What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions—if they can get rich making dumb decisions?
― Michael Lewis
Over the Christmas holiday my family and I went to see “The Big Short” an excellent movie about the financial collapse in 2007-2008. It was almost impossible to come away from the movie without feeling a deep sense of rage over how things unfolded. The level of criminality, greed and distain for humanity that fueled the collapse has largely gone unpunished, and driven precious little change in the system that allowed things to unfold. The reality is that we are primed for the same thing to happen all over again with only the details changing. The issues that allowed this calamity are infesting society at large and corrosively aimed at almost every great institution we depend upon.
“Guys who can’t get a job on Wall Street get a job at Moody’s,” as one Goldman Sachs trader-turned-hedge fund manager put it.”
― Michael Lewis
One scene in “The Big Short” stands out as helping define the depth of the dysfunction in the system, the trip to Moody’s, the rating agency for the securities. The securities created by the banks were incredibly unstable and literally junk, yet the ratings agencies kept putting their top seal of approval on them, AAA. When pressed on the matter, the woman representing Moody’s said, “if we don’t give them the rating they want, the guy down the street will, we want the business.” The people watching the system for fraud were completely in bed with the crooks. The reality is that this practice and problem are everywhere. It is true where I’ve worked, it is obviously true in politics, and sports, and education, and… Our whole nation is living in the Golden Age of Bullshit. This serves no purpose but perpetuating the existing structures of power at the cost of progress, quality and ethical behavior.
Mark Baum: We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food. Even baseball…
– The Big Short
The issue exposed in the Big Short is permiating society. The basic problem is that no one can be responsible bcause being responsible will just get you replaced by a more corrupt or corruptible irresponsible person. The sorts of peer reviews that we see at work are the same thing. Everything is graded on a curve, and a bad failing grade is never allowed. Failure isn’t allowed, if it comes up the messenger is “shot” (usually by being dismissed from the peer review). We never confront any problems until they blow up in our faces. This tendency basically allows progress to grind to a proverbial halt. Failures are the fuel for progress and when you disallow failure, you disallow progress.
The signs of this form of corruption are everywhere. We cannot have a decent or deep conversation about anything controversial. Climate change is a great example of the sort of bullshit responses that hamper us today. If everyone is an expert then no one is an expert. If people don’t like the information they get, they find someone else who gives them a different answer. As a result science in our society is in decline. Actual science is being hurt, and science’s role in society is similarly degrading. Look at the whole anti-vaxxer movement, which has absolutely no basis, but lots of proponents. We get ideas where any risk at all is unacceptable and we allow progress to grind to a complete halt. Failure, problems and the identification of things that need to be improved creates the basis of valuable work. We have structurally destroyed mechanisms for doing this by our addiction to praise and inability to identify and confront problems while they are small.
All intellectual tendencies are corrupted when they consort with power.
― Clive James
I run in a lot circles where large scale decisions are made and money is distributed. A culture of empty-headed management has crept into how things are done. People managing scientific programs are much more interested in milestones and Gantt charts than whether the work is any good. They seem to have conflated the practice of project management with quality. As a result we end up managing the wrong things and syphoning off the key elements in useful progressive research.
The ability to make progress and innovate has very little to do with anything project management provides. Progress often comes from applying new thinking to old problems. One of the key things to do is identify and take on unsolved problems, another name for failures. Making progress is often the antithesis of things that can be managed in today’s common fashion, so progress makes way for management satisfaction. The key is the project management is simply a tool, and a useful one at that. It is not a recipe for success or an alternative to thinking deeply and differently.
Lastly, we have a seemingly ever-present din of the question, “will things ever be done?” I hear this repeatedly from those managing and funding stockpile stewardship. The answer is NO and will always be NO. At least if we want a competent and reliable science basis for national defense, the economy or just a generally progressive society, the work is never done. This question is so utterly lacking in thought and intellectual depth that it should be met with complete distain.
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.
― Henry Ford
People thinking that science is something with a finite starting and stopping point have no business whatsoever being in any form of leadership. Science is a quintessential human activity and we humans make progress continually. To deny progress should be against the nature of our species. Killing progress is certainly opposed to the best interests of society at large. Science in support of national defense has been one of the most fruitful avenues for progress in science with benefits far beyond killing other people more efficiently. Most of today’s economy is founded upon the results from defense related research. These opponents of progress are basically enemies of the state, trying to undermine the foundations of our Nation’s strength. They’re out there, enemies of progress, friends of corruption trying to keep us from solving our problems. They’re everywhere.
Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
― Carl Sagan