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Blog Archive October 2015

Orwell’s Far Corner

by Christopher G. Moore*

01 

George Orwell in 1941 wrote an essay titled Wells, Hitler and the World State that deserves to be revisited in 2015. The re-examination is timely given the release of the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index report observes, “The worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”

The reasons cited for the decline, include:

Stretching sacrilege prohibitions in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries. When ‘believers’ think the courts are not doing enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say. (2015 World Press Freedom Index)

Another freedom report for 2015 by Freedom House  also notes the trend of “discarding democracy” and a “return to the iron fist.”

02

Freedom on the Net 2015 finds “internet freedom around the world in decline for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.”

George Orwell understood fully that the chain and ball of traditional belief systems hobbled minds through religious or ideological dogma and channeled our innate cognitive biases to filter for the inbox only that information and opinion reinforcing and tightening the chains and increasing the weight of the ball. Orwell wrote about beliefs and prejudices long before the Internet and social media promised a digital hacksaw to break the chain and ball. Why hasn’t that promise been delivered? Orwell has some answers worth considering. The promise of freedom of expression and access to a huge pool of information is a danger signal for the existing ruling classes. The prospect of unrestrained information and opinion has caused official anxiety as institutions, dogma, and authority run into an era of open challenges, criticism, and doubts. No dogma can sustain the assault of the scientific method without appearing shallow, defensive, narrow and vindictive.

The same was true in Orwell’s time. H.G. Wells thought we were at the crossroads of humanity where the scientific method would succeed and the ancient mindset based on beliefs and biases would be replaced. George Orwell’s view was people like H.G. Wells overplayed their scientific mindset hand. They hadn’t properly calculated the strength of their opponents’ traditional hand. In the digital age, social media is filled with the modern successors of H.G. Wells making the same claims and arguments from nearly a hundred years ago. The decline in freedom of expression is a wakeup call, one that should make us reassess what is at stake, and who are the stakeholders, and what weapons are being assembled to protect beliefs.

In this essay, Orwell shows the frailty of H.G. Wells’ worldview of power, authority and superstition. He asks what is the mindset that moves people to violence, war and barbarity. H.G. Wells was a writer whom Orwell greatly admired as a boy. As an adult, he found his hero wanting. Orwell revised his view of Wells in light of Hitler’s army laying waste to Europe and threatening Britain with invasion. It would be a mistake to consider the essay of only historical interest. Orwell had an uncanny way of unearthing the truth that transcended the immediate historical context in which it applied.

Several quotes from Orwell’s essay warn of the limitations and dangers of accepting Wells’ view of the scientific man and the scientific world. His reservations about whether the scientific method of thinking will over take and tame our emotionally filtered system of thinking remain as valid as they were seventy-four years ago. Despite all of our advances in science, psychology, and communication after seventy-four years, a case can be made that we are repeating the same mistakes about the nature, role and scope of human emotions.

In 1941, Orwell wrote:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

*

The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his [Well’s] own works are based.

*

He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

The modern world deceived the progressive liberal intellectuals in 1941 and continues to deceive them in 2015. The idea that our great scientific achievements and vastly improved social media networks have changed the forces that drive the emotional reactions of people is as bogus now as it was for Orwell who clearly saw how Hitler combined grand pageantry, mythology, industrial achievement, and military capability into a powerful emotional package. Hitler had repackaged the Dark Ages and sent his army marching. He succeeded as his successors in the world succeed through nationalistic and racial, theocratic, and feudal patronage where merit, skill and talent are carefully controlled, isolated as a contaminating virus as deadly as Ebola.

“Science is fighting on the side of superstition,” seems a strange statement.We expected science to choose a better ally. But science never is in a position to decide its alliances. That is a political decision, and such decisions are underwritten in feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, envy, resentment and fear. The great irony is that science, which expands our horizons has been feeble to break the hold of our emotions.

As in 1941, we struggle to accept that we largely remain ‘creatures out of the Dark Ages’ only far more lethal and deadly as the means of repression, terror and intimidation have vastly improved through use of modern technology. While our technology defines the modern age, our emotional range is haunted by the primitive ghosts of our ancient past.

We have great works such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the fifty years of research that have gone into better understanding the nature of how beliefs and biases shape, filter, and distort our perceptions, comprehension, memories, and attitudes. In other words, even when science has examined in detail the nature of our emotional and cognitive limitations, there is a H.G. Wells temptation to believe that this knowledge sets us free. It does not. It cannot.

