Deconstructing Good Decisions

What does it take?                                         Please explore the links in the text.

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“100% of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.” Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky

Please forgive the evangelical nature of this essay. We feel it’s important, as we begin building this community, to make clear certain values that shape our worldview and provide the emotional energy and impetus to “Hack” our lives out of an ordinary and sometimes stifling existence.

Globe Hackers are on a quest. Some of us have known it from a very young age, while some of us came to it only after many years of experiment, exploration, dabbling and failure.

We are avid fans of many domains of inquiry. We may not be experts, but we love experts; the heavy lifters of their domains who delight and surprise us and confirm our faith in humanity.

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Globe Hackers delve into subjects, are not afraid of complexity, and want to share their journey towards a greater understanding of our world. We don’t concern ourselves too much with the beliefs one may hold in the realm of myth and religion, but we do care about your thought processes. We accept that we are mortal. We are deeply concerned with reality here and now. We want to know what things brought us to our current state of affairs and where we might be able to go from here. We delight in progress, in seeing things improve incrementally, in a broadening circle of justice and dignity for all human beings.

Before we go on we'd like to refer you to a three-part interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Moyers & Company. We feel the tone of this conversation will help to frame our approach to the world.

PART ONE  /  PART TWO  /  PART THREE

For the fist time in history technology exists that allows small groups of creative people to approach a specific audience directly without having to muster too many expensive resources. We’re counting on the “free-world" of the Internet and the smart TV to allow us, hopefully for a long while, to share our passions with you.

We also hope that this effort will contribute to a burgeoning new community of "Globe Hackers".

We’re excited to get started.

First we'd like to make a few bold statements:

  1. Knowing what you think isn’t as important as knowing how you think. (We believe this to be an important fact.)
  2. Understanding your thought processes, elements of your evolved psychology, the way your physical brain works in conjunction with your nervous system, mapped on to your body and out into the interwoven fabric of your social economic and cultural circumstances is crucial for a person facing the unique challenges of the 21st Century. Take a deep breath. (We need the scientific method, and a good understanding of what the scientific method is to accomplish this goal.)
  3. A mind is a terrible thing to waste! Everyone today needs a high-quality, well-rounded education, starting with refined critical thinking skills.
  4. It is of the utmost importance to understand that humanity may be, right now, closer to facing its own extinction than one might wish to ponder. We may also be the cause of our own extinction. (A terrible fact that requires us to face reality.)

Point four is a horrific prospect. The first three points are more positive, but the last point has the potential of casting a shadow over the first two. This is a form of negativity bias.

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Another common bias is the halo effect where things like being taller and better looking than average can give people a strong impression that you must be great at your job, or a better person than might really be the case.  If a man in a lab coat told you that humanity would likely be the cause of its own extinction would you believe him? What if a tall, handsome, white, and obviously wealthy middle aged man in a tailor made suit told you the same thing? How about an old lady? What if you heard a mythical story passed on across millennia by word-of-mouth that related the same eventual outcome, or perhaps you read it in a holy book from a major religion whose sources are yet to be known?

I may be an old lady but I'm not stupid!

I may be an old lady but I'm not stupid!

The negativity bias is just one of a long list of cognitive biases that afflict our thought processes every moment of every day. They evolved in our species for good reason. We need to react more quickly and emotionally to surprising events in our environment if we are going to survive to reproduce. We don’t like getting burned twice. Strangers can be dangerous. Existential threats are everywhere.

We tend to remember an unkind word from a good friend for years while we forget the constant stream of kindnesses she continues to afford us over the course of a long friendship. Kindnesses are taken for granted while meanness is taken as a red flag – “perhaps I can’t trust this person after all”. Our evolved species-wide self seems to say over and over again, “be careful, there are many dangers out there – it’s scary to trust”. You may indeed be wise to exercise constructive paranoia, a term I picked up in Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”. Basically, it pays to be cautious. Also, mental shortcuts (heuristics) are much needed when you have to think fast.

[Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart / Game Programming / Heuristics Made Easy]

For most of us, once we have absorbed the initial sting of an unpleasant interaction, and had a chance to weigh in rationally and carefully the balance of good and bad experiences in a lasting relationship, we can let the meanness be washed away by the stream of acknowledged kindnesses. “That hurt, but all in all, he’s a pretty decent person.”

Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking in his book thinking fast and slow: system one and system two. Our cognitive biases are double-edged swords that may arise out of the duel-process model of the brain.

Here is short list of cognitive biases:

Anchoring / Availability Heuristic / Bandwagon Effect / Confirmation Bias / Endowment Effect / Framing Effect / Gambler’s Fallacy / Hindsight Bias / Loss Aversion / Group Think / Google Effect / Hindsight Bias / Pareidolia / Dunning-Kruger Effect / Egocentric Bias

A lot has been written about cognitive biases over the past few decades. A quick Google search will yield lots of good information on the subject. I seem to remember hearing something about it in a psychology class when I was a student. After graduation the subject of cognitive biases didn’t cross my mind until many years had passed and I had already transitioned from being a gypsy mystic to being a fan of science, reason, engineering, technology and most of all, humanity. Having been a student of the humanities, and a life long fan of human beings and their achievements, I find it very hard to understand why anyone would have anything against humanism. Can’t we be humanistic and still believe in ghosts? We are all humans after all.

While traveling recently I saw a book at an airport bookstore, “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli, I picked it up, flipped it over, and read a blurb on the back cover by Nassim Taleb. I’ve been a big fan of Nassim Taleb since 2007 when I read his book “The Black Swan”. I opened the book and found it full of easy to comprehend treatments of common cognitive biases. I bought the book, read it on the flight, and now keep it handy on a bookshelf near my desk. After the flight I told a friend of mine that this is the one book that I’d like to see in every hotel and motel room in America, right on top of the Holy Bible in the drawer next to the bed.

“Welcome to your CNN and Art of Thinking Clearly partner hotel.”

FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS / THE BLACK SWAN / ANTIFRAGILE

Many of us are thoughtful people, curious by nature, experts in our narrow fields of interest, and responsible members of our communities. We are kind to our neighbors, fun at parties, loving towards our friends and families, entertaining and smart. Granted, I may just be generalizing about the WEIRD subset of humanity: WEIRD meaning, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Social scientists have a bias toward research in the domain of WEIRD.

I recon most of us are nice WEIRD people; people wrapped up in our relatively narrow worlds, fending off perceived existential threats while trying to acquire some much-needed attention along the way. Most of us are just trying to fit in! The banal obsessions of our species lead to the paradox of having to become slaves-to-fashion in order to feel free.

We struggle within the realm of our reality, learning as we go from what is at hand, and doing our best within the limits of our inherent abilities. Some of us are luckier than others; some of us have innate talents, like a good ear for music, or more fast-twitch-muscle-fibers.

An NFL Running Back where fast twitch is the name of the game.

An NFL Running Back where fast twitch is the name of the game.

Some of us have more drive, energy and focus. And there are, of course, people with much less of an endowment from birth. Others may have made poor decisions despite relative good fortune and taken a bad path in life, while some people are simple too lazy to contribute much of anything. There are many types of people in any culture. The spectrum is wide with lots of layers of gray.

Yet we all need to belong.

Yet we all need to belong.

I suspect life is challenging for most of us. My grandmother used to say, “It takes all kinds of people to make the world go around.” Indeed it does so we'll try not to make too many sweeping generalizations about populations of people.

Biased Sample Fallacy  /  Hasty Generalization

Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, whose recent book, “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” work hard to identify mechanisms in society and attributes of certain types of people that will produce either a tendency towards cooperation and understanding, or a tendency towards alienation and conflict. Exploring deep cultural divides requires a helpful, nonjudgmental tone, from a scientific perspective. Taking an evidence-based approach when dealing with highly emotional human issues requires discipline and aplomb. When done well the results of such work can help us bridge culture gaps and dampen conflicts between highly contentious groups, reinvigorating dialogue that may lead to breakthroughs in public policy or solutions to stubborn practical problems.

