The important of Baloney Detection

In Figuring, Maria Popova asks — ”How does a person come into self-posession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism?”

The ”sovereignty of mind” that Maria speaks about is not a brash self-assertion that cocks a snook at parents, habits from the past, and the Establishment  It is living completely in accordance with the ”Baloney Detection Kit.”

In The Demon-Haunted World — Science as a Candle in the Dark, the wise Carl Sagan devotes a chapter to the ”The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” 

The Kit that Carl proposes to help us smell fallaciousness and fraud consists of the following --

  • Confirm facts independently (as much as possible).

  • Dialogue with knowledgeable people from differing points of view.

  • Do not get swayed by authority.

  • Think up different hypothesis.

  • Do not back any view owing to personal attachment to ideas. In other words, it is important to introspect and examine oneself for biases, prejudices, and preferences.

  • Whenever possible, quantify.

  • Examine every link the argument-chain for weakness. Every link must hold up.

  • When faced with multiple plausible hypothesis, pick the one that explains with the most simplicity.

  • Propositions must be falsifiable. In other words, propositions must be testable. 

We would do well to keep in mind that our Brain is not a dispassionate, passive computer  David Eagleman concludes a chapter titled “What is Reality?” (The Brain — The Story of You) writing —  “Your brain serves up a narrative — and each of us believes whatever narrative it tells us....Even more strangely, it’s likely that every brain tells a slightly different narrative....Each brain carries its own truth.” The Brain, while incredibly useful, is not completely reliable in Baloney Detection. Baloney Detection is not an innate cranial trait, but a temper of mind that must be assiduously cultivated. 

Friedrich Nietzsche writes (The Philosopher: Reflections on the Struggle Between Art and Knowledge) that ”life requires illusions”.  Carl, with immense compassion, acknowledges that we are ”human”. Many of us need Santa Claus explanations to live. Having said this, he encourages us to ”rouse reserves” to combat Baloney because it is often created "collaboratively....with....premediation" to deceive, profit, and acquire power over people. When the Kit is not used and we drop our guard, Carl cautions, sometimes we find that “gullibility kills".

i am unlikely to be challenged when i say that Carl spent his lifetime helping us acquire ”sovereignty of mind”

i am thinking of Carl and Maria right now. i am grateful that they are my Teachers. 


Leadership for the 21st Century: the plague of Power-Intoxication

The senior executive chairing the meeting asks for views but does not seem to be listening. It looks like the others know that this person does not listen. The voices that speak reflect prudence rather than integrity. The words are fancy and the tones are scientific but, when the meeting ends, it is clear -- everyone has taken safe positions rather than actively think, enquire together, and break new ground. There is confirmation of the Chair’s ideas and an affirmation that the seat of power is wise. Despite the lessons of history and so much more education, the mind filled with power seems to be no different from that centuries ago.

In our times, the ill-effects of power-drunk people at the helm are proving to be widespread, deep, and tectonic. This may seem exaggerated but, in my view, this is one of the serious threats to our future as a species. i agree with Yuval Noah Harari (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) that we ”confront….the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered”. Leaders, more than ever before, must ask themselves if they ”serve power or truth”.

Edgar H Schein (former Professor at the Sloan School of Management, MIT) cautions us about this in Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.  “In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident’ and though ”senior managers….always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates”, “when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment….” 

Edgar goes on to state that “shockingly” people often “settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.”

One of the interesting lessons in Good to Great is that when a company loses a leader (who is charismatic and flamboyant, but power-filled), it falls apart. This is so because the departing leader worked for “personal greatness” rather than “set the company up for success in the next generation.” Jim Collins makes the point that is in stark contrast to companies that keep up a consistent climb to greatness, owing to leaders who, among other things, create ”a climate where the truth is heard”.  Such leaders listen and do not shoot messengers. Consequently, they have teams that are prepared to weather any storm – indeed, teams that are willing to storm the gates of hell at the call of their leaders. Such leaders leave behind legacies that thrive long after they have stepped out of the playing field.

