Archive for February, 2009

17
Feb
09

The 99 Percent Trap

2400895854_15d0bc0a61_mOver at Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder re-posted a book review by Kevin Kelly on The Deniers, a book that reviews the arguments of scientists who question global warming. This post comes a few weeks after a series of guest posts by Charles Platt that questioned the validity of global warming. As the days go by, the comments started to include attacks on the person versus the idea.

Global warming is a perfect example of the 99% Trap. I define the 99% Trap as our tendency too slip into attacking the person versus questioning the idea when we perceive ourselves to be right. In pursuit of that final 1%, it’s easy to grow frustrated. After all, how can someone question what 99% believes to be true?

Doing so might unintentionally limit our options. Consider the history of 1%ers (for the record, I have nothing against the Catholic church):

  • Galileo championed heliocentrism and ended up under house arrest during the Roman Inquisition because the Catholic church believed it contradicted the literal meaning of the scriptures and couldn’t be proven empirically.
  • Martin Luther stood up to the Catholic church and challenged it as the sole religious authority.
  • Abolitionists challenged a practice accepted by large portions of the world’s population, raising awareness and turning it into a actionable issue.
  • Suffragists fought for, and in many cases won, the right to vote regardless  of gender or race.

Each of the individuals or groups started out as the 1%, as the minority. Luckily for us, we now know our world circles the sun, more than one theology has a place in society, few place exist where slavery remains legal, and a significant portion of the world’s population has the right to vote.

Here’s where the danger lies. What happens if the 1% is in the wrong, sometimes dangerously so, but isn’t challenged? That’s what often drives the 99%. What do we risk if the 1% becomes 2%, 10%, or 25%?

Whether it’s frustration, fear, or something else, we sometimes give in to the temptation to stop questioning the ideas and go after the person. When we do so, our arguments immediately become suspect, at least to the people we’re trying to convince. We also risk losing the people leaning in the direction of the majority but who remain skeptical of certain points.

The 99% Trap can happen in almost any situation, whether it’s the boardroom or the bedroom, you have to choose to not slip up and turn the situation personal. The reality is that 100% consensus isn’t likely. If you’re responding to the arguments and not to the individual you won’t risk your position and may actually pull a few from the 1% in the process.

Image via Flickr, unloveablesteve.

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11
Feb
09

Bad Science Language

115045505_621679f0ca_mLanguage in science is a challenge. Science comes with gray areas that both intrigue and confuse.  Getting it right every time is unlikely, making science a perfect example of ongoing thought evolution. However, few things make me more angry than when science is twisted to suit agendas. Consider the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield:

The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found. (link)

One thing in particular caught my eye a little later in the article:

Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.

Herd immunity brought to mind Mark Earls and his insights into why humans do what they do. I was pleasantly surprised to see him post today on this very issue:

As I’ve noted before, vaccination is a HERD thing: its real power works at a population level. If that falls below a certain level, then diseases that used to cause significant damage can become prevalent again. Fuelling the conversation that suggests that there are risks or any evidence of risks leads to the lower level of compliance with the vaccination programme and creates the opportunity for the resurgance of once almost unknown childhood diseases. Particularly when the science is so damn clear. (link)

I will never understand why scientists elect to promote ideas that aren’t backed up by real research. It seems like these pretenders are discovered with relative ease once someone elects to take a hard look at the data. Very little seems to be gained while a huge amount is put at risk.

Scientific language becomes even more important when we’re talking about things that impact lives directly. Parents want to know what they can do to best protect their children. Inaccurate information only makes this harder to do.

As a layperson, I can think of few positions that come with greater social responsibility than that of scientist. This responsibility includes choosing one’s words with care. Each individual has a right to his or her opinion, but once it’s expressed publicly, the individual must accept the consequences.

Image via Flickr by ms_cwang.

09
Feb
09

From Where Do You Seek Knowledge

Too often, I fail to acknowledge how lucky I am to know everything I do. I have access to resources that even 50 years ago weren’t readily available in local libraries let alone in the comfort of my home via computer. Beyond easy access, there’s the sheer volume of knowledge that’s accumulated over the years. With every passing year, we learn something about the world and about the people who inhabit it. However, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend in the way we’re gaining our knowledge—we’re doing it secondhand.

From Knowledge Comes Beliefs

Using the things we learn we form opinions and ideas that support a certain line of thought. Sometimes these opinions and ideas harden into beliefs that stick with us for years. Over time, I’ve come to realize that few of us extend the effort to go to the source, but rather listen to others who have.

I’ve defined the source as Authorities. These individuals include scientists and others who ask a particular question and then pursue activities in an effort to answer said question. Then, there are the Filters. These individuals include politicians, pundits, activists, and the like who analyze ideas generated by the Authorities and promote them to like-minded constituencies.

A significant portion of our knowledge comes from these two categories. It makes sense that we seek after the knowledge of people with the experience versus repeating everything ourselves. This reliance places us in a position of trusting that what we’re hearing is a truth, at least of sorts.

