienna. Even the non-express train only takes an hour and a quarter to get there. But once you alight from that train, you feel like you have entered another world, one far removed from the officious tidiness of Vienna: it just feels 'realer' than Vienna. If you ever get there, I highly recommend a trip to the castle just for the view from the ramparts. St Martin's church is charming and has quite the storied history, so definitely make a stop there. And just generally that whole old town pedestrian area is a quite relaxing area in which to stroll, with minimal tourists.

But to me, the best thing about Bratislava was the hotel where I stayed, the Marrol's Boutique Hotel. Amazing. Great staff, wonderful restaurant with local delicacies and an attentive, professional waitstaff, and even a nice quiet library where one can have a drink and relax.* (And yes, it's an actual, proper library filled with great books....it's not a place with old magazines and wallpaper with pictures of books on it.) The rooms were very comfortable, and even the minibar was included in the price. I know I sound like an advert for this place, but it was just one of the best hotels in which I have ever stayed. If ever you get the chance to stay there and (wisely) choose to eat in the hotel restaurant, I highly recommend the quail as an appetizer, followed by the local rabbit confit dish. For wine, choose one of the hron varietal wines, typical of Slovakia.

Budapest: As much as I wanted to spend the rest of my days at the Marrol's, if it was Friday, it meant Budapest**, so off I went by train to that grand city. It did not fail to impress. I stayed on the Pest side of the Danube at the Kempinski Corvinus, which was an ideal location  from which to explore the area. I wandered down the Danube to the Chain Bridge the first evening, just to scope things out. It was a very pleasant way to spend an evening stroll. I dined in a local restaurant and tried my fill of Hungarian fare, including wild young boar.

The next day, I again crossed the bridge into Buda, but this time with the aim of visiting the Hungarian National Gallery and the history museum. (As I want to end on a positive note about the gallery, I'll just quickly say that the history museum was unimpressive, with unsatisfactory notes and context.) The national gallery is simply not to be missed. Cut out whatever else you must to make time for this! I really enjoyed all the post-Renaissance periods of Hungarian art. I simply had no idea how many wonderful artists Hungary had produced. The prominently-displayed Dorfmaisters*** were lovely, but my two favorite artists were Gyárfás Jenő (especially his Ordeal of the Bier from 1881) and Orlai Petrich Soma, whose Sappho was positively haunting. I'd make the trip back just to spend another 20 minutes sitting and staring at those two pieces.

So those were my whirlwind tours. For Western Europe, I now just lack Sweden, Portugal****, Luxembourg, San Marino and Liechtenstein.***** But Eastern Europe is a gem I have only just started to explore. If Budapest and Bratislava are any indications, I have a lot of very rewarding travel left to do in Europe.

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Footnotes:

*Relatively relaxed. For the first twenty minutes, I was sharing it with a Norwegian couple who spoke in an eastlander dialect of Norwegian, one in which everything sounds terribly insistent. The woman was describing a recent trip to Lillehammer, but by her cadence and intonation, you'd have thought she was pleading for her life.


**Allusion intended.


***Comedic value of this name duly noted. I think he was in 'Fletch'?


****I find it ironic that the only two major countries I lack, Sweden and Portugal, were right next door to two of the countries where I lived, Norway and Spain.

*****Well, 'lack' is an odd choice of words here, because I don't really consider myself to have visited a place until I have spent enough time there to form real impressions. For example, I still consider myself to 'lack' Denmark, given that all my trips there have been either pass-throughs or for business, those types of trips that leave little time for much besides airports, transfers, hotels and offices.

26 May 2012

Finally GETting it: the 2012 GET (Genomes, Environments and Traits) Conference, Boston, 25 April 2012

As I mentioned in one of my very first blog posts, I am participating in the Personal Genome Project led by Dr. George Church of Harvard. (Read that post here to get a quick overview of the project.) For the past couple of years, they have had a one-day conference (Genomes, Environments, Traits, or GET) at Harvard Medical School to discuss progress as well as host presentations on related themes and trends. Participants in the study are invited to attend free of charge, so I stopped by to enjoy some very interesting lectures on a wide range of topics, as well as to get a full update on the progress of the project.

And OK, I admit it: I also wanted to meet Dr. Church.* I have always found the idea of ‘celebrity’ rather horrifying. With the exception of a book-signing, I wouldn’t be caught dead asking someone for an autograph, and I firmly reject the idea that just because someone (e.g. actors) is in the limelight, s/he is somehow worthy of our affection and praise. And I believe that if you admire someone for his or her convictions or policies or work, then you should admire the product (i.e. ideas), not the person (who is as fallible as you). In other words, I don’t really do hero-worship, and I don’t have any ‘rock stars’. But Dr. Church is as close as I will ever come to having a hero. His audacious project to sequence 100,000 genomes has the potential to have a greater impact than any other single scientific undertaking in medical history. I realize this doesn’t make him as fame-worthy as, say, an accomplished person like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, but it’s good enough for me.

For me, the most interesting part of the day was the update on the project itself. The whole team was there, each updating on his or her area of responsibility (bioethics, legal, operations, etc.). They then fielded questions from the group of us there. The question I wanted to ask (but didn’t have to because apparently everyone was thinking it and someone else posed it first) was, isn’t the project terribly skewed towards a certain subset of the population? First there’s education and IQ: since they aren’t aggressively advertising it yet, they are getting mostly people who have a higher educational level; and since they require everyone to pass a test on the basics of genetics, risk and privacy issues at stake, it will also skew towards the more intelligent. Also, looking around the room, I saw a majority male and majority white audience (though admittedly I don’t know for sure how representative that was of the overall participant pool). Add to that the fact that one must be an American citizen to participate and it does seem a little imbalanced. There really wasn’t much of an answer for that. For the educational/IQ and American citizen issues, those are all related to legal/informed consent/privacy requirements, so they can’t really budge there for now. As for ethnicity and sex, presumably at some point they will be making a wider push for more participants and attempt to balance things then.

