Learning to Think

One of the most pernicious lies I can think of is that it’s wrong or weak to change your mind. That once a decision is made you are committed to that course regardless of the consequences. To which I simply say, “Bollocks!”

As we grow we acquire a cultural opinion–a meme if you like–that decisiveness is what matters. It’s better to make any decision and move forward than to stop and wait for a degree of certainty.

Motion is everything, the direction secondary. Except that you must never backtrack. No about-face, U-turn or retreat. Think about those terms: “backtrack”, “about-face”, “U-turn”, “retreat”. See how they are imbued with negative connotations: you have been conditioned to see them that way.

The consequence of this is that a bad decision is seen as better than no decision at all, and that bad decision, once made, commits you to a particular course of action. This is accepted by many without question and yet it is utterly false.

Let’s think about a simple scenario: you want to cross the street so you decide to step out into the road. Okay, you’ve made a decision (good for you!). Are you now committed to crossing that road come what may? Or should you change your mind and retreat if you notice a car approaching after stepping out?

My point is that we rarely have all the information at the point of making a decision. We try to predict what will happen but in all except the most trivial cases we cannot know. This means we know more about the consequences of our decision after making it, once we have taken the first steps along that course.

Which is more foolish? To argue that a decision has been made, it is set in stone and we must continue along that particular path, or to re-examine the decision periodically and judge whether it is still a beneficial course of action?

It’s not a new phenomenon. Wellington was castigated in the weeks and months following the 1809 Battle of Talavera when rather than advancing on French-held Madrid (a key aim of that summer’s campaign) after the French retreat, he made a rapid withdrawal back into Portugal and spent the winter sheltered behind the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras.

At no point did Wellington have complete information about the size or disposition of the French forces opposing him, but his success in the Peninsular War long-term was a result of planning for different scenarios together with his ability to abandon a plan when he saw that circumstances had changed.

If not for the support of influential figures in London, Wellington would have been replaced as commander and the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have been very different. And even today it is politically almost impossible for anybody to change a decision once made.

The core of the problem is absolutism, the idea that every question has one correct answer. Reality doesn’t work like that, but few people are comfortable dealing with probabilities. But incomplete information means that a decision based on what appears most likely at one point in time can easily turn out to be the wrong course of action, something that comes to light later as we learn more.

Politicians don’t help their situation by applying absolutist arguments to justify their decisions: their way is the One True Path, the only way that will work. It means that when events conspire to frustrate their plans they need to maintain the fiction that their original decision was correct and continues to be correct.

There can be no wrong decisions because their jobs depend on the illusion that they alone have the right answers. We are all losers because this binds them to inflexible ideologies and prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances.

The way out of the trap is to recognize and admit that the world is a complex place and it’s not always clear how best to get to where we want to be. Admit that pressing on regardless sometimes means going further down a dead-end path, wasting time and resources in pointless activity.

Adaptability and flexibility are what matters most. Setting goals matters, but it’s not so important how they are reached. Indeed, stating what outcome you hope to achieve should be the most important thing.

Regarding the EU Referendum, the biggest problem with it as far as I’m concerned is that is offered a choice of two courses of action (leave the EU or remain in it). Nowhere did it ask people what they hoped to achieve by those actions. It was like asking people whether to turn left or right without giving them any idea where they were trying to get to, or where either path might end up.

It means that the government have a (narrow) mandate to take a particular course of action–leave the EU–without saying anything about what it is intended to achieve. Is it supposed to create jobs? Cut NHS waiting times? Stop it raining on Bank Holidays?

At times like these it is more important than ever to scrutinize those in power. To be critical. To ask “Why?” and “How?” Don’t be satisfied with attractive but empty slogans. Push for the details, and if they can’t or won’t provide them ask yourself why they might not want to reveal their objectives. Are they really working in the best interests of you and me, or of corporate lobbyists?

Question everything. Be critical. Think for yourself.

 

 

Breaking the Impasse

The referendum was a disaster. There, I’ve said it. I’m not talking about the result. I mean the whole ill-conceived exercise. And its outcome: the uncertainty we now find ourselves in the middle of is not doing anybody any good, inside the UK or out.

Nobody appears to have a plan for exiting the EU: if they did we’d have started the process already. I believe the problem is that if you ask a hundred people what they want the future relationship between the UK and the rest of the world to look like you’ll get dozens of different answers.

The one big positive of the referendum has been to expose the immense dissatisfaction across the country with the current state of affairs. But just as people had many different reasons for choosing how they voted, so there are many different causes for that dissatisfaction.

I’m all for leaving, if by leaving you mean the huge inequalities between the rich and the poor, the increasing squeeze we feel on our ability to simply carry on with our day to day lives, the way that politicians in Westminster feel more and more remote from the realities of life in the UK, the way so many people feel their needs are ignored.

All these things and more came out in the vote to leave. Against them were a fear of the unknown, of some calamity in the event of such a big change. But also a feeling among many remain voters that their situation was bearable and that the ideals for which the EU was founded have deep meaning and significance.

By making it a stark choice between in or out the referendum completely ignored the fact that many on both sides share common concerns about pressures on public services like the NHS, on schools, on housing, on jobs. For me these are more important issues than whether or not the UK remains in the EU. But they are not being addressed. Both sides in the referendum used them to score points but since the result was called nobody has put forward any plan to improve the state of things.

I think it’s time for a revolution. A revolution in the way we as a country approach the issues directly affecting us, the people, right now. Our democracy is broken. We don’t feel our representatives in parliament really represent us: we vote for them every four or five years and after that we go back to being ignored and told what to do.

The current system lacks feedback; it lacks the input from the people at the bottom, the electorate, about what we need. Not what a political party thought we wanted and promised years ago in order to get our vote, but what we want and need today.

I propose putting together a representative group of people from across the country. All ages, all political leanings, all levels of education. Selected by lot, like a big jury. Give them full access to all the information, all the experts, and let them decide between them what needs to change and how to go about it. We trust juries a lot more than politicians, and that is how juries work.

They won’t be experts themselves, at least not when they start. But they will represent us with all our hopes and fears. They will be us. I’d certainly trust them to work for the benefit of the people of this country. More so than the politicians. I’m sure that between them they could work out a set of priorities and a new direction for the country. One that a clear majority of people could get behind and support.

It’s an idea that is being used (in similar form) in Ireland today to work on constitutional issues. It could work here too. And it would give people a real voice, not only to decide on issues but also to decide what issues are important. Out political system is failing us. Let’s do things differently going forward. Let’s make our democracy more direct. Let’s involve the people directly. And we’ll have a chance to make things better for all of us and not just the 1%, the elite, the rich.