Sunday, December 20, 2009

What Would a Space Invader Think?

If a space invader believed what Americans say about education, he/she/it would conclude that we value it highly. If this same creature were to sit in on any of a zillion business meetings, he/she/it would also determine that Americans base their strategies, beliefs, and actions on facts (or in the face of uncertainty, at least the most reasonable assumptions), plus a logical thinking modality that connects facts with inevitable conclusions. If the alien were to overhear the thousands of conversations in businesses and non-profits alike about "continuous improvement," he/she/it might conclude that we are all intimately involved in feedback loops where consequences of current actions modify future actions.

If our hypothetical space invader then extrapolated to assume that Americans, in general, modify their belief systems and actions to conform to reality, he/she/it would be making a huge mistake.

I am not the only person to notice this phenomenon. Writing in the 12/14/09 edition of the New York Times, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman commented: "When I first began writing for The Times, I was naive about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs."

In a similar vein, columnist Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times (12/12/09) that "our national conversation is dominated by a culture of assertion rather than a respect for evidence reasonably assessed."

One has only to witness the current "debates" about practically every important political issue of the day to verify these ugly truths.

I have been privileged as CEO of a mid-sized non-profit organization to learn about and actually utilize a complex and multi-step decision-making strategy (thanks in part to a skilled consultant) -- and it works! Unfortunately, the model is too complex to describe here in its entirety. Suffice it to say that it incorporates ten steps, including agreeing on the characteristics of a desirable outcome, ascertaining facts, and projecting the likely outcomes of alternatives suggested by a diverse group of people.

I don't see much evidence that decisions made in our public arenas conform to any cohesive decision-making process. We rarely define our goals carefully. We ignore or dispute facts based on pre-existing belief systems rather than modifying our beliefs to conform to generally recognized facts. We don't listen well; "debate" doesn't have the same meaning it used to.

In today's political world, evidence carries little or no weight; life-long learning (ideally part of the "education" we claim to value) is a joke. There is only one step in the political decision-making process: what do I already believe, or need to believe in order to get re-elected? Facts be damned.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still believe that the earth is flat and occupies its rightful place in the center of the universe?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still be bloodletting to cure people of diseases rather than giving them antibiotics?

(OK, admittedly, this means some people do pay attention to some facts some of the time, since we do have antibiotics and don't believe the earth is flat. But we still can't agree on health care policy, climate change, tax policy, the value of foreign interventions, etc.)

I'd love to see an intelligent creature from outer space slap a few people in the face and say "Wake up! You are destroying each other and the planet! Use your mental capacities for something more meaningful than voting for the next American Idol!"


  1. Political debate is not now, nor has it been in the past, very much about creating good outcomes with regard to the law. Political debate is about politicians seeking power and re-election at the expense of other politicians. They engage in debate not to use logic to promote a beneficial policy, but to appear smarter and more commanding and thereby be elected by their constituents and feared by potential political foes.

    It's a question of incentives, and actually comes up as a problem in business as well. As a CEO, the thing you have incentive to do isn't necessarily what's best for the organization, but what appears best to the board and/or shareholders. In the case of a smallish nonprofit, this isn't much of a divide. But if you had 600,000 shareholders each with one share, what they thought was best and what actually is best might be very different. Changing their minds is the hard thing to do; doing what they say is the easy way.

  2. Ron,

    Even 'progressives' in our society get diverted to small window-dressing reforms from the two essential deep reforms that never get talked about, even by them: Reform in HOW public decisions are made, and reform in WHO makes those decisions.

    Your spaceman has noted the HOW issue. Public attitudes accept (indeed, the public has never even questioned, or been led to question) the use of pre-scientific belief-rather-than-fact based decision methods, based on belief and whim rather than on fact and clear rationale, by whoever has the decision power - be it one person, a council, an assembly, or a mass electorate.

    I call this the Ursa ('bear') approach, Ursa for Un-Reasoned Subjective Adversarial - indeed bear-ish. You use - and like me advocate - instead what I call the Roc approach (recall the Arabian Nights' powerful high-flyer with comprehensive over-view): that's Roc for Reasoned Objective Cooperation.

    Roc features use of consensus goals, and decision-analytic tools to give the needed overview to choose between the available options - options viewed as means to these goals, rather than as adversarial ultimate ends-in-themselves.

    Moreover, while proclaiming 'democracy', we have a constitutional oligarchy in which there are two classes of citizens - the mass (in our day largely educated, therefore frustrated and alienated) of essentially powerless mere-voters (at best) and an elite of totally empowered long-term-serving (and therefore readily corrupted) politicians. Despite the talk of 'government of laws and not of men', essentially all the mere-voters are allowed to do is weigh in on which personalities should get to be the oligarchs - in effect vote for American idols. Many 'progressives' seem to get their thrills mainly from seeing such idols bear a 'progressive' label.

    Joe Weinstein