I have always been fascinated by human errors – especially fundamental blunders that are so readily accepted by a society, go unchallenged more or less indefinitely, yet ultimately help alter the course of human destiny, for better or for worse.
The things that intrigue me most about these errors are the speed at which they can embed themselves as irrefutable beliefs, the unintended consequences they bring about, and the outright resentment with which any question of their legitimacy invariably elicits. Detractors are written off as crazy, foolish, heretics – or far worse.
I am familiar with such disparagement, having always been accused of being a heretic. At school my teachers despaired of my ever conforming to their standards. Even as a young man my voice was most often categorised as that of a stirrer, a somewhat precocious rebel whose views were just beyond the bounds of convention and political correctness.
I recognised from an early age that all ‘truth’ is temporary and that consequently almost everything I was being taught at school must be inconsequential if it did not reflect and embody my own individual experiences of the world. I found out to my cost that the truth hurts. For example, I was dismissed from the Royal College of Music for confronting the Registrar on what I took to be the poor quality of the teaching – not a wise thing to do at a time when ‘student feedback’ was a term yet to be invented! At Dartington College of Arts I was reprimanded for advising my students not to pursue a career in teaching if they were not passionate about education or if it was their second choice. And at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School I was forced to resign as Dean simply for doing the job I was tasked to do but in a way that offended the Council.
It has been that way as far back as I can remember. Relentlessly curious, able to perceive and be comfortable with at least three points of view, I have invariably felt awkward when being asked to passively accept alternative or watered down versions of the truth, even when that strategy might have led to a much more uncomplicated and comfortable life.
My first book, published almost 30 years ago, was called The Management Myth. Here I tried to identify some of the more harmful untruths, and subsequent mistakes, made by business executives and consultants during the course of their clumsy attempts to design organizations, work flows, and management practices. There are many of them of course, some of them very funny, and almost all of them silly in their own distinctive way. Although the book became a best-seller it was more or less shunned by a business community not geared up to hear the truth.
But management and organisational development are not the only domains inviting ideas that are fundamentally flawed. Far from it. Errors, blunders and fictions flourish anywhere a universal order is decreed: philosophy, religion, science, politics, commerce, education or even the law, come to think of it especially the law, are fertile ground for such slips. These are not errors of judgment or of action mind you, but of flawed thinking and the mumbo-jumbo stemming from their creation that attempts to give them additional credibility.
The great English philosopher Francis Bacon pointed to four categories of human error. He associated these with the cave (individuals), the tribe (human nature), the marketplace (human interaction), and the theatre (philosophical dogma). I tire very quickly of inactivity. Working an average of 10 hours a day, I am always on the go. Faced with the prospect of an entire evening devoted to doing absolutely nothing while on vacation recently on the coast of Thailand I thought it might be amusing to pinpoint some of the most erroneous and damaging myths in each of these categories. So, at the risk of offending everyone on the planet in some form or other, including my family and friends, here are my top ten great lies in descending order of importance.
- Human behaviour can be predicted
Actually I am skating on thin ice here as algorithms are rapidly acquiring the capability to anticipate human responses to certain stimuli, particularly when the ambient conditions are known. It is only a matter of time before we can confidently predict most individual human behaviour.
Nevertheless, scholars have been berated for not predicting the end of the cold war, the rise of Islam, the attacks on the World Trade Building, and much else besides. Yet many natural sciences, including seismology and evolutionary biology, cannot anticipate with any accuracy either. Even leaving aside the matter of human intention and volition, human affairs allow too many variables for such precise calculations.
At the moment it is impossible to predict with certainty the outcome of a sporting contest, the incidence of revolutions, the duration of an intimate relationship, or how long a person will live. It is a delusion to think that we can.
- The world is speeding up
This, a favourite mantra of globalisation theorists, passionate technocrats, pop futurists and management gurus, confuses acceleration in some areas, such as the time it takes to transmit knowledge for example, with the fact that large tracts of human life continue to demand the same time as before: to conceive and bear a child, to learn a language, to grow up, to digest a meal, to enjoy a joke, to read a poem. It takes more or less the same time to fly from London to New York as it did forty years ago, to boil an egg or publish a book. Some activities – such as driving around major cities, getting through an airport, or dying – may actually take much longer. This error also muddles, quite dangerously I think, the time needed for wise decision-making and effective action-taking by squeezing both into a pervasive ‘here and now’. Sage decisions about complex or systemic issues take time for reflection, whereas action can, and often needs to be, rapid.
- Markets are a ‘natural’ phenomenon that allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences
Oh, oh! What utter bullshit. And how harmful such a view has become! Markets are not ‘natural’ but are the product of particular societies, value systems and patterns of state relations to the economy. They are not efficient allocators of goods, since they ignore large areas of human activity and needs that are not covered by monetary values – from education and the provision of public works, to human happiness and fulfilment. In any case the notion of a ‘free’ market is pure fantasy; the examples of the two most traded commodities in the contemporary world, drugs and data, show how political, social and cartel factors override and distort the workings of supply and demand.
- We have no need for history
In recent decades, large areas of intellectual and academic life – including much political science and analysis, economics, philosophy – have jettisoned a concern with history. Yet it remains true that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it – as the recycling of misjudged cold-war premises in Iraq by the second Bush administration so devastatingly illustrated. When any attempt is made to redesign the present, the outcomes invariably prove to be most successful in a context where the past and the possible are pulled into an ‘expanded now’ of new consciousness.
- The spread of English as a world language should be welcomed
It is obviously of practical benefit that there is a single common, functional, language for trade, air traffic control, and the like. But the actual domination of English in today’s world has been accompanied by a tide of cultural hubris that is itself debasing: a downgrading and neglect of other languages and cultures across the world, the general compounding of Anglo-Saxon political and social arrogance, and the introverted collapse of interest within English-speaking countries themselves in other peoples and languages. In sum, a triumph of banality over diversity.
- The world’s population problems can be solved without the use of condoms
This is possibly the most dangerous, and also the most criminal fallacy, of the modern era. Millions of people will suffer, and die premature and humiliating deaths, as a result of the policies pursued in this regard through the United Nations, the Catholic Church, and their related aid and public-health programmes. Indeed, there is no need to ask where the first mass murderers of the 21st century are; we already know, and their addresses besides: the Lateran Palace, Vatican City, Rome, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Timely arrest and indictment would save many lives.
- The world is divided into incomparable moral blocs, or civilisations
The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner aptly termed this view liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals. But a set of ingrained common tenets is indeed shared across the world: from notions of social equality, justice and rights, to the defence of territory and belief in the benefits of sound economic management. What I refer to as the modern civilisational worldview has also accommodated the ideas of a ruling elite with a different function from those that serve this elite, beliefs in higher forms of intelligence, the employment of almost unlimited conflict to defend assets, and an acceptance that we can plunder the planet in order to find food and fuel.
The implantation of these tenets (the world-system) differs in all cultures – but not the core tenets themselves, which have become a shared construct – divorced from geography, history and ideology. The issue of greatest concern for us must be whether our modern worldview can possibly remain relevant with the global population rapidly approaching 8 billion people, and whether the tensions that will undoubtedly arise from our diverse interpretations of the worldview in the future can be contained. If this proves to be impossible, then reform of the worldview itself will become vital.
- Diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics
I am on dangerous ground here. But the notion that emigrant or diaspora communities have a special insight into the problems of their homeland, or a special moral or political status in regard to them, is wholly unfounded. Emigrant ethnic communities play almost always a negative, backward, at once hysterical and obstructive, role in resolving the conflicts of their countries of origin: Armenians and Turks, Jews and Arabs and various strands of Irish, are prime examples on the inter-ethnic front, as are exiles in the United States in regard to resolving the problems of Cuba, or policymaking on Iran.
- The only thing ‘they’ understand is force
This has been the guiding illusion of hegemonic colonial thinking for several centuries. Oppressed peoples do not accept the imposition of solutions by force: they revolt. It is the oppressors who, in the end, have to accept the verdict of force, as European empires did in Latin America, Africa and Asia and as the United States did in Iraq. The hubris of mission accomplished in May 2003 has been followed by ignominy. It was inevitable.
- Religion should again be allowed to play a role in political and social life
From the evangelicals of the United States, to the followers of Popes John Paul II and Frances, to the Islamists of the Middle East, claims about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. Religious beliefs, though comforting for some, are a sophisticated form of superstition, nothing more than a fallacy. A form of insanity in fact, except there are few people standing by to point that out.
For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the Middle East, fought to push back the influence of religion on civic life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in contemporary political life, it is an essential bulwark. With the exception of Buddhism, which is in any case a philosophy, religion has been the greatest cause of tragedy, conflict and distress in this world. It should not be encouraged but allowed to die a natural death.
This is sheer indulgence. I wrote this piece over Easter almost exactly fifteen years ago – long before I had any regular readers of The Hames Report. I have edited the original version lightly to allow for changes that have occurred. But most of the original text is unaltered. Normally I have no desire to re-visit or re-write earlier work – and the examples here are obviously very dated. I blush, too, at some statements. But I find it fascinating that while my thinking about certain matters has become generally more sophisticated, much of it remains firmly of the same view. Perhaps that is an illustration of how difficult it is to upgrade one’s most inner convictions, or to reject one’s ingrained cultural mindset.