The School of Zeynep Tufekci

I’ve been interested in the work of Zeynep Tufekci since I started hearing about her book Twitter and Tear Gas. Back then, I appreciated her thinking about technology and society (and just her way of thinking). Lately, though, I’ve heard her name in a different context — when seemingly smart and well informed people talk about someone who has been repeatedly right about important aspects of the COVID pandemic. Tufekci has thought clearly and wisely at a time when the stakes have never been higher.

Over the past few days, I listened to this interview (embedded below). Because the story wasn’t new to me, I listened with a particular focus — particular questions. If we were building a school to produce people who could think as clearly and incisively as Zeynep Tufekci, what qualities would we seek to instill in our students? What would such students know and be able to do when they graduated?

Here’s my list. Our graduates would . . . 

  • Understand statistics. 
  • Understand probability theory. 
  • Know how to work “at intersections” of disciplines or industries.
  • Have eclectic training. Be able to think across disciplines. Perhaps more important, be able to apply lessons from one discipline to problems in another. 
  • Have “learned a lot about a lot of different things.”
  • Have “broad interest in many disciplines over time.”
  • Have taught. 
  • Have traveled. 
  • Have embraced the practical humility of acknowledging that luck will always play a part in success (and failure, for that matter). 
  • Know to (and how to) read the papers. (By this, I mean the research papers, the complicated stuff.)
  • Know to (and how to) read the newspapers. 
  • Understand how (and why / when) to communicate ideas across different platforms, i.e., social media vs. academic journals vs. popular publications vs. books.
  • Combine research and thinking with observation in one’s own “sphere.” 
  • Have “imagination about what can happen.”
  • Understand risk. (Which ones are acceptable / to be tolerated vs. which ones we cannot ignore.)
  • Understand how to move between the theoretical and the practical.
  • Understand the value of simplicity or simplifying. 
  • Understand human nature. 
  • Think about the relationship between individual action and community implications. 
  • Know to (and know how to) talk to and even debate with different kinds of experts (pHDs, MDs, specialists). 
  • Watch their own minds / metacognition.
  • Go to the research. 
  • Push back on things that don’t make sense.
  • Ask the next question: “what else is going on?”
  • Identify (and point to) the “low hanging fruit.”
  • Ask, and if need be hire, people to attack their ideas.  
  • Know how to write, and communicate, for different kinds of audiences.   
  • Know when to dive deep or seek out deep thinking. 
  • Know when to look beyond an accepted or compelling story.
  • Be able to identify and call out groupthink. (“Group think can’t be broken by the group.”)
  • Watch what is happening in other countries. 
  • Take “big swings.”
  • Be brave, be brave, be brave.  And humble.
  • [This bonus bullet point comes from ZT herself; I adapted it from a Tweet she sent me in response to the post: Graduates of the School of Zeynep Tufekci realize that a diploma confers a certain kind of daily aspiration, rather than the illusion of a finished state.]

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