Do as I say, not as I do

Source of two-headed image: Quora
THE HYPOCRITE IN ALL OF US

How many of us practise what we preach? While it’s easy doling out gratuitous advice to others, living by the principles and values we espouse is another matter. The hard truth is that many of us display glaring contradictions in our behaviour, adopting one pose in public and another persona in private.

In all domains of life, people put on false fronts. Examples of double standards include pious politicians promoting family values while secretly having an affair to two-faced parents telling their children not to smoke while doing so themselves. Inconsistencies between what we say and do abound as we often fail to meet our own moral code.

While most humans can be accused of duplicity, higher standards are expected of those who claim the moral high ground. Priests and other religious implore us to love our neighbour, yet (some) have committed unspeakable transgressions against children. Such unvirtuous behaviour is repugnant and has exposed the heinous moral hypocrisy of religious institutions.

Just as churches need to put their own houses in order before damning others, so do we. Everyone is prone to hypocrisy at one point or another in their life. Humans are not cold logical robots but fallible emotive beings, which is why we suffer from a misalignment between words and deeds, thereby making hypocrisy unavoidable.

High-status people are some of the worst hypocrites in society. These individuals are frequently admired by others and often occupy leadership roles. Yet, as author Peter Schweizer outlined in his 2006 book, Do as I Say (Not as I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, famous people are not holier-than-thou and also fall short in living their beliefs.

Schweizer conducted an investigation in to the private lives of a handful of prominent US citizens and found a long list of blatant contradictions. To quote the book’s promotional copy:

Michael Moore … claims to have no stock portfolio, yet he owns shares in Halliburton, Boeing, and Honeywell and does his postproduction film work in Canada to avoid paying union wages in the United States. Noam Chomsky opposes the very concept of private property and calls the Pentagon “the worst institution in human history,” yet he and his wife have made millions of dollars in contract work for the Department of Defense and own two luxurious homes. Barbra Streisand prides herself as an environmental activist, yet she owns shares in a notorious strip-mining company. Hillary Clinton supports the right of thirteen-year-old girls to have abortions without parental consent, yet she forbade thirteen-year-old Chelsea to pierce her ears and enrolled her in a school that would not distribute condoms to minors.

The business world is similarly guilty of hypocrisy with companies displaying a lack of coherence between talk and action. Consumer activists have long argued that most business models prioritise profits over people despite the assertion by firms to the contrary. The classic example is the rag trade where global clothing brands have been complicit in the exploitation of sweatshop workers.

Sweatshops are as old as the industrial age and were started by heartless businessmen. Modern-day consumers must be careful of being too sanctimonious about the plight of garment workers because they (as shoppers) have knowingly bought high-street brands supplied by factories which mistreat their workers.

One of the reasons that high-street clothing has been getting cheaper and cheaper for decades is that sweatshop workers do not receive a living wage. The suffering of these unknown workers on the other side of the world is easy for us as consumers to ignore, particularly as we have become accustomed to reaping the benefits of lower production costs.

Something else that we have become accustomed to is politics in sport and this was on full display during the Beijing Winter Olympics. The overwhelming message of the opening ceremony was about peace and togetherness. A giant LED snowflake sculpture was used to symbolise all people coming together and living in harmony.

Yet human rights organisations branded the 2022 Olympics as “the genocide games” and accused China of holding a million Uyghurs (a largely Muslim ethnic group) against their will in re-education centres. In response, many nations – including the US, Britain, Canada, and Australia – staged a diplomatic boycott of the games in protest at China’s repressive policies toward the Uyghur minority group native to Xinjiang.

Many saw the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award China the games as political hypocrisy. Having an alleged human rights abuser as host was called out as clashing with one of the fundamental principles contained in the Olympic Charter – a commitment to “the preservation of human dignity”.

Another international body which recently came in for criticism is the United Nations entity that supports and co-ordinates action on climate change. For nearly three decades, the UN has brought together almost every nation on Earth for global climate summits called Conferences of the Parties (COPs). The 26th annual summit – COP26 – took place in Glasgow last November.

As leaders from around the world made promises to tackle an existential threat to humanity, climate change activists and experts railed against the hypocrisy that accompanied it. As noted in a University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Media report:

… a total of 400 private jets flew down to Glasgow from all over the world, carrying more than 100 leaders. This emitted 13,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For comparison, the average person’s carbon footprint globally is 7 tonnes per year and the carbon footprint of an average American is 21 tonnes per year. The leaders have been called out by critics as “eco-hypocrites” for emitting a huge amount of CO2 while gathering for an event organized to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change hypocrisy also extends to members of the British royal family. On numerous occasions over recent years, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been criticised for flying around the world in private jets while lecturing the world about climate change. A former UK government minister told Newsweek:

It’s completely hypocritical for Prince Harry or other members of the royal family to lecture people about climate change when they’re emitting more carbon than almost everyone else on the planet. People using private jets are in the top one percent of carbon emitters in the world.

Many citizens understandably jump up and down about humanity’s need to take climate change seriously. These same people typically look to governments and businesses to find eco-friendly solutions, when the real power for change is in our collective hands. We support governments with votes and businesses with dollars, which means that we can choose who governs and where we spend our money. We need to put our votes and our money where our mouths are!

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“Hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind,” according to Robert Kurzban, author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite. Kurzban argues that our behavioural inconsistencies are caused by the mind’s design, which consists of many specialised modules. These modules don’t always work together seamlessly resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs and violations of our supposed moral principles.

Consequently, hypocrisy is everywhere and can manifest itself in countless ways. To pretend that we can live our lives without hypocrisy and contradiction is itself a form of deception. We must, therefore, exercise care before angrily lambasting others for their deeds, while doing the same ourselves. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

We’re all hypocrites, it’s just a matter of scale.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

How our lives are shaped by the choices we make

Source: smartholistics.com.uk
LIFE DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN

Ever since Adam and Eve’s original decision to eat fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, humans have made some spectacularly poor choices. History bears witness to these monumental mistakes including the crew of the Titanic ignoring warnings of icebergs in their path, NASA proceeding with the space shuttle Challenger launch despite known problems with the solid rocket boosters, and engineers filling the Hindenburg with highly flammable hydrogen.

Bad decisions are part of life, though most do not have consequences that weigh as heavily as those just cited. Examples of non-fatal, flawed judgements include the 12 publishers who rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript, the Decca Records executive who declined to sign The Beatles, and the Yahoo co-founder who turned down a US$44 billion takeover offer from Microsoft.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but risk is an inescapable part of every decision. We never know the outcome of a decision in advance – sometimes our choices turn out to be spot on, while on other occasions our judgments prove to be seriously flawed. In the words of the late French philosopher, Albert Camus, “life is the sum of all our choices”. History, by extrapolation, equals the accumulated choices of all mankind.

Our lives are defined by the series of choices we make every single day. They play out over a lifetime and ultimately determine our destiny. Our choices not only change our lives but the lives of others. We are not alone in our choices as we are part of a bigger picture – there is a chain of events associated with every decision we make. Thus, an individual deciding to buy environmentally friendly products can help change the world and make it a better place for everyone.

