Friday, December 18, 2009

The Scientists Who Cried Wolf

In one of Aesop's fables a shepherd boy cries wolf to relieve his boredom. Of course the villagers rush to defend the flock but then get angry when they learn that there is no wolf. The young shepherd is so stubborn that he repeats the offense several times, until finally the villagers refuse to believe him. That obvious lesson seems lost on some scientists in the climate debate.

We have now been treated to the saddest spectacle of scientific fraud in my memory. The Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England is one of very few institutions where the raw data on climate history is supposed to be stored. It is now documented that “scientists” at that institution modified data and discarded the original information. In the ethics of science that is equivalent to a clergyman ordering changes made to the Bible. All data and other information from that institution are now suspect. In fact Phil Jones has now stepped aside, at least temporarily, as director of CRU while this is under investigation. The scandal now even has a name, it's being called “Climategate.”

Is this limited to our friends in England? Sadly no. Michael E. Mann at Penn State also appears to have been involved and others may be. Furthermore, some support for the CRU seems to have come from U.S. tax money, a fact that has caused the U.S. Department of Energy to put a litigation hold on information in case the lawyers get involved. Information in that department cannot be discarded in case it is subpoenaed. At this time it is uncertain just how deep the deception runs but information now available is enough to cast doubt on the databases used to prove the man-made global warming theory.

As if that were not enough, the “scientists” involved were attempting to censor scientists with opposing viewpoints. Science depends on a peer-review process to verify that papers are worth publication. It is a good system but some involved in this controversy attempted to manipulate it. Referring to two papers in opposition Mann wrote, “I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

The hush is on elsewhere as well. At the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, video journalist Phelim McAleer asked Professor Stephen Schneider about the Climategate issue. Schneider's response was to call in armed guards to have McAleer thrown out and threaten to confiscate the camera with the evidence.

Two of the most important pillars of science are integrity of data and open discussion of results. Jones, Mann, and their cohorts appear to have attacked both of those pillars. And considering how dependent climate scientists around the world have been on their data, they have cast doubt on the entire theory of man-made global warming. We have to wonder, if man-made global warming is so clear, why did they need to twist and purge data? Usually people only do that to bolster a weak case.

This is a serious problem. We must remember that in Aesop's fable, a wolf did later appear and that time the villagers failed to respond to the boy's cries for help. If scientists are caught corrupting their data we will not believe their false claims. However we are also likely to reject their claims even when true. Climategate does not disprove the global warming theory but it does put it in serious doubt. If global warming is a real problem, Jones, Mann et al have done serious damage to our ability to deal with it. Whether it is a problem or not, they have done serious damage to science as a whole.

We need to find people with impeccable integrity and the scientific ability to do the job. Than those people must be tasked to review the entire body of climate data and determine what is true, what may be true and what is false. Only such an effort will restore our faith in science on this important issue.

Personal Note: I’ll be taking some time off for Christmas so probably will not post anything here for a couple of weeks. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, or if you don’t celebrate either of those, I wish you an enjoyable season in any case.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health Care – Something's Missing, Part 3

My last two postings have discussed how we need citizens who can dig down deep and come up with the heart, the guts, the tenacity to do the seemingly impossible. We need men and women who won’t quit, who will overcome the obstacles to preserving and improving our way of life.

However there is another important aspect of this, only briefly mentioned in those posts. We need people who can not only deal with adversity but who can intelligently avoid problems. We face plenty of problems no matter what we do. There is no need to create more, either carelessly or deliberately. A good survivor needs wisdom in addition to guts. That is true whether he is climbing a mountain, running a business or family, or making decisions for an entire country.

Joe Simpson’s survival on Siula Grande was due not only to the extreme guts he showed there but also to making wise decisions under extreme pressure. When he was climbing out of that crevasse he could have easily lost concentration and fallen. Every step upward required decisions on where to place his ice axe and the foot of his one good leg. One mistake and he would have been back at the bottom of the crevasse, with more injuries if he was even still alive.

The ability to make such decisions does not come suddenly when needed. Simpson had long practice in making critical decisions every time he climbed a mountain. He had rich experience deciding if it was safer to wait out a storm or try to outrun it and get to safer terrain, if he should risk a quick descent or go more slowly and carefully at the risk that the sun would make the snow unstable. He had faced literally thousands of such questions during his climbing career. Almost all had potentially serious consequences.

People of the caliber of Joe Simpson do not grow in sheltered lives. They grow as they take responsibility for their own lives. That applies not only to world-class mountaineers but to business owners, employees, parents, and those engaged in every other human endeavor. For most it starts in late childhood when they are allowed to make decisions and live with the results of those decisions. It continues through the teen years as their decisions become more substantial. Finally in their adulthood they become mature and fully human, standing on their own two feet. They recognize what they can and cannot change or control and concentrate their energies on what they can do. That is the type of person we need as citizens.

Of course part of the development of such individuals comes from living with the results of their actions. Such people grow in an atmosphere of self-reliance, a place where there are rewards and consequences for how they decide. The nanny state militates against such growth. People who get rescued from all consequences of their bad decisions learn dependence and bad decision-making. They will need and expect that someone else protect them so they will never grow to fully developed human beings. Nor are they likely to become the productive and wise citizens we need.

“Wait a minute Lillywhite,” you say. “You are in search and rescue. You protect people from the consequences of their actions by rescuing them. Why do you do that?”

Actually it is only partly true that we protect people from the consequences of their actions. In wilderness rescues nobody can completely do that. Some subjects of our missions are seriously injured or even die. Sadly, others are found deceased or not found at all. Even those rescued uninjured have usually spent a miserable time before we arrive. The most we can do is provide an imperfect safety net to help avoid the worst consequences of their mistakes or bad luck.

There is a difference between a safety net and a nanny state that takes over people’s lives. The health care “reforms” seem to be aimed at a complete takeover of one aspect of our lives. That will develop dependence and militate against independent thought and good decision-making.

The fact is that most of us are faced with important decisions that we must make under pressure, even in non-emergency situations. Learning to make those decisions wisely will prepare us for more urgent decisions we may face later. This can start quite early; the teen who refuses to give in to peer pressure to cheat in school or to drive dangerously will be better prepared if he later faces the pressure of a wilderness accident or managing a company threatened by poor business conditions. Should he become a successful politician he will be more able to resist pressure from special interests or other politicians.

We need to encourage people to face the consequences of their decisions. That means allowing them to suffer those consequences except in the worst cases.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Health Care – Something's Missing, Part 2

Last time I wrote about the need to develop guts, heart, or whatever we chose to call it. It is the inner strength that we can use to overcome obstacles, sometimes when it appears that all hope is lost. I make no pretense of being able to give you that strength; you have to develop it yourself. However it is useful to study those who had such guts and how they used that tenacity. Gonzales' book, Deep Survival gives us many examples and describes the actions of those people.

(I should mention one difference in recommendations between Gonzales and myself. He seems to advocate that those lost or injured in the backcountry try to get out on their own. That is appropriate for those cases where rescue is unlikely. However in most of the contiguous 48 states I believe it is usually better for a lost or seriously injured person to wait for rescue if someone knows approximately where you are. However in my book, Bringing Yourself Back Alive I also advocate positive action on the part of the lost or injured person. He should take action to protect himself, and to help searchers. However if he is not seriously injured or lost he should try to get himself out.)

The survivors Gonzales describes do not waste much time feeling sorry for themselves. Feeling abused is a natural human reaction but is not helpful in such situations. Survivors work through that stage quickly, then get on to something productive. Neither do they panic, instead they think carefully about what they should do. Then they set about doing it, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it is.

Joe Simpson broke his leg descending Siula Grande in Peru. With great difficulty he and his partner started working their way back to camp, with Simpson hopping on one leg or being lowered with a rope by his partner. Things were starting to look manageable – until Simpson fell over a cliff, landing on a snow bridge in a crevasse. His partner could not see him and was forced to cut the rope. Simpson knew his partner would think he was dead and would have to go on alone. He was on his own, in a crevasse with a broken leg. It was impossible to climb out of the crevasse from that snow bridge. Yet he got himself out of that crevasse, broken leg and all and finally managed to get back to camp in time to meet the donkeys that carried their gear (and Simpson) out of the mountains. Had he not gotten himself to camp he would have died where was and his body probably would never have been found.*

Simpson's struggle is instructive. He could have quit after determining that he could not climb up from the snow bridge. However he refused to either give up or panic. Instead he used his brain, noticing a snow pyramid in another part of the crevasse. He lowered himself to the bottom, drug his body to that pyramid, and climbed it to escape. His ordeal was not over, he was still a long way from camp but he didn't give up. He passed his gut check and lived.

Simpson's actions are a good example of reasoned planning, intelligent seeking for a solution, and dogged determination when all seemed lost. That is the kind of backbone we need in our citizens.

