To Westerners, the protests and killings in response to the “inadvertent” burning of multiple copies of the Holy Korans in Bagram Air Base is a tremendous over-reaction. Equally disturbing to me is the criticism of President Obama over his apology for this action. “The Afghans should apologize for the death of our servicemen.” In both cases dichotomous thinking is at the heart of the problem. To devout Muslims, promoting Allah’s Will on earth is their principal goal. Demonstrating to non-Muslims how sacred the Koran is to them is certainly consistent with this goal. That said, is it really Allah’s Will that people die over this? You burned the Koran. You are bad. We must kill you.
The NATO goal in Afghanistan is to promote the modernization. Clearly the burning of the Korans does not help this goal. Whether it was an inadvertent mistake, an example of poor judgment or a blatant act of desecration, it was done under military jurisdiction and so the military is responsible. Most of us consider it reasonable to apologize for a mistake that harms others and as commander and chief of the US military it is totally appropriate for the president to apologize. Yes it is true that, to us killing is worse than desecration, but the idea that we should not apologize for what we did because what they did is worse is small-minded. This type of thinking distracts us from our ultimate goal of modernization.
Ask anyone if they like negative campaign adds and they will surely say no. So why are negative campaign adds so effective? Why do people still respond to them? It is just another result of the overuse of DT. In a world where DT is automatically suspect, negative campaign adds would carry much less weight. The goal of understanding who a candidate is, what he/she stands for and what he/she will do if elected will not as easily be usurped by the dichotomous question “Do I like this person?” or “Would I want this person as my friend?” There is a move towards undoing the devastating effect of the Citizens United decision on our democracy. The inappropriate influence of money on our political system is also an important issue to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Unfortunately, this is only part of the problem. The real enemy is simple mindedness. As long as simple mindedness dominates the general population, it will dominate our political system.
The goal of the scientist is to understand the nature of the universe. The fruits of their labor can most benefit the rest of society when the information they generate is transformed from the dichotomous true vs. false framework into a goal-oriented utility framework. In other words, “This is how things work, but what good does that do me?” “How can the discoveries of the scientist help me achieve my goals?”
The laws of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy were first laid out at the end of the 19th century. The original motivation was to explain some very important aspects of our universe. In fact everything that occurs in our world, does so within the confines of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Everything from chemical reactions to life to weather patterns are driven by the continued increase in entropy (randomness) of our universe. Over the last century these laws have been used to generate better engines, make better chemicals and of course bigger and better weapons. But if they are so universal, are they important to the common individual as well?
Without getting too detailed, the first law of thermodynamics is essentially “There is no free lunch.” (Matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another). The second law is essentially Murphy’s law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Put another way, the entropy (randomness) of the universe can only increase, so the only way to bring about order in one place is to do some form of work (releasing heat and creating more entropy in the rest of the universe.) Our highly ordered bodies can only exist because we are constantly feeding them energy to maintain that order.
The main barrier to any form of political activism is overcoming the entropic tendencies in the form of differing ideas among individuals. Getting people with differing ideas “on board” is often an uphill battle because it involves overcoming the entropy of diverse ideas. Often times no volume of dichotomous “true fact” is adequate to change minds. It is often the case that common goals are the catalyst to overcoming entropy. Chemical catalysts overcome entropy by brining chemicals closer together so they can react more easily. Similarly, focusing on common goals and avoiding dichotomous separations can add to consensus building and make political progress more likely.
I started visiting the Occupy Wall Street site at Zuccotti park in late September. I was curious what the goals of the movement were and the degree to which dichotomous thinking might be interfering. I was also curious if there were a lot of individuals whose goals did not go beyond “I am very upset and I am here to stamp my feet and make a lot of noise.” What I found there was quite remarkable.
Almost everyone I spoke to could state, in a reasonably coherent manner, what their personal goals were. It was not the simple “Wall street and corporations are bad!!”. It was really “Here are the problems as I see them.” As for the proposed solutions,
I would say they ranged from liberal progressives who want to see significant
change in our current system to Marxist/anachists who were convinced the entire
system needs to be torn down and rebuilt. There are very deep concerns over the
movement being usurped by larger forces. This is why there is such a commitment
to a horizontal leaderless organization of the movement.
What is most amazing about the OWS movement (and what does
not get any coverage in the corporate media) is the direct democracy process
that is being used (in lieu of leaders) to make decisions and commit to
specific actions. It has its problems at times and it may not always succeed,
but the goal is to come to consensus on issues in a way that allows all voices
to be heard with no one being marginalized. Any one individual can block a
proposal (although it is supposed to be for serious reasons like safety, ethics
or a perceived threat to the movement) and the block can only be over-ruled by
a 90% majority. As a result, it forces the group to search for the proposal
that best reflects the values and opinions of the most members. The assumption
is that simple majority rule can result in 49% being dissatisfied.
What fascinates me about the process is the degree to which it can be derailed by dichotomous thinking and how it forces the individuals to constantly return to the larger goal the group is striving for. Among the goals of many individuals is to bring this form of consensus building to other aspects of society. I am very excited about this because I see it as a potential step towards a world where dichotomous thinking is identified and rejected when it interferes with achieving desirable goals.
BTW if you think the movement has “fizzled out” just because the encampment has been disbanded, go to the official website (http://www.nycga.net), click on “Groups” and take a look at what the 124 (as of this posting) working groups are up to.
Beyond the obvious tragedy of loosing a father of three who was also an extremely talented contributor to the beauty of our world, there is the added tragedy that Michael Jackson’s death did not spark the debate over what really killed him. There is a growing trend in the medical profession towards favoring patient satisfaction over appropriate medical care. Whether it is antibiotics for colds, or useless cough medicines, or narcotics for simple injuries, the business end of medicine can often leave physicians feeling trapped. This is a particularly big problem in large for-profit hospitals where the bean counters chanting Press Ganey (a patient satisfaction scoring system) almost out number the actual health care workers. The details of the case are of interest and it is hard to defend the use of propofol in a private setting, but how much good will actually come from punishing Conrad Murray? Will the next private doctor of a superstar be sure to have the proper equipment available?
Yankel Rosenberg (mid 80s VIP patient, Brooklyn, NY) was probably happy to be spared the indignantly of being completely undressed while in the ER, especially when the mayor came to visit him. We can only assume that he remained satisfied right up until the point that he died of the stab wound no one saw. Like Michael Jackson, it was the special treatment that killed him. To a lesser degree, the same thing is happening throughout the country.
Whenever a systemic problem comes to a head in such an attention grabbing way as this, it would be good if our media outlets could take advantage of this and open the debate. Unfortunately this is not a simple good-guy bad-guy issue. Given the growing costs of health care, it seems only natural that the customer walk away “satisfied.” The goal of the medical community is to decrease (not increase) the probability of bad outcome. There are times when this conflicts with patient satisfaction. In the case of people with substance abuse problems, dissatisfaction is actually the treatment. As always, I do not blame the corporate media. Their goal is to make money for the parent company by giving the public what it wants. Unfortunately no one wants to be told that medical care is anything other than a way to make the customer happy. More complex issues are no fun. As long as the public values the entertainment aspects over substance, opportunities such as the one created by this tragedy will continue to be missed.
I was surprised when someone compared dichotomous thinking to the Hydra, which to me was a small multi-cellular organism with tentacles and a primitive nervous system. I did not know the name Hydra comes from Greek mythology and refers to a multi-headed beast. If you cut off one of the heads but do not cauterize the neck, the head grows back. The great thing about the analogy is that there is a difference between simply pointing out how dichotomous thinking confounds one specific problem, say
blocking consensus on a common issue, and pointing out the hand (or head) it
plays in seemingly unrelated problems. I have no illusions as to how difficult it is to promote an idea like this, what makes me think it an achievable goal is the wide number of different ways the same problem rears its ugly heads.
If anyone has given a great deal of thought to how we use information and the consequences of using information in different ways, it is Steve Jobs. When he said, “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive….”, I could not agree more. Goal-directed thinking can lead to individuals coming together in a constructive way, while dichotomous thinking can separate people leading to destructive tendencies.
A very learned individual questioned the “us vs. them” flavor of some of the posts on this blog. In the post entitled “Can we Negotiate with Iran?” I originally referred to the alleged attempt by the Iranian government to kill a Saudi diplomat on U.S. soil as “… another salvo in the ongoing war between problem-solvers and noise-makers.” I had to go back and forth many times on this issue. Was I being too dichotomous? Dichotomous thinking is a problem when it replaces needed goal-oriented thinking. There are, however, situations in which dichotomous thinking is appropriate. I am trying to encourage people, not to reject dichotomous thinking outright, but to ask “Is this dichotomy justified?” Clearly there will be times when the source of a disagreement will stem from a disagreement over whether a particular dichotomy is justified. While coming to this realization may not solve the dispute, I suggest it may still lend useful clarity to the underlying issues.
In the case of this particular post, I finally decided that there was a degree of small-mindedness on my part. While I consider the dichotomy to be extremely important, the true battle line is between the actions (problem-solving and noise making) more so than the individuals. I have since made a small modification to the post. I consider this an example of how the problem of the overuse of dichotomous thinking is a problem that can interfere with its own solution.
While one can understand and sympathize with the anger and hatred many Libyans must feel towards Qaddafi and his regime, the goal of creating a just and democratic nation is threatened by the desire for revenge. In a world where dichotomous thinking is automatically held suspect, arguments against revenge would carry a great deal more weight. The arguments would go “We must reconcile with THEM, not because what they did was OK, but because revenge is a distraction and does not help us achieve our goals.” “Revenge just makes more dichotomous noise.” “There is no problem for which revenge is a solution.”
The beauty of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech, to me was its call to being goal-directed and avoiding dichotomous noise. In essence his dreams are his goals. He is often characterized as promoting non-violent protest but I suggest that he goes beyond this. When he said “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline” and “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people….”, he was speaking out against dichotomous thinking. He knew that, for the civil right movement to be successful, it was necessary to remain goal-directed and that vilification of whites would be as counter productive as violence.