Some of the life-changing decisions that we make include where to live, how many children to have, and what career to follow. More mundane and routine choices include what to wear, and what to watch on Netflix. One of the paradoxes of life is that our bigger decisions are often less calculated than our smaller ones. We can agonise for weeks over what new car to buy but rapidly end a long-term relationship with little thought or deliberation.

Sometimes a snap judgment or instinctive choice is appropriate. Your emotions, though, can easily cloud your judgment, which is why most experts agree that the best decisions are made when there is a balance between logic and emotions. The invisible tug-o-war between the head and the heart is not a bad thing as you are more likely to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each decision before choosing an alternative.

When your emotions are running high, your logic will be low, which can lead to irrational decisions. To illustrate, anger makes you vulnerable to high-risk, low payoff choices such as the rash decisions made during a bitter divorce. Happiness, on the other hand, makes you confident and optimistic about the future but can cause you to overestimate your chances of success, such as believing that your winning streak at the casino will continue indefinitely (aka gambler’s fallacy).

Knowing how to make good decisions is one of the most important skills we can possess. Many people look back at some of the terrible decisions they have made and ask themselves: What was I thinking? We make endless decisions, so we are bound to regret some of them. A Cornell University study estimated that the average adult makes thousands of remotely conscious decisions every day.

Each decision you make is a trade-off as everything you say, do, or pursue has a cost and a benefit. In the language of economists, this trade-off is called an opportunity cost. The term “opportunity cost” is defined as “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action”. Put simply, it’s what a person sacrifices when they choose one option over another. An example will help here.

Let’s say that you have $100 in your purse and you can spend it on a pair of jeans or a meal. You choose to buy the denim jeans, so the opportunity cost is the restaurant meal you cannot afford. For everything you choose to do, there’s something else you won’t be able to do. Every day as consumers, we are forced to make such choices due to “scarcity”. Scarcity and opportunity cost are two interlinking economic concepts.

Economists view the world through the lens of scarcity. Indeed, without scarcity, the science of economics would not exist. Scarcity arises because, as a society, we have unlimited wants but limited resources. We all know that you can’t have everything you want – we have to choose and make trade-offs. Economics examines how individuals, businesses, and governments deal with the limitations imposed by scarcity.

Broadly speaking, economics is the study of human behaviour as it relates to money. When it comes to financial decisions, economists erroneously claim that humans are rational and unemotional decision makers. Psychologists, on the other hand, correctly contend that economists’ models bear little relationship to actual human behaviour. The harsh reality is that humans do not obey the efficient, orderly principals espoused by free-market thinkers.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) confirmed that we are far too emotive for rational economic models to accurately predict our conduct. Many people in the US bought houses at grossly inflated prices and expected their value to keep rising. In the process, borrowers saddled themselves with loans that they could not afford, which led to the subprime mortgage meltdown and ultimately the catastrophic GFC.

This “irrational exuberance” was not confined to the household sector. Borrowers, bankers, and brokers were united in the delusional belief that house prices never go south. Post-GFC, many people turned to behavioural economics to understand what happened. Behavioural economics combines psychology and economics to explain how people really make decisions when they spend, invest, save, and borrow.

Unsurprisingly, few people reach the level of expertise necessary to rightfully claim that they are an expert decision-maker. The development of genuine expertise in any field requires years of struggle and sacrifice. Still, you can be a good decision-maker if you choose actions that produce the best outcome for yourself and others. The trick is to make each decision with an open mind and be aware of your unconscious biases.

Cognitive biases distort thinking, influence beliefs, and sway the decisions we make every day, yet most people are unaware of them. Over the course of our lives, we all develop cognitive biases. Just watch the daily news, listen to talkback radio, or scroll through social media posts to witness biases in action as people argue over politics, climate change, and other hot topics. Everyone, of course, claims that their position is the right one.

Differences of opinion occur because we all have our own perspectives based on our preconceptions, past experiences, and the information we draw on in forming judgements. When it comes to gathering information, many of us are guilty of confirmation bias – readily embracing information and conclusions which align with our views and largely ignoring anything which contradicts our beliefs.

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The next time that you make a bad decision, just remember that it could have been worse. Imagine being the individual responsible for allowing the famous Trojan Horse to be brought inside the City of Troy, not realising it was full of Greek soldiers. And how would you have felt standing in Napoleon’s shoes after he invaded Russia, suffered a catastrophic defeat, and returned home with just a fraction of his once grand army?

You can minimise regrettable decisions by learning from your mistakes – history does not have to repeat itself. Humans have a tendency, however, of replicating the same blunders over and over (poor diets, dysfunctional relationships, impulsive buying, etc.) causing us to relive our errors. If you want a different result, you have to do something different – make better decisions!

We are what we choose to be.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why we fail to detect subtle changes

Source: hu-hu.facebook.com
PERILS OF SHORT-TERM THINKING

Humans sit at the apex of the evolutionary tree with the most complex brain of any animal, yet some believe that there is a design fault. Our brains have evolved to respond to immediate threats, so we are not wired to detect more gradual warning signs. That’s why we can duck out of the way of a cricket ball in a fraction of a second, but fail to react to repeated and serious threat assessments about a deadly new virus for which there is no treatment.

In the early phases of human existence, our ancestors faced an onslaught of daily challenges to their survival – from predators to natural disasters. Too much information can confuse our brains, leading us to inaction or poor choices and this can place us in harm’s way. Consequently, our brains evolved to filter information rapidly and focus on what is most immediately essential to our survival.

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, argues that threats that develop over decades – rather than seconds – circumvent our brain’s alarm system. To illustrate, he says that we take alarm at terrorism, but much less to global warming, even though the odds of a disgruntled shoe bomber attacking our plane are, he claims, far longer than the chances of the ocean swallowing parts of Manhattan.

Assessing and reacting to risk is one of the most important things we do as humans. Nonetheless, as Professor Gilbert points out, in our short-sighted world we don’t perceive long-term challenges which threaten our existence, which is why he asserts that:

… if alien scientists were trying to design something to exterminate our race, they would know that the best offense is one that does not trigger any defense. And so, they would never send little green men in spaceships. Instead, they would invent climate change, which produces apathy not action (bold text added).

“Humans are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes,” notes political psychologist, Conor Seyle. “We have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.”

Right now, humanity faces a number of risks, but they are not on our collective radar as they will not impact us for a long time – decades and longer. Some of these risks are called existential risks as they have the capacity to wipe out humanity. For instance, in about a billion years – give or take a few hundred million years – the increased brightness of the Sun will doom the Earth’s biosphere.

In the more immediate future – say, the next century – the greatest threat to humanity is ourselves. More specifically, according to an article published by online media outlet Quartz, the most dangerous threat to humanity is the human mind.

The defining characteristic of humans is our capacity for complex thinking and advanced reasoning. These abilities have allowed us to develop innovations that transform our lives and our world … (but these) … innovations have also created new problems, many of which threaten our existence .… Climate change, pollution, economic and social disruption due to emerging technologies, political polarization, misinformation, inequality, and large-scale conflict are all major challenges for humanity to overcome that have arisen from our own innovation.

