Lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak

Source: disabilityhorizons.com

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.

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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.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

How to make the world a better place

Source: pinterest.com

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.

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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.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why media standards have fallen and what it says about us

Source: beconnected.esafety.gov.au

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.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why we don’t recognise our own incompetence

Source: The Rock & Roll Shrink Radio Show

Imagine that you are hosting a dinner party for a group of friends. Throughout the meal, one guest is spouting off on a topic that he claims to know well. As those around the table listen to his opinions, it’s blindingly clear to everyone that he is grossly ill-informed. Yet, he arrogantly prattles on in the belief that he is the fount of all knowledge.

All humans have blind spots, which is why many of us are oblivious of our own ignorance. We can believe things about our ability that are just not true because – to be blunt – some of us are so dimwitted we don’t realise how dense we really are. A good example is Donald Trump whose confidence and bluster as president never wavered despite his woeful grasp of policy matters.

That we are lousy at accurately evaluating ourselves is not a surprise to social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Their research shows that people who are capable at a particular task or in a certain topic typically underestimate their ability while people who are incapable at a particular task or in a certain topic frequently overestimate their ability.

This disconnect is called the Dunning-Kruger effect and it reveals that while the competent are often plagued with doubt, the incompetent are habitually cocksure of their excellence. Put simply, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency for people to misjudge their abilities, with the skilled putting themselves down and the inept hyping themselves up.

We have long known that fools are blind to their own foolishness. As renowned British naturalist, Charles Darwin, wrote in 1871 in The Descent of Man: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

Another wise man (allegedly Aristotle) said that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”. Smart people are clever enough to know that they don’t know everything, so they read and study to fill the gaps in their intelligence. In contrast, asinine people don’t read or undertake continuous education because they are clueless to the fact that they have knowledge gaps.

The Dunning-Kruger effect stems from our ignorance of our own ignorance. It is a cognitive bias which causes unskilled individuals to suffer from illusory superiority. One way to avoid falling victim to this phenomenon is to inject a healthy dose of humility into your sense of self-regard. For many people, that is easier said than done.

As English philosopher, Bertrand Russell observed: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”. We have seen both sides of this cognitive pitfall in action during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Highly qualified epidemiologists – and other scientists who have devoted their careers to studying infectious diseases – readily admitted the limits of their knowledge regarding the behaviour of the novel virus. As true experts, they know where their expertise ends. Fortunately, when the pandemic hit, they knew enough to urge the introduction of social distancing practices and lockdowns.

Still, many people, including political leaders like Trump (USA), Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Modi (India), were dismissive of – an even hostile towards – medical experts, and flouted health warnings. Unsurprisingly, coronavirus outbreaks in these countries spiralled out of control due to the incompetence of self-absorbed “Covidiots” as evidence by their Dunning-Kruger performances.

Around the world, many populist politicians masqueraded as health professionals yet refused to take even basic precautions to keep the public safe. In doing so, they displayed their absolute ignorance of science to the detriment of their citizens. By rejecting COVID-19 countermeasures and downplaying the threat, millions of innocent people died unnecessarily.

Defiant perspectives on COVID have come not just from ignorant people but also lawyers, engineers, accountants and other professionals. Otherwise astute members of society, including Elon Musk, rejected the assessment of medical experts. Musk – who many consider to be a genius – fell foul of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As noted in online magazine InsideHook:

… Elon Musk is not a medical genius. In this instance, he is no more than yet another unqualified mouthpiece in a growing list of blowhards regarded as armchair epidemiologists.

Similar to the coronavirus pandemic, many citizens and politicians show disdain for the science of climate change in the conceited belief that they know better than the experts. (No wonder disaster movies typically begin with the government ignoring a scientist – a case of art imitating life!). The world is full of climate change deniers who are blissfully ignorant of their ignorance.

The science has been settled to the highest degree that climate change is primarily due to human activity. Consequently, air and ocean temperatures are rising, arctic ice is melting, ecosystems are shifting and sea levels are rising. The signs are all around us – the Earth is patently warming which makes the endless debates questioning the truth of climate science gobsmacking.

While many governments agree with the science, politicians make cosmetic changes and largely adopt a business-as-usual philosophy. Meanwhile, climate activists continue to express their frustration and disbelief while climate deniers remain dogmatic in their opposition to climate action. Humanity is fiddling while Rome burns.

As one commentator observed, the Dunning-Kruger effect is:

… more noticeable in the denier set because most of them lack scientific or climate science credentials and training and yet they are challenging the collective views of thousands of trained scientists who do have the required training, credentials, knowledge and skills to discuss climate science.

Science-based arguments are rejected by citizens around the world. These same people voted for climate denying governments in places like America (under Trump) and Brazil. Deniers spend a lot of time on social media eagerly absorbing anything that supports their unscholarly position, even when it’s outrageously absurd and completely uncorroborated by evidence.

