A field guide to lies

Daniel Levitin believes “we have failed an entire generation of children” by not preparing them properly for college. By this Levitin, who is an American cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer, and currently James McGill Professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, means students are increasingly entering tertiary eduction without the necessary critical thinking skills. 

“Words matter”, he told at audience at the RSA today. “Alternative facts” is a dangerous euphemism, he says. “Fake news, alternative truth – these are all euphemisms used by journalists in order not to offend people.” But, he says, truth is not about politics. Politicians should be saying  “these are the facts, what are we going to do about them?” Politicians can have an honest disagreement about the same facts, but they can’t have alternative facts. 

Journalists need to just call “alternative facts” what they are – lies. “Don’t be afraid of offending people. If they are lying they deserve to be offended.” In fact, he would go further. “I’d like to see fact checkers on TV. There should be a ticker running along the bottom of the screen saying “that’s a lie” – perhaps with a Pinocchio nose or a halo!”

He says Barrack Obama made a lot of sense when he said that democracy isn’t free. “We’ve begun to think it is and as soon as you do that you risk democracy itself.” 

The solution is to support the key institutions like law and science. “We’ve got used to thinking all politicians lie.” But it shouldn’t be left at that. 

He has written a book called “A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics” which offers some basic advice. 

“Before you hit like button and share a story think ‘is this true’,” he advises. There are good techniques for evaluating claims. For example, is it plausible?

He cites the example of a recent taxi ride where the taxi driver told him – “Do you know that there are 15bn people in the world who don’t have access to the internet.” What he meant to underline was an emotional point, Levitin says, which was that a large section of people in this unequal world are held back by not having access to the internet. But “numbers matter”, he says. After he explained that there were only about 7bn people in the world in the first place, they went on to have a good conversation about the topic. 

Another critical thinking tennet is that experts are not always what they seem to be. Take the famous Colgate advertisement that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Colgate. 

 There are several issues this throws up. “How many dentists? Five or 500 or 5000? Who are these dentists? Is it likely they would have an incentive to say this?  Is the dentist even the right person ask in any case? I’ve never been asked by my dentist which toothpaste I use in all the years I’ve been going.”

In fact, he says, this is one of the key issues today – picking the right expert. “Experts are too ready to step outside their area of competency.” 

Cable on Brexit and Education

Brexit will paralyse Government for the next five years, predicted Vince Cable today at the launch of a report on Further Education at the RSA.

The former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills warned that Brexit now meant a “massive diversion of energy as MPs and civil servants spend the next five years focused on a problem which was entirely unnecessary.” He said he has some experience of the planning for what might happen in the event of Scottish separation, and said this was a drop in the ocean compared to the massive effort that would be required to separate from Europe.

The further education sector had been battered by under-funding and ever-changing Government policy, he said, but it was going to be critical in the post-Brexit world where free movement of workers in no longer the norm. “If you exclude people you have to train people to fill the gap,” he said, arguing that at least in part the reason immigration is so high is because of a skills shortage in the UK economy. And, as public finances will be weaker in the future as the economic consequences of Brexit become a reality, this extra effort in skills training is going to be a real challenge.

He believes the further education sector should fulfil two roles: providing the higher level skills a sophisticated economy increasingly needs; and providing first class remedial training for people who have fallen behind for whatever reason.

Whatever the challenges ahead for further education, it was, he said, worse in the universities which will see research funding lost and overseas students numbers dropping.

– a difficulty. sector but report optimistic view of the possibilities for the future. Brexit will have an impact: FE sector not as bad as universities which will loss research funding and students.


Smart Citizens for a Smart State?

Beth Simone Novak is a woman on a mission – to use technology to transform government. It is a task she realises is herculean, as she told the audience at the RSA on Thursday.

She illustrated the potential by highlighting a couple of successful apps – PulsePoint  and GoodSam. The first is an app which launched in California which puts people who know CPR together with those who are having a heart attack. The second, the equivalent in the UK, alerts off-duty medics to emergencies in their vicinity. Both aim to use technology to tap a need which cannot currently be met well enough by the State. Novak says 7,000 lives have been saved so far by PulsePoint alone.

The key question for Governments, she says, is : “How do we take this know-how and make it work to improve government?”

The UK and US have done well with open data, she says and Government is generally getting much better at asking people – take the government petition initiatives in both countries for example. “But we need to go beyond this and ask what we know as citizens and what we can do.”

One way of mobilising this know-how is through prizes and challenges. For example the Challenge.gov platform in the US offers prizes for solving hard problems.

But, she says, “here’s where we’re stuck – it’s only happening at the edges. Open challenges don’t get the word out.”

One of the key problems is that “Government not used to saying ‘I don’t know’,” she says. Governments tend to view asking questions as embarrassing and the modern press in both the UK and the US doesn’t help. We need to move from “crowdsourcing widely to crowdsourcing wisely”, she argues.

What we need to do is target the right people. We need a science of people analytics. We need ‘Tindr for Government’

There are various attempts to get engagement in the wider population and to surface know-how in a meaningful way. The World Bank, for example, developed Skill Finder, and app to bring out the embedded knowledge in the organisation. They also added a help desk, recognising that one of the biggest challenges is getting the platform widely used. Spanish political party Podemos recently launched Talent Bank to do the same thing.

The key, says Novak, is to “re-envision the government’s role as broker”. We need new systems of credentials, such as the “badging” system, and we need to run more experiments.

Stackexchange, the knowledge exchange for software programmers is a good example of how it could work, she says.

The goal in the end is to build stronger, smarter state.

Beth Simone Noveck is the Jerry Hultin Global Network Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and director of the Governance Lab. She was the United States deputy chief technology officer for open government and led President Obama‘s Open Government Initiative.

Lessons from Save the Children

Justin Forsyth

In an engaging and powerful talk on Tuesday at the RSA out-going Save the Children Chief Executive Justin Forsyth shared five lessons he says he has learned in his time at the charity.

1. Build powerful platforms not powerful organisations. Charities can no longer do everything alone and teaming up with other charities to build platforms is now essential. He gave the example of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy which describes itself like this: “We will work together across the humanitarian sector to ensure that information, knowledge, learning and resources are shared to make us all more efficient in this time of growing pressure.”

2. Unexpected allies are more powerful than usual suspects. He cites the unlikely alliance of Bono and President Bush in the very effective campaign to tackle the HIV crisis in the developing world.

3. It is as important to have an exceptional team as an exceptional idea. This, he says, is “very important for sustaining good work.” Charities, in particular, he says, “can forget to focus internally”. This was especially critical for building sustainability, he said.

4. The power of the mass rather than elite. The unexpected success of the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in 2005 was made possible because of the Live 8 movement which was going on at the same time, he believes. Engaging the power of the masses “gives us permission to be edgy”.

5. Who you are should determine what you do, not the other way round. This means charities should always be true to their founding principles, he says. “If you don’t you don’t look authentic and you weaken your mandate.”

Aside from these five insights, Forsyth also had more to say on a range of topics in response to questions. Here are a selection:

“The biggest weakness of any organisation is self-righteousness, and charities too prone to this.”

“There is real power in riding waves rather than planning campaigns. The modern media environment can change the conversation across the world.” Examples he cited were the outcry following a rape in Delhi and the seismic response to pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on a Turkish beach, both of which had dramatic political consequences.

There was a need to “move the debate on from the CEO’s salary and admin costs to measuring the real impact we have in the world.”

“Engagement gets left behind in the drive to raise money,” he said, and “fundraising can become industrialised”. He argues that charities haven’t changed the “very old fashioned” way they raise funds. He doesn’t believe the “market” is saturated. “We can raise much more if we engage better with people, particularly through the use of digital technologies.”

Forsyth takes up a new post of deputy executive director of UNICEF next month.


How to have a good day


How do you have a good day? Caroline Webb thinks she knows and has written a book to explain her theories. Webb, previously a consultant with McKinsey and now running her own consultancy, laid out some of the foundation ideas in a talk at the RSA on Thursday.

She calls her philosophy “realistic optimism” and says it is based on general insights from behavioural science and aims to look for “wiggle room” within the constraints we all face.

Her talk focussed on three themes – bending reality, stretching time and growing intelligence.


She illustrated what she meant by bending reality with a story. When she was working for McKinsey she was asked to join a project involving a large-scale corporate change program. This was exactly the kind of project she was least keen on doing. In addition, the kick off meeting turned out to be by video conference, a medium which she always found difficult, frustrating and prone to misunderstandings.

A colleague turned up for the meeting who she called, pseudonymously, Lucas: a young, tall, well-dressed and very enthusiastic German. As she sat in a foul mood, with the meeting confirming all her worst fears, Lucas was powering through deck with undimmed enthusiasm.

After the meeting was over she sat down with Lucas to discuss what a disaster the meeting had been, only to find he was incredulous. He was convinced that the meeting went very well. When he recounted the evidence she was amazed to find so much that was positive.

This led her to the first insight – the brain sees what it expects to see. The conscious brain can only process a fraction of the stimulus it receives, she says, so the sub-conscious brain provided and edited version. The sub-conscious uses cues such as what is currently top of mind to set that filter. This is what is behind the phenomenon of confirmation bias, she says.

So, she reasoned, if you are deliberate about what is top of mind, what your mood is, then you can determine what gets filtered in. This, she now says, she always does, with dramatic results.


Of course you can’t really stretch time, she says, unless you park yourself at the edge of a Black Hole (and that has all sorts of complications attached to it!). However, she argues, the conscious brain can only do one thing at a time with any degree of facility. She illustrated by getting the audience to count to seven really fast – no problem. Then she asked us to recite the letters ‘a’ to ‘g’ as quickly as possible. Again, no problem. Then she asked us to combine the two – ‘a1’, ‘b2’ etc. Disaster.  “Multitasking loses mental energy,” she said. It is slower and more error prone. So, she reasons, do one thing at a time and you can make the day go further.


The final example was increasing intelligence. Again, a bit of a cheat – “you can’t really increase your basic intelligence” she admits. However, intelligence degrades markedly with stress. This is because, she says, when faced with danger the body is evolutionarily adapted to adopt a “flight or fight” response which results in the automatic part of the brain taking over and putting much less energy into the conscious brain.

It isn’t just the sudden appearance of a sabre-toothed tiger which triggers this response – “it takes almost nothing to trigger this response,” she says.

Again, she illustrated this point with another story from her days at McKinsey. She enrolled on a coaching course and found that she absolutely loved it. She wanted to build a career around coaching but was convinced that there would be no role within McKinsey (a place she loved) where she could do this. As a consequence she because badly conflicted – follow her dream and leave, don’t and stay. She could see no way out.

However, as part of the course the participants were encouraged to practice coaching techniques on each other so she did just this with her seemingly intractable problem. “Jill”, the colleague she was doing the exercise with, asked Webb to visualise the ideal situation – which was clearly continuing to work at McKinsey, but as a coach. She realised she had shut this option off completely because she had already convinced herself it was a non-starter and the flight-or-fight reflex had kicked it.

So her solution these days is – visualise the optimum outcome before coming to any conclusions. This puts your brain in “discovery mode”. You can then use all of your conscious intelligence on ways to make that outcome a reality.

“I’d say doing these three things was a pretty good recipe for a good day,” she said.


Universal Basic Income – a case

The RSA today hosted a debate about the Universal Basic Income chaired by RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor (centre).

The debate coincided with the launch of a report on the subject by the RSA and was framed by Anthony Painter RSA (left).

He argued that our current system of benefits is not fit for purpose and the new Universal Credits system designed to replace it is actually perverse.

He described the current system by means of an analogy with a catapault, a wall and a boot. Claimants are flung out of catapult by a system designed to force them into any kind of work and once there they hit the wall, which is a very steep rate of benefit reduction which equates to an effective “tax rate” of 70-80%. The boot is there to help the catapault by penalising people who don’t comply by capping or suspending benefits. “Food banks exist because of the boot.”

This, he says, is welfare at the sharp end when what is needed is a system which can support the creative potential of the citizen. “The key question is what kinds of lives do we want to support?”

What the RSA is proposing is a basic income of £3700 per person per year which would replace most forms of benefit except housing benefit and sickness benefit. Crucially there would be no conditions attached which would allow people to choose whether to work and what sort of work to do. When in work the RSA proposes that the income would taper but at a level which would equate to an effective “tax rate” in the 30%s.  It would give people back agency, supporting such life choices as caring for others, setting up a business, or practicing as an artist. As for cost, the RSA points out that the proposed level is really rather modest and would cost an extra 1% of GDP. This, argues Painter, is within the range of other spending commitments.

One of the key hurdles to overcome in moving to a Universal Basic Income is political – none of the mainstream political parties support the idea. But there is hope. Ben Southwood of the Adam Smith Institute (second from right) said there is support both on the right and the left. “It may seem strange that some of the most enthusiastic early proponents of Universal Basic Income are from right,” he said. He said, however, that he preferred to see the UBI as a “negative income tax.” This, he believes, would be more feasible politically. The key to bringing the right on side would be the need to scrap a lot of benefits. For this reason, he said, it would be better to roll housing benefit into higher basic income. This, he said, would encourage people to move to where housing is cheaper.


All the panellists saw paradoxical hope in the Universal Credits system being championed by Iain Duncan Smith. They all believed that the system would be an expensive and disastrous failure and that this may be the spur to look for truly radical alternatives. “Public support for the welfare state is very low,” said Tom Clark from The Guardian (right). “We really need to rebase it.”

Frances Coppola, the economic commentator (second left) summed up the argument for the Universal Basic Income. It was about “making the best use we can of human capital,” she said. “Society is better if people are doing things to the best of their ability.” The current view is any job will do, she said. “But any job won’t do.”


Climate change – still hope?

This is the question explorer and conservationist Tim Flannery attempted to answer, at the RSA today.

Tim Flannery and Sir David Attenborough
Tim Flannery (left) and Sir David Attenborough


“We are producing emissions at the highest rate we could have imagined a decade ago,” he says.  We have already reached 1degC of warming since pre-industrial times and with what we have already emitted, because of the lag effect, we are committed to another 0.5degC.

“At 1.5degC there won’t be a Great Barrier Reef,” he said.  “Are we prepared to live in a world like that? If not, we need to work on techniques to take the co2 out of the atmosphere.”

So, what would we have to do to remove co2 naturally, he asked? The answer is to plant an area of trees the size of Australia.

We can’t hide from the reality, he said:  Nobody expects we can stop at 2degC by cutting emissions alone.

One solution which had been much touted is geoengineering, and indeed there is already active research going on in the field in China. But this is an inherently risky route and there is no global treaty regulating geoengineering. “My great fear is that a nation will go it alone when things get bad.”

So, if not geoengineering then what?

I used to be pessimistic, he said, but it had become increasingly clear there was a third way involving technologies which can draw large volumes of co2 out of the atmosphere. “They are not ready yet but we need to start now. We know it takes decades from our experience with technologies like solar and wind.”

There are several promising pathways Flannery outlined:

1. Biological. The trouble with biological approach is that they are limited in the face of the scale of the problem. Flannery says we would have to look to the sea where growth rates are much higher and pressure on space much lower. He pointed out that with  9% of the ocean as sea weed farms we would draw down all our current annual emissions of co2. However, he points out, that would actually result in sea weed farms covering an area five times as big as Australia. Nevertheless, there is valuable research in this area making good progress.

2. Chemical pathways. The main problem with these generally is that they need energy which doesn’t make sense until we are making enough clean energy.

That said, there are very interesting possibilities, he believes. One promising avenue is making carbon negative concrete, for example. This has already been produced experimentally and is very attractive as concrete is a major source of emissions.  But, he says, the construction industry is sceptical and is unlikely to take it up until the technology is proven. This is an area where the economic incentive of a carbon price would, he believes, drive uptake.

Another interesting area is to use silicate rock which naturally absorbs co2 when it weathers. For example, we could mine rock, grind it up and put it on beaches as sand.

Another promising research project is making plastic directly from co2. What about the havoc caused by waste plastic, asked David Attenborough? “Plastic is an appalling hazard to wildlife – we have to do something about that.” Flannery agreed.

One project Flannery was particularly enthused by was making carbon fibres directly from co2. This was exciting, he said, as it was claimed this would be cheaper than conventional methods of production which would mean carbon fibre could compete head on with steel and aluminium, both of which are major emitters. It was likely, he thought, that private money would fund this development as the rewards are potentially so great.

He then turned to carbon capture and storage (CCS). The traditional approach which was designed to make coal fired power stations “clean” was, he said, a failure. “It’s very expensive, very complicated, and doesn’t even capture all the emissions.” Will the price of renewables tumbling this would never make economic sense for coal.

However, this is not to say that CCS generally shouldn’t receive R&D effort. Where could we store co2, he asked rhetorically? Two options at least  – 3km down in the water  where the pressure makes co2 solid. Another options being explored was to bury it the antarctic – chiller boxes powered by wind would turn co2 to snow which could then be buried.

If this all sounds like science fiction, Flannery says we need to “keep the imaginative pathways open”. 2050 will be very different to 2015, he says. “Think of the difference between the world in 1915 and 1950.”

The key point is, he argues, that we have to cut emissions now and hard as well as start researching seriously on these technical solutions. If we continue as we are we will be out of budget in 13 years. And one of biggest risks of 2degC is a large release of methane which could spike temperatures. For this reason we can’t afford to wait before cutting emissions hard, but, because there is a lag between emissions and temperature increases we have a chance to develop solutions which will take co2 out of the atmosphere.


Making markets work for people

The idea that markets are perfect if left free is profoundly wrong argues Robert Shiller, Nobel Prize winning economist, who was speaking at the RSA today. 

The concept of the perfection of markets is attributed to Adam Smith, but says Shiller, even he didn’t entirely believe it. 

In fact in the modern free market economy businesses grow up around human weakness. Markets are built on phishing and we have no idea as individuals how pervasive this is. 

He gave a couple of examples: cigarettes and slot machines.  The Malboro Man  grew out of research showing that the rugged cowboy was the character which the target customer most closely identified with – everywhere in the world. So Malboro cigarettes have huge consumer preference despite the evidence from research that all cigarettes taste pretty well the same. 

Gambling, he points out, is addictive and destructive. And slot machines are among the most addictive especially when you optimise them to take advantage of the weakness. It turns out, he says, that the optimal time between button pushes is 3.5 seconds. If the flow is broken the player may walk away. So now they are designed to do nothing to break the cycle. 

Shiller argues we need regulations to combat this characteristic of markets to phish. 

“If we didn’t have regulations we would have slot machines everywhere,” he argues. 

“Government intervention should not be considered evil.”

Rise of the robots

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Martin Ford believes automation is going to have a profound effect on society, an effect we are unprepared for. Speaking at the RSA today Ford said that as a group economists are generally sceptical about the impact of automation and AI. The reason is historic – it has always proved a misplaced worry in the past. 

But it is different this time for three reasons:

  • The exponential nature of technological change
  • The increasing cognitive capability of technology 
  • And the fact that general purpose technology is increasingly ubiquitous. “There are no safe havens any more”.

One argument is that we will create new jobs as old ones are replaced. However, he argues the new industries are not labour intensive – say, 5% of the work force for the same revenues. “90% workers are still in jobs which existed 100 years ago,” he says. “The entire economy will be more like Google and less like GM in the future.” 

Productivity and compensation decoupled in the 70s and now the benefits have accrued to the capital owners not the workers, he argues. This is because before the 70s automation helped workers become more efficient – since then it is competing with them. 

Technology is no longer just coming after the low skilled (education is the traditional solution); now technology is climbing the skill ladder. 

“Machines do not consume – businesses must be able to sell what they produce,” he says. This means a shift from labour to capital, from workers to owners. “When you take purchasing power from average people and give them to the rich you take demand out if the market – Bill Gates isn’t going to buy 1000 restaurant meals.”

We have a choice between a utopian future or dystopia. In the long run he believes one fundamental answer is a universal basic income. Politically, he says, this is almost unthinkable right now. But if we are going to avoid dystopia we will need to seriously consider options like this. And to pay for it? “Logically we are going to have to shift taxation from labour to capital.”

Beyond Ideas


It was doubly ironic that Robert Rowland Smith, a writer and philosopher (an ideas based profession if ever there was one) chose   the RSA (an organisation whose central mission is ideas) to urge us all to move beyond ideas at a talk today.

He says we live in a culture which believes in making things happen rather than letting things happen: “We wait for ideas to rescue us.”

He argues that this focus on ideas keeps us removed from reality. Ideas and reality aren’t connected, he says. They are the “cousins of the lie”.

He says there are many ways of seeing the world. 

The first is what he calls the Google Glasses approach. This is our common approach. Like Google Glass we look at the world through a filter. This is a mediated view designed to help us interpret rather than experience the world directly, what philosophy would call a hermeneutic way of seeing. 

In contrast his second way of seeing is data driven – a phenomenological way of seeing the world. 

Using this way of viewing we simply describe the world without trying to interpret. “The effort of seeing is very hard” though, he warns.   

The third way is what he calls Hazing  – losing focus on the particular in front of you and therefore seeing more of the context. “Understanding increases when you lose focus and you see more of the whole.”

The final way is what he describes as a Meta way of seeing. This involves moving above yourself and seeing yourself as one of the actors in the scene. This allows us to appreciate our place in the whole as we are spared of the need of interpreting the world.

Smith says he is often called on to help artists of all types who are experiencing a creative block. He says they mostly think what they need are fresh ideas. But he says this is wrong. 

Creativity is solitary and non-ideas based he argues. He has invented a term – “Soulus”  – to describe what is solitary and unique about each individual. 

True creativity comes, not from an idea which is rooted in someone else but from within. It’s in the images from our subconscious which come to us in our dreams, for example.

The final idea Smith spoke about was perdition – being lost. 

“When we are looking for an idea we are looking for navigation,” he says. Getting lost is where we find our most innovative thoughts, he says,  when we are being open to what is not formed. 

“Unless you are truly lost you are not empty enough to come up with unique creative ideas.” There’s that word again!