My new book, Doubting Thomas: One Man’s Struggle with Organised Religion and Its Impact on World History, is now available. As many of you know, I announced in my penultimate blog post last December that I was quitting blogging to complete this book. Many of you asked me to let you know the release date and that is the purpose of this post. You can purchase the book online in either paperback or eBook format from Amazon – simply CLICK HERE.
Doubting Thomas breathes fresh air into a large and controversial topic – religion. It is written for believers and sceptics alike and this is what makes it unique – there is something for everyone. It is uncommon to find a book about organised religion which talks to both sides of the religious divide in a way that does not make one subordinate to the other. Notwithstanding, this is a book for progressives because it will likely shock the hell out of traditionalists!
A brief summary of Doubting Thomas can be found on the back cover which states that:
In this eye-opening book, Paul Thomas explores the dark side of organised religion, revealing its often overlooked and unsettling impact on society. He navigates the intricate connections between religion and science, warfare, women, and death, uncovering the troubling ways in which religion has been used to justify and perpetuate harm.
Paul first delves into the fraught relationship between religion and science, taking aim at religion’s colossal blunders in rejecting evolution and challenging cosmology. He then provides a chilling reminder of the ruthless cruelty and wanton bloodshed committed in the name of religion, including the Christian Crusades, the Muslim Conquests, and the unspeakable terror of 9/11.
Next, Paul exposes the ways in which organised religion has subjugated and mistreated women, slicing through religious hypocrisy to reveal a shameful history of male dominance on an epic scale. Finally, he examines the role of organised religion in shaping how we think about death, including addressing the existential question: Is there life beyond the grave?
Persuasive in argument and wide in sweep, Doubting Thomas may not nourish your soul, but it will certainly give you food for thought. Believers and non-believers alike will have much to digest and reflect upon from this eclectic collection of events that have helped shaped world history.
It is great to once again touch base with my Elephant in the Room readers. I trust that you have all been well over the past six months. I now intend to go back into self-imposed exile from the blogsphere. Rest assured that I will not clutter your inbox with any more of my musings.
Stay well, my friends.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
‘Tis the week before Christmas, on my keyboard I’m pounding,
To compose a festive parody, that’s not trite sounding.
Everything is stirring, even my computer mouse,
Need to type faster, so I can finish decorating the house.
But as I sit at my desk looking squarely at the screen,
The lights are flashing, but not red, white, and green.
This lack of colour does not dampen my spirits,
Still, writing my final parody, may test my limits.
Here we go again, let’s see what’s in my head,
After stretching my cranium, I’ll shortly be snug in bed.
Yet for now the question is where to begin,
“I’ve got the answer,” he says with a grin.
During the past year, there arose such a clatter,
Russia invaded Ukraine, the peace it did shatter.
The war took a toll, innocent lives were lost,
Death and destruction, just look at the cost.
The damage from natural disasters was also sky high,
Mother Nature’s fury, it caused a collective sigh.
Australia battled floods, while Europe fought fires,
Climate change is real, the deniers are liars.
Another great loss, the death of The Queen,
An outpouring of grief, like that seldom seen.
Her Majesty served, for seventy regal years,
It’s understandable that we, shed a few tears.
Grief was also felt by women in epic proportions,
Overturning Roe v. Wade effectively banned abortions.
The US Supreme Court ruling, set back the clock,
The fundamental rights of women, it certainly did block.
Meanwhile, the UK had three PMs in seven weeks,
A revolving door of leaders, you could hear the shrieks.
No. 10 Downing Street, the scene of political uprising,
For the protagonists involved, the results were surprising.
While political machinations entertained us with their karma,
Watching elite athletes perform, was by far the best drama.
Major sporting events, dotted the calendar year,
Our sporting heroes did us proud, they made us cheer.
From the Winter Olympics to the Rugby World Cup,
The unifying power of sport, our spirits shot up.
In a divided world, nations gathered in solidarity,
We came together as one, sport provides such clarity.
Now, RUSSIA! now, IRAN! now, NORTH KOREA and CHINA!
Can’t you live in peace, you’re giving us angina.
Stop your sabre-rattling, and cease your aggressive posturing,
Geopolitical tensions are rising, a divided world you are fostering.
Citizens have enough worries, so don’t turn up the heat,
With cost-of-living pressures, it’s tough to make ends meet.
Rampant inflation is hurting, it’s public enemy number one,
The economy is in a spin, fixing it isn’t much fun.
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 …
Just confirming that this is my final blog post for the year and possibly forever! I’m taking an indefinite break from 14 years of blogging (11 years at Gateway Bank + 3 years at Ductus Consulting) and may never again drop any words of wisdom into your inbox. Only time will tell if I make a comeback or quietly ride off into the sunset.
But what’s clear, is that I will miss my loyal community of followers. Writing for you over the past three years has been a joy and privilege. You have given me a forum in which to express my views on the issues which are shaping politics, impacting economies, changing society, and driving technology.
I like to think that we have been partners in this blogging adventure. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I hope that you have enjoyed the content that I have produced and that it has helped inform your thinking on contemporary issues.
Remember, if you want to stay in touch, please feel free to email me at [email protected] or phone me on 0438 299 917.
I will sign off by returning to one of my all-time favourite quotes by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not?’” I challenge you to see the impossible and to be an agent of change. We need more dreamers who can make the world a better place.
Thank you and farewell.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Another year has almost whizzed by, and Christmas is just around the corner. So, Yule all should start getting ready for Santa’s visit. As we hurtle towards the festive season, I want to acknowledge the readers of Elephant in the Room for their continuing support.
The end of the year lends itself to reflection. As we glance over our shoulders and review the past twelve months, it’s clear that 2022 has been an eventful year. Around the world, political upheavals, military actions, natural disasters, and human tragedies captured the headlines and grabbed our attention.