We are unlikely to effectively solve these problems unless we truly understand their ultimate source: the human mind. In line with this thinking, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge believes that the four greatest threats to the human species are all man-made – artificial intelligence, global warming, nuclear war, and rogue biotechnology.

In his bestselling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian and renowned author, Professor Yuval Noah Harari, states that humans “… have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology”. We are the most advanced and most destructive animal to have ever lived – making us brilliant and deadly. This lethal combination causes some to proffer that a man-made global pandemic should be added to the list of threats to humanity.

Experience has taught me that it would be wise to further augment the list with unknown unknows. We humans are sometimes too clever by half in believing that we have covered all bases. In reality, no one can say with absolute certainty that there is not an unknown threat lurking around the corner which will take us by surprise. Consequently, the greatest risks in the years ahead may come not from threats we’ve identified, but from those we haven’t.

It’s clear that our shortterm brains can’t cope with longterm perils. We are focussed on the here and now to the detriment of distant risks. Our inability to look beyond the current news cycle is reflected in a phenomenon called short-termism – the constant pressure to deliver instant results.

Short-termism has become endemic in society, and it pervades all aspects of our lives. We want quick-fix surgery to rectify imperfections IMMEDIATELY. We crave crash diets to lose weight FAST. We consume energy drinks to heighten alertness NOW. We expect politicians to respond to tracking polls TODAY. And we require companies to achieve a turnaround in earnings PROMPTLY.

In an article titled – The perils of short-termism: Civilisation’s greatest threatBBC journalist, Richard Fisher, paraphrases angel investor Esther Dyson: in politics the dominant time frame is a term of office, in fashion and culture it’s a season, for corporations it’s a quarter, on the Internet it’s minutes, and on the financial markets mere milliseconds.

The world is plagued by short-termism and our challenge is to look at things through a longer lens. Perhaps we should remember that when we feel like shrieking in anger at the need to don a face mask during a pandemic while ignoring the long-term benefits to humanity of controlling a deadly virus.

COVID-19 is the latest example of long-term success being held hostage to short-term thinking. The pandemic influenced many people to focus on short-term outcomes and instant gratification. Cleary, we need to reframe our thinking and develop a longer game plan for society.

It’s time for humanity to see the bigger picture.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

“Night Before Christmas” 2021 – pandemic year in review

Source: pymnts.com
A COVID SPIN ON A CLASSIC POEM

‘Tis the week before Christmas after a year of precaution,
Masks are off, yet there is still much caution.
The holidays are approaching, but not for the pandemic,
The virus remains a threat, it’s not academic.

As people the world over nestle snuggly in their beds,
Memories of lockdowns dance in their heads.
The hope of families, a Christmas that’s virus free,
The best sort of present, under the tree.

Stay-at-home restrictions generated such a clatter,
Yet keeping the sick isolated really did matter.
Containment measures, the order of the day,
Zoom meetings and home schooling, little time to play.

A surge in e-commerce, our behaviour shifted online,
Our lives became very different, we did just fine.
We found everything we needed, nothing to fear,
A fleet of Amazon trucks, delivering some cheer.

Long before Christmas my shopping was done,
No last-minute rushes, ’cause that’s not fun.
My grandchildren are fine, and exceptionally nice,
Their presents are coming, they won’t have to ask twice.

Now, EMMA! now, JESSICA! now, OSCAR and ELIAS!
On, HARRISON, on, ABRAHAM, on, NAYAH and EMILY, there’s no bias.
Granddad loves you all, you bring such joy,
You each deserve a gift, perhaps a big toy.

Santa’s arriving, with eight socially distanced reindeer,
And he’ll be kitted out, in personal protective gear.
His sleigh will be sanitised, and wiped thoroughly clean,
It will sparkle and shine, fit for a queen.

For a while it seemed gifts would be delivered by drones,
Without clearance to travel, Santa was to be replaced by drop zones.
The Christmas supply chain, held together by the elves,
They did a marvellous job, so we can enjoy our festive selves.

But before letting down our hair to celebrate another year,
Let’s remember those who suffered, and those no longer here.
Many succumbed to COVID, the pandemic’s tragic cost,
Celebrating Christmas without loved ones, makes us feel lost.

Infection rate suppression, remains the name of the game,
Until we defeat COVID, life won’t be the same.
Vaccines are our best hope, to keep the virus at bay,
Be sure to get a jab, so the world can come out and play.

Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, each a household name,
They’re also scientific heroes, a virus they did tame.
Prevention measures remain important, they’ve acted as a tether,
The dream of unrestricted movements, requires us to work together.

Christmas must not be, a super spreader event,
Let’s do the right thing, another outbreak to prevent.
In this season of goodwill and kindness to others,
Be on your guard, protect our sisters and brothers.

For now our thoughts turn to the season of goodwill,
And the excitement that comes from stockings to fill.
It won’t be long before Santa’s on his way,
If you listen carefully, you’ll soon hear his sleigh.

As I sign off for Christmas, I thank all readers of this blog,
I hope my fortnightly posts have left you agog.
May the spirit of the season fill your home with cheer,
As I say “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good New Year.”

Before you go …
This is my final blog post for the year. I hope that I’ve kept you informed and entertained during 2021. I’m taking a short break from my blogging duties and will be back on-line on Sunday, 30 January 2022. Have a great New Year.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Behind the scenes in the life of a blogger

Photo: Sean Boyd/In the Frame Productions
PERSONAL INSIGHTS

In the few short moments that we have together as you read this post, may I begin by thanking you for following my blog during 2021. In the lead up to Christmas, people give shout-outs to loyal clients and I wanted to let you know how much your continuing patronage of Elephant in the Room means to me.

The public comments and private feedback that I receive inspire me to continue as a blogger, and to work hard to curate great content – delivered straight into your inbox. I have a loyal community of readers who click-on each fortnight to view the latest post that I have published in cyberspace.

In our rapidly changing digital world, we must always be learning, which is why the best blogs provide information that help people in search of answers. Lifelong learning is now seen as an economic imperative and well-crafted blogs can assist online knowledge seekers.

This blog is a place for reasoned argument supported by corroborating evidence to give you a clear understanding of the forces shaping our world. My blog brings readers face-to-face with the issues that are shaping politics, impacting economies, transforming societies, and driving technology.

It is my enduring hope that this eclectic mix of topics will pique your interest and encourage you to read more extensively for yourself. Nelson Mandela believed, quite rightly, that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

All posts published under the Elephant in the Room banner are designed to be interesting and educational. They are replete with content which is topical and open to debate and discussion. I do my best to present both sides of an argument before outlining my own position on contentious issues.

While I’m not a journalist, I’m aware that a basic tenet of fair journalism is captured in the Latin phrase audi alteram partem meaning “let the other side be heard as well”. That maxim requires that any report should be balanced and fair towards all parties.

Unlike most blogs, I don’t focus on a single niche topic (e.g., dog training, gardening tips, and so on). Rather, I deliberately cast a broad net and publish posts that are wide in sweep – but that does not mean my blog is a hodgepodge of anything that interests me.

The assorted topics that I cover are grouped under four umbrella categories – Political, Economic, Social, and Technological. These categories work in unison to provide readers with fresh perspectives on the interplay between a range of PEST issues which are of national and international significance.