Joe Simpson did not develop his tenacity by having someone else meet his needs. Like all survivors he had overcome difficulties before. What will happen when U.S. citizens start looking to government for our needs? We will become a nation of sheeple. We will lose the independence and tenacity that have stood us so well in the past. We will fail the “gut check.” We will not have that extra something inside that is so necessary in any stressful situation, not only in survival cases. Employees and managers will give up easily, harming our economy. Parents will give up easily, harming the coming generation. Spouses will give up easily, leading to broken homes, female poverty and problem children. Whistle blowers will give in to fear and allow corruption to continue.

If we turn our health care over to the “Big Brother” of government it will be one more step towards removing our self-reliance and becoming sheeple instead of the fully developed human beings we should be. We will continue to have human bodies, but we will have sheep-like characters.

*Simpson describes this in his book, Touching the Void. It is also briefly described in Gonzales' book.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

A Day That Does Not Live in Infamy

[Note: Since today is Pearl Harbor day I am posting this Monday instead of Tuesday. I’m also interrupting the “Health Care – Something’s Missing” sequence. I plan to return to that series on Friday.]

The fighter planes, dive bombers, and torpedo planes dropped out of the clouds over the 2800-foot Koolau Range. Surprise was complete. Strafing fighters knocked out the U.S. planes before they could get off the ground. Bombers and torpedo planes sunk every warship in Pearl Harbor. Then the attackers returned to their carriers and escaped.

You almost certainly never heard of that attack. No it did not happen on December 7, 1941. It took place on February 7, 1932. The attackers were under the command of U.S. Admiral H. E. Yarnell and of course the bombs and other weapons were simulated, part of a war game.* That day that does not live in infamy – but it should.

The sad fact is that Yarnell’s operation offered some lessons that our naval authorities missed. The Japanese attack in 1941 was a near duplicate of that simulation. Both were on Sunday when defenses were down, both used the same pattern of attack, even using clouds over the same mountain range to conceal their approach. However the Japanese bombs and torpedoes were real and in 1941 the ships were sunk in reality instead of in simulation.

What was the reaction of the admiralty? Some officers saw the lesson and wanted to incorporate it into naval operations. They were overruled. The navy remained organized around battleships and cruisers, with aircraft carriers as a stepchild. Worse, decision-makers ignored the possibility that the Japanese might copy Yarnell’s plan.

The Japanese did not ignore it. Their spies were watching and reports quickly made their way to Tokyo. Those reports may have played a part in Yamamoto’s planning (though there were other sources he may also have used). What is clear is that U.S. involvement in World War II would have started very differently had our authorities learned from Yarnell’s operation and taken measures to defend against such an attack in a real war. The total lack of preparation for air attack made it easy for the Japanese.

That day in 1932 should live in infamy because of U.S. refusal to learn the obvious lessons. Furthermore it should live in infamy as a reminder to each of us that we are subject to similar blind spots. That is part of being human.

The fact is that we do not see the world as it is, the world is much too complicated for that. Our minds filter what we perceive so that we see only what seems important to us. A group of Harvard psychologists demonstrated this by showing a video of basketball players passing the ball. They asked people to count the number of passes made. During the video either a woman with an umbrella or a man in a gorilla costume would walk through the action. Only half noticed the gorilla and only 65% noticed the woman. Those distractions were not necessary to the task so many people filtered them out.

No, we don’t see the world as it is, we see a model of that world. Our mind creates that model by paying selective attention to what we regard as important. That is the only manner we can make sense of this world. So it has always been, and so it will always be unless we somehow become omniscient. The difference between success and failure is not whose model contains the greatest amount of information. It is not even necessarily whose model is most accurate. No, that difference is whose model is most accurate in characteristics relevant to the issue at hand.

Air power was not an important part of the model held by U.S. Navy decision-makers so they filtered out Yarnell’s success. Their model of warfare had been effective during World War I but the world had changed. Following the standard procedure of using the time between wars to learn how to fight the last war better, U.S. commanders ignored important information. Failure to incorporate that information into their model led to disaster.

So what does a failure from 77 years ago have to do with us today? The answer is that human nature has not changed. We still see only our own model of the world and human nature still militates against changing that model. Each of us has a model of the world, correct in some regards, incorrect in others, and simply not including other parts of the world. This affects how we live our individual, family, and work lives. It also affects how we vote and how those we elect govern us. Parents, employees, managers, politicians. All see their own model of the world, not the real world itself. Those models are all imperfect. The effectiveness of their decisions depends on how those imperfections fit with important aspects of those decisions. If the errors in the model are important to their decisions, they will have no choice but to make bad decisions.

Can we overcome this problem? Not completely but we can do better. Gonzales book, Deep Survival, points out that survivors are people who are willing to recognize the imperfections in their model of the world, and to change that model to fit new information. Those who refuse to do this may get by but are setting themselves up for disaster when their model does not match important aspects of reality. Sowell in his book, The Vision of the Anointed, makes a similar point about political life. He points out that many with the “unconstrained vision” simply refuse to admit that they might be wrong. It is not that their model is faulty, that happens to everybody. Their problem is that they do not adapt their model of the world to available information. Like the navy brass after 1932, they continue down the path to disaster.

What can we do about all this? Perfection is not available to humans so we have to do the best we can. That means recognizing that our models of the world are imperfect and always will be. However it also includes continually improving in those models by seeking and accepting new information. We can also insist that politicians do the same. Only in that way can we improve how we see the world with consequent improvement in our decisions and lives.

*My source is Edwin Muller’s article, “The Inside Story of Pearl Harbor, Reader’s Digest, April 1944 reprinted in Secrets & Spies, Reader’s Digest Association, 1964. Several shorter but more readily available accounts can be found by a web search for “1932 Pearl Harbor Attack.”

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Health Care – Something's Missing (Part 1)

In all the discussion about health care reform we've left out something important. The major discussion has been about cost and affordability. Less attention has been paid to the question of exactly what should be covered. Those are important of course. However there is one aspect of those plans that has been ignored: it's effect on the character of our citizens. If the reform becomes law, what will the citizen of tomorrow be like?

Let's consider the type of person who made this country what it is today. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King, Jr. All those and more had one thing in common: they took thoughtful action. They did not sit around moaning that “somebody should do something.” They did not depend on government, charity, or their neighbors for their needs. Instead they invested their own time, energy, and resources in causes they believed in. That was often done at the risk of wealth, health, or even life. Where would we be without the country they created for us? More importantly, where will we be in 20 or 100 years if we fail to develop more such people today? And I am convinced that nanny state measures like the proposed “reforms” will militate against developing such heroes.

Our history is one of people who overcame obstacles, whether those obstacles were the British army, winters of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, Jim Crow laws, or scientific challenges. Sam Walter Foss expressed the poetic wish, “Bring me men to match my mountains, Bring me men to match my plains, Men with empires in their purpose, And new eras in their brains"* His wish has been granted by men and women who matched the mountains of war, bigotry, many diseases, science and technology, and other challenges our citizens have tackled. Many of those mountains remain challenging but those people gave us a good start. They did that by relying on themselves, not waiting for others to solve the problem.

Where will we get the Edisons, the Bartons, the Washingtons of the future? I fear that our developing nanny state will produce sheep-like excuses for humans (often called sheeple) who wait to be cared for when we should be producing men and women who stand up on their hind legs and take action.

That is one of the biggest problems with government-provided health care and other largesse. We cannot grow independence by fostering dependence. We cannot develop men and women of action by molly-coddling our citizens. No, the independent thinker, the person willing and able to advance both himself and his fellowman must be grown in the crucible of self-reliance and difficulty.

I recently read the book, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. That book describes traits of survivors, people who overcame great odds to stay alive. Those are the same characteristics we need to meet other problems we face. Those same characteristics are required for people who would make a difference in our family, public, or business life. Those are people who act for themselves. If trapped in a mountain accident they take action to rescue themselves. If shipwrecked they take the lead in solving the problem. If stranded by aircraft or automotive problems they do all that is possible (and often more that we would think possible) to get themselves out of the problem.

Gonzales indicates that the main determinant of who lives and who dies is not what's in his pack. It's not even what's in his head. It is what is in his heart. This is what athletes often call guts. A team behind as time is running out is said to be facing a gut check, a chance to see if they can dig down and find that extra something that will pull out a victory. Those who survive near death experiences face a similar gut check. They have to dig down inside themselves and produce that extra effort to win against the Grim Reaper.

We face similar needs in every aspect of our lives. For example, consider the remaining bigotry in our country. The easy part of that battle was eliminating legal barriers. That is done. Now we face the task of changing minds and hearts, something we cannot legislate. We can sit back and wish, or we can say “somebody should do something,” but if that’s all we do we will make no further progress. However if we have the courage to confront the bigots, to befriend those others regard as inferior, we will continue to make progress. That may require that we risk alienation from friends, family, even employers when we speak up. We may even risk having our property vandalized or our persons harmed. It will take courage, and that courage must be developed by courageous action.