Russia invaded Ukraine, Australia battled floods, Europe fought wildfires, America banned abortions, Britain changed leaders, China behaved imperiously, and the world struggled with a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic caused by Omicron subvariants which drove new waves of infections.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, nations were brought together by sport. Among the uplifting events in 2022 were the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and the Rugby League World Cup across England. In each case, people were united across boundaries, cultures, and religions.
Economically, the world experienced skyrocketing inflation, rising interest rates, and a sharp slowdown in global growth. “The war in Ukraine, lockdowns in China, supply-chain disruptions, and the risk of stagflation are hammering growth,” said World Bank President, David Malpass.
It was also a year in which we mourned the loss of many famous figures, including legendary cricketer Shane Warne and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And over a 10-day period beginning on 30 July, three icons of the Australian music industry – indigenous singer and songwriter Archie Roach, lead singer of The Seekers Judith Durham, and entertainment superstar Olivia Newton-John – left us.
But the biggest news event of 2022 was the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September. There was an immediate outpouring of grief – and widespread sorrow around the world – as billions mourned her passing. She was seen by many as a bastion of stability throughout her seven-decades as the Commonwealth’s longest-serving monarch. Her Majesty’s reign spanned the tenures of 16 Australian prime ministers, 15 British prime ministers, and 14 US presidents.
On a far less important scale, what struck me as I looked back on 2022 was the breadth of subjects covered in this blog. Among other things, I explained:
While each of these posts tackled important topics, the post which arguably contained the most important message was the one titled, Why politicians are not qualified to run a country. To be clear, that post was not designed to take a pot shot at our elected leaders. Rather, it was a genuine attempt to highlight, inter alia, a deficiency in the economic literacy of parliamentarians around the world.
In that post, I stated that economic ineptitude was on display during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In response to the GFC, politicians in many nations, including the UK, erroneously adopted fiscal austerity measures (tapping the brake on spending) in lieu of embracing fiscal stimulus measures (hitting the accelerator on spending).
This past September, the UK government again chose the wrong policy response in its efforts to cushion Brits from the skyrocketing cost of living. The newly elected PM, Liz Truss, introduced a sweeping package of £45bn in unfunded tax cuts in an effort to reignite growth. That announcement was greeted with alarm by economists, investors, top US officials, and even the International Monetary Fund.
A fundamental problem with Truss’ fiscal policy initiative was that it put her government in direct conflict with the Bank of England’s (BOE) monetary policy stance. The government was trying to stimulate demand and spur the economy to fuel growth while the BOE was trying to dampen demand and cool the economy to bring near double-digit inflation under control.
Markets quickly found themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war between the British government and its central bank which were working at cross-purposes. This caused an extreme reaction, with the pound hitting a record low and government borrowing costs surging. The fallout was not driven by concern over deficit spending per se, but the wrong kind of spending. As noted by one commentator:
Deficit spending should build economic capacity – things like childcare, education, infrastructure, investment in renewables, healthcare, government benefits. You know, things that improve society, make it easier to get into work, and increases the productivity of that work. High-end tax cuts don’t do that.
To wit: The government was seen to be destroying its tax base for no good reason. High end tax cuts during a recession with inflation rising fast are not a sound economic idea. Even so, Truss believed they were and cited a debunked economic theory called trickle-down economics which erroneously alleges that tax cuts for the rich increase economic growth.
Ten days after her government’s policy announcement, Truss was forced to reverse her plans to abolish the top income tax rate of 45 per cent. The humiliating policy U-turn made the government look incompetent and ultimately resulted in Truss resigning as PM after just six weeks. Hopefully, the “Trussonomics” saga will make politicians the world over think twice before breaking with Treasury orthodoxy.
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It’s said that all good things must come to an end, and so it is with this blog. I started Elephant in the Room in February, 2020 and have enjoyed publishing a new post each fortnight. Nonetheless, after some serious soul searching, it’s time to say goodbye to blogging. This has not been an easy decision and – even as I write these words – I feel a sense of panic that I might be doing the wrong thing.
Of course, if it transpires that I have made a mistake in closing down my blog, I can always restart it. But for now, I wish to embark on a new adventure – writing my fifth book. The profound impact of organised religion on human history has long fascinated me as a field of inquiry, and that will be the focus of my research over the next couple of years – in lieu of researching and writing blog posts.
Religion is a belief system that has shaped every culture and continues to play a central role in the affairs of humankind. It is one of the most powerful forces on Earth and brings out the best and worst in people. The focus of my text will be on the latter, for this has been my personal struggle: To reconcile how individual believers and religious institutions can commit evil in the name of an unseen deity.
As I prepare to move on to this new adventure in my life, I am indebted to the many readers who have followed me on social media. You have been a loyal, online audience to whom I have tried to provide relevant and interesting content. Thanks for clicking on to my virtual soapbox each fortnight – I am grateful for the time you have invested in reading what I have written over the past three years.
I am also grateful to my unseen support team for their help. To an outsider, blogging can seem an effortless endeavour whereas, in reality, a lot goes on behind the scenes. In my case, my wife Beverley has acted as blog proofreader and family friend Kieran Weston has undertaken the vital role of blog webmaster. Their assistance, on a voluntary basis, has been invaluable and I am indebted to both of them.
Needless to say, starting a new chapter in life is always exciting – and a bit scary. It has been a labour of love maintaining the Elephant in the Room blog, and it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye – but not until next fortnight. On Sunday week (18 December) I will publish my final post for 2022, and it will take the form of a Christmas parody.
The parody 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 stories of the year.