A small subset of people are focused on larger areas of interest, more complex in nature, requiring a great deal of effort and discipline in order to obtain the skill sets, language, techniques and tools required to pursue their interests. These people may start life with financial means or in poverty, and yet, for some reason, because of many fortunate choices, many accidents of fate, and a naturally curious nature are able to find their passion in life and pursue it with zest, sincerity and commitment.

While on their path there is another quality that animates their actions, a desire to serve a larger constituency than themselves, their immediate dependents, their in-groups, or their masters.

They may have it in their minds that their community, society, or even humanity deserves the fruits or their focused, long term labor and attention. These people recognize a greater, more integral experience in the guise of their individual existence. They may feel a spiritual sense of being part and parcel of the ephemeral, yet meaningful life they enjoy every moment they are engaged in their purpose. And most of all, their purpose coincides with reality. Enthralled by nature , and desirous of knowledge, they never stop educating themselves.

It’s ironic that a dedicated public servant like Margaret Thatcher would comment, “There is no such thing as society: there are only men and women, and there are families.”

We are obviously social animals, but are there only individuals and families? One can understand what she meant only when one makes an effort to understand the mind of Margaret Thatcher. The puzzled mind of an individual is indeed a hard thing to solve. But no one can deny that “Maggie” was a player and for a while had a profound effect on the world.

For some of us, learning about our Universe and our place in it, is a sacred vocation requiring great sacrifice. Most of these dedicated people work in anonymity, for relatively modest compensation, for many, many years before a truly exciting result can be achieved.

When they finally get lucky, after all the hard work, their reward is mostly, simply, a transient feeling of accomplishment that only their team can really appreciate. They are mostly modest, although they may be extremely competitive, stubborn and aggressive in their ways. They are common people except for their unquenchable fascination with their ability to learn something, make something, prove something, and show something for what it is. They are not mere commentators or witnesses – their hands are dirty and their minds are taxed.

Leading from many domains

Leading from many domains

Their tools, of course, are their brain and body, reason, language, mathematics, and the scientific method, along with the indispensable emotions that animate their actions and relationships. These things, more than anything else, provide them with the ability to see the truly mysterious, the truly wonderful, the truly amazing nature of reality, and the journey never gets boring. And when they arrive at some grand understanding, their sense of love and humor only gets better, simply because they are nourished by their efforts.

We may never really know exactly how the Universe came to exist, but we do know that this is an empirical question, not only theoretical or philosophic. With our amazing human skills, tools, and passions we can actually pursue an honest answer to big questions. Only a few things can prevent this: the fear of facts; the abhorrence of gathering data; the shirking of our responsibility to perform rigorous analyses of our rational and scientific findings; and our avoidance of global peer review.

Despite recent discoveries of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, and the almost mathematical certainty that there may be life out there, to the best of our knowledge, we are the only creatures we know of with the brain power to develop fantastic tools that help us understand our Universe. We are the only species we know that expends an exorbitant amount of energy and resources trying to understand, describe and manipulate nature.

This was not always so of course, for tens of thousands of years we lived in small groups hunting and gathering, surviving in a relatively simple ways. There is a great literature out there about our social evolution, our haphazard journey towards civilization, reason and science. And now that we are here, enjoying the fruits of that epic adventure, we find ourselves compelled to share what has inspired us along the way, what excites our imagination and urges us on in the face of an always-uncertain future.

This has all been said before, but I must start this venture with an homage to these precious things that inspire us.

The ascent of man and woman

The ascent of man and woman

Our species has existed for only approximately two hundred thousand years, a mere fraction of time when one considers how the earth was made and the evolution of life on earth. For much of that time humans had to take death-defying risks just to find water, gather food and hunt. Life was full of dangers and life spans were much shorter; warfare and death by another human’s hand was part of a normal day-to-day existence. This was true all over the world until, from around five thousand years ago, we started our ascent towards civilization. Our journey until today has been long and arduous, fraught with many destructive conflicts, and natural disasters. Until very recently we had to contend with virulent infectious diseases that wiped out large numbers within populations, we had no idea what caused these deadly illnesses, we had no idea what the mechanisms were behind the violent upheavals of volcanoes, or the cracks in the earth caused by earthquakes. We were virtually in the dark relying on our imagination to create stories to explain the many mysteries that lay all around us.

Yet throughout our past it has also been normal for us to keenly observe our environment, to experiment with materials, to invent new methods of planting and processing food. We have learned through trial and error what plants are good for certain things, how to husband animals, how to use fire and minerals from the earth. One look at the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux, ancient flint tools, a Roman aqueduct or sewer, the Great Wall of China, or irrigation systems in ancient Indonesian rice terraces will leave anyone with the impression that for a very long time human beings have been amazingly clever and creative.

Magnificent 2000 year old structure for water supply.

Magnificent 2000 year old structure for water supply.

However, even now we remain quite parochial, with very little experience other than that which was afforded us by many deterministic accidents of circumstance. If we are lucky, the day we were conceived was tantamount to winning the lottery. If we are unlucky, the most we can expect is a very challenging if not hopeless fight for survival, recognition, dignity and justice.

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

“Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” Saint Augustine

So you see, we all won the lottery, but what have we done with our winnings?

So you see, we all won the lottery, but what have we done with our winnings?

There may be two major perspectives that define two typical camps of people; one camp is driven by stories, they are true believers and require no great burden of evidence to trust what they believe; they are comfortable in the bosom of their faith. The antithesis of this camp of faithful followers is a breed of humanity that is much more empirical and evidence driven. These kinds of people value data and the means to interpret data in a clear and coherent way. Before they take their fist tentative steps toward formulating a theory, they will test it experimentally, and present their findings to their peers. As I have intimated above throughout this essay, they are self-motivated in many respects and constantly searching for something useful that can help them present a more accurate model of nature. Eventually these theories lead to practical tools, technology, medicines, knowledge, and wisdom. Their worldview also leads to better decisions, choices that will hopefully contribute to the longevity of our species and to an even better ability to explore our Universe in peace, and in harmony with nature.

Simple illustration of how the scientific method flows.

Simple illustration of how the scientific method flows.

Over the next ten years “OUR INTELLECTUAL LIFE”, one of the WEB TV shows we are producing, will attempt to help you better understand the amazing history and evolution of the human mind. We will explore our current Global intellectual culture, its direction and attributes, and its impact on contemporary society. We will come at this from a long historical timeline, through to the present with a keen eye on the future. We are doing this because we are in awe of human accomplishments, while at the same time being acutely aware of humanities shortcomings. We feel that the time has come to get things right. 

We don’t believe we are a small and insignificant species, a puff of smoke, the slight of hand of a supernatural being, a fearful insecure species destined to cause its own extinction, or to be wiped out by a creator only to leave this wonderful Nature that we share with all living things on this great Earth behind, devoid of human consciousness. We want future generations to continue our journey for us and can only imagine how wondrous the future will be.

We are optimistic, and we are realists. We maintain a constructive paranoia while still trying to succeed and get on with the adventure.

We can imagine a future where we are happy to do great things for each other, where we go forth using the marvelous quiver of tools we have developed to maintain the common good. Our more primitive evolved nature may find quantum mechanics, mathematics, complex systems theory, probability theory, emergence, and other aspects of contemporary intellectual life unfamiliar and uncomfortable to gauge, and yet, these are the accomplishments that define our species more and more with each passing year. As we transcend our demons and reach for the better angles of our nature we make yet more progress towards the ultimate understanding of the Universe and ourselves.

Carl Sagan author of "The Demon-Haunted World" (Link above) “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” ― Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

Carl Sagan author of "The Demon-Haunted World" (Link above)

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”


Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

Our scientific, technological and rational achievements are invisible to most of us. This is a wonderful thing. With no real effort on our part we are able to benefit from the hard work and inventive creativity of untold legions of inspired people. But there is danger inherent in not understanding how our 21st Century world works. It's not wise to take things for granted. With every new system we are able to take for granted we are losing other, perhaps more simple ways of getting on in the world that may be difficult to reproduce should we find ourselves suddenly without electricity, modern transportation, computers, oil, water, food, institutions, or elderly people with crucial knowledge from our recent past. We might wish to place a social burden on each and every one of us to have a basic understanding of where we came from and how our world works. We should entreat each other to take advantage of every educational opportunity we can afford, and to share our knowledge whenever and wherever we can.

There may be many people in the world who fear the evil in stories, who fear their neighbors, who fear the outsider; whose fear permeates their every decision in life, and who are committed to a narrative of base human emotions acted out on a grand mythological stage. Our enemies, and the sum of our fears may indeed define some of us; some of us may complacently surrender to the selfish side of our psychology; some of us may only wish to seek the grace of God; some of us may diligently labor to prepare for the prophesied fight at the end of an epoch. It does indeed take many kinds of people to make the world go around, but one truth should not escape any of us – we are all human.

To turn away from the light of reason, from all that we have learned and created on our great journey towards an accurate understanding of the Universe and ourselves, is, for Globe Hackers, the sum of all evil.

To make good decisions in our world we need to educate ourselves, we need to practice clear thinking, we need to fight against cognitive biases that impair our judgment, we must identify and understand fallacious logic where we can and endeavor to become familiar with why we are here, now, in these circumstances, with these great inventions and still facing the potential of destroying ourselves.

You may not believe that we have caused our global climate to change. But how many of you think that a neutron bomb is just a fabrication? How many of you can fail to identify a dying sea or infertile soil? How many of you can deny that some human beings cause great evil and suffering in the world? How many of you can say that your reasoning and beliefs are infallible?

What causes us to make decisions that have deleterious or even horrific outcomes?

For those of you who are wedded to ancient stories until the end of time, we must strongly suggest that if you are willing to truly engage the miracle that you are, your stories will evolve. The narrative is changing. While you are in possession of your body and brain, use it or lose it. If you ignore your mind, how it works, and what it is, if you refuse to utilize this amazing gift of curiosity, reason and intellect, you betray everything you are and every good thing that humanity has created.

Prepare yourself.

Prepare yourself.

Let’s try to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. It is only in strong community with each other that we can keep our leaders honest. We have to carefully input into the feedback loops. We can’t sit on the sidelines and expect things to work out. We may need to help each other; we may need to invest in society to achieve a great society. What is certain is that none of us can do anything alone, not with any great effect.

Example of feedback loops during a decision making process.

Example of feedback loops during a decision making process.

Let’s make a pact to continue to discover everything we can about our complex and volatile world. Good decisions can only come from people who are always trying to know more. People who are actively trying to improve the quality of their awareness and knowledge. Human potential and human growth requires a life long effort.

A Globe Hacker will find a solution or invent a new tool for many reasons. She will contribute to her community, sometimes for nothing but a pat on the back or the simple incentive of the joy of personal accomplishment. A Globe Hacker is a natural lover of living and champion of life.

Sometimes the best things in life are unpredictable.

But don’t worry, not everything here at globehackers.com is so serious. We also want to bring you informative, humorous and practical content that will entertain and delight you.

We hope you will join us.

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Steven Cleghorn

Steven is an autodidact, skeptic, raconteur and film producer from America who has been traveling since he was a zygote. He's a producer at The Muse Films Ltd. in Hong Kong and a constantly improving (hopefully) Globe Hacker. He's seeks the company of interesting minds.