Superstition will, for most of us, prevail over the rational intellect. Our beliefs and ideologies, which form the core of our identity, are resilient to challenge, facts, debate. “Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side,” wrote Orwell. As for the opposite point of view, history has shown the test audience for that alternative is vanishingly small and narrow.

Orwell is too careful to dismiss that H.G. Well’s rational, calculated and deliberately run society will ultimately fall into the hands of leaders equipped with a scientific mindset once the vast majority of the population alter its mindset to a scientific setting. This may happen—“sooner or later,” to use Orwell’s phrase. He hedges the timing issue and that was a wise decision in retrospect. Only a romantic would predict that it is just around the corner. The 2015 Freedom Index suggests that the so-called ‘corner’ in 2015 is no closer to us than it was to Orwell. I suspect that the 2015 freedom reports wouldn’t have surprised him. Or that future World Freedom reports have a high likelihood of showing further erosion to freedom of expression. The scientific method and mindset shows no signs of advancing to replace the old dogmatic belief structure. That would take a major rewriting of our political, social and economic grid. Those with a vested interest would likely lose in that changeover. Besides, they are mainly true believers whose self is identified with their beliefs. And their beliefs provide the raw courage and emotional strength to hunker down in the bunker to the last man, woman and child.

Nor would George Orwell be surprised at the likelihood that machine intelligence will vanish around that corner, leaving our minds as they were in 1941 and leaving us behind to fight new wars pretty much like we fought old ones.

* Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.

Posted: 10/29/2015 9:45:36 PM 

 

The Price for Being Different

I have lived in Thailand the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article, opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve heard all of the arguments against this practice.

01
By Stephff (used with permission)

The Usual attack on the dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory; (3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged the same price as everyone else.

None of the above arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of services on foreigners such as university fees.

The deeper question is why does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social media?

I have a couple of ideas to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude, a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets you fire.

Dual practicing doesn’t exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from the circle of being in the in-group.

In Thailand, the in-group bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs, language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.

For the Americans (and sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities. In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda. More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.

What makes the in-group bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.

Group Think is the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’ who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the basis of esprit de corps.

Groups which value consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines, assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition. It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information that may adversely influence the official consensus.

Philip E. Tetlock author of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, wrote:

“Groupthink is a danger. Be cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”

A high value is given to consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted. Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.

Dual pricing is the tip of the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the ‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is an important divide between the two.

The cost is not so much the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.

A problem yet to be resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection, certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas. The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change. The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.

Tetlock has a catchy definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’ to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change the order of things.

Posted: 10/11/2015 8:55:23 PM 

 

Thinking Fast and Slow: A literary radar gun to measure the speed of thinking in Thailand

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been the #1 bestselling non-fiction title on the Bangkok Post arts page for over a year. I’ve lost track it may have been two years. That is a long-time for a foreign title to occupy the top spot on a local bestseller’s list. Kahneman’s book reveals how people process thoughts and emotions and react to the constructs that thinking creates in their minds. It is also an extensive discussion, based on fifty years of research, into the cognitive biases that act as the filters through which our thinking passes.

When someone says I have a bias. I say that doesn’t go far enough. I have dozens and dozens of biases. Most of them infect my process operating system and until someone like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman comes along, shows the evidence, and I discover I’ve remained oblivious to the importance they play in the way I perceive and understand reality. It is a humbling experience to accept that you and everyone else suffers from the flaws and defects that cognitive biases cause in our assessment of evidence, facts, opinions, and data. To learn about biases is to recognize the role they play in your own life, inside corporations, governments, entertainment, sport and family life.

None of this begins to explain why in Thailand, of all places, it continues to be the top bestseller (if Asia Books bestselling list is to be believed). I’d like to explore a few ideas that may shed some light on why Thinking Fast and Slow has become and remained a bestseller even in a country like Thailand where one of the common expressions is “thinking too much makes one’s head hurt”.

We evolved over a long-time frame—200,000 years—into a species of fundamentally shaped emotional beings. Our emotions along with our perceptions and memory of the past are the building blocks of what we think of as ‘self’. If you want to a truthful look of who you are to yourself, take a day and audit the emotions you feel. Write them down. Write down the reaction to each of those feelings. And the stories you tell yourself to justify, explain, defend or advocate. Keep that list for a week. Then go back and look in that narrative mirror. That is you, how you react into the world. What sets you off, triggering the chemical reactions in your brain? We know what those chemicals are and a fair amount about how they work in the brain. That is, of course, a mechanical, science-based position. Others may think that emotions magically appear like forest fairies.

