Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Asking the right questions about God and Science

I think it would help cut through the dust and noise if we asked the correct question about "God".

Let me respectfully offer a candidate question that seems to me better than the questions and frameworks typically used.

As science evolves, the legacy "billiard ball" models of "life" are yielding to more nuanced models of something that is hierarchical, multi-level,  with both near-term and long-term feedback loops, and somewhat more diffuse than would be simple.

Our own bodies turn out to be massive structures of mostly independent entities,  "cells", some of which like white blood cells are not even "attached" but wander around on their own.

This is profoundly important.   The mulltilevel cooperating swarm model has also proven to be extremely successful in design of computer networks and "supercomputers".   But in particular,  computer architectures consciously utilize "layers" of "systems" which hide significant details on purpose between layers.

Thus,  the application software which "writes to disk" no longer needs to know the details of which sector of which cylinder of which disk it is writing to, or if it is even a real disk or a virtual disk, located here or in Singapore.   Those details are delegated to lower-level processes to manage, with blessed relief.

And multi-level evolution of "the fittest" embraces simple single-level models, but also embraces all levels of altruism as successively higher levels of organization co-evolve,  which, net, improves the survival of their lower-level agents.

So, entirely without needing to get into spirituality or extrapolation 200 orders of magnitude or more to "God",  there is a very real question that Science is mostly ignoring of whether, in fact, such levels of life extend above humans as well as below them,  even by just one or two.

Now, a key principle of Cosmology is that "we are not special".   We, Earth, Mankind, is not "in the center of the universe", or at the very edge, or the highest form of anything, etc.  This should be taken as the base case, and anyone wishing to deviate from it bears the burden of proof, not the other way around.

Given that, and the model of life that we clearly both exemplify and copy into silicon,  we have to ASSUME that there are, in fact, at least a FEW levels of hierarchical life "above us",  where "above" means in this very specific framework.

So,  we must ASSUME until proven otherwise that we humans are, akin to white blood cells, going about our lives happily and mostly unaware that we are, in fact, part and parcel of a much larger "body" and "being" that is also, simultaneously going about its own business, probably on a much larger time-scale than our own.

I have not touched the nature of God here, or any "religion" -- I have entirely based this reasoning on solid science and cosmology and debunking legacy models and frameworks that make mankind more "special" than proven, or that make "life" more atomic, binary, and magical than proven.

There is more evidence every day that human "beings" are, in fact, caught up in a web of distal causality where the experiences, lives, actions, decision, and happiness of "other people" nearby has a surprisingly strong "impact" on our own psychology and physiology.  It is AS IF the boundaries of "our bodies" is not, in fact, our skin, mathematically.   It behaves as if we are actually PART, biologically, of larger entities with their own somewhat insulated levels of life.

Perhaps "religions" and "cultures" and "nations" and "peoples" are, in a very real mathematical sense, alive.  Perhaps earth ("Gaia") is itself alive with an independent consciousness.  Perhaps the entire galaxy is alive. 

The point is, until proven otherwise, the cosmological principle asserts, with the power of Occam's Razor,   that we SHOULD ASSUME that the upper extremum of "life" stops at US, and that WE are the "highest creation of God."

Seeking an infinite level beyond us is a tad ambitious, I would suggest, and not really necessary and in fact does not help the research.

We should seek more diligently to find redefinitions of "life" which include this hierarchical, mutli-level type model used by software engineers (because it WORKS), and then seek to find out not WHETHER, but WHICH higher level large movements, structures, behaviors, around us that we have been perceiving as something else are, in fact, mathematically,  independently alive entities that we are "part of " in the sense our white blood cells are "part of " ourselves.

INDEPENDENT of those arguments, I would then suggest that the various "religions" of mankind could be viewed as clumsy attempts by uneducated laymen to attempt to put into some kind of words the socially observed reality that "SOMETHING LARGER IS GOING ON HERE".