History tells us that this is no new thing. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford writes —  ”Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.” This he did with an army that at no time exceeded “one hundred thousand warriors – a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.” What speaks of Genghis’ leadership is not this but that fact that “he left his empire with such a firm foundation that it continued growing for another 150 years” with “vestiges of his empire” continuing for over seven centuries. While most conquerors died miserable deaths, despised by their own as tyrants, Genghis Khan “passed away in his campbed, surrounded by a loving family, faithful friends, and loyal soldiers ready to risk their life at his command.” In every village, country, and region he conquered, Genghis would call for the learned, the wise, the healers, the writers and the thinkers – and with the help of translators who always accompanied him, he would listen. The man who was probably the most powerful human ever, it turns out, listened, learned – and did not permit power to deafen him.

Dirty Harry, John Gray, and Self-Deception

The thug shoots around and kills a few, hurts many, and terrorises everyone. As he stands gloating, the smoke clears and in a corner sits Clint. ”I know what you're thinking, punk. You’re thinking "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?....Go ahead, make my day.”  (dialogues from Dirty Harry and Sudden Impact)

Something similar happens in my mind when i read John Gray — the Professor who taught at Oxford, Yale, Harvard, and retired after a stint at the  London School of Economics. The proponents of liberalism, the destroyers of gods, the champions of free speech and all that — Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and similar thinkers stand alone having swatted away many — the smoke clears and John turns up saying ”Go ahead, make my day.” 

Described as a misanthrope-thinker by some, John marshals an array of arguments that, to the unprepared, can cause panic. In Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he gets to the heart of the matter early by pointing out that ”belief in progress is a superstition.” Instinctively, this may seem like a thoughtless statement, but i have not come across convincing refutations of John’s ideas.

In a 2013 conversation with Johannes Niederhauser, John Gray touches on self-deception.” Speaking about a former Prime Minister of the U.K, he says — ”People regard him as a liar, but I believe that's too much of a compliment. I think he lacks the moral development to engage in falsity. Whatever he spoke, he believed.”  i think this lies at the heart of much of John Gray’s intellectual positions — the idea that we are prone to self-deception. And as we give more room to this, our lives become a large-scale delusion — we end up becoming numb inside, stop thinking and, at best, become passive time-servers. At worst, we become tyrants — at home, at work, in society. John, i think, will agree with Charles Dickens (Great Expectations) that ”all other swindlers upon the earth are nothing to the self-swindler.” 

Self-deception encourages us to live in echo-chambers, makes us deaf to everything except our own ideas, makes us spin fantasies that masquerade as facts, and prevents learning.

This is why Ramakrishna Paramahamsa cautioned that we would do well to not indulge in ”theft in the heart.”  And Somerset Maugham observed in The Painted Veil that ”it is always despicable to lie to oneself.”

i am thinking of self-deception this morning — the need for me to ”protect this mind of mine” (Shantideva in The Way of the Bodhisattva) .

Anatol Rapoport and Charlie Munger -- The Golden Rule of Arguments

Elections in the largest democracy in the world, Brexit, the Mueller Report, climate change, free speech, and so much more are being battled about in social media, TV channels, colleges, homes, offices -- pretty much everywhere in society.

Discourse and debate are as vital to social well-being as blood-flow is to the body. When views collide, we are provoked to ponder, society is forced to confront challenges that perhaps are not given attention, and we have opportunities to see with fresh eyes.

However, what i am seeing (in debates) is a growing tendency to prove points of view rather than seek the truth. i am also seeing most sides wanting to quickly "shut down" others by subjecting them to abuse rather than engage in thoughtful arguments and deliberation.

In a 1978 paper titled "Three Modes of Conflict", Anatol Rapoport (who has made significant contributions in  mathematics, biology, systems thinking, game theory and many other disciplines) suggests a rule for people engaged in disagreements and debates.

"The rule I have in mind is the following. Before each opponent is permitted to present his own case, he must state the case of the opponent to the opponent's satisfaction. This means that when one side has presented the other side's case, the other side must be asked, "Has your side been presented well?" If the answer is no, another attempt must be made and another until the opponent says, "Yes, now you have presented my case fairly."“

This is the Golden Rule of Arguments. Understand the other’s view before starting to criticise.

If some of us feel that this is being too nice and impractical, it is enlightening to watch Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger respond to a question on the anchoring effect (during the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting ). Anchoring effect is a cognitive tendency to latch on to a particular piece of information (often the initial one we get) and, base our further thinking and decisions on this. The worst anchoring effect, Charlie Munger says, is “our previous ideas” !

As the conversation progresses (4:32:42 in the video), Warren Buffett comments --  "Charlie says that if you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can.”

If we practise this Golden Rule, the world will be a better place. We are likely to see that though many differ from us, all of us bleed the same way. We likely to be less angry; we are likely to hate less; compassion will dominate. The real facts of life rather than the whims of a few will shape society.

Creativity in Classrooms: a Lesson from 3M, Google, and Atlassian

The WEF reports that complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity are the top three skills that employers seek as they face a future whose contours are unclear.

Interestingly, these are not skills that can be structured in the form of a list of topics and taught in classrooms in conventional ways. After all, each of these are traits of the mind — ways of seeing and interpreting the world, identifying problems, mining insights, analysing and synthesising, breaking established patterns, and constructing new possibilities. They also cannot be corralled as “subjects” with a fixed term within which one could gain expertise. How do we then approach these in our classrooms?

Practices from some innovative companies point to a possible way.

  • 3M, the American conglomerate, “encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them.”

  • Lazlo Bock, former Senior Vice-President of People Operations at Google, writes in Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead of Google’s “20 percent time” — an idea that gives employees time to explore and pursue projects that interest them. By its very intent, it is not a structured policy but a powerful signal about what is valued.

  • Atlassian, the Australian software company, has multiple initiatives that support employees to work on projects of interest and, possibilly innovate.

These companies understand that thinking and creativity begin with autonomy. They understand that, while structure is essential for discipline, it is rewarding to give people space to experiment, fail, and challenge received wisdom. Apart from products, and service improvements that have yielded huge business benefits for these corporations, one of the results has been a consistent invigoration of creativity.

There is a lesson here for our classrooms.

We could dedicate twenty percent of the time for each Course (or subject) for Learners to pursue projects of interest within that field of study. This can be done in High Schools and Colleges. The explicitly stated intent would be to encourage Learners to cultivate independent thinking, thinking that is critical and analytical, which nourishes their creativity instead of stifling it.

Rosamund and Benjamin Zander write in The Art of Possibility“Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within.” The “twenty percent time” must be supervised by teachers who see that their “job [as teachers] is to remove the extraneous debris that stands between” Learners and their “expression in the world.” Such teachers could help Learners by questioning, with gentle nudges to explore directions, by removing impediments that Learners feel overwhelmed by, by welcoming mistakes, by providing timely information, and by awakening self-belief.

Our current models of education, as Ken Robinson explains in The Element put “relentless pressure….on students to conform.” This kills creativity and discourages independent thinking. While it is unlikely that the transformations needed in education will be achieved by a single action, the "twenty percent” idea, introduced as a component in the existing curricula may help. Its track record certainly is impressive.

Lessons for classrooms from Scrum

It is clear that education the world over is in a state of crisis. Jack Ma summed it up aptly at the World Economic Forum meet recently — “If we do not change the way we teach, thirty years later we will be in trouble….”

As individuals, most of us might not be able to re-form education in large-scale. However, there are steps we can take in our classrooms — small steps that make huge differences..

The Scrum approach to software development has, like its Agile kin, some distinguishing features that offer lessons we can learn for use in our classrooms.

