from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Our Three Human Approaches to Dealing with Problems

Pieces of jigsaw puzzle and global network
image credit: iStock/metamorworks

We all run into challenges from time to time, whether at work, at home, or in our communities.

In general, I would suggest, we have three different approaches available to us when we try to respond to such situations.

1. Soldier On

The first approach is to just keep your head down, continue doing what you’ve been doing, make small adjustments as needed, and trust that everything will work itself out.

This is essentially the same approach that you see in a robotic vacuum cleaner: go in a straight line until you run into something, then back up, turn a bit, and try again.

You could also think of this approach as “think locally, act locally.” It’s also characterized by the injunction to “keep calm and carry on.” At its least elegant, it might be referred to as “muddling through.” You could also think of it as a “don’t rock the boat” approach.

In this first approach, we tend to rely on our own experience, our own knowledge and memories, and on sensory inputs from our immediate environment, and we tend to favor actions that produce immediately discernible results. Because we are humans, the inputs we consider include words and images from those familiar to us. And because we live in the 21st century, those familiar to us include many we may never have met face-to-face, but have experienced repeatedly through various media channels.

2. Refer to an Ideal

This approach relies on having an image of what perfection looks like, a template or pattern, and then consulting that reference when facing an emerging issue.

The practice of asset allocation is an example of this approach in the investing world. You establish your desired amount of risk, periodically review your portfolio, and then sell enough stocks or bonds to get back to your desired percentages.

A mechanic repairing a car, or a technician repairing any sort of engineered product, typically uses this approach. When confronted with a malfunctioning item, you consult a product manual, drawing and/or specification to see the ideal state to which a product needs to return in order to regain its lost functionality.

3. Observe, Analyze and Predict

This approach, of course, is at the heart of the scientific method. It’s generally used to confront new challenges that haven’t been seen before. It consists of making detailed observations, analyzing the data, and then making predictions about what might happen under certain conditions.

All human progress depends on use of this approach.

Pros and Cons of Each

Although the first approach – Soldier On – may sound the least sophisticated, it is, in fact, the preferred approach in most cases. Humans, along with all living organisms, are here today because our predecessors discovered stuff that worked and passed it along to us, either via our DNA, or via learned behaviors. And each of us who have somehow made it to adulthood have done so by learning and repeating behaviors that worked for us. If something has been successful in the past, then that is the best predictor of it proving successful again in the future. As humans we are loath to give up on something that has worked for us before, not only because we know it has worked in the past, but because we would then have to come up with some new, untried option.

And we know how that usually works out.

The second approach – Refer to an Ideal – is more sophisticated, and is usually needed to deal with more complex situations. But it also requires a higher level of trust in some expert authority. A mechanic consulting an engineering drawing may not have any personal experience to draw upon that would tell them the right action to take, and so they must place their faith in the drawing they’ve been given and, in turn, the perhaps unknown people who prepared the drawings at some time in the past.

One of the final scenes in the movie Goldfinger offers a great example of this tension. Our hero, James Bond, has somehow made it through all the dangers confronting him in the first ninety minutes of the film by relying on his native wits, charm, skills and finely honed instincts. In other words, he’s been using approach # 1.

But then, with only seconds left, he has to disarm an atomic bomb that is about to explode, without setting it off. Which wire should he cut? Or is there something else he should do? He looks about in confusion. Nothing he has done before has prepared him for this. Instincts fail him. He’s running out of time.

And then an actual expert on the scene reaches into the frame and flips a simple switch, immediately stopping the countdown timer. An expert, presumably, who had at some point been able to consult some drawings showing how the thing works.

When we have an emergency with no other options available to us then we’re all happy to consult an expert. But it’s not our first choice. And we usually have about as much respect for experts as Bond displays in his earlier meeting with Q, the head of the weapons research and development department. We tend to regard experts as theoretical types who are ill equipped to deal with real life outside of the laboratory.

The third approach – Observe, Analyze and Predict – is the most sophisticated, but also involves the most risk. This is why peer review is such an important part of the scientific method. Until a new solution has proven itself multiple times then it is inherently risky. Most of us are happy to board an airplane these days, understanding that human flight is something that has now been happening routinely every day for decades. But it was a different story for Orville and Wilbur Wright back at the dawn of the 20th century, when they were first trying to build a craft they could successfully pilot through the air. They were rightly skeptical of most of the unproven “truths” being circulated by self-professed experts, and reports of their success were rightfully greeted with much initial skepticism.

Societal Implications

The issue of measles vaccinations that has recently been in the news is a good example of how these three approaches can play out in our society, for better or for worse.

The whole idea of vaccination to prevent diseases like measles is a great example of the use of approach # 3. This was a practice based on observation, analysis and prediction. And it became a widespread practice over time because it was shown to work, virtually wiping out the appearance of many diseases in modern societies.

On the other hand, even today, there is nothing instinctive about taking your child to a doctor to get his or her vaccinations. Your child wasn’t sick before the vaccination, and they weren’t visibly improved after the vaccination. You don’t see anyone around you getting sick from these alleged health threats. And why should you trust these supposed experts, whose recommendations seem to change every few years anyway? And what about real childhood problems, such as autism, that these experts don’t seem to know how to control? Couldn’t these vaccinations be causing that problem? And in the face of this confusion, isn’t just muddling through the best approach? After all, if your child does get ill, they can always be given antibiotics, can’t they?

And so we see how these various factors can play out in society when applying each of these three problem-solving approaches.

Application to Politics

When it comes to choosing our political leaders, I would submit that we are heavily influenced by the factors discussed above regarding our three possible approaches to problems.

Our first tendency is to Soldier On – one reason why incumbents have historically had such a large political advantage.

But our two-party system in the United States is also an example of use of this first approach. If things are going well, we vote for the party in office. If things aren’t going so well, then we vote for someone from the other party. And if they don’t work out in the next few years – why then, we throw them out and vote for someone new. And so, this sort of democratic process fits neatly into the first approach: keep going in a straight line until you hit a rough patch, then make a small adjustment, and proceed onwards. In many ways, this sort of democracy – two major political parties, frequent elections, term limits – is almost the definition of approach # 1.

But then there is also approach # 2: Refer to an Ideal. And most of us tend to have some sort of political ideal to fall back on. Maybe it’s free market capitalism. Perhaps it’s the Christian Bible. Or it could be the Constitution. How about democratic socialism? Or American exceptionalism? Or the Civil Rights movement of the sixties? No matter which you choose, you will find a reassuring template for success, and will be relieved to hear that all of our current problems are being caused by deviation from that ideal. And how comforting this belief can be.

In the US, we’ve traditionally relied on the states to serve as our laboratories for approach # 3: Observe, Analyze and Predict. Let a state try it out. If it works out well, then other states will adopt it. And if enough of our fifty states can replicate the initial success, then perhaps we will adopt the solution nationally. Marijuana legalization seems to be going through this process in 2019, as this piece is being written.

Implications for Sustainability and Global Warming

And so, finally, let us consider the novel human challenges of sustainability in general, and global warming in particular. A hundred years ago few humans saw these as problems. And even today many of us can go through most days without suffering any immediate negative consequences from these issues. And so, quite naturally, our first instinct is to muddle through, to leave well enough alone, to make small adjustments and then go about our normal business. Everything will be alright because – well, it always has in the past, hasn’t it?

And then, of course, there’s our lack of trust in the experts. I mean, they can’t even all agree with each other, can they? So why should we listen to them? And even if we believed them, none of them has actually dealt with these problems before, so there’s no ready, proven ideal to reference. So approach # 2 is not feasible.

And then there’s the problem of how to effect positive change. By their very nature, sustainability and climate change are global problems, which means that they will demand global solutions. And so these will inevitably require political solutions. But how can we prove the effectiveness of any particular solution? Because there is no way to replicate our entire set of global systems – climatic, environmental, political, legal, economic, cultural – in a laboratory. And so we not only have to use approach # 3, and place our trust in experts, and reach agreement on this through our political systems, but we have to allow these experts to use our entire world – our entire planet! – as their lab.

Viewing the situation in this way, I think, gives us some idea of the sorts of resistance we will need to overcome to deal with these new global problems successfully.

  1. We first have to convince people that this is a novel problem, and that simply continuing to do what we’ve done in the past is not likely to work. We have to help people understand that our current and projected future human population sizes, in combination with the per capita rates of resource depletion and environmental degradation needed to care for so many of us, are simply not sustainable. We can’t just keep keeping on. We’ve got to try something new, even though there is accompanying risk, because the risk of not doing anything is far greater.
  2. We need to reference as many compelling templates as we can. American involvement in WW II. The race to land a man on the moon. The original New Deal. If we are to successfully confront the sustainability challenges facing us, then we will need to call upon the political will, the technological focus, the global connections, and the sweeping scope of governmental action displayed in such prior situations.
  3. We need to structure our path forward around a series of experiments, including policy experiments. We have to quickly try a number of different things, learn from our mistakes, adjust our plans, and then continue on. We can’t convince anyone today that we have all the answers. But if we proceed with reasonable transparency, acknowledging our shortfalls, then we humans might just find a successful way forward for our species.
  4. We need to prioritize and focus relentlessly. We can’t effectively convince anyone that global sustainability deserves this sort of action if we treat it as one issue among a number of peers. This has to become our sole top priority. Numero Uno.

March 5, 2019