Religion asserts that as a fact,  though embellished with a variety of details that vary by location and time.

Science seems to be busy with its eyes down the microscope tube, looking for ever smaller "God particles".  

I suggest we should combine forces of Science and Religion and look "above" instead, and try to make sense of what we see going on in the newspapers in a framework of "metalife", of things that "Might as well be alive" because they behave like they are. (Eg, "corporations").

I seem to perceive that this exploration of the regions "above" is avoided by scientists on the sometimes explicit grounds that it would give aid and comfort to religious idiots.  Such childish emotions have no place setting national research policy on the single most important SCIENTIFIC question that could organize the data in a totally new way and reveal causal relationships we always noticed but never fully understood.


One of the immediate applications of this framework would be to consider a core message of Christianity, say,  paraphrasing only slightly " For Christ's sake,  act like you're parts of the same body!"

Specifically,   if we ARE in fact parts of the same meta-body,  then what we see around us in the daily headlines is essentially an autoimmune disorder,  with parts of the body, in good faith, not recognizing other parts of the body as being legitimate, and consequently attacking them as being "not us".      

Our human eyes are seeing the differences, but not the same-metabody signature being broadcast on our own internal IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) system.

Perhaps, viewing this as an autoimmune disorder, and many events as, essentially, anaphylactic shock,   would let us have the insights required to actually CURE the disorder.

To quote the title of a Baha'i book:   Peace: More than an End to War.

It is important to grasp that I am NOT saying that the situation is "like unto" members of one body, or similar to, or analogous to that.   I am making a MUCH stronger statement.    I am asserting that we ARE, in a true mathematical and physiological and biological sense,  all members of one (or more?) meta-bodies, despite,  like white blood cells, not being fixed in geographic location or attached at the hip to each other.

In that case, if that is true, then things that happen to even "the least of these" happen to __me__, although the time-scale for the impact to percolate through the metabody to me may be longer than I usually wait around to examine.

Also,  but now working from possible scale-invariant design architecture,  ( stronger than analogy), we notice that human cells are extremely difficult to grow in the lab because a human cell, if removed from its metabody (our body),   goes into flat decline and shortly commits apoptosis, ie, pushes the do-not-push big red button and commits suicide and dies.

Humans, disconnected from each other, in say solitary confinement or worse, in public aloneness, similarly go into flat decline and often commit suicide.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is being an academic a disabilty (part 2)

The fancy term for knowing your own limits is "meta-cognition" -- that is, what you know ABOUT what you know.

According to Dror:

When it comes to experts, the following errors are common:

  • over self-confidence
  • do not listen
  • discourage, frown, and 'punish' disagreement
  • take undue risk
  • Escalate commitment when challenged
  • Wishful thinking
  • Confirmation bias  (search for and see supporting facts but not conflicting facts.)

Again,  these are all errors that all humans tend to make, but non-experts may be much more aware of their own tendency to make such errors,  and recover from them gracefully the next day.

Experts, on the other hand, have a much higher level of investment in their reputation,  and there is no natural internal limit to the justified self-confidence they have in one area that lets them know they have crossed outside the boundaries of what they know and what they only think they know.

Among nurses,  there are often comments about specific doctors who consider themselves only a short step below God,  whose egos are so large that "they come into the room before the person."

But that's anecdotal and just jealousy right?  Wrong. Let's find some objective data. I'm a private pilot and follow this sort of thing.

Example:    Doctors have the highest rate of small aircraft accidents after any other group or profession, except teenagers.

Crash Risk in General Aviation,   by Guohua Li, MD, Dr.PH and Susan Parker, MPH,
JAMA. Apn1 11,2007-Vol297, No. 14 p 5196-1598.  ( )
which also cites
Booze CF Jr. Epidemiologic investigation of occupation, age, and exposure in
aviation accidents. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1977;48:1081-1091.

I can't right off find the statistics for teenagers, but I do recall noting it as I read it a while ago.