That is the same kind of courage that will allow a soldier to dig down inside for what he needs to fight a terrorist a little harder. It is the same kind of courage that will allow a government or business official to risk his job and expose corruption. It is the same kind of courage a parent needs to care for a disabled child or to discipline a child who is starting to engage in antisocial behavior. It is the courage, the guts, this country needs to preserve our freedom and continue to improve our lives. It is a courage that cannot be developed by asking government to meet all our needs.

(To be continued)

*Perhaps another danger sign is the fact that the beginning of that poem was once displayed on a granite wall at our Air Force Academy. It was removed in 2003 for fear of offending women, and that in spite of some female Air Force officers asking that the words remain in place. Can we really build on the foundation our fathers gave us if we are diverted by such trivialities? It is sad, even dangerous, that some prefer political correctness to such inspiring words.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Emergency Response

Gina was shocked to learn why the previous occupants had moved out of their isolated rental house. It was because the wife had been raped there – and the rapist was still at large. To make matters worse, Gina’s husband often traveled for his work. Knowing that she might have to defend herself, she planned exactly how to do it. That included easy access to the butcher knife and thinking about what she would do with that knife.

Sure enough, within a few weeks someone tried to break in while her husband was away. Now was the time to act and she did – she got on the phone and called her sister who lived 40 miles away! She did not call 911. She did not grab the knife. She avoided being raped only because the assailant gave up before getting the door open.*

Don't laugh too hard. If you are human it is quite possible that you might make a similar mistake. We've had lost people with cell phones call their friends instead of 911. Then the friends have to find the right agency to call before a search can be started. Worse, without direct communication between the sheriff's office and the subject it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to get the information we need for a timely rescue.

Just last week a local sheriff’s office got a call from someone in California. The caller’s friend had gone snowboarding and was lost somewhere on the south side of Mount Hood. However nobody knew where the subject’s car was parked, or which ski area she had started from. Without that information it is difficult to search effectively. It was not possible to reach the subject’s cell phone for unknown reasons (maybe she turned it off to save the battery). We weren’t even completely sure we had a lost person. Fortunately she was eventually found. (That event, by the way, is my motivation for writing this column.)

I've also had neighbors come to me for first aid assistance before they call 911. I don't mind, I am highly trained in the skill. However I am not as highly trained as the ambulance or fire truck crews, nor do I have the equipment they do. Besides I'm not always home while those professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My neighbors would be better off to call 911.

The psychology behind that type of error illustrates an obstacle to sound decision-making, especially under stress. Our right brain often leads us to act without thinking (cf The right brain provides great help in dealing with every-day situations but is terrible at handling new problems. In those cases we should always check it against the logical left brain.

Fortunately most of us seldom face real emergencies. However seldom does not mean never. Most of us will face a few urgent problems during our lives. It may be an intruder in our homes, a traffic accident, a serious wound from a kitchen knife, or something else. It may even be an excited young couple when their first child is about to arrive. How do we calm ourselves enough to take appropriate action rather than acting in a panic?

One way is to practice ahead of time. When my wife and I were expecting our first child we went to classes that not only taught us what to expect, but also allowed us to practice what we should do. We even practiced driving to the hospital. Of course it’s a bit more difficult to practice what to do in a home invasion or traffic accident but the good news is that practice in one type of emergency tends to help prepare for other, seemingly unrelated, emergencies. A good first aid course will teach, and allow you to practice, the technique of looking and thinking about scene safety before exposing yourself. If that is done with gory fake victims it can help prepare the mind to check with the left brain before acting in other situations. Professional responders practice all sorts of situations until the correct response comes naturally to them. Most of us don’t have the time to do that, but we can improve.

Had Gina practiced calling 911 (with the phone turned off) and grabbing her butcher knife she would have been more likely to act appropriately when the emergency actually happened.

Another good technique is to just practice slowing down and thinking in daily life when our right brain tells us we just must have or do something. Is it really urgent to eat that piece of pie or cake? Do we really need to hurry and tell our neighbor the latest news? Such practice will accustom the mind to checking in with both right and left brains.

Then of course when we do feel stress or think something is an emergency we can make every effort to see if what we are about to do is really the right course of action. That will help us make better decisions, both in everyday life and in emergencies.

If we can discipline ourselves to check our emotions with against our logic we will make better decisions, in times of stress and at other times. That will give us better lives.

*I heard this account from the woman involved. I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Questions? or Pseudoquestions?

“Why can't I go to the party” “Why can't I stay up as late as Bill does?” “Why do I have to take that boring math class?” If you are a parent of a teenager you've heard such questions ad naseam (at least if you're a responsible parent). Quite likely you've noticed that those questions are an invitation to an argument and you may want a better way to answer them. Actually they may not deserve an answer because in most cases they are not questions at all. They are pseudoquestions.

A pseudoquestion is really a complaint phrased as a question. People who ask real questions want answers. People who present pseudoquestions want you to change something. The teen doesn't want to know why he can't go to the party or stay up late. He doesn't want to know why he has to take that math class. He wants to go to the party, stay up late and skip the math class. If he wanted to know the answers, you could explain to him the dangers of the party, the need for a good night's sleep, and how math will be useful to him later. Then he would be satisfied. However no answer is a satisfactory response to a pseudoquestion because the “questioner” doesn’t want an answer.

That is the key to distinguishing between real questions and pseudoquestions. If the “questioner” really wants an answer, then it is a real question. However if he only wants to complain or get you to change something he doesn't like, it is a pseudoquestion.

The distinction is important. Real questions are the gateway to progress while pseudoquestions simply cause contention. Physicists questioned things like why the atom is stable and why some other odd things happened that they didn't understand. The result, after many years of seeking the answers, was quantum mechanics. That science stands behind much of modern technology, including the computer on which I’m writing this article.

The point is that those scientists didn't complain that the atom wasn't acting the way their knowledge at the time said it should. Instead they asked real questions and dedicated time, talent, and energy to finding the answers. The pseudoquestioning teen, on the other hand, doesn't seek to learn why math or a good night's sleep is so important. Instead he devotes time, talent, and energy to complaining and trying to get his parents or school administrators to change the rules.

Of course children can drive their parents crazy with either real questions. What parent hasn't been driven to distraction by questions such as, “why is the sky blue?” “How do birds fly?” “Why don't snakes have legs?” There was even a popular song about that, “Little Wendy Why-Why” by Al Hoffman and Martin Kalmanoff. The song expressed the exasperation of many parents when their offspring start to resemble “one big question mark.” Such questions come faster than parents can answer them, but at least they are real questions. If parent and child pursue answers together, those questions can lead to some real education as well as parent-child bonding.

However the difference between questions and pseudoquestions is not limited to children. Pseudoquestions also plague business and public life, and even adults can hinder their own happiness when such disguised complaints keep their focus on what they don’t like. What manager hasn’t had an employee “ask” something like, “Why can’t Jim do it?” In most cases that employee doesn’t want to know why Jim can’t do it, he just doesn’t want to do it himself. A better employee might ask something like, “What is the best way of doing this task so that the company prospers and we all benefit from it?”

Some people also ask “questions” like, “Why doesn’t the government pay for my health care.” Do you think they really want to know the answer? I doubt it, they just want to avoid taking responsibility for that part of their own lives. Give them a good answer and they will continue to complain.

It is also common for people to obstruct their own lives with “questions” like, “Why do these things always happen to me?” When you ask such a “question,” do you really want an answer? I doubt it, more likely you want bad things to stop happening. A much better question would be, “What can I learn from this?” Or “What can I do to make things work out better in the future?”

How do we deal with pseudoquestions? There is probably no pat answer. We might just give an answer and if the person is not satisfied then say, “I answered your question and it is now obvious that you didn’t want the answer. You just wanted to complain and I’m not going to listen to complaints. Get on with your life.”

What if you find yourself the culprit in “asking” pseudoquestions? The same thing applies. First recognize that that’s what you are doing. Then give yourself a mini-lecture such as the above. You might even go look in a mirror and tell yourself to stop complaining and get on with your life.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Politicians – Personality and Problems, Part 2

What kind of person becomes a successful politician? How does that personality type affect performance in office? Last time I discussed how being an extrovert gets people leadership positions but militates against good decision-making. However there are worse problems with the personality type that often acquires political power.

Too often politicians are power seekers, seeking that power because they like to control others. That is often combined with a tendency to listen to people who tell them how wonderful they are.