We have been first and foremost are emotional charged from the time we entered the world until the day we depart it. Our emotional life gives us a roller coaster ride and we make up stories to explain the spills and chills. The slow thinking, or the rational, empirical, deliberate thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. It is cold, calculated, time-consuming, uncertain, complex and tentative—all of these attributes, when combined, construct a reality that can be measured, examined, tested, evaluated by others, who may disprove a widely accepted idea or show evidence of how it is flawed and how it might be improved.

This new, rational way of thinking is recent. Many people think today is a dividend of the Enlightenment. Newton came along in the 17th century, and with a new type of mathematics, was able to predict motion and velocity with precision. The 18th century saw a new breed of thinkers from Hume, Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Musician geniuses like Bach, Haydn and Mozart emerged. In the 19th century scientific discovery bloomed through the empirical methods employed by Darwin, Maxwell, Tesla, Faraday, Kelvin, Boltzmann, Clausius, Doppler and Planck to name only a few.

If you picked two books that changed the ‘method’ of thinking it would be Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) and Newton’s Principa Mathematica (1687). The world of magic, faith, and belief became challenged, along with unquestioned authority as custodians of the truth. What was changed? Truth no longer had an official master whose stories had to be believed. Truth left the domain of Sacred Authority to be revealed in the labs by scientists with their charts, instruments, procedures, formulae, and methods.

Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow about our psychological limitation to understand the truth is a product of that Enlightenment process. We had a better understanding how authority had traditionally acted as the oracle of our emotional lives. It also manipulated those emotions to suit the aims of the powerful. The problem was that there was no scientific method or explanation. People lived in a world of ritual and ceremony, which channeled emotions as a collective, unifying activity.

Pre-Enlightenment was like a grandfather clock, solid, reliable time keeping device in well-off houses. The problem with such clocks was the degree of accuracy required for advanced technology need a more precise measuring instrument. Atomic clocks operate on a different mechanism than the grandfather clock. Kahneman’s slow, deliberate thinking incorporates a self-monitoring, self-correcting features that have redesigned how our grandfather clock of emotions works.

When we think our grandfather clock of emotions remains our timekeeper, what happens when a culture or civilization has by-passed the Enlightenment generated system of methods, process, and procedures? A case can be made that a large number of people will be unhappy telling time the old way. Because they live in a vastly more complicated and complex world where how a person thinks is key to innovation, creativity and scientific advances in biology, nanotechnology, robotics, AI, and neural networks. The age of the grandfather clock, however, isn’t over. It continues to co-exist with the new realities. You see the evidence of this everyday in Thailand. And when there is a problem to be solved, confusion arises as to what problem-solving process should be used.

The Thais have embraced social media in large numbers. Given the recent political turmoil, and the attempt by coup-makers to turn the clock back, one would have expected more unrest. That hasn’t happened. Part of the explanation is that the Internet, games, and social media have provided a refuge, a place of escape from the messy, unpleasant emotional terrain of analogue life. The emotional transfer to the digital world has left a void in the analogue world. There may be few scattered demonstrations but largely, on the surface, people go about their lives as if disconnected from the political reality in which they live.

Then the junta was reported to have supported a proposal to reduce the digital interface into Thailand to a single pipeline. Suddenly all of those silent people who had disappeared from the analogue world of political discussion suddenly showed their anger. The DDos (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks that crashed many government and national telecom websites and hundreds of thousand tweets using the hashtag #SingleGateway showed a surprising degree of co-operation and collaboration to pull off the attacks. Whether this is the beginning of significant digital mass protest remains to be seen. The number of people involved in the attack is difficult to know. What is known is that more than a hundred thousand people have also signed an online petition to oppose the junta’s policy to install the Chinese-style “Great Firewall.”

Thailand’s digital community finally reacted. The emotional reaction leading to the in protest with the hashtag #SingleGateway found support on social media across usual political lines. It is difficult to find another proposed policy change that brought warring political factions to form a unified front. The opposition may have surprised the government, in any event, surprised or not, so the junta began to immediately backtrack on the idea.

Emotions about the Internet like all emotions are passionately held and defended. It may come as a surprise to the largely analogue core of senior government officials that a single pipeline would strike a nerve and an emotional reaction would spill over into the analogue world.

