Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

We seem to live in an era when words are more like bullets—a way to injure and defeat others, to get one’s own way—than a way to communicate in a genuine manner, seeking understanding, insight, and mutual respect.

As I write this, the Paris climate summit is underway. We have just about all the countries in the world represented and we’re told this is the “last chance” to “save the planet.” Last chance. Really? Save the planet? I would think the planet doesn’t need us to “save” it. But, like the gospel inspired song said of That Lucky Old Sun, the earth will surely go on rolling around heaven all day. We may be in danger of disrupting our habitat or of damaging it beyond repair (that remains to be seen), such that we, as a species might be endangered. However, a cursory review of earth’s evolution over geological eons will show that it’s been through much worse before and life has gone on.

The zeal with which enviro-enthusiasts (or should I say fascists?) are claiming that it’s our last chance to keep the planet’s temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees is more religious than scientific. The same can be said of the attempts to claim a scientific consensus, as if scientists all agree with everything that’s claimed about environmentalists.

There may be a scientific consensus about the law of gravity, or evolution through natural selection, because the empirical evidence is overwhelming in favour of those theories. I doubt there is even close to the same level of agreement within the climatological community, which is really the only one that counts scientifically. And yet we keep hearing that 95 % of scientists, or whatever the figure is, believe that global warming is a reality. That may be the case, but being a scientist doesn’t automatically qualify someone to judge the validity of scientific theories outside their field of expertise. Just talk to medical doctors with different specialties to see how divergent the knowledge, skills, and judgment are on any particular illness or condition to realize how important these specialized competencies are to coming to a proper diagnosis and prognosis, much less the best treatment plan.

I’m not necessarily a skeptic about climate change and human-caused warming. However, there has been too much environmental change over the eons on earth to claim any kind of stasis in the matter. After all, what caused the end of the most recent ice age 10 or 12 thousand years ago? Perhaps the woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were expelling too much methane as they chewed their cud. And what caused the planet to plunge into a deep freeze 130 thousand years ago when the current ice age started?

On the other hand, I am a skeptic when it comes to claims that “the science is settled.” Moreover, I find the current climate (pun intended) against questioning this so called common sense consensus to be a dangerous trend. It’s also very convenient for those with a statist centralizing agenda who wish to restrain economic growth and capitalism, because they claim they are the cause of global warming, at least indirectly. How convenient that there be a such an apocalyptic menace for our collective well-being. Nothing less than total war is needed to combat impending doom. And in war, all manner of propaganda and control mechanisms are warranted to defeat the common enemy. Many of the poorest countries in the world are already clamoring for a transfer of wealth from the wealthy countries to pay for African wind farms and human scale solar power units. After all, nothing should be excluded in order to “save the planet,” because this is our “last best chance.” Once again, I’m not arguing against such a wealth transfer (although there are good arguments against one). But I don’t think that haranguing people into feeling guilty is the correct way to go about it.

The use of language as a weapon and words as bullets is just as pernicious in other areas. Activists—or should I say bullies—at the University of Ottawa have gotten management to discontinue free yoga lessons for handicapped people on the grounds that yoga is “cultural appropriation.” In other words, they claim that you can’t use any idea or activity that comes from another culture if that culture was at one time subjugated by another. Presumably, the reference is to British imperialism in India. Is it okay to have Indian cuisine, or Chinese food? Can we Zumba, or do the limbo? After all, they come from Latin America and the Caribbean, originally all slave societies.

Just to be egalitarian, I don’t think war mongers come off any better. The Islamist inspired attacks in Paris, the Middle East and anywhere else are horrible and the Jihadist threat must be met militarily and politically with appropriate means and strategy. But I don’t think we’re in a “war on terror” any more than we’re engaged in wars on inequality, cultural appropriation, climate change, or global capitalism.

Language and words should help us understand and think better, not separate us into sloganeering tribes with faith-based creeds and intolerant beliefs. After all, words aren’t bullets.