Elephant in the Room shines a light on some of humanity’s biggest challenges. In a world which is increasingly interdependent, the subliminal message in many of the posts is that we need to reframe our thinking and see ourselves as global citizens working together to create a more harmonious society.

The posts are deliberately designed to make you think as they tangle and weave through disparate but connected topics. By joining the dots, you will gain a helicopter view of where individual disciplines intersect and overlap, thereby enabling you to see more creative solutions to contemporary problems.

For my part, I have an inquiring mind and am always imagining how the world could be a better place. That’s why one of my all-time favourite quotes is by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are, and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and say ‘Why not’”.

Each post ends with a pithy one-liner, often in the form of an aphorism. Aphorisms are pointed, witty statements which express a general truth and are sometimes paraphrased quotes. My closing one-liners are designed to pack a punch and leave you pondering.

Blogging helps me keep up with what’s happening in the world. It’s also a great way to become a thought leader, but it does require some effort. Unless you are a walking encyclopedia, most posts require you to conduct research and check facts and this increases your understanding of an issue.

When it comes to blogging, content is king and the seed of an idea for a post can come from anywhere. Some of the articles that I have written germinated when I grew curious about a subject and decided to explore it. Others have been penned in direct response to a contemporary issue.

Regardless, this blog has provided me with a creative outlet in which to share my ideas and opinions. In the process, it has enabled me to create a professional portfolio of “short papers” on important topics. This has required me to distil a lot of information into coherent and cohesive arguments.

The golden rule of blogging is that you have to be authentic as it’s an up close and personal writing medium. So, my relationship with my audience is built on being open, transparent, and factual. My blog is an online extension of my true personality – a real version of my “doubting Thomas” self.

I’m always intrigued as to what subject matter piques the interest of my readers. I still can’t explain what makes certain posts more popular than others. The reality for all bloggers is that some posts rank higher than others on Google and attract more social shares and “likes”.

The biggest thing that I have learned in researching and writing blogs is how often supposed experts are wrong. “Experts” who appear on television, get quoted in newspapers, and speak at conferences are often no better than the rest of us when it comes to the risky business of predictions.

I’m deeply indebted to my behind-the-scenes webmaster, Kieran Weston. Kieran is a family friend and one of nature’s gentlemen. He meticulously uploads and publishes each post and professionally maintains the blog site. He is a talented executive and web designer and I salute his unfailing support – on a voluntary basis.

Someone else who deserves praise is my wife, Beverley. She proofreads each post before publication and has developed an eagle eye for spotting grammatical and typographical errors. Beverley is also a volunteer but extracts payment in other ways! I have made a rod for my own back by encouraging her to point out my mistakes – which she happily does!

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This post is my penultimate missive for 2021. In reflecting on the year that was, humanity faced looming threats and some hard truths. Yet, despite the dire warnings of the headline grabbing doom-and-gloom merchants, we are still here. COVID-19 did not wipe us out, China did not start a nuclear war, and America did not implode. Even the Tokyo Olympics went ahead!

My next blog post on 19 December will be the final one published for 2021 and will take the form of a Christmas parody. It will be set to the rhyme scheme of Clement Moore’s classic poem, The Night Before Christmas. It will broadly imitate the style and form of Moore’s original lyric while addressing a different subject matter – a look back at the biggest news story of the year, COVID-19.

As we approach the season of goodwill to all, my Christmas wish is that we reflect as a nation on all that is good about Australia. In truth, we have little to complain about. There may be a place where the grass is greener, but in all my travels, I am yet to find it. May peace and happiness be yours during this holiday season.

Have a sparkling New Year!

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Is the era of the specialist over?

Source: thereluctantcfo.com
BECOME A DEEP GENERALIST

In 2018, the world held its collective breath as two Australian doctors spearheaded the rescue mission of 12 school boys and their soccer coach who were trapped underground in a flooded Thai cave. Both Aussie rescuers are proficient medicos and adept divers and it was this atypical combination of skills that made the duo perfect for the daring operation.

Research has long shown that we can all gain from spending time outside of our specialism. With reference to the cave rescuers, they have formal training and acclaim in two unrelated domains – medicine and cave diving – and this qualifies each of them to be called a polymath*. The word polymath is a 17th century Greek term which describes a person with “many learnings”.

Throughout history, many notable individuals have pursued multiple interests. Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist as well as a physicist. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, inventor, scientist, architect, and engineer. Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor, entrepreneur, poet, and writer. The world’s most intriguing Renaissance men were all polymaths or deep generalists.

The label “polymath” is often applied to Elon Musk as he excels in multiple fields and has used his cross-discipline expertise as a physicist, engineer, economist, and entrepreneur to tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges. He has built three multibillion-dollar companies in three disparate industries – aerospace (SpaceX), automotive (Tesla Inc.), and energy (SolarCity). But that’s not all!

In 2016, Musk co-founded a mind-computer interface company (Neuralink Corp.) which is developing brain implants that can communicate with computers. In the same year, he started a tunnel construction business (The Boring Company) to create fast-to-dig transportation tunnels. Musk also came up with the idea for an ultra-high speed, futuristic transportation system (The Hyperloop).

Throughout his life, Musk has displayed a relentless pursuit of knowledge and an unrivalled talent for applying his learnings across a range of industries. He has been called the quintessential modern polymath. His world-changing intellect has become a symbol of the power of being an expert generalist with the ability to generate breakthrough insights and innovations.

Yet conventional wisdom still frowns on being a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. From the time we enter school, we are constantly encouraged to specialise by choosing a clear path and then sticking with it. And once we enter the workforce, the pressure to specialise is ever present. Being a generalist has long been seen as the road to mediocrity.

Paradoxically, research shows that people with too many interests are more likely to succeed. This certainly holds true for the founders of five of the largest companies in the world – Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Larry Page (Google), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon). All are polymaths who follow the 5-hour rule (minimum learning time each work week).

Polymaths see the world differently and make connections that are otherwise ignored. A case in point is Francis Crick who discovered the structure of DNA. He began his scientific career in physics and later made the transition in to biology. Crick claimed that this diverse background gave him the confidence to solve problems that other biologists couldn’t.

Many of the world’s other great inventions also arose as a result of multifaceted thinking. Nikola Tesla was a pioneer in many fields but is most remembered for inventing the radio. In doing so, he drew on his skills as an electrical engineer, theoretical physicist, mathematician, and futurist. Elon Musk’s electric car company is named after Nikola Tesla.

Even though the world remains obsessed with specialisation, the evidence for deep generalists is growing. In his book, Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein examines the world’s most successful individuals across a range of human endeavours. He discovers that in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialists, are the ones who excel.

Epstein reports that when researchers study great innovators, they typically find “systems thinkers” with an “ability to connect disparate pieces of information from many different sources” and who “read more than other technologists”. Simply put, generalists invariably do better than specialists in putting two and two together across domains.

Charles Darwin is considered by Epstein to be the ultimate example of someone whose breadth of training enabled him to remain open-minded and innovative. Prior to sailing to the Galápagos Islands, Darwin studied natural history, medicine, theology, and geology. This cross-training enabled him to build the intellectual firepower that he would later need to overturn centuries of dogma.

The Digital Age has made it easier for us to become polymaths. Today, information is everywhere, and more often than not, it’s free. Wannabe polymaths can become proficient in multiple fields by allocating at least one hour per day for deliberate learning and reading. The one habit that all high-performers share is reading lots of books across various disciplines.

My desire to continually learn new things and improve my knowledge is one of the reasons I maintain a blog. Without exception, the research I undertake in writing each post helps broaden my horizons and aids my self-development. Moreover, learning keeps my brain active and stimulated and this (hopefully!) helps boost my cognitive health.

For readers of this blog, my posts are deliberately designed to make you think, as they tangle and weave through disparate but connected topics. By joining the dots, you will gain a helicopter view of where individual disciplines intersect and overlap. And by cross-pollinating ideas from a range of fields, you will be able to make new connections and see more creative solutions to contemporary problems.

Notwithstanding this, Western educational systems still lean towards deep specialisation, which is why UK researchers argue that we need a radical shake-up of school curriculums to ensure arts and sciences are no longer taught separately. Educational experts believe that teaching children to think like Leonardo da Vinci would better prepare them for tackling complex issues.

When it comes to tertiary education, it has long been my contention that universities around the world will increasingly be challenged to turn out graduates with broader interdisciplinary degrees. The answers to the big global issues we face – like climate change – cannot be found within traditional single disciplines such as economics or science or politics on their own.

For this reason, I believe that one subject that should be embedded in most university degrees is the study of biomimicry. Biomimicry is the art and science of emulating nature’s best biological ideas and applying these solutions to product design, architecture, engineering, technology, business, and medicine. Biomimicry is relevant in every sector of society.

Velcro is probably the best-known example of innovation inspired by nature. The product’s inventor, George de Mestral, stumbled upon the idea by examining how burrs stuck to the hair of his dog. By mimicking the strong attachment forces of the burrs’ small hooks, he was able to develop Velcro straps and fasteners.

Similarly, Airbus observed how sea birds sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and adjust the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift. As a result, Airbus installed probes on its A350 aircraft which detect gusts ahead of the wing and deploy moveable surfaces for more efficient flight. Airbus engineers continue to study the natural world for modern aircraft design solutions.

Mother Nature is by far the smartest “person” I know. She is the ultimate polymath and genius and we humans can learn much from her. She has been giving lessons in design and solving problems for billions of years, but only in recent times have we started “enrolling” in her classes. Using nature as a mentor, professionals from a range of fields are now studying biomimicry, but more of us need to look to nature for creative solutions.

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It’s never too late to pick up a new area to add to your repertoire of skills. If you can combine unique skills in creative ways, you may well be one of tomorrow’s great problem-solvers and innovators. In an era of rapid-fire technological and social change, we all need to embrace our inner polymath because we are more than the sum of our parts.

May polymaths inherit the Earth.

*Some academics argue that only individuals proficient in three disparate areas can call themselves polymaths.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Are we living in an age of ignorance and stupidity?

Source: Eudaimonia and Co.
FOOLS ARE EVERYWHERE

Uninformed voters repeatedly elect politicians who are demagogues and incapable of delivering on their promises. Anti-vaxxers fervently oppose immunisation and base their denunciation on fake news and conspiracy theories. Climate change deniers doggedly undermine scientific experts and cast doubt on well-established findings and conclusions.

The world is fast becoming fact-phobic and is awash in wilful ignorance. A growing number of people are rejecting science and expertise in favour of junk news, with online users an eager audience for gibberish. The line between fact and fiction has shifted and – while questioning is fine – social media echo chambers have turned healthy scepticism into unhealthy paranoia.

The Internet was supposed to spur universal enlightenment; however, it’s taking us back to the Dark Ages. We know more but understand less because the social media algorithms which feed us information are based on our desire to hear only one side of every story. That’s the side which confirms what we already believe and this strengthens the radical polarisations which divide society.

Everything, it seems, is up for debate – even reality itself. During his presidency, Donald Trump made alternative facts a way of life and took the degradation of the truth to new lows. The twice-impeached president peppered his time in office with a barrage of falsehoods and misleading statements and left a legacy of shameless, blatant lies.

Around the world, people viewed Trump’s outrageous fabrications with disbelief and disdain – but not his credulous supporters. Over 72 million Americans voted for Trump and swallowed the egregious claims that he made over four tumultuous years. As noted by Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, Trump empowered America’s “anti-rational streak”.

While Trump is a compulsive liar, his loyalists are compulsive believers and believers enable liars. Many people have argued that Trump’s supporters were insane for embracing his many deceits, with the late Sen. John McCain claiming that Trump “fired up the crazies”. Others contend that the effusive admiration for Trump was due to the president’s pathological appeal.

This explanation aligns with an arm’s length diagnosis of Trump by forensic psychiatrist, Bandy Lee. In her book, Profile of a Nation: Trump’s Mind, America’s Soul, Dr Lee helps us understand the Trump presidency from a mental health perspective.

Dr Lee, who is also president of the World Mental Health Coalition, was interviewed by online magazine, Scientific American, following the release of her book. When asked why people are attracted to Trump, she answered that it was due to two major emotional drives: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis.

Narcissistic symbiosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence – while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a “lock and key” relationship.

Simply put, the president’s mental health affected the mental health of Americans. His narcissism was like a contagion which spread through the population and infected millions of uneducated (some say, “stupid”) voters. While democracy is supposed to enact the will of the people, many of Trump’s followers had no clue what they were doing.

Trump proved that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to political success. That a diabolic charlatan was even elected as the leader of the free world is a damning indictment on the American electorate. Notwithstanding the “shared psychosis” explanation, Trump’s mass appeal remains incomprehensible to many, particularly to those of us outside the USA.

■      ■      ■

It’s said that we are living in a post-truth world. The Oxford dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Post-truth includes forms of public discourse colloquially referred to as “bullshit” and has given rise to the phrase, post-truth politics.

Of course, it’s not just in politics that “Homo stupiens” cannot tell the truth from the untruth. In seemingly all walks of life, the world has become untethered from reality and lost its mind. We are in a battle between logic and emotion – those who think with their head and those who know with their heart. America, in particular, has descended into Fantasyland according to author Kurt Andersen.

Inspired by the unlikely accession of Donald Trump, Andersen published Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. Shortly before the book’s release, Andersen penned an article for The Atlantic in which he lamented that America had gone “overboard” in “letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts”. He went on to say that many Americans inhabit untrue realities as they:

… believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

According to Andersen, the great unbalancing and descent into full Fantasyland was the product of two momentous changes – one of which was the onset of the new era of information. Andersen notes that digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions.

Among the web’s 1 billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and “facts” to support them. Before the internet, crackpots were mostly isolated, and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the web, just like actual news. Now all of the fantasies look real.

Many people are know-nothings yet see themselves as know-everythings. This, as I explained in a previous post, is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect which reveals the tendency for people to misjudge their abilities. It’s a cognitive disconnect which results in the skilled putting themselves down and the inept hyping themselves up.