If the goal of the government has been to de-emotionalize the political discussion and to refocus that discussion to the grandfather clock era, the single pipeline policy proposal suggests a long, emotional battle may result. The most radical book in Thailand at present is probably Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as it is a guidebook on the kind of biases exposed in the positions and postures of government policies and proposals. The critics with this new Enlightened way of thinking are online; on LINE, on social media, and they argue, debate, become emotional, friend and de-friend each other with a large degree of freedom. Removing that platform, this safe harbor for debate is no small change. The Internet is a symptom of something else that is happening under the surface. Many cultures seek the best of both worlds; there is an uneasy duality of process depending on many factors from international treaty obligations to the demands of modern technology, finance and communication systems in order they can be coupled into a larger international network.

Thailand is no different from many countries, which seek to balance problem-solving processes in a culture where dual mechanisms compete. There is the local environment where the rules and regulations, law enforcement officials, judges, and regulators, for purely domestic problems, use pre-Enlightenment ideas whether based on magical thinking, non-scientific premises, forced confessions, or evidentiary techniques of a prior time. It might be a news story but it hardly causes a ripple outside of the country. The Sacred Authority model was once the worldwide model. There was no other. The style of thinking that underscores Sacred Authority is incompatible with the thinking style that created a complex, diverse and ever changing digital environment with all the rough edged emotional tumble colliding with games, videos, talks, articles, graphics, photographs, on countless platforms seeking audience attention. It is a world of conflict, contention, trolling, emotional vetting, and diverse ideas, big data, and large information sinkholes. DDoS attacks are Thailand’s Millennial generations way of exerting their values and priorities. They hadn’t melted away; they had escaped to an online universe where they wished to be left to pursue their interests, grievance, dreams, and desires.

After the Enlightenment, (I am aware of literature of how National Socialism and Communist regimes used these ideas to cause massive destruction and suffering), The Empirical Model rose to challenge the Sacred Authority Model on a political, social and economic battlefield and largely won most of those battles. The evidence of those victories are everywhere in the way business and trade is conducted. If you wish to use slaves to catch and can fish as the business model in your fishing industry, you may argue that you didn’t do it, or if some meddlesome person has evidence that you did, the back up is your domestic industry standards is no one else’s business; it falls within your Sacred Authority.

The history of the West illustrates the Sacred Authority lasted long after the Enlightenment had begun. The US Supreme Court in the 19th century Dread Scott case didn’t prevent a slaveholder from a Southern State to reclaim his ‘property’, an escaped slave, from a Northern state where the slave had sought refuge.

Most countries have a blended system that draws from both the Sacred and the Empirical methods to solve problems. A broad continuum exist in most cultures and groups argue often emotionally as to what regime of methods and processes should be employed—with one side arguing the solution is faith-based and the other that fact or evidence-based problem-solving mechanism provides the solution. One expects to find, and is indeed not disappointed to discover that all kinds of contradictions, tensions and conflict arise. Sharia laws are an example of the Sacred Method and way of thinking. The problem solvers are clergy. The problem-solving mechanism is theocratic. The problem is cast in terms of doctrine to be interpreted.

The Sacred decision-making process is binary—good and bad, right and wrong. Applying that mechanism to, say, construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants is a frightening prospect. Complex and complicated problems require a different way of thinking. A process where those in charge are accustomed to an environment of uncertainty and doubt, and testing for weakness and defects is normal. Thinking about a problem where the process is created as part of the sacred means honoring boundaries of thought and inquiry, and the role of the authorities is not to test boundaries but to defend them.

Less extreme forms of the Sacred can be attached to flags or constitutions that make them above the profane of daily life. How we think about problems and the methods for solving them is a good indication of where it is placed along the continuum of Sacred and Empirical. For example, to suggests that evidence from other countries shows that banning or regulating guns or introducing universal health care in the United States would have a positive results in saving money and preventing deaths—and suddenly you have a fight on your hands. The Empirical Model vanishes behind a super-heated cloud of emotions and appeals to the Sacred appear as if the Enlightenment had never happened.

In the modern world, other countries, which had gone through the Enlightenment (and notice that they are the developed countries with money to buy large amounts of fish), will collectively act and ban the sale of slave caught fish. Thailand’s fishing industry, in response to international pressure from trading partners, seeks to find solutions that can be audited by others to eliminate slavery. The real problem lies in the absent of empirical experience and resources to detect, avoid, and monitor such problems. The failure is the failure of processes and enforcement mechanism that often uses aspirations of goodwill as a substituted solution. (Aspirational goals appeal to emotions and can work effectively on shaping public opinion in countries like Thailand, where having “good intentions” is more highly valued than the actual quality or effectiveness of the proposed policy.) A problem-solving mechanism that appeals to the logical, analytical aspect of our nature and demands a different kind of thinking. It will likely excite the emotions of those in the Sacred Method camp, on the basis such an approach is a provocation to their beliefs.