The political landscape is replete with evidence of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Take Trump’s rise to the presidency which can be largely attributed to ignorance – his popularity was highest among voters without a university degree. As described in a 2016 Politico Magazine article:

Their expertise about current affairs is too fractured and full of holes to spot that only 9 percent of Trump’s statements are “true” or “mostly” true, according to PolitiFact, whereas 57 percent are “false” or “mostly false” – the remainder being “pants on fire” untruths. Trump himself has memorably declared: “I love the poorly educated.”

Over the past decade or so, citizens who elected populist governments have been let down badly. Voters were lied to by politicians like Trump, but were not smart enough to know it. In democracies such as Turkey, Hungry, Poland and the Philippines, citizens unwittingly elected governments which normalised authoritarianism and diminished their democratic rights.

The “right” leaders were not elected as voters lacked the skills to assess the abilities and competencies of others. Votes were cast based on personal feelings or false information, which is why two eminent political scientists believe that the problem with democracy is voters. While many of us rate ourselves highly in political knowledgeability, the harsh reality is that most of us are ignorant as voters.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is real and permeates all aspects of life. It is evident in people’s viewpoints on education, vaccination, work, sports and even investing. In all walks of life, you will find people who think that they are much better and/or knowledgeable than they really are.

Overconfidence is the mother of all psychological biases and has been blamed for the sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the 2008 meltdown of the subprime mortgage market and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Overconfidence accounts for a wide range of poor outcomes – including war.

That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing has been known by philosophers since Socrates. This perceptive ancient Greek thinker said that “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. As wise as this is, I’ll end with the words of Benjamin Franklin which resonate with me:

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Don’t be fooled by self-appointed COVID authorities

Source: UNSW Centre for Integrated Systems for Epidemic Response

Throughout history, fake experts have suddenly appeared during times of crisis. They emerge from obscurity, stand on their various soapboxes and proliferate misinformation. Such falsehoods create a climate of fear, which is fuelled by those eager to put in their two cents worth.

Periods of great uncertainty always provide a fertile breeding ground for the spread of mistruths. The current COVID outbreak is no exception and has thrust previously obscure individuals into the pandemic limelight. People claiming to be health experts have popped up everywhere as talking heads in the media.

In response, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement in February warning that humanity is not just fighting a viral pandemic but also an “infodemic”. Like the virus, the infodemic has proven to be highly contagious and has been transmitted by mainstream and social media.

Public nervousness and the desperate search for cures has made it impossible to completely immunise a gullible public against fabricated stories. In the words of the WHO boss, we are “battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response”.

We should not heed the barrage of half-baked COVID health advice from Twitter, Facebook or deranged politicians like former President Trump. Yet millions have listened to their quack remedies and pseudo-scientific explanations. While some of these cures seem legitimate, most are patently wrong.

The WHO’s mythbusters site pours cold water on a raft of dodgy health tips that allegedly prevent or cure COVID-19. These include eating garlic, drinking bleach, snorting cocaine, rinsing the nose with saline, gargling with salt water and spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body.

The Australian Government also has a mythbusting site and it debunks a number of COVID-19 myths including that hot temperatures kill the virus, 5G networks spread the virus, drinking water every 15 minutes prevents infection and hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment.

Around the world, mass media coverage of the pandemic has contributed significantly to the COVID-19 infodemic. The mainstream media’s penchant for sensationalism has resulted in inaccurate news dissemination including the reporting of unscientific cures and unverified medicines. As noted in The Harvard Gazette:

At many major news outlets, reporters and editors with no medical or public health training were reassigned to cover the unfolding pandemic and are scrambling to get up to speed with complex scientific terminology, methodologies, and research, and then identify, as well as vet, a roster of credible sources.

The media’s failure to correctly identify qualified and trustworthy sources of information about COVID is a case of history repeating itself. From major incidences like terrorist attacks to routine events such as interest rate hikes, the media’s modus operandi is to call upon supposed “authorities” to act as instant experts and explain what has happened and why.

But these so-called pundits are often no more than self-proclaimed gurus. Indeed, they typically know little more than the rest of us. Even so, put them in front of a camera, and these publicity seekers can’t resist asserting their opinions on subjects in which they have little or no formal training or expertise.

The Y2K computer bug is a classic example. While technology legend, Bill Gates, saw the millennium bug as a “minor inconvenience”, less qualified IT commentators promulgated doomsday scenarios and were aided in their deception by the media which spun compelling but inaccurate stories.

A naïve public bought into the outrageous predictions about planes falling from the sky and missiles self-launching. Nonetheless, the bug did not bite and the New Year passed with nothing more than the expected hangover. Those who foretold of a global computer apocalypse caused unnecessary panic but were never brought to account.

