All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Making a vaccine in record time

Did you ever wonder how Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly? Usually it takes five or ten years to develop and approve a new vaccine, but in 2020 several vaccines were ready in less than a year. This speed led to suspicions about quality and safety being compromised.


Sarah Gilbert

     For an explanation, turn to the new book Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green. They are key members of the team at Oxford University that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine. Vaxxers is an engaging first-hand account that contains many insights.

Gilbert and Green had been working on vaccine development for a great many years. They and their collaborators sought ways to prevent diseases such as Ebola, malaria and MERS. One of their accomplishments was development of a vaccine platform, a cell structure that could be used to enable new vaccines to be created very quickly.

People sometimes say, “Why wasn’t anyone preparing for a new pandemic?” Gilbert and Green say, with some exasperation, that is exactly what they were doing. The trouble was that they found it exceedingly difficult to obtain funds to make better preparations.


Catherine Green

Nonetheless, when Covid arrived on the scene, they were far better prepared than they might have been. The initial challenge was to recognise that the first reports of a new infectious disease in Wuhan, China, represented an urgent priority. Gilbert and Green had other projects under way, and a variety of personal and professional commitments. They started monitoring the reports of the new disease. It took some time before they decided to act. When they did, progress was rapid. As soon as they obtained the genetic structure of the new coronavirus, later named SARS-CoV-2, they used their platform to create a vaccine.

“This meant that before we even knew the pathogen’s genome, we knew the design for our vaccine — the gene coding for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, plugged into ChAdOx1 — and once we did receive the genome, we were able to design the exact DNA sequence we needed within forty-eight hours. Less than four months after that we had the first doses made, quality-assured, and ready to use in clinical trials.” (pp. 153–154)

They make it sound easy!

As it became clear that the new disease, called Covid-19, would require full attention, they gradually mothballed their other projects and put their full energy on developing and testing a vaccine for Covid. Having a small quantity of a vaccine was just the beginning.

A personal story

Each of the chapters of Vaxxed is told either by Gilbert or Green, giving a personal perspective labelled as Sarah or Cath. The result is in part a sort of scientific autobiography. They each tell of their personal lives, their families and difficulties, their eating habits and especially their anxieties about producing the vaccine.

They put themselves under immense pressure to do everything required to make a high-quality vaccine in record time, knowing that every day shaved from the usual development schedule could make the difference to people’s lives and also knowing that mistakes could make the whole process come unstuck. At crucial stages, such as purifying the vaccine and unblinding trial results, they were confident due to having been through the same stages with previous vaccines, but they were also on tenterhooks because so much hinged on the outcome.

Scientists spend much of their time in labs and with their colleagues, and non-scientists can have a hard time appreciating what goes on. In Vaxxed, we are offered an inside look into everyday science, though in this case undertaken at high intensity and with high stakes. Gilbert and Green show they are humans just like the rest of us, with cares, hopes, distractions and lives outside of science, and with great experience and dedication in their research roles.

It is amazing that such a story has been told so soon after the events, indeed told at all. Scientists working for governments or pharmaceutical companies would have a hard time gaining approval to write such a revealing memoir. For scientists used to writing technical papers for journals in their fields, adopting a style aimed at a general audience is no mean feat. That Vaxxed is so readable may be attributed in part to excellent editorial support. At the bottom of the title page, in small print under Gilbert and Green’s names, is “Written with Deborah Crewe.”

The Oxford lab was set up to develop vaccines, not for mass production. At a crucial time, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was brought on board to collaborate with the Oxford scientists and produce the vaccine in commercial quantities. Rather than using laborious lab methods to produce dozens of doses, AZ could scale up production to millions or even billions of doses.

Unlike other companies producing Covid vaccines, AZ made the magnanimous decision to provide its vaccine at cost, namely with no profit, for the duration of the pandemic, and indefinitely for low and middle-income countries. It is far cheaper than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

The media

Few scientists have a high media profile, nor do many seek media attention. University administrators now encourage scientists to showcase their research, providing support from professional units that help write media releases. Gilbert and Green had been working for many years with this sort of limited interaction with journalists. Vaccines for diseases in foreign countries are seldom newsworthy. With the pandemic, suddenly there was intense interest in vaccine development for a disease affecting people in their daily lives.

Gilbert and Green tell about their steep learning curve doing media interviews, for example learning that an off-the-cuff comment, taken out of context, could become a misleading headline. They were pleased that so much coverage was supportive but then upset when a routine occurrence — pausing the trial while an adverse event was investigated — was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. Before long, they referred all enquiries to the university’s media unit, as it was impossible to handle all requests and to do so would have meant slowing their work on the vaccine.

Gilbert and Green sometimes had to push back against media intrusions, especially when film crews in the lab caused work to be compromised. On the other hand, they appreciated the opportunity, provided by the media, to publicise the vaccine and, more generally, to enable them to get out messages they thought were important.

Lab life under a media microscope

Quite separately from its contribution to understanding vaccine development, Vaxxers is a valuable contribution to writing by scientists about their own work. The classic book in this genre is James Watson’s book The Double Helix, his account of unravelling the structure of DNA, an account criticised for male chauvinism, in particular downgrading the role of Rosalind Franklin. Vaxxers, in contrast, is written by two women scientists who explicitly deny being pathbreakers or heroes. They repeatedly acknowledge the others in their team and explain how their work on the vaccine built on years of prior work and experience. They worked extraordinarily hard not so they would be recognised as elite scientists but because they wanted to do what they could to save lives.

“Before 2020, no one had ever developed a vaccine in a year. But that was not because it could not be done. It was because it had never been tried. We were able to go faster in 2020 not because we cut any corners or took risks with our product. We still did every single thing that needed to be done to develop a vaccine safely. We did not miss out any steps. Nor was any individual task — filling a vial, vaccinating a volunteer, analysing a graph — done with less than the usual care and attention. We went faster because we had to this time — the world needed the vaccine as soon as possible and, as we know from seeing the daily death rates, every day counts.” (pp. 160–161)

Vaxxers is also different from most books in the first-person scientist memoir genre in consciously being an intervention into the debates surrounding the research. Gilbert and Green are acutely aware of concerns about the safety of Covid vaccines developed at such great speed and want to explain how they were able to move so quickly without compromising quality or safety. In this they have undoubtedly succeeded. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide the same sort of reassurance about other Covid vaccines. We can read Vaxxers but no equivalent story written by government or pharmaceutical company insiders is ever likely to be published.

While Vaxxers addresses some of the concerns about Covid vaccines, it cannot deal with all of them. The full story of the health effects of the vaccine remains to be told, as does the comparison between risks from vaccines and Covid itself, for different demographics. Nor is the story over, because new variants of Covid continue to appear, meaning that new versions of vaccines may be developed.

The only time Gilbert and Green’s treatment loses authenticity is when they write about vaccine hesitancy, about which they rely more on others’ treatments than their own research and experience. For example, Gilbert writes, “I don’t understand anti-vaxxers” (p. 192). This is understandable given that she’s not a social scientist who has spent years interviewing parents and trying to learn about vaccine hesitancy.

Regarding blood clots from the vaccine, Gilbert makes a comparison with the risk of blood clots from having Covid or from taking the contraceptive pill. This is reasonable on the surface, but Gilbert is not an expert on the science and politics of risk assessment, about which there is a vast body of research addressing complexities and value judgements.

Final comments

Supporters of vaccines can learn from Vaxxers about how the substance injected into their arms was developed. Critics of vaccines can learn this too. All their criticisms will not be answered, but at least they can be better informed.

Gilbert and Green worked exceedingly hard and long for many months, and desperately needed a break. They write about what they will do after Covid priorities recede. It’s good they decided to take the time to write Vaxxers.


Sarah Gilbert with the Barbie doll modelled on her

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Disclosure: I had the AstraZeneca vaccine — hence my special interest in Vaxxers — and had no side effects.

Comments from Robyn Gardner

Your review of Gilbert and Green’s work seems very balanced to me. My only reservation concerns the rush to autobiographical disclosure by scientists, which seems so common now in all fields, in government, media and the military. The speed of publication indicates that at some point it becomes part of the potential framework of research or design in any career-sensitive lab. The ‘confession’ is a kind of promotional agency, akin in some ways to pharmaceuticals’ harnessing of patient groups/parents/human interest stories for their own profits. The result is an erosion of the integrity we may imagine of/in science, pre-empting and incorporating the earlier systems of external critique and history of science.

It seems to me that popularizing and personalizing of research via the highly marketable and more inclusive representation of women is as risky in its way as the effacing of women  earlier was, which was, let’s face it, probably no different or inexorable as the effacing of many, many men – there being more men, in earlier periods, so that women may actually have had more ease of access, if only by dint of a family connection or their exception.

We still await some highly nuanced outside assessments of this cultural history and the very problematic politics of vaccine production, something akin to David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story which examines  the wider cultural context of a pandemic. Oshinsky’s book addresses the ‘boosters’ and marketeers of that first wave of public image harnessing as well as the personal volatile histories of Salk and Sabin. Furthermore, it addresses the upscaling of vaccine production by the moves from research and laboratory science to outsourced not-for-profit production (by the same agencies as for-profit ones or harnessed with them)  through the process of ‘gifting’ to middle tier as well as third world countries. Then there’s the old story of poorer places being used for testing in an era when you can’t as easily inject into the bodies of the disabled or the ‘isolated’ cultures of poor countries – unless you redefine them loudly and publicly as ‘most vulnerable’ and needing to be ‘included’.

We rapidly approach the place in which we are all included – so where precisely is the control group, of the unvaccinated? And what, historically, does this serve to cover over, if we’ve all been injected with so many and variable (including simian viral) and DNA active or lipid adjuvant substances, and what levels of biosecurity can possibly pertain given the places and speed of outsourcing in manufacture?


Robyn Gardner

I think of the silencing, and self-silencing, of any possible response, and of the wholesale ‘turn away’ from the polio vaccine origin-of-AIDS thesis by even those scientists who found it highly plausible, and on the part of  those who  could have been and should have been most active in inquiry. 

My concern about AstraZeneca is not the reporting of side effects in the short term, but the widely mediated hijacking of this possibility by labs and agencies and ghost-written preprints focussing on the ‘rare’ clotting events of the disease itself. The possibility of long term and highly likely slower vascular changes, not reversible, but activated – a ‘forever’ event – in vaccinated subjects will tend to get deluged and overwritten, buried, by the usual facile response of Covid causing the same or greater risk. So it goes. I guess this is science and business as usual, and the post-war scepticism about biological research, and rise of ethics, is now in reversal. We are all in thrall again to something called ‘the science’ – which is seen as pure again, and all inclusive, whilst any postgraduate qualification in the human sciences, which might include historical awareness and critical thinking, if not always clear, will cost a leg and an arm.

On not making up your mind

I’m finding it extremely difficult to remain open to a range of possibilities. On Covid in particular.

            I’ve read a large number of articles about Covid and talked with lots of people. There are articles about the urgent need for vaccinations and others about the risks of adverse reactions. There are articles about lockdowns and wearing masks, with different viewpoints. There are articles about the origin of Covid, some saying it came from wet markets and others saying it was from a lab leak.

When I read a well-documented and well-argued analysis, I think, “That’s persuasive.” Then I read another from a different perspective and think, “That sounds persuasive too.”

            Some time after the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to try to remain open to different views rather than reaching a firm conclusion. For example, there are claims for and against using ivermectin as a prophylactic, to reduce the risk of getting Covid. I don’t want to decide definitively one way or the other, at least not yet.

The trouble with reaching a firm conclusion is being trapped by confirmation bias. If I decide that mask rules are right or wrong, then I am likely to pay attention to material that supports my belief and to dismiss contrary information. I might find myself in an echo chamber.

This doesn’t mean I can’t make decisions. As soon as the AstraZeneca vaccine became available, I had my shots. That was a personal choice. But since then I’ve tried to remain open to information about the hazards of vaccines, for example from a rare blood clotting condition. Maybe it’s more common than official figures indicate.

            You see, I’m a social scientist, and I’ve studied numerous public scientific controversies, including ones over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and the origin of AIDS. On some of these issues I have a strong personal view but on others I don’t. For social analysis, it sometimes can be helpful not to care strongly about the topic under investigation, as this enables looking at the dynamics of the controversy from a less emotional perspective.

A decade ago, I started studying the vaccination debate. For me, vaccination was not a personal issue, having no children and no particular problem with vaccines; I’ve had the flu vaccine for the past five years. My angle was to support free speech for vaccine critics, because I believe free and open discussion of contentious issues is better than trying to silence contrary views.

            Being open to different perspectives on vaccination was like a warm-up for being open to different Covid viewpoints. Dominant perspectives are presented by the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as by various governments and health authorities. The mainstream media mostly report the views of authorities. But then there are contrary views, some of them supported by a few doctors and researchers, readily available on social media. By subscribing to newsfeeds giving different perspectives, the volume of commentary soon becomes overwhelming. Even to try to understand the subtleties of a single issue, for example hydroxychloroquine, becomes a bottomless pit of claim and counter-claim.

Sometimes official recommendations change, for example on mask-wearing. That should encourage remaining open to different views, because you never know when a dissident view might suddenly become the orthodoxy. What I’ve learned through my studies of scientific controversies, though, is that many people, especially campaigners, adopt a view and stick with it regardless of new evidence.

            A neighbour told me that her young daughter was in hospital with a mysterious illness. It developed shortly after a routine childhood vaccination, but her doctors were adamant that the illness was not connected with vaccines. My neighbour wasn’t sure. I thought, how can the doctors be so sure? Why couldn’t they be open to the possibility, however slim, of an adverse reaction? Thankfully, her daughter recovered.

I’ve talked with colleagues who are passionately pro-vaccination and condemn anyone who is hesitant as misinformed or worse. These colleagues do not work in any field related to health, so I think, “How can they be so sure?” Are they confident because their view is the same as that of health authorities?

I’ve also talked with passionate critics of vaccination orthodoxy. Some of them have studied the issues extensively but others less so. How can they be so sure? Doesn’t anyone have doubts about what they believe?

            Trying to keep an open mind has been challenging, especially when talking with others who have strong views and think anyone who disagrees is foolish or even dangerous. It seems everyone has an opinion, even those who know little about the issues. Am I being foolish by trying to remain open to different ideas?

Some views seem so extreme or peculiar that I tend to dismiss them out of hand. Some of the claims in the “Plandemic” videos seem implausible to me. But I haven’t studied the topic in depth, so should I be confident about my judgement? Perhaps I can just ignore Plandemic claims, assigning them a tiny probability, at least until more people start taking them seriously.

            Ah, here’s a clue. When others take an idea seriously, it’s tempting to go along with them. This is influence via what is called social proof. Anyone trying to be a rigorous thinker presumably should be alert to this influence and attempt to counter it, or at least to examine the evidence used to support the idea. But this leads back to the beginning. It’s impossible to investigate all the evidence on all facets of Covid, or indeed any other controversial topic.

As I’ve persisted in trying to remain open about Covid issues, while still making decisions, I’ve noticed something else. On other issues, especially ones I haven’t studied in depth, I’m more likely to question my views. Will this lead to a state of precarious uncertainty? Or will it be a refreshing and invigorating alternative to the usual rush to judgement?

For helpful suggestions and thoughtful comments, thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn, Suzzanne Gray, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Jody Watts and Qinqing Xu.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Why you should get moving

Physical activity is good for you in lots of ways, so why do so many people not get enough?

The evidence is overwhelming: exercise is good for you. Not just physically, but also mentally. Exercise reduces depression and anxiety. It boosts your memory. It protects against disease.

I’ve just read a new book, Move! by Caroline Williams, that tells about some of the latest research on the benefits of physical activity. More on that in a moment. First, a few observations.

Working in universities for many decades, I’ve met numerous smart people, including some who think highly of their own intellects. After all, one of the few talents that academics have more than others is using their minds to extend knowledge. Yet if academics are proud of their mental capacities, and seek advancement in their careers depending on the outputs from their intellectual prowess, why do so few take heed of the evidence that physical activity protects the mind and boosts mental performance?

            There are several possible explanations. One is a persistent belief that the mind is pretty much independent of the body. Another is that using your body is lower in status than mental work. This is why, if you’re going to exercise vigorously, do it in a gym where you have to pay, not out in public. Driving a car is more dignified than walking to work.

A third explanation is that our lifestyles are designed to discourage exercise. More on that later.

Move!

Caroline Williams is a science writer. She interviewed scientists researching how the body affects the mind, and weaves what she has learned into an engaging account, adding comments drawing on her own experiences. If you need convincing that movement is good for you, Move! is a good place to start.

            The book is more than a motivator. Williams tells how different sorts of movement affect different aspects of mental performance, including creativity. She starts by telling about human evolution and how movement and mental functioning are intertwined.

“… our biological baseline is to be on our feet, moving and thinking at the same time. If we don’t do it, our brains make the sensible decision to save energy by cutting brain capacity. In better news, when we get on our feet and move, it primes the brain to be alert and to learn.” (p. 32)

This reminds me of research I read about years ago saying that the brains of people over age 50 start to shrink — except for those who exercise regularly. Use your body or lose your mind.

Williams reports on research about physical activity and rumination, which is repeatedly and unproductively thinking about things in the past. The more you ruminate, the less happy you’ll be. Here’s a surprising finding. When you are moving, walking or jogging, you are literally putting things behind you, and this sense of forward movement reduces rumination and hence is good for your mental health. This made me wonder whether walking outdoors is superior to walking on a treadmill, because with a treadmill you remain in the same place. Maybe you still feel you’re moving forward, especially if you watch a screen showing scenery going by.

            As well as moving, it’s also valuable to build your strength. Having stronger muscles leads to a longer life and makes you feel better too. You don’t need a physique like Arnold Schwartzenegger’s: you can be stronger without any increase in muscle size. There are mental benefits too. Williams states:

“There is also a link between bodily strength and a healthy brain. A ten-year study of twins showed that greater strength in middle age is linked not only to more grey matter but also to a better functioning memory and a quicker brain a decade later, while grip strength (an overall indicator of muscle power) is associated with a healthier hippocampus.” (p. 57)

Many people think muscle-builders are less intelligent than weedy types who spend their days reading. This needs to change. Having strong muscles and flexing them regularly is a good way to enhance brain power and creativity.

To get moving is good. To do it in rhythm is even better, certainly for mental functioning. Dancing is one option. Another is an exercise class, accompanied by energising music.

            Moving together with others dissolves the sense of self, so you feel part of the group. Williams notes that you need to be careful about this. The Nazi salute and mass rallies helped to bond the German population with Hitler.

“Sit up straight!” Did your parents ever tell you this? Slouching may feel more comfortable, but there’s solid scientific evidence about the physical and mental benefits of good posture. Sitting or standing straight is linked to having positive thoughts. More generally, using core muscles is good for controlling stress. Options include running, Pilates and yoga. Strangely, using core muscles is calming.

            Stretching is good for you too. If you’ve been sitting for a while, it’s beneficial to get up and stretch. Williams delves into the advantages and disadvantages of stretching beyond what the mind says is too far, and the challenges for those who have hyper-mobile joints.

Then there is breathing, normally an automatic activity but one that can be the focus of attention. Williams tells of research on breathing six times per minute, a process that stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the body.

Barriers to physical activity

Given decades of research showing the physical and mental benefits of physical activity, you might think that everyone would be going out of their way to keep active. Alas, only a minority do, and those who are older and need it the most are the least likely to move enough for optimal mental and physical health. Why?

The main problem is that humans have constructed environments for themselves that make it too easy to be lethargic, at all ages. Think of “labour-saving” devices. Think of cars, ride-on mowers, video games, Facebook. Think of parents protecting their children by driving them to school.

In the book The Energy Glut, Ian Roberts says cycling to work is dangerous but it’s even more dangerous not to cycle to work. In other words, the health risks from not getting exercise are greater than those from commuting by bicycle.

            In Australia and many other countries, cities are constructed in ways that discourage everyday walking and cycling. There are vast car parks around shopping centres and just a few places for bicycles. Imagine an alternative urban design, closer to that in Amsterdam, that makes it easy and attractive to walk and cycle, and makes it slow and inconvenient for drivers.

Unfortunately, most of us live in what is called an obesogenic environment, one that discourages activity and encourages overeating. Although it’s possible to go to the gym or participate in sports, the trouble is that this requires initiative. A society that prioritises movement would design the physical environment and incentives so that being active would be the easy option and sitting for hours on end was considered foolish.

We can dream about an alternative society, but until things change it is mostly up to individuals to do what they can in their personal situations. So read Move! and be inspired. And while you’re reading it, remember to occasionally get up and stretch.


Caroline Williams

PS Some earlier accounts that I’ve found useful.

John Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (New York: Little, Brown, 2008)

Ralph S. Paffenbarger, Jr. and Eric Olsen, LifeFit: An Effective Exercise Program for Optimal Health and a Longer Life (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1996)

Roy J. Shephard, Aging, Physical Activity, and Health (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1997)

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Tim Johnson-Newell and Jody Watts for helpful comments.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The voice in your head

Is there a voice in your head? What does it say? Does it encourage you or does it tell you that you’re no good?

 

Did you ever stay up late during high school with last-minute cramming for an exam or writing an essay due the next day? If so, you have experience with procrastination followed by binges of studying and writing.

I coordinate a writing programme for academics and research students based on a different approach: moderation. It’s inspired by research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how researchers can be more productive. The foundation of the programme is brief daily writing sessions. This is quite a contrast with the far more common approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Why do writers procrastinate? One of the factors is the voice in your head that says you’re not ready, you’re not good enough, you’ll never finish, and anyway you might as well wait until you’re in a better mood. Basically, the voice is telling you to give up, which leads to procrastination.

            Gradually I learned that most writers have to deal with this sort of negative self-talk. Boice and Gray each tell about it. In some of our writing group meetings, we’d talk about the voice. Once the question was asked — “Do you have a voice that discourages you?” — people would open up telling about their own experiences. It was reassuring to find out that others have the same obstacle.

To deal with the voice, I have recommended either ignoring it or challenging it, for example telling it that it’s wrong or just to go away. Somewhere along the line I obtained a tiny rubber duck that would squeak when squeezed. Putting it on your shoulder represented the voice in your head. Then there was accompanying note paper that said “Shut the duck up!”

Chatter

If there’s a voice in your head and it’s causing problems for writers, what should be done about it? Ever since learning about this problem, I’ve been on the lookout for insights and practical solutions. Then recently I obtained the wonderful book Chatter by Ethan Kross. Suddenly, there are answers.

            Kross is a researcher, and his special interest is self-talk. He writes that “we all have a voice in our head in some shape or form” (page xxi). Chatter has many pages of references to scientific studies, but the main text is a model of engaging story-telling. Kross tells about his own embarrassing experience when his inner voice took over his behaviour, turning him into a nervous wreck as he irrationally prepared for a threat — and this was despite all he knew about how the inner voice operates.

Kross’s message is that the inner voice, in other words the conversations in our head, can be valuable but can also cause distress and worse.

First consider the advantages in having silent conversations in our heads. Kross provides evidence that the inner voice aids working memory, enables self-control and helps evaluate progress towards goals. Sounds good.

Then there are all the negatives. A basic problem with the inner voice is that it sabotages your focus on tasks. You want to write but the voice is telling you that you’re no good. Even if you can overcome the negativity and start writing, the voice occupies some of your mental capacity so you’re not fully engaged.

            One of the ways to try to address the problem is to tell others about your distress. This seems to help but can push others away. In Chatter, Kross reports on studies showing that ruminating on our difficulties is linked to both aggression and unhealthy stress. This is sounding very bad indeed. So what can you do about it?

One helpful method is to create psychological distance. Have you ever imagined yourself up in the sky looking down on the world, and there you are sitting on a chair, walking along outside, or staring at your screen? Imagining yourself from the outside reduces destructive chatter. You may feel that your problems are not as overwhelming as they seem up close.

            You can also gain distance by imagining yourself from the perspective of five or ten years from now, looking back at what’s going on right now. In this imagined hindsight, what is upsetting or distracting now seems like a triviality in the scheme of things. The point of temporal distancing is to escape being fully immersed in your current reality.

Another way gain distance is to think of yourself in the second or third person. Rather than thinking or saying, “I need to relax”, I should tell myself “Brian needs to relax” or “You need to relax.” This reduces the self-critic. So get out of “I” and talk to yourself with “you.”

This sounds too simple. Does it work? Kross describes experiments in which individuals preparing for a stressful task — speaking to an audience on an assigned topic with little preparation — are less stressed when they speak to themselves beforehand using “you.” Furthermore, independent observers say their speeches are better. How could something like this be so effective? Easy. By using “you,” you reduce the chatter in your head that takes up mental space and undermines confidence.


Ethan Kross

Helping others

I was talking with Alice, who is going through a stressful time. She tells me about her difficulties and I sympathise, and ask for more details. This goes on for some time. Alice feels better for having shared her feelings.

Whoops. Kross says this is not the best way to help. Indeed, when you and your friend commiserate, this “co-rumination” concentrates attention on the details that are linked to distress, so in the longer term this continues the stress by encouraging ever more thinking about the issues.

It’s more useful for me to offer practical help to Alice. Rather than rehashing the events, I can suggest ways forward or other things to think about. Even better, I can offer what Kross calls “invisible support.”

            Alice is preparing for a crucial performance. If I give her unsolicited advice on what to do, the advice might be useful but the giving of advice might reduce her self-belief. More useful is to do some shopping or cleaning. Those who can most readily offer invisible support are people who live in the same household or have regular contact.

There’s another option. I could send Alice some pictures of nature, perhaps of forests or streams. Kross reports fascinating research showing that being in nature has many health benefits, including calming inner conversations. Furthermore, it’s not even necessary to be among trees. Just seeing pictures of them is beneficial.

Another thing that helps is rituals, either personal or social. Most of us in the writing programme have found that it works better to schedule daily writing in the same location and at the same time of day. After a while, it becomes both a habit and a sort of personal ritual, perhaps with the accompaniment of a specific drink, certain music or following a predictable set of steps in preparation.

A social ritual for writing? That’s not so obvious. If you are part of a group of writers, you can schedule a particular time and process.

Another thing you can do is clean up your office so that it looks neat and, more importantly, ordered. Kross offers evidence that order in the external world — such as a neat desk — can foster internal order, including less chatter.

Chatter is engaging to read because of the stories that Kross tells about himself and others, and his attractive style of writing. At the end of the book, he helpfully includes a list of the main methods for reducing chatter, many of which I’ve mentioned above.

The voice in your head is not going to change quickly. If you struggle with self-talk that undermines rather than helps you do what you want to do, reading Chatter should be valuable, and so is a systematic effort to implement Kross’s suggestions.

How does chatter manifest?

One thing intrigues me. Kross says everyone has a voice in their head, but how does it speak? I’ve asked several friends about this. Their answers vary. Some people hear a voice. If so, whose voice is it? Their own? A parent’s? Some people have conversations in their mind. They don’t hear anything but they know what’s being said. Who are the conversationalists? Two sides of themselves? I don’t hear a voice and don’t have mental conversations, so what’s wrong with me?

If I’m reading Kross’s book and concentrating on what he’s written, I’m thinking, but presumably this isn’t chatter. Only, perhaps, if extraneous thoughts intrude, such as thinking about someone I need to contact or about some grievance from decades ago, would that be unproductive thinking. But what if I suddenly have an inspiration about how to address a research puzzle I’ve been working on? That would be welcome.

Experienced on the inside, there are many commonalities in people’s minds but also some important differences. I know some aspects of my own mind, up close, but continue to find it difficult to fully appreciate the diversity of other people’s inner worlds.

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Aloysia Brooks, Kelly Gates, Tara Gray, Olga Kuchinskaya, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Melinda Waterman and Qinqing Xu for useful feedback, and all those who have shared with me their experiences with their inner voices.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Speak up or keep quiet? Your options for everyday dissent

Have you ever been with people who start talking about a topic where they all agree? The topic might be religion, politics, sport or fashion. The trouble is, you have a different viewpoint. Should you say anything? And if so, what?

Nearly everyone has had this experience. In some families there are rules: “We don’t discuss politics or religion.” The rule might be stated but is often implicit.

Then there are taboo topics. Never mention Aunt Issa. You might not even know why. Did she do something terrible? Don’t ask.

You’re gossiping with your co-workers. They all hate the boss but you actually think the boss is doing a pretty good job. Should you say something or keep quiet?

These are instances where you have a choice about whether to express dissent and, if you do, how to do it. Should you challenge views you think are wrong or dangerous, or keep your mouth shut to maintain the peace? Should you pretend you agree with everyone else when actually you don’t?

These situations can arise in enclaves of political correctness but are more general than what is usually called PC. When you’re with a group of veterans, just try expressing your view that going to war is only for suckers.

            Most people have highly developed skills in getting along with others. If this were not the case, there would be disagreements and arguments all the time. If you’re in a shop and an assistant says, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” then it’s polite to agree. If you always say, with a snarl, “What’s so nice about it?” you may not have many friends!

I’ve been aware of these issues for a long time and had my share of experiences in keeping quiet or disagreeing with standard views. In my research, I’ve explored many controversial topics, for example nuclear power, fluoridation and vaccination. I’ve promoted nonviolent alternatives to the military and participatory alternatives to representative government.

Most importantly, since the 1980s I’ve been a supporter of dissidents and whistleblowers. A classic situation is an employee who sees something wrong at work, for example fiddling the books. Speaking out in such situations can be very risky, so often it’s better to say nothing and collect information about wrongdoing. My involvement with whistleblowers made me acutely aware that honesty is not necessarily the best policy. As we will see, this applies to many situations, including everyday interactions and ones not related to employment.

So let’s begin with options for everyday dissent.

Avoid

Your friends are talking about a sensitive topic. It might be abortion, political parties, immigration or child rearing. Whatever it is, you soon realise that you disagree with what everyone else seems to think. One way to avoid confrontation is to say nothing.

            Why would your friends be talking about abortion? Perhaps the issue has been in the news, or one of them tells a personal story about having or not having an abortion. Often you can escape embarrassment by saying nothing. But sometimes this is awkward. What if someone asks, “Have any of you ever had an abortion?” You might shake your head to indicate “No,” but that could be deceptive, as a more accurate response might be “No, but I would have had one if necessary.”

To avoid uncomfortable questions or probing, you can try to change the topic before it becomes too personal. You might say you’re not feeling well and need to leave the room. Or you can say something like “I’m not sure how I’d react in the situation” even if you know for sure.

            If you fear being asked a direct question and you don’t like lying or evading, there are several ways to take precautions. Sometimes you can pick your conversation partners, knowing that you agree with their views or that the topic will never arise. You can seek a welcoming community where everyone seems to agree. A campaigning group is often quite safe, for example pro-choice or anti-abortion.

Sometimes, though, it’s not easy to avoid disagreements. In families and workplaces, you may interact with the same people for months or years, even a lifetime.

Go along

You may prefer to go along with whatever others are saying. This smooths relationships and usually prevents any backlash from causing offence.

You might be, or become, a chameleon, adapting your views according to what everyone around you appears to think. In one group, you’re opposed to immigration; in another, you support it. You might need to change your behaviour too. Among colleagues who drink and smoke, you join in; among those who abstain, you do too.

            Most people are chameleons to some extent. Those who never adapt may be seen as principled but more commonly as inflexible or obnoxious.

There’s another way to go along: lie, either by making false statements or not revealing the truth about what you think. You might have some beliefs that are shocking to others, for example that infanticide is okay in some circumstances or that some groups are genetically superior to others. If the topic comes up, you can readily go along with the consensus.

Lying has a bad reputation, and there are many preachy recommendations to tell the truth. Yet in practice people regularly hide the truth and tell falsehoods, as I learned when investigating lying and activism. In many cases, lying is intended to benefit others or to maintain relationships. Your friend asks, “How do I look in this?” You may prefer to tell a “white lie” and say, “You look good.” If a relative is dying, you might tell her that she has always been loved. Of course, there are also toxic lies, used to hide responsibility for stealing and for cheating in relationships. But we’re not talking about toxic lying, just about getting along with others by going along with what they say.

            There’s one unexpected downside to going along with the group, and that is if everyone else is doing the same thing. Then it would be like in a dictatorship where everyone seems to support the regime but actually nearly everyone hates it. If a few people speak out, it can inspire others to join in and even trigger the formation of a powerful opposition movement. How can you figure out whether others are covering up their views?

Inquire

When I was studying the controversy over the addition of fluorides to public water supplies, I interviewed leading Australian proponents and opponents. It was illuminating to learn about their views, so different from each other on many dimensions. While questioning these partisans, I didn’t need to explain or defend my own views.

Learning by listening can be used in other contexts. Become an inquirer. Your aim is to understand how others think and to probe into their assumptions, viewpoints, commitments and activities. You might ask for their views on Israel-Palestine, sexuality, life after death, UFOs, Donald Trump or the Holocaust — whatever seems topical.

Even if you do have a strong view, you can say that you’re eager to learn from those with different ideas. “I’m against kangaroo culling but would like to hear the evidence and arguments for it.”

Most people are quite willing to talk about their beliefs, especially with someone who is willing to listen. The crucial part here is to listen. As an inquirer, your aim is to listen and learn, not to pass judgement or to persuade. You are like an anthropologist, studying a culture to find out how its members think and behave, even if they are your family, friends and workmates.

            They might well ask what you think, in which case you can say you’re an inquirer, without a strong view. I had this experience when my university secretly entered an arrangement to set up a degree funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Many of my colleagues were vehemently opposed to any degree called Western civilisation, especially one funded by the Ramsay Centre, on whose board were prominent conservative politicians Tony Abbott and John Howard. Other colleagues were involved in the degree. Rather than joining either side, I put on my sociologist hat and tried to elucidate the issues. This seems to enable me to keep on good terms with colleagues on both sides of a polarising issue.

To be an effective inquirer, you may genuinely have no strong view or you may be a chameleon, adapting your views to your audience. In either case, it is surprising how tolerant others can be of differing views when you genuinely listen, showing interest and respect.

Shape others’ expectations of your behaviour

A friend of mine, Richard, is predictably provocative. On just about any issue that comes up, he seems to adopt a contrasting perspective, in a manner that makes listeners unsure whether he really supports the view he expounds. It is in a spirit of playful combativeness, jousting with ideas. Once we know how Richard engages, we are not offended. We know he just loves taking a contrary view, often for the sake of it.

Another image is the jester, who takes nothing seriously or, perhaps more accurately, is deadly serious underneath a layer of humour or light-heartedness. Again, after getting used to this style, listeners are less offended than by a more serious disagreement. However, for many people, there are topics that should never be the butt of jokes.

            Your image, reputation and social position greatly influence the way others react to your behaviour. In general, they expect you to act just like you usually do. If you’re always polite, then when you start swearing it is more shocking than if you swear in every sentence — and when the habitual foul-mouth suddenly starts talking in a prim and proper manner, we pay attention.

If you want to be able to express challenging ideas, you may be able to prepare the ground by dissenting from orthodoxy in ways that do not upset your regular conversationalists, thereby establishing a reputation as a free thinker, a questioner, a humourist or a provocateur. As you do this, you obtain practice in pushing the boundaries, always being prepared to back off as necessary.

You might think that being provocative is not the real you and that adopting the persona of a clown is fakery. However, there’s nothing wrong with practising a different style with strangers and seeing what happens. If you keep pretending for a few weeks or months, eventually it will become natural.

Challenge

No more pussyfooting around: you decide to say what you really think and damn the consequences. You speak out regardless of who you’re talking to and who’s listening. Isn’t this what free speech is all about?

            Perhaps you think terrorism is overrated as a danger, that all drugs should be legalised, that homeless people should be imprisoned or that crystals have healing powers. In a sympathetic group there’s no problem but in others you may be shunned as a lunatic.

What happens depends a lot on how you behave and on the circumstances. If you’re polite, soft-spoken and have a smile, others are far more likely to respond favourably, even if they don’t agree. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how you say it. You may regret speaking out.

Assume that you care about an issue and want to get others to think differently about it. Before questioning the dominant viewpoint or attitude — dominant within the group you’re in, that is — it’s worth doing some preparation. You might have done this already, but there’s nothing like taking your time and putting in some effort. After all, a lot could be at stake. You might lose a friend or a job. Maybe the stakes are smaller, but you don’t know for sure. I draw here on what I’ve learned from whistleblowers.

            Check the social environment. Is there a general feeling of tolerance? Do others encourage debate and disagreement? Or do you sense fear and hostility? Are you aware of toxic behaviours, including shouting, undermining and malicious gossip? Does anyone behave in an authoritarian manner, seeking to dominate others, especially those who step out of line?

One of the most useful bits of information is about what happens to others who speak out. How are they treated? If you never see anyone questioning dominant views, that might be a sign to be wary.

Assess your vulnerability. The more you have to lose, the more careful you need to be. In some jobs, even a minor break from orthodoxy can make the difference in terms of promotions or opportunities. Are you willing to risk your job? Relationships are also crucially important. How will you cope if someone close to you decides to cut you off?

If you have fallback options, for example other jobs or a wealth of relationships, then you are better able to take risks. Indeed, sometimes speaking your mind may help clarify who you really want to spend your time with.

Develop your skills. Verbal skills can be very useful in presenting a challenging idea without suffering too many adverse consequences. You might read Suzette Haden Elgin’s classic book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, or one of her many later books, and practise her recommended ways of dealing with attacks. Or you could draw on ideas about effective communication and negotiation in George Thompson’s Verbal Judo or Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference. Practising their recommended methods may enable you to maintain relationships and memberships that otherwise would collapse.

            However, in some circumstances verbal skills can’t help. If you offend a close friend who then cuts you off and does not return messages, even the best skills are inadequate.

Learn backfire techniques. If others treat you badly because of your views, sometimes you can use their attacks against them, in other words make them backfire. If your boss repeatedly shouts abuse at you, a powerful response is to reveal this to others, for example by making a recording and circulating it. Your co-workers, or the boss’s boss, might be more appalled at the abuse and shouting than at your views, especially if you respond calmly and rationally.

Be aware that by exposing abuse, you are raising the stakes dramatically. Your attackers might regret being seen as intolerant and aggressive. On the other hand, you need to be prepared to be fired or sued. A lot depends on the circumstances and the wider system of power.

Develop a strategy. Rather than dealing with challenges as they arise, plan ahead. If you’re going to reveal your sexuality or political or religious views to a group you think will be hostile, get advice from trusted others. Develop your communication skills. Anticipate likely reactions