Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Our brains evolved in a box, well suited for the Pleistocene.

We’re Not Living in Caves Anymore

Many of our easy habits of mind once served Humanity well, but fail us miserably in a modern, rapidly-changing world. Fortunately there are alternatives.

Author and thought leader Erika Andersen has spent a lot of time in the business world watching as decisions were made. She has seen decisions turn out well. To use her own words, she has also seen things end up “appallingly, astronomically bad.”

In her painfully amusing article, It Seemed like a Good Idea at the Time: 7 of the worst business decisions ever made, she says that almost without exception, poor decisions result from one of three things. “The decision-maker: 1) didn’t bother to get all the relevant facts; 2) made invalid assumptions based on ego, wishful thinking, or fear; and/or 3) didn’t trust the input of their advisors.”

In a game of Name That SNAFU, I can sum those up in one word: knowledge. The decision-maker in question relied on poor knowledge. Or more correctly, the decision-maker’s way of arriving at knowledge was poor, and they paid a price.

This is more than an anecdotal observation. As I have discussed elsewhere, studies have consistently found that something like 80% of business failure is ultimately a consequence of “underestimation of strategic risk.” That is business school speak for not recognizing that the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of the oncoming train.

Decisions can be no better than the knowledge upon which they are based. And the only way to be confident in the quality of your knowledge is to understand what knowledge really is and where it comes from.

If groupthink is so bad, why is it so easy?

All of this begs a crucial and somewhat puzzling question. If relying on common knowledge, groupthink, wishful thinking, tradition, or snake oil is so unreliable and fraught with peril, why do we do it???

The answer is that for most of history relying on groupthink and tradition was the right way to make decisions!

If you live in a world that’s not changing very fast it’s dangerous to question conventional wisdom or the thinking of your group. The very fact that your group is still around is a pretty good indication that its way of dealing with the world can’t be all that bad. And the very fact that you are here says that your ancestors must have been doing something right.

In a world where the challenges you face are pretty much the same as the challenges faced by your parents and their parents and their parents, “everybody knows that” and “it was good enough then so it’s good enough for me” work.

We don’t live in caves anymore

But that’s not the world that we live in. Today we see more change in a month than our remote ancestors saw in lifetimes. For better or worse, humans have reshaped the world. Those changes bring many benefits. But part of their price is that the easy, natural ways we latch onto knowledge and ideas are ill suited to the world we have wrought.

Ms. Andersen’s prescription for these ill-fated decision makers is, “a little more curiosity, a little more open-mindedness, and a little less certainty about the rightness of their position.”

I could not agree more, but I would state it a bit differently: Never bet the farm on an idea that you haven’t tried to kill first. In a complex and rapidly changing world reliable knowledge comes not from trying to show that an idea is valid, but instead from trying to show that it is not.

Wrap your head around that and you are less likely to fall prey to things that go bump in the modern night.

We’re Not Living in Caves Anymore  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Schools in the Time of COVID  The Decision Will Ultimately Make ItselfPosted in Thoughts
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  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
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  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. Yes, schools are desperately important to kids. No, COVID-19 doesn’t care, and COVID is making the rules right now. Attempts to open schools this fall will fail of their own accord. The relevant question is how to meet the needs of children, families and the community in the face of that reality.

  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

  • Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

  • Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118