Knowledge

Why do we respond to new knowledge in different ways?

Knowledge: Facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”

The Oxford Dictionary

However, knowledge is also the prism through which each of us perceives the world, and therefore underpins every decision we make, and every belief we hold dear.

You might be thinking that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s just an extension of the way we interact with the real world. We perceive the world through our senses, and the brain creates a model of the world that lets us interact with it.

A great example of this is giving someone a pair of glasses that flicks the world upside down for the person wearing them. The wearer has to figure out a way to manage in that world, and it’s really hard work, consuming a lot of brain power. It becomes easier over time however, and in the end, it would become second nature if something amazing didn’t happen first. While the conscious mind is struggling to cope with a topsy-turvy world, the subconscious is working things out too, and eventually it flicks the world the right way up again. The brain has reprogrammed the way it processes the information it’s getting through the eyes, to rematch its own internal model of the world.

Astonishingly enough, it wouldn’t be the first time that person’s brain had pulled off this stunt, because we all have. Our retinas receive an upside down image, and the brain eventually flicks it the “right way up” for us while we’re still very young.

We’re not generally aware of this internal model arrangement, because the subconscious handles it for us automatically. It’s so efficient, that we interact with the real world without even knowing the model exists.

But that’s just the model constructed to use our senses. The brain creates other models too, models that we’re pretty sure we consciously manage and construct. After all, we’re fully aware of the stuff we read, the things we make or use with our hands and feet, the skills we acquire, the values we come to believe are right for us, so we’re completely in control. Right? Um… no. It’s not as simple as that.

First of all, your subconscious builds the lion’s share of that model, not your conscious self. Secondly, your conscious and subconscious response will depend on what information you’ve already built into your model before this new knowledge arrives.

For example, let’s take a hunter gatherer, growing up in a forest somewhere, isolated from other communities of any kind. They’re going to learn whatever their parents and tribe think it important to tell them, and not a hell of a lot more. They’re not going to be discussing the impact of Pride and Prejudice on contemporary British education, partly because they will never have heard of either, and partly because… well why on earth would they?

On the other hand, learning which plants will make you sick if you eat them, how to track a particularly tasty kind of animal, how to court that cute person on the other side of the village fire without offending anyone, and what behaviour will make the gods really, really cross; those things are important! So they get passed down the generations, creating both tribal lore and tribal culture. Any new idea that comes along will have to fit into that existing model, where it will be assessed, and either incorporated or discarded. Show them a new way to catch their favourite prey and they’ll be right on it, provided it doesn’t clash with any deeply held beliefs. However, take their photo with a digital camera and you could get anything from “Hey wow! That’s cool!” to “You’ve stolen my soul! Die you demon from hell!”

You may think we dwellers of the modern world are different, more advanced, more… mature… And you would be mistaken…

Oh sure, we’ve got almost instant access to vast amounts of information, to different ideas, and new technology comes along almost daily to delight and entertain us, to expand the possibilities of life, and we hoover it up almost as fast as it’s created. But that’s not the point. The point is how we use our own internal models not just to decide how we’re going to respond to today’s new thing, but even if we consider it at all.

If you have a strong religious framework, it will probably have a set of filters that automatically suggest how you should respond to a particular new idea. A person of one religion might feel quite comfortable adopting it into their own life, while another may turn away in horror or disgust. The same thing applies if you have strong political or philosophical beliefs, even if you’re an atheist. So, just like our imaginary forest dwellers, your response could be anything from “How cool!” to “Die you demon from hell!”

The internet was supposed to leaven things out, allowing everyone to share ideas and opinions, so we could all learn about each other, and figure out better ways to work together. What it’s actually done, especially since the introduction of the smart phone and social media, is to allow people to drop into online bubbles, where they only see and hear the stuff they’re interested in, that they already believe. So it gets reinforced, and the stuff outside the bubble is batted away, or may not even be seen at all, leaving the person in pretty much the same position as someone who lives in a totalitarian regime that deliberately restricts their access.

