Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Challenge the Narcotics convention

Richard Branson is in favor of drug law reform
I don't much like tattoos and men wearing their undies above their jeans. Other people dislike grunge, heavy metal and the Kardashians. All of these offences against taste are personal choices, with no impact on others. There have been suggestions that each should be banned or restricted, but such claims are regarded as frivolous.

There are many personal choices with no impact on others that are restricted or prohibited

Although those examples of behavior are allowed, almost every society restricts some behavior that is a personal choice. In every case, it is argued that allowing the behavior is harmful to society. Generally, it's a false claim. Blasphemy, homosexuality and topless bathing are all examples that have been banned in Australia and are still banned in some parts of the world.

Alcohol, gambling and drugs are other examples. Each has positive and negative consequences for the user, and yes, when misused, they have negative consequences for society. Yet drugs are prohibited while gambling and alcohol are not.

Prohibition does not work

Prohibition of alcohol failed terribly in the 1920s
Prohibition of gambling in Australia failed
Prohibition of drugs has failed

Like many countries, Australia is a signatory to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) which covers drugs with morphine-like, cocaine-like, and cannabis-like effects.  As a result, we are bound to abide by its restrictive principles.  Perhaps the Convention was appropriate 50 years ago.  It is no longer the right approach.

Australia should cease being a signatory to the Single Convention

A new approach to drugs is required in the 21st century.  For Australia to have the flexibility to pursue such an approach, we can longer be bound by the Single Convention. We have shown that by legalising gambling, and regulating it; by legalising alcohol and regulating it; by legalising tobacco and regulating it - that our society benefits.

We should take the same approach to drugs with morphine-like, cocaine-like, and cannabis-like effects, as well as other psychotropic drugs.

I would like to see a new approach to drug management globally.  The place to start is to dismantle the existing structures as they are causing more harm than good.

Let me know what you think

Mark S

Monday, 23 January 2012

Bikes, cars and heuristics

On Friday, I was hit by a car. Actually I got hit by the door of a car. That's not the point of this article. The point is what happened next.

Daniel Kahnemann
Most people when confronted with a situation like that would react according to a heuristic. Heuristics are rules of thumb, and they were studied in detail in the 1970s by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann in their groundbreaking work.

Heuristics make many decisions in life a lot easier. If you didn't have a heuristic for  putting your clothes on, there are so many possible combinations that you'd never get out of the house on time.

So when I landed on the ground, with various amounts of pain, most people would have a heuristic to handle it. But my brain doesn't work that way. I'm an analyst, so in a situation that I'm not familiar with, my brain started to piece together what had happened and what comes next.

Focus on what's most important

The range of issues my brain started to consider was rather broad. Message for the future: there is a time and place for broad thinking and a time and place for narrow thinking. This was the latter.

Rather than just focusing on exchanging contact details and going home or to a hospital, my brain started thinking about a whole raft of less important items. As a result - it got stuck!

When heuristics go wrong

By now, if you are a person who makes great snap decisions, you are patting yourself on the back. Unfortunately, Tversky & Kahnemann's research found that heuristics can go badly wrong. Luckily for me, with more complex processes, it seems my brain is well suited to breaking down a problem into its component parts and putting it back together in a sequential order that works.

So how did it all turn out?

Thankfully, my nearest and dearest is very good with heuristics and took my to the local hospital where I got well taken care of.

The moral of the story: If you're not strong in a thinking style, find someone who is. 

 Let me know what you think

Mark S

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Talk to the consumer in their language

Some public officials have a bad habit of following old fashioned traditions rather than considering what they are trying to achieve.  We deserve the best.

There's no place to hide behind legalese

The best public campaigns focus on achieving an objective,  the worst are bureaucratic and legalistic.  Take this sign, from my neighbourhood. With wording like this it's no wonder it's been covered with graffiti!

Projectiles thrown at trams may cause serious injury or death to occupants.  Offenders will be prosecuted.

Real campaigns must talk in the language of those we are trying to influence

Two of the most successful public campaigns in Australian history have been the Grim Reaper campaign of the 1980s, and the Victorian TAC (Transport Accident Commission) campaigns since 1989.  In particular, the phrase: "If you drink, then drive, you're a bloody idiot" has become a part of the Australian vernacular.