Note -- I can't find such data adjusted for the fraction of flight-hours which are by doctors, to get the accident rate per hour flown by occupation.     It's possible that doctors, being wealthier than average, tend to own their own planes and fly more than the general public, which would bias those rates upwards.  On the other hand, it's doubtful that teenagers own their own planes at all, or that they fly very much,   and MD's are not known for having a great deal of free time for leisure activities.   So it's also possible that MD's actually both own their own planes but fly only infrequently, so the accident rate per hour flown is even higher for MD's than the statistics would imply.

A more likely explanation, in my mind,  is that MD's are significantly more unaware of the limits of their own expertise,  and therefore take more risks than other general aviation pilots.

While others may find the behavior described by "ego" or "arrogance", the point is that the doctors are, in fact,   somewhat crippled by the unintended and invisible-to-them side-effects of their own expertise.

We can talk more later about the behaviors which result from an effort to maintain their own self-image in the face of conflicting data.   What is expected, given narcissism in general, is that all errors and unexpected outcomes are automatically blamed on others, or events outside control,  anything except blaming them on oneself.    The emotions related to questioning ones own identity become so high that fits of rage are reported by surgeons, say, when anything goes wrong, including hurling instruments across the room and screaming at others present, etc.

This, in turn has two social side effects.

  • It reduces the probability that the MD will learn anything from the mistake.
  • It reduces the probability that anyone who associates with the MD will point out their mistakes in the future.
Thus begins a feed-back process which increasingly isolates the expert from realistic negative lessons from outside.

The result, getting back to the start of this post,  is that an expert with a huge investment in reputation, face, and accuracy becomes increasingly isolated from social interaction and particularly isolated from ability to allow personal errors and shortcomings to be visible in public.

It's certainly well known in the hospital I.T. department, for example, that it is extremely hard to get many doctors to learn new software if it requires that they have to go through the required awkward and fumbling state in public,  let alone in the presence of their peers.

In other words, my original comparison group, the "giggling gaggle of girls", has much more freedom to explore, make mistakes, ask questions of each other,  and figure out collectively and even enjoyable how new things works, and can acquire new skills together in a totally non-competitive way, helping each other learn.

Experts, on the other hand,  may suffer severe disabilities in their social ability to operate in such a learning group.   They have, effectively, a trained incapacity in this regard.

And, because they lack awareness of the limits of their knowledge, this incapacity extends far beyond the areas they would be expected to be experts within,  to all other kinds of interactions in life.

To some extent, all people and most higher animals are quite aware of "face" and try to no do things that would embarrass them in front of their peers.   I've certainly observed that among bird flocks, cats, and dogs, as well as humans.

Also, to a very large extent, what people are inwardly terrified of is being thrown out of "the flock",  of becoming unwanted, undesired, an "outsider", or one of the "them" category that disparaging describes those outside the in-crowd.

The result is that the LAST thing in the world people want is some sort of effort to surface, reveal, tell-all, and show errors and flaws.      This, of course, makes something like the Toyota "lean" process, or Six-Sigma,   which is precisely designed to surface such problems,   astoundingly difficult, if not impossible to implement for corporate change agents interested in rooting out and fixing these deeper, hidden problems.

So, again,  those experts who have fallen into this trap, perhaps through no fault of their own, get a triple dose of the deeper anxiety everyone feels about being "found out" to be "a fraud" or "less than one has pretending to be."

The result is to build higher and higher protective walls and shells around oneself, and to avoid, at all costs, situations in which one might accidentally slip and reveal some internal flaw.

These days, in the corporate world and in politics,  often it only takes a single mistake, a single comment uttered in an unguarded moment,  caught by an open microphone,  to end an entire career and flag someone as expelled from the "in group."

The result has to be an intense loneliness and constant state of both rage at the stupidity and errors of those around one, and fear that one's own flaws will become visible.