So, on the tribal and cultural lore fronts, people in these modern bubbles aren’t that much different to our imaginary hunter gatherers. The more they interact with their fellow bubblers, the more that model gets reinforced, and the bigger the shock when they bump up against someone from a different bubble, or a brand new idea that shakes their beliefs.

It’s therefore not surprising that different people will respond to new knowledge in different ways. It’s something we’d all expect, if we weren’t already living in bubbles of our own…

All of this is interesting to an author for at least two reasons. Firstly, these bubbles are part of the underlying structure within the story that drives character behaviours and interactions. Secondly, when a character acts outside the behavioural norms of their particular bubble, the reader instantly smells a rat. They may not know why they’re smelling a rat, but they know it’s not right, and suspension of disbelief comes off the menu.

It comes into play in any work of fiction, but particularly in a time travel book. The time traveller’s freedom to operate in their new environment is absolutely dependent upon their ability to negotiate the bubble clashes in such a way that the inhabitants of their new world are able to accommodate them. Just what our hero is able to achieve, will depend on their social position and power in this new world, but even the most powerful position will have its limits, and the reader will have an instinctive feel about where those boundaries lie.

I doubt that very many authors think about this in an overt way. If they properly sort out their characters, and the world they’re playing in, it all happens automatically within the story. It’s as organic a process as the one we use to build the knowledge models inside our own heads. But boy is it obvious when it goes wrong.

Why is writing so important to everything else?

In our own time we’ve become used to a very high rate of change, and it’s been going on so long we think of it as normal. Think of everything you can do with your smart phone, and then remind yourself that Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone in 2007. The smartphone is so powerful, so ubiquitous to everything we do in the modern world, it’s difficult for many people to imagine living without it. Yet just twelve years ago, it didn’t exist.

Let’s go back in time a little, and look at another amazing life changing tool, the stone hand axe. That’s quite a jump, but the stone hand axe was if anything, even more important to people’s lives back then, as the smart phone is to us today, so it’s not such a daft comparison as it might at first appear.

There are obviously many differences between a smart phone and a stone hand axe, but the one I want to talk about here is longevity. The average smartphone lasts about a year before the next model pops up from the same manufacturer, sometimes less. The longest you’re likely to be able to use the smart phone safely, is about five years, after which its operating system ceases to be updateable, and it’s no longer secure. The stone hand axe on the other hand, kept pretty much the same small number of designs for around 1,500,000 years… And it remained useful throughout that entire time.

So why didn’t it change? Were our ancestors really, really dumb, unimaginative morons?

Hardly. The more we learn about our distant ancestors, the more we have to change our minds away from the vision of a bunch of grunting cave dwellers barely able to string two thoughts together, to people just as capable of sophisticated thought as ourselves. But, if that’s true, why did they hang on to such a primitive tool for so long before they moved onto metal ones?

There are three key reasons, one of which is why I’m bringing this up in the first place. Reason one is that a stone hand axe is an incredibly useful tool, even today. You can get a magnificently sharp edge, literally razor sharp, and the thing is a lot more resilient than you’d think. The second reason is that the raw material to make them is all over the place, and you can start working on it as soon as you find a piece of suitable stone. You don’t have to smelt it the way you do metal. The third reason has nothing to do with the qualities of the stone hand axe at all. It’s about communication.

For almost all of the period we’re talking about, humans lived in small groups, travelling around the place, bumping into other groups from time to time, but generally keeping to their small bands.

We obviously don’t know how sophisticated their interpersonal communications were, but it’s safe to assume it was somewhere between chimpanzees and ourselves. In other words, they were perfectly capable of transmitting ideas between themselves.

Let’s follow an imaginary band, where our hero Mossyhead has a flash of inspiration. He wakes up one morning, and spots a branch lying on the edge of the fire. It’s been close enough to become discoloured on one end, but not so close that it has actually burned.

Intrigued by this, Mossyhead picks up the branch, admires the colour for a moment, and then absentmindedly taps the cooked end against one of the stones around the fire.

It sounds different to normal.

Puzzled, he takes a closer look, this time tapping and scraping it with his fingers. It seems harder, tougher than a normal branch.