1) Scrum Teams execute projects in terms of Sprints. A Sprint is a fixed period of time (usually between one to four weeks) at the end of which, the Team delivers outcomes of value to the customer. A project is executed with a number of Sprints with the customer seeing outcomes at the end of each sprint rather than as a single marathon where the customer sees outcomes (of value) later in the lifecycle and infrequently.

Can we create Lesson Plans such that Learners see the Term (or Semester) as a series of Learning Sprints? Can we group Learners into small Teams (say 3 to 4 in a Team)? Can the Learners be encouraged to create an artifact that demonstrates their learnings for each Learning Sprint (building up on all the earlier Sprints)? Artifacts could be research findings, presentations, prototypes, papers, code, models — anything tangible that is appropriate for the knowledge-area and which, demonstrates the Learners’ achievement of the Learning Outcomes for the period.

By taking this step —

  • we encourage Learners to see themselves as active, creative, participants in the venture — rather than as passive sponges who absorb and release.

  • we encourage Learners to see Learning as a project that aims to yield tangible outcomes of value for themselves and others — rather than as a journey of exams where the grades, mistakenly, are seen as outcomes.

  • we encourage Learners to nurture their interests and invoke passion. The value of this is something that great thinkers have recognised across history. In one of the essays that form the Moralia (written around 100 A. D), Plutarch makes this timeless point that “the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

2) One of the rituals that Scrum Teams adhere to is the “Daily Scrum”. This is a meeting that all Team members participate in. The Scrum Master, a member of the Scrum Team whose job, among other things, is to remove impediments that the Team faces, anchors this meeting. During the meeting, each Team member answers the following questions —

— What did you do yesterday?

— What do you plan to do today?

— Are there any impediments you are facing?

The primary objective of this daily meeting is not to get a status update on the project. Rather, it is to make commitments, communicate a desire to honour them, and highlight obstacles.

Can we have Learners do a Weekly meeting of this kind with their Teams? Each Learner will answer the following —

— What did you learn this week?

— What do you plan to learn next week?

— Is there anything that is hampering your learning?

By instilling this ritual —

  • we encourage Learners to reflect on what they have really learnt

  • we identify challenges that Learners are facing as early as possible and, this gives us more time to help with remedial action

  • we create opportunities for Learners to help each other. If a Learner in the Team is, for example, having difficulties in a Topic and communicates this, others in the Team who have grasped the Topic could help. Peer-learning, as research from the Harvard Professor Eric Mazur demonstrates, is a powerful mode of learning — and, often, more effective than the conventional instructor-led style.

3) Individuals in Scrum Teams enjoy a great deal of autonomy. There are no roles or designations that communicate hierarchy, seniority, or power. Indeed, the ways of working demand that each member of the Team is not “assigned” tasks but voluntarily picks up work from a list. Such an environment makes for communication that is uninhibited and free of fear. There is no “Boss” — just a Team of people united in pursuit with each member achieving a state of being where individual interests and interdependence fuse.

In classrooms, we would do well to create environments where the “Teacher” makes active efforts to shed the halo. The Teacher, then, is seen by the Learner not as a “exalted, powerful, controlling being on a high pedestal” but as a fellow-Learner (someone who has probably been learning longer than the student).

By doing this —

  • we create classrooms where Learners are less likely to have trepidation in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes. These three factors, fear in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes, boil down to a fear of failure and this, as the Kelley brothers observe in Creative Confidence, is “the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success.”

  • we create classrooms the foster the “growth mindset” which is, the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck tells us (in Mindset), “the belief that everyone can change and grow thorough application and experience”. This mindset expresses itself as “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially)” when things are not going well. This mindset is what separates the truly great from others.

In training programs and workshops i have conducted over the the past few years, i have experimented with these ideas. Learners tell me that this has created memorable learning experiences for them — they certainly have for me.

If you have experimented with ways to nourish Learners, i would be happy to learn from you.