The long dark death of the mind

24 01 2012

I want to make a plea for thinking. It is scandalously undervalued and I fear it may be dying out altogether.

I accept that I may be exaggerating but if, like me, you spend large parts of the day with tweetdeck trundling away in the corner of your computer screen you will no doubt agree that any exaggeration is only slight. I can’t speak for the whole of twitter, of course, that would be an exaggeration too far even for me, but my little corner seems to be largely populated by people who post the most vacuous nonsense and, worse still, those that retweet it.

As a child my bedroom walls had posters with sayings like “Love is never having to say your sorry” or “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” printed above pictures of puppies or kittens or deserted beaches or the like. In the ’70’s most girls bedrooms were filled with such nonsense and pictures of David Cassidy, of course. But, on the whole, we all grew out of it. It would seem that some people haven’t and have replaced posters on the bedroom wall with posts on twitter. Am I supposed to impressed by their ability to quote from the Tao Te Ching? Maybe 20 years ago I might have been. Maybe in conversation the ability to drop Shakespearean quotes into the mix might still impress me but on-line I know that theirs isn’t real knowledge, only the ability to use ctrl-c followed by crtl-v.

I heard an interview with Professor Brian Cox on one of the Radio 4 news programmes in which he argued for quantum physics to be taught in primary schools. Initially I thought he was joking but his point was totally valid. The mathematical formulae can be remarkably simple. It is the actual thinking that is hard and it is hard for everyone. For example take E=mc2. It states that one term (E) is equal to a second term (m) multiplied by the square of a third term (c).  Something equals something times something else, just like the times table 10 = 5×2. It isn’t the maths that is hard it is the implications of the theory that require thought.

The fact that a single photon of light can pass through two slits at the same time is counter intuitive. It isn’t a mathematical problem it is a conceptual one. Theorists, thinkers if you will, worked to develop to theories. Predictions were made from these theories, experimenters worked to see whether the predictions were true and mathematics allowed results to be recorded and challenged. But the thinking comes first! This is the point and the reason why Professor Cox wanted it taught in schools. Not to learn the formulae but to learn how to think. And I agree. In the rush to get more and more children to pass more and more examinations at higher and higher grades we are at risk of forgetting to teach them to think.

With soundbite news and celebrity tittle-tattle filling the media the inability to think deeply about issues is further damaged. But the real problem comes when we allow belief to be given the same merit as knowledge. When there are programmes about evolution, for example, they are often framed as a debate. There is no debate. Evolution is a proven, continually provable fact. Being called the Theory of Evolution doesn’t mean that we don’t know. It means that the idea is constantly being challenged for validity, constantly being improved, expanded and built upon. By giving equal space to those who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old creates the impression that there is room for debate. There is not. Those beliefs are wrong – have been proven to be wrong. Giving those views airtime suggests that there may be room for debate, that there may be an alternative to evolution when there is not.

Let me exaggerate for illustration. We can all agree that 2+2=4. What if someone comes along and says that they believe that 2+2 is actually 79. If we allow that belief to be debated alongside what we know to be true then it creates the idea that there may be some possibility that even if 2+2 isn’t 79 there may be some chance that it isn’t 4. By discussing the possibility of some ludicrous notion based on belief we undermine what we know to be true.

So can we have more thinking and less ctrl-c/ctrl-v please.

Influence not inspiration

16 01 2012

When I sat down to consider people who inspire me I realised that I couldn’t think of any. Well, that is not strictly true. I could think of lots, my grandfather for instance, but that is an entirely personal perspective and I cannot expect everyone to sit through a biography of a large chunk of his life and a fair bit of mine in order to explain why he is such an inspiration.

So what I was really looking for was someone who inspired me and who everyone else reading this would know. An inspirational celebrity if you will. But there is a problem here too. We don’t really know the celebrities do we? There is a lot of debate at the moment around the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, sparked by the film starring Meryl Streep. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman Prime Minister, a huge achievement in what is still, some 40 years later, a male dominated environment. In this context she is surely an inspiration but when her actions in government are taken into consideration I would imagine that she is an inspiration only to extreme right-wing politicians, and I do not count myself amongst them. She probably inspired her children, after all they would know her best but then again, possibly not. They would know if she cut her toenails in the bath and drink the left over milk from her breakfast cereal straight from the bowl. She probably didn’t but my point is that we don’t know the whole woman and so how can she be an inspiration? It is better to suggest that some of her actions were inspirational. Better still that she had influence.

I was pondering these thoughts in a cafe with a friend on Saturday morning when her phone buzzed as a text came through. She read it and looked confused and more than a little embarrassed. The text was from a close friend of hers who only a week ago had split up from his long-term partner. He wanted to thank my friend as it was her approach to grasping life and embracing change that had been the catalyst for him to leave a situation in which he felt increasingly trapped. He said that she had inspired him to feel that there was more to life than his current situation. What can you say? My friend had been an inspiration. Not in a way that she had planned or would have wanted but the way she lived her life inspired someone close to her to act. She had, albeit unconsciously, influenced his decision-making.

Which made me think that we can all be inspirational. I may be doing it right now. A couple of months ago I was on an expert panel with three women who I admire greatly. I found myself wondering why I was there. How could what I have to say on any topic be anywhere near as interesting or insightful as what they would say. I didn’t really feel that I deserved to be on the same platform as these exceptional women. Imagine my surprise when, in answer to a question from the floor on the nature of success, one of these women expressed the view that she felt somewhat in awe of her fellow panelists too! We all inspire each other at different times and when we use our influence we have the opportunity to affect change.

The Herald newspaper has a womans pullout section each Thursday. It is a prime example of media tokenism and confirms to the view “women are only interested in botox and handbags.” The sections are listed in order of importance as they see it and read; health, fashion, family,  relationships, work. leisure, opinion – enough said. This week they had “Scotland’s Top 50 Women of Influence”. Setting aside what influence the leader of the Scottish Tory Party might actually have the point is that we should focus on influence. Not inspiration, influence.

So don’t look around for inspiration; for someone to follow. Concentrate on yourself and consider what you can do to inspire others and, more importantly, how to best use your influence.

You, yes you!

9 01 2012

Yes, you. I’m talking to you.

Each morning I walk my dog through the golf course and past the sign that reads, “Please keep dogs on the path and on the lead at all times.” Each morning I encounter all types of dogs running freely across the fairways and greens with their owners trailing far behind. I have my dog on the lead, as requested. She is a bit skittish and other dogs bounding up, uncontrolled make her worse. The stray dog owners eventually round up their disobedient pets and utter phrases like, “he just wants to play,” “he wullnae bite” and the like. My point is that no matter how well behaved you think your dog is the sign is there for everyone.  The most well-behaved dog I know is a cross sheepdog called Mitch. His perfect behaviour didn’t stop him diving into a bush and eating a couple of peacock chicks when he was off his lead up at the big hoose. He’s a dog!  So yes. Keep dogs on the path and on the lead means you.

Later in the day I park my car in Crieff and pull up alongside the ticket meter which has a sign above saying, “Please park within the marked bays”. Despite this notice prominently displayed, I have to inch my car between a monster 4×4 with blacked out windows and a Jaguar, both of which have been parked at an angle across their own bays, with their wheels about a foot into the space I am trying to enter. I manage this, just, and have to use all of my yoga skills to snake out of the drivers seat. Had I been carrying a passenger they would have had to exit through the skylight! This is all well and good and the image of me slithering out of the car is probably mildly amusing to some but the old gentleman who had parked his car to the other side of the Jaguar wasn’t so flexible. In fact he had an artificial leg and there was no way he could squeeze into his car and was forced to wait until the driver of the Jaguar returned and moved his vehicle before he could drive his own car away. So if the sign says to park within the marked bays it means you. You might be a yogini and be able to manoevre through the smallest gap in the drivers side door but others may not be so lucky. The sign is there for everyone. It is there for you.

Every day I meet women who without exception tell me how wonderful the3rdimagazine is and what a fabulous job I’m doing. This is all very pleasant and I’m flattered. I explain that the magazine is a co-operative, that everyone can join, that everyone can get involved and that everyone will share the profits. Once more, praise from the audience follows. I explain that independence is important; that I don’t want the magazine to be sponsored and controlled by a big corporate and that I don’t want to be in that endless loop of looking for grant funding. I suggest that if women really want an independent voice then if we all contribute a small amount, just £50, then the venture will continue to grow. Without exception the business model is applauded, hailed as a fantastic way of approaching business and the perfect way for all women to collaborate in creating a business of real value. Yet fewer than 20% of the women I meet actually pay their £50 to be part of the venture. Now I appreciate that some may have been being nice to my face while really thinking that I was talking nonsense, but I think that this is a very small number as all of the women I speak to remain in contact. They post great comments on the published articles, circulate them through their own networks and connect with us on LinkedIn etc. My feeling is that most of the women I meet are happy leave it to someone else to make things happen. So, if it is you I am meeting and I say, “If all women join we will continue to be a powerful voice speaking on behalf of women in business”, I mean you. Don’t leave it to others. I am talking to you.

For the past 5 years I have walked most days through a small piece of woodland that edges the golf course. At the start of the year there was a narrow path that wove between bushes, patches of woodland flowers and mature trees. Whatever the weather the path was always dry, due to the tree canopy, fallen leaves and vegetation absorbing the rainwater. At the start of the year someone started to ride their horse through the woodland. To begin with I was surprised that a horse and rider could fit along the path but very, very quickly it became broader as vegetation became trampled and flattened to both sides of the path and overhanging branches were broken down. Parts of the path became rutted and held the water when it rained. Now the what was a narrow woodland path is now a wide, muddy scar. Tree roots are exposed and the ground in the waterlogged. In the recent high winds several trees were damaged as the wet ground provides less purchase for the roots that firm, dry ground. Now I’m not suggesting that the rider deliberately set out to ruin the path but that is the outcome. My assertion is that they just didn’t think. When you are happily perched 4 foot up on a horse, clad in Lycra, leather and the latest Barbour jacket I suspect mud doesn’t affect you. And since the mud didn’t affect them personally, in their mind, nothing has happened. By the way, there was no need to use the woodland path as there is a wide gravel path that follows a parallel track at the edge of the woods, so use of the woodland path isn’t even a short cut. The damage hasn’t affected them personally but damage has been caused that has lessened the value of the woodland for the whole community. So if you are sitting there on your horse, or driving your 4×4, you might be OK but how do your actions affect others?

And in case you think I am being more than usually grumpy or even frivolous let me finish with the story of my nephew. He was born a perfectly strong, healthy boy and welcomed into a large and adoring family. He died at just 6 weeks old. He died from whooping cough. Now whooping cough had been virtually eradicated as everyone had their child vaccinated. By creating a protected population there was no hosts in which the bacteria could grow and the illness it caused ceased to be a problem. However in the mid 1990’s lots of parents decided that they wouldn’t get their children vaccinated. They thought, erroneously, that there might be a slight risk from the combined MRS vaccine and took against vaccination in general. After all these illnesses didn’t really exist in the population any more so why bother? There is a very good reason why. It is only because we all agreed to have our children vaccinated that the whole population was protected. As soon as there were unprotected people the bacteria was able to thrive and once there were enough unprotected hosts the illness could spread. The outbreak of whooping cough that resulted from this behaviour killed my nephew.

So I’m talking to you. All of you. Don’t leave it to someone else to do the right thing. Behave well. You. Yes. YOU!