[NOTE: You may continue to contact me at [email protected] until 31 December, 2022. Should you wish to contact me after that date, please email me at [email protected] and I will reply promptly.]
I now raise my glass to all of you as I bid you farewell. Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, but parting is much harder. To paraphrase Dr Seuss: I won’t cry because it’s over, I’ll smile because it happened. I wish each of you the best on life’s journey and hope that tomorrow is kind to you.
Cheers to health, happiness, and prosperity in 2023 and beyond!
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Four days before the Titanic ended up on the bottom of the ocean in 1912, Philip Franklin, Vice President of White Star Line, claimed that “the boat is unsinkable”. Three days prior to the 1929 stock market crash, renowned US economist Irving Fisher asserted that stocks had reached “a permanently high plateau”. Two months in advance of the release of the Apple iPhone in 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sneered “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”.
History is littered with people who made bold predictions about the future that turned out to be spectacularly wrong. They each prove the adage that “predicting the future is easy, getting it right is the hard part”. Anytime you make forecasts, you run the risk of looking foolish. While people want to know what will happen in the future, the truth is that no one really knows. Still, that has not stopped “experts” from offering bold yet incorrect pontifications.
To illustrate, the history of predicting business trends is a tale of misjudgments. Just look at the track record of foretelling the future of computing. In 1943, Thomas Watson (IBM) declared that “the world only needs five computers”. In 1977, Ken Olson (Digital) proclaimed that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”. Not to be outdone in the I-got-it-terribly-wrong category, Bill Gates told us in 1983 that “Microsoft will never make a 32-bit operating system”.
But wait, there’s more! In 1962, British rock band The Beatles were informed that “guitar music is on the way out”. In 1996, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was advised that “children just aren’t interested in witches and wizards anymore”. In 2004, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates told delegates to a World Economic Forum that “two years from now, spam will be solved”.
Clearly, prophecy is a tricky business. Still, that hasn’t stopped hordes of people from trying to prognosticate about the future. There are myriad examples of famous last words including “electricity is just a fad”, “radio has no future”, “television is a flash in the pan”, “a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere”, and “the Internet will catastrophically collapse”.
Around the time I started my working life in the mid-70s, futurists were saying that by the 21st century, technology would have reduced the need for labour. The concern back then was that automation would usher in a fifteen-hour working week and we would all be bored due to an over-abundance of leisure time. I think it’s fair to say that conjecture was woefully off-target. These days, most of us are time poor with working parents particularly feeling the pressure.
Another inaccurate prophecy was the demise of shopping centres. Internet shopping, we were told, would spell the end of bricks-and-mortar retailing. While online commerce has undisputedly taken off, it has not made the high street store extinct. Indeed, shopping centres remain magnets around Christmas and other peak shopping periods. People still flock to the shops, despite the queues and a lack of parking.
Movie theatres were also put on the endangered species list following the release of home videos. But the long-predicted drama – “Death of the Cinema!” – has not eventuated. Cinemas have hung on with the advent of multiplexes and luxury cinemas. Today, moviegoers can experience plush seats with call buttons, oversized screens with surround sound, and exclusive lounges with complimentary refreshments.
My track record as a blogger for well over a decade proves that I am not afraid to swim against the tide of popular opinion. When it comes to the unmitigated praise surrounding new technology, I am a true doubting Thomas. In posts which I published when I was CEO of Gateway Bank, I took counter positions to the overhyped predictions regarding the take-up of Bitcoin, Google Glass, and wearable technology (to name but a few) and was proven correct in each case.
Gardner reveals that he’s “… always been fascinated in the way that experts are held up as gurus and taken so terribly seriously and when their predictions fail, people just shrug and walk away”. He argues that the average pundit is about as reliable as flipping a coin.
To support this view, Gardner draws on the work of Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Following extensive research, Tetlock discovered that experts’ predictions were no more precise than random guesses. Tetlock concluded that “… experts are about as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys”.
Gardner surveyed the history of predictions and found a legion of oracles who got it wrong. H.G. Wells famously declared that World War I would be “the war to end all wars”. Albert Einstein argued that “only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind”. Biologist Paul Ehrlich declared in his 1968 book The Population Explosion that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over”.
On the other side of the coin, soothsayers failed to predict events that did occur. No one foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall. No one forecast the rise in fertility rates after World War II. No one envisaged the phenomenal rise in Internet usage. No one factored the 9/11 disaster into scenario planning. And very few economists predicted the Global Financial Crisis.
From the Y2K hysteria to the fervent belief that the Japanese economy would permanently overtake the American economy in the 1990s, history is littered with examples of seers who got it wrong. Yet, as Gardner notes, the general public continues to put great faith in experts who never lose their widespread appeal.
To that end, modern-day futurists have made a raft of bold predictions about what lies ahead for humanity. A sneak peek into the future through the eyes of one seer predicts that biotechnology will become the foundation of new therapies, autonomous vehicles will become mass-market reality, 3D printing will be everywhere, and artificial intelligence will become an integral part of our lives.
I’m with Gardner when he says that “the future will forever be shrouded in darkness”. Expert predictions fail because the world is complicated, yet our flawed quest for certainty continues. Life has taught me that tomorrow is full of surprises. At best, the future is very uncertain and, at worst, it’s absolutely chaotic. No wonder I’m still waiting on my flying car, robot maid, paperless office, and personal jetpack.
Only fools or geniuses try to predict the future – and I’m neither!
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
It’s easy to yell gratuitous advice to those on the field of play when you are standing on the sideline. It’s much harder, however, when you are in the thick of things, trying to do your best. As a society, we are quick to criticise but slow to praise and seem to delight in finding fault with others.
In the game of life, many of us have become armchair critics. We readily assume the role of a self-appointed judge when watching Olympic athletes perform or listening to entertainers belt out a song on a talent show. Yet we could not do what they do, and there are myriad examples of this double standard.
Around the world, it has become a national sport to hate politicians. Even so, few of us could stand the heat of being under such constant scrutiny in both our public and private lives. The number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily would cause most of us to buckle under the strain.
I’m not an apologist for politicians who are inept or corrupt. Nonetheless, I believe that we have unrealistic expectations of what they are able to deliver. Politicians are not miracle workers who have the power to solve all of society’s ills. Still, many in the electorate erroneously believe otherwise, and this was certainly the case with regard to the pandemic.
From continent to continent, citizens played the COVID blame game, pointing fingers at governments and using them as scapegoats. While in some cases (America and Brazil) this criticism was absolutely warranted, in others (Australia and New Zealand) it was unjustified.
Regardless, people are always quick to assign blame to those in power. Blaming others is a common coping strategy during a crisis. Rallying against a common enemy brings people together. But this should never be used as an excuse to participate in a witch hunt.
I’m the first to acknowledge that some governments displayed breathtaking incompetence in managing COVID, resulting in unnecessary fatalities. Equally, I must acknowledge the poor behaviour of those citizens who refused to adhere to stay-at-home orders and mask-wearing requirements, and who protested in the streets as part of a campaign of civil disobedience.
We can’t criticise governments for making bad choices when we do the same ourselves. The door swings both ways, so responsibility for the spread of the virus does not just lie with governments. Many people hold a dim view of their fellow citizens and blame “the other guy” for a failure of personal responsibility.
■ ■ ■
In our digital world, it seems that everyone has become a critic. The Internet has spawned a new age of amateur criticism and given rise to ill-informed kitchen-counter “experts”. These keyboard warriors sit behind their computer screens and throw barbs at others, but rarely provide solutions.
I would have thought that before you offer advice, you must be qualified to give it. How many of us would take fitness guidance from a coach who was morbidly obese? A valuable critic is someone whose judgment is informed and from whom you can learn. In this regard, experience is the teacher.
Life has taught me that practise invariably trumps theory. Knowing something is one thing, but actually being able to do it is quite another. Those who have spent time in the trenches know how the real world operates. An example will help here.
Some years ago, a European communications industry regulator was appointed the CEO of a local company. Shortly after he took up his appointment as CEO, he publicly admitted how much harder it was on the ground running a company than being an ivory tower regulator overseeing from afar what the company was doing.
Regulation is an inescapable part of doing business. Around the world and across industries, regulators are rule-makers and enforcers who set the parameters within which businesses must operate. But if you have never worked at the coal face of a business yourself, you risk being labelled an armchair critic.
I learned at an early age that life is made up of spectators and players – those who are bystanders and those who are participants. Spectators sit in the safety and anonymity of life’s grandstand where they boo and hiss. They pass judgment, but never actually pull on a jersey themselves and have a go.
Players, on the other hand, are the people who roll up their sleeves and give it their all. They don’t always cross the line and score when they get the ball. Still, they do experience the joy of participating and striving to overcome the odds to become a winner.
In the game of life, a player acts to achieve a desired outcome. A spectator, in contrast, is at the mercy of choices others make. I’ve always been a player and not a bench warmer. I know that life is not a spectator sport. I want to have a stake in life and not watch it go by.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs … because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Ironically, the loudest voices in society tend to belong to those who are not in the arena. Of course, it’s astonishingly easy to be an armchair critic. According to author, Azrin Mohd Noor, you just have to:
… sit back comfortably in that armchair, point fingers at others, highlight their alleged flaws and probably feel good doing it, not realising the extent of one’s actions on another. When you are the other person, the last thing you need at that moment are words that add salt to the wound or a further kick in the gut when you are down …. It is funny that an armchair critic who sits down passively and is not an achiever can speak venomously on topics he may know little or nothing about. He is critical of others even when he does not have a clue how a job is done. For example, if he has never been a CEO of a public-listed company, how would he know what it really takes to run one?
Remember, no statues have been erected in honour of critics.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Here’s the thing that I’ve long argued: The solutions to our problems are often counterintuitive. The right course of action can be the exact opposite of what we initially thought. The best answer or explanation can challenge our gut instinct and require us to embrace that which does not come naturally as it defies our deductive rationality. This is the case in the realms of science.
Science constantly questions our instinctive understanding of the world. As Galileo demonstrated centuries ago, the truths about the physical universe are often contradictory. We experience the Earth as flat even though we know it’s round. Similarly, we see the Sun “rise” and “set” each day, even though we know it stays in its position at the centre of our solar system.
In business, it takes a brave leader to make truly game-changing decisions that go against conventional wisdom. Henry Ford did just that by doubling the wages of his workers to attract and retain the talent he needed. His new class of worker was able to afford the very product his company was producing. This expanded the overall market for the Model T and triggered a consumer revolution which helped create the wealthiest nation on Earth.
Like the Industrial Revolution, the current Digital Revolution boasts many thinkers who have challenged the status quo, including the founders of Google. They made the radical choice to give away their products for free and this has made them fabulously rich. Google does not charge Internet users for using its search engine and other services. Rather, it generates the bulk of its massive billions in revenue from selling advertising space via Google Ads.
Google could not attract advertisers without readers – and it needs lots of them. The more readers it attracts, the greater the interest generated from advertisers. Google lures users, collects their data, and then sells access to eager advertisers across the planet. The more Google knows about an individual, the better it can target ads and therefore the more it can charge for ad space.
Of course, unconventional solutions are not limited to the business world. Take the aged care clinic in Duesseldorf, Germany which faced a serious problem. Some elderly patients with dementia frequently “escaped” from the hospital during episodes of agitation from memory loss. They would walk a block or so, board the first bus which came by, and invariably become lost.
Attempts to stop the patients leaving the medical facility resulted in ugly confrontations. So, instead of locking the doors to keep patients in, they opened the doors and allowed patients to flee to a fake bus stop built right on the hospital’s doorstep. The patient would eventually calm down, accept that no buses were running that day, and peacefully return to the hospital.
A more controversial example of upside-down thinking is drug addiction. Treating heroin addicts by giving them heroin might seem incongruous, yet trials in Switzerland show that administering heroin in supervised clinics can produce better results than conventional methadone treatments.
If you frame the drug problem as a medical dependency, and not a criminal offence, users will be helped by trained nurses rather than arrested by burly policemen. Yes, it does seem absurd to provide addicts with free synthetic drugs, complimentary needle kits, and safe injecting locations, but it does work in reducing dependency.
[Please allow me to insert a parenthetical note here. The recent decision by the NSW government not to decriminalise the low-level use of illicit drugs is extremely disappointing. This was the key recommendation of a landmark inquiry into ice, which handed down its findings more than two years ago. The inquiry slammed the criminalisation of drug users as a “profound flaw” in the NSW justice system.
The inquiry was conducted by Professor Dan Howard who labelled the justice system as “tired” and “lacking in imagination”. Professor Howard was damning of the state’s approach to drug addiction and concluded that the “war on drugs” was an outdated mindset and that criminalising use and possession stigmatised people.]
How an economy works can also seem illogical as we witnessed during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Governments around the world used fiscal stimulus packages to encourage counterintuitive behaviour from their citizens. The GFC caused households to cut back on discretionary expenditure. In response, the Australian government pumped $10.4 billion into the pockets of Australian consumers to counter an economic phenomenon called the paradox of thrift.
During a recession, our natural tendency is to save and this triggers a cause-and-effect spiral to decreased economic activity. When we all start saving our money, the result is reduced consumer spending. This, in turn, causes aggregate demand to fall and this, in turn again, results in a decline in total income. And when income falls, people have less to spend.
So, as contradictory as it sounds, individual savings makes us collectively poor. This paradox of thrift represents a form of prisoner’s dilemma as saving might appear beneficial at an individual level but it’s actually detrimental to the population overall. One person’s spending is another person’s income!
As a society, we need to take a more holistic approach to issues by focussing on “we” rather than “me”. Our narrow self-interest must give way to the optimum outcome for all parties. This, of course, runs counter to our primal “every-man-for himself” attitude and can be seen in all walks of life.
The mere threat of a fuel strike immediately causes panic buying with queues of angry motorists rushing to service stations to top up their tanks. Similarly, panic buying occurs when there are rumours of grocery shortages, driving shoppers to fill their trolleys and clear supermarket shelves.
As we have recently seen, pandemics are associated with the panic buying of groceries and other supplies like toilet paper. Such behaviour is precipitated by an anxious minority of shoppers and creates a snowball effect which elicits fear contagion among other shoppers causing them to also stockpile.
Scampering to purchase petrol before rationing begins or hoarding groceries prior to stocks being depleted are, at an individual level, seemingly sensible things to do. Such behaviour, however, is self-defeating at a societal level as everyone is worse off when individuals – acting in self-interest – cause a buying stampede.
Life has taught me that many things are counterintuitive. I know that international trade creates more jobs than it destroys. I know that government debt is a good thing in times of weak economic growth. I know that embracing capitalism is the best way to beat poverty in developing nations. And I know that the biggest risk in life is not taking any risks.
When it comes to human interactions, there are also many counterintuitive life lessons such as:
the little things are the big things in relationships;
the more you admit your shortcomings, the more people will like you;
the more you try and control someone, the further they will slip from your grasp; and
we are at our tallest when we stoop to help another.
■ ■ ■
Our natural instinct is to play it safe when making decisions and solving problems. Yet turning long-held beliefs on their head can lead to alternative insights and new thinking if you are prepared to zig where others zag. Such breakthrough thinking led to the development of a telephone that isn’t just for making calls. Now, where would we be without our smartphones?
Let’s all think the unthinkable.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Blogging is a wonderful way to broadcast your ideas and opinions to the world. But as every blogger knows, the downside to blogging is its fleetingness. A blog post attracts the overwhelming majority of its impressions (views) within a fortnight of publication, and then it’s largely forgotten – even the great posts.
Like all bloggers, I’d like my posts to be remembered, which is why I’m pleased to present this curated compilation of posts from the past two-and-a-half years. This book will enable you to revisit a cross-section of my posts and allow me to share my thoughts with a broader audience – a win-win!
The collection of posts contained in Addressing the Elephants in the Room is wide in sweep and offers an illuminating guide to the issues that are shaping politics, impacting economies, changing societies, and driving technology. Readers will discover concise answers to important questions:
CAN households drive sustainable capitalism?
WILL globalisation create a world without borders?
WHAT lessons did we learn from the pandemic?
ARE we living in an age of ignorance and stupidity?
HAVE big tech companies become too powerful?
In 50 short bursts, Addressing the Elephants in the Room answers these and other contemporary questions. Each post is akin to a brief essay which can be read in a matter of minutes. All posts are underpinned by reasoned argument and supported by corroborating evidence.
As a blogger, I write not just about the world as it is, but how it could be. So, as you turn the pages of the book, you’ll discover that I’m passionate about making the world a better place through education. The subliminal message in many of the posts is that we can solve most of humanity’s problems by making more informed decisions.
By design, the posts avoid the “doomist framing” of contemporary issues promulgated by fatalists and other pessimists. In contrast, the book offers a refreshing counterbalance to the glut of apocalyptic narratives by mainstream and social media commentators, which trigger unnecessary alarm among the populace.
In a time when so many things seem dire, it’s refreshing to be reminded that humans can rise to any challenge. The world isn’t as horrific as we have been led to believe. Indeed, there’s never been a better time to be alive. In bygone years, life was shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, and less free. Today, we are more educated, and this knowledge is changing the world.
Addressing the Elephants in the Room does not fit neatly into one clearly defined literary genre. The intended audience, therefore, is broad and diverse. This one volume is a business book, an educational book, and a general knowledge book, and is for anyone who wants to understand how the world around us works.
You can read this book from beginning to end or dip into any topic as the mood takes you. The book is now available online from Amazon and you can order your copy by CLICKING HERE. Remember, a book is a gift which you can open again and again!
Thanks for putting up with my self-publicity this fortnight. My preference would be for someone else to promote the book. However, given my mega-buck launch budget (he says with tongue firmly planted in cheek!), I’m also the assistant publicist and part-time literary agent.
It’s great wearing many hats!
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
It’s an age-old question: “Where did the time go?”, middle-aged and older adults often ask. We all know that the clock does not tick faster as we age, but it sure feels otherwise. As a young boy, I vividly recall that the wait between Christmases felt like an eternity whereas, in my adult life, the years seem to fly by at a dizzying speed. I’m surprised that we are already approaching the end of another year and astonished that over 20 years have passed since Sydney hosted the Olympic Games.
Unravelling the mystery of the perceived difference between clock time and mind time has been the focus of several investigations. These studies have produced various theories explaining why time seems to move at a leisurely pace in childhood but whizzes by in adulthood. While there is no consensus on the cause, it’s clear that the illusion of time slipping away faster and faster as the years go by is a common experience.
The passage of time – hours, days, and years – ticks by at a constant rate, no matter what. However, according to neurologist and neuroscientist, Dr Santosh Kesari, “most (adults) feel that time elapsed slowly in their earlier days, but then speeds up later in life”. This perception, Kesari posits, may be due to the fact that when we’re children, a year of life amounts to much more time of existence, percentage wise.
For a two-year-old, a year is half of their life, which is why it seems such an extraordinary long period of time between birthdays. “For a 10-year-old, one year is 10 per cent of their lives,” Kesari notes, whereas “for a 60-year-old, one year is less than two per cent of their lives”.
We perceive a period of time as the proportion of time we have already lived through (the so called “ratio theory”). Given this, it’s not surprising that time appears to accelerate as we grow older because our sense of the present feels short compared to our total lifespan. It also helps explain why kids on car trips constantly ask that most annoying of questions: “Are we there yet?”. A car journey actually feels longer to kids than it does to adults.
Furthermore, when we were children, the world was an unfamiliar place replete with new experiences and wonderment. Can you remember your surprise and delight when you encountered something for the first time? Your first ice cream, first trip to the beach, first kiss, and so on? We were always being introduced to novel things and ideas and our young brains took longer to process the large amounts of new stimuli and this left lasting impressions on our memories.
As Kesari observes: “We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer”.
This paucity of novel experiences also has relevance to the coronavirus pandemic. During the COVID-19 restrictions, some people reported that their days in lockdown seemed to slip by faster than usual. This was a surprising outcome as those under stay-at-home directives thought that their time in isolation would be characterised by boredom. Yet anecdotally and unexpectedly, people found that their days passed quickly under the dull weight of monotony.
Variety may be the spice of life, but it is also the substance of memory. As most people spent their entire time in COVID-19 lockdown in one location, they made fewer memories than normal and therefore experienced the sensation that time had hurtled by.
Commenting on the lack of novel experiences while hunkering down at home, Marc Wittmann, a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany said: “When we look back at those days and weeks where not much happened – where it’s the same every day – not much is stored in memory and time feels [as though it has] passed very quickly”.
Thus, the passage of time we perceive is related to the amount of new perceptual information we absorb. This helps explain the “slow motion perception” often reported in the moments before an accident. The unfamiliar circumstances mean that there is a lot of new information to take in. In adulthood, we experience much less novelty or surprise than in our childhood and this provides another theory for time’s rapid pace as we get older.
It is believed that our biology plays a role as well, particularly our metabolism. Our metabolism slows as we get older, as does our breathing and heartrate. A faster metabolism may mean experiencing more biological markers, which may influence the passage of time, making life appear more vivid and slower moving, whereas less biological markers might degrade vibrancy somewhat.
Of course, we all know that times flies when we’re having fun and drags when we’re bored, and this is another factor in time’s perceived passage. The activity that we’re engaged in – and whether it’s a positive or negative experience – impacts our perception of time. In trying to explain his Special Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein is alleged to have said: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
Another explanation of this phenomenon is provided by psychology writer, Claudia Hammond, in her book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mystery of Time Perception. Hammond coined the term, “vacation paradox”, to explain the subjective experience of how time flies when you’re having an enjoyable experience like an action-packed holiday, but then later, in retrospection, it feels like it lasted longer than it really did.
Our perception of time and our experience of passing minutes differ greatly according to circumstances. “A watched pot never seems to boil, but go and check your emails and it will be boiling over before you know it,” Hammond notes. She describes how time “stretches” and “shrinks” at different moments of our lives. Hammond writes:
… the experience of time is actively created by our minds. Various factors are critical to this construction of the perception of time – memory, concentration, emotion and the sense we have that time is somehow rooted in space. It’s this last factor that allows us to do something extraordinary – to time-travel at will in our minds, moving backwards and forwards in time.
Time is a psychological construct which is why the clock in your head moves at a different speed from the one on the wall. But you can slow down the pace of life – at least psychologically. Be sure to take advantage of new and unique experiences to create new memories, just as you did in your youth. Remember your teenage romances? It seemed like an eternity between those early telephone calls with your new love, whereas your wedding anniversary now flies by with regular monotony.
No wonder time passed slowly for Juliet while waiting for Romeo!
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
One of my sons-in-law is a television camera operator and has years of experience filming people and events from all over the world. From videotaping athletes at the Sochi Winter Paralympics to recording Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, Sean has experienced first-hand what most of us intuitively know – people behave differently when viewed through the lens of a camera.
When a person realises that everything they say and do is being recorded for television, they become very aware that they are talking directly to the masses and will be evaluated and judged by a tough audience. While shy people withdraw further and outgoing people become gregarious in front of a camera, no one wants to look foolish, which is why everyone tries to put their best foot forward.
Police too have discovered that members of the public adjust their behaviour when they interact with a law enforcement officer who is wearing a body camera. Individuals – who might otherwise be aggressive or abusive towards police – tone down their actions when they know that they are being filmed and this avoids potentially volatile encounters. As noted in one report, the use of wearable body cameras represents a profound change in policing.
Anything that has been recorded can be subsequently reviewed, scrutinised and submitted as evidence. Individual officers become more accountable, and modify their behaviour accordingly, while the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous.
People are invariably affected by observation as being watched makes us act differently. Even a poster containing the image of human eyes can encourage us to behave more honestly. This phenomenon is called the watching eyes effect and it was put to the test by a team of researchers from Newcastle University in the UK.
The team conducted a secret experiment and found that people put nearly three times as much money in an “honesty box” for payment of hot beverages when they were being watched by a fake pair of eyes on a poster, compared with a signboard which featured an image of flowers. This outcome reflects that while honesty may well be the best policy, it can leave us when no one else is watching.
Like fake eyes, cardboard replicas of police can also discourage wayward behaviour. After London’s metropolitan police placed two life-size cutout cops in two bicycle rack cages in a busy train station, bike theft decreased by 67 per cent. The inanimate cops acted as a psychological deterrent to thieves. The cutouts were like scarecrows and created the illusion of being observed.
Humans have a “gaze detection” system which activates when someone is staring at us. In the words of one psychologist:
… making direct eye contact is the most frequent and perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we exchange with others; it’s central to intimacy, intimidation, and social influence. Eye contact is so primal that its meaning extends across animal species: Predators stare intently before they pounce. Infants gaze at their parents to capture their attention.
It’s axiomatic that people tend to change their behaviour when under the prying gaze of others, particularly given our motivation to gain and maintain a positive social reputation. That’s why our behaviour while alone at home is likely to be different from our behaviour at work when surrounded by colleagues.
This extends to the world of social media where users carefully curate the information that they present to the digital world. Users are conscious of the myriad eyeballs which will scan their Twitter feeds and Facebook posts and the instant judgments which will be made about what they publish. So, they work diligently to leverage social media to boost their image as no one wants their personal online brand to be viewed in a poor light.
When it comes to being gawked at, we experience a “sixth sense” feeling that we are being watched and this enables us to detect things far beyond our conscious gaze. An article in New York (magazine) put it this way:
Most of us have experienced the feeling of being watched at some point, whether the gaze is unwanted (a creepy train stranger) or desired (an attractive new acquaintance at your friend’s house party). The sensations accompanying this phenomenon can sometimes feel almost paranormal – it’s as if you can physically feel the eyes of others boring into you, even without looking, or like you have a second pair of eyes on the back of your head.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our need to feel part of a group has been a key feature of the behaviour of Homo sapiens since our hunter-gatherer ancestors emerged on the Savanna plains of Africa around 200,000 years ago. We have a natural desire to be part of the crowd (herd mentality), with our primal need to connect being as fundamental as our need for food and water.
Because we are emotionally wired to care about what others think of us, our reputation is very important. This is certainly the case in the workplace where our personal brand differentiates us from co-workers. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is credited with saying: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”.
In competitive work environments, it’s natural to want to stand out from the pack and be known as someone who delivers high performance outcomes. As outlined in a Harvard Business Review article:
Social psychologists have known for decades that people are motivated to work harder when others are watching. When they are observed, people run faster, are more creative, and think harder about problems. These effects occur for several reasons. For one, people want to impress others through their performance, and thus try harder. Anyone who has ever stayed in the office late when their boss was still around experienced this phenomenon.
In all walks of life, people behave differently – even righteously – in the presence of others. Let’s be honest: How many of us can say that we haven’t acted a bit selfishly when we thought we could get away with it? In the perfect world, we should always strive to be our noblest selves. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching”.
Well, the digital world is watching – from licence plate readers to aerial surveillance drones and facial recognition to smartphone trackers – spying eyes are everywhere. We are being monitored 24/7 and many people see this as an assault on personal privacy. Others contend that innocent people have nothing to hide and so have no need to look over their shoulder.
Regardless, the perception that the information age has put our privacy and security at risk is widespread. Research shows that just being aware that your Internet searches are being monitored makes people self-censor and that – according to civil libertarians – deters people from exercising their democratic right to access publicly available information.
Given the proliferation of surveillance technology, the watching eyes effect is everywhere. We are being watched more than any other time in history, both online and in the street, and this is impacting our decisions and actions. Mass surveillance is designed to keep us in line by tracking and influencing our behaviour – and we are increasingly subject to its gaze.
Big Brother is watching.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
There’s always a lot going on in the world which is why we are bombarded with news updates 24/7. As media readers, viewers, and listeners we want to be informed about events and threats as soon as possible. Consequently, speed is a central part of contemporary journalism and has given rise to “fast journalism” and the thirst to be first with the latest news. But speed has morphed into a disease which has impacted the quality of journalism.
Accuracy is fundamental to good journalism, yet increasingly, it’s being sacrificed for expediency. This particularly applies to early reports of breaking news with unfolding minute-by-minute developments. To help media networks maintain rolling coverage in times of crisis, talking heads masquerading as experts are wheeled out and they invariably get essential facts wrong. One man’s expert is another man’s fool!
Flimsy or unsubstantiated reporting used as a basis for content runs counter to the long-held journalistic notions of truth-seeking and serving the public interest. News is meant to be a public good, however, as news cycles move ever faster in our digital age, the pressure to release stories quicker often results in reporters publishing only basic information with little in-depth analysis.
In all walks of life, slow and right beats fast and wrong and the same holds true for journalism and news reporting. There is a growing slow news movement which operates outside the 24/7 news trap. Proponents of slow journalism take the time to get things right and turn out quality journalism, which is characterised by accuracy, depth, context, analysis, and expert opinion.
Delayed Gratification is the name of the world’s first slow journalism magazine. It promotes itself as “a quarterly publication which revisits the events of the last three months to offer in-depth, independent journalism in an increasingly frantic world”. The magazine swims against the tide in taking a stand against kneejerk reporting by providing slower but better news.
Commensurate with its tagline, “Last to breaking news,” Delayed Gratification employs the benefit of hindsight to report on events after the dust has settled and the news agenda has moved on. This enables the magazine to get to the heart of a story by soberly reflecting on what’s happened and then presenting a long-form story in its proper context.
Another slow news organisation is Tortoise Media. It was launched in 2019 by British journalist and former Director of BBC News, James Harding. He believes that “too many newsrooms chase the news but miss the story” and that we need to “slow down and wise up”. The Tortoise website states:
We don’t do breaking news, but what’s driving the news. We don’t cover every story, but reveal a few. We take the time to see the fuller picture, to make sense of the forces shaping our future, to investigate what’s unseen.
Someone else who believes that journalism needs reinvention is US journalism scholar, Professor Jennifer Rauch. In her book, Slow Media: Why ‘Slow” is Satisfying, Sustainable, and Smart, she makes the case for rethinking the way media is produced and consumed. Rauch is a fan of slow journalism as it requires reporters to spend weeks analysing the accuracy and perspectives of initial reports before publishing their own reports.
In an interview following the release of her book, Rauch stated that many journalists aren’t getting to do the kind of in-depth, thoughtful, accurate reporting that drew them to the profession in the first place. She went on to opine that:
Much news coverage is incomplete at best, inaccurate or misleading at worst. Too many news stories are dependent on press releases or official sources. You hear a lot about people getting news fatigue and avoiding the news because it makes them feel anxious.
Long before Rauch published her book in 2018, another academic – Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb – called out the deficiencies with modern news reporting. In his 2007 global bestseller, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Taleb emboldened his readers “not to read newspapers, or follow the news in any way or form”.
The Black Swan illuminated the severe limitations of our thinking and the fragility of our knowledge*. Taleb was one of the first people to recognise news consumption as a serious problem. “The more information we absorb,” he cautioned, “the more difficult it becomes to discern the relevant from the irrelevant”. Taleb views journalism as “pure entertainment, not the search for the truth” and warned:
Remember that we are swayed by the sensational. Listening to the news on the radio every hour is far worse for you than reading a weekly magazine, because the longer interval allows information to be filtered a bit.
It is alleged that Mark Twain once asserted: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed”. Sadly, Twain’s quip is more relevant today than in his day and many would agree with his claim.
It’s my contention that to achieve one of journalism’s prime purposes – the creation of an informed citizenry – we should adopt the classic strategy of slow and steady wins the race by embracing slow journalism.
Slow journalism is seen as the antidote to social media’s need for speed. “If social media is a fast-food boxed meal”, says AdNews Australia, “then slow journalism is a high-quality degustation. In a world of same-day delivery, instant noodles and push notifications … it’s hardly surprising that there are some people who just want things to move a little more slowly”.
One media outlet which has embraced slow journalism is the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). In 2018 the ABC launched a slow journalism initiative called the Remote Communities Project (RCP). The RCP created stories that provided audiences with an insight into life outside of metropolitan cities.
Reporters were able to work without the normal time constraints associated with fast journalism. They benefited greatly from spending up to a fortnight in the bush learning first-hand about the issues and experiences of people living in isolated areas of Australia. Free from the tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle, reporters were able to uncover “the untold stories”.
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Since my retirement from full-time work in mid-2019, I have naturally gravitated toward longer-form, slow journalism and feel much better informed. The journals and magazines that I read are void of sensational and superficial storytelling but replete with investigative and factual journalism. The well-rounded and balanced articles which are delivered direct to my inbox are a joy to read.
While fast media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, slow media delivers big chunks of meaningful matter with the latter content designed for those who take their news seriously and think deeply about the issues behind it.
Elephant in the Room is an example of slow media as each post is written after a period of reflection and research. This blog is a place for reasoned argument supported by corroborating evidence. Its contentions aim to be intellectually compelling without being academic to give you a clear understanding of the forces shaping our world.
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We know from Aesop’s classic fable, The Hare and the Tortoise, that being the fastest does not guarantee victory. When this lesson is applied to journalism, it’s clear that filling the news abyss is not a sprint but a marathon. We need to recalibrate our relationship with the media and rethink how we consume information. The days of rocket-fast news ruling the media roost is being challenged by those who believe that we need to hasten slowly.
In the race of life, the tortoise ultimately beats the hare.
* Black Swans are extremely rare and unpredictable events that have massive impacts on society. These include positive Black Swans, like the phenomenal rise of Google, as well as negative Black Swans, such as the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer