Wednesday, May 26, 2010

John England Guest Post


The Executive director and founder of Mindsystems


"DON’T BELIEVE ALL YOU READ"

I was recently reading an article by Jim Giles, in the New Scientist [May 2010] called “Giving Life to a Lie”. In it he quotes a story written by an Australian Journalist, Piers Akerman for the Daily Telegraph (2006) where Akerman claimed that global warming was exaggerated. Now it was not that fact that caught my attention but rather the reference he attributed to John Houghton, a former chair to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was “unless we announce disasters no one will listen”.

This reference was picked up by a journalist in Canada followed later by an academic in Michigan. Giles goes on the say that today there at least three books, 100 blogs and 24,000 web pages that in some way cite Houghton’s original book published in 1994. The really interesting thing is that Houghton seems never to have uttered those words in his life and they certainly do not appear in that book!!

Perhaps Akerman made a genuine mistake, perhaps he intentionally manufactured the quote ... I do not know and do not really care. However, my point is based on the thought that I wonder just how common is changing a lie or a misrepresentation into a “known fact”? How many of the statements which are taken for granted and quoted as “proof”, really have a firm basis?

I know I have jokingly said, when watching a somewhat dubious documentary on TV: “Well it must be true because it is in colour”. A silly statement certainly, but it is really based on the premise that many of us have a tendency to believe a fact if it is printed and from an apparently reputable source. A good example is Wikipedia, which many people use as a first source of reference these days. However, you should remember that this excellent online resource can be edited by just about any Tom, Dick or Harry. Certainly, I do know there are editorial controls, but Wikipedia contents cannot, in reality, be guaranteed as accurate.

The theme of the whole New Scientist issue was “Denial” in various forms. Only thing is clear that often people will simply deny an inconvenient fact (or truth) as a way of refuting a particular point of view rather that offering persuasive counter argument. A perfect example of this was Copernicus’s trial by the Catholic Church when he offered evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. The Church’s response was an absolute denial that this could be possible as it went against current teachings.

The point is that we should be careful when reading or writing blogs for two reasons:
1. Question if an assertion we read or make is founded in fact or just “parroted” because it has become “conventional wisdom”?
2. To avoid or be very wary of flat, unsupported denials as they can be a smokescreen for either a subtext or even pure ignorance

Perhaps an additional guideline would be to reserve comment for times when such comment makes a positive contribution to the discussion.

Some food for thought

As this blog is concerned with visual thinking, information handling and associated topics, here are some point worth considering:

1. Do diagrams aid understanding?
2. Is a picture worth a thousand words?
3. How important is colour and curved lines in left &; right cortex linking?
4. Are mind maps the best way to represent the majority of business information?
5. Is Cloud computing the way of the future?
6. You cannot beat face-to-face communication
Can you think of some statements or “facts” which we take for granted?

John England: MindSystems

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