Mar 152023


Inspector Lestrade:We’re obviously looking at a suicide. It does seem the only explanation of all the facts.
Sherlock: “Wrong. It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts. You’ve got a solution that you like, but you are choosing to ignore anything you see that doesn’t comply with it.”


1.  Win any argument
2.  Reason – it’s not as good as you think
3.  Processed truth with additives vs. “the real thing”
4.  How not to fool yourself

1.  Win any argument

Winning any argument is simple: you just need to be better at arguing than your opponent.

But if that’s true, then arguing only shows who’s better at arguing, not who is right or what is true. Observe politicians or debates to see for yourself. Unfortunately, it means that if you’re clever enough then you can convince yourself of whatever you want to believe too – sometimes called the intelligence trap. That can be satisfying (arrogant?) but leads to self-delusion and perhaps to a career in politics.

Other people are surely swayed by your charismatic and impressive ability to argue too. conversation_topicYet, to repeat, it’s little to do with who is right, or what is true. So, the cleverer you are, the more likely you are to fool yourself (and others). No wonder our collective decision making is so poor. We are too easily influenced by the power of argument and charisma to vote for one choice over others.  It’s easy for us and saves having to think  ourselves, all we have to do is believe what sounded good. We’re as easily fooled by reason, as we are by blind faith. Sadly, as psychology repeatedly discovers, we’re the last to see we’ve been fooled or misled by anything – which is why it’s possible to win any argument, as politicians know.

2.  Reason – it’s not as good as you think

Surely logic, reason, ‘science’ aren’t that weak and easily manipulated are they? What’s going on?

Arguing – that is using reason and logic – is far less effective at finding out who’s right than we’re told – especially in the complicated world of everyday reality with all its opinions, partial information, lies and confused issues. Yes,  we can use reason and logic to help us, but like guns they depend so much on the motivations of the people using them. Or like shining a laser to illuminate a dark scene, it’s too dependent on where you choose to point and on who is doing the pointing. Reason is very sharp, but very narrow. Magicians fool us with magic tricks by directing our attention to an inconsequential detail, thus allowing the “trick” to take place in plain sight. Reason is good at that too.


David Hume, Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher, 1711 – 76


Bertrand Russell, British mathematician, philosopher, logician, and public intellectual. 1872-1970

Some of the “big” names in the field have said the same thing in different ways, for example:

 David Hume:Strict proof plays no part in human life outside of mathematics… rational demonstration is powerless in the face of some of the most elementary realities”.

 Bertrand Russell:In many respects we still have not got beyond Hume

and so many others.

3.  Processed truth with additives vs. “the real thing”

As hinted, you’re likely aware of this already from watching politicians, journalists and pundits who seem to get away with anything: always with strong opinions and certainty; always able to evade responsibility. They insist they are right – at least they seem to believe it themselves, which is why we find it hard to trust them. Multinational companies commission scientific research to get the results they want, or they demand strict proof from objectors, when strict proof just isn’t a logical possibility (Hulme again). Remember when there was “no evidence” that smoking causes cancer. Actually that field – deliberate manufacturing of doubt and ignorance – has its own name: “Agnotology”.

Science has the same problem. If a pet theory fails, it can always be claimed that better equipment was needed, and always that “more research is necessary”.

apple_doughnutReal or organic truth though is motivated by the quest for reliable knowledge about the world for the purpose of making better decisions and acting wisely. In contrast, processed truth is more like genetically modified, or additive laden processed foods but aren’t any good for us: tasty, cheap, and attractive though they might be.

All this reality can be a shock for trainee researchers who, after all, are supposed to be learning how to get at what’s true in complicated fields.

4.  How not to fool yourself

Richard Feynman (the physicist labelled “no ordinary genius”) put it this way: “The first rule is not to fool yourself… and you are the easiest person to fool”.

laserSo, if you want to, or if say you’re training to be a scientist (PhD for example) you can learn to do better. You can use the gun or laser beam of reason more wisely, to see more clearly rather than to manipulate. That’s an important start if we want to understand the world, and therefore make better decisions.

So how do we stop fooling ourselves? Here are a few directions:

  • One is to understand how ‘reason’ works, and its limits, so we’re not bedazzled by it, or by charismatic people pretending to know what they’re talking about (don’t look into a laser beam). It’s as easy to be fooled by reason, as by blind faith.
  • Two is to realise that feeling ‘certain’ that we’re right, is just that, only a feeling.
  • Three is to practice being wrong – just to get used to how that feels.

There’s ‘knowing’ and then there’s ‘knowing’. As an ancient sage put it “To know, is to act accordingly”. We all say we know these things already, but do we actually behave as though we do? And maybe it’s more clear recently that figuring out what’s actually going on is difficult but important for all of us, not just in research laboratories.

The task is to see more clearly; accept uncertainty and doubt; yet not be paralysed by indecision. Because then we can make decisions we don’t regret.


Adrian West

Sep 262017

Let we remember

Invert, always invert” recommended Jacobi. Like a cat, when we’re trying to see something clearly we should move our head around quickly to get different viewpoints before pouncing (style is important too). One way to do that with “thinking” is to ask, “if I turn this upside down, will I see it differently? does it make any sense?”  That is one axis we can move our viewpoint along.  Depending on the thinking task at hand, we may understand the problem better, or it may be a way of moving our trapped thinking to get new ideas.

An example. If the focus is on dealing with the problem of an ageing society. Invert the problem: is it the ageing society that’s the issue or is that element in fact ok, and it’s the young end of the spectrum – attitudes, work practices, how the economy works – that is actually the issue leading to a focus on the elderly as being the problem?

Another.  People who identify a plot on the part of the establishment, are called “conspiracy theorists“. Can we invert this idea? Yes,  we get something like “lack-of-conspiracy theorists“. Is there any value in that? Where does it lead though?  Well yes, people who unquestioningly accept whatever the establishment says are historically just as dangerous, possibly more so than those who see more suspicious explanations. But as far as I know we don’t have a corresponding term for lack-of-conspiracy theorists. Still, that’s the start of what may be a productive line of investigation for an idea, which is the point: invert -> new idea; new way of looking at a common-place.  After all, looking for something genuinely ‘new’ isn’t historically as successful as looking at the same thing that everyone already sees, but seeing that same thing in a way no-one else has done – to paraphrase Schopenhauer.

Similarly “Luddites” are people who distrust technology and want to hold it back. But is there any inversion of that term. A term to identify those who accept any new technologies uncritically as obviously good and unstoppable.  Isn’t that just as dangerous an attitude? – shouldn’t we have an equally provocative term to signal that danger – even if it happens to go against the mood of our particular times? Perhaps the mood of the times is as it is, in part because we don’t have such a term to make that alternate view ready to hand.  Instead of the unquestioned vision of the Star-Trek future (next-gen) where technology has advanced and almost flawlessly is at our service, it might be we’re headed for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide future, where nothing quite works as it should and no-one is able to fix it – perhaps the microsoft future? If that’s a possibility we should be considering, so that we can handle it better, then we do need a word for blind unquestioning faith in technology and new ideas,  just as urgently as we need “Luddite”.

Or another phrase: “innocent until proven guilty” is richer than the obvious inversion. There are all sorts of re-combinations. One that strikes is “innocent even when proven guilty” . Does that happen? Indeed it does seem to apply at times – for example the “Train-gate” splashed over newspapers casting doubt over Jeremy Corbyn’s honesty…. now that the leaked full videos from the train are available they show Corbyn having been entirely accurate (there were no rows of empty seats, different frames of the video show heads of children and others appearing from them). So the media are guilty of misrepresentation on that occasion, but apart from some small-print retractions, they carry on as innocent, telling us what to believe now, with equal certainty.  It seems there is some mileage to be had pursuing the line of thinking that “innocent even after proved guilty” – by comparing and contrasting cases in society where retribution falls upon the guilty, and where it does not: which was the point. The start of an idea.

But for entertainment, lets take something more pointed – depending on your beliefs (beliefs simply being ideas that you identify with). The one I would like to develop here is Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s exhortation at the 2016 Labour Conference, that we  should not dwell on mistakes of the past, but instead celebrate our achievements – which makes a certain forward-looking sense in everyday life. The uneasy  feeling here however, is in spotting the conjurer’s trick, that what we’re being asked to ignore – not even acknowledge and actually learn from, but to ignore and leave behind as unimportant -  are not every-day-life things, but enormities occasioned by those when last they held power. The statement provokes the thought of generations who directly experienced two world-wars, namely “lest we forget“.  Those people were really concerned, scared, that after two wars to end-all-wars, there would be a third we would blunder unthinkingly into, immune to the prospect of the conseqences. Hence the UN, and the emotive call to sanity in the wording of its charter. It meant a lot to them with that experience which few alive now have visceral access to.

Idly inverting that phrase of hard-won pained experience  gives “lest we remember“, a handy aid for politicians when seeing recent history isn’t helping their agenda, and when people should be encouraged not to think about the horrors we supported last time…(and reminded that the reasons we gave were, to be generous,  obscure). Isn’t the risk of this that we’re just setting up to do it all over again?

There’s some insight value here if we explore.  All those labour party MPs voting against having any inquiry into the Iraq war…perhaps didn’t want to remember, or to learn from the experience – understandably.  Or perhaps they thought all useful learning has already been had, and it’s time to move on. Well, I suppose they would, wouldn’t they? It’s a  psychological and real-politic necessity. However there’s little evidence to the public of that learning, beyond the words.   And to generalise the insight, if winning is all important, then mistakes and errors of the past tarnish us, and must be forgotten  – which does make learning difficult. That would be why we blindly go about  setting up the  conditions to go round the same old treadmill yet again. “Without power we can do nothing” (untrue historically – think of the Suffragettes; anti-slavery…); “and we are just and therefore must attain power so that we good people can benefit all”…. ” now we have power”…. “the most important thing above all isn’t in fact to do the good we promised, but … to … hang on to power (because without power we are nothing)”… “therefore we must, for the sake of unity…”…. and so it goes on.  Be wary of people who say “the most important thing is winning”. Douglas Adams was right.

If that’s all so, then what can we learn from this exercise? Is a better way forward to genuinely acknowledge a past; acknowledge rather than dismiss it, and  then actually learn from it in order to move forward – as JF Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs, hence handling the Cuban missile crisis more wisely. Obvious, and easy to say, but it does seem by observation, that such an attitude of genuine learning and adapting is rare in practice. The “lest we remember” gambit is common though.  Yet this is a powerful opportunity  because people sense whether we’re genuine, or dismissing and explaining away. That is why trust vaporises. If everyone is playing the same game we ourselves don’t notice (“they’re all the same”)  until… someone people can trust comes along, then there’s shock all round that the game isn’t being played properly. Perhaps having values you believe in turns out to be more important than compromising them in order to win….truly rare indeed in politics it seems, but yes, really.

I won’t pretend the above are crisp work-shop-able uses of inversion as an insight/idea tool, and whether you like that particular line of thought will depend on your own beliefs. But I think it does illustrate how the mundane use of inversions can lead to ideas and investigations of perspectives we might not otherwise come up with.  In that example it’s important to say there is still work needed to develop and make constructive use of those explorations,  it just illustrates an effective way of exploring further when otherwise we feel stuck, or worse, when we’re certain and don’t believe we need to look any further.


Dec 142013


We’re running a workshop, Adrian is in full flow delivering our “Practical Thinking” programme. I set up my laptop on a side table and to make the most use of down time as it occurs, I decide to write a piece for Fellowship of Mind

At this point  I hear a light knock on the door and go out to answer it. A construction worker in a high-viz jacket tells me he was just passing and points to a bag that has been left in the corridor and could I take care of it? I carry it quietly, intrigued and a little anxious about finding its owner, back into the room, as the delegates grapple with critical thinking exercises.  Prompted by the mystery parcel, my storytelling imagination weaves a metaphorical tale…

Continue reading »

May 152013

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with a friend who works for a large property company running a number of financial programmes. I was amazed to hear of the complexity of the thinking in the range of processes and financial models that she delivers. And yet the same trials and tribulations of thinking seemed apparent in my background and hers! Continue reading »