Too Much Faith

In recent years, I believe we’ve become far too reliant on the interpretation of knowledge promoted by Filters and ignored the original source to our detriment. I see this reliance in multiple public discussions where either side is equally vehement in its defense of a particular position:

  • Global Warming
  • Abortion
  • Big vs. Small Government
  • Foreign Policy

The list could go on for pages, but I suspect that within an instant you could easily call up multiple ideas and opinions related to these debates, both in support of your position and against it.

Now that you’re thinking of the reasons why you believe what you do, where did your knowledge come from? Perhaps I assume to much, but I hypothesize that much of what we know comes through Filters.

Authorities Require Extra Effort

Going to Authorities for our knowledge is a challenge. Sometimes the answers we’re seeking are buried under statistics and confusing prose that make our eyes feel heavy. Sometimes the obscurity of an Authority makes it difficult to return to the original work, particularly if a much easier book written by a Filter sits on the shelf or holds forth on the television. But we often miss something when we seek our knowledge via Filters—the original purpose of the Authority.

Filters Have Their Own Purpose

Filters have their own goals to fulfill, and whether those goals align with the original intent of the Authority can be secondary. Often, in order to answer a question, an Authority seeks to understand an opposing viewpoint to the answer pursued. The same does not happen as often with Filters. We’re left to weigh for ourselves the intent behind the knowledge the Filter chooses to put forth, sometimes with mixed results.

Debating with Filtered Knowledge

Consider our current circumstances. For many of us, what we know about the stimulus package being tossed around in Congress is based on what we’ve heard on the news or read online. (Note: If you’ve read the full bill, I’d love to hear your take on the situation.) We hear about Republicans fighting with Democrats, President Obama chastising reluctant politicians, and ominous declarations of what will happen if Congress fails to act. We hear very little about the actual details of the package itself, unless they’re controversial, like Representative Waxman’s addition of contraceptive funding. Why is that?

We’re talking about spending $800+ billion (that’s EIGHT zeros). It feels like we’ve abdicated our right to go to the source and instead rely on the Filters for what comes next. The same things has happened with multiple public debates. I’m not advocating that we swear off using Filters, but I do wonder what our world would look like if we were a little less reliant on them.

Filters make it easy to block out opposing viewpoints, putting us at individual risk. Sun Tzu said,

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In our pursuit of evermore knowledge we owe it to ourselves to return to the source, to wade through the difficult, to challenge the interpretation presented by the Filters. Otherwise, we risk knowing neither ourselves nor our enemies.

05
Feb
09

Life’s Little Annoyances

Note: This post is part of my yearlong commitment to share how the books I read impact my perspective.

For me, it’s the dog owner who neglects to pick up his pooch’s business. I also admit to suffering minor road rage at tailgaters and people who can’t drive the speed limit. Despite our preoccupation with the big things life throws our way, the little things can still drive us to distraction.

With pleasure, I finished reading Ian Urbina’s Life’s Little Annoyances and learned firsthand how some individuals have chosen to fight back against the small, daily things that drive us crazy. While I enjoyed the examples of combating everyday nonsense, I was surprised to learn what can come out of pushing back against the craziness.

  • A remote to turn off multiple TV types (i.e. turning off the obnoxiously loud TV in the restaurant)
  • A tool that slices open CD packaging safely
  • A rejection hotline number and email address for people when they want to avoid giving their info
  • A set of plastic wedges that keeps the airline seat in front of you from reclining all the way
  • A website that tells you the nearest location of a coffee shop that’s NOT Starbucks

These examples are within the first 50 pages of Urbina’s book. He highlights several others throughout. I suspect that there are many other inspired inventions that all started out as a way to vent one’s frustration with the status quo.

I think when we hit a wall or the status quo interferes with our objectives, our first inclination is to be frustrated, angry, irritated, etc. What if we looked at these little annoyances, or big ones for that matter, as opportunities to change the status quo, to end up better off than we were before?

What Are Our Options?

For instance, consider our current economic mess. People have lost jobs, their homes, and their retirement. Do we really want to wait until Congress decides how to stimulate the economy before we make a move? Here are some things to consider:

  • If you’ve lost a job, is it possible that you could start your own business?
  • If you’ve lost your home, is there an opportunity to move in with elderly relatives who could benefit from your care and attention?
  • If you watched your retirement go down the drain, do you have other opportunities that you didn’t consider before because of your retirement plans?

One of the most frustrating aspects of an economic crisis is the absolute focus on the bad. Yes, times are tough, but why aren’t we hearing more conversations about how we can make things better?

Why aren’t we talking about how buying locally can support businesses in our community? Why aren’t we talking about banking with institutions who were wise to avoid the sub-prime mess and have healthy cash reserves? Why aren’t we talking about whether it’s really for the best if our economy returns to “normal?” (Carl @BehaviorGap.com discusses the possibility that instead of a recession, the economy is resetting itself.)

We need to ask ourselves what we really want our world to look like and what we’re willing to do to help make it happen. Stepping over the mess and cursing the people around us accomplishes little.  How are chosing to deal with life’s (little/big) annoyances?




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