These campaigns were highly controversial at the time, as they were graphic, dramatic, and unlike anything before.  Yet, they both worked - Australia successfully dodged the AIDS bullet, and dramatically reduced the road toll.  An important part of their success was the way that their language was direct - not at all inhibited by legalese.

More recently, a series of ads to educate young men about alcohol fuelled violence have used the device of "championship moves".  Again, these ads use language and visuals that are consistent with the way young men act and speak. Likewise, the Save-a-Mate program talks to young people about drugs in a way that is realistic.

Stop with the bureaucracy and legal threats

Thankfully, most public officials are less bureaucratic than my local signage.  This New York example of a campaign against train surfing is direct, and doesn't mention one word of prosecution. In reality, the people that public service announcements are trying to talk to don't take much notice of legal sanctions.  But, like the Grim Reaper, TAC and drugs campaigns,  disincentives are those that affect them personally, like death, or social embarrassment.

We have no reason to use complex, legal language in communicating with our audience.  Let's be honest, and direct.  Everyone will benefit.

Let me know what you think.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Why I'm wrong and so are zealots like Santorum

If there is one thing I am sure about, it's that there are a lot of things I don't know.  Coming from a Science background, that's just sensible - if there is uncertainty around a topic, well, we just have to live with that.  When we get better information, then, we can be more certain - until then, I can have opinions, but I know that my opinions are simply educated guesses on the world.

Why I am sure that religious zealots like Rick Santorum are wrong

So, while I can live with uncertainty, there are a lot of religious zealots in the world who cannot.  Instead, they claim that their faith is right.  Their claims just lack logic.

In our world of 7 billion there are around 2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and 500 million Buddhists.  Each of these believe different truths about the world.  Each is absolutely confident in their faith about those truths. So, they can't all be right.  In fact, because they are absolutists, they must all be wrong.

(As an aside, the Christians might like to claim that majority rules, and because there are more of them, they must be right.  I'd be reluctant to use that line of thinking dear Christians, as the growth rate of Islam is faster than Christianity, so at some stage in the future, this would mean the Christians would have to concede that the Muslims are right!)

Rick Santorum: a religious zealot
Which brings us to Rick Santorum, campaigning on "faith, family and freedom".  His view is that his biblical faith is a truth.  It's a view that was held by George W Bush and by millions of Americans (and other Christians around the world).  But he also claims that he is right and Muslims are wrong with claims such as “We need to define it and say what it is. And it is evil. Sharia law is incompatible with American jurisprudence and our Constitution.”

So, we have different groups passionately claiming they are right, just because ... well, because they say so.  That's why it is so clear that they all must be wrong.

Why it's important that I am not right

Being absolute about the state of the world prevents people from investigating how things can be done differently or better.  If one believes that a deity has cast the world in stone, there is no motivation to improve.  And whether there is, or isn't a God doesn't affect this either.  At its worst, holding such absolute views leads to violence, discrimination and terrorism - and this has been going on for thousands of years.

As productive members of society, we must remain questioning, thoughtful beings, not blind followers of others, or of a text written hundred or thousands of years ago.  By being respectful to alternative opinions, the likelihood of sectarian violence decreases close to zero, for their is no faith to have to protect.

The more I have learnt over the years, the more confident I am that I don't know a lot of important things.  I'm also confident that I should keep searching for a little better understanding, and not rely on blind faith.

The world needs leaders who encourage us all to question and grow, and not to be religious fundamentalists.  Rick Santorum (like Osama bin Laden) is wrong.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Australian success will come from tall poppies

Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow developed the theory we know as "Maslow's hierarchy of needs".  Simply, humans will ensure that they satisfy more basic needs first, before they satisfy more advanced needs that are higher up the hierarchy.

First we need food, water, shelter and sex.  Next we need to be physically and emotionally safe. Then we need love and belonging, relationships followed by self-esteem.  Finally, we want to be the best we can be, to self actualise.

Don't chop down the tall poppies

Australians have a habit of being critical of people who strive to achieve, unless it is in sport.  So, let's think about what this means we are doing.  Once an individual has achieved their more basic needs, they will naturally strive to achieve greater self esteem.  Among young children, we advocate this very strongly - they must feel good about themselves.

Yet, among adults, when they strive and succeed, we feel entitled to criticise. We are saying to them - you are higher up the ladder than I am, so I'm feeling uncomfortable about that.  Comparatively, that's hurting my self esteem.  So, I'm going to chop you down.

We don't do it to our sportspeople, because we are all on the same team.  When Cadel Evans won the Tour de France, we all won. Our self esteem rose together.

By denying others the basic human motivation to achieve more self esteem, we are denying it to ourselves.  We must stop chopping down tall poppies.

It's about being better in everything we do

Should I only strive for a mediocre meal?
When we deny others the right to succeed and better themselves, we are denying that to ourselves as well.  Tonight, I cooked salmon, mushrooms and asparagus for dinner.  If I cook a good meal, I'll likely get thanked (as I did). My self esteem gets an uptick.

Is that enough? Well no.  If I don't seek to do better, and exceed those standards, soon I won't be getting thanks, I won't be satisfied with my own performance and I won't be happy with myself.  If I do better, the salmon will be perfect every time.  The presentation will improve more and more, the asparagus tender and not woody, and so forth. 

If I did really, really well, who knows - I could finish up on Masterchef! Is that the moment when Australia would start to chop me down, just as I am reaching the very limit of my potential?

To improve productivity we must champion our successful citizens

The same applies in all walks of life.  The more successful that individuals are, the more of their potential that they are achieving, the more visible success (often money) that they gain.  It is these people who are successful (and generally wealthy) who are improving our productivity.  It is these people, who are improving our productivity, who are improving the quality of life for all Australians.

No, it's not the same as Ronald Reagan's rhetoric that a "rising tide lifts all ships".  That was just an excuse not to ask wealthy citizens to pay their fair share of taxes.  It's about creating a culture of success, just like Cadel Evans' team does with him.

When we notice an individual achieving more, we must applaud it - regardless of what field of endeavour it is in.  Let's all promote each other's self esteem and increase our productivity and success.

Let me know what you think

Mark S

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Peter Roebuck story: we must be careful of the dots we connect

Front page of today's Fairfax Sunday papers is the exclusive "The Roebuck tragedy: a tale of love, beatings and blackmail".  This is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism, reporting on the enigma who was Peter Roebuck, both respected cricket commentator, and now also known as alleged child sexual offender and benefactor.  A paradox indeed.

Yet, within what appears to be a factually diligent reportage, there is a disturbing connection.  The connection is not made deliberately, and in this particular case, the connection is fair.  Unfortunately, it also enables those who are not so fair-minded to extend the connection in directions where it has no right to go.  This connection is that as Peter Roebuck was a homosexual, that homosexuals are likely to sexually assault young boys.

Some people commit sexual assaults - race, class, sexuality, religion or any other characteristics has no relevance

Whenever sexual assaults are reported, there is understandable community concern, even outrage.  This heady emotion can often combine with prejudices against various groups in society, so that an offender who is of a particular race, class, sexual orientation, even religion is seen as representative of all of their kind, rather than representative of sex offenders.

Within the article, cricket commentator Jim Maxwell explained that:
"he was "taken aback" when he gave his statement to police shortly after his friend's suicide, and the second question they asked was "Did you know he was a homosexual?"

For those who have a predilection towards criticism of gays, this offers them the opportunity to say "see, he was gay, no wonder he did it to those boys".

All of the evidence is to the contrary.  Pedophiles are pedophiles, not because they are black men raping white women, Catholic priests interfering with altar boys, or gays assaulting young men. These three cohorts have had the misfortune of attracting widespread media attention, as a result of certain cases that have enabled myths to be perpetuated.  None of these groups deserved those connections.

Myths related to sexual assault are damaging myths

There are so many myths relating to sexual assault, which have been disproved by many studies (see a list of reliable references below).  These include the myth that sexually provocative dress means that women are "asking for it", the myth that most assaults are by strangers, that most assailants are old men, and so forth.

When these myths are allowed to perpetuate, our society suffers.  We distrust priests (most of whom are well meaning people).  We discriminate against women for the way they dress.  The US criminal justice system has been shown to discriminate against black men. And there are many more impacts on our society.

The Roebuck legacy must not be about gays and boys

The Peter Roebuck legacy will be many things.  It may be about the need to support youths reach their potential in Africa.  It may be about the need to be more aware of abuses against vulnerable children.  It may be related to cricket. It may be other things entirely.

What the legacy must not be is an excuse for bigots to accuse all gays of being pedophiles, nor an excuse to be suspicious of all white men in Africa.

For when we engage in unfounded bigotry, it hurts us all.

Let me know what you think.

Mark S

References on sexual assault myths: