Tue, Apr 16, 2013 - Page 9 News List

We must forcefully change our habits if we wish to survive

Humans must develop better judgment in order to avoid the persistent stupidity, unnecessary wars and damaging inequality that characterize the world today

By Henry Porter  /  The Observer, LONDON

We are getting smarter, aren’t we? Or perhaps not. In a speech at the London Library, the novelist Sebastian Faulks, expressed dismay at the collapse of knowledge in young people; and in my own life I do not see much evidence of the improvement.

Each morning starts with my dropping an egg into boiling water and neglecting to note the time, so I end up with a hard boiled or runny egg. The kettle steams up my glasses, if I have remembered to bring them down to read the newspapers. The toast burns two out of seven mornings and the fire alarm goes off maybe once a week. Instead of reading the article that is useful to me, my mind wanders off on one of its pointless excursions.

I am prisoner of idiotic and clumsy habits, the worst of which is the faith, renewed with each night’s sleep, that I can time the egg by instinct.

My life is full of ludicrous self-confidence; for example, that this article will take one hour, rather than four, to write; that the fuel in my gasoline tank will expand according to my need; that butter will not make me fat and that trains and planes are flexible in their departure times.

This is fine because I am not running a government or a bank. However, look at the collapse of HBOS, and you will realize that the same stupid habits and hopeless optimism filled the heads of Lord Stevenson, former chairman of the bank; James Crosby, its megalomaniac former chief executive and his successor Andy Hornby.

They were not merely rash and greedy; they were stupid, because they ignored one of their own experts, Paul Moore, who warned about the risks that led to a bailout of £20 billion (US$30 billion) and their own richly deserved humiliation.

An organization that succumbs to this kind of failure suffers from “functional stupidity,” a syndrome that requires such individuals as Moore, who was fired from his job and eventually testified about HBOS to parliament, to stifle their criticisms and go along with the group-think of powerful individuals.

The same functional stupidity gripped the governments of former British prime minister Tony Blair and former US president George W. Bush as they went to war with a country that was not conceivably involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the groups of climate-change deniers who, for self-serving reasons or personality-driven prejudice, determine that all the evidence of a warming planet is cooked up by fantasists.

We are dumb beyond words in making the connection between our behavior and well-understood outcomes — the links between smoking and cancer, fatty foods and obesity, driving fast and death on the roads, impulse buying and going broke, gossipy tweets and losing friends and esteem.

We know the likely results, but we are convinced we can defy norms with impunity, while denying ourselves nothing but the truth.

The literature on our stupidity seems to expand by the day. Every book on neuroscience and the choices we make seems to underline the reality that we are not in control, that “the two biological bags of fluid” as David Eagleman describes our brain in his book Incognito, are hard-wired for stupidity, or at least the triumph of emotional over rational systems.

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, an exploration of the psychological reasons for political and religious divisions, denies the existence of the effective force for good and sensible outcomes that we call reason.

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