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Blog Archive November 2014

When Your Number is Big

Like most people, I have a great deal of trouble comprehending very large numbers. We read that there are between 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and a like number of galaxies in the universe. How about Nonillion, Octillion or Decillion?  And at a dinner party someone explains that we have 100 billion neurons in our brains and over 100 trillion synapses, and we can’t decide on whether to have a second helping of rice. There are over a billion Chinese and over a billion Indians. They all want what you have—car, air-conditioning, holidays to exotic beaches, restaurant dining, iPhones, designer clothes and watches. But I have no idea what those numbers actually mean.

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That’s no surprise. Most people have trouble with numbers, small or big. It may be that evolution never intended for us to worry about numbers beyond our fingers and toes. That would have been good enough in most cases. You go to the bank, take one of those slips from a machine and look at the digital number displayed to figure out how many people are ahead of you in the queue. We can do that pretty well. And because we can figure out that simple math and how that translates into waiting time, we have believed that we can handle numbers.

In reality, an overwhelming number of us fail to appreciate that we have crossed a numbers frontier and have entered a new terrain where the sheer size and complexity of numbers are shaping our modern lives in multiple ways. From our personal investment decisions to the deciding whom to vote for in an election , our expectations from politicians, leaders, and policy makers are increasingly connected with understanding the math than the personality behind the policy.

The problem is how slow advance in numeracy has left most of us at a distinct disadvantage in a modern scientific age where probabilities, big numbers, and percentages test the upper limits of our cognitive abilities. John Paulos’s classic book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences  sounded the alarm more than twenty-five years ago. This brilliant book remains widely read and cited, but if anything, innumeracy has increased during the period since it was published and the world of huge numbers has proliferated like a third-world dictator’s watch collection. Numbers only tell part of the story. It is numbers combined with our illusion of superior wisdom that makes for a toxic brew. In other words, rather than being humbled by numbers we can’t understand, the opposite seems to happen—we become more dogmatic and certain.

A few examples will show the nature of our insoluble problem.

Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning was part of the duo who came up with the Dunning-Kruger effect. This happens to be one of my favorite cognitive biases. Not a day goes by without witnessing countless examples of unskilled people, officials, politicians, pundits, leaders display their illusion of superiority in knowledge, vision, policy decision making, predictions, and advice. They mistakenly rate their ability as superior and expect others to share that illusion. The fact they can’t recognize their own ineptitude is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Professor Dunning is back with more damning evidence of how this illusion of superiority is alive and well. Managers and supervisors rate their managerial skill, and then employees and peers rate the managers and supervisors skill. Guess what? There is no correlation between the two ratings. Managers psychologically can’t resist overrating their skill and talent, as they believe their view isn’t an illusion but an objective fact. That makes sense as CEOs and managers are paid because a board of directors also believe the top dog has superior managerial skill and cuts them large pay cheques for sums we only vaguely can comprehend. Professor Dunning’s research unearthed that 32% of engineers in a software company and 42% in another such company believed they were in the top 5% in terms of skill and quality.

The illusion persists for a couple of reasons: people fail to be honest about their weaknesses and their identity is linked with their strengths minus the weaknesses. Point out a weakness of anyone and watch the psychological defense mechanisms kick into place faster than a North Korean reply to a UN Human Rights Commission report.

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Here’s the executive summary: We are bad at big numbers, we have huge egos and monumental sized vanity shields protecting us from our weaknesses, as we go about the daily tasks of misclassifying, underestimating others and overestimating ourselves. We bring these cognitive resources and biases to forming opinions on a wide range of issues from climate change, health insurance, and the risk being killed in a terrorist attack. Add the ideological filters and the realm of numbers become entangled with our belief system, representing what we wish the world to be rather the world as it is.

It gets worse. Those who earn their living based on getting the math right, mostly get it wrong. Check the record of economists predicting inflation or deflation, unemployment, market trends, and you see the fingerprints of Dunning-Krueger Effect all over the Excel files. Economists failed to predict the global financial crisis in 2008. (see here) In the world of casinos and professional gamblers they would have gone bust; but in the world of economists, we are left to think that Pinocchio must have been a fable about an economist.

Religion is a great place to bring perspective to the abstract idea of big numbers. Let’s leave the rarefied atmosphere of billions and trillions and drop down to the lower levels of tens of thousands. We still have trouble dealing with numbers of that size. Wikipedia has a page informing us that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations. That’s not a misprint. There are, according to Wiki, 41,000 different Christian denominations. Not 41,000 denominations of all religions, this is just the Christians. Do you have any idea how big the number 41,000 is? Visualize a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at your house and let’s say you’ve squeezed in 23 relatives around a table. You can’t breathe for all the body heat generated around the table. Twenty-three people around a communal table is a large number but one we can comprehend. But compared to Christian denominations, 23 is a mere rounding off error. Even in small numbers people disagree about many things. So it should come as no surprise that Christians are forever disagreeing on the nature of Jesus, virgin birth, no virgin birth, what are curse words you can and can’t use, whether the pope can turn out any doctrine he wants and call it god’s word.

Does anyone believe that there are 41,000 ways to use a hair dryer? Or cook an egg? Or make soap? Or manufacturing cars? Or cleaning a monkey’s cage at the zoo. Anyone who held such a belief would be hauled off as insane, eccentric, unstable, or a fourteen-year in his locked room behind a computer screen. But when it comes to religion, we shrug off our insanity awareness detector and accept this state of disagree on all matters concerning exactly who is and what he stands for and what he would accept as right and wrong, a Christian god.

Scientists never say there are 41,000 competing theories of gravity or general relativity or 41,0000 versions of Darwin’s theory of evolution. No there is just one theory and a handful of rival hypothesis. We seem to be able to cut big numbers down to very small number only if what is at stake can be measured and repeatedly tested countless times and each time the theory survives being falsified. That doesn’t mean a theory can’t be overturned or modified, only so far our theory of gravity, general relativity and evolution describes a testable reality.

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Fantasies are not testable. Religious beliefs are not testable. You can fill in the logical connection. This is why religious dogma, stories, beliefs can last for thousands of years. They can never be disapproved but every few years someone comes along with a new belief of what Jesus meant by what he reportedly said hundreds of years before it was actually reported. That is an advantage that religion enjoys. Like in writing any story, there will be fans, critics, and detractors. It just so happens the fan base for the Christianity story has spawned tens of thousands of slightly different understandings that makes its story superior and more true than the others.  Dunning Krueger Effect is in the fine point of dogma, too. We can avoid it even when thinking about the afterlife.

Back to the number of 41,000 and what it says about us, how we count things, divide up things and ideas, and base all kinds of assumptions on an abstract number. What makes for a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment is our inability to question our illusion of superiority. We compound that weakness with our cognitive inability to understand big numbers or to employ techniques like probability analysis, and critical analysis of measuring and testing.

We are locked into the cognitive prison cell of the Dunbar Number. 150. That is the number of people we can have a social relationship with. That number has remained constant over the time of our species. We are a small number species. We just haven’t faced up to the fact. There are a handful of people who get the big numbers. But teaching us is like instructing a chimp in playing poker. We can’t keep our cards straight or the cards played by those sitting around the table.

In terms of number comprehension, we’ve created advanced technology that is beyond our capacity to understand. We are constantly hitting the upper limit 150. You needed the brain for many things. Like most primates our social habits are based on mutual grooming in a band. Each one of our ancestors picked the fleas off others in those hard to get places. All of the evidence suggests that we are better flea pickers than stock pickers. We’ve hit a numbers wall. The problem is scaling. Number comprehension that worked perfectly well for flea pickers breaks down in a complex, interconnected world occupied by billions of their descendants.

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This doesn’t mean that only highly competent mathematicians should be allowed to vote, make predictions, or form policy; what it does mean is that our modern world is slipping out of our comprehension. Artificially Intelligence (AI) ultimately (2050) will come into its own because nothing short of advance intelligence will be able to make sense of the numbers emerging from Big Data. AI promises to calculate without the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We will see about that.

Alternatively, we might never get to the AI intelligent machine stage. In places like the USA where a new congress is riddled with anti-science, innumerate representatives, we may be witnessing a return to a culture where the highest value is placed on the ability to pick the fleas off a neighbor, who keeps count and returns the favor. But with those billions of Chinese and Indians that may prove to be a lot of fleas to keep track of.

Posted: 11/27/2014 7:45:56 PM 

 

Losing Your Breakfast/Losing your Privacy: A story of one man’s loss in Bangkok

I have a confession to make. I’ve been secretly dismissive of timeline photos and stories people post about food. If I really come clean, I’d say that my bias against such foodie photo/opinions/revelations has created an unearned sense of superiority. You’d never find me posting a photo of food, I tell myself. Until one Tuesday evening in November in Bangkok, that is. Here is my food story with accompanying documentary evidence, which appears required if you are going to tell a food story. In any event, while chance sent me free food, I am paying a large price in now admitting myself into the circle of those who post stories about food.

I boarded the MRT from Sukhumvit Station around 9.45 p.m. Tuesday night, 18 November 2014 (details are important for the archive). I was on the last escalator leading to the train platform. I had noticed a farang immersed in a cellphone conversation and taking his time. I rushed past him sensing that the train might be there (most of the time I am wrong about that), running down the escalator to find the train waiting, doors open. I ran and slipped inside. About four steps behind was the guy who’d been on his cellphone. The doors were closing. It’s like one of those horror movies. The inevitable closing on someone’s hand and foot. He struck his hand in the door for leverage and his foot, too. Both were wedged in the door of the train as it was closing. But the MRT doors are unforgiving. He struggled but managed to remove his foot.

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At the same time before he floated away into nothingness, he left us a legacy of his existence: a plastic bag with bananas (2), yogurt (2) small milk (1), and a small box of Special K* cereal. This legacy (pictured above) managed to squeeze through the inner door. It was a battle he realized he was going to lose. He shook his hand free of the door. We locked eyes in that very moment. I felt I was watching a rough cut of George Clooney suited up in Gravity as he pushed away from the space ship. Peter, like George, had performed his part of the drama and now nothing was left but to push him into another time dimension outside of our vision. Let’s not get too overly dramatic, though. Unlike George Clooney, Peter had time to contemplate an alternative Plan B: either go back and buy the breakfast for a second time or call it a night and wait five minutes until the next train arrived.

From the contents of the plastic I concluded he’d not only lost his Wednesday breakfast, but there was someone waiting at home who had relied on Peter to bring breakfast home for him or her. I imagined a deep sense of disappointment descending on Peter’s household as he arrived empty handed, and offering up an original retelling of the “dog ate my homework” story.

As the figure of Peter trying to bravely smile as we saw him get smaller and smaller as the train gathered speed, all the Thais turned around in their seats. They were highly entertained by the farang missing the train but were at the same time slightly confused that his groceries had made it inside; well, almost inside, they were hanging, suspended chest high in the door. It was like a magic act. No one could take their eyes off the bag stuck in the door. Their brains were turning over, trying to process exactly what had happened.

I stood near the door, guarding the bag, wondering what I should do? I had one stop before I got off to walk home and not much time to make a decision. When the doors open, do I give the bag to who looks to be the poorest person in the car? It occurred to me that with the exception of my wife, I’ve never met a Thai who wouldn’t confess to a murder wrap before they’d eat something labeled: “Live Active Lactic Acid Bacteria Culture.” Beside the aversion to the yoghurt, the milk and banana would be of interest. But would giving it to one rather than another cause envy, may be a fight? I didn’t see any gardening tools so none of the passengers looked all that dangerous. But I decided, none of them looked hungry. Or poor. Then I thought, do I give to the motorcycle taxi guys outside my condo? No matter how many possibilities I couldn’t get over the Lactic Acid Bacteria problem I’d encounter. But it seemed an ethical violation to keep the food as spoils of a war left behind by a farang casualty in a battle with an MRT car door.

What would Calvino do? Or Mrs. Calvino (this is not a spoiler, only a possible long distance possibility in the deep future when Calvino, like Peter, leaves his food stuck in the door one too many times and decides it’s time to settle down with a woman who will see that he’s properly fed)? As it turns out, my wife was the one who fished out of the plastic bag a KBank receipts. One receipt had his name; his first name is Peter. I won’t embarrass him by spelling out his last name. If you know a Peter who banks at KBank who is his missing breakfast, let him know that I have it. It’s chilling in the fridge. He can pick it up anytime.

I had wanted to write about privacy and how that idea is dead. We are like one of those sad chimp mothers who continues to cradle the dead baby against her chest refusing to give into the reality of the situation. The two receipts Peter slipped into the shopping bag gave me a chill. There was not only his full name on the credit card receipt. There was also an ATM receipt showing a sizeable bank balance. How would he know the food would depart on a train without him? How would he sleep knowing someone on that train not only had his breakfast but his name, the branch of his bank and the amount of money he had on deposit.

This is a glimpse of how modern life has swallowed your privacy and spit it out on receipts. I am forever finding one in a pocket. I held a stranger’s two receipts in my hand. I don’t know him. But I now know a great deal about him. More than most people would be comfortable in confiding with a stranger. The ATM receipt was the equivalent of a privacy death certificate.

It couldn’t be more clear. Peter has no privacy, neither do I, and neither do you. Whether it is your Bank, credit card company, or any company you do business with, they can encode all or part of your personal information they’ve collected and they can sell, license, give, trade it, print it and distribute it, and profit from it. We’ve all lost much more than our breakfast. We’ve lost the right to put a receipt in a bag and lose it. The contents of Peter’s bag from the supermarket broadcast to the finder his private dietary choices and the financial details of his life. I feel I know a lot about Peter. In the future, we won’t have to lose our shopping bag to be in Peter’s situation.

Strangers are reading your life in the data you leave behind, the searches you make online, your emails, the articles and essays you read, and you are tracked in a hundred different ways. Google is a leading privacy slayer. I will leave you to contemplate two seemingly contradictory conclusions: We, our health, finances, politics, reading choices, desires, prejudices will never be lost to those who have access to the tools that allow for an audit. And secondly, We’ve all missed the train, leaving our identity stuck in a bag in the closed door. Take a long look. Peter’s you and he’s me.

*The keen eyed reader will have spotted the Special K box of cereal was sold past its expiry date.

Posted: 11/20/2014 7:51:16 PM 

 

Reputation

The difference between a man with a big reputation and one with no reputation is very little. That is the stone I want to put in your shoe. This weekend, walk around the block with it a couple of times before you take your shoe off and throw the stone away. We are conditioned to believe a universe of difference exist between people based on their reputations. Of course it is another social construct drilled into our skulls, the wound healed up, and we don’t ever remember the operation that put it in our minds. But it is there, rolling around each time we see a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, someone on TV or in a movie, or read something on social media.

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We are bombarded with reputation type advertisements. The advertisement often features is a smiling celebrity selling us a watch, perfume, a car or a cell phone. That person has a big reputation. The product or service he or she is shilling for benefits from the angel dust of the celebrity’s reputation. If his wife throws him out for infidelity like Tiger Woods or he shoots his girlfriend through the bathroom door like Oscar Pistorius, the ad campaign is cancelled and the connection is severed. Consumerism thrives on an ecology based on reputation.

People online are infinitely conscious of their reputation among their ‘friends’ on Facebook and Twitter. Slights, criticisms, and disrespect tarnish the highly polished reputation. People with a reputation, in other words, have something, in their mind, of great value that is to be protected and guarded. Reputation, like money, is a currency that buys the most precious of all commodities—social co-operation. We want to associate with people with high reputation. We want them as our friends, colleagues, family members, spouses, teachers, judges, politicians, policemen, generals, and sports figures. We want them to be heroes. We want them to be brilliant, kind, insightful, moral, and perfect. We demand the impossible and we reap the grief of disappointment when they fail us.

In Thailand, reputation, identity and face are rolled into a spiritual, sacred part of a person’s vital being. The cultural illusion is that face represents the essence of the person. Causing someone to lose ‘face’ in Thailand is dangerous. Case studies of people being stabbed, hacked, shot, knifed, strangled, dismembered, burnt or suffocated as a reaction to the loss of face would fill a small library. There seems to be a grim consensus that the victim is the one whose face has been destroyed and the dead face destroyer pretty much got what he or she deserved. Other cultures place an even more radical value on reputation or face, one that can extend to the entire family. For example, in some Muslim countries, if a woman is raped or runs away with her sweetheart against the wishes of her family, her relatives stone her to death in order to preserve the reputation of the family.

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Reputation, gaining, maintaining or losing it, in other words, can be a very serious business. Social media has made fundamental changes to the reputation game. Those seeking to use their big reputation online find a battalion of anonymous snipers gunning them down every timeline and newsfeed. And ordinary people can overnight create a large reputation from a YouTube video or photograph of a cat or baby. Our definition of what it means to have a ‘big’ reputation is changing. Among the millions of people who instantly recognize Kim Kardashian’s ass, how many of them would recognize the face of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for Literature’s face? For those who have gained their reputation status in the analogue world, the digital minefields (I am sticking to the warfare metaphors) are more than an obstacle they are a clear and present danger. Bring in the minefield sweepers, and that is what appears to be happening in many places. Freedom of speech has been a casualty of this digital war.

We are in denial that the right to a broad freedom of expression is in triage. We don’t want to confront that reality. As we know, denial is the first stage in the five stage of grieving. We shut it out and pretend that we are entering a tunnel of grief and there is no way out. This sense of denial has been working through our consciousness for a long time, as has the crude, clumsy and brute stuff at the hands of dictators and authoritarian laws; it has been chipped away by those who have been the greatest supporters of freedom of speech, and they’ve done this in the name of hate crimes. Freedom of Expression has been slimmed down to the bone by both sides of the political divide for their own ideological reasons. One wonders whether free speech remains capable to run a good race in the competition for ideas. Speech can be a nasty, dirty and hateful display by the worst of our species, attacking women, gays, blacks, fat people, ethnic groups and religion. For everyone who stands on a soapbox and challenges an official or government policy connected with torture, extra-judicial murder or corruption, there will be five people standing on a soap box in some dusty, fly-bitten slum attacking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Authors are, as a class, as obsessed by reputation as much as the next person. You don’t have to look far to find one who falls apart emotionally over a ‘bad’ review, who lashes out as if the poison from the arrow shot into his reputation slowly causes his brain to unleash an unworldly howl. What readers (and most authors) forget is that a writer starts out with no reputation. She is an ordinary person sitting in a café, living off the dole, drinking coffee and writing Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, yes Virginia, started off as a nobody. After her reputation went off the charts into the realm of hyperspace-reputation, she penned a mystery under another name because she wished to escape her ‘reputation’ to prove that she could write a successful, well-received book without her ‘big’ name on the book. Of course The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Appeared like another guppy in a large school of guppies. Then word leaked out that it was written by ‘big’ reputation Star Fish named J.K. Rowling and it stood out in the aquarium, going on to become a huge international bestseller, confirming what we all ready know—we buy on reputation. We live and die on reputation. We are conditioned by birth to vote, love, kill, give and condemn based on someone’s reputation.

B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, saw people as malleable and easily shaped by positive tools like money rewards and negative reinforcements like shaming, shunning, or confinement. Skinner called our ability to be manipulated through rewards and punishments ‘operant conditioning.’ Consumerism exists because of this flaw in our collective character. We are insecure as to our identity, what is of value, what is worth living and dying for, that we are ripe to be manipulated by the big reputation gods that walk among us.

There are abstract ideals we believe people have the free will to choose—integrity, morality, ethics, or motives. When someone is attacked for corruption, wife beating, drug addiction, meanness, pettiness it diminishes their reputation. There are defamation laws to protect reputation. And in Thailand there are not just civil laws, but criminal defamation laws that will send someone who attacks another person, say for human trafficking, to prison. The state is enlisted as a protector of individual reputations. Reputation is these cases overrides facts that support the person was a fraud or charlatan. Criminal defamation makes them bullet proof; facts and evidence bounce off the plaintiff’s chest like bullets hitting superman.

Freedom of expression is important as a way to keep reputations from becoming bloated, overblown and dangerous lies. Much like there are drug testing laws that seek to protect us from ingesting drugs that will kill us, free speech allows us to expose the lies and deception and half-truths that poison a society. We all know this and agree to it in principle. We accept that those in the public eye, who have established a high reputation, are vulnerable to false accusations, slanders, and hate.

The question is whether we can tolerate the damage done by trolls, the haters, and psychos as a fair price to be exchanged for freedom of expression?

The reputation marauders pump cluster bombs to blow up reputations; they work around the clock on thousands website, blogs, gossip columns, and chat room. We love talking about ‘big’ reputation people, and one that has run over a cop, cheated widows and orphans out of their meager savings, or shot his girlfriend, is all over the news. The Germans have a great word for this moment as the reputation crashes and burns: Schadenfreude. You think you’re such a big shot, look at yourself in the mirror now. You see, you’re no different than the rest of us. Like my opening sentence, there has never been any other than imagined difference. But our imaginations create the balloon and marvel and cheer at its destruction.

That is the problem. We want freedom of expression without paying the piper. We think free means without costs. That is nonsense. But we accept so much nonsense and lies why should our skewed view of free speech be any different?

Some of the most honest writing you will read comes from writers before they had a reputation. Three such writers are Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and George Orwell. All of them were down and out and wrote about what life looked like when they had nothing but their wits, talent for insight, the observational skill, and with nothing in terms of reputation to lose. You learn from reading Bukowski what it’s like to be stopped by the police when you are a nobody and a drunk. He conveyed our worst fears of terror, humiliation, and helplessness; how they taste, how they stink and stick in our crawl. They reek like stale beer and cigarette smoke from Bukowski’s work. He not only understood fear, Bukowski could express that fear in words. He understood your fear, my fear and all of those around us. We are afraid that without a reputation anyone can do whatever they wish to you, violate you, beat you up, run over you, take your property, your wife, children, dog and there is bugger all you can do. So long as the actor has a ‘big’ reputation and there are no witnesses, and you have none, you are toast. It is your word against his. Good luck.

From Henry Miller, you learn the mental resources that are needed if you are a nobody and want food, drink or a place to flop in Paris. Miller lived among artists, the dreamers, the adventurers and wanderers, and he had an inner confidence that he’d be a somebody one day. He wrote about being a writer with a dream. But a dream doesn’t even rise to the level of a reputation. And we’ve already established a reputation is an abstraction, a social construct, and a fiction. Miller drove himself with booze and cigarettes and adrenaline to write a book that would convert him into a ‘big’ reputation man. Tropic of Cancer did that for him. And George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, you find in this book no romance in poverty and obscurity. Orwell went to the extreme. From Eton to the slum in order to experience how the class with no reputation existed. And he left us with a lesson—it wasn’t class but reputation that drove our manipulation to our high reputation overlords. Money was always part of the deal, a big part, but to keep it and expand the bank account, a man or woman needed a reputation to act as the armed guards against the anonymous who asked awkward questions about wealth allocation.

You can read Bukowski, Miller and Orwell (and of course there are many others, too) as sending signals from the pages of their novels and memoir to the rest of us that life without a big reputation behind it is a slow fuse that will sooner or later blow you into oblivion. Being anonymous, a no name person, like a no name brand, translates into a sense of worthlessness. Who wants to think of themselves as having no value? We are conditioned, in a B.F. Skinner way, to believe our value must be measured by the value of other people’s reputation. No matter what you’ve accomplished or done, just remember there will inevitably be someone who has done what you done by the time they were twelve years old and accomplished ten other grand things by the time they are thirty, and so it goes.

It’s a competition game you can never win. It’s also a con game. If we forget about reputation, then on what basis can we trust our judgment to rely on someone else? You need a leap of faith—the belief that most people are decent, honest, reliable, and kind and a big reputation is no guarantee that the holder has any of those qualities. You likely know lots of people who fit this bill who aren’t ‘big’ reputation people in the public commons. That’s always been the wrong place to look. They are closer to home, in your neighborhood, your office, and most of them are chasing the same things we all are—security, fairness, comfort, pleasure, and friendship. They don’t need the big named public role models, they just need to have confidence in themselves there is very little difference between people and go forward in the world and act upon that insight.

Posted: 11/13/2014 7:48:29 PM 

 

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Lake Wobegon is a mythical town in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor created this fiction place that is a shorthand expression for our human tendency to overestimate our achievements, talent, intelligence and skills in comparison with others. The thing to bear in mind is that in Lake Wobegon everyone living there is persuaded that the women are compassionate, strong, the men brilliant and good, the children obedient and outstanding. Above all, it is special as “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” To the residents of Lake Wobegon, these shared views aren’t an overestimation of their capabilities but represent the absolute true picture of the people living in that place.

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Garrison Keillor created this fictional place and its citizens entertained and informed radio listeners on NPR.  It touched upon a deep longing to be part of a community in a more simple, calm and happy time. To suspend disbelief is the first rule for a fiction writer. It is also a rule shared by politicians and state officials. To examine Lake Wobegon thinking helps us to understand what entertains us can also carry the seed of our worst nightmare.

It is difficult to persuade people to accept an opinion, point of view or fact that doesn’t confirm what they believe to be true or to motivate them to act as if persuaded. Whether it is selling a new cellphone or tropical holiday to Thailand, business people use marketing to create a comfort zone, which is non-threatening, and then make the product or service irresistible to their happiness. Billions of dollars are spent to persuade you to do something, buy something, believe in one thing and reject another; join a community, which offers you status and enhanced reputation because you share their view.

The persuasion may be an appeal to authority such as a holy book, a national tradition, a cultural artifact such as music. The Taylor Swifts, Brad Pitts, Jon Stewarts persuade and shape the attitudes, values and desires of their fans.

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To persuade another person is an art. It takes interpersonal skill, the ability to present facts and arguments that are appealing. And what is appealing? In our late capitalist age, it is usually a product or service or set of policies or beliefs that we believe make our life more pleasant, happy, fulfilled, and pleasurable. Whether our life is actually better is another matter. We allow ourselves to be persuaded by others mainly because we wish to belong and be accepted by our social group, our family, our circle of friends, those we work with. We crave their admiration and respect and our lives are co-dependent of these people. We need them to co-operate with us, and we need to co-operate with them. In other words, behind our reciprocity, we run our lives on a software program labeled—persuasion.

The question arises: why is it so hard to persuade others about the merits and values of things or beliefs? This begs the question who we are trying to persuade. Most of the time we find ourselves having to make a case to someone who doesn’t share our view, say on climate change or freedom of speech or the value of Rolex watch compared to one bought from a street vendor or whether downloading illegal copies of a book is wrong. We have fundamental disagreements about such issues, products, policies, as we disagree over what is true, what is an illusion, and what direction any policy from education to police reform should take.

Persuasion isn’t always based on a hedonistic rainbow at the end of the pitch to sell a political candidate, laundry soap, wine, films or books; it can also be an appeal to values such as family, religion, morality, ethics, or fashion. We can argue from authority such as the Koran or the Bible, or we can argue from statistical data or the results of tests, polls, measuring devices, or observations where the results can be repeated and confirmed.

We click on ‘like’ when we signal our solidarity with a posting from one of our Facebook friends. The digital world has given us the ability to invent and inhabit our own Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” And if we make a mistake and befriend someone who doesn’t share that illusion, where he or she doesn’t belong and is sent into exile by the act of ‘defriending.’ Amongst friends the remedy is exclusion. The possibility of being ostracized remains a powerful punishment.

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Little in the private relations matches the range and severity of penalties available to officials in the public sector. Governments have a monopoly of force and they can use weapons to make people afraid to challenge their authority, policies, and legitimacy. The state always has the ‘intimidation’ card up its sleeve if persuading you to stop criticizing their administration of Lake Wobegon. The police or army can force you to do something or to shut up, even though you would freely choose not to do so. Governments are always trying to cobble together Lake Wobegon and maintain the illusion that all of its citizens are happy together. It is a wonder, even after the abysmal history of past failed experiments at utopia, that such new attempts are launched, and the state officials believe it will be different this time.

The main feature of a Lake Wobegon culture and way of thinking is the fear of critical thinking by its citizens. If citizens can freely discuss among themselves the role of government, the limitations on power, and to set an agenda of priorities and policies. Those at the top of the political chain hate the idea of limitations, criticism, and dissent. When the town of 800 is scaled to cities with millions, the diversity of voices and conflicting beliefs and goals make the idealistic ways of behaving outdated. There lies the problem. The intimidation, use of coercion, and threats follows as the citizens start a public debate as to why Lake Wobegon is a mythical place. Officials who love Lake Wobegon do not take kindly to anyone who criticize the object of their love. It’s not so much a restriction of free speech, but their way to protect their beloved town and its good people. If that means sacrificing critical thinking, all right minded people would agree that this is a small cost to maintain Lake Wobegon as the ideal place where for all good, beautiful and decent people live in happiness. Critical thinking is a shorthand expression for the human capacity to process change—technological, political, social or economic. It is also a technique for testing statements, theories, and premises. Our brain operating system is designed to detect risks, opportunities, and inconsistencies. We update our view of the world as it changes before our eyes. The question that is never settled without anger, hate and blood is who should be in charge of making the changes.

Non-critical thinking is when you automatically accept what an official, a celebrity, a book or slogan says as true and legitimate. A Lake Wobegon culture works only when the citizens are a very small group of non-critical thinkers living in a changeless world.  The more people you have who use critical thinking to assess the effectiveness, fairness, and justice of systems and networks, the more likely you will have a lively public debate. The tension is between those who firmly believe that Lake Wobegon and all official versions of the place are perfectly ordered and fair and only troublemakers and discontents argue for the need for updates that take into account the nature and scope of change. Change versus non-change is a dangerous tightrope to walk. Some people fall off; others are pushed off. That’s the nasty bit that lies behind the curtain of the stage where Lake Wobegon is played out.

The heart of any human social, political or economic network requires a functioning system of co-operation. Without such a system, nothing works, and chaos and instability fill the void. The more rapid the technological change the more the change will destabilize the basis of co-operation. There is little time for consolidation as all energy is focused on the constant rebuilding of consensus. Whether it is Google driverless cars, or TV sets that record your conversations, the adaptation to new limitations to free will, privacy, and the growth of private and government surveillance requires our critical thinking.

We seek new and better ways to co-operate with each other. But co-operation takes resources, time, energy and good will—all of which appear to have been depleted in most places, including Thailand. We also seek new and better ways to defeat those who think differently from us. Both impulses, to co-operate and to defeat, usually results in people taking sides and doing whatever is needed to justify the actions of their side. This isn’t critical thinking. This is partisan posturing.

The problem is many people argue in favour of critical thinking but in reality most people fear it. They want their side to prevail and their thinking is devoted to making that happen. If we truly embraced critical thinking, we’d accept the implicit rate of change has accelerated and many of the old truths have been refuted. It is time to let them go. We didn’t evolve to be critical thinkers. Everything about our past shows it wasn’t very important. We lived, worked and died in an environment where change was quite slow. We could absorb the changes over hundreds of generations and make adjustment.

That time is gone. Lake Wobegon never existed except in our imaginations. We need to face the reality that we can’t return to the past. We live in a time of highly accelerated technological change and even the best minds employing critical thinking are finding themselves exhausted, unable to process fast enough before the next disruption occurs.

Posted: 11/6/2014 7:44:41 PM 

 

 

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