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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/17/11

We Need Better Solutions

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In today's world, the problems we face are far more complicated than those faced by previous generations of humans. We need better solutions than are currently on the table, to solve some of those problems in a meaningful way. In many cases, there are experts or others who have better ideas, but politics trumps problem solving. Too often; our leaders are focused on countering the actions of their political rivals, or preventing them from taking charge, rather than on solving problems at all. However; preventing harm or combating what we perceive as evil is not the same thing as creating the good. Defeating our enemies alone won't do it. To create a better world -- one we would like to live in -- requires more thought, more effort, and far more patience, but in the long run it is greatly more efficient to solve the underlying problems rather than abdicating responsibility and blaming others. It is a cop out, or a form of denial, to claim that other people are at fault when the real culprit is wrong actions that are prompted by the lack of better thinking. If there was a better way; it would help everybody, and people would not need to behave badly -- to get what they want or need. Better answers, ones that solve problems more completely, benefit everyone. It is obvious that finding and implementing those answers is the right course to pursue.

There is a dark undertone to this story, though, because too often people in power choose to behave like adolescents -- reveling in bringing others to defeat even moreso than winning a victory for themselves and their constituents. To an adolescent; it is far more gratifying to make someone else lose, than it is to prove oneself superior. Mature or adult people tend to prefer playing by a different set of rules, however, because life is better in a situation where everyone benefits, than it is to make everyone else suffer -- except those individuals on one's own side. The problem with the adolescent mentality is that it is easy to get so caught up in the drama of 'us against them' that there is no attention on other aspects of problem solving whatsoever. Adults often choose, instead, to recognize difficult problems or challenges as a worthier opponent than other human beings, and this is needed. The facts of modern life don't permit us to employ overly simplistic answers to problems without peril! So we can't allow our leaders to go on ignoring the root causes of problems while blaming our difficulties on 'the other guys,' as an excuse for not dealing with things. Both political speakers and the mainstream News tend to focus people on the opposition, or on clashes between opposing camps, but the real story is elsewhere. Better answers are not usually found among those who are pointing fingers; as such accusations often come because the one complaining does not have a superior alternative.

We need better solutions for today's problems, because many of the tired old answers are not working anymore. And historically, this means turning to the younger generation for fresh and new ideas. Unfortunately; this too is problematic, as many of today's young people lack the sensitivity to subtleties that is required to solve complex problems, which their forebears and elders were able to employ for problem solving. A study conducted in Germany (initially at T├â ╝bingen) over a 20 year period, and published in 1995, showed a decline in perceptual acuity over time, where the number of shades of gray (or other colors) and identifiable sounds were roughly cut in half over the length of the study. The researchers also found that the colors and sounds which young folks perceived and processed tended to be the extremely bright and vivid colors, or loud and/or discordant sounds. Consequently; at a time in history when attention to subtle details is what's needed to solve pressing problems, this kind of attention is in short supply. And the situation is exacerbated by the fact that a large percentage of people who do possess the insights needed have been sidelined.

I am speaking, of course, of the 'baby boom' generation. The economic crisis has hurt everyone, but has created especially hard times for baby boomers in America. An overly large percentage of jobs lost due to the economic downturn were people in their 50s who had no plans to retire, but find themselves with no job, and no employers wanting to hire them. So what skills and wisdom they could have brought to the table -- for solving problems -- has been lost from many arenas. Now; I fully understand that knowledge in technical fields becomes outdated rapidly, and that skills need to be updated frequently, so that some of these folks have skills that are obsolete. But because many of those individuals are now struggling just to survive, they are far less able to contribute financially, and often less available to volunteer their services in the community. And this points to a more profound effect their loss of employment is having. An article in the August 2011 issue of Scientific American suggests that it was the emergence and survival of an older generation among prehistoric humans that enabled the human race to survive. Grandparents could help care for children, and they could pass on knowledge (or wisdom) which only someone having a longer view of the cycles of nature could possess. So; without the 'wisdom of the elders,' human beings might not be here today.

More importantly; those same dynamics are at work in today's world, but the value of the older generation's know-how and experience has been undermined -- in the eyes of modern society. However; if those who have the knowledge and wisdom to make things better are largely ignored -- or are cast aside -- it will likely bring grave consequences, and may spell the doom of the human race. Nor are the negative consequences in the modern world limited to the loss of a few caregivers and storytellers. The effects of this erosion of respect for the 'wisdom of elders' are arguably felt most strongly at the very leading edge of Science and Technology! After the final talk of last year's Frontiers of Fundamental Physics conference, I was asked by Physics Professor Jaime Keller "Why, at an international conference featuring Nobel laureates and other distinguished top scholars, have there been so many stupid questions?" I offered several explanations which contribute to this situation, but it all boils down to young people's failure to seek their own answers -- or to develop an understanding by wondering why things happen as they do -- in favor of memorizing what is needed to pass a test. I related the story told to me by RPI Chemistry Professor John Carter, lamenting that few of his students were interested in the fundamental Science behind the story, and saying that most just wanted to be told the right answer or given formulas to memorize.

This is especially sad for someone like me, as I have always been eager to learn, and I have valued knowledge for its own sake -- rather than for what it could get me. I've always been fascinated by the exciting developments at the leading edge of Science, and I craved insight into the fundamental nature of reality. More importantly; I have always wanted to figure things out for myself, using the experts' work as guideposts -- rather than assuming that anyone else has the final word on anything. To restate this; I've always regarded scientific knowledge as something which progresses over time, and I have heeded the lessons from history showing us that any time scholars thought they had the final answers -- they were later proven wrong. To some extent, there are no right answers in the world of Science. So I have been reluctant, or skeptical, whenever I was presented with answers and told they were something I could believe in. Besides; there is plenty of evidence that things proven in one field of science take a long time to filter through, or to be adopted by people in other disciplines. From what I have seen; people in Biology employ an increasing range of devices every day, which depend on quantum mechanics to operate, and yet are in denial -- to varying degrees -- about how quantum principles influence biological systems. Knowing that these principles were proved -- in Physics -- over 100 years ago gives some perspective on how long it takes for better answers to be adopted.

