Friday, February 20, 2015

Setting Free the Bears

I’ve just got back from Laos, doing the tourist thing: as you do. One day we went to the equivalent of what we would call a national park. They are desperately in need of preserving what forests and animals they have, as illegal and legal logging is decimating the flora and, as a result, the fauna. Poaching is another threat and has almost seen off what was a thriving elephant population. There aren’t many birds either as they have been hunted for food, and one can buy fried rats the market, but that is another story.

Then there are the bears. They too have been hunted to near extinction and are mostly kept in sanctuaries. One of the reasons for hunting them is for homeopathic (I refuse to call this pharmaceutical because it is far from that) purposes. One of the weirdest is the taking a bear paw and putting into a bottle of rice wine. Apparently it is good for the health. But the most barbaric practice is keeping bears in tiny cages and painfully extracting bile from them until they can no longer produce and die a horrible death: mostly practiced in China. Whatever medicinal benefit bile might provide can be obtained from synthetic substances but it probably has not health effect at all. Perhaps it’s a good placebo but so is a sugar pill.

Humans are a remarkably superstitious lot and this is not  just the preserve of so called developing countries. We see the same sort of psychological processes in our apparently more enlightened societies and it doesn’t need to be about grand scale belief systems. It can be spotted in everyday behavior as a primitive and flawed way of making judgments.

 One example is the way in which we invent explanations for things that we don’t understand or for which we don’t yet have a scientific reason. This happens on a daily basis when we observe other people’s behaviour that doesn’t fit with our model of the world. We don’t understand it so we find reasons that concur with stereotypes we might have, or preconceived notions that were probably implanted by a relative, a newspaper or some other ‘respected’ source. Given it is our only reference point we believe it to be true rather than take the time to do some research.

You see this sort of thing happening on Facebook where a wild rumour about some marginal racial, ethnic or other group gets circulated and people keep sharing it, believing it to be true. A five-minute bit of research mostly shows these outrageous posts to be false but nobody takes the time to look. And of course it happens in organisations and groups of all kinds.

I have often been asked for my expert (sic) advice on matters in which I have some expertise. These are not many but there are some things that I do know something about. It might be the quality of the advice but frequently not only is the advice ignored but the person or organization does the complete opposite. The usual reason is expediency and a desire to ignore, as Al Gore calls it, an inconvenient truth. It is just too hard to do the thing (whatever it is) right so the advice is dismissed and the more convenient, preconceived approach is used.

One example is the organization that has a problem and is looking for a training solution. In fact, a brief investigation finds that the problem involves the organizational systems, processes, procedures or, more intangibly, leadership. This is pointed out but ignore because the solution is seen as too difficult. Much better to adopt a solution that is easy but will not work. But this example can be taken as a metaphor.

This sort of behavior is as primitive as extracting bile from bears for no good purpose. But, it is part of the human condition. Our brains have a lot of evolving to do before we can claim to be as sophisticated as we think we are.