Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay

Let’s Argue About Something

The way to read the title of this article is “Let’s Argue about Something,” with the emphasis on the final word—as opposed to Nothing.

But now for something completely different. Remember this bit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus:

MPFS ArgumentA: An argument is not the same as contradiction.

B: Well, it can be!

A: No, it can’t! An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.

B: No, it isn’t!

A: Yes, it is! It isn’t just contradiction.

B: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position!

A: But it isn’t just saying, “No, it isn’t.”

B: Yes, it is!

A: No, it isn’t! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

B: No, it isn’t!

A: Yes, it is!

B: Not at all!

Excerpt from Argument Clinic, Copyright 1972 Python (Monty) Pictures. Here’s the full video clip on the official Monty Python YouTube Channel:

What’s my argument here? There are some things I am not going to argue about anymore.

I am not going to argue about whether global warming is real. It’s real, and it’s a problem we need to address. This is settled science. If you haven’t bought into the settlement, I am sorry for your inability to grasp facts.

I am not going to argue about basic vaccines and immunizations for preventable diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. Unless your doctor specially tells you your child must opt out for a clear reason, I believe you have a moral obligation to your child and an ethical obligation to society to get this done as soon as practicable.

I am not going to argue about who has a right to marry whomever he or she may select (absent DNA concerns around family history). This is a civil right. Civil rights are inviolable.

I am not going to argue about evolution and natural selection. I am not going to argue about the age of the Earth or the number of years human beings have been inhabiting it. I am also not going to argue that the science here is incompatible with religion, because many of the distinguished scientists who have proven these case studies have been profoundly religious people who aligned their faith with their findings. I have. I believe you can, too. If you don’t, I am not going to argue the point. It, too, is settled.

Why no more argument from me here? Because there is no point. These are not arguments. We have data at more than sufficient scale to make the findings. Thus these become matters of contradiction. If we don’t agree, there is nothing you can say to me to get me to change my mind, and I know there is nothing I can say to you to change your mind. Remember, for a few centuries now we no longer debate whether the Earth is flat or the sun revolves around it—there was plenty enough data collected to make those arguments moot. Likewise on the other referenced topics. I am moving on.

Want to argue? Cool, then let’s focus on subjectivity.

I will argue with you about tax policy—who should pay and how much. That’s a great argument to have.

I will argue with you about allocation options within the federal budget—entitlements,  debt, defense, infrastructure, social programs—we can have a great debate about that! If it turns into an argument, maybe we’ll learn from each other as long as we both commit to 50% talking and 50% listening.

I will argue with you about which wars can be justified, and which wars can’t. Yes, I think that is subjective, and people do change their minds about this over time.

I will argue with you about whether there will ever be a band as magnificent and important as the Beatles, whether Beethoven is a better composer than Mozart, and whether I am missing the point entirely on Katy Perry.

Essentially I will argue with you about any subject where I think by investing the time, passion, and energy, at least one of us might come away with even a slightly altered point of view. If I can learn from you by hearing you construct a reasonable case, I am open to it. If you can learn from me by believing there is a possibility I could construct a reasonable case, I will share it with you. I will spend as long with you on the argument as we both deem it interesting. Should we continue to disagree at the conclusion, as long as you have not lambasted me with an ad hominem attack, I promise to respect your opinion, however wrong you may be. Yet if you sneak back into emotional ideology that is not grounded in reason or supported assessment, I won’t argue with you again. Lucky you.

Now the ground rules. I promise to read widely about subjects of interest and study them before I subject you to my argument. I expect that you will do the same. If you don’t read much or challenge your own thinking before you subject me to it, let’s not bother. We can only do each other some good if we do ourselves some good as well. That means preparation. That means readiness. That means a serious consideration of the point at hand. That means caring enough to study and be well versed on a topic before passionately expressing a strident point of view. It worked in college. It will work in the real world.

Don’t like the rules? No worries. We don’t have to argue at all. I know lots of people who like these rules. I learn from those people every day. They make me a better person because they care about ideas. I trust them to stretch my mind and to prompt me to reconsider anything that can be reconsidered.

No, they don’t.

Yes, they do.

Are you contradicting me or seeking an argument?

Let me know before we engage.