He reaches across his bedding and grabs his spear. He fondles its point, and scratches the wood. It’s a lot softer than the burnt stick. “I wonder…” he thinks to himself. And being a smart sort of fellow, he plays around over the next few evenings, putting sticks in different parts of the fire until he can replicate the same hardness. Then, he makes a couple of spears to take on the next hunt. Boffo success!

The tribe is thrilled, and to make sure they don’t lose the idea, Mossyhead teaches the secret to Dirtyfeet and Bonyfingers. Within a week however, Dirtyfeet gets himself killed in a hunt, and Bonyfingers drowns after he slips on a rock while crossing a river.

Mossyhead settles down to teach another pair of youngsters, but on the other side of the fire, Magicthoughts the cook, has accidentally collected a poisonous mushroom along with the usual ones, and mixes it into the tribe’s dinner. Within two days everyone in the tribe is dead, and so is the idea.

Eventually, someone in another tribe makes the same discovery, but unless they share that idea with another tribe, who shares it with another, and another, and another, the idea is just as vulnerable as before. It needs to enter a large enough number of heads, spread over a wide enough geographic area before it’s future is reasonably secure. And even then, a major catastrophe such as the seismic event that knocked out the Minoan civilisation, could still wipe it out.

The key discovery that changed all that, was writing. When you can write something down, it has the ability to survive the writer, provided that other people still alive can read it.

Equally important, the writing can be copied, and the copies can be sent far and wide, finally spreading the idea out wide enough that it can survive almost anything.

But it’s slow, and it’s expensive. Writing’s generally reserved for important things like how many pots of corn you have stored in the communal granary, or how much tax someone owes to the chief, or diplomatic communiques with the thug that rules the clan next door, and of course, religious texts. Anything else is a bonus.

Progress was slow but steady, provided there was a sufficiently well organised economy and political structure to afford the scribes, but when the Roman empire collapsed, the only Europeans left that could afford to keep writing were the monasteries. That kept the ability to write trickling along just enough to keep things ticking over.

With a serious lock on that particular type of expertise, the power of the Catholic Church was greatly enhanced, as every monarch in Europe depended on their literary services. They knew pretty much everything that was going on, which was a huge help to their temporal aspirations. They also knew where their duty lay, so Europe’s literary focus was heavily skewed to the religious side of life. Given their priorities, that’s perfectly understandable, but who knows what great ideas popped up in that period, only to vanish because nobody thought them important enough to write down and disseminate?

Things only changed because of Johannes Guttenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany. He didn’t just come up with the idea of printing with moveable type, he actually made it a practical reality. Of course, no fool he, the first things he printed were religious in nature, the Bible, and indulgences. (Time off for good behaviour if you’ve been a naughty person and want to say sorry to the Almighty.) Good for the revenue stream, and it got the Church on side so they didn’t interfere with this wonderful new idea.

Moveable type printing changed everything. There had been printing before, mainly using woodcuts, but if you wanted to duplicate a one hundred page book, you had to carve out, by hand, one hundred different chunks of wood. This took a long time. If you made a mistake you had to throw that whole “page” away and start again. Just as bad, they wore out relatively quickly, so you’d have to do it all again if you wanted to print any more. With moveable type, you set up the letters as you wanted, printed the desired number of pages, then rearranged the letters for the next page and started all over again. It was fast, it was flexible, and most important of all, it was cheap. (Some things never change!)

Within a generation, the new printers had printed and distributed pretty much every book known. Initially, this was simple economics. If you’re a printer, you want people to read, and if you want people to read, you need to give them stuff they actually want to read. Italic script was developed about this time by Aldus Manutius, because he wanted a font that could pack as many words onto a page as possible, to reduce his costs, and make books small enough to be easily carried around.

Interestingly enough, we have exactly the same dynamic to thank for our wonderfully broad selection of classical music. We owe that to the development of the recording industry, and record producers searching for more and more content to sell to their ravenous public. Imagine the world without Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven! Without the early recording industry’s hunger for new stuff to sell, we could have lost the lot…

Anyway, we digress. Another benefit of moveable type printing was that all the definitive works suddenly became available to anyone who could read and had the money to buy the books. That led to two key developments. First of all, you could take “the expert’s” book out into the field and check if what they said was actually correct. Boy, did that shake a few foundations… Secondly, a whole bunch of people suddenly had a load of previously unconnected ideas in their heads and were able to make the links between them. When that happens, you get an ever building cascade of developments as each new idea sparks off a string of others. And as each new idea appeared, it was written down, printed, disseminated, and fed into the next round of ideas.

That led to an ever accelerating rate of change, with new ideas and new technologies changing not just the technologies we used, but the very way we thought about things.

The internet has done exactly the same thing, on steroids. If you think about the technological changes in the last ten years alone, and what they’ve done to society and the way people live, it’s absolutely staggering compared to what went before.

Every single person on the planet now has the ability to disseminate their thoughts and ideas, limited only by their access to the internet, and the degree of freedom their country’s rulers allow them to have. That’s great, but ironically, it’s given us a problem that we’d just about managed to get rid of, the problem of losing stuff you’d really like to keep. The difference this time is why we’re losing stuff.

Why have we lost so much of what was written in the past?

Think about how many Greek and Roman written works have come down to us. Then think about the journey they had to make. Somehow, they survived fire, flood, indifference, religious persecution, war, theft, and the relentless process of physical decay. It’s miraculous that we’ve got any of it at all.

Then imagine how much more they wrote down that hasn’t made it. Some of Archimedes’ work only got to us because somewhere a monk got hold of one of his works, and to save money, unbound it, scraped the surface clean of ink, folded the pages in half, and used the now clean surfaces to write religious texts. Through incredible luck it managed to survive through all kinds of stress, including the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22, being dubiously acquired by a travelling businessman and stuffed in a damp, mouldy room for years, then through a turbulent legal battle before being bought at auction by a wealthy fellow who made it available for analysis. Even then, the work and technology required to reveal Archimedes’ work was expensive and exacting. (Despite the monk’s dedicated scraping, he left enough of a trace for the original to be recovered.)

Think of everything that had to happen to make it possible to read that book today, then remind yourself that it’s the only copy that’s made it. Every other copy has been destroyed.

Click on the above to go to Amazon, but be careful of the hardback versions because they are VERY expensive!

We can get an even more vivid picture of what we may have lost, if we step away from writing for a moment to consider the Antikythera. It’s a physical computer, able to predict the positions of stars, eclipses, and much more, decades in the future. It’s an exquisite, highly complex mechanism, well beyond the believed capabilities of the ancient Greeks, yet it was made sometime between 205 and 60 BC.

Click on the image to go to the Wikipedia page about the antikythera.

Like the Archimedes Palimpsest, it too required a miraculous journey, and years of dedicated research and investigation before we truly understood just how amazing it was. It survived a shipwreck, more than two thousand years in sea water, to be recovered by sponge divers in 1900, who passed it onto an archaeologist who ignored it for years because was just a lump of corroded lump of bronze and wood. When one of the cogs was noticed, archaeologists considered it too advanced for the rest of the stuff found on the wreck and so ignored the whole thing. It wasn’t until 1951 that interest really kicked off, but it took another 23 years of work after that before anything was published on it.

Click on the image to go to the Wikipedia page about the antikythera.

Wow… Here’s a device that changes our entire understanding of just how sophisticated the ancient Greeks really were, and it can’t possibly have been a one off. The knowledge and expertise that went into making it can’t have just created that one thing. There had to have been others, and many other different kinds of devices as well, but none of them have made it down to our own time.

For any object to survive through the ages is largely a matter of luck, but different kinds of objects face different kinds of challenges, and the written word is especially vulnerable.

Writing hacked into stone, or pressed into clay tablets has a decent chance of surviving through the ages, the biggest threat being human vandalism of some kind.

Stuff written on less durable surfaces like papyrus and paper are physically less resilient. They fray, they rot, they dissolve because of the acid still in the paper after its manufacture, or the acid in the inks. They tear, they rip, they burn. The list of physical threats is endless. Yet they suffer another kind of risk that should resonate with our modern selves; format wars.

Imagine you’re the abbot in charge of a fine monastery somewhere in Europe. Your scribes have been busy at work for centuries, copying and transcribing dozens of scrolls, then some clever clogs comes along and invents the bound book. If you want to duplicate your scroll library in the new bound format, it’s all got to be done by hand, every single letter carefully written out with a quill pen. Okay, you’ve got all these scribes available, but they were already busy doing other stuff, so how many of those scrolls are going to get copied across? Not very many. Only the ones people really care about, the important, or at least the ones in constant demand. And once people have got used to using books and not scrolls, what happens to the scrolls? They stay in the scroll cupboard, gathering dust, rotting away. Loads of stuff “got left behind” because the work required to make the jump to the new format was just too daunting.

If it sounds odd leaving so much precious stuff behind, then ask yourself how many people copied all their old video tapes to DVDs? All those weddings, children’s birthday parties, Bobby’s first horse ride etc, how much of that got left behind? And if you want it back today, unless you can find someone who still has a video tape machine you’re out of luck, because nobody makes them anymore. You might have the physical tape, but you can’t do anything with it.

And the DVDs? Well that’s going the way of the Dodo as well, now everyone’s gone digital and the cloud. Ripping a DVD is a lot faster than copying a video tape, but it still takes time and effort, so a lot gets left behind. And even the digital isn’t safe. What was cutting edge a few years back, now looks grainy, dull, and amateurish. So even though the content itself might be precious and valuable, seduced by ever brighter screens, higher resolutions, and immersive audio, we leave even the greatest works behind.

Today we have infinite online storage, so you’d think our worries about losing stuff would be over. They’re not.

First of all, file formats change all the time. I have Microsoft Word documents I created in the 1990’s, and I have to jump through a few hoops before I can get Word to open them. It’s only a matter of time before I can’t open them at all. So I have to convert them to modern formats. If I only have ten or so, no problem. What if I have over three hundred? What if they’re scattered across multiple back up drives and I don’t even know where they all are anymore? That’s no different to having to convert scrolls to books, apart from the fact that in a hundred years’ time someone will still be able to read a two thousand year old scroll, while nobody will be able to read a 1992 MS Word document.

Think about that, and what it means to posterity. We know about the ancient Greeks because of what they left. What would we leave if there was a nuclear war that wiped most of us out? Imagine a handful of survivors starting from scratch, and two thousand years from now, their archaeologist descendants are hunting through the detritus of our lives. Would they even be able to tell if we could read and write? What would they find that would tell them that? They’d still be able to find the odd ancient Greek carving here and there, and deduce how long ago it had been made. Then there would be four thousand years of nothingness before the light of literature shone once more upon the world. The contributions in between would have vanished entirely…

The second worry about the modern world losing stuff is more immediate. We’re generating so much of it, it’s impossible to keep up. We’re swamped, and each of us only gets to see a fraction of what’s available. If you don’t know it exists, you can’t go find it. Add to that the deliberate campaigns to spread misinformation around the planet for political and ideological ends, and telling fact from fiction today becomes a huge challenge, let alone making sure the good stuff is preserved for later use.

What’s important to you that you want to see preserved? Are you going to do something about that yourself, or are you going to rely on other people, the mysterious “they”, because “They’lltake care of it, I’m sure.”?

Every time you kick something into “The Cloud”, you’re relying on the mysterious they, trusting that other people you know nothing about, are going to look after it, protect it and secure it as if they treasure it as much as you do yourself. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, but is it really as safe as you think it is? Have you checked, or do you just take their word for it?

Do men and women process knowledge differently?

(More importantly, why is this such a hard question to answer?)

Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”

Gustave Le Bon 1879

That remark by one of the founding fathers of psychology, Gustave Le Bon, is a really good example of why people need to treat this kind of question with care. Today we know beyond doubt that he’s talking rubbish. The evidence is everywhere! How could such a bright, observant, and well read man get something so obvious, so seriously wrong?

Human beings tend to bring a lot of baggage to discussions of this nature, both consciously and subconsciously. As well as any scientific evidence, we also factor in personal observations, prejudices, cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, politics and any other kind of orthodoxies that have influenced our upbringing.

It’s become fashionable to look back at the great minds of the past and castigate them for their racism, misogyny, or other purported character flaw, but we generally overlook the fact that they were products of their own time, not ours. One day, people in the future will look back at us, and judge our own actions and beliefs against the cultural background of that future time, and they too will be asking themselves, “How could they…?’

We have no idea what those future cultural values are going to be. Oh we think we know… They’re going to be a refinement and extension of our own exquisitely wrought models of morality and right thinking, but the Victorians thought the same, and the Georgians before that. In fact, you don’t even have to go back that far. The values of the 1950s differed hugely from the sixties, which differed again to the seventies, and the eighties and so on. We have a no better chance than they did of correctly guessing the future. All we can do is to try and act as properly, fairly and decently as we can within our own view of the world. As did our predecessors.

So, whenever we ask a question like “Do men and women think differently?” or “Do people of race XGZ tend to be better at VBPGT than people of race KWCQ?” we’re not having a simple scientific discussion about a set of empirical, proven facts. It can’t help but get political at some point, which rather screws up our chances of actually finding the scientifically correct answer.

Such questions also tend to bring in the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate, or in this case “what you were born with vs. how you were raised”. The Mythbusters TV series did an interesting exploration of “You throw like a girl!” thing, and they found out that yes, the physiological differences between the male and female bodies do impact the ultimate speed and power, but training and practice bring both sexes up to the same quality of throw. In other words, it’s both nature and nurture.

And that really matters. If a grouping of people are brought up to believe they’re no good at something, most of them will internalise it and act as if it were true. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, then a self evident “fact” that the whole of that society believes, and it gets locked in, secured in place by cherry picking the information which reinforces that view of the world.

Taking your dogma for a walk

Dogma: A belief or set of beliefs held by a group or organisation, which others are expected to accept without argument.”

The Oxford Dictionary

Dogma is a word we use most often about religion, but it’s much broader than that. Totalitarian regimes apply it all the time, vigorously enforcing a particular view of the world, and severely punishing anyone who contradicts it. But you can see it in some form or another in pretty much any group you care to observe, even amongst the scientific community, the one place you’d least expect it to thrive.

The fact that it does exist in the scientific community, in places at least, tells us two key things. One, it’s a very human thing to create dogma, and two, it’s very hard not to succumb to it.

It helps to consider how dogma comes about. Religious and political dogma is imposed primarily from above, and it’s there specifically to control. Nothing hard to understand about that!

However, it’s then heavily reinforced by the other members of that community, in a “do this, believe this, and you’re truly one of us.’ tribal sort of way. And if you don’t go along with it, they themselves will punish you for it. The hierarchy often don’t have to do a thing.

Those are the obvious ones, but I think there’s a third source of dogma that we don’t often consider, because it’s more an individual thing, rather than an obviously group thing. It’s a sort of short cut way of thinking that helps us process information faster than having to think about everything in detail.

Imagine you’re an early hominid wandering the savannah, hunting an antelope. You see a group of big cats off to your left, and as you look, three of the females get to their feet and start to slink off into the long grass ahead of you. You’ve got a number of small cats back at the village to keep the rats and mice under control, but you’ve never seen pussy cats this size. The rats around here must be massive! A few minutes later, one of your hunting mates is messily and uncomfortably finding out what a lioness looks like from the inside.

The next time you see a pride of lions, you’re a little more cautious, and you tell the rest of the tribe “Look, those big cats we keep seeing, they’re tricky beggars. If you’re not careful, they eat you!” By the time a few more of the tribe have been taken, the message morphs into “Big cats bad!! and even the sight of one sleeping in the sun is enough to send chills of fear down your spine.

That’s a useful ability, to be able to learn about things you need to instinctively react to. It means you react faster, without having to have a meaningful discussion with your neighbour about the appropriate course of action. It means you’re less likely to become something’s lunch.

Which is great, but once you’ve set your mind on something, a strange thing happens to the way you process new information related to that. Paul Simon puts it beautifully in his song “The Boxer”.

“… all lies and jest

Still a man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest…”

That wonderful ability to respond instantly to something that warns you about danger, also has the power to lock you in a box.

Imagine a child called Thistledown, who believes that everything good that happens to her is caused by faeries, and everything bad is done by goblins. Let’s further imagine that faeries and goblins do in fact exist, but they’re not the good and bad creatures that Thistledown thinks they are.

Sparkletoes the faerie, and Footfungus the goblin, are Thistledown’s own personal sprites. They spend most of the day playing cards, but every once in a while they get hungry, and that’s when the good and bad things happen to Thistledown. That’s because both faerie and goblin feed off Thistledown’s emotions. Different emotions taste of different things, so whether something good or bad happens to Thistledown, depends on what Sparkletoes and Footfungus want to eat at the time, not on which of them does it. They can both be good or bad.

Let’s also say that Sparkletoes and Footfungus are getting careless, and Thistledown sometimes gets to see them in action. Whenever she sees Sparkletoes and something good happens, it just reinforces what she believes, as does seeing Footfungus at a bad time.

So what if she sees Sparkletoes when something bad happens? How does she handle that? Easy. She just tells herself that Sparkletoes was trying to save her, but wasn’t able to. And if she sees Footfungus when something good happens, it just means that Sparkletoes was smarter than he was. She sees what she wants to see, and disregards the rest… Thistledown has locked herself into her own belief system, and even the evidence of her own senses will never let her change her mind.

That little story was about superstition or religion, but the model works for politics, relationships, playing golf, applying for jobs, diagnosing a patient, doing scientific research, and pretty much everything else you can think of.

We’re all vulnerable to Thistledown syndrome. Anytime we just accept something without thinking about it, we’re vulnerable, and then we miss stuff, stuff that might be really important. Think you’re immune? Sure about that?

What you measure, impacts how you think

Every single one of us measures stuff all the time, even when we’re not using actual numbers to do it. A hunter measures the distance between themselves and their prey. A gatherer assesses the number of berries or tubers they’ve collected, against the expected number of dinner guests. A traveller carefully checks the depth and current of the river they’re about to cross. We do it because it helps us to make the right decisions, but we’re not always perfect at measuring the right things.

Take the road toll for example, the number of people killed on a country’s roads each year. Is it important? Of course it is! Does it help you do anything about it? Ah… now… well… you see… the thing is…

The road toll is a raw number and doesn’t distinguish between 100 people dying in a collision between two buses, and 100 single occupant fatal crashes. A bus crash that kills 100 people is a terrible thing, but it’s just one accident, and probably not a systemic issue in the way that 100 single occupant crashes might be. Nor does a single figure tell you how many drivers were drunk or drugged. You might have extremely good roads, well trained drivers and a well maintained fleet of safe, modern vehicles, none of which need to be changed if only you can solve the substance abuse issues. The only practical use an overall total like that is good for, is raising public support to do something about it, not for correctly identifying the root cause. For that you need more data.

The cholera epidemics that hit London in the nineteenth century were solved by Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system, but it was an idea based on a completely false premise. In other words, they just got lucky!

When the cholera struck, the powers that be weren’t particularly concerned about the death rate. People dropping like flies was a fact of life, and if most of those doing the dropping were poor, well where was the harm in that? There were plenty more after all, pouring in from the countryside. No, what really worried them was the possibility that it might spark a revolution. It wasn’t too long after the French and American revolutions, so it wasn’t as big a stretch as it might seem to us now.

Even then they didn’t do a hell of a lot more than just talk about things, until it got personal. At the time, London used the Thames river as a wonderful creation provided by Mother Nature specifically to sweep all their poop, dead cats, unclaimed bodies and other atrocities out to sea to be forgotten about. The only problem with that arrangement was that the Thames flowed directly past the Houses of Parliament, and when the Great Stink arrived it really got up their noses! Partly it was just downright unpleasant, but even more important, they saw it as a direct threat against their lives. That’s because everyone still believed that disease was spread by bad air, by nasty smells. That’s what malaria means, bad air. So Mr. Bazalgette’s plans for a new sewer system was just what they needed, even if it did come at a hell of a cost. While the sewers solved the problem, they didn’t address the real root cause. For that, we have to thank Doctor John Snow.

Snow didn’t believe the “miasma” theory about foul air spreading disease, which freed him to consider other possibilities. He collected a great deal of information about who was dying from cholera, and where. Eventually he was able to make the connection between sewage and drinking water, even without any knowledge of germ theory. The fight wasn’t over of course. The idea of poop contaminating drinking water wasn’t an easy one to swallow, and it took a few more years and additional events to unfold before it became mainstream, but he’d done enough groundwork for it to eventually take hold. Without all that diligently plotted data, who knows how long it would have taken us to make the right connection.

I’ve been to a quite a few places around the world associated with rampant disease, and I can fully understand why people thought it was spread by bad smells! In fact it’s very difficult NOT to make that connection… You need pretty strong convincing to believe it’s something else doing the damage, even if you already know.

Data however, isn’t always a force for good. It depends on how it’s used.

In the modern world today, most of us are familiar with our data being harvested, whether we like it or not. It gets shared with people and organisations we have little control over, and used to do who knows what. People use it to secure and maintain positions of power, and organisations use it to make as much money as possible. However, if you’re a salary or wage earner, there’s a much more direct way in which measurements impact you, affecting your very ability to earn enough to live.

The invention of double entry book keeping fundamentally changed the world of business management for the better, mostly. But it’s boring! Right?

When thinking up ways to beat insomnia, reading a history of book keeping must come somewhere near the top of the list, but Jane Gleeson-White’s book “Double Entry” is fabulous. It’s an amazing historical journey, from the clay tokens of ancient times, right through to accounting’s influence on Karl Marx, to the invention of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a war winning strategy, through the sordid scandals of Wall Street, to today’s struggles between corporate profit and environmental impact. If you want to really understand the clash between modern economics and the environment (as opposed to reading either side’s propaganda), then this is the book for you. It’s well written, easy to read, easy to understand, and really, really, really interesting!

Oh… I seem to have gotten a bit carried away… (Buy it anyway!)

Click on the image to go to Amazon where you can look at/buy Jane's book.

It’s the double entry bit I want to bring up here. The basic idea is that when you buy something, you mark the money going out of an account in one place, and note down the value of whatever you got for that money somewhere else. Double entry, two entries for each transaction, one out, one in. That way you really can keep track of it all, and genuinely understand what’s happening in your business. You know that when you spent sum “X”, it was to receive value “Y”. So the boss can tell at a glance WHY that money was spent, and decide whether to continue doing it or not. That’s handy when you’re making decisions about the future. However, today the rules of accountancy are a bit more complicated than that. Now there’s something that appears on just one side of the ledger, and that’s you.

When your immediate boss hires you, it’s because you’re going to provide something of value that the company wants, and they’re going to pay you some money for that. Sometimes they’re just buying your time, where you work so many hours doing a particular task, but mostly you bring something a bit more than your ability to act like a robot. You bring skill, expertise, insight, creativity, flair, etc.

You and your direct boss know why you’re there, and why you’re “worth your salt”. The CEO however, has no idea. To the person at the top, you’re just an entry in a spreadsheet. Did you catch the key word there? “You’re just AN entry in a spreadsheet.” That’s right. You only appear on one side of the ledger, as a cost. Nowhere in the company accounts does it record your value to the organisation.

That’s why you can hear a CEO publicly state that “Our employees are our greatest asset!” and then order a 10% workforce reduction the very next day. The fact is, that in accounting terms, you’re not an asset. You’re just a cost. And when the CEO is looking to trim costs, labour is one of the biggest they’ve got. Without any visibility of the value you’re bringing to the company, it’s the easiest thing in the world for the CEO to put a line through your name. They save money and there’s no apparent downside. Now your direct boss does know the downside, but they’re not the ones making that high level decision. The only thing they can do is to try and minimise the damage lower down when they have to decide who goes and who stays.

So why isn’t your value recorded in the accounts? The standard answer is that it’s extremely difficult to do it in an empirical, accurate, and meaningful way. And it is. No question. But without it, those high level decisions are always going to be made without knowing a very important part of the equation.

So what people measure does directly impact how they see the world, and how they choose to act. And that affects you every day of your life, whether you’re aware of it or not.