And that brings me to the next thing I noticed: despite the fact it’s been up and running for a few years now, it is still very early days, so patience is the key word here. There’s so much more to it than simply soliciting, receiving and processing DNA. Remember, nothing like this has ever been attempted before, so there is a very steep learning curve here: how best to collect and process so many samples, and with the best maintenance of the samples; even deciding WHAT to sample, since this is also about environment and about getting as wide a spectrum of data as possible; how to handle the interface with participants; all the legal and privacy issues; how best to process all the data to ensure it’s actually turned into something meaningful. The list goes on and on.

As for the numbers, here’s where it stands right now: there are about 2,000 of us in the project. In the first five years of the project, they sequenced 10 genomes (starting with Church’s, who led by example and released all his data); now they are up to about that many per month. The market cost for the process is down to around USD 4-5k, which is already half as much as last time I checked a year or two ago; and the price will continue to plummet as the process is improved and streamlined (which is an important secondary goal of the project).

Besides the project update, there were many fascinating presentations on other subjects, from a CEO who has the goal of achieving the 100-dollar genome, to an incredible project that is achieving the ultimate biomimickry: creating actual miniature bio-synthetic organs on which to do drug trials to ensure greater accuracy and reliability of results (not to mention saving a lot of rats!). That latter one was amazing and the implications for drug research are profound. Take for example asthma drug research. Progress in this area has been (literally painfully) slow. One of the main reasons? Animals simply don’t mimic the human version of asthma very well, so researchers often go down dead-end paths, wasting a lot of time and research money along the way. But imagine growing a biosynthetic lung and testing drugs on them directly. The researcher, Dr. Geraldine Hamilton, showed some pictures of some of the actual organs they had created. Astounding accomplishment both from a technical point of view and in light of its staggering implications.

So what does the future of genetics hold for us? The possibilities are practically endless. As Dr. Church said, we all have some ‘superpower’ in our genes (large or small, whether we are aware of it or not). This can be anything from harder-than-average bones to HIV-resistance. Now imagine identifying thousands of such ‘superpowers’ through large-scale genomic research. Then imagine leveraging that knowledge of individual genes to create therapies for others who lack that particular ‘superpower’. You don’t need much of an imagination to realize that the implications for the future and well-being of humanity are profound.

The future is a wild place, folks. Hold on.

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*For the record, I did get to meet him and speak with him for a few minutes, and was quite proud of myself for not gushing overly much. I think I might even have been relatively coherent.

14 May 2012

Art and Science: Whose Business Are They?

About twenty years ago, my (now ex-)wife’s brother told me a story I never forgot, because it resonated so strongly with me. (I can’t recall now if the experience happened to him or if he was relaying something that happened to someone else, but for our purposes here, it doesn't really matter.) He was in Paris on holiday and was visiting the Louvre. As he filed past the Mona Lisa, he overheard the following exchange between an American married couple:

Wife: Well, honey, what do you think?

Husband: What can I say about art? I’m an engineer.

To me, a society in which its engineers do not feel entitled to an opinion about art, is a society in decline. To say that you cannot/should not have an opinion about art because you are not an artist, is like saying you can’t have an opinion about eating because you are not a chef.  Art is an essential human function, one that springs from the core of our humanity.

The same is true about the human yearning to understand the world, as expressed in our pursuit of science and exploration. Besides the fact that I recently saw this former brother-in-law*, I have also been thinking about this story of his because someone asked me why I had blogged about my visit to the Space Symposium, and specifically why I was so interested in the physics of it all. The underlying question seemed to be, “You’re an executive manager with an education in languages and business….what makes you feel qualified to question people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Lisa Randall?” My answer is two-fold:

1) Logic is the underpinning of any intellectual endeavor, so any person capable of pursuing a logical line of reasoning may ask questions about any endeavor if the question addresses the logic (not facts) of the expert’s approach. In other words, no, I will never question Lisa Randall’s grasp of quarks and gluons because I am and will always be hopelessly under-qualified even to formulate an intelligent question on that subject. But can I ask a question about the philosophy of science that underpins her approach? Absolutely I can! Can I reasonably question Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s expertise in astrophysics? No. But can I question the logic behind his reasoning that the traditional NASA/publicly-funded approach to exploration must continue to be the dominate paradigm? You bet I can!

2) My second reason ends up where this thought started: not only CAN I question scientific minds about their reasoning and approaches; as an active participant in civil society, as a person interested in science and exploration as expressions of our most fundamental human nature, I MUST ask these questions.

This also harkens back to a very basic fallacy often employed in arguments: that expertise in one thing means that one may not be questioned in any area; or conversely, that ineptitude or evil in one area means one’s opinion may never be trusted in any other arena, e.g., the ‘Hitler wanted xyz, ergo xzy must be evil’ argument. Taken to their logical extremes, this means I may not question a scientist’s sanity if he tells me to jump off a building (‘trust me, I did my PhD in gravity!’), and I may assume dogs are inherently evil since Hitler seemed so fond of his.

So as long as we employ logical reasoning, we both can and should engage scientists about their research and ask the fundamental questions. But let’s circle back to the beginning: what about art? As I said, it’s everyone’s business. But then why do so few scientists seem engaged with art and vice versa? I have been thinking about this a lot of late, prompted to do so by several things. One was reading about Lisa Randall’s artistic foray (in which she wrote the libretto for an opera about science). Another reason is a conversation I just had a few days ago on my flight from Boston to Frankfurt. I was lucky enough to be seated next to an artist who just happened to be working on a project that bridges science and art**, and she mentioned her efforts to engage scientists in this way, specifically a project that would require a high level of collaboration between the two camps. (I am being intentionally vague and cagey here as she mentioned one particular project in confidence as it is still in planning phase, and I don’t want to give away anything until her efforts are public.)

But even when scientists do ‘cross over’, they seem to do so while holding their noses. I hate to keep picking on Dr. Randall, but since I am currently reading her book ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ and it provides a perfect example, I fear I must. On page 128 she notes the aesthetic beauty of the LHC, but then quickly draws back in horror at this idea as she ‘recoil[s] … in thinking of this incredibly precise technological miracle as an art project’. Why is this idea so repulsive, I wonder? What can be more beautiful than such a marvel, and one that seeks to answer many of the exact same questions art has been asking for millennia? Far from recoiling at the idea that the LHC is both art and science, this should be a chance to experience deep wonder at the beauty of the whole endeavor and the way it combines both worlds.

If you’re an artist and you’re smugly agreeing, well, hold on a sec. Artists are just as bad, if not worse. I’ll give you an example. Not long ago, a friend posed the following question on her Facebook page: If you could do a PhD in either art history or economics, which would you choose? Not surprisingly, the people who probably fancied themselves more practical chose the latter, and the more artistically-minded chose the former. But one comment in particular caught my eye. I can’t recall the exact words, but it boiled down to this: why would you choose economics over art history when economics just strips away the soul of things and reduces everything to numbers? This haughty dismissal of the beauty that can await you in the sciences (be they the social or physical sciences or mathematics) is unfortunately quite typical of artists’ reaction to all things scientific. But they are being as close-minded as the disdainful scientist in these cases. Take this specific example of economics. Economics isn’t just math and dollars and GDP. Economics is nothing less than an attempt to delve into the human soul and see what makes it tick, what drives it, what motivates people to behave the way they do. Economics is as much about quirky things like why Israeli mothers might pick up their kids from day school even later when they are fined for it, as it is about the GDP of Liechtenstein. (If you’re scratching your head at that reference, I strongly recommend you read Freakonomics, a must-read for everyone, artist, scientist, lay person alike.) Imagine all the creative possibilities artists are missing out on by being so dismissive of science, then.

So whether you are a scientist thinking about art, an artist thinking about science, or just an average Joe like me thinking about both, please remember: it’s ALL your business, and the more you engage, the better off your society will be.

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*…who by the way is a man whom I have always very deeply respected, and who is (among many, many other things), an engineer who feels quite entitled to have an opinion about art, thank you very much.

**Isn’t it funny the way the universe seems to clump these things into packages for us? A more spiritual person would say it is Fate, or even God. I would say such observations betray simple selection bias and are circular to boot, i.e., I am writing because these things happened to happen, so I can’t say they happened because I wanted to write about them. Similarly, people in a universe in which certain laws of physics had to be precisely calibrated for them to exist cannot claim this as proof of any god; it’s just proof that if things had been off, there’d be no they to consider such things.

23 April 2012

Living Space: The 2012 National Space Symposium

I had the good fortune to attend the 28th annual National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs here in the US this week. I had been notionally aware of the Symposium before, just as one of those gatherings that occasionally resulted in a headline or two in Wired or Discover. But last September, I was having dinner with a friend who was going to the conference and he told me the types of companies and people who attended; so I looked into it as a possible target conference for the company for which I work. (We attend several conferences a year to find companies in the market for expert translation and localization services, and aerospace and aviation are prime verticals for us.) I decided to give it a shot this year and check it out, with an eye to perhaps being an exhibitor next year. Still to be determined how well the conference went in that respect, but for me personally, it was a lot of fun.

Speakers for the week included NASA chief Charles Bolden, Dr. Amy Mainzer, Bill Nye (The Science Guy), P.J. O'Rourke, Dr. Lisa Randall, the head of US Space Command General William Shelton, Mark Stevenson, and Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Some of the highlights from the conference:

The panel discussion with physicists Drs. Mainzer and Randall and Bill Nye 'the Science guy' was interesting up to a point, in the way that any discussion panel with three such distinguished people would be. I wouldn't say much new was said, though. The importance of space exploration and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education was the centerpiece, but did this audience need to hear that? This was a continuing issue I had throughout the conference: too much preaching to the choir, and not nearly enough discussion of how we can do a better job of convincing the uncoverted.

In the follow-up Q&A session after the panel, mine was the first question posed. (Audience members texted questions to the moderator at a number displayed overhead; the moderator then posed them to the panel.)* My question was, quoting verbatim from the sent message, "Are dark energy and dark matter really 'discoveries' or just conclusions we must draw to keep the Einsteinian universe from (figuratively) collapsing? What if the problem is with Einstein?" The question was aimed primarily at Dr. Randall, since this is her area of expertise. She took the question with good grace, and essentially restated the case for these two concepts, though I didn't feel she addressed the true underlying issue I was trying to raise, i.e., is Einstein's universe necessarily the one that all the data point to, or are there some serious gaps which we are trying to fill with theories we can't directly test? I sometimes wonder if, in the tradition of Thomas Khun's theory of scientific progress, the Einsteinian universe isn't on the verge of collapsing under the weight of all the workarounds and bandages scientists seem to keep feeling obliged to add to it to keep it standing. Coincidentally, in the few days following this panel, I read two more articles that supported my doubts. You can read them here and here. A couple of weeks later, we also saw interesting possibilities about dark matter pop up here and here.

The talks by NASA chief Charles Bolden and head of US Space Command Gen. William Shelton were two of the speeches to which I had been most looking forward. It was therefore a huge letdown when both gave decidedly underwhelming talks. The general's was by far the worst speech of the whole conference. Instead of exhorting the crowd to get excited about space exploration and funding and enlisting their help to improve STEM education, he basically seemed to be delivering an annual financial report. In a speech full of acronyms that only people who didn't need this information would understand, he delivered dry recitations of financial goals and challenges. Imagine hearing someone read from a company's annual report for 45 minutes. NASA head Bolden's speech followed immediately thereafter, so the bar was set quite low. Even still, it failed to inspire. I was discussing the talks afterwards with a friend and we both wondered about the chicken-and-egg of this situation: does such marked lack of inspiration and excitement come from folks being demoralized by falling budgets, or does America's lack of inspired leadership in this area contribute to the dwindling resources dedicated to this field?

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's opening speech on Tuesday was far more stirring. He is a passionate, eloquent champion of STEM education and space exploration. I wish America had fifty more people like him out there every day, pushing for more NASA funding (which Dr. Tyson feels should be doubled to 1% of our budget from the current .5%) and advancing a STEM education agenda. My only beef with Dr. Tyson is that he is very tone-deaf to any model of space exploration that doesn't follow the traditional NASA- and US-led model. This was underscored when he was given my question at the end of the session. I asked, "Which country/countries will arrive first on Mars and will it be a public or private venture?" So firm is his assumption that any such mission must be American and must be entirely publicly funded, that he didn't even address the question at all, instead veering off onto a tangent about American middle-schoolers being groomed from that age to be astronauts to Mars. Still, the details of his own positions matter less than his important and effective advocacy, so I won't begrudge him his obduracy on these points. Still, as attested by the strong presence of SpaceX at the conference and that company's upcoming, highly symbolic docking with the ISS, as well as by this week's big announcement about private asteroid mining missions, people need to get used to the fact that it's as likely to be company logos as nation-state flags that fly on some of the most exciting voyages of the future. The sooner the 'old-schoolers' like Dr. Tyson get used to this, the better.

P.J. O'Rourke was the master of ceremonies for the corporate partnership dinner, and he was, as always, very engaging and funny. (Prior to this conference, I didn't even realize he was such a dedicated space advocate. He actually sits on the board of the Space Foundation.) I do not agree with Mr. O'Rourke's politics, but he is one of those rare Republicans these days who manages to disagree without vitriol and condescension. I had the chance to speak with him for a few minutes at his book-signing and found him to be quite a down-to-Earth**, approachable man. We talked about oil subsidies and oil price manipulation, as well as corporate taxation. I was surprised to find that we agreed on more issues than not, though that is perhaps just due to the coincidence that we happened to be discussing topics on which I have unusual views for a liberal, e.g. corporate taxation and Obama's meaningless posturing on the oil price issue.

Saving the best for last (both in its appearance here and on the symposium program), Mark Stevenson's speech at the closing dinner Thursday night was the highlight of the entire event. THIS was the kind of inspiration and unbridled optimism I had hoped to get from all the major speakers during the conference. Mr. Stevenson's theme was reasoned, dedicated optimism, much in line with a piece he wrote here and in the same vein as his book, An Optimist's Tour of the Future (which I strongly recommended last year). Mr. Stevenson really lit a fire under the audience and pushed them to look towards the future with more optimism. I just wish he had spoken at the opening ceremony instead. It might have inspired the space leaders in attendance to be bolder in the visions they laid out over the following days.


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*Ironically, the moderator said my question showed what an 'intelligent and technically astute audience we have here today.' I say it's ironic because I was probably the least technical person in the entire room, given my liberal arts background and given that many (most?) other attendees were scientists and engineers.

**Irony of this choice of words duly noted.

28 March 2012

Wrong Approach on Healthcare Arguments

Though I preferred a single-payer solution to healthcare reform, I acknowledge that President Obama's bill is the next-best thing (or at least third best...or...OK, well, at least better than the status quo ante). I was therefore dismayed to read both of his chosen champion's clumsy handling of these arguments and the obtuseness demonstrated by some of the questions posed to him.

If the Obama administration takes a utilitarian approach to its arguments, it deserves to lose. The Supreme Court is about means, not ends: it was never intended to be the arbiter of fairness and equality as ends unto themselves, but rather of constitutionality as a means. It is therefore pointless - indeed, counterproductive - to take the approach that the healthcare reform bill should be upheld because it is fair, because it prevents those without insurance from shifting costs to those of us who do have it (which is what happens every time an uninsured person is treated in the emergency room and the costs find their way into my premiums). The Constitution does not mandate fairness: it provides a framework (a means) to control how power is shared among the stakeholders in our society, and distributes that power among those stakeholders (i.e. the people, the states and the three branches of government).

Among the powers deemed fit for Congress to wield is the power to regulate interstate commerce. As the arguments have shown, the essential question boils down to this: is this an existing interstate market that Congress may regulate, or does the act of mandating coverage itself create a new market that must then be regulated (thus making this a case of Congress bootstrapping its way to an overreach)? To convince the Justices that this is an existing market in need of regulation, the government must stop talking about fairness to the insured, needs driving universal healthcare, etc. (in other words, the ends).; rather, they must home in on the fact that this is indeed an existing market in need of regulation (with Congress employing constitutional means). The focus should therefore be solely on the fact that every human being is from birth a consumer within this existing marketplace, one whose interstate characteristics make it subject to Congressional regulation.

Of course, making these arguments means not getting distracted by all the red herrings the conservative Justices are trying to throw into these proceedings. Having clearly (and unethically) made up their minds before proceedings even started, they are desperate to distract from what should be a clear case of Congress regulating an existing market. We have thus seen slippery slope antics that, among other things, suggest we could eventually be forced to buy everything from broccoli to funeral insurances. But there are clear differences here. You can go your whole life without buying broccoli and still be healthy and still not shift costs to others within an existing market that is in need of regulation. And while death is inevitable, the current requirement that states must bury their dead if no one comes forward, does not create distortions within private interstate markets; it just creates burdens for state and local authorities to meet hygiene and safety standards.

The other red herring is the 'should' v 'can' argument: a lot of people are arguing that Congress shouldn't be regulating this arena, forgetting that the Justices must rule solely on whether Congress can constitutionally do so. It goes back to ends v means. People of good conscience can disagree whether it is wise of Congress to take this step, and conservatives will say it is not. If the Justices thus act as political conservatives - and all indications are that a majority will do exactly that - then they will vote to strike down health care reform because they believe Congress shouldn't be regulating here. That would be conservative judicial activism. But if they do their jobs and stick to the means - is it constitutionally allowable for Congress to regulate here - then they must vote in favor of the administration.

But since this is mostly the same set of conservatives who bleated about States' Rights one moment then the next moment mandated a state to stop counting votes and make George Bush president in 2000, I am guessing it is too much for them to stick to principles. The conservatives on the court are exactly what Supreme Court Justices shouldn't be: politicians with an agenda.

08 March 2012

More Disclosure = Better CSR Reputation?

[This is a reprint of our paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Business & Economics (JABE), presented at the IABE conference in Key West, FL, USA, March 2012]

Christopher J. Hughey, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Adam J. Sulkowski, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


ABSTRACT

This paper contributes to the scholarship of CSR and sustainability reporting by testing whether greater data availability about companies leads to their having better CSR reputations and possibly CSR performance. The authors begin with a brief literature review to develop the hypothesis that greater data availability may be correlated with having a positive CSR reputation. The authors chose the international energy industry as a focus, since these companies were early adopters of sustainability reporting and have the potential to have widespread and either very good or very bad reputations. Leaders and laggards in terms of perceived CSR performance within this industry are identified using scores generated by CSRHub, a sustainability information aggregation service. A regression test is performed and the results indicate a significant positive relationship: the more data is available about a company in the international oil and gas industry, the better its CSR reputation tends to be. Since this study only considers availability of data, and not the quality or content of information, the key finding appears consistent with the old adage that “any publicity is good publicity.” The authors also share some observations about the characteristics of the reputational leaders and laggards and their reputations across various aspects of CSR. For example, consistent with previous findings, CSR reputation leaders are found to be older and larger, while laggards are newer and smaller. The authors conclude with a discussion of implications for managers and scholars and potentially fruitful future veins of inquiry.

Keywords: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Oil and Gas Industry, Energy Industry, International Business, Corporate Governance, Sustainability, Sustainability Reporting, Disclosure, Reputation


1. INTRODUCTION

Thousands of companies around the world, including a majority of the Global Fortune 500, voluntarily report on their environmental, societal, and economic impacts (Scott, 2000). The practice is alternatively known as corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting, sustainability reporting, citizenship reporting, triple bottom line (TBL), or environmental, societal, and governance (ESG) reporting (Sulkowski and White, 2009).

While the practice of sustainability reporting is growing rapidly, the practice and its benefits are imperfectly understood by practitioners and scholars. The perceived CSR performance of companies is also growing in importance, as various stakeholders continue to take a greater interest in the environmental, economic, and societal impacts of companies in which they may invest, or for which they may work, or from which they may buy.

This paper contributes to the scholarship of CSR and sustainability reporting by testing whether greater data availability leads to companies having better CSR performance ratings in the international energy industry. The authors show that having more data available results in companies, at a minimum, having better CSR reputations. Because the study did not discriminate based on the quality or positive vs. negative nature of the data available, it appears that the volume of data alone impacts reputation. This interpretation is consistent with the old adage that “any publicity is good publicity.” If one accepts performance ratings to be reflective of actual performance, then one may further conclude that greater disclosures and visibility are leading to better mitigation of negative impacts and an increase in positive impacts. The authors also document observations of some characteristics of leaders and laggards in terms of CSR reputations in this industry. The paper concludes with a discussion of implications for managers and researchers.

2. LITERATURE REVIEW

The origins of the term corporate social responsibility in scholarly literature date back to the 1950s (Caroll, 1999). Since then, perceptions of CSR have evolved. The concept of CSR can be defined in many ways. One common definition is "actions that appear to further some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is required by law" (McWilliams and Siegel, 2001). As stated above, sustainability reporting (also known as CSR reporting) is the practice of reporting a company’s environmental, societal, and economic impacts; it is sometimes known as ESG (environmental, societal, and governance) reporting.

Corporate reputation has been defined as “the perceived capacity of a firm’s ability to meet stakeholders’ expectations” (Waddock, 2000), or “the perceived stakeholders’ opinion of a firm which depends on the extent to which the expectation of those stakeholders is met” (Fombrun and Shanley, 1990). Some have suggested that a firm’s reputation is composed both of its own actions and the status of those actions relative to the actions of others, which set the expectations of the firm’s stakeholders (Bertels and Peloza, 2006).

Soppe et al. (2011) offer an excellent summary of the theoretical framework and a model for gauging CSR reputation. Siltaoja (2006) points out that there is no single “right” set of criteria for CSR reputation. Both Fombrun (1998) and Lewis (2001) suggest that CSR reputation is comprised of the following criteria: (1) environmental impacts, (2) treatment of employees, (3) financial performance, (4) product quality, and (5) quality of management or organizational issues. To this list of criteria that they hold in common, Fombrun (1998) adds (6) community involvement, while Lewis (2001) adds (6) customer service and (7) social responsibility. Schultz et al., (2001) and others have offered variations on what comprises CSR reputation.

The concept of disclosing data on CSR-related issues gained traction in the mid 1990’s through the work of John Elkington (1994 and 1998). Clarke and Gibson-Sweet (1999) suggest that companies are motivated to publish CSR performance data by the strategic need to manage their reputation and legitimacy. Ullmann (1985) offers a model for predicting such CSR activities based on a stakeholder theory of strategic management. Some have been critical of CSR reporting, arguing that it does not lead to better conduct, but rather that the exclusive aim and outcome is to manage reputation (Moneva et al., 2006; Gnepa, 2005). Others articulate variations upon this central theme of data disclosure being motivated by a desire to legitimize management decisions and heighten the company’s image as socially and environmentally responsible (Eden, 2000). Empirical studies show that “measures of stakeholder power, strategic posture, and economic performance are significantly related to levels of corporate social disclosure” (Roberts, 1992). Hasseldine et al. (2005) confirmed that CSR disclosures positively impact reputations.

As of the second decade of the 2000s, there is a nascent consensus among researchers that there is a positive relationship between the publicized CSR activities of a company and its financial performance and value. Tsoutsoura (2004) found a positive relationship between financial performance and CSR activities in 500 companies worldwide over a five year period. Rossi (2009) found that the firms comprising the Bovespa Corporate Sustainability Index (ISE) are traded at a premium. While not every study proves such a connection (Wu et al. 2010), the weight of empirical evidence suggest CSR activities and financial performance are positively related (Van Beurden and Gössling, 2008). Findings to the contrary typically cite to out-of-date data (Van Beurden and Gössling, 2008). A review of 52 scholarly articles found the same consensus, and further concluded that CSR reputation was the means by which CSR activity boosts financial performance (Orlitzky et al., 2003).

Executives agree that there is a link between reporting on their CSR activities, managing CSR reputations, and ultimately company performance and value, as evidenced by the popularity of sustainability reporting. In 2011, KMPG researched the sustainability reporting practices of the largest 100 companies (N100) in each of 34 countries (KPMG, 2011). This resulted in the following list of the percentage of the N100, by country, that reported on CSR activities: UK (100%), Japan (99%), South Africa (97%), France (94%), Denmark (91%), Brazil (88%), Spain (88%), Finland (85%), United States (83%), Netherlands, (82%) Canada (79%), Italy (74%), Sweden (72%), Hungary (70%), Portugal (69%), Nigeria (68%), Mexico (66%), Switzerland (64%), Slovakia (63%), Germany (62%), China (59%), Russia (58%), Australia (57%), Bulgaria (54%), Romania (54%), Ukraine (53%), South Korea (48%), Singapore (43%), Taiwan (37%), Greece (33%), Chile (27%, New Zealand (27%), India (20%), Israel (18%). To summarize: over 50% of the N100 in 26 out of the 34 countries in the study reported on CSR activities.

Its 2011 study was the latest of three surveys by KPMG that also surveyed executives about their motivations for sustainability reporting. The percentage of executives at the largest 250 companies in the world (the Global Fortune 250) who chose “reputation or brand” as a motivation for sustainability reporting grew from 27% (KPMG, 2005) to 55% (KPMG, 2008) to 67% (KPMG, 2011). Other prominent drivers of sustainability reporting included “employee motivation”, encouraging “innovation and learning” and “access to capital or shareholder value”. The rise of “reputation or brand” from the seventh most commonly chosen response (KPMG, 2005) to the most popular response (KPMG, 2011) reflects a widespread and growing conviction among executives that CSR data disclosure impacts reputation.

3. HYPOTHESIS AND EXPECTATIONS

Based on the foregoing literature review and data, the following hypothesis is proposed:

H1: Greater availability of CSR data about a company leads to having a better CSR reputation.

Conversely, the null hypothesis is that there is no significant CSR reputation difference between companies based on the availability of data on their CSR performance.

4. SELECTION OF SOURCE FOR DATA ON CSR REPUTATION

To test their hypothesis, the authors used the CSRHub performance rating tool, available online at www.csrhub.com. CSRHub’s objective is “to provide consistent ratings of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) performance for as broad a range of companies as possible.” As described on the company’s website: “[o]ur search system allows CSRHUB users to find and compare the ratings of companies in different industries and countries. Both consumers and businesspeople can use this information to make economic decisions, look for employees or jobs, organize buycotts and boycotts, and make purchasing or supply chain decisions.”

It is vital to stress that the authors do not offer any conclusions or observations as to whether CSRHub’s tool is indicative of actual CSR performance of companies. Regardless of whether or not CSRHub’s ratings reflect realities of comparative CSR performance, the authors simply used its ratings as a fair indicator of CSR reputations.

To elaborate: inherently, judging CSR performance involves choices by the judging entity: what data to consider, how many sources to reference, what metrics to use, how much weight to assign to certain aspects of CSR performance, and many other decisions about which reasonable and informed experts may disagree. The creators of CSRHub, as described below, acknowledge this.

Access to CSRHub was purchased and the authors have no financial stake or any other vested interest in or sense of loyalty to CSRHub or its founders that would undermine their objectivity in carrying out the present study.

The authors chose CSRHub because it is the most comprehensive CSR information aggregation tool that could be identified: the methodology of CSRHub ratings uses 125 sources of CSR information, with the largest contribution of data coming from aggregating five of the eight leading Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) research firms. The CSRHub source database also includes information from publishers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and three government agencies. Using a proprietary system for mapping and normalizing this broad range of information, CSRHub provides ratings on around 5,000 companies in 65 countries.
The 125 CSR information sources referenced by CSRHub use different metrics to assess CSR performance (e.g., money donated to charity vs. hours volunteered by employees), produce different results (“Top 50” rankings vs. numerical scores vs. symbols like “+” and “-“), track different industries, cover different geographic regions, evaluate at the product, subsidiary, or parent company level, and update their analyses at different time intervals,

CSRHub’s proprietary system endeavors to remove bias and inconsistency by mapping to a central schema (over two million data elements are assigned to 12 subcategories of CSR performance), converting data to numerical scales, normalizing to adjust for detected biases among sources, aggregating (weighting sources for credibility and value, generating ratings at 12 subcategory levels, and then further consolidating these ratings to four main category levels), and, finally, trimming approximately 1,500 ratings when there is inadequate information. CSRHub further states that it researches each rated company and determines its appropriate category of industry. The result is a database of hundreds of companies, searchable by industry or other characteristics, with overall CSR performance ratings ranging from 0 to 100, with 100 being the ideal. Again, the authors emphasize that, for the purpose of this study, the score is taken, at a minimum, as being indicative of widespread overall CSR reputation.

The authors used CSRHub’s default weight-of-importance assigned to the four main categories of CSR performance (community, governance, employees, and environment). CSRHub offers the option of either using the default user profile (and its weights-of-importance) or customizing a personal profile that reflects a user’s own personal convictions as to the comparative importance of different aspects of CSR performance (for example, some users may find environmental issues to be more important than social issues, or visa-versa). If a user chooses to raise the importance, for example, of environmental impacts, this would change the weights of certain factors and alter the final ratings of companies.

5. SELECTION OF INDUSTRY AND DATASET

The authors started by selecting the international oil and gas extraction industry as a focus because they were among the first to regularly publish reports on their environmental impacts starting in the 1980s (Patten, 1991), and therefore there is a potentially great abundance of data available about these companies. Also, the companies have a large potential to have widespread and either very good or very bad reputations. On the one hand, some major industry members are easily to isolate and vilify for their role in a carbon-intensive energy economy that contributes to global climate change. On the other, they have enormous resources to advertise whatever steps they may be taking to improve engines, fuel blends, and negative side effects of production, transportation, refinement, and distribution. In the human rights arena, fossil fuel companies have been castigated for their working relationships with murderous dictatorships (as in Nigeria and Burma), yet, again, have the resources to make and publicize humanitarian and charitable donations. To mention one more (but by no means the only other) basis for notoriety, the safety performance of the fossil fuel industry occupies headlines after a fiasco such as the 2010 Deep Water Horizon offshore drilling platform disaster and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The subsequent positive and negative aspects of efforts to arrest damage and make amends have the potential to ruin or burnish a company’s CSR reputation.

For a dataset, the authors chose the 190 companies classified as being in the oil and gas extraction industry by CSRHub. Their respective CSR scores were retrieved from CSRHub’s database on November 1, 2011. To better be able to make some observations about the reputational outliers, the 35 companies with the best overall CSR rating in this dataset and the 35 companies with the worst overall CSR rating were identified. Among those 70 companies, the authors then further identified those at the extremes, as defined by being at least 10 points below (among the worst) or 10 points above (among the best) the subset’s average overall score. This brought the total number of companies in the dataset to 53. This identification of CSR “leaders” and “laggards” is consistent with the methodology employed by Jenkins and Yakovleva (2006) in their analysis of CSR disclosures based on case studies of ten mining companies.

The authors further excluded a few companies for the following reasons. Oil Sands Quest (Canada) and OGX (Brazil) were excluded because they had zero revenue, as both are still in the exploration-only phase. Petrohawk was excluded because it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Billiton. Parallel Petroleum was excluded because it is privately held by an asset management company, meaning key financial data was unavailable. Franco-Nevada was excluded because they are primarily focused on gold mining, not oil and gas. Addax Petroleum was excluded because it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sinopec. Finally, China Blue Chemical and Bill Barrett Corporation were excluded because they only were referenced by two data sources.

After this scrutiny and screening, a final dataset of 45 companies remained, 25 being outliers with extremely good reputations and 20 being outlines with extremely bad reputations.

5. RESULTS

The analysis of the data indicates a significant positive relationship: the reputational scores of the companies in the dataset are strongly correlated to the amount of data on each company. On average, the twenty-five companies with the best reputations are associated with over four times as many data sources as the twenty companies with the worst reputations. The relationship appears to be causal.

STATISTICAL TEST RESULTS

Multiple R 0.7223
R Square 0.5217
Adjusted R Square 0.5106
Standard Error 8.4357
Observations 45

ANOVA
df SS MS F Significance F
Regression 1.0000 3337.2636 3337.2636 46.8972 0.00000002136
Residual 43.0000 3059.9364 71.1613
Total 44.0000 6397.2000


Coefficients Standard Error t Stat P-value Lower 95% Upper 95% Lower 95.0% Upper 95.0%
Intercept 14.4303 1.2666 11.3929 0.00000000000001426 11.88 16.98 11.88 16.98
X Variable 0.6753 0.0986 6.8482 0.00000002135787324 0.476 0.874 0.476 0.874





6. LIMITATIONS, DISCUSSION, AND FURTHER OBSERVATIONS

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of this study. First, the study relies upon the methodology of CSRHub in generating scores that the authors have accepted as broadly representative of, at the least, company CSR reputations. Second, the total sample size of 45 is not a large dataset.

Nonetheless, the results suggest that more data being available about a company in the international oil and gas extraction industry will cause its CSR reputation to be better. The converse is also true. Depending on whether one accepts that CSRHub’s methodology and scores are also indicative of actual CSR performance, one may also conclude that the more data is available about such a company, the better will be its actual performance, and vice-versa.

Might it be true that the twenty CSR laggards are in fact not such bad companies, but rather that they are just not reporting information or are under-researched? The authors are not inclined to believe that these negative CSR performance scores are utterly baseless, because the authors deliberately excluded any company associated with fewer than three data sources (and, to begin with, CSRHub’s methodology claims to eliminate results that are based on an inadequate number of sources). There is publicly available data concerning all the companies in the dataset that stakeholders, opinion leaders, and analysts use to judge CSR performance and upon which the CSR reputations are based.

To produce the graph below, the authors grouped the 45 companies in the dataset into groups of five companies each, starting with the twenty-five CSR leaders, represented by the numbers one through five (the best five) and moving down the dataset through the laggards, represented by the numbers six through nine (the worst five). Clearly, the CSR score and number of data sources trend downwards together, though not completely smoothly.


CHART: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NUMBER OF DATA SOURCES AND CSR SCORE


Blue line on Y-axis = CSR score of each of nine 5-company subsets compared to the dataset average
Red line on Y-axis = average number of data sources related to companies in each 5-company subset

X-axis: 5-company subsets (from 1 = best of leaders, to 9 = worst of laggards)




One might speculate that there are differences in terms of the composition of the CSR leader and laggard cohorts based on company nationality, or the country with which they are primarily associated. Among the twenty-five companies with the best reputations, only one (Petroleo Brasileiro of Brazil) was primarily associated with an emerging economy. By contrast, the twenty laggards include three companies from developing countries. However, U.S. and Canadian companies are twice as well represented in the cohort of the twenty companies with the worst reputations than among the twenty-five best. Therefore, it seems that this study does not support generalizations regarding the likelihood of developing vs. developed market companies being leaders or laggards in terms of CSR reputation or performance.

However, two observations about the two cohorts merit further discussion and future research: CSR reputation leaders are older and larger than the laggards. The leaders have been in existence for an average of seventy years, while on average the laggards have been in existence for only twenty years. While it is more common to measure company size by their market capitalization, the authors compared the companies based on revenue per annum in U.S. dollars, because sales are more indicative of the scale of operations than equity markets’ valuation of their worth. The CSR reputation leaders were, on average, much larger than the laggards - by a factor of thirty. All but one of the CSR reputation leaders were multi-billion dollar companies and the group as a whole had an average annual revenue stream of over 92 billion dollars. By contrast, the twenty laggards were much smaller companies with average revenue of just 3 billion dollars.

The positive relationship between measures of CSR performance and the age and size of companies has been documented by previous empirical studies (e.g. Wei et al., 2011; Wagner et al., 2002; Waddock and Graves, 1997; Henriques and Sadorski, 1996). The theoretical model for such an effect is based on the reality that larger firms are generally more publicly visible and therefore have more to gain if they are seen to be conducting business responsibly (Wei et al., 2011). The larger the firm, the more susceptible it may be to public scrutiny by third parties (such as news media, business analysts, and stakeholder NGOs), and hence larger firms may feel more external pressure to actually perform better in terms of CSR. Conversely, the worst offenders may not just seem worse because they disclose less; perhaps they are worse actors partly as a result of being less noticed. With fewer people and groups scrutinizing them, smaller companies may feel less pressure to improve their CSR performance and hence may be comparatively less responsible with regard to impacts on the environment and society.