The same problem arises with rules governing aviation. If you wish to have a domestic aviation industry where planes regularly crash for lack of maintenance, that may be a sovereign right, but for international flights, the planes must comply with international rules for operation and maintenance and violation of those rules will lead to banning the offending aviation companies landing rights.

The number of cars registered in Bangkok now exceeds to number of people registered as living in Bangkok. Traffic is a domestic issue. No one in New York, Toronto or London cares about lost time waiting in Bangkok traffic or the lack of parking space. When transportation policy is decided under the Sacred Authority methods, finding a systematic, rational and efficient system becomes elusive. The empirical methods are not developed or trusted as they might spill over into other areas pushing back the boundaries of the traditional way of thinking about things that need attention. Law enforcement officials with inadequate training or tools are discouraged from seeking professional assistance, for example, in evaluating DNA and other forensic evidence to be used in a murder case, for fear of losing control of the case to foreigners.

Emotions cause the best analytical tools to be left on the shelf; the empirical studies filed in the office filing cabinet. Emotions dictate the storyline; not necessarily the actual evidence. The problem with modern technology whether it is transportation, education, fishing, or forensic science is that the line between domestic and global commerce, trade and communication has resulted in the construction of an international system, mechanism, process and methods that is very difficult to avoid, unless one decides to embrace something along the lines of the North Korean or Saudi models (to name just two). Those bucking this new international regime with the Sacred Model as the funnel for emotionalism have no way out. The ability to have the best of both worlds has collapsed. Governments, however, haven’t stopped pretending that they can go back to the past when such a distinction existed and officials had control over what could and could not be done.

What is destroying the legitimacy of governments is the absence of creating problem-solving processes. Most countries share similar problems. Most countries invest in research and development not only in identifying problems but in the development of cooperative processes where experts and large data can fine-tune the methods and process where new solutions can be found to old problems, and new problems can be unearthed that lead to more fine-tuning to the methods and processes. In other words, it is a constant, endless re-examination and critical questioning of how to improve the process of decision-making. Given the accelerated rate of technological change, methods and processes are soon outdated. Audit, evaluate, modify, replace, and adapt, replace a fixed, certain, stable Sacred Authority model where time on the grandfather clock no longer reflects the reality of how time is measured in the modern world.

All of this change pushes emotional alarm buttons. Elites, with a vested interested in the grandfather clock model, experience fear, anger, and hatred as to the new order sees them not as partners but obstacles to the world where questioning, criticism, debate, curiosity, and uncertainty are considered normal.

What the Enlightenment brought was the possibility that people might disagree on an idea, theory or principle. That debated wasn’t settled by blood, or by war and hatred against someone with a different idea. A space has opened up for those who disagreed to take a step back from their emotional reaction, examine their biases, and ask for evidence to support an argument. The future is for those who invite evidence that contradicts their theory; it doesn’t belong to those who only seek confirmation, and seek to stifle those with evidence to the contrary.

Will Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow continue to be number one in Thailand for another year? It is possible. Such a radical book has attracted a Thai audience is worthy of note. It may be some evidence that many Thais, especially those exposed to social media, are seeking to better understand how their emotional lives are connected to their thinking process. Understanding what goes on inside the brain and how our emotions and thoughts are processed is something no one has figured out.

We are left with a vague glimpse of what might be possible. But for now, it is enough to hope that the how we think when self-reflection and doubt are incorporated into the process will make us more aware of how emotions guide our perceptions, stories, and sense of self. , We can’t avoid our cognitive biases but we can recognize the limitations they impose. It takes a lifetime of work where we slow down our thinking and calculate more finely the options beyond what we instinctively feel at the moment. Even then, we will continue to ambush ourselves with all of kinds of great stories as to why we were angry with Jack, and hate Helen and honestly believe that no one in their right mind could do anything but agree and support us. Because we are human. We are feeling machines, retrofitted with a lever called logic. You will find it on your own console; if like mine, it is the one with cobwebs on it.

Posted: 10/2/2015 4:28:22 AM 

 

 

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