Monday, October 12, 2009

Reform Your Biased Thinking on Complex Issues

Greg Craven has shared his approach to deal with our natural tendency to approach complex issues with ill-advised bias in our thinking. His focus is on helping you decide what you are willing to do in response to the risk of global warming. However, his approach is applicable to any widely debated complex issue that calls for a decision of you part - one way or the other.

What I took away from this book was new insights to my own thinking bias and when I should take the time to apply his methodology on making better decisions regarding complex issues. I expect you will find his observations and approach useful in your own decision-making challenges.

My review of his book follows.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.

By Greg Craven

We've all been inundated with the pros and cons of the global warming and climate change debate. And probably most of us are inclined to believe that the world will warm, polar bears will suffer, lawns will turn brown, and cars will get smaller. The breezy hillsides will become populated with windmills, the southwest desert will host large solar-thermal farms, our utilities will watch our energy use through smart meters, and new power transmission lines will link wind and solar power to our population centers. All this change will happen to run our electric cars, our virtual meetings, our air conditioning, our refrigerators, and our wide-screen televisions. That doesn't sound particularly disrupting, just a little expensive. Between that and a health care solution, we will be set for the 21st Century.

Not so fast Bubba. Have you really taken a look at the assumptions you are making and how you arrived at you conclusion? Have you wrestled with your ‘confirmation bias?’

For a lot of us, I suspect our thinking is,

`Yeah, we may get warmer but the jury is still out on how bad the impact might be even if we could do much about it. And I can hardly afford my mortgage, my health insurance, my car payment, the college tuition, my tax bill, my (taxpayer) share of all of these under-funded pension plans, and the occasional vacation to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon the way it is. I think I'll pass on most of these expensive carbon-footprint reducing actions.'

Global warming risk is not yet `in our face' - real, ugly, and frightening - so it is easy to discount the need to `really' do something about it. Something that takes conscious decisions that reduce the choices we thought we would be able to make like buying that useful SUV, acquiring that 52" LED flat panel HDTV, investing in that continuing education tuition, or expanding out of our cramped home as the kids start arriving. It's all due to a biological fault in this phase of our evolution. In the last 10,000 years our `fight or flight' quick reaction mechanism has become less and less essential to our survival. Instead, it is becoming more important to exercise longer-term planning skills that have emerged over the last thirty years. These skills include scenario planning, risk-reward analysis (expected value), real options, and systems thinking. Unfortunately, these are not nearly as natural and persuasive and suffer unexpected `long tail' effects as opposed to clear `in your face - fight or flight' decision-making.

Greg Craven addresses our shortcomings for effective long term planning to protect ourselves and, more importantly, our children and their children. He has used his own experience in teaching students about physics and chemistry to engage them in refining his `rational decision' process. One particularly helpful insight is a review of our confirmation bias and its influence on how we filter out what we want to hear. Remember those articles you’ve read about how people tend to listen to those who share their point of view and ignore those who don’t?

Mr. Craven offers a process on how to overcome our natural tendencies for bias and to sort through all of the contrary points-of-view, focusing not on searching for what is the right answer about the extent and degree of global warming risk, but rather on what we risk if we make the wrong bet. His approach is to focus on what we control - our choices - and how to bolster our ability to think longer term by framing the arguments from pro-con advocates, weighing the credibility of various spokespersons, creating a decision matrix (what Nature does vs. what We choose to do), assessing the risk-reward, and making your choice for action or not. This approach is applicable to a wide variety of widely debated issues so becoming comfortable with Mr. Craven's approach has benefits well beyond your global warming thinking and decision making.

Of course, what we as individuals do on these global community issues only has a significant impact if all of us join in. So ultimately there is the need for a social movement to create a `tipping point' for effective action. This is necessary to develop enough support to reach that "angle of repose' in which a small additional nudge creates the positive social feedback to generate self-sustaining behavioral change to deal with global warming risk - in time - to anticipate and overcome the inherent delayed responses, massive momentums, non-linear tipping points, and feedbacks in the global climate system. Mr. Craven's framework will help the proactive reader create their own story on what to believe and how to respond to these real challenges that shape our future.

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