Oct 252022
Woman holding up placard with photographer

Why are governments so poor at actually making the world a better place? What can we learn from that to improve our own thinking?

Governments don’t admit mistakes or learn from them. “Symbolic of their struggle against reality“, as Monty Python would say (1).

It’s more clear of late. Politicians in increasing numbers simply deny what they said earlier, or that facts are “fake news” even though reliable video evidence plainly shows otherwise. What used to be resigning offences – lying to parliament, various financial indiscretions – are now routine. So it’s now easier to see the blatant deceptions for yourself; to be the small boy who first sees that the Emperor has no clothes.

Whatever else you believe about the lamentable state of politics – motivations, greed, or powers behind them – a real symptom of the problem is that politicians can never be wrong. Just listen to a few interviews. Disastrous outcomes can always be ignored, or explained away as ‘just not getting the messaging right’, ‘unlucky events (wars, market forces…) got in the way’, ‘lies’, ‘sabotage by opponents’… or ‘that was in the past, and we need to move on’, or simply by shouting and calling people names, just a repetition of meaningless slogans. The opposition care mainly about getting in to power and just call people names, whatever – because its more important to score political points than to look at what actually works. Let’s assume our politicians genuinely believe somewhere deep down that they’re “right” (or more likely that “there is no right”), and are fully able to explain away to themselves or ignore any facts to the contrary.

Why ‘might is right’ seems the only way

That’s a real problem for us all because it makes it impossible to learn if nothing – no “fact” – can show someone that they are wrong. In such a world the only “wrong” is if you lose (and from the American example, losing an election isn’t so black and white either). It means the only “right” that’s left is “might”. So you just need to spend more on propaganda, or lie more and make more promises to get power. If you can’t “learn”, you can only “double down” on your ideology or self belief – even if it’s evidently bankrupting the country. Plenty of evidence for that in history, but easier to see ‘live’ right now. Kim Philby, the spy, when asked how he got away with it at the highest levels for so long gave the simple answer “you just keep denying everything“(2). Works in politics too. And whatever your own idea of good government is, it surely does need to deal with the actual facts. A chess master in the Bronx helped schools overcome bullying by playing the classes at chess, blindfold. It showed the bullies that no matter how they shouted and asserted they were right, they lost – objectively, black and white, no matter how big their ego.

In the sciences, the only failed experiment is one where we learn nothing. And if we’re always ‘right’ in the face of any facts, then we can learn nothing from any test or fact – they all affirm to ourselves that we’re right. Looked at that way, in politics all tests of any theory, any outcomes of actions, are failures because we can learn nothing from them.

Political judgement – how good is it, how can we know?

When the young philosopher Karl Popper grew up in Vienna between the wars he was working with the psychologist Alfred Adler, and with Marxists. In both cases their theories explained the world and were charismatically compelling. But Popper became uncomfortable precisely because anything that happened at all was explained as fitting their ideologies. Just as we saw above with politics, it dawned on Popper that this was not a strength of those ideologies, but in fact a weakness because we learn nothing from any test or confrontation with reality. But then Popper heard Einstein talk. Einstein’s theory was in many ways more outlandish than either Marx or Adler, but crucially Einstein described an experiment which would test his theory. If that test had a particular outcome it would show decisively that Einstein’s theory was wrong – we would learn something. This difference between Marx and Adler whose theories could explain any conceivable observation, and Einstein, seemed to Popper a revelation. He went on to use it to make a distinction between what was genuinely ‘scientific’ and what was not, and perhaps has been the most influential thinker on what genuine science actually is, and why it succeeds in yielding reliable knowledge about the world. (3)

Expert political judgement "no better than a dart-throwing monkey" Philip Tetlock

“no better than dart-throwing monkeys” Philip Tetlock

Back to politics. The implication is that ‘ideologies’ are not a wise way of dealing with facts or reality, in part because the future is too complex to fit our simple stories, and so the ideologies cloud judgement. Philip Tetlock tested this. His 20-year experiment asked the highest paid political pundits to make black-and-white predictions of how future events would unfold. He concluded that our best political minds were no better than “dart-throwing-monkeys” when it came to being right about the future. Worse still, the more prestigious the expert, the more likely they were to be wrong. (4)  A strategy of just doubling down on ideological positions is even more closed minded and hence error prone.

We need a bigger boat

Reality is too big a fish for ideological boats to handle. Where can we get a bigger boat? If we could ditch politics(!) we could try a simpler approach: decide what we are trying to achieve, say what the best solutions worth trying seem to be, propose trials from which we can genuinely learn about what works, then actually learn from them, roll it out, and repeat.

You can definitely take issue with ‘science’ as it is practised, largely funded by self-interested corporations as it is, or with Popper. Even so, his insight is valid, and has much to say about the state of wisdom in our government, and its ability to learn anything that will help us. And too we have the problem that populations are apt to vote for “strong” leaders who promise simple answers, and so bear responsibility for the outcomes of those who they support. As Churchill put it on the situation before world war 2 “Thus an administration more disastrous than any in our history saw all its errors and shortcomings acclaimed by the nation…“. We’re all to blame, and perhaps society needs to grow up too, and give up looking for simple answers or fine ideologies.

What we’re looking for is a better starting point. It’s not rocket science, but finding a way to deal with the real facts is better than a politics in which all experiments must fail. If you know what the other parts of the puzzle are, do say. Comment, like and subscribe, or as Douglas Adams presciently put it so many years ago: “Share and Enjoy“. (5)

Adrian West



(1) Quotation from Monty Python’s film  “Life of Brian“, 1979.
(2) Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby British Intelligence Officer and double agent for the soviets:  “Deny everything. My advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess
(3) Karl Popper
(4) Philip Tetlock “Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? How can we know?” paperback, 2006
(5) “Share and Enjoy” was the slogan of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Division in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. This phrase had its own song, which was sung by a choir of robots in the radio version. The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation tended to produce inherently faulty goods, which rendered the statement ironic since few people would want to “Share and Enjoy” something that was defective.

Photo credit: pexels.com

Apr 192016

colour circle: consumers and users
How do specialists in different disciplines make explicit use of “thinking and mind” in their work?  We’re pleased to invite guest writer Brian Jens, a design professional, to offer insight from his experience on one key element of his work.


Have you ever wondered why you prefer this or that color?

colour_circle_brian_jensColor plays an important role in human life: it can affect decision making, change your reaction, or be the cause of it. Under the influence of a particular color, you may experience a change in pressure and appetite. We do not generally focus the attention on color in everyday life, so the importance of understanding its effects comes to us only when the color is absent: for example, on a cloudy or rainy day we may feel depressed, and the world around us seems to be unfriendly.

Color awakens unconscious reactions that may vary depending on our individual personal characteristics. The color that we prefer and respond to can tell us a lot about ourselves, namely about our concerns, fears, aspirations, and so on.

The greatest problem in our industry is the fine line between all the scientific research and the reality. Despite all the progress in the study of color and its impact on a person, it is still not possible to find a clear correspondence between them. Therefore, the piece below is the belief of our DesignContest team, which is based on personal experience and partly supported by independent studies and known facts. We do not pretend to know the truth – we just hope that our observations will help you in this or that way, when it comes to using colour in practice. Continue reading »

Apr 082016

sun in the sky

In every side-show tent most of the audience are taken in by the illusionist: either marvelling at the magic, or strenuously looking for “how it’s done”. The elephant disappears; the rabbit comes out of the hat. How extraordinary, wonderful, impossible. And it’s precisely because it is so obviously impossible that we look so hard for the trick, we know that what we see can’t really be happening. If the illusionist is good you won’t even be looking near the right place to see the sleight of hand – it’s already happened.

When you come into the world, you find yourself in one or another side-show tent, depending on geography, time, surroundings, parents. The side-show is the world presented to you by society, by the media, politics, corporations, the powerful and so-on -  wherever they got their own beliefs from.  The illusions are not so obvious because they are familiar, they are what you are expecting to see. If an elephant can be made to disappear, how much easier to win an argument, to convince people of how it is and what they should do. We are fooled into believing that life is just about jobs, markets, rulers, priests, science, progress, ambition, success, being rich, famous, or rebelling against the injustice of those who are; that you should really be thinking about it as a ‘financial asset’, or a game of monopoly to be played and, above all, to be a winner.

If the illusion is one that you are susceptible to, or want to believe, you won’t even be looking for a trick: after all, no elephants are disappearing (actually, come to think of it they are!).  The protagonists appear to be presenting the different, reasonable views, and arguing fiercely with each other about which are the right rules or what the rules should be, or what is right, and what is wrong. As we puzzle confusedly over those questions, we forget to ask ourselves why we are even playing the game, and are fooled by the superficial magic.

Yet even in the illusionist’s audience a few are not taken in, not asking where the trick is, and not interested in playing the game. They leave the tent and find a world of sun, sky and trees and what is real.


Jan 132014


A new dawn, or the wrong problem?
We live in the ‘smart’ era, and we hear so much now about ‘smart’ – from smart watches to smart homes, it seems every part of human life is entering the era of smart.  Take the ‘smart’ phone for instance. We know what they are, we probably own one and we live each day with more and more use of it across more and more parts of our lives. And yet it’s easy to forget that smart phones have barely been on the market for a decade.

One of the most interesting areas for us as a team is how the era of ‘smart’ really relates to better thinking. And one of the most interesting areas to that regard is that of smart cities.

Continue reading »

Nov 122013

bridget-jones-the-edge-of-failureHello Bridget
With the new Bridget Jones book, Mad About the Boy (Random Publications)  published last month, I thought it might be an idea to consider the draw of one of our (albeit fictional) national treasures.  It is well documented that there is more than just a nod in the direction of Jane Austen’s work in Bridget’s diaries and we all catch our breath when, she too, finds her own Mr Darcy. Continue reading »

Sep 302013


My mind is racing; I am in a state perpetual list writing. A weary business traveller on the red eye, it is Monday morning and I am delayed on a flight from Manchester to Norwich, with a full day ahead of me knowing that this delay is going to throw the day, nay the week, out. I am tense, I feel it, it is almost tangible and I know my fellow passengers are feeling it too. They shuffle uncomfortably in their seats and they ooze the stress of the Monday morning commute. As I observe their behaviour, my stress was also clear for them to see. The actions of someone who needed to be somewhere and was stuck, acutely aware of the consequence of what was before them, my blackberry winking angrily at me from my lap. Trying to relax, but the very idea is almost absurd. A delayed plane is the ideal time to sit and think, to be, a time for reflection and, put simply, to do absolutely nothing… but this was something that evaded me, try as I might. Continue reading »

Aug 272013

measures-of-success-culture-at-workIf you inherited £5 million tomorrow (from a relative you didn’t know you had), would you still go back to work? Many would say “no” – 70% in America apparently[1], and perhaps that’s what you’d expect. Yet the interesting follow on question is … “if not, then what would have to change at your workplace, for you to want to?”[2]. You could take a moment to write your answer….. It’s likely it will be about people, purpose, or in summary: “culture”.
Continue reading »

Jul 202013
 Posted by  Society and Culture Tagged with:


“Sticking your head in the sand not only limits your vision,
it makes your rear-end such a big target.”(1)

I’d like to take a contentious topic, and try to approach it a little more clearly, at least avoiding some of the usual pitfalls that limit our thinking. The topic is “whistle-blowing”. It gets strong reactions and emotions run high, so we’re readily susceptible to all the usual distortions when thinking about it.
Continue reading »

Jul 122013

I was led to a YouTube clip today taken from a This Morning  tv episode where Katie Hopkins, a woman who had appeared on The Apprentice some years ago, waxed lyrical about the class system that is so firmly rooted in generations of anxiety, resentment and snobbery. Her argument woke me up to the different ways people see society, class and each other. Continue reading »

Jun 212013

what-are-we-measuringWith more information having been produced in the last 2 years than the rest of human history combined, I read with interest recently this article about the context, processes and value behind social scoring. Whilst it’s debatable as to what magnitude of useful and genuine “information” growth there has been (idle “chatter” and streaming episodes of our favourite soaps are all counted in for example), there’s no doubt there’s a lot more information, stored across a lot more servers. Continue reading »