On this issue the authors would like to proffer a provocative postulation. One might speculate that these results reveal a phenomenon analogous to the concept of the environmental Kuznets curve (the controversial theory that people accept the degradation of their environment during early stages of economic development, but later demand a better environment to accompany their improved lifestyles (Stern, 2004). Is it possible that something similar occurs among stakeholders in organizations? Are shareholders, entrepreneurs, employees, clients, neighbors, and activists who otherwise demand more in term of CSR conduct from a large and established company such as Shell or BP willing to turn a blind eye in the case of smaller companies? Could lower CSR expectations for newer, smaller companies be based on the idea that CSR is a luxury they cannot afford during early stages of development? This would be consistent with the phenomenon of “bolting-on” CSR activities rather than building CSR into core business activities; perhaps stakeholders and managers delay having higher expectations of responsibility with the assumption that a company can always reactively address CSR later in the lifecycle of the enterprise.

Aside from the differences in company characteristics, there are differences in CSR scores between and among the CSR reputation leaders and laggards that merit discussion. First, as illustrated below, the twenty-five leaders are better in all of the four major aspects of CSR performance (community, governance, employees, and environment), than the twenty laggards. The widest gulf between the leaders and laggards was in the environmental aspect, where there was a twenty-nine point gap between the groups’ respective averages. The smallest difference was a nineteen point gap between the leader and laggard cohorts’ community scores.



CHART: AVERAGE CSR SCORE OF LEADERS VS. LAGGARDS ON FOUR ASPECTS OF CSR

Zero on the y-axis = respective average score of 190 companies in the oil and gas extraction industry





The second observation about CSR scores is that the companies – not just the average of the cohorts of CSR reputation leaders and laggards – are clearly differentiated and either score very well across all aspects of CSR performance or do very badly across all categories. No company among the twenty laggards achieved a score over 48 in any category, while no company in the top twenty-five had a score under 48 in any category. The third observation about CSR scores is that the twenty-five CSR leaders demonstrated much less variation across the four categories of reputational performance (community, governance, employees, environment), with a standard deviation of just under four. Among the twenty companies with the worst reputations, the standard deviation across the four categories was more than five. Therefore, the study supports the proposition that CSR leaders tend to be consistently positive in terms of various aspects of their environmental, societal, and governance reputations (and, possibly, CSR activities) while laggards tend to have not only much lower, but also greater variation in their low performance across various aspects of CSR reputation (and, possibly, CSR activities).

Finally, it is vital to note that this study focused on the volume of data that was available about each CSR leader and laggard. The study did not identify the quality or the type of data related to companies. Similarly, this study was blind as to whether positive vs. negative information or narratives were communicated. Some of the largest players in the oil and gas extraction industry experience a glut of negative media exposure and stakeholder scrutiny. As mentioned above, some have had to communicate about calamities such as the Deep Water Horizon oil drilling platform accident and disastrous aftermath in the Gulf of Mexico. Others, such as Halliburton, have recently grappled with voluminous negative publicity surrounding practices such as hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. that may endanger human health. The controversial exploitation of the Canadian tar sands is another issue about which large companies such as Shell have had to communicate. Regardless, there appears to be a near perfectly positive relationship between the availability of data about companies and their CSR reputations. Further, the largest companies – which tend to attract the most negative publicity – are found to be CSR reputation leaders. The results may therefore be interpreted as an example of the old adage that “any publicity is good publicity” (which has not been conclusively attributed to any one individual) and are possibly even consistent with the notion of “succès de scandale” (success from scandal). The concept originated during the Belle Époque in Paris at the turn from the 19th to 20th century when artists (including Oscar Wilde, Edouard Manet, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss) leveraged shocking negative news into fame and success. Similarly, contemporary celebrities (such as Hugh Grant, Charlie Sheen, Madonna, and Paris Hilton) have demonstrated that “any press is good press” by profiting from notoriety for shocking behavior. Perhaps a key implication of this study’s findings (including but not necessarily limited to corporations) is that visibility and transparency – regardless of the nature or quality of conduct – may ultimately have a positive impact on reputation. Further studies such as content analyses of sustainability reports and news stories related to CSR leaders and laggards could further substantiate this possibility. It may also be possible that it is not solely data availability, but rather the masterful corporate communication strategies of large companies with superior resources that allow them to be CSR leaders regardless of whether they must grapple with disasters or have positive information to communicate.

7. CONCLUSION

The key contribution of this study to the fields of CSR and sustainability reporting is the finding that increased availability of data about a company results in, at the least, better CSR reputations for companies in the international oil and gas extraction industry. If one assumes aggregated reputational scores to reflect actual CSR performance, then one could further conclude that increased availability of data leads to improved CSR conduct. Among oil and gas extraction companies, older and larger companies tend to be among the leaders in terms of CSR reputation while CSR laggards are smaller and newer. This is consistent with existing theoretical frameworks and previous findings of empirical studies. Further, the leaders and laggards are clearly differentiated by a large gap in CSR reputational scores across all four major aspects of CSR (community, governance, employees, and environment), but especially in terms of reputation for conduct related to the environment. CSR leaders in this industry tend to be perceived as more consistently good across all four aspects of CSR performance, while CSR laggards tend to have greater variation in their negative scores across the four aspects of CSR performance. Finally, the authors point out that the study took into account only the amount of data available about each company, not the quality or whether it communicated positive or negative facts and narratives. Given that it is just the volume of available data that appears to positively impact reputation, the results appear consistent with the old adage that: “any publicity is good publicity”. The implications of this study for managers are that greater disclosures related to CSR will likely improve a firm’s CSR reputation and that transparency may possibly even lead to better conduct. For scholars, this study suggests several fruitful veins of future research. This study could be repeated using data from other industries, using different measures of CSR reputation and conduct, over varying periods of time, and by measuring changes in CSR reputation and conduct over time as companies grow.


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AUTHOR PROFILES

Christopher J. Hughey earned his undergraduate degree in languages and international studies from the Universitetet i Bergen (University of Bergen, Norway) in 1995. He is currently Executive Vice-President of EC Innovations, Inc., a China-based translation and localization company. This paper builds on the research he undertook while doing graduate studies in international business from the University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth), where he earned a graduate certificate in that field in 2012.

Adam J. Sulkowski is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Sustainable Development. He earned his JD and MBA at Boston College in 2000. He is recipient of several awards for teaching, research and service excellence. He mentored MBA students to produce the first GRI-guided sustainability report by a university anywhere in the world to achieve an A level of compliance with the premier global standard for reporting on CSR performance.