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Every once in a while we’re faced with highly emotional reactions to risky situations. The “lone wolf” attacks perpetrated in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa on Canadian state institutions (i.e., soldiers and Parliament) last week fall into this category, as does the Ebola outbreak in western Africa. Yet, if you watch the news and read newspapers, you’d think we’re under attack!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the Ebola crisis in Africa isn’t dangerous and a major catastrophe, or that the terrorist threat isn’t real. But we have to keep things in perspective.

So far, a few people have contracted Ebola in North America and Europe. They have all been people who have been in prolonged bodily contact with infected victims in Africa, or who have treated these people. From what I gather, the non-Africans are also all health care workers. A few have survived, although we don’t know yet what, if any long-term consequences there will be on their health.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deem that a quarantine system is not needed, based on scientific opinion. Meanwhile, some states (e.g. New Jersey) have chosen to impose their own quarantine rules, overriding the considered evaluation of the CDC. The CDC is basing its recommendations on a scientific, rational assessment. I’m not sure the states and various schools that have reacted emotionally are doing the same thing. The science could be wrong, but at least it’s based on rational assessment of the risks and threat, not just emotional reaction. It’s therefore subject to updating as more empirical evidence is gathered and as the theoretical understanding of the disease progresses. Moreover, where does the epidemiological know how reside, in the CDC, or a handful of much smaller and less capable state and municipal agencies?

Whenever we face a potential health crisis, such as a pandemic or epidemic, it’s normal to assess the threats and risks and take preventive or compensatory action. On the other hand, we have to keep the threat in perspective. Every year, thousands of parents refuse to have their children inoculated against common diseases. Whether we’re talking about measles or smallpox, the risks of infection and mortality vary. The common element is that this stupid attitude toward proven measures for preventing and containing these diseases has enabled a periodic resurgence of measles, pertussis (whooping cough), etc. And, we’ve been lucky that smallpox has not come back in strength.

Here’s the thing, though: measles and pertussis can actually kill people, especially the weakest, and that usually means children. So, on the one hand we have an overreaction to Ebola by state and municipal authorities in the US (and no doubt other countries), while some people are too fearful or pigheaded to take active measures such as allowing vaccinations for their children. Not only does this put their own children at risk, but it reduces the overall “herd immunity” of a population. This is required to protect those for whom vaccination doesn’t work no matter what. If you doubt this, I invite you to watch a recent episode of PBS’s Nova science documentary on vaccination panics in the US. You can watch it online.

There is also a lack of perspective on the terrorism threat, and we need a balanced and reasoned approach to the risks of what are known as “lone wolf” terrorists. This isn’t a new threat, or proper to Islamic extremism. There have always been crackpots with various motivations, be they environmentalists ready to spike trees in order to injure forestry workers or Jewish ultra-orthodox extremists willing to blow themselves up in Jerusalem. We also need to keep in mind that terrorism and urban guerrilla are the strategy of the weak. As I wrote in my book, Brilliant Manoeuvres, it “stems from a realization the force one is commanding is incapable of highly coordinated, and highly damaging offensive action.” Security consultancy and analysis firm STRATFOR points out that the “lone wolf” approach to Jihadism is actually mostly a failure for extremist Muslims intending on creating havoc in the West. It comes from a realization that they are unable to launch destructive and coordinated attacks without exposing themselves to extreme risks of mission failure.

When a crisis hits, it’s time to think, even if hastily, not to panic and run around responding to popular appeals to “do something, anything.” We often have to weigh a range of unsavoury options in order to select and implement a “least bad” solution. The danger with overreacting to terrorism is that we impose so many restrictions on civil liberties and access to democratic institutions that the terrorists get a political and social response that is out of all proportion to the actual risks.

When we’re talking about health risks, the danger is that we overreact while we ignore or tolerate much more damning behaviours in our own back yard. Reasonable measures to prevent and mitigate contagion from Africa are one thing. But meanwhile, there are incipient outbreaks of easily preventable and controllable diseases right here, and they don’t come from Africa.

Richard Martin is a Master Strategist and Leadership Catalyst. Richard brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2014 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Every once in a while I feel like ranting. This is one of those times. The object of my censure? Global warming. You read that right. I’m one of those people who actually questions whether, a) the earth is getting warmer and, b) whether humans are the cause of the warming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into the science or try to convince you. On the other hand, I do wish to point out what I believe are some fundamental fallacies in the debate.

I think it is critical that leaders in business, government and science take a stand against simplistic explanations and policy prescriptions that could be massively disruptive to our quality of life, now and in the future. Labelling as a “denier” someone who questions the policy prescriptions (some of which are decidedly moral in scope), or even the science, only serves to stigmatize people whose doubt is genuine and moves the debate further away from rational discourse about possible causes and consequences.

We’re bombarded by claims that the earth is getting dangerously warm, and will continue to do so for the next decades. We’re also being told that this warming is caused by humans’ excessive use of fossil fuels, because this causes us to spew too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it has some part to play in keeping the temperature of Earth liveable, along with other greenhouse gases such as water vapour, methane and the nitrogen that makes up about 80 % of the atmosphere. To put things in perspective, the surface temperature of the planet would be about minus 18 Celsius were it not for the greenhouse effect.

We are told that there is a “scientific consensus” about anthropogenic global warming. There may indeed be a majority of climate scientists who think that the earth is getting warmer and that this may be caused by greenhouse gas emissions. But does that mean that there really is a consensus? That would imply that there is agreement on what is happening to the earth’s temperature over long timescales and this phenomenon’s implications for the atmosphere, biosphere, ice cover, oceans, continents, and humanity. My research leads me to the conclusion that there is actually very little scientific consensus about these matters. In fact, there seems to be healthy scientific debate, which is exactly the way things should be. I would go even further and assert that the concept of scientific consensus is bogus, because debate and disagreement are fundamental to science. If you take away the debate, doubt, and disagreement you get ideology.

There is also a principle in science that states that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is usually the best and most accurate one. The hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming is indeed simple, but the explanation that is proffered must be weighed against competing theories. Just ask yourself this: If humans are causing global warming now, then what caused the glaciers to melt? Could there not be other theories of climate change that could explain the many climate changes in Earth’s history? There are scientists (usually not climatologists and more often geologists and astrophysicists) who have been proposing alternative hypotheses and theories for global warming which don’t necessarily involve human activity as the principal driver of climate change. They don’t say the latter isn’t possible, but merely that it isn’t likely given all the other potential explanations.

A vocal minority has taken control of the debate and is telling us that we have to consume less energy (not a bad idea in and of itself), that we should be paying taxes to penalize excessive fossil fuel use, and that we should be changing our civilization to make it “greener.” The problem is that many of the solutions to replace fossil fuels are not as reliable or efficient, are more expensive by orders of magnitude, and would take decades, if not centuries, to implement. New taxes or policies may be appear salutary in the short term, but they always have unintended consequences. Even worse though, are all the do-gooders who want to ensure that the poor of the world don’t have access to the same quality of life and wealth as we do by restricting their ability to benefit from a high-energy lifestyle. It’s no surprise that developing countries have opposed treaties to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. They know that doing so could hamper their economic development, just as it’s taking off.

What does this have to do with management and leadership? In a nutshell, I think that leaders in all fields must take the initiative in denouncing ad hominem attacks, overly emotional arguments, and calls for conformity. Humans have done an excellent job over the centuries of improving quality of life through new energy sources and uses for the power they provide. It is economic necessity and logic that will bring about more efficiency in our energy use, not global treaties and arbitrary taxes that are imposed by do-gooders and others who have nothing better to do than control others’ lives.

In other words, we need a global cooling of rhetoric, and a rational approach to energy use. I believe a healthy scepticism about totalising explanations and prescriptions, combined with scientific curiosity and the practices of sound management are what will give us the best approach to our problems.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

As reported in the Globe and Mail (January 17th, 2007), “Instead of leaving in 2008, (British Petroleum CEO) Lord Browne found himself embroiled in what is tantamount to a boardroom putsch and is leaving the company – which he helped turn around – six months from now instead of the intended farewell in 18 months.” The reason? “A sweeping independent report into chronic safety lapses at BP’s five U.S. refineries has concluded that lives might have been saved if Lord Browne had spent as much time on safety as he did trying to be green.”

A recent poll in Canada now places global warming as the most worrisome political priority for Canadians, ahead of perennial favorite health care and even the war in Afghanistan. At the same time last year, during a federal election, the concern barely even registered on the radar screens of electors. Even President Bush has given his imprimatur to the environment during his recent State of the Union address. What is happening?

We can’t say there were any significant scientific discoveries during the last year to make everyone change their minds so suddenly. So why have populations in Canada and the U.S. become suddenly so concerned?
My contention is that opinions on the matter reached a tipping point – to use Malcolm Gladwell’s apt term – sometime during the latter part of 2006. The exceptionally late onset of winter in eastern North America no doubt had a major impact on people’s thinking, but opinions and discourse had already changed noticeably during late summer and early fall.

What does this have to do with leadership and management? Simply put, political and business leaders now have to be perceived to be on the global warming “bandwagon” for fear of being branded a skeptic or, even worse, a “global warming denier”. Corporations and governments are now spending millions on establishing their environmental bone fides while spending billions more on becoming environmentally friendly. Investors are being told they can expect to make a killing by investing in ethanol production companies (while omitting to point out that the industry is heavily subsidized by governments) and other businesses profiting from global warming (everything from light bulb makers to wind farm operators). How much of this capital allocation has to do with actual risks and realities, as opposed to alarmist scenarios?

Back in 1975 Warren Bennis wrote a book called The Unconscious Conspiracy. Bennis argued that leaders were increasingly beset in the late 60s and 70s by an unconscious conspiracy of do-gooders and other assorted intervenors who were crippling the abilities of leaders to lead. Leaders were being forced to conform to ever changing standards of leadership and management while simultaneously being flooded by masses of irrelevant information and data. In addition, routine work was crowding out the non-routine, leaving leaders with limited power to lead their organizations as they saw fit.

The global warming issue is showing us that the “unconscious conspiracy” lives on, except that now, leaders are dealing with environmental issues rather than ones of rights and workplace democracy. Moreover, it appears that environmental concerns are crowding out others which are potentially just as important to the organization as well as society as a whole, such as growth and workplace safety.

Just as it was in 1975, there are still no easy solutions to the unconscious conspiracy, especially when it comes to the question of global warming. No amount of knowledge of the scientific trend could have forewarned of the sudden turn in public and political opinion. How should leaders deal with these situations? Here are some questions to think about when dealing with social trends.

  1. Are we just dealing with a fad or taste (e.g. fashion) or with a belief based on fear and emotion (e.g. global warming)? If it’s the former, then the organization can gear itself to constantly changing tastes and the consequences of failure to do so can be contained. If it’s the latter, then chances are that the leadership will have to give serious consideration to how this widespread social trend will impact on the organization.
  2. Is the social trend likely to crowd out reasoned debate and action? If yes, then the leadership and the organization must gear itself for this. Anyone who resisted equal rights and emancipation of various groups during the 60s and 70s quickly became viewed as a dinosaur, for good reason I might add. Moreover, their stonewalling led to government intervention in the form of affirmative action legislation. The same can be said of global warming today. Organizations and leaders who are openly skeptical are automatically tarred as global warming deniers and in cahoots with the oil industry. Informed debate is almost impossible in this situation, but doing nothing or stonewalling won’t make the problem go away either. On the other hand, focusing on environmental concerns while downplaying others, as seen in the BP case, are not a solution either.
  3. What can we do now and in the future to absorb the effects of this social trend? This obviously takes lot of thought and debate. It also means coming up with a long term strategy to deal with the issue while maintaining the focus of the organization.

What is clear is that these types of rapid changes of social mood and mass beliefs demand transformational and visionary leadership. Sitting around hoping that things will go back to the good old days won’t do. On the other hand, overreacting and becoming an “environmental” CEO are just as likely to be harmful to the organization as inaction. As with most things, the key is to maintain balance and perspective, and to not become a willing participant in the “unconscious conspiracy” weighing down one’s own leadership.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.