If we think about it this should be no surprise. Where else but politics can a control freak acquire the power to take people's money to spend on pet projects, to order people to do or not do things etc? Even the corporate CEO cannot force people to buy his product if they don't want to – but a politician can often do just that. Don't like General Motors cars? You're free to buy from Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, or even not buy a car at all. Don't like the public school system? Sorry you have to pay for it anyway, even if you send your kids to private school.

Of course not all politicians are of that type, but a political career has to be enticing to control freaks. That type of person is unlikely to seek a career in retail sales or engineering. Instead he is likely to try to either get into management or more likely into something like politics where he has the possibility of being able to tell others what to do. That means that initially those who enter politics are disproportionately of the type of individual who want to control others.

Even those who get into politics for other reasons find themselves tempted. Power is heady stuff and such people can get caught up in the ability to control others and spend huge amounts of other people's money. Political power becomes addictive. That addiction often includes a belief that those in power know what is best for others. They often have or acquire what Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision” in that they believe they can and should fix all the world's problems. This intellectual arrogance helps them justify the belief that they can and should control everything.*

That gets exacerbated by the fact that sycophants tend to cluster around the powerful. Anyone in a position of political power will attract a following of “yes men” who attempt to advance their own ends by flattery. Such people tend to infest the staffs of congressmen, presidents, governors etc. They tell their boss or friend what he wants to hear, reinforcing his already great tendency to think of himself as all-knowledgeable. As a result we have too many politicians who want to control all aspects of our lives, being encouraged by their employees and acquaintances. That is bad for the country, and for each of us individually.

Once again a good solution to this problem is to return to the constitional principle of limited government. We must stop congress from overstepping its bounds. We should become the control freaks, controlling and limiting congress instead of allowing congress to control us.

*See for example my review of Sowell's book, “The Vision of the Anointed” posted here September 4, 2009.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Politicians – Personality and Problems, Part 1

What kind of person becomes a successful politician? How does that personality type affect performance in office? I'm afraid the answers to those questions do not bode well for the country. The fact is that the requirements to get elected have almost nothing to do with the ability to do a good job and in fact often militate against good decision-making.

Consider for example two people. Joe is an extrovert, a real people person who knows how to get people to like him. Bill on the other hand is a contemplative type, given to thinking seriously about any significant decision, weighing the pros and cons and making careful decisions. Which is more likely to be attracted to politics? The answer of course is Joe. He will thrive on the glad-handing and other aspects of political life. His outgoing personality will attract supporters and voters who think they have a real connection with him.

However in the unlikely event that Bill tries to get into politics he will have a hard time inspiring supporters. Regardless of how correct and well-thought-out his positions, people will think of him as dull compared to Joe. Without the excitement that a more charismatic candidate can inspire, Bill will have a difficult time getting volunteers and campaign donations. Worse, voters may regard him as lacking in leadership. Barring something like a major scandal on Joe's part, Bill has almost no chance of winning an election against him. An outgoing personality is a big advantage in politics.

In fact Timothy Judge of the University of Florida business school says that being an extrovert is correlated with being chosen as a leader, but not with being a good leader. “We go for these effervescent leaders when what's really needed is a dull, focused, plodding [type] building effective groups and organizations.”*

As a decision-making consultant I'm convinced that Dr. Judge is correct, not only in politics but also in business and other aspects of life. The charismatic extrovert attracts followers and gets them excited. However that excitement is often directed at the wrong goal or the wrong means to that goal. This personality type frequently fails to adequately evaluate what he is doing. Furthermore, his charisma often causes his followers to act unthinkingly as well. Too often the result is disaster. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Adolf Hitler come to mind as examples of this type of personality-driven leadership.

On the other hand, Dwight Eisenhower lacked a charismatic personality. Yet he successfully led the battle against Germany in World War II and later accomplished much as president of the United States. His style was to listen to his advisers, then make the best decision he could. While not all his decisions worked out perfectly that style was much more effective than was that of Montgomery, the flamboyant British field marshal. Eisenhower's more collaborative style led to better decisions than did Montgomery's self-aggrandizing personality.

In most cases, that is what good leadership requires: making good decisions and getting subordinates to carry out those decisions. The extroverted personality militates against those good decisions, though it does inspire followers to act. However enthusiastic action on a bad decision is usually counterproductive, often worse than no action at all. On the other hand, even half-hearted work on a good decision seldom causes harm and usually does at least some good. Furthermore, once followers see the effectiveness of the good decision, their enthusiasm is likely to increase and they are likely to work harder to implement that decision.

The solution is obvious, whether for the voters or the search committee seeking a new CEO or other leader. Seek first wise and collaborative decision-making skills and ignore the charisma and personality of the candidates.

However there are worse problems with the political personality. I plan to discuss a couple of them next time.

*U.S. News and World Report, November 2009, p26

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 2)

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 2)

Last time I discussed pressure to do something even if it’s wrong, and stage one thinking. Those problems affect all of us but especially congress. Now let’s move on to a couple of other problems.

A third congressional problem is that there is seldom any motivation for congress to fix the problems it creates. Just look at the mortgage issue for example. People who should never have qualified for mortgages were able to do so because of pressure on lenders and because of programs to allow them to get loans with no down payment. It should have been no surprise that many subsequently defaulted on those mortgages. So has congress cracked down on the problem? Of course not, that might cost votes. Instead we now have a program of mortgage subsidies that allows the subsidy to be used for the down payment. I'm afraid the results will be predictable.

In our own lives we are also tempted to stick with bad decisions long after we should recognize that they are bad. This is a natural human tendency, based on something that has benefited the race for eons. When a child misbehaves we usually do not immediately decide that having a child was a mistake and abandon that child. That is a good thing when it comes to children, but not with investments or most other bad decisions.

We all make mistakes. The wise learn from those mistakes and correct their problems. The unwise persist with their bad decisions, to their detriment. (In fact the truly wise learn from the mistakes of others.)

A forth problem is accessibility bias, the tendency to be unduly influenced by most recent or most noticeable events. The cognitive psychologists have done experiments demonstrating that what we have recently seen, or what is spectacular, tends to overwhelm the less spectacular things or those in the distant past. In one experiment, subjects spun a wheel giving numbers up to 100. Then they were asked to guess how many African countries were in the UN. There was an amazing correlation between the number they saw on that wheel and their guesses about UN countries. The number accessible in their minds unduly influenced their guesses on an unrelated topic.

Think of how this affects congress. Who gets most of their attention? Clearly not the guy working in a factory or on a farm trying to keep up with the needs of his family. No, there are union and business lobbyists, “public interest” groups with an ax to grind, and others twisting their arms or convincing representatives of their viewpoints. All that attention provides accessibility bias toward meeting the demands of those groups at the expense of good citizens who haven't time to camp on the representative's doorstep. The result is that congress has a distorted, one-sided view of reality.

Of course accessibility bias affects us all. The memorable advertisement, the spectacular and bloody news story etc. all cause us to view the world differently than we would otherwise. Without conscious effort to avoid distortion we will not have a good picture of the world.

I’ve mentioned four problems here:

Pressure to do something, even if it’s wrong,
Stage one thinking,
Failure to learn from and correct previous mistakes, and
Accessibility bias

Those four problems affect us all. However the nature of congress causes them to have more effect on that body than on most of us. We see the reason every time we look in a mirror. As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Voters continue to demand action, even if wrong. Voters demand superficial solutions and fail to demand evaluation beyond stage one. Voters fail to demand that congress correct past errors or look beyond the lobbyists when making decisions. Until that changes, congress will not change.

What can we do? As voters we can demand that congress do better in these areas. More importantly, we can look at ourselves, how we vote and the things we ask of our representatives. However, beyond that we should encourage a return to a limited, constitutional government. We need to get away from the whole idea of government as a paternalistic solution to all our problems. The power to solve those problems is also the power to take our freedoms and create new problems.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 1)

About a week ago I wrote about how congressional obfuscation is going to cause problems with health care and elsewhere. Those obfuscations seem to be the work of a few congressional leaders and may be deliberately caused. However even beyond that, congress operates under some serious disadvantages. Those disadvantages also apply to much of what the rest of us do, though not to the extent that they apply to congress.

First, congress is under pressure to do something about any perceived problem. Sadly, our representatives will get lots of bad publicity if they refuse to act and almost no positive reaction if they fail to move, even if the proposed action is damaging to the country. That publicity swings elections, putting pressure on our representatives to do something, even if it's wrong. I posted an entire blog on this subject back on June 15, 2009. (

A second disadvantage is that congress by nature engages in stage one thinking. What that means is that they look only at the initially expected results and do not ask things like, “and then what?” Political pressure is always for the quick fix, Adverse results usually come later, on someone else’s watch. Congress will authorize bailout funds for all sorts of businesses but fails to ask, “Then what?” What will happen when the money is spent? What will the massive borrowing or taxation do to the economy?”

