Friday, June 22, 2007

People are the Problem

I'm fond of saying to my wife, "If we could do X, Y, and Z we could solve everything and live happily ever after." To which she replies, "no one would want to do that". My reply to her reply is always, "yeah, People are the Problem."

If you do not believe the earth is a few billion years old, if you do not believe in evolution, if you basically take it upon yourself to argue with scientists who have spend 10-12 long years earning a fairly difficult piece of paper because the Pope, Pat Robertson, or some Imman told you so, go skip this post.... its only going to piss you off. But hey, before you go, could you turn in everything that any physicist created for you? That would be EVERY single bit of electronics you own. The irony of debating science on the internet with religious fundamentalists who couldn't draw a P-N-P junction but want to argue truely complex issues like genetic drift probably keeps Jesus up at night laughing. Or crying.... he always did have more compassion than I do.

So anyway....we are headed towards a cliff, backwords, with a hood over our head (some of the time). What do we do? We worry about the pothole in front of the cliff. Seriously. WHY??!?!?!?! Well..... humans have 3 distinct areas of the brain, they stem from different evolutionary spurts. There is reptilian hind brain, the mammilian mid-brain, and the ape/chimp forebrain. (You have more DNA in common with a chimpanzee than a blue jay does with a sparrow) The hind brain controls organs (heart, lungs, muscles), the mid brain manages sensory input and the fore brain thinks. In theory the forebrain should decide, and the mid and hind execute. In reality researchers (using MRIs) have found that decisions are often made in the mid and hind brain, action taken, and when asked WHY the subject did that action the forebrain activity goes nuts trying to justify the action. Act first, think later. Why would we do that?

It wasn't that long ago that Ogg was out hunting bison with a spear. Ogg and Goog and Lother were good hunters. However, Princess the Sabretooth Tiger was pretty much better than Ogg at everything physical. Sure Ogg could think circles around Princess, but if Ogg STOPPED to think when he saw Princess, Ogg was dinner. Act first (run!!!), think later. Eventually Ogg figured out things like spear throwers and bows and arrows. Fire was another big win. Ogg figured out that Princess hated fire, so if he made a fire after killing his buffalo, Princess wouldn't try to eat Ogg anymore. Winner is Ogg. The key is Ogg didn't do this thinking in the field. He thought about it at night when he was cuddleing with Mrs. Ogg. In evolutionary terms... If you think before you act, you get eaten and don't get to breed. So we are evolutionarily conditioned to solve the IMMEDEATE problem..... tomorrow's problem can be dealt with tomorrow. Solve the one that will kill you 1st.

So Ogg doesn't worry about the drought in his area when Princess shows up trying to eat him. Forget that fact that if it wasn't for the drought, Princess would be off eating a Wooly Mammoth, instead of trying to eat him. Ogg must deal with problem #1 NOW, he can worry about the drought later.... if he survives problem #1. In economics we call this a "discount rate". Ogg has a HUGE discount rate. He is a primitive, immediate survival is paramount. Now, as Ogg moves up the civilization chain and his great great great grandson becomes Centurian Oggus Maximus he doesn't have to worry about immediate survival. Oggus Maximus has a farm, a olive grove, and Princess has been driven off the land. (in fact, made extinct). So Oggus Maximus can take a longer view. The problem is that massive discount rate isn't a recent adaptation..... its coded into the hindbrain. Princess had that discount rate. The fish that Princess and Ogg both evolved from had that discount rate. The hindbrain is OLD. Sadly, its in control a lot of the makes a lot of decisions for us and then asks the forebrain to justify them. This isn't to say humans aren't capable of taking a long view..... we are. We call those people Statesmen. (Praetor Oggus!) Statesmen are rare, politicians (hindbrain ruled) are more common.....sadly.

You can argue this, but how often do you see your company make short sighted decisions that look good right now, but in the long run cause problems? Does your company lurch from one emergency to the next with no coherent plan? Maybe yours doesn't, but most do. If they didn't Dilbert wouldn't be so popular. Most software fails....... I wonder why?

Anyone who has trained for emergency situations (War, Life saving, Fire fighting, Cops) pretty much knows this. I made 11 saves in one year working at the Herndon Community Center pool. I assure you, my brain was 100% off during each one of those saves. I was running on "automatic". Which is why you practice the heck out of making saves. You burn the routine into "muscle memory". I don't know where "muscle memory" exists, but I bet its not the cerebral cortex. You don't have time to think... you MUST act. This is good and proper for emergencies. Because emergencies kill us and calm times do not, the human animal is optimized for performance in emergencies, at the expense of rational behavior during calm times.

Back to the main point! (at last you say!) Even if you could show other humans that there is a problem, unless it is today's problem they will be inclined to ignore you.... EVEN IF THEY AGREE WITH YOU! They can't help it. They are genetically programed to ignore any problem that isn't immediate. Only if you can get people to think before deciding do you have a chance. This is why its almost impossible to talk to someone and convince them of a viewpoint they don't have or choose not to believe, but if you can get them to read a book on it you will have a much greater success rate. Reading activates the forebrain, the forebrain is in charge while you are reading...... you are already thinking. (If Hitler had been restricted to writing and not speech making, there might never have been a 3rd Reich)

Folk wisdom says, "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Modern medicine vs public health shows its way more than that. Maybe 100-1. So why aren't long term problems solved early when its cheap to do so? Discount rate!!!! Long term problems are invisible to humans. Global warming will be addressed when New York, London, and LA are under water, not before. Look at the how much debate there still about global warming even though 99 out of 100 climate scientists are saying the same thing. Its hindbrain saying, "I don't WANT to change" and the forebrain justifying.

So add this to last post..... We have an economic system that speeds along. We have a control system (us) that reacts best in emergencies and often in non-logical manner at other times. This is a positive feedback machine that is just asking for disaster. (the faster we go, the more emergencies, why do you think stock traders all have ulcers?) Market Crashes don't surprise me, what shocks me is that they don't happen more often! With a huge discount rate, it makes sense to cut down the entire forest and sell it off. Forget the fact that this is going to cause erosion and degrade the farm land below it eventually starving you.... that is TOMORROWS problem, today's problem is that CEO Ogg isn't rich.


People are the problem.