But we may not have another 100 years left, for the knowledge of those on the leading edge of any field to filter into the general consciousness. Instead; we need to accelerate the proliferation of knowledge -- if the human race is going to survive long enough to use it! To paraphrase what my friend Pete Seeger said on "At 89;" the agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial revolution just hundreds, the information revolution is taking mere decades, but it doesn't end there. Just as Alvin Toffler said in his book of that name, we are all experiencing "Future Shock" because the dynamics of modern life are being increasingly sped up over time. And Pete suggests there is a revolution that must come, which will help mankind understand all of this progress, if there is to be a human race -- or if the world is to survive so that we can have something of value to pass on to our children and to their children. So we need to gain some wisdom very fast. And part of how this can be done is simply through the willingness to communicate. There are too many isolated 'silos' of knowledge, where what we need is a broader comparison across disciplines, so that knowledge can be shared. Of course there will be some shake-ups. The attempts to apply advances in Physics to areas like Biology are fraught with difficulties, because there is some strong disagreement on certain basic principles, but this is nothing like the difficulty encountered when trying to use advances in Math to aid a field like Economics.

When Benoit Mandelbrot published his book "The (Mis)Behavior of Markets" it should have been a wake up call to people in the world of Finance, but they continued to use some of the same Bad Math which Professor Mandelbrot warned us about. It appears to me that this was a major cause of the economic crisis which began in the Fall of 2008. Although the folks at Scientific American highlighted this fact, and various Accounting journals detailed the kinds of Bad Math which contributed to the problem, the general public remains uninformed of the fact that faulty Mathematics contributed to the economic collapse. The sad part of this is that there has been little or no incentive to fix the underlying problem, as a result, and even concerned economists have little support in their efforts to improve things. The majority of their colleagues feel that the crisis was just a "glitch,' and -- after undertaking some minor attempts at reforms -- they are convinced that it is appropriate to go back to 'business as usual' because the 'old ways' work just fine. This sort of cavalier attitude is seen as frightening to those of us with a little knowledge of what the flaws are and how things could be done differently -- to improve the general state of the economy.

However; until it is acknowledged that we truly need better solutions, there is little chance that any of the amazing advances in Mathematics seen in modern times will be put to use -- any time soon -- in the field of Economics, or elsewhere. And the same is true for advances in other fields. There is something called the Einstellung effect, where people cling to current explanations that offer a certain amount of understanding, or allow a degree of predictability and control, even when a newer model is fundamentally more accurate, and allows a great deal more predictability and control. So; there needs to be a willingness to re-think things more often, to re-examine models currently in use, before the fruits of a superior understanding may be enjoyed. We need to insist on using better solutions, when they exist, and on trying to employ the best answers currently available -- in general. But we must also continue the search for better answers, because the pace of modern life continues to quicken and situations continue to grow more complex with each passing year. The upshot of this is that; whatever solutions we implement today -- for solving the pressing problems of the moment -- will need to be adjusted in the future, as new information becomes available and new situations develop. Simply put; things will not remain the way they are for long, and we will need still better answers tomorrow.

Therefore; we must acknowledge that we need better solutions for today's problems, and that the search should continue, because these answers must ultimately be superseded by answers more appropriate to changing conditions over time. But one thing is certain; the artificial choice between two opposing philosophies -- neither of which addresses the problems of our time -- must give way to a mindset where the common good is accorded its rightful place of honor, and the solution of problems is therefore regarded more highly than defeating ones opponents. The ancient Greeks saw that opposing philosophies were often both problematic. They saw virtue as the pediment resting on two vices -- one an excess and the other a deficiency. Using courage as an example; the virtue is a product of timidity on the one hand, and foolhardiness on the other. The trick of being courageous is to be informed by both fear and boldness, but not to indulge in either extreme. The technique of dialectical reasoning is an extension of this notion where an idea called the thesis, and its opposite called the antithesis, are studied to discover the ways in which they are the same -- or in which similar forces on both sides hold the two in conflict. The idea in dialectic is to discover a synthesis, an idea or outcome which satisfies the needs of both sides -- but eliminates the need for conflict. And just as courage is neither timidity nor foolishness, the synthesis is not a choice between problematic opposites -- but is instead a truly better idea.

This is why we must compel our leaders to seek for and champion better solutions, rather than merely opposing the 'other guys.' The fight may continue until all the perceived enemies are gone, and leave us with a host of problems we are no closer to solving. But it is far more likely that, if we attempt to make war on all of the bad characters out there, all we will do is hasten our own doom. Trying to combat evil is not the same as working to create the good, but if we can create a better world -- it will automatically have less evil in it. So by focusing on problem solving and working to find better solutions, we stand a far better chance of actually overcoming evil -- than if we try to combat it more directly. By fostering win/win scenarios, we can actually eliminate the cause of most evil and hatred, because people whose needs are already met are far less likely to strike out at their neighbors. Most sensible adults already know this, without being told, but it appears that many of our leaders -- both in the government and in the private sector -- are either not insightful enough to have that sensibility, or are not able to behave like mature adults -- once they take power. However; we need better solutions than those currently on the table, if the human race is to survive much longer.


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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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