How about when congress voted to pressure banks to make mortgage loans more “equal opportunity” by loaning to minorities? Did the representatives ask, “What then? Will those marginal mortgages have a high default rate?” If they did they must not have cared about the answer, which was obvious. We now have economic problems caused in large part by the defaults on those marginal mortgages. Furthermore, those who borrowed and were forced into default have their credit damaged. They were harmed by the “help” congress gave them.

This of course applies also to our personal and work lives. It is easy to make a decision based only on the obvious. We can buy that TV or new car we want, even on credit. However it is more difficult to think about “what then?” What happens when the bills start coming in? What happens if our employer has to cut back and our income drops?

This also applies to our love lives. A friend was recently married after a rather rushed courtship. She is older than most and perhaps a bit set in her ways. Her husband likewise has previous life experiences that gave him certain expectations. My wife and I tried to warn her that she should look at things carefully, especially the “big three” marriage problems: children, money, and in-laws. She did not do that, and the marriage may not survive. She and her husband now have problems in all three of those areas. She could have asked herself (and her intended husband) things like, “How will we deal with your children? Any children we have? How will we act if your parents interfere with our family decisions? How will we manage our money?”

Some have the idea that love conquers all. Well nearly all marriages start with two people in love – but have you checked the divorce rate in this country? Stage one thinking contributes heavily to that problem. However if couples would just look a little deeper many would either not marry or would go into marriage with a better idea of how to stay happy with each other.

Stage one thinking is a recipe for trouble, in personal, work and national life.

To be continued next time with a couple of other such problems.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lessons from Fort Hood

By now nearly everyone in the U.S. knows that Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded over 30 others at Fort Hood. This tragic event almost certainly could have been prevented and we should learn from it. However we should be careful that we learn the right lessons. One thing we should not do is blame all Muslims. Most Muslims in the country have condemned this act as anti-Islamic. They point out that the Koran prohibits such murder of non-combatants. Hasan was clearly an extremist, out of the mainstream of U.S. Islam.

Nor should we blame “quiet loners,” another group often implicated after the fact. The great majority of loners in this country are upstanding citizens and never commit any serious crime.

No, the lesson we should learn from the Fort Hood killings is that we should look at the facts, regardless of what they say. In the case of Hasan, the facts were plentiful and pointed to an officer who could not be trusted. He had posted his anti-American views quite openly on the Internet. It now appears that he had attempted to contact al Qaeda. Why trust someone like that? Would a football team hire a trainer who wanted that team to lose? Would a business hire an employee who was loyal to a competitor?

While nobody could have predicted that Hasan would “go postal” and commit mass murder, there was plenty of evidence that he was not to be trusted. Even had he not committed murder, he would probably have been an ineffective in a combat area and quite likely would have worked against the cause he was paid to support.

In such cases we must reject the temptation to treat employment and similar decisions as though we were in a court of law. There is no automatic presumption of innocence in the employment arena. Instead, employers must do what is likely to be best for the organization. In cases such as that of Nidal Hasan, that means looking at if he was likely to be an effective therapist to the soldiers he was supposed to serve and to help them function effectively in their jobs. Decision makers must look for positive evidence of ability and willingness to do that job, and do it right. Lacking such evidence they should not assign him to the task.

In Hasan's case, the ability was probably there but there was reason for serious doubts about the willingness. In fact, there was reason to suspect that he would work against U.S. interests. He should have been placed in some non-critical assignment or even suspended from duty until all relevant questions were answered. Of course we cannot know what would have happened had that been done. However it is possible that he would never have committed those murders.

The lesson applies elsewhere. Except as required by such things as union contracts, employers need not give employees the benefit of a doubt. If there is reason to suspect that an employee is damaging the company, the employer can and should investigate. And there is no requirement of “proof beyond reasonable doubt.” If there is no evidence that the employee is doing the job as it should be done, that employee has no right to a presumption of effectiveness.

Likewise, we as consumers are in the position of employers when we decide whom we will employ by purchasing their products or services. We need not assume that advertisers or sales people are totally honest. It is up to us to evaluate their claims and refuse to “hire” them if we find the evidence insufficient.

We must all learn to investigate pertinent evidence for cases that affect our lives.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Congress: Obfuscations are Us

Released in a meeting closed to the public, Nancy Pelosi's latest health care plan is a masterpiece of obfuscation. Nearly 2000 pages, all written in legalese – if a reader wants to know what one section means, he must go to a different section to see what special meaning is applied to the words, or what exceptions are built in. What does it really say? I don't pretend to know since I've not read the monstrosity. If I get lots of time and can find a copy on the web I'll try to read it. However I suspect part of the intent is to discourage citizens from reading it.

I have heard commentator claims about what it says. Medicare cutbacks. Reduction in the right to put money in a health savings account. Higher taxes (probably inevitable in any “reform” this congress is likely to pass). Costs heaped on business and individuals. The possibility of federal charges for anyone who refuses to buy insurance. Are those claims true? I suspect so but I'm not sure. I am sure that Pelosi and her cohorts became complicit in those claims by creating such an undecipherable monster. When nobody understands a bill it is inevitable that rumors will circulate. Some of those rumors will be true, some false.

Furthermore, if the past actions of Pelosi, Obama and Reid are any guide we can now expect to see a push for quick action before people have time to understand this bill. I do not believe they trust the people enough to let us know what it will mean. In fact Pelosi has now reneged on her promise to post it on line for 72 hours before any vote.

So much for the open government the democrats promised.

And all that brings up another question: What is the probability that any such health care legislation will actually work? It is well known in engineering that the more complicated a design, the less likely it is to actually function as intended. In one class I took the saying was, “if you can't explain how it works to a retarded five-year old you will never understand why it doesn't work at all.” The point was that all successful circuit designs are simple, or combinations of simple designs.*

That rule applies in life generally. Complexity is more useful for obscuring the issues than for reaching stated goals. That applies to government programs as much as anywhere else. The health care bills being proposed are all complex in the extreme. I cannot believe that any of them will actually work as advertised. And there is a huge disadvantage just because they are proposing a government program. An electronic circuit goes into production only after it is tested. In contrast, the test of the health care bill will come only when it is imposed on the citizens who will have no choice but to live with it.

The entire health care “reform,” as proposed by Pelosi, Reid et al, promises to be an expensive boondoggle. We must convince our representatives to oppose it.

*This has been somewhat modified in recent years as computer modeling of electronic circuits has become the norm. That allows problems to be identified before the actual circuit is constructed. However the human designer still works with relatively simple parts of the circuit. Unfortunately we have no such modeling programs available for government programs.

Postscript to the previous blog about big lies and the Obama administration: I've just read about how administration officials are equating pay raises to jobs saved. "If I give you a raise, it is going to save a portion of your job," The speaker was HHS spokesman Luis Rosero.

How any reasonable person could swallow that one is beyond me. The administration seems to be making a career out of telling big lies.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Big Lie

“Tell a big enough lie and people will believe it because they think nobody would dare say such a thing if it weren't true.” That advice, often attributed to Hitler's dictatorship, seems to have spread around the world. It pains me to say this about my country, but it also seems to have infected the U.S. presidency and congress.

For four straight weeks in October President Obama mentioned his health care reform in his weekly message. In each of the four messages he went so far as to claim that the people and congress were coming together to provide bipartisan support for his plan. I do not understand how anybody could believe that claim. Doubts have been growing, even in Obama's own party, and that was obvious before Obama made his claims. Either he is completely out of touch with reality or he is telling a big lie.

It saddens me to make such an accusation within my own country, just as it saddened me when Nixon was shown to have engaged in a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Unfortunately the facts are there. Nixon did participate in the cover-up. Obama did tell a flagrant lie, claiming people were coming together to support his plan when the opposite was true.

Worse, that was not an isolated incident. On 24 October, Obama claimed that the “reform” would help save small business in the country. Somehow imposing higher costs on those companies is supposed to help their bottom line? You gotta' be kidding! Can he be that out of touch with reality or is he telling us another big lie?

Though there is not yet a single, finalized health care reform plan, it is clear that all the plans Obama and his followers support would add costs, either through taxes or through forcing employers to provide insurance. Companies with that additional expense would be competing with imports from China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, places where wages are low and employer-paid health coverage hardly known. The result will be the near destruction of small business in this country.

Obama is not alone in this. Sen. Max Baucus claims that there is a “sense of inevitability....we're going to pass health care reform and it's going to lower costs, provide better health insurance coverage.” Sorry Max, there is no sense of inevitability except as you create one. Nor is it all that obvious that government meddling will lower cost or provide better coverage. I’m not sure if you are that out of touch with reality or if you’re telling another big lie, but it has to be one or the other. What you claim is completely wrong.

Al this is reminiscent of teen-age peer pressure. “Everybody's doing it, why don't you?” It appears to be an attempt to steamroll the opposition by creating a false impression that the “reform” is inevitable. Reasoned discussion takes a back seat. Instead the message is that we better get on board, join the bandwagon, do what everybody else does without thinking it through.

