Mathew Syed – Black box thinking

We will see that blame is, in many respects, a subversion of the narrative fallacy: an oversimplification driven by biases in the human brain.

There’s no point in failing and then dealing with it by pretending it didn’t happen, or blaming someone else. That would be a wasted opportunity to learn more about yourself and perhaps to identify gaps in your skills, experiences or qualifications.

Almost every society studied by historians has had its own ideas about the way the world works, often in the form of myths, religions and superstitions. Primitive societies usually viewed these ideas as sacrosanct and often punished those who disagreed with death. Those in power didn’t want to be confronted with any evidence that they might be wrong. As the philosopher Bryan Magee put it: ‘The truth is to be kept inviolate and handed on unsullied from generation to generation. For this purpose, institutions develop –mysteries, priesthoods, and at an advanced stage, schools.’ 1 Schools of this kind never admitted to new ideas and expelled anyone who attempted to change the doctrine. 2 But at some point in human history this changed. Criticism was tolerated and even encouraged. According to the philosopher Karl Popper, this first occurred in the days of the Ancient Greeks, but the precise historical claim is less important than what it meant in practice. The change ended the dogmatic tradition. It was, he says, the most important moment in intellectual progress since the discovery of language.

It turns out that many of the errors committed in hospitals (and in other areas of life) have particular trajectories, subtle but predictable patterns: what accident investigators call ‘signatures’. With open reporting and honest evaluation, these errors could be spotted and reforms put in place to stop them from happening again, as happens in aviation. But, all too often, they aren’t. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Learning from failure has the status of a cliché. But it turns out that, for reasons both prosaic and profound, a failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the single greatest obstacles to human progress.

Studies have shown that we are often so worried about failure that we create vague goals, so that nobody can point the finger when we don’t achieve them. We come up with face-saving excuses, even before we have attempted anything. We cover up mistakes, not only to protect ourselves from others, but to protect us from ourselves. Experiments have demonstrated that we all have a sophisticated ability to delete failures from memory, like editors cutting gaffes from a film reel

a closed loop is where failure doesn’t lead to progress because information on errors and weaknesses is misinterpreted or ignored; an open loop does lead to progress because the feedback is rationally acted upon).

This, then, is what we might call ‘black box thinking’. fn8 For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.

Science is not just about confirmation, it is also about falsification. Knowledge does not progress merely by gathering confirmatory data, but by looking for contradictory data.

It is by testing our ideas, subjecting them to failure, that we set the stage for growth.

Even the most beautifully constructed system will not work if professionals do not share the information that enables it to flourish.

We cannot learn if we close our eyes to inconvenient truths, but we will see that this is precisely what the human mind is wired up to do, often in astonishing ways.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ is the term Festinger coined to describe the inner tension we feel when, among other things, our beliefs are challenged by evidence. Most of us like to think of ourselves as rational and smart. We reckon we are pretty good at reaching sound judgements. We don’t like to think of ourselves as dupes. That is why when we mess up, particularly on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened. We feel uncomfortable, twitchy. In these circumstances we have two choices. The first is to accept that our original judgements may have been at fault. We question whether it was quite such a good idea to put our faith in a cult leader whose prophecies didn’t even materialise. We pause to reflect on whether the Iraq War was quite such a good idea given that Saddam didn’t pose the threat we imagined. The difficulty with this option is simple: it is threatening. It requires us to accept that we are not as smart as we like to think. It forces us to acknowledge that we can sometimes be wrong, even on issues on which we have staked a great deal. So, here’s the second option: denial. We reframe the evidence. We filter it, we spin it, or ignore it altogether. That way, we can carry on under the comforting assumption that we were right all along. We are bang on the money! We didn’t get duped! What evidence that we messed up?

Festinger’s great achievement was to show that cognitive dissonance is a deeply ingrained human trait. The more we have riding on our judgements, the more we are likely to manipulate any new evidence that calls them into question.

Psychologists often point out that self-justification is not entirely without benefits. It stops us agonising over every decision, questioning every judgement, staying awake at night wondering if getting married/ taking that job/ going on that course was the right thing to do. The problem, however, is when this morphs into mindless self-justification: when we spin automatically; when we reframe wantonly; when failure is so threatening we can no longer learn from it.

intelligent people are not immune from the effects of cognitive dissonance. This is important because we often suppose that bright people are the most likely to reach the soundest judgements. We associate intelligence, however defined, as the best way of reaching truth. In reality, however, intelligence is often deployed in the service of dissonance-reduction.

As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote: ‘For if we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain . . . overwhelming evidence in favour of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.

Closed loops are often perpetuated by people covering up mistakes. They are also kept in place when people spin their mistakes, rather than confronting them head on.

Often, failure is clouded in ambiguity. What looks like success may really be failure and vice versa. And this, in turn, represents a serious obstacle to progress. After all, how can you learn from failure if you are not sure you have actually failed?

When we are presented with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs, we tend to reject the evidence or shoot the messenger rather than amend our beliefs.

Criticism surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light. This forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality.

Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know it in exquisite detail. There is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases.

Cosmos – Carl Sagan

عن الطفولة والقصص

“في كل صفحة عالم من البهجة والإثارة، مدن مسحورة وأخرى واقعية، ناس لا حصر لتنوعهم وتفردهم ،،،، دفق من المشاعر المتجددة،،، كل الطواتم سقطت هيبتها في هذه الحكايات، كل الستر تنزاح عن حقائق وأفاعيل مذهلة لصبي خضع لتربية صارمة ،،، ها هي ألف ليلة وليلة تزلزل بصدمات متوالية، ولكنها صدمات أشبه بالصدمة التي يحدثها صوت انفجار الصاروخ أثناء صعوده بالمركبة الفضائية، الصدمة التي تدفع المركبة إلى أعلى لكي تحررها من جاذبية الأرض. كانت صدمات ألف ليلة و ليلة التي أطلعتني بسفور كامل على كل ما يخفيه أهالينا عنا،،، سرعان ما فرغتني من مشاعر الخوف والاضطراب والشعور بالذنب. فما لبثت حتى انخرطت في حكاياتها مفتونا بكل ما فيها من فن…”

خيري شلبي  – أنس الحبايب

The perfect instrument

“My way of approaching Allah -may his name be praised- has been through calligraphy, and the search for the perfect meaning of each word. A single letter requires us to distill in it all the energy it contains, as if we were carving out its meaning. When sacred texts are written, they contain the soul of the man who served as an instrument to spread them throughout the world. And that doesn’t apply only to sacred texts, but to every mark we place on paper. Because the hand that draws each line reflects the soul of the person making that line.”

On Calligraphy from “The Witch of Portobello”

The Unbearable lightness of Being

Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by our universities.”

criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

When you sit face to face with someone who is pleasant, respectful, and polite, you have a hard time reminding yourself that nothing he says is true, that nothing is sincere.

What then should he have done? Sign or not?
Another way of formulating the question is, Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?

whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.
When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously);

The difference between the university graduate and the autodidact lies not so much in the extent of knowledge as in the extent of vitality and self-confidence.

The people Tomas met in the streets were different. Half of his friends had emigrated, and half of the half that remained had died.

But many also died without being directly subjected to persecution; the hopelessness pervading the entire country penetrated the soul to the body, shattering the latter.

His true goal was not to free the prisoners; it was to show that people without fear still exist. That, too, was playacting. But he had no other possibility. His choice was not between playacting and action. His choice was between playacting and no action at all. There are situations in which people are condemned to playact. Their struggle with mute power (the mute power across the river, a police transmogrified into mute microphones in the wall) is the struggle of a theater company that has attacked an army.

We all need someone to look at us. We can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under.
The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public.

The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes.
Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.

And finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on the fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch.

Quotes from “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”

a very nice read

I heard about it from 2 different trainers, one of them was giving us a quick course on mind mapping and the other about scenario building. So for a long time it was on my list and I finally finished it.

It can fool you as an easy read, and it is to some extent, but it has a problem of going in circles around the same idea for a long time. Nevertheless, I was rewarded every now and then with a brilliant idea, so it was ok at the end of the day.

Here are some of the words I liked:

“You need a story to displace a story. Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read. If I have to go after what I call the narrative disciplines, my best tool is a narrative.
Ideas come and go, stories stay.”

“I noticed that very intelligent and informed persons were at no advantage over cabdrivers in their predictions, but there was a crucial difference. Cabdrivers did not believe that they understood as much as learned people—really, they were not the experts and they knew it.”

“awareness of a problem does not mean much—particularly when you have special interests and self-serving institutions in play.”

“Now, there are other themes arising from our blindness to the Black Swan:

a. We focus on preselected segments of the seen and generalize from it to the unseen: the error of confirmation.
b. We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns: the narrative fallacy.
c. We behave as if the Black Swan does not exist: human nature is not programmed for Black Swans.
d. What we see is not necessarily all that is there. History hides Black Swans from us and gives us a mistaken idea about the odds of these events: this is the distortion of silent evidence.
e. We “tunnel”: that is, we focus on a few well-defined sources of uncertainty, on too specific a list of Black Swans (at the expense of the others that do not easily come to mind).”

“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”

“Our propensity to impose meaning and concepts blocks our awareness of the details making up the concept. H”

“The first problem is that information is costly to obtain.
The second problem is that information is also costly to store—like real estate in New York. The more orderly, less random, patterned, and narratized a series of words or symbols, the easier it is to store that series in one’s mind or jot it down in a book so your grandchildren can read it someday.”

“A novel, a story, a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness”

“For me, one such antilogic came with the discovery—thanks to the literature on cognition—that, counter to what everyone believes, not theorizing is an act—that theorizing can correspond to the absence of willed activity, the “default” option. It takes considerable effort to see facts (and remember them) while withholding judgment and resisting explanations.”

Cloud Atlas

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”

“You say you’re ‘depressed’ – all i see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”

“Why does any martyr cooperate with his judases?…We see a game beyond the endgame…As Seneca warned Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor.”
― David MitchellCloud Atlas


Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

“On the day when Eutropia’s inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip. So their life is renewed from move to move, among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site somehow different from the others. Since their society is ordered without great distinctions of wealth or authority, the passage from one function to another takes place almost without jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple assignments, so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely returns to a job that has already been his.
Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to whom the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous miracle.”

“Yes, the empire is sick, and, what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores. This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.”

“The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

the passage from one function to another takes place almost without jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple assignments, so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely returns to a job that has already been his. Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same.

“Yes, the empire is sick, and, what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores. This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.”