Again, it is not surprising that the drug-abuse and suicide rate among MD's is quite high.  They have become emotionally and socially crippled by external forces and training, and are in every sense of the word disabled, unable to participate in the normal social activities of daily living that many people take for granted.

It is not surprising in this context that the development of Hospital internal Electronic Medical Record systems is running a few decades behind other industries.    The talk is concern about patient privacy, but the actual far deeper concern is that, by capturing everything electronically, it will become far easier for mere mortals,  even administrators,  to mine the data and detect and reveal weaknesses and flaws.

Moreover, in the corporate world these days,   administrators and managers are often those who have mastered the art of taking credit for anything good that happens, and deflecting blame for anything bad that happens, while keeping the spotlight focused anywhere but on their own performance.  (I'm speaking as an MBA who taught MBA's here,  and has been "in the kitchen.")

So,  the largest threat to such administrators is the brightest MD's, who can see through puffery and see what is actually going on.   Given the politics then, it is precisely such MD's who present the greatest threat to the continued position of the administrators, and it precisely such MD's that said administrators constantly seek any bullets, or flaws, or errors to use to "take them down."

So MD's have the curse of training that emphasizes inhuman perfection,   the dangers of expertise in general,  attorneys ready to pounce on anything that even looks like a bad outcome regardless how correctly it was managed,  and a sociopolitical environment that is constantly threatening to expose and demolish their careers and lives.

One last curse of MD's, CEO's of large companies, and military officers is that they have to make rapid decisions based on insufficient information, with huge or fatal consequences if they guess wrong.    On the other hand, they have to make a STREAM of such decisions, one after the other, in an environment where "paralysis of analysis" is also a sin of omission that may have worse consequences than a "bad decision" that at least can be detected and reversed shortly.

Humans have finite capacity to worry about things, so these experts must take situations that are full of conflict and doubt and FORCE them into a state marked "decided, do not reopen or worry about this any more,  or you'll ruin all subsequent decisions."

They are forced to master the art of putting uncertain decisions out of sight, out of mind, and not constantly worrying about them and revisiting them, or they'll simply be overwhelmed and quite literally go crazy.

But this also means they have yet another source of blindness and resistance to the arrival of new, contradictory data, which calls their prior decision into question.

Enough on MD's for the moment.

In my next post I'll look at the problems of expertise in the Executive wing, among managers and CEOs.   Again,  we'll see that those people who the outside world thinks have the most power and privileges in the world are among the most limited and the most crippled in their capacity to function as a healthy human being and member of society.

(more in part 3)

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Is being an academic a disability? (part 1)

I began to wonder about the total impact of higher education when I had trouble setting up a video conference with some senior faculty in a prestigious university,  and discovered they didn't actually know how to do that.

I believe it is true, based on my observations, that a "gaggle of giggling girls",  pre-teens,  has a greater ability to master the intricacies of technical equipment, in particular a "cell phone",  than does the average senior faculty member at a university.     If you don't like the "cell phone" example,  use the mastery of completely free Voice-over-IP services such as Skype for long-distance calls, or calls around the planet for under 5 cents a minute.

I pick on females not because I am trying to be stereotypical, but because I am directly challenging several stereotypes at once, regarding females,  faculty,  and technical mastery skills.

I am not addressing activities that are of no interest to senior faculty members,  such as sharing their day to day lives on Facebook.   I am talking about simple communication, a basis for collaboration, as well as ability to master new technology given several years to find time to do so.

I believe this is a profound data point.   It calls into question many of our core assumptions, including the focus and evaluation of how we educate or youth.

In particular,  this instance highlights part of what appears on investigation to be a much larger problem -- the downside of academic education, and the downside of expertise.

In any rational measure of mastery of a cell phone as an "Activity of Daily Life" in today's society,  it appears that senior academics have to rate in the "disabled" category.

If it were only academics,  this would be important but, well,  "academic".   Sadly, the downside of expertise appears to apply as well, perhaps even more so,  to two very important groups -- business management,    and medical doctors.

And, of course, then if you are considering automating the electronic health record at a large academic medical institution,  you have all three to deal with, perhaps in the same group of people.

While it can be somewhat fun to disparage experts,  managers, and academics,  let's try to stick to known facts here, and see where our mental models need updating, and then look at what the policy implications are of all this.

First,  there are well-documented problems with experts and expertise.   A great deal of research has been done by the military,  and lately by those following financial disasters,  on how it is that some truly smart people can behave so stupidly, or  how a fully-trained, highly-motivated observer can miss exactly what it was that was right in front of them.

One well-respected researcher in this field is Dr. Itiel Dror, at University College London. Here's the abstract of a paper he published last year:

Dror, I (2011) The Paradox of Human Expertise: Why Experts Can Get It Wrong. In: Kapur, N and Pascual-Leone, A and Ramachandran, VS, (eds.) The Paradoxical Brain. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. (In press).

Expertise is correctly, but one-sidedly, associated with special abilities and enhanced performance. The other side of expertise, however, is surreptitiously hidden. Along with expertise, performance may also be degraded, culminating in a lack of flexibility and error. Expertise is demystified by explaining the brain functions and cognitive architecture involved in being an expert. These information processing mechanisms, the very making of expertise, entail computational trade-offs that sometimes result in paradoxical functional degradation. For example, being an expert entails using schemas, selective attention, chunking information, automaticity, and more reliance on top-down information, all of which allow experts to perform quickly and efficiently; however, these very mechanisms restrict flexibility and control, may cause the experts to miss and ignore important information, introduce tunnel vision and bias, and can cause other effects that degrade performance. Such phenomena are apparent in a wide range of expert domains, from medical professionals and forensic examiners, to military fighter pilots and financial traders.

How can this be?

To illustrate, Dr. Dror suggests that you attempt the following task.
There is no rush and no time limit.   Don't proceed until you have
completed this task and feel confident you have not made a mistake.

Count how many 'F's are in the following text:


=========== stop here until you are done =======






V  ... take your time






V  ... double check your work


















======== ANSWER BELOW.

The correct answer is six.  There are six F's in the text.  


Don't feel bad if you got it wrong.   I counted three.

 This is an example of a kind of problem that expert readers have that beginning readers, such as your young children, probably do not have.

Most people have learned to read for "content" and they have learned, implicitly, that the word "of" does not have much content, so their mind basically uses "white-out" on the words "of" and they disappear from our view.

The problem is that EXACTLY the same type of inability to see what is, in retrospect, in plain sight, happens to all kinds of experts -- including doctors,  CEO's,   and academics.

In fact, the more they have trained their senses to notice certain things, the LESS likely they are to notice other things that they have, at the same time,  learned to ignore.

So, can you see what's in front of you?

Identify the person in the image,  then turn around, back up 3 or 4 paces, turn around and see what you see.   From normal viewing distance, this is clearly Albert Einstein.  From across the room, this is "clearly" Marilyn Monroe.

There is a larger version at MIT where this "hybrid image" originated.

My point here is not just for fun --- people who are "close to" this data see one things, and people who are not "close to" this data see something else entirely.

We are surrounded by issues that are invisible in plain sight,  and sources of disagreement that are due to our perspective that we don't expect to be there.  Being an "expert" doesn't free a person of having the same types of problems, but it does decrease, substantially, their willingness to consider that an interpretation different from their own, especially by a non-expert, might have any value at all.

Back to the core point of this post -- Almost everyone has problems with their eyeballs, which are recognized and dealt with by "glasses" or "contact lenses" and not really considered disabilities. Some people don't like to admit they have a problem, and prefer to wear contacts, or avoid wearing glasses whenever possible.

However many people, and in particular experts, have a different type of problem with seeing that is an unavoidable side-effect of their expertise.   This is more subtle, and potentially much more dangerous, but also flies in the face of their own self-image of "expert" and therefore is not admitted, adjusted or compensated for.

The first step in dealing with a disability is recognizing that one has it, and also realizing that the world has not ended just because of an issue with one small sub-system of what it means to be human.

(end of part 1)

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Monday, December 12, 2011

What's that called again?

What do you call it?  That thing where people get together,  compare notes, and leave with everyone knowing more than when they arrived?

There are many low-odds high-damage risks, way too many to deal with them all individually.

There is at least one certain high-damage risk, that corruption will infect high-places and passivity infect low-places, and stupidity and paranoia will infect us all; that we will turn into squabbling children instead of mature adults, and resort to screaming instead of reasoning and learning from each other.

There is a big difference among risks, though: if we could solve the "reasoning together" problem, it would give us the necessary tools to prioritize and solve the other problems we face. Productive civil discourse and learning from dissenting voices can open our eyes.

We don't have that many more trillion dollars to spend defending ourselves from risks. We should select the few we plan to address wisely, not impulsively. I suggest that protecting civilized discourse and learning from each other should be in the short list.

Yet for all the emphasis on fundamentals,  over time variously learning Latin and Greek, or music or Math and Science,  we remain far from the ability to learn a thing or two from every person we disagree with.

We seem to not teach that it is easy, as a human, to be sure of things that turn out to be false, and to approach our certainty with a grain of salt, and at least civility towards those who come out on a different side of issues.

It should never be about "which side is right", but about what "we" can learn from "them", despite the "obvious fact" that "they" are "wrong" about so much.   It's not a question of tolerating "them", it's a question of honestly accepting,  despite all evidence, that maybe "they" might have some fact, some data point, some wisdom that we are totally blind to, and tolerating our differences while we work at while investigating what that actual news might be.   And expecting the same from them.

"Put your heads together and come up with your best answer" should not be about one "side" dominating and trampling down the other until it "wins."

Learn how to learn at least one thing from each other!   Not "I'm smart and you're either obviously evil or obviously stupid!"

"There is nothing I can learn from you" is not a statement about them-- it's a statement about a gap in your ability to "eat the meat and spit out the bones."

We don't seem to teach that in school.  It doesn't seem to just flow from learning math and science or logic.  It doesn't seem to have a recognized name we all agree on to refer to it.   It's some kind of core value of civilization,   a necessary factor in the totality of us having more wisdom than the brightest individual one of us.

But,  we're missing it and we need it.  Now more than ever.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

The promise of World Peace (1985)

Long before "Occupy Wall Street" some saw events unfolding and started building a response to them that will "survive spring break."

Excerpts from "The Promise of World Peace",  
a statement by the Baha'i Universal House of Justice, 
October 1985

Peace .. is now at long last within the reach of the nations.  For the first time in history it is possible for everyone to view the entire planet, with all its myriad diversified peoples, in one perspective.  World peace is not only possible but inevitable. It is the next stage in the evolution of mankind -- in the worlds of one great thinker, "the planetization of mankind."

Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth....

Among the favorable signs are ...the spread of women's and youth movements calling for the end to war; and the spontaneous spawning of widening networks of ordinary people seeking understanding through personal communication.

Baha'u'llah wrote ... The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective....

Flaws in the prevailing order are conspicuous in .. the threatened collapse of the international economic order, the spread of anarchy and terrorism, the intense suffering which these and other afflictions are causing to increasing millions.  Indeed so much have aggression and conflict come to characterize our social, economic,and religious systems that many have succumbed to the view that such behavior is intrinsic to human nature and therefore ineradicable.

With the entrenchment of this view, a paralyzing contradiction has developed in human affairs.  One the one hand, people of all nations proclaim not only their readiness but their longing for peace and harmony... On the other, uncritical assent is given to the proposition that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and thus incapable of erecting a social system at once progressive and peaceful... based on cooperation and reciprocity.

... Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which , because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and cooperation instead of war and conflict.

To choose such a course is not to deny humanity's past, but to understand it.  The Baha'i Faith regards the current world confusion and calamitous condition in human affairs as a natural phase in an organic process leading ultimately and irresistible to the unification of the human race in a single social order whose boundaries are those of the planet.  The human race as a distinct organic unit, has passed through the evolutionary stages analogous to the states of infancy and childhood in the lives of its individual members and is now in the culminating period of its turbulent adolescence approaching the long-awaited coming of age.

...That the human race is today experiencing the unavoidable tumult which marks its collective coming of age is not a reason for despair but a prerequisite to undertaking the stupendous enterprise of building a peaceful world.

That such an enterprise is possible, that the necessary constructive forces do exist, that unifying social structures can be erected, is the theme we urge you to examine.

The resurgence of fanatical religious fervor occurring in many lands ... testifies to the spiritual bankruptcy it represents.

All too many of these ideologies, alas, instead of embracing the concept of the oneness of mankind and promoting the increase of concord among different peoples have tended to deify the state, to subordinate the rest of mankind to one nation, race, or class, to attempt to suppress all discussion and interchange of ideas, or to callously abandon starving millions to the operations of a market system all all to clearly is aggravating the plight of the majority of mankind, while enabling small sections to live in a condition of affluence scarcely dreamed by our forbears.

Those who care for the future of the human race may well ponder this advice. "If long-cherished ideals and time honored institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines."

The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war.

Unbridled nationalism, as distinguished from a sane and legitimate patriotism, must give way to a wider loyalty, to the love of humanity as a whole.    Baha'u'llah's statement is "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens."

The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is one of the most important, though less acknowledged prerequisites of peace.

Entire Document
The Promise of World Peace

More on the Baha'i Faith

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

On restructuring government and power on earth

I think you (Yangbo) touched a key issue, and a systems thinking one, in the comment that "Of course, no system of governance can be perfect but can nonetheless be amended through continuous improvement. "

The twin questions of what a "more perfect" (!) system of governance would look like, at all, let alone how to get from here to there, are central. In general I'm biased towards trajectories that involve evolution, not revolution, given the long and inglorious track-record of revolutions being extremely expensive in lives and wealth, becoming co-opted, going bad, and ending up being as bad or worse than what they replaced.

More precisely, ARE there systems of governance which can, in fact, be amended through continuous improvement, and which do not, ultimately become corrupted, self-serving, and viewing efforts at improvement as some type of "enemy action"?

If we don't understand the mechanisms by which systems "go bad", it's hard to imagine we can make one that won't. This is indeed a systems thinking and modeling question, I think, and this group is a great one to reflect on that.

Much more specifically, all personalities, morality, and hidden motives and agendas of individuals aside, what are the STRUCTURAL feedback loops which comprise "governance"? Which structural loops are crucial to an on-going process of incremental improvement? And in what way have these loops failed to be load-bearing when ramping up in scale?

I'll assert without proof that all large organizations face this same question.

I think a wonderfully profound and delightful place to start that discussion is with John Gall's book "Systemantic... How Sysems Really Work and How They Fail", with a summary here:

A quote from the introduction of that book captures the thought: "Reformers blame everything on 'the system' and propose new systems that would - they assert - guaranteed a brave new world of justice, peace, and abundance. Everyone, it seems has his own idea of what the problem is and how it can be corrected. But all agree on one point - that their own System would work very well if only it were universally adopted. The point of view espoused in this essay is more radical and at the same time more pessimistic. Stated as succinctly as possible: the fundamental problem does not lie in any particular System, but rather in Systems As Such."

Of course, Gall goes on to point out that we are surrounded with previous efforts to build what TS Eliot would call "systems so perfect that no one will need to be good", and that our landscape is now dominated with the still-living artifacts of those "solutions" which have now, in fact, become "the problem". Rather than repeating that mistake yet one more time, hoping for different results, Gall suggests maybe we should understand better what exactly it is about systems we've misunderstood.

Wade Schuette One thing about systems that was made clear by Jay Forrester and illustrated by Peter Senge's "beer game" is that it is not SUFFICIENT for human beings to be well-intentioned if they have a limited range of perception of the distant ("system") effects of their actions and are caught in a feedback loop.

And John Sterman in Business Dynamics notes that essentially all humans, even MIT grads (!), have very poor perception of what parts of their environment are due to feedback from their own prior actions.

I'll toss in my own two cents here, and add that the perceptual problems in LARGE organizations will always occur because of a fact left out of most models, namely:

*** Reality is scale-dependent ***

My background is in physics and I side with Einstein, almost always misundertood and misquoted, who affirmed that there WAS INDEED an underlying reality, but that even perfect unbiased observers would perceive it differently due to space-time-curvature, AND SO THEY WOULD NEED TO CORRECT FOR THAT IN ORDER TO COMPARE NOTES AND SEE THAT THEY AGREED ON THE UNDERLYING SINGLE REALITY.

So, assume that all humans have a finite capacity for information, a finite-radius of perception, and even within that must vastly oversimplify the flood of data to come up with one or more mental models they will attempt to "snap observations to" in order to make sense of what is going on and respond to it. (Basic cybernetic behavior.)

One example of scale dependence would be the question of whether an molecule of H20 ("water") is "free" to move or "captive". On the scale of molecules, the molecule is free to move about. On the scale of plumbing, the "water" in the "pipe" is captive to go from the water-tank on the hill OUT the faucet. Both are true, but they are different. It is wrong-headed to ask "WHICH is true?" It is right-headed to ask "How can both of these be true, and what do we need to correct for before we attempt to compare and align them?"

As organizations become larger, EVEN WITH PERFECT NON-DISTORTING communication by levels of "management", the nature of reality at the top must diverge from the nature of reality at the bottom, because they operate on different scales of space and time.

Since this effect isn't recognized, it leads to increasing friction between "management" and "front line staff" in which each group views the other as being increasingly "out of touch with reality". (Which is true, in a sense.)

It has nothing to do with "intelligence". Here's a more specific example - a "hybrid image" which has the property that if you view it from normal screen distance is "clearly" Albert Einstein, yet if you view it from across the room is "clearly" Marilyn Monroe.

If we have any hope of building very tall structures in social space (ie, corporations, governments, etc) then we should take into account that this effect will come into play RAPIDLY, and figure out how to make load-bearing feedback loops that take it into account.

Right now, what happens is that as the top and the bottom of the organization diverge in scope, animosity, blame, and finally fracture occurs. Pretty much every time, and pretty much everything we've ever attempted to build to large scale has collapsed along this axis.

Designing social architectures to take this fourth-dimension into account will require computer modeling, because we as humans are not very good at 3-D geometry, let alone 4-D dynamic feedback geometry.

The only clean solution I can see to this type of fractally complex problem is precisely encapsulated in how fractal shapes emerge from very simple recursive rules. Namely, reverse the process. Seek eigenvectors, as it were. Seek simple recursively-stable governance structures such that at each level the problems remain "the same shape." Then we break the height constraint.


Related links:

More on Hybrid Images (like "Marilyn Einstein")

 "Hypnotized in High Places"

"Why we have so much trouble seeing"

Blindness at the Top  (bandwidth issues in central planning for crisis management)

Unity and adaptation  (design of control systems)

Unity and adaptation (part 2)

Why are so many flights delayed?  (system factors leading to blame and conflict)

Baha'i Faith principles for developing a world government that would work as intended

Why Blind and Stubborn Management is not a winning hand

Surprising case of Authority with listening - the US Army Leadership Manual

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