There was a time when we expected honor in our elected servants. While the story of Washington and the cherry tree was not true, it does illustrate an expectation that the people we hire to run the country should tell us the truth. Sadly that expectation has changed and we now go so far as to say that the way to tell if a politician is lying is if his lips are moving. That must change. We, the voters, must put a stop to this nonsense. We must contact our representatives and tell them to stop lying. If they refuse we must publicize that, then fire them at the next election – or recall them before that election if recall is available.

No democratic government can long survive unless the voters can trust their representatives.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

A Longer School Year? Part 2

Consider a typical elementary or secondary student in the United States. As September rolls around mom takes him to the store for new clothes, maybe a notebook, new pencils or pens, or crayons depending on his age. With all this new stuff he may even be excited about the new school year (though that is more likely if “he” is a she). Off he goes on the first day of school to meet his new teachers, maybe some new friends and to undergo the rite of passage of being in a grade more advanced than last year.

By the end of September that student has probably settled into his new class. More importantly, his teachers may have finished re-teaching him what he forgot over the summer. By November he is glad for a Thanksgiving break and by mid-December he is more than ready for Christmas vacation. By the time June rolls around, he is tired of school and of his teachers. He can't wait for summer vacation to start. The teachers are also tired of the students and the administrators are tired of the students and the teachers.

The student’s next three months often include family vacation, playing with neighbor kids, maybe camp or a summer job. The first month is great, he enjoys the freedom. The second month is OK. However by August he probably gets bored and complains to his mom that there’s nothing to do. He has had three months to forget what he learned during the school year. Meanwhile the expensive buildings and equipment at his school have been unused.

That type of school year is the heritage of our agricultural past. It made sense when children were needed on the farm for the summer. It still makes sense in many agricultural regions, but not in most urban areas.

There has to be a better way – and there is.

Some places already have year-around school, with students in school for nine weeks and then on vacation for three weeks. Total class time is the same as with the standard year but that class time is more evenly distributed. They find this more effective than the traditional school year. Kids don't get as antsy toward the end of the school year, nor do they get as bored toward the end of a summer vacation. Teachers don't have to spend the first month in the fall re-teaching what the kids forgot over the summer. Because they do not need to re-learn so much, students can learn more effectively. In addition, schools can divide students into four tracks, with one track on vacation and three in school at any given time. That reduces the number of schools needed and frees up resources for other uses.

This is one of those ideas with which almost everybody wins. Students like it; teachers like it; most parents like it. Taxpayers like it because it reduces the number of school facilities required. The only opponents are typically administrators who have to do extra work to manage the different tracks of students. This type of school year is especially effective in elementary schools where there are no sports programs. However I’m confident that it could be made to work in secondary schools as well. Athletes could show up to practice and games even during the time their track is on vacation. In fact those playing fall sports already show up for practice before school starts.

It’s high time we got rid of the anachronistic school year and started using something more effective. This would make for better use of educational time, providing the benefits of more class time without actually requiring that class time.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Longer School Year?

President Obama and others are proposing that the school year in the U.S. be extended. The theory is that more time in the classroom will improve learning. There probably is something to that, but is it really the best way to improve education? I doubt it.

More class time would be more of the same, that is obvious. If teaching or student commitment is inadequate, we would just get more poor teaching and lack of student commitment. If parents regard schools as simply a baby-sitting service they would regard a longer school year as more baby-sitting rather than pushing their children to learn. What we need, before we extend the school year, is to teach more effectively. That is especially true of math, science, logic, and critical thinking.

Look at a typical science project in an elementary school. The child is expected to make a model of island ecology or some other scene. After hours with paper, crayons, and clay, the student proudly delivers the project. The teacher then grades it based on how well the colors match reality and how well shaped the model is. Next open house, that project is likely to be displayed as an example of how well the students are learning. Yes they have learned: they learned something about art, but precious little about science.

Sadly, science is often taught as a collection of bloodless facts which students are expected to memorize and regurgitate. Children who eagerly read mystery stories or watch mystery TV shows are not exposed to the way scientists investigate the mysteries of the universe. Students may follow the clues of the mystery story to the final conclusion of who is guilty. However they are denied a view of the excitement that comes from examining scientific clues and finally reaching a conclusion that reflects the real world.

As an example, we have students being told that nearly all the world's scientists believe in man-made global warming. However that is presented as a simple fact, to be accepted and not disputed. Typically only the shallowest of evidence is presented and no alternative explanations are allowed, much less offered to the students. The teacher is the authority and is not to be questioned.

Contrast this with they type of teaching I read about years ago, in Reader's Digest though if memory serves. The author described how, during the first class of the year, the teacher held up what he described as a model of a skull from a South American animal, now extinct. He said that the animal had vanished, leaving no trace that it had ever existed. He then described the animal, its food, its environment etc. Then he gave a quiz on what he had said. Most students did quite well at regurgitating what their teacher had told them. As a result every student got a zero on the quiz.

Can you see why the students flunked? If not, you may be a victim of the “memorize and regurgitate” system of “education.” Not even one student bothered to ask the critical question, “How do you know all this? Especially if the animal left no trace of having ever existed?”

That teacher was driving home a lesson in critical thinking, something central to science.

We need more of that in education. Students should be encouraged to question, to think critically, to generate their own theories and then to describe how such theories could be tested. Instead, too often the questioning student is regarded as a troublemaker. As in Kipling's story “The Elephant's Child,” curiosity and questions can elicit disapproval.

In other disciplines as well, emphasis should be on learning and thinking. Some memorization is necessary of course. Students need to memorize addition, subtraction and other mathematical facts. However school personnel should always keep in mind that they are to prepare students for a changing world, a world filled with con artists. Some of those con artists are criminals, some are advertisers and sales people, some are politicians. Students should learn to evaluate claims as they would the clues in a murder mystery.

With a commitment to real learning instead of busy-work, we can improve our educational system, and we can do it with students spending the same amount of time in class as they do now.

Only after we establish a solid educational system should we consider extending the school year. Even then there is a way to get more effective learning time without more time in class, or more homework. I plan to discuss that next time.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Big Company Innovation?

The electric light, the telegraph, the telephone, the personal computer, the automobile. All these and more have one thing in common: they were developed by small companies, some by a single individual. In fact the record of true innovation shows that large companies seldom make real breakthrough inventions. While those big organizations often improve on the invention of others they seldom invent anything drastically different from existing products. Why is that?

I believe the short answer is “bureaucracy.” The larger an organization the more bureaucratic it becomes, be it a government or a business. That is probably inevitable, it is not humanly possible to directly manage every employee in a large company. However the executives do want every employee to work in accordance with their ideas. One way to accomplish that (or try to accomplish it) is to write policy statements and hire people to administer those policies. Those people become bureaucrats who see their jobs as administering policy. The policies then begin to take priority over the real goals of the organization.

Consider what happens when such a bureaucrat is faced with a request to try something drastically new. For example suppose an employee of the Smith Corona typewriter company had proposed that the company design and sell personal computers. That proposal would have required approval from layers of bureaucracy. Imagine yourself a manager, an accountant, or a controller asked to pass judgment on such an idea. If you approve it and it fails, you will share the blame. However if the innovation succeeds the credit will all go to the person who proposed it. You stand to gain little or nothing by approving the innovation, but you could lose much. However it costs you nothing to reject it. What will you do?

That in a nutshell is why big organizations are seldom truly innovative. They are infected with bureaucrats whose incentive is to maintain the status quo. They discourage the risk taking required for innovation.

Meanwhile individuals and small groups continue to bless the world with their innovations. Many of today's large technology companies started when some entrepreneur had an idea, then took the risk to pursue his dreams. Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others were started by individuals or small groups who put their own money on the line for their brainchildren. There was no corporate finance department to judge the undertaking as too risky, nor were there any managers to tell them they should concentrate on their jobs instead of those wild ideas. Instead, those innovators were free to pursue their passions, and they succeeded.

“But wait,” you say. “Didn't AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company) come up with a lot of innovations? That was a huge company before the government broke it up, but it was responsible for everything from direct distance dialing to the transistor.”

That is true, AT&T was a very innovative company but how the company accomplished that is instructive. Nearly all those innovations were produced by a small division called Bell Labs (jointly owned with Western Electric). Bell Labs employees were encouraged to take risks, work on long-term projects and even engage in basic research. Employees won six Nobel Prizes for physics, most for work that had no immediate practical application. Long-term results were more useful, including much of the technology behind the computer on which I am writing this.

The Bell Labs secret was that it was almost a separate entity, beyond the reach of bean counters who demand quick results with low risk. The employees could pursue their passions without the pressure for quick commercial success. Other companies have created similar research labs. What they have in common is that creative employees are allowed to pursue their ideas. Those employees can work independently on innovations that may or may not ever succeed. Commercial success, if it comes at all, may be years or even decades in the future.

This is contrary to the normal management mindset which is to plan and control. One management book described business as ballet, not hockey. That meant that managers must plan the details as does a choreographer for a ballet. They must not expect employees to react on the spur of the moment in the manner of a hockey game. That is good advice for managing established enterprises. However such detailed planning and organization is the kiss of death for innovation. Innovation is hockey. The players are turned loose to act as they see fit. And players they are. Such creative people enjoy what they do. The employer's job is to provide them toys for their play, not to direct their actions.

Innovation is a messy process. That is one reason the independent entrepreneur is often more innovative than the highly trained scientist or engineer at a large company. The entrepreneur is playing, doing what he enjoys and such play leads to innovation. At a large company the same person would have his creative juices sucked dry. His play would be seen as a waste of time at best and probably a waste of company resources. Management would label him as a renegade, uncooperative, unwilling to work toward the good of the company.

Likewise in government (the largest bureaucracy in the country), employee creativity is stifled. Most government employees start out with high ideals and a desire to help the country. However they are shoehorned into the system, becoming drones whose job is to carry out policy, not to act in a creative manner.

Any organization that wants creativity must be prepared to put up with the risk, lack of control and general chaos that come with innovation. The organization must allow employees freedom to play and must not punish them for failure of wild ideas. You cannot manage innovation but you can facilitate and allow it.

Creativity is a precocious but unruly child. That child cannot be tamed, but will delight the world with new and useful ideas if allowed to be himself.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Market Economy

Last time I pointed out some major problems with a managed economy, problems, which are and promise to remain intractable. Human ability simply does not extend to being able to manage even a small part of the economy, much less the entire thing.

“But wait,” some will say. “What about the problems of a market economy? Don't private companies create surpluses by over production or shortages by underproduction? Don't they sometimes have quality problems or even have to lay off employees?”

All that is true. A market economy is messy for several reasons, most of which also provide advantages to the citizens. There are good reasons to prefer a market economy.

For one thing, a free market facilitates innovation by allowing, even encouraging, individuals and businesses to take risks. Any time large numbers of people take risks some are going to lose. However some will win and those winners drive progress. That is one reason most of our inventions, from electric lights to personal computers, are the product of market economies. That innovation is a messy process, one that often offends those who like to control everything, but it does work to our benefit.

Controlled economies can produce a few showpiece projects such as the Soviet space program, but they do not produce the consistent advances that come from free markets. Indeed controlled economies militate against innovation. They tend to protect existing industries which requires that they discourage competition from innovative newcomers. Computers, for example, have essentially wiped out the typewriter industry and eliminated the jobs of people who used to build typewriters. Could the personal computer have been developed successfully in a country where bureaucrats allocate resources and determine which products will be produced? That is unlikely, and it would certainly have taken longer under such constraints.

The fact is that older products will always have a larger constituency than will innovative ideas. The new ideas start small and must compete with established enterprises, many of which have significant clout with government authorities. The people who depend on older industries will always outnumber those who want the innovation to move forward. This effect also plagues corporations with most large companies finding it difficult to be truly innovative. (I intend to write a blog on that subject soon.)

A related benefit of the market is that it prunes the deadwood. Inefficient, non-competitive enterprises fail and their resources become available to those that are more to the taste of the consumers. In a controlled economy, such deadwood is often protected and continues to waste resources.

Another benefit of a market economy is that it is more effective than one that is controlled from the top. Individual business owners or managers are closer to their customers than are government bureaucrats. They are more likely to notice changes in customer preferences and to react accordingly. If a city is plagued by a particularly hard winter, the local shoe store is likely to order up more boots and warm socks while the local clothing store stocks warm coats and other clothing. The bureaucrat, removed from the scene, may just send the same merchandise as was sold last year.

The local store owner has not only the knowledge but the motivation to meet customer needs. If he doesn't do that, his business will decline and he may face bankruptcy. However the bureaucrat is a third party decision-maker, he neither wears the shoes from the local store nor loses money if they do not sell. His incentive is to meet the quotas someone else imposes on him.

The effectiveness of a market system means that market systems often create a land of plenty for the people. While controlled economies such as the USSR or China (before the introduction of market reforms) are typically plagued by shortages, free markets such as the U.S. often face the problem of surpluses. As a consumer, I prefer a surplus.

Yet another reason to prefer a market economy is freedom. In a market economy, each person has a right to seek the employment of his choice, subject only to opportunity and his ability. Then he can spend his money as he prefers. Nobody sets a quota of so many bakers, so many movie stars, or so many carpenters. Nor does any bureaucrat decide what kind of shoes a logger or an office worker shall wear. In fact, if a computer technician wants to wear hiking boots to work, he is free to do so as long as his boss does not object – and many have done just that (a source for several jokes about such employees*).

In my opinion, freedom is the most compelling reason to prefer a market economy. The United States of America was founded on the belief that individuals are free to make their own decisions. Handing economic decisions over to the government eliminates a most important part of that freedom. Our work, where and how we live, indeed most important aspects of our lives are all controlled by our economic decisions. We have the right to make those decisions for ourselves. We should defend that right from well-intentioned politicians.

Oh Lord, protect us from those would protect us from ourselves.

*One such joke claims that no good computer operator would ever engage in any sport that requires changing clothes. That eliminates sports such as tennis or jogging. However hiking or mountain climbing are OK and many such employees wear their lug soled boots to work in case a mountain should suddenly spring up in the middle of the computer room.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Intellectual Arrogance and a Managed Economy

Last time I told about Bessie, the pony who was smart enough to open gates and steal grain but not wise enough to know that such antics could get her in trouble. She died painfully by eating seed oats, treated to kill pests. Like Bessie, we humans can be too smart for our own good. While we should not shrink from difficult tasks, we should also realize that there are some things that remain beyond our ability. That is probably nowhere more apparent than when we try to manage things we cannot fully understand. One such area is the economy.

“But wait,” you say. “We have lots of economists in this country. Surely they understand the economy.”

No they don't, at least not in the detail necessary to manage everything for our benefit. Nobody does. There are just too many factors for any person or group of people to get a handle on all of it. That is one reason that managed economies like that in the Soviet Union were such failures. By trying to determine how much of each product would be produced they created shortages of every commodity except misery. The intent was good but the task was beyond human ability. The economy is just too complicated and interwoven to be managed efficiently.

Consider even a small segment of the economy, something like shoes. How would you manage the production of shoes for your country? Obviously you need to know how many are needed and in what sizes. You would look at numbers of children and adults, how many male and female and of what ages are in the populace. However that is only the start. People need different kinds of shoes, some for the office, some for construction work, some for farming etc. Children need shoes suitable for play and everybody should have some suitable for exercise.

What about preferences? Are you going to allow different styles? Will you provide for hikers, skiers, boaters and other special needs? If so how will you determine how many of each should be produced? Will the country's rulers get better shoes than the janitor in the school? There are probably hundreds of shoe types possible, each needed in twenty or more different sizes. Produce too many of a size or type and some go to waste, too few and someone goes without.

Even if you are able to determine how many shoes of each type and size to produce, your task has only begun. Where will you get the raw materials, the equipment, the facilities, and the workers to make those shoes? You need leather for the uppers so you need to be certain that enough cattle are slaughtered to provide that leather. In the process you may upset your co-worker who is trying to provide enough milk for the country. You may also upset another co-worker who manages meat and is already plagued with an excess. You need machinery for your shoe factories, but for that you compete with another co-worker who is trying to equip coat factories.

Those problems multiply for every component of your shoes. Shoe manufacturing draws on nearly component of the economy, mining, machinery, agriculture, transportation, etc. Furthermore, each component you need raises similar questions. The farmer cannot produce cows for your leather without feed and land for those cows. The land that provides his hay can also be used to produce carrots, potatoes, cabbage etc.

The result is that the entire economy is tied together by competing supply chains. A change in any demand can cause shortages or excesses in seeming unrelated commodities. An extra demand for ice cream can cause farmers to keep marginal dairy cows instead of sending them for slaughter. That can cause a shortage of leather which in turn causes a shortage of baseball gloves. Children with no baseball gloves may turn to other pursuits and cause shortages of other toys. Meanwhile manufactures of baseball bats may suddenly find that they have produced more than the market will consume.

That sort of thing spreads throughout the economy. Every item in the grocery store requires a myriad of inputs before you put it on your table, and every one of those inputs competes for resources with other things.

In theory all that is governed by mathematical rules called differential equations. However even the simplest differential equations require calculus and can be difficult to solve. The equations that govern the economy are not simple, they can involve hundreds of terms and many of those terms are not precisely known. Worse yet, because of the interdependence in the economy, all those equations are coupled together. You cannot solve just one, you have to solve nearly all of them at the same time. The math required would be horrendous, even if we knew enough to write the equations.

So do you think you could successfully manage shoe production for a country, or even a village? If not, think of the difficulty of managing an entire economy, all those complicated equations with terms not precisely known, all of them coupled together. No wonder managed economies don't work. In fact it doesn't work to manage even part of an economy. Because of the interconnectedness of the whole, you cannot change one part without causing changes throughout. Many of those changes will be unanticipated and often your best intentions will create problems.

Unfortunately that difficulty (impossibility really) does not prevent some from trying to impose a managed economy on their countries. There are people with enough intellectual arrogance that they think they can do it. I believe that arrogance comes from a combination of lack of understanding of the problem and what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision, or the vision of the anointed. Such people simply do not recognize their own limits and thus feel free to overstep their abilities at the expense of the citizens.

A market economy clearly has its problems but those are seldom as severe as what a group of smart but unwise people can do if they try to replace it with a managed economy.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Too Smart?

Bessie was a pony, a smart one. She learned how to open gates. She learned how to steal grain. She learned how to get into the apple orchard. Bill, her owner, was proud of her ability and used to brag about what she could do. Her life was interesting, spectacular – and short.

One day Bessie watched Bill put some grain near the tractor, then drive off. It only took a minute for her to open the gate, and another five minutes to figure out how to open the lid on the container where the oats were. When Bill got back Bessie was on the ground, writhing in agony. By the time the vet got there it was too late. The oats were intended for use as seed and were treated to kill pests. That treatment was also highly poisonous to horses.

As a boy on the farm I saw similar events. Many animals would be smart enough to get in trouble. Their intelligence allowed them to find what they wanted but they lacked the wisdom to realize that what they wanted might not be good for them. I'm afraid humans can have similar problems. We often fail to recognize that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. For example, intelligence may allow us to solve a complex problem (as Bessie the pony did getting to the grain). However wisdom can tell us that what we see is only part of the situation and there may be more that we don't know about. If we arrogantly assume that we know all we need to know, we can get in trouble.

For example intelligence may show us that a particular investment looks good, so we put our money there. However wisdom might have shown us that the only information we have is from the company itself with nothing from an independent auditor. Maybe that information is correct or maybe the company is run by someone like Bernie Madoff. Or maybe the company was audited but the auditors were fooled or even bought off. In fact wisdom will tell us that any investment that sounds too good to be true probably is.

We can trust our intelligence too much. Then we tend to ignore the fact that we don't know everything, nor is our reasoning ability perfect. This leads to a dangerous intellectual arrogance. For example the decision to invade Cuba's Bay of Pigs was made by a group of the most intelligent men ever assembled in the White House. However they depended on their own thinking, not even asking for outside advice. That and other decision-making problems led to one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.

This problem can affect our personal lives, our business success, and our national well-being. In personal life it has the advantage of affecting only the culprit and his family. However such arrogance in business or government affects people not involved in the mistakes. If a businessman makes a mistake it can cost the jobs of employees. If a political leader makes a mistake, it can cost the country or state in terms of money, safety or even freedom.

What can we do about this? The first step is humility, the recognition that we don't know everything. We can be fooled or make mistakes. Intelligence is not the problem, intellectual arrogance is. Any time we are very confident that we are right we should re-examine the question, looking for flaws in our thinking. In fact we should go farther and look for similar decisions in the past where we were wrong in spite of all we could do. We should recognize that perfection is not given to men, and that includes the person we see in the mirror. We just might be wrong and we should consider the consequences of a mistake.

This intellectual humility does not preclude stretching our abilities, but it does mean care in what we attempt. That is especially true for those who find themselves in the role of third-party decision-makers, making a decision that affects others who have little or no say in the matter. The temptation there is to follow our own preference since we do not suffer the consequences or our own decisions. The result may be problems imposed on others while we go on our merry way, congratulating ourselves for our accomplishments. Meanwhile our victims suffer for our decisions.

However a bigger problem with “too smart” third-party decision-makers is the tendency to assume that they have solved the problem. After all, they are smart enough (at least in their own minds) to fix things. Therefore the solution they concocted must be the right one. No need to evaluate the results, the effort has been made so let’s move on to the next issue. This is especially a problem with government functionaries who can “solve” a problem by edict, usually throwing lots of money and regulations at it. Once the program is in place it takes on a life of its own and is seldom subject to critical evaluation by its supporters.

A bit of intellectual humility, in personal, business, and public life will go a long way toward a better life for everyone.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

The Aristocratic Attitude, Part 2

“President Barack Obama is enlisting Hollywood celebrities including actress Rosario Dawson and musician Will.I.Am to draw attention to his health care overhaul agenda.” (Breitbart, 7 Nov 2009) That is more of the same nonsense, expecting us to listen to celebrities (self-appointed aristocrats) instead of thinking for ourselves. We should ignore everything those celebrities say.

Now on to today’s topic.

One difference between our aristocracy of politicians, entertainers etc. and the official aristocracies in places like England is that theirs is hereditary. In most cases, the U.S. aristocrat cannot hand the title down to his heirs. Children of our movie stars seldom become stars themselves unless they have at least some acting ability. Children of our politicians do not automatically replace their parents in congress, the governor's mansion, or the White House. There is one partial exception.

Consider what happened when two senate seats were vacated, first in New York when Hillary Clinton resigned to become secretary of state, then in Massachusetts when Edward Kennedy died. In both cases there were plenty of people who wanted someone from the Kennedy family to take the available senate seat. After all, a Kennedy had represented Massachusetts for over 50 years and Robert Kennedy once represented New York. In fact in many New York wanted Caroline Kennedy appointed even though she had no discernible qualifications beyond her family connection. To her credit, she made no effort to get herself appointed.

That of course is in addition to the other Kennedy family members who have held office, often receiving many votes on the basis of their name instead of thoughtful consideration of qualifications. And our vice president has publicly stated that he wants more Kennedys in office! (Appearance on NBC, 27 Aug 2009)

All that sounds like desire for a hereditary aristocracy, something our constitution wisely prohibits.

The family has my sympathy for the death of Senator Kennedy. My father died of a similar cancer so I have some understanding of what they are going through. However neither sympathy nor family connection is a good reason to grant someone political power. It is dangerous to elect our representatives for any reason other than their ability and trustworthiness to do the job right. Whether a candidate is in the Kennedy family or not is completely irrelevant to his suitability for office. We should reject dynasties and aristocracies as dangerous to the country.

Such aristocracies can also be dangerous to the aristocrats. Frequently people will not hold them accountable for their actions. Instead many will make excuses for them and defend them, as some are doing now with Polanski. Psychologists call such excuse-makers “enablers” because they help people continue their unacceptable or dangerous behavior. Such enabling encourages them to think of themselves as not subject to the same rules and consequences as normal people. They develop an attitude of “It won't happen to me, “ or “I'm better than the normal person, therefore I can get away with this.

Of course we cannot know this next for certain, but I suspect that such an attitude was complicit in the 1997 skiing death of Michael Kennedy. Tragic though that accident was, it was also avoidable had young Kennedy and his companions just followed the rules expected of most skiers. They were playing football on the slope and the ski patrol warned them to stop. They continued to violate the rules. I've never skied at Aspen, but at other places where I have skied the offenders would have been kicked off the slopes as soon as they repeated the offense, maybe even on a first offense, depending on how dangerous the violation was. Yet the Kennedy party continued to violate safety rules and was not ejected.

Had the Kennedys been removed from the slopes, Michael Kennedy would probably still be alive today.

There's more. Young “John-John” Kennedy was killed in the crash of a plane he was piloting. That was a clear case of pilot error; he was in over his head. Pilots I know have told me that he was flying “too much plane.” His limited experience did not qualify him for the aircraft he was driving nor for the conditions he faced when he went over the water. Why was he flying beyond his qualifications? I doubt we'll ever know for sure, but it is quite likely that his privileged upbringing led to an aristocratic attitude. He may have believed that he didn't need the long experience that normal pilots required.

There is a sidelight to the Michael Kennedy death that might also bear on this. At the time of his death he was separated from his wife who caught him in bed with the babysitter. The indications were that the affair began when the girl was only 14 and thus included statutory rape. However authorities were unable to collect enough evidence to prosecute. Regardless of the girl's age, that continues a Kennedy legacy of sordid sexual affairs, a behavior pattern quite contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church to which they claim fidelity. Some Kennedys act like they are immune not only to human law but even to God’s law.

Putting all that together, we get a picture of the Kennedy family as a de facto aristocracy in this country. That aristocratic status harms both the country and the family. Citizens should reject the aristocratic trappings of the Kennedys and concentrate instead on qualifications.

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