All humans have blind spots, which is why many of us are oblivious of our own ignorance. We can believe things about our ability and knowledge that are just not true because – to be blunt – some of us are so dimwitted we don’t realise how dense we really are. This includes those who argue that the Earth is flat, Elvis is still alive and the Apollo 11 Moon landing was a hoax.

Humans are naturally drawn to wild conspiracy theories and they are more prevalent in times of crisis. The US elections and COVID-19 both provided fertile ground for alternative takes on reality – with disastrous consequences. Misinformation spurred the insurgent mob which swarmed the US Capitol Building and insidious false claims have underplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic causing unnecessary deaths.

Far-fetched theories threaten our democracy and safety, yet people latch on to them. Apparently, we are wired to be attuned to plots by the powerful who we fear are out to exploit us, but we mostly get “false positives” – conspiracies that don’t exist. Given this, it’s baffling to watch family and friends pass on such theories like they are gospel.

We had a good laugh when Trump suggested injecting bleach to clean out the coronavirus from the lungs, but that doesn’t mean it was a joke. What we face is not a laughing matter as conspiracy theorists are becoming more extreme, more violent, and more globalised. They are trying to disrupt our way of life, which is why their baseless theories have no place in serious conversations.

We all need a healthy dose of scepticism to make us less susceptible to fake news.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak

Source: disabilityhorizons.com
WHAT THE PANDEMIC HAS TAUGHT US

COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on the world. The pandemic has upended our lives and changed our daily routines. Billions of people have been forced into lockdown, unable to visit one another, or go to work, or attend school, or meet with friends in public places. With constraints put on our basic freedoms to reduce the spread of the virus, any sense of normalcy has been lost.

The once-in-a-lifetime health crisis brought with it wide-ranging consequences which have tested our resilience. As with anything in life, experience is the teacher, so it’s vital for humanity to come out of the pandemic as better individuals and a more tightly-knit community. The fundamental question is: What have we learned along the way?

As we reflect on the lives lost, the suffering experienced and the disruption inflicted by COVID, there are many takeaways for governments, businesses, and individuals. The fallout from COVID has ricocheted into all areas of life, so there are myriad lessons – some painful (exposing our weaknesses and limitations) and others uplifting (spotlighting our strengths and generosity).

COVID-19 has been a wake-up call and – as society looks to rebound from this seismic event – it’s not surprising that scholars, think tanks, consultants, and other experts are jumping on the coronavirus “lessons for the future” bandwagon. I have read many of these opinion pieces and, in the main, believe that these analyses contain sound advice.

[NOTE: If you type the keywords – “lessons learned from COVID-19” – into your Google search box, that query will return pages and pages of search results. You can read 15 Lessons the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Taught Us, or you might care to peruse 10 key lessons to be learned from fighting COVID-19, or maybe you would prefer to dive into COVID-19: 6 Meaningful Lessons.]

To provide a succinct summary of the various “lessons learned articles” would be challenging as each analysis comes from a different perspective. Regardless, the pandemic has revealed many underlying societal issues that we’ve long known existed. To fix these problems, we should set ourselves the overarching goal of building a healthier and fairer society which is inclusive and sustainable.

Achieving this goal will require collaboration between governments and citizens and this is something that the boss of the World Health Organisation knows only too well. Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the world that a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society” approach was necessary to crush the virus.

Predictably, many ignored his advice even though governments and citizens working together is a prerequisite to solving any global or national issue. This, I believe, is the most important lesson arising from the pandemic. Whether it’s defeating a deadly virus or tackling climate change, governments and citizens must listen to experts and work hand in hand.

The pandemic’s catchphrase, “we’re all in this together”, rings hollow as key stakeholders have not been joined at the hip. Around the world, collective action has been undermined by a lack of political trust (confidence in political institutions) and social trust (faith in other citizens). Waging a war against a disease has led to pandemic belligerence.

Ultimately, slowing the spread of the virus relies on people having faith in the policy prescriptions of governments. Citizens have been asked to adhere to a range of directives including stay-at-home orders and physical distancing practices. Even so, the call to make personal sacrifices for the collective good has been a bitter pill for many to swallow.

Governments everywhere have imposed emergency measures which limit the rights and freedoms of citizens and this has led to varying levels of civil disobedience. Mass protests around the world have seen anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and conspiracy theorists march shoulder-to-shoulder in defiance of lockdown laws thereby creating superspreading events.

The pandemic has exacerbated prevailing political discontent and resulted in citizens being quick to blame their leaders for not containing the virus. In some countries, this criticism is completely justified but in others, it is not. In fairness to governments, there is no rulebook for understanding how the pandemic will play out. We are all in unchartered waters, learning as we go.

Still, this does not excuse the “go-it-alone” attitude of many national governments which quickly retreated into populist nationalism in response to a global threat. As I opined in a previous post, Why COVID vaccines are being distributed unevenly and unfairly, wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over.

Rich nations remain focussed on national recovery, not global recovery, as they are prioritising country over planet. The WHO has labelled this behaviour as “vaccine nationalism” and blamed it for the lack of solidarity against a common enemy. Dr Ghebreyesus warned that the lopsided distribution of vaccines harms everyone and protects no one as inoculating certain populations to the detriment of others is medically self-defeating.

This fever of inequality is being fuelled by a chronic failure of national leaders to display true global leadership. The inward focus of most countries places the pursuit of domestic political goals above those beyond their borders. In fairness to national leaders, their beggar-thy-neighbour stance is being driven by citizens who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost.

So, the “my-country-first” approach to vaccines reflects the sentiments of citizens. Even though it shouldn’t be this way, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison – like every other democratically elected world leader – knows that his party’s fortunes depend on giving the majority of Australians what they want – a jab in the arm and quickly!

Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves. As a society, we crave quick fixes and instant gratification and expect politicians to solve all of society’s ills at the snap of a finger. That’s why politicians who pander to the immediate demands and desires of voters (e.g., to be at the front of the vaccination queue) are invariably rewarded by the electorate.

Complex public policy problems typically involve changing the behaviour of groups of citizens or all citizens. With respect to the pandemic, we as citizens – as I stated in a previous blog – need to change our selfish ways because:

Not enough of us have shown grace under pressure. There has been a lack of camaraderie. Panic has prevailed over common sense. Many have behaved like a marauding swarm of locusts stripping supermarket shelves bare. We needed to be at our selfless best but have been at our selfish worst. The crisis has unmasked who we really are and proved beyond doubt that individual behavior has a profound impact on society. Many of us have failed the civic responsibility test.

Beyond national governments and citizens, a third actor in the COVID-19 saga is subnational governments – states, provinces, and municipalities. In most countries, governments at this sub level have been at the frontline of managing the COVID crisis. Many have recorded operational blunders which have resulted in them playing whack-a-mole with successive outbreaks.

To cover their mistakes, subnational governments have used a classic tactic – shift the blame on to others. When it comes to rising infection rates, some subnational governments have attempted to pin responsibility on citizens for breaking health directives while others have tried to scapegoat their national governments for health policy failures. Amid all the rancour, it’s clear that making a villain of other actors is counterproductive.