Nothing had changed by the time of the Fukushima power plant disaster in 2011. Yet again, the media wheeled out instant experts who hyperventilated over the very modest amounts of radioactive fallout. While fears about radiation contamination were clearly overblown, they made for dramatic headlines which trumpeted the dangers of nuclear energy.

A report released five years after the disaster by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found that not one person had died because of the meltdown. Referencing the UNSCEAR Report, a Forbes magazine article stated:

No one will die from Fukushima radiation, there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.

Almost three years to the day after Fukushima, the world was gripped by the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777. The aircraft vanished without a trace, bringing a gaggle of know-it-alls out of the woodwork. They went into overdrive speculating about what may have happened to the plane.

Many of their theories were not supported by a shred of solid evidence. Nonetheless, their views were given air time by media outlets. This helped networks maintain rolling coverage of the tragedy and filled the huge gap in reliable information about the plane’s fate.

Suggestions from armchair sleuths, aviation experts and conspiracy theorists were broadcast. Fringe theories flourished and ranged from the sinister (electronic warfare), to the far-fetched (remote island landing) to the insane (abducted by aliens).

Clearly, listening to near-experts is a fool’s errand which is why the media must do a better job of identifying opportunists who simply want 15 minutes of fame. Around the world, television, radio and print interviews have contributed to new-found notability for charlatans who were not properly vetted prior to being unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

The coronavirus has shown, once again, how easy it is for someone to claim to be a subject matter expert. And if the “expert” is deemed to be camera-ready, there is always the temptation by the media to forgo a credentials check. Even so, background checking should never be optional, even when working to a tight deadline.

Fact-checking the experience of an “expert” may seem like a tedious extra step to a journalist, a reporter or a broadcast producer – but it’s essential. The media is critical when politicians and CEOs – who also work to tight deadlines – get facts wrong. So, the same standards should apply equally to news outlets.

Please allow me to end with an observation. The media does a great job in holding others to account for their failings and shortcomings and is quick to throw stones. Despite that, the media reacts negatively to feedback about its own performance and is poor at self-examination and reflection.

“Journalists and media professionals automatically take up defensive positions when confronted with criticism,” notes Julie Reid, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa.

In an article published in The Conversation, A/Professor Reid acknowledges that, in many countries, political and government interference in the editorial independence of news outlets is still prevalent. This causes journalists and media professionals to feel that they are under attack. This, in turn, gives rise to a siege mentality which is reflected in the news media’s reluctance to embrace genuine critique or evidence-based scrutiny of its performance. She writes:

The rantings of a crooked politician who dismisses the news media’s reportage as fake news and calls for draconian media regulations to conceal his own corruption is one thing. The critique and criticisms of media analysts, but more especially of ordinary citizens, whose only request is that the news media works better for them, is an entirely different matter. And ought to be respected.

I’m an ordinary citizen who merely seeks better accuracy in news reporting. Like all citizens, I have the right to hold the media’s feet to the fire over its reporting of the pandemic. On all continents, mainstream media outlets have aided and abetted charlatans in spreading bogus COVID information and this has circumnavigated the planet in seconds.

Media professionals seeking advice on best practice in responsible journalism during a health crisis would benefit from reading an article by Catriona Bonfiglioli. Ms Bonfiglioli is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. In a 2020 piece she wrote for The Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia she stated that when journalists report on the coronavirus, it is important that their words:

… help people understand best prevention tips, minimise stigmatisation of people with COVID-19, reject fake health news, and resist the allure of “sexy” controversies and contrarians hitching a ride on the news wave by contradicting public health advice or calling for extreme measures.

Responsible journalism IS possible during times of crisis.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

How the quiet many are drowned out by the outspoken few

Credit: Silent majority illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Times

It’s true – I’m a member of the “Silent Majority Party”. My fellow members and I never demonstrate, wave placards, stage sit-ins or stir-up trouble. We are a quiet bunch with no media spokesperson. Although many of us are discontent with what is happening in society, we keep our opinions out of the public arena and quietly get on with our lives.

In my particular case, I express my views on contemporary issues via this blog, but that’s where I draw the line. Like my fellow Silent Majority Party brethren, I leave the shouting, heckling and disruption to the vocal minority. Their manipulative antics invariably capture the attention of the media, which provides prime-time coverage of their opinions – no matter how radical.

Non-peaceful protests, rallies and marches tend to attract more media attention than peaceful demonstrations. “A little violence goes a long way,” proclaims US political journalism company, Politico, because “the press loves the sound of breaking glass, police-car sirens and tear-gas grenades”. Such activities certainly trump inaudible forms of protest like letter writing.

Political activists take to the streets over a diverse range of issues, grievances and concerns. In addition to protest activities, organised interest groups lobby politicians, mobilise grass-roots action and orchestrate media campaigns to get their message across. Swaying public opinion and influencing policy outcomes is the name of the game.

A US study claims that small groups which reach a critical mass of 25 per cent, can overturn established norms. Decades of work in sociology, physics, and other disciplines have supported this idea. As noted in a newspaper article:

Small groups of people can indeed flip firmly established social conventions, as long as they reach a certain critical mass. When that happens, what was once acceptable can quickly become unacceptable, and vice versa. Two decades ago, most Americans opposed gay marriage, bans on public smoking and the legalization of marijuana; now, these issues all enjoy majority support.

While I’m a passionate advocate for freedom of expression and would never stop anyone from exercising their democratic right to protest, the reality is that moderate voices are stifled by the clamour of minority interest groups and individuals. As most citizens do not shout from the rooftops or force their beliefs and politics on to their fellow citizens, they are largely invisible.

According to the NSW Bar Association, freedom of speech is not an unfettered right to do and say what we want. “It is a personal right which, in any civilised society, carries with it, the corresponding duty to consider the rights of others. Freedom of speech is therefore a qualified right, not an absolute right, in accordance with international human rights law,” wrote the association.

Research shows that being confident and loud is one way to win an argument – even if you are wrong. Shout louder than anyone else and people will assume you’re right. In the world of politics, bolshie behaviour has been seen as the way to get ahead. Donald Trump shouted louder and more outrageously than any other politician and this enabled him to dominate the news.

Nigel Farage – who led the former pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP) – is also a loud, rabble-rousing politician. His bombastic style convinced many Britons that breaking away from the European Union would be a good thing. He cleverly harnessed the power of voter discontent and exploited the populaces’ deepest fears about immigration.

Farage used xenophobic language to spruik a racist message, which had his misguided followers chanting “we want our country back”. The UK is now suffering post-Brexit regret over its disastrous decision to leave the EU. In the words of former UK PM, Gordon Brown, Farage “highjacked patriotism” by manufacturing distrust and disunity.

I’ve long observed that loud and aggressive people tend to get their way – they won’t take “no” for an answer. They’re the ones who will not accept that the doctor is booked until next week, but argue their way into the surgery that same day. They’re the ones who become irked at airline cabin baggage restrictions and hog the overhead bin after airline staff relent in the interests of on-time departure.

These “entitled” individuals believe that the rules don’t apply to them and that they deserve preferential treatment. Meanwhile, the rest of us graciously accept that the doctor can’t see us today and that we need to stay within baggage allowance limits. So, should we all stomp our feet every time we are upset when things don’t go our way? I think not.

We should not go through life being hijacked by our anger. To lose your temper and yell is not a constructive way to deal with a difficult situation – it’s also damaging to relationships. Being calm and quiet, on the other hand, is not a bad thing. The world is full of quiet achievers. The best performing staff aren’t necessarily the most vocal. Nor are the most valuable customers necessarily the loudest ones.

In the same way, quieter citizens are not necessarily apathetic. Rather, they dislike the politics of confrontation and prefer to cast an informed vote at each election. Politics based on “he-who-shouts-loudest” often comes unstuck where it matters most – in the privacy of the polling booth.

Democracy gives each of us an equal say because of the principle of one-person, one-vote. Each person who casts a vote is equal to every other voter – no matter how much noise an individual may make. I care deeply about our nation and am an avid follower of the political system. This enables me to cast an informed vote for the party with the policies that I believe will serve our nation best.

In fairness, I must acknowledge that the electoral process is far from perfect. We like to believe that voters evaluate the evidence put in front of them over the course of a campaign and then make an informed decision at the ballot box. This, however, is fantasy as research shows that the average voter is surprisingly unsophisticated. Most citizens don’t make their voting decisions based on policy questions. Voters are poorly informed and make irrational decisions.

On the plus side, Australia’s compulsory system saved us from Trumpism. As pointed out in an article in the Australian edition of The Guardian, Donald Trump was elected with only a quarter of eligible voters supporting him, and just 37 per cent of eligible Britons voted to leave the European Union. In 2015, (then) US president Barack Obama praised Australia’s system, saying it would be “transformative” if everyone voted in the United States.

Notwithstanding my personal preference to voice my concerns in the privacy of a polling booth rather than publicly on the street, I accept wholeheartedly that political activism is part and parcel of a free and open society. Let those who wish to demonstrate without violence, do so.

But let’s not criticise those who choose a less vocal way of expressing their views.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Is exploring and colonising Mars worth the investment?

Photo/illustration: NASA; Business Insider

The need to explore is at the heart of human existence. People have always explored the world around them as part of a primordial journey of discovery. Great explorers – like Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and James Cook – led the spread of civilisation and helped humanity discover the unknown.

From the Stone Age to the Space Age, humans have pushed new frontiers to overcome what was once thought impossible. Human ventures have resulted in us navigating the seas, discovering new lands, conquering the skies and exploring the cosmos.

For eons, Earthlings have looked at the heavens and wondered about the celestial bodies in our solar system. Mars, the big red dot in the night sky, has long fascinated us. Indeed, no other planet has fired the human imagination as much as our neighbouring planet.

Throughout history, Mars has been embraced in myths (home of little green men), religions (named after the Roman god of war), literature (sci-fi tomes such as The War of the Worlds about extraterrestrial invaders) and cinema (Hollywood has released dozens of movies about Mars and Martians).

The lure of the Red Planet has also proved irresistible to NASA. America’s space agency wants to land a human crew on Mars in the 2030s – potentially as early as 2035. Between now and then, hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent in the countdown to put boots on the red Martian surface. But is it worth the stratospheric cost?

Astronauts are not budget travellers which is why spaceflights are so expensive. A manned mission to Mars is an extremely complex and long-timescale project which will burn through stacks of money – perhaps as much as half a trillion dollars.

No one in their right mind would consider this amount of money to be small change. Even so, it is – in the opinion of Mars exploration advocates – a sound and sensible investment. Opponents, of course, have a different view and see deep space exploration as an extravagance that we can ill afford.

The tension between those dreaming of a second home on a Red Planet and those prioritising the home we currently have on our Blue Planet is the most polarising issue in the Mars debate. The opportunity for Homo sapiens to shrug off their terrestrial bonds has divided us.

Many believe that the long-term benefits of space exploration are overshadowed by short-term earthly concerns. Those focussed on the “here and now” invoke the old catchcry that the money could be better spent elsewhere on more pressing issues such as the fight against world hunger.

Critics of interplanetary exploration also believe that the claimed scientific and social benefits of such pursuits are pie-in-the-sky. They would prefer to see their tax dollars deployed to yield immediate improvements in tangible areas such as national infrastructure and health care.

Personally, I am a strong proponent of humankind’s next giant leap to colonise another world. I accept that establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars is an eyebrow-raising idea. Yet it’s a dream that has captured the collective imagination of mankind more than any other.

Whether it’s private companies like SpaceX or government organisations such as NASA, the race to Mars is well and truly on. The shared space vision of many countries seems to be “Conquer Mars”. Only four entities – the US, Russia, India and the European Space Agency – have successfully entered the Martian orbit. However, membership of this elite club is set to expand.

Last July, America, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched unmanned spacecraft to Mars. The closeness of the three launches was no coincidence. Each was timed to take advantage of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth were in the nearest alignment on the same side of the Sun. This allowed for the shortest possible trip – a mere 55 million kilometres!

The space route to the Red Planet is becoming increasingly busy. A growing number of nations are blasting off to Mars with each looking to find their specific niche. While they have different objectives, Mars is shaping up as the next symbol of humanity’s enduring quest for exploration.

Many prominent scientists believe that establishing a colony on Mars is a worthwhile endeavour which will produce myriad long-term benefits for society. The three most often cited pay-offs are as follows.

  1. Ensure the future of humankind

Prior to his death, Professor Stephen Hawking made the bleak prediction that humanity must colonise another planet within 100 years or face possible extinction. “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious,” warned Hawking.

Like Elon Musk, Hawking believed that we have no choice as a species but to become multi-planetary – starting with the colonisation of Mars. Musk views Mars as a “backup planet” should something apocalyptic destroy the Earth. Dinosaurs roamed the Earth for 165 million years until a colossal asteroid wiped them out – and the fear is that it could happen again.

If humans ever need to beat a retreat from Earth due to some doomsday event, we will need somewhere to go. Musk thinks that we may be ready to start shuttling people between Earth and Mars in the next decade or so. If all goes well, then perhaps 40 or 100 years later, Mars could be a self-sustaining colony of a million people.

  1. Search for signs of life on Mars

Understanding whether extraterrestrial life exists and/or existed elsewhere in the universe is a fundamental question of humankind. While Mars today is dry and barren, it wasn’t always a desolate wasteland. Water, which is critical to life, was stable on the surface of Mars for about a billion years. In the same way that life evolved on Earth, it is likely to have followed a similar path on Mars.

As noted in an article authored by political scientist, Darrell West, and published by The Brookings Institution, the question of the origins of life is central to science, religion, and philosophy. Humans have long assumed that life was unique to Earth and not present elsewhere in the solar system, let alone the universe. We have constructed elaborate religious and philosophical narratives around this assumption and built our identity along the notion that life exists exclusively on Earth.

If future space missions cast doubt on that assumption or outright disprove it by finding remnants of microbial life on other planets, it will be both invigorating and illusion-shattering. We humans will be forced to confront our own myths and consider alternative narratives about the universe and the place of Earth in the overall scheme of things.

  1. Develop new technologies

Many everyday conveniences we use in our daily lives stem from innovations in space technology. For example, the memory foam you lay on for a good night’s rest was initially developed to improve the comfort of astronauts on long space flights. Also, every photo you snap on your smartphone is possible due to small imaging sensors originally developed by NASA. Further, the water purification systems developed for the International Space Station are now used to help remote communities address water shortages.

Pushing the boundaries of human exploration invariably leads to discoveries in science and technology which deliver unintended benefits to humanity. The world already benefits greatly from space technology, especially with regard to satellites and global positioning systems which have revolutionised banking, navigation, and everyday communications.

Space technology orbits our daily lives without us even noticing, and the Mars missions will undoubtedly deliver further benefits. Successfully landing on and colonising Mars will require NASA and other space agencies to pioneer further innovations and the technology developed will ultimately find its way into our lives. For example, laser-based technology being develop for Mars landings will likely be used on Earth to make self-driving cars safer.

■      ■      ■

As a young boy, I watched in awe as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and I hope that in my lifetime I will also get to see humans walk on the Red Planet. Mars is a modern-day New World, and a human colony on this planet is the next great adventure. Let the countdown begin.

Three, two, one … we have lift off!


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

“Night Before Christmas” 2020 – year in review

Credit: Fashion Junkee

‘Tis the week before Christmas in a year we’d rather forget,
A series of natural disasters caused us to fret.
From bushfires to coronavirus, we faced profound disruption,
Grappling with uncertainty and epic social eruption.

Australians were not nestled, snug in their beds,
As fear and anguish filled their heads.
Calm continuity gave way to unfolding drama,
Crisis after crisis, we lost our karma.

The year began dramatically, with a summer of climate extremes,
Devastating fires and floods, shattered our dreams.
Apocalyptic images showed homes reduced to rubble,
The blanket media coverage burst our collective bubble.

Australia’s clean-up from nature’s fury, was abruptly interrupted,
Another calamity hit our shores, and our lives it disrupted.
The entire planet was halted by a deadly invisible foe,
COVID-19 took us by surprise, and brought devastation in tow.

Touching every corner of the globe, the outbreak ravaged humanity,
Yet many ignored health warnings, such behaviour was insanity.
The soaring number of fatalities proved social distancing does matter,
But defiant anti-lockdown protesters made such a clatter.

Even greater outrage followed, with the death of George Floyd,
Anti-racism protests erupted, another life destroyed.
An outpouring of pent-up anger, in the streets it prompted rage,
The hopes of Black Lives Matter, that we can turn another page.

Racial epidemic & health pandemic, the perfect storm for civil unrest,
Public outcries against injustices, basic liberties were suppressed.
Combustible social issues saw solidarity spread,
The world is in a battle for its soul, give us our daily bread.

Now, Putin! now, Orbán! now, Bolsonaro and Trump!
Authoritarian world leaders, you gave your citizens a thump.
You politicised the pandemic and failed to flatten the infection curve,
Thousands of your people died, an outcome they didn’t deserve.

You all brazenly used the health crisis to undermine democracy,
And failed a critical leadership test, exposing your mediocrity.
True leaders inspire and motivate, they are transparent and authentic,
But you all failed to deliver, your efforts were pathetic.

During a time of mass contagion, political strongmen were inhuman,
Yet effective leadership abounded, in countries headed by a woman.
From Angela Merkel to Jacinda Ardern, women led from the front,
Acting boldly and swiftly, the pandemic they did confront.

Citizens too were tested, with behaviour both naughty and nice,
When Santa asks how we acted, some will have to think twice.
Those who hoarded toilet paper should question their selfish ways,
While essential workers deserve our praise, they gave us better days.

Brighter times are also coming following the ousting of Donald Trump,
Four years of chaotic leadership, resulted in an electoral dump.
The president’s dark legacy, divisive and erratic behaviour,
Makes President-elect Biden, America’s political saviour.

But 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 that 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 2020. I’m taking a short break from my blogging duties and will be back on-line on Sunday, 31 January 2021. Have a great New Year.

One last thing …
Please CLICK HERE to see how the award-winning photographers from Getty Images captured major world events in 2020.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why we need a new approach to mental health care

Credit: World Federation for Mental Health

In 1973, Stanford University professor and psychiatrist, David Rosenhan, arranged for eight mentally healthy people (three women and five men, including himself) to present themselves at mental institutions and declare that they were hearing strange voices. All were certified mad even though their auditory hallucinations were feigned. The eight fake patients were checked in to different psychiatric hospitals and seven were diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics.

Rosenhan’s subsequent landmark paper, On Being Sane in Insane Places, created a media sensation and a crisis in psychiatry. There was astonishment at the ease with which mental health practitioners had been duped by a made-up symptom. Psychiatrists, it seemed, unlike suspicious fellow patients, could not tell a phoney from a lunatic. Not one of Rosenhan’s “pseudopatients” was unmasked by hospital staff.

The Rosenhan experiment is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatry. That eight perfectly sane subjects could fool doctors into believing that they were insane called into question the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. There was a “uniform failure to recognize sanity” in any of the pseudopatients, Rosenhan concluded, and not one of them was ever found out by the medical staff despite behaving normally while in hospital.

“It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals,” Rosenhan famously wrote at the outset of his report’s conclusion. He went on to say that the diagnosis of mental health patients was flawed because the classification system used at that time was not valid.

A disturbing aspect of the experiment was the claim by pseudopatients, as reported by one writer, that the staff was dehumanising and often brutal.

Conversations with staff were limited by their frequent absence. When the staff did have time to talk, they were often curt and dismissive. Orderlies would often be both physically and verbally abusive when other workers were absent. The pseudopatients reported they often felt invisible, as the staff would act like they weren’t even there.

There was a second part of Rosenhan’s study which also delivered a minor bombshell. A hospital – which had heard about Rosenhan’s initial test and claimed that similar errors would not occur there – was falsely informed that one or more imposters would attempt to be admitted as psychiatric patients. Staff at the hospital subsequently determined that 41 out of 193 patients were not genuine patients. In reality, Rosenhan had not sent a single imposter to the hospital.

While Rosenhan’s main experiment illustrated a failure to detect sanity, the secondary study demonstrated a failure to detect insanity. He starkly concluded that “one thing is certain: any diagnostic process that lends itself too readily to massive errors of this sort cannot be a very reliable one”.

One of Rosenhan’s key findings was that psychiatric labels tend to stick. Consequently, everything a patient does is interpreted in accordance with the diagnostic label applied. This is why the original diagnosis of schizophrenia biased the staff’s interpretation of patient behaviours. For example, pacing a corridor out of boredom was interpreted as “anxiety” by hospital staff.

Not surprisingly, Rosenhan’s unsettling findings were disputed by other psychiatrists who claimed that his study was flawed. However, the main message he sought to convey was the relative ease with which a person can be misdiagnosed as mentally ill and the significant difficulty in erasing that diagnosis. He argued that psychiatric labels tend to have a longevity that physical medical labels do not.

We have all experienced the extraordinary power of language to motivate and inspire. But words can also stigmatise and – at its core – Rosenhan’s study was about demonstrating the biasing power of psychiatric labels. I have seen this destructive power first-hand.

A member of my broader family suffers from poor mental health and her condition has been assigned numerous diagnostic labels throughout her life. Each of her labels has served as a cue that activates stigma and stereotypes and sometimes results in her being kept at arm’s length. Just as no one diagnosed with dementia wears it as a badge of honour, those diagnosed with a mental disorder equally know that they will likely suffer negative evaluations by others – a case of judging a book by its cover.

Moreover, a psychiatric label can become a self-fulling prophesy as patients act out the label. I have seen this first-hand with my above-mentioned family member who blames her “depression”, “bi-polar”, “melancholy”, or whatever other label is current at the time, for her actions during a depressive episode. “I can’t help my behaviour!” she will exclaim, “as people with my condition do these things”.

A final thing that I have witnessed with mental health patients is the apparent compulsory need for medications to be prescribed by the treating physician. In the Rosenhan experiment, the pseudopatients were administered more than 2,000 pills, including antipsychotics and antidepressants – which they largely discarded. Yet again, I have direct experience of the negative impact of pills on patients. Mental health drugs are powerful and often have side effects.

Many years ago, I provided a listening ear to a friend who was feeling down. During our chat, he revealed that he had been to see a psychiatrist for a heart-to-heart but that the doctor was more interested in pumping him with pills. As my friend rejected the prescribed medicine, the specialist said he could not see him again.

At end of the day, all my friend wanted and needed was a supportive shoulder to cry on and some genuine kindness. As portrayed by Robyn Williams in the movie, Patch Adams, a little kindness goes a long way when someone is under the weather. Following a traditional medical school education, Hunter “Patch” Adams rebelled against the pill-pushing model of medicine and pioneered a more humane approach based on laughter, love and caring as primary forms of medical treatment.

His style of care and disdain for the prevailing methods put him at odds with the norms of the established medical profession. Yet, his approach has merit. I think that every mental health specialist should watch the movie, Patch Adams, which provides a life lesson for psychiatrists. The movie’s underlying message may be a bitter pill for some doctors to swallow. However, when it comes to mental health, life should imitate art, particularly as the mental health effects of the coronavirus crisis have driven a marked rise in anxiety and depression in Australians.

Never again should pseudopatients be allowed to fly over the cuckoo’s nest!


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

How COVID-19 exposed inequality among workers

Source: Twitter: NBC 5 Chicago

While nations were under lockdown during the depth of the pandemic, millions of people around the world worked remotely from home. At the same time, there was an even bigger cohort of essential workers for whom it was business-as-usual as the coronavirus swept the land.

These unlikely heroes drove the trucks which delivered our goods, stocked the supermarket shelves which provided our groceries and prepared the takeaway meals which kept us fed. Other essential workers – like farmhands, meatpackers, store cashiers and warehouse clerks – also helped keep the economy’s lights on.

When the pandemic hit, jobs previously labelled “low skill” were reclassified as “essential”. As cities enforced quarantines and shoppers squabbled over the last roll of toilet paper on the supermarket shelf, “essential” employees were out and about keeping societies functioning. Their efforts largely went unnoticed even though they were everywhere.

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals bore the brunt of the outbreak and were the most at-risk population. They received an outpouring of gratitude from citizens and governments for their tireless patient care. Non-medical frontline workers, however, were less recognised. Nonetheless, this other layer of critical workers continued to show up on-the-job to help maintain a semblance of normality for others.

The pandemic has shone a light on the stark workplace divide between people who can work from home and those who can’t. Lower paid workers – like factory employees, security guards and supermarket staff – don’t have the option of working remotely. In contrast, highly compensated workers – like managers and other professionals – are able to shelter at home.

Alison Pennington, a senior economist at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, told ABC News that it was easy to see how the pandemic work regime could compound inequality in Australia.

We estimate people who can work from home are earning around 24 per cent more than those who can’t. They’re also more likely to have paid sick leave benefits — while essential workers who are turning out every day, are more likely to work for lower pay, but also less likely to have sick leave.

Pennington said those differences were creating greater inequality, not only in incomes, but also health outcomes as essential workers faced the higher risk of infection without the income safety net of sick leave. She stated:

… coming through this regime, what we’re going to find is that the pandemic is going to require a universal entitlement to sick leave if we’re going to be able to work through the virus and keep everyone safe.

The Centre for Future Work estimates that only around 15 per cent of Australian workers currently have the option of working remotely full-time. That figure is expected to double as companies quickly adapt to allow more of their employees to stay away from the office. By way of comparison, about a quarter of US workers can easily do their jobs from home.

COVID-19 has revealed how deeply our fates are tied together. It’s not a case of us and them – all workers are in this together. Amid stay-at-home orders, office workers ditched their daily commute while essential workers continued to drive our buses, clean our workplaces, collect our rubbish, cook our food and staff our nursing homes.

Essential workers are just that – essential. They keep communities running, so staying home isn’t an option for them. Risking their wellbeing for the greater good, their sacrifice is a moral calling for all of us. The pandemic added another layer of burden and responsibility to their jobs as they braved the frontlines against an invisible enemy. We owe them our heartfelt thanks.

Thank you to supermarket employees. Often working at minimum wages, they had to deal with epidemic levels of abuse from irate customers. Retail workers are our neighbours and fellow citizens and maybe even the children of your friends. They put themselves in harm’s way to ensure we had access to essential goods – they deserve our highest praise.

Thank you to delivery drivers. While many of us were safely hunkered down at home in isolation, we asked others to drop parcels to our front door. Fulfilling our online orders required the coordinated efforts of workers in warehouses, sorting hubs and courier companies. They provided an indispensable lifeline to the outside world. We are in their debt and salute their wonderful service.

Thank you to transit workers. Buses and trains underpin urban life and during the pandemic they performed the critical task of shuttling workers to and from their jobs. This put transit workers in daily physical contact with members of the public in the confines of a bus or train making social distancing difficult. Three cheers to these quiet achievers for keeping our cities running.

In the war against the novel coronavirus, these and myriad other essential workers were the life support for communities. Yet their work is chronically underpaid and undervalued by society. The explanation for this can be found in economics – or more precisely, the law of supply and demand.

The harsh reality is that lower paid “essential” jobs require few educational credentials. Moreover, the skills necessary to be, say, a cleaner, are easy to pick up as they are non-technical. This means that the pool of eligible workers is large, making it easy for employers to hire and fire.

Around the world, many essential workers just get by, living from pay-to-pay. Yet, during the pandemic, these “low wage workers,” according to Health Policy Watch, continued “to risk exposure to the deadly virus while celebrities and CEOs retreat(ed) to private mansions and islands for self-isolation”. This brought the gap between “have” and have nots” into stark relief.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times on 24 April 2020, Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama asked: “Will our overdue recognition of the contributions of so many workers lead to only temporary applause and pats on the back, or will it move us toward a true social compact ensuring economic dignity for all?”

Drawing inspiration from legendary human rights activist, Dr Martin Luther King, Mr Sperling wrote:

Fifty-two years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted the dignity of all work, he seemed to foresee this moment when it would become so clear that the labor of everyone – farmworkers, grocers, delivery drivers, caregivers, nursing assistants – was essential to all of our health and well-being.

“One day,” Dr. King told sanitation workers on strike in Memphis in 1968, “our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant”.

In the words of Dr King: “All labor has dignity”.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting