5 Things: Stuff I’ve Learned But Recently Had (Re)Confirmed


One of the advantages of getting older is that you realise that wisdom is merely the accumulated memory of the mistakes you made that haven’t killed you yet. Our ability to communicate these lessons as knowledge to other people determines how well we can share that wisdom around but, in many cases, it won’t ring true until someone goes through similar experiences. Here are five things that I’ve recently thought about because I have had a few decades to learn about the area and then current events have brought them to the fore. You may disagree with these but, as you will read in point 4, I encourage you to write your own rather than simply disagree with me.

  1. Racism and sexism are scientifically unfounded and just plain dumb. We know better.

    I see that James Watson is selling his Nobel prize medal because he’d like to make some donations – oh, and buy some art. Watson was, rightly, shunned for expressing his belief that African-American people were less intelligent because they were… African-American. To even start from the incredibly shaky ground of IQ measurement is one thing but to then throw a healthy dollop of anti-African sentiment on top is pretty stupid. Read the second article to see that he’s not apologetic about his statements, he just notes that “you’re not supposed to say that”. Well, given that it’s utter rubbish, no, you should probably shouldn’t say it because it’s wrong, stupid and discriminatory. Our existing biases, cultural factors and lack of equal access to opportunity are facts that disproportionately affect African-Americans and women, to mention only two of the groups that get regularly hammered over this, but to think that this indicates some sort of characteristic of the victim is biassed privileged reasoning at its finest. Read more here. Read The Mismeasure of Man. Read recent studies that are peer-reviewed in journals by actual scientists.In short, don’t buy his medal. Give donations directly to the institutions he talks about if you feel strongly. You probably don’t want to reward an unrepentant racist and sexist man with a Hockney.

  2. Being aware of your privilege doesn’t make it go away.

    I am a well-educated white man from a background of affluent people with tertiary qualifications. I am also married to a woman. My wife and I work full-time and have long-term employment with good salaries and benefits, living in a safe country that still has a reasonable social contract. This means that I have the most enormous invisible backpack of privilege, resilience and resources, to draw upon that means that I am rarely in any form of long-term distress at all. Nobody is scared when I walk into a room unless I pick up a karaoke microphone. I will be the last person to be discriminated against. Knowing this does not then make it ok if I then proceed to use my privilege in the world as if this is some sort of natural way of things. People are discriminated against every day. Assaulted. Raped. Tortured. Killed. Because they lack my skin colour, my gender, my perceived sexuality or my resources. They have obstacles in their path to achieving a fraction of my success that I can barely imagine. Given how much agency I have, I can’t be aware of my privilege without acting to grant as much opportunity and agency as I can to other people.As it happens, I am lucky enough to have a job where I can work to improve access to education, to develop the potential of students, to support new and exciting developments that might lead to serious and positive social change in the future. It’s not enough for me to say “Oh, yes, I have some privilege but I know about it now. Right. Moving on.” I don’t feel guilty about my innate characteristics (because it wasn’t actually my choice that I was born with XY chromosomes) but I do feel guilty if I don’t recognise that my continued use of my privilege generally comes at the expense of other people. So, in my own way and within my own limitations, I try to address this to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I don’t always succeed. I know that there are people who are much better at it. But I do try because, now that I know, I have to try to act to change things.

  3. Real problems take decades to fix. Start now.

    I’ve managed to make some solid change along the way but, in most cases, these changes have taken 2-3 years to achieve and some of them are going to be underway for generations. One of my students asked me how I would know if we’d made a solid change to education and I answered “Well, I hope to see things in place by the time I’m 50 (four years from now) and then it will take about 25 years to see how it has all worked. When I retire, at 75, I will have a fairly good idea.”This is totally at odds with election cycles for almost every political sphere that work in 3-4 years, where 6-12 months is spent blaming the previous government, 24 months is spent doing something and the final year is spent getting elected again. Some issues are too big to be handled within the attention span of a politician. I would love to see things like public health and education become bipartisan issues with community representation as a rolling component of existing government. Keeping people healthy and educated should be statements everyone can agree on and, given how long it has taken me to achieve small change, I can’t see how we’re going to get real and meaningful improvement unless we start recognising that some things take longer than 2 years to achieve.

  4. Everyone’s a critic, fewer are creators. Everyone could be creating.

    I love the idea of the manifesto, the public declaration of your issues and views, often with your aims. It is a way that someone (or a part of some sort) can say “these are the things that we care about and this is how we will fix the world”. There’s a lot inside traditional research that falls into this bucket: the world is broken and this is how my science will fix it! The problem is that it’s harder to make a definitive statement of your own views than it is to pick holes in someone else’s. As a logorrheic blogger, I have had my fair share of criticism over time and, while much of it is in the line of valuable discourse, I sometimes wonder if the people commenting would find it more useful to clearly define everything that they believe and then put it up for all to see.There is no doubt that this is challenging (my own educational manifesto is taking ages to come together as I agonise over semantics) but establishing what you believe to be important and putting it out there is a strong statement that makes you, as the author, a creator and it helps to find people who can assist you with your aims. By only responding to someone else’s manifesto, you are restricted to their colour palette and it may not contain the shades that you need.

    Knowing what you believe is powerful, especially when you clearly identify it to yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to say something you agree with so that you can press the “Like” button or argue it out in the comments. Seize the keyboard!

  5.  Money is stupid.

    If you hadn’t picked up from point 2 how far away I am from the struggle of most of the 7 billion people on this planet, then this will bang that particular nail in. The true luxury of the privileged is to look at the monetary systems that control everyone else and consider other things because they can see what life in a non-scarcity environment is like. Everyone else is too busy working to have the time or headspace to see that we make money in order to spend money in order to make money because money. There’s roughly one accountant for every 250 people in the US and this is projected to rise by 13% to 2022 at exactly the same growth rate as the economy because you can’t have money without accounting for it, entering the paperwork, tracking it and so on. In the top 25 companies in the world, we see technology companies like Apple and Microsoft, resources companies like Exxon, PetroChina and BHP Biliton, giant consumer brands like Nestlé and Procter and Gamble … and investment companies and banks. Roughly 20% of the most valuable companies in the world exist because they handle vast quantities of money  – they do not produce anything else. Capitalism is the ultimate Ponzi scheme.If you’ve read much of my stuff before then you know that a carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t help you to think. Money is both carrot and stick and, surprise, surprise, it can affect mechanical and simplistic performance but it can’t drive creativity or innovation. (It can be used to build an environment to support innovation but that’s another matter.) Weird, reality distorting things happen when money comes into play. People take jobs that they really don’t want to do because it pays better than something that they are good at or love. People do terrible things to other people to make more money and then, because they’re not happier, spend even more money and wonder what’s wrong. When we associate value and marks with things that we might otherwise love, bad things often happen as we can see (humorously) in Alexei Sayle’s Marxist demolition of Strictly Come Dancing.

    Money is currently at the centre of our universe and it affects our thinking detrimentally, much as working with an Earth-centred model of the solar system doesn’t really work unless you keep making weird exceptions and complications in your models of reality. There are other models which, contrary to the fear mongering of the wealthy, does not mean that everyone has to live in squalor. In fact, if everyone were to live in squalor, we’d have to throw away a lot of existing resources because we already have about three billion people already living below $2.50 a day and we certainly have the resources to do better than that. Every second child in the world is living in poverty. Don’t forget that this means that the person who was going to cure cancer, develop starship travel, write the world’s greatest novel or develop working fusion/ultra-high efficiency solar may already have been born into poverty and may be one of the 22,000 children a day to die because of poverty.

    We know this and we can see that this will require long-term, altruistic and smart thinking to fix. Money, however, appears to make us short-sighted, greedy and stupid. Ergo, money is stupid. Sadly, it’s an entrenched and currently necessary stupidity but we can, perhaps, hope for something better in the future.