Despite this, the blame game – with its finger-pointing and mutual buck passing – is a familiar feature of politics in Australia. As I outlined in an earlier post, the pandemic has laid bare the inherent weaknesses of our three-tier governance structure. Australians have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of states being pitted against states and states slinging barbs at the federal government.

■      ■      ■

The pandemic has been a learning curve for everyone and its continuance is stirring unrest. Pandemic fatigue is setting in and is eroding social cohesion. Our interdependence means that we are all in the same boat and need to work together. With that in mind, the territorial turf wars must cease, political leaders must present a bipartisan front and citizens must comply with health orders.

United we stand, divided we fall.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

How to make the world a better place

Source: pinterest.com
EDUCATION IS THE KEY

The idea of changing the world can be daunting. With so many problems to tackle, where do you begin? The list of global challenges is long and includes the need to eradicate extreme poverty, improve health outcomes, foster world peace and build a sustainable planet.

Believe it or not, education can assist in solving these issues and more. Education broadens the mind and helps us see the world afresh, thereby enabling us to make more balanced and insightful judgments. By applying these judgments to societal problems, we can advance the cause of humanity.

You certainly don’t need to wave a placard or chain yourself to a tree to make a difference. To quote Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. It provides us with the knowledge to critically examine our response to all life situations.

We all need to take educated action in a range of areas if we are to genuinely improve life on this tiny planet which we call home. This belief accords with the oft-quoted advice of English sociologist and philosopher, Herbert Spencer: “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action”.

There is a vast difference between knowing something and acting on it. Understanding alone does not solve problems which is why awareness must be backed up with specific measures. In the words of Dale Carnegie: “Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied”.

Periodically, we are exposed to awareness campaigns which are designed to mobilise us to take action on a particular cause or issue. The hope is that once we know that a problem exists, (which is the purpose of this post!), we will be motivated to behave in a way that mitigates the issue.

Citizens of all nations are surrounded by problems, many of which are not contained to national borders. Still, it’s understandable to see ourselves as inhabitants of a community or a country. Yet, we are also citizens of the world and must learn to broaden our focus to effectively tackle cross-border issues.

All of us need to act like global citizens as we are all part of one global village. But our knowledge of supranational issues is often superficial as many of us lack global competency. Even so, we cannot continue to see the world through a narrow, self-absorbed national lens.

The aid and development organisation, Oxfam, defines a global citizen as “… someone who is aware of and understands the wider world – and their place in it. They take an active role in their community and work with others to make our planet more peaceful, sustainable and fairer”.

We live in an interconnected world where our local actions can have global implications. Small acts add up – they initially drive change in a city, then a state, followed by a nation and ultimately the world. This is how people power shapes our planet and it can take many forms.

We can all become agents of positive change by improving our decision-making capabilities. To facilitate this, we must understand the cause-and-effect connections within and between the various roles we undertake in society. Changing our behaviour in the following three critical areas would be a good start.

  1. We need to be better educated as voters to make informed decisions at the ballot box.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. How well-informed and educated were the people who voted for Donald Trump in America? Or those who voted for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil? Or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Viktor Orbán in Hungary?

The harsh reality is that right-wing populist politicians enjoy massive support from uneducated voters. Yet after seeing how unscrupulous and divisive these leaders have behaved, many have come to regret how they cast their vote. Around the world, voters have learned that populists make empty promises.

Populists exploit people’s discontent and raise expectations, but cannot deliver solutions. Unrealistic campaign promises are the trademark of populists and when these pledges are left unfilled, voters feel duped. The electoral gamble of millions of ordinary people has not paid off.

In my post, Why the problem with democracy is voters, I stated that:

Voters have a track record of choosing idiots, authoritarians and demagogues for elected office. These leaders invariably turn out to be incompetent and dishonest and thrive on emotion-driven discourse. They hoodwink people into supporting them by exploiting voters’ credulity and prejudices.

Voting is a choice with consequences. When the electorate gets it wrong, the repercussions can be devastating – not just for an individual nation, but the entire world. Populists shun globalisation and international co-operation and this poses a threat to world peace and stability. That’s why your domestic vote has global implications.

Educate yourself to make more intelligent political choices.

  1. We need to be better educated as consumers to make environmentally sustainable purchases.

Many people understandably jump up and down about humanity’s need to take climate change seriously. These same people typically look to governments and businesses to find eco-friendly solutions, when the real power for change is in our collective hands.

We support governments with votes and businesses with dollars, which means that we can choose who governs and where we spend our money. In my post, How households can create a new model of sustainable capitalism, I advised that:

If we don’t like what a company is doing, we can stop buying their products and services and force them to change. Consumers drive markets and sustainable consumer choices can change corporate behaviour. But we all need to take a stand and, for many of us, this will require a lifestyle overhaul, particularly with regard to saying “no” to unnecessary and/or environmentally unfriendly household items.

It’s incumbent on all of us to become responsible consumers. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat and everything in between, our choices matter. We can reduce our ecological footprint by shopping responsibly, buying less and recycling more. Adopt the mantra: reduce-reuse-recycle.

Educate yourself to live more sustainably.

  1. We need to be better educated as media readers, viewers and listeners to evaluate the credibility of mainstream and citizen journalism.

We should be able to trust and rely on the news. We look to the media to tell us what is happening in the world as many people don’t have the time or skills to sift through vast amounts of information themselves. The media sets the news agenda and political tone and this informs our decision-making as citizens.

So, the power of the media comes from its ability to influence and shape the perception of the public. In return for this privileged position, people expect journalism to be fair, balanced and accurate. But like every sector of society, the media has its own prejudices and biases.

In 2018, the Australian edition of The Guardian published an article: Why is populism suddenly all the rage? The article explained the reasons why “populism is sexy”. Instructively, the article identified the role of the media in the rise of populism by acknowledging that:

Because of dwindling subscription rates, traditional media increasingly focus on topics they expect to sell well, such as scandals and conflict, fuelling the sense of crisis that populists can draw on.

In fairness to the media, I acknowledged in my previous post – Why media standards have fallen – the claim made by media outlets that they simply produce (print/broadcast) what consumers want. I further conceded that:

As a society, we would rather read about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy. So, just as we get the politicians (and businesses) we deserve, we also get the media we deserve.

Fake news and misinformation are problematic in democratic systems. One way we can combat this is by being aware of the natural human tendency to only seek information that aligns with our personal views. Academics refer to this inbred preference as “confirmation bias” and it impacts the judgments we make.

Online social media platforms – like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – run on algorithms which “feed” us information based on our desire to hear only one side of every story – the side which confirms what we already believe. Algorithms capture what we “like”, “retweet” and “share” and then send us additional confirmatory content, thereby creating a reinforcing echo chamber.

According to Kristina Lerman, a University of Southern California professor whose research focuses on the structure of modern social networks:

… echo chambers strengthen polarization and the divisions in our society. It’s common to feel uneasy because of the disassociation between the warm blanket of a like-minded social media community and the cold reality of a real-world populated with challenging perspectives.

Educate yourself to become a savvy news consumer.

■      ■      ■

Contributing to the greater good does not require you to develop a vaccine or win a Nobel prize – you just need to be educated and informed about contemporary issues. Education is the key to better politicians, better companies, better media and ultimately, a better world.

Education helps us become better versions of ourselves.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why media standards have fallen and what it says about us

Source: beconnected.esafety.gov.au
A DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Sometimes I feel that I’ve lost the plot as I increasingly find myself at odds with where society is going. For instance, I rarely watch the programs that are served up on commercial television. Much of what is on “the box” is mind-numbing and/or unnecessarily sensational and I don’t find it entertaining.

Nightly current affairs programs used to be a no-nonsense world with broadcast journalists and reporters fearlessly tackling the serious issues of the day. Nowadays, these programs and their “news” presenters offer trivial stories about weight loss, toddler tantrums and back cures. No wonder Gerald Stone observed in his book, Who Killed Channel 9?, that commercial TV is pitching to the lowest common denominator.

Commenting on the “dumbing down” of the Channel 9 program, A Current Affair, Stone wrote:

Here was a program that once prided itself on a nightly menu filled with hard-hitting interviews, sensational crime investigations and the inside dope on the latest titillating celebrity scandal. More and more it had begun to dwell on diet fads and shopping tips, topped up with melodramatic ambushes of small-time con men, or the inevitable tear-jerkers about battling families who can’t pay the rent.

In fairness, I must acknowledge the media’s claim that they simply produce what viewers and readers want. As a society, we would rather hear about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy. So, just as we get the politicians we deserve, we also get the media we deserve.

As citizens, we are complicit with falling standards and they have certainly plummeted. It still staggers me that the reality TV show, Big Brother, was a ratings winner, even though it demeaned contestants, promoted bullying and encouraged sexual behaviour and nudity. Big Brother was vulgar and the antics of its participants eroded the distinction between public and private.

Another reality TV show, The Apprentice, paved the way for Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the US. The show made a hero of Trump in the eyes of the show’s followers and this die-hard fan base supported him in his bid for the presidency. Even so, millions of gullible viewers were unaware that the show’s producers heavily edited the program to portray Trump as a successful, credible and coherent businessman.

Rather than aspiring to educate viewers, the reality television genre emphasises personal conflict and dramatic tension. The media’s appetite for never-ending drama and outrageous arguments finds a natural home in reality television. Media executives like these programs as they are cheap to make (few paid actors) and rate well with viewers. Nonetheless, many find them objectionable, dishonest and trashy.

According to Australian academic, Dr Soseh Yekanians, Aussies have wholeheartedly embraced reality television. In an article that Dr Yekanians penned for The Conversation, she wrote that Australians have an unhealthy appetite for watching people on reality shows psychologically tear one another apart. She cited the following three examples to anchor her assertion.

  • On Channel Ten’s, The Bachelor, two contestants’ merciless name-calling and bullying behaviour became so vicious that they were dubbed the “mean girls”.
  • On Channel Seven’s, My Kitchen Rules, the slurs by two competitors, which included likening one contestant to a “blowfish gasping for air”, eventually led to Seven asking them to leave the show.
  • On Channel Nine’s, The Block, two contestants walked off the show after being heavily criticised by the judges. One of the contestants claimed that the feedback “just became pure insults”.

Clearly, reality television gains ratings by deliberately pitting contestants against one another. As noted by Dr Yekanians, “there is little real about this form of TV, which is heavily scripted and showcases stereotyped characters”.

Regrettably, standards of taste and decency remain in decline as the quality of television programs continues to deteriorate. We seem to have become conditioned to a diet of explicit sex, coarse language and graphic violence with such content now considered the norm. Tabloid television has modelled itself on its close kin, the tabloid press.

Tabloid journalists – the tawdry cousins of broadcast journalists – are known for sensationalism in reporting. Sex, scandals and beat-ups are the order of the day. Journalists must fill column space for their editors by “finding” stories. Many embrace the mantra: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” in order to whip readers into a frenzy, and this was the case regarding Donald Trump’s playbook of deceits.

We should look harshly on the media ecosystem that amplified Trump’s lies. The former president rode to power thanks, in part, to support from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. While in office, Trump was aided and abetted by Fox and other right-wing US media in spreading false claims. Following his electoral defeat, the rioters who stormed the Capital building were “egged on by these US publishers” according to a Sydney Morning Herald editorial.

But as pointed out in an article published in The Atlantic in November 2018, it was not just right-wing media that promulgated Trumps lies. Mainstream journalists were also accused of becoming “complicit in spreading the president’s falsehoods and conspiracy theories”. The article was published under the deadline – Trump’s Lies Are a Virus, and News Organizations Are the Host – and went on to say that:

The traditional news media are thoroughly infected by the Trump virus. It is not only spreading the disease of the president’s lies, but also suffering from a demise in public trust – at least among one half of the electorate.

[Please allow me to insert a parenthetical note here. Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, the WHO accused the media of spreading its own virus. The WHO warned that humanity was not just fighting a viral pandemic but also a highly contagious “infodemic” transmitted by the media. As I opined in a previous post, the media’s penchant for sensationalism throughout the pandemic has resulted in inaccurate news dissemination including the reporting of unscientific cures and unverified medicines.]

There are, of course, many fine and ethical journalists who work outside of the irreverent tabloid world. These individuals fulfil a vital role in society. A true democracy requires the active participation of an informed public, which is only possible if citizens have unfettered access to information. Ironically, the phone hacking scandal in Britain only came to public attention due to the free press.

In response to the scandal, The Telegraph in London published the following editorial.

This newspaper cares passionately about maintaining the highest standards of journalism. We believe that journalism, when practised properly, protects the public from abuses of power by exposing those who are guilty of dishonesty, corruption or injustice. Journalism that harms the innocent – by telling lies or spreading falsehoods about them, or by unjustifiably invading their privacy – does the exact opposite of what good journalism aims to achieve.

Hear, hear! Unfortunately, not all journalists and/or media outlets ascribe to this level of professionalism. And that’s not just my opinion – many mainstream journalists also lament falling standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. One senior Australian journalist put it this way:

I’ve spent my working life as a journalist …. But now, reading the newspapers and watching the news, I can’t help but wonder if this is a craft that is not only losing its centre of corporate gravity and support, but also some fundamental sense of its mission and responsibility … the major market tabloids … are the dominant organs of news in all our capital cities. They cry wolf, they cry terror, they fan the flames of disquiet and distrust. Because fear sells.

In his 2011 book, Sideshow: dumbing down democracy, former Australian federal government minister, Lindsay Tanner, was withering in his critique of the media. He cited a number of examples where the media created unnecessary panic including the Global Financial Crisis, the Year 2K computer bug and the swine flu epidemic. The media reporting of these events produced a public response out of proportion to the threat.

The power of the media comes from its ability to influence and shape the perception of the public. We look to the media to tell us what is happening in the world as we don’t have the time or skills to sift through vast amounts of information ourselves. The media sets the news agenda and political tone and this informs our decision-making as citizens.

The free press plays a vital role in society and can serve citizens by exposing wrongdoings and informing debates. Still, it is disappointing to note that some sections of the media do not operate to the highest ethical standards. No wonder that in Australia – and other parts of the world – journalists are among the least trusted professionals.

Strange how the media can scrutinise the behaviour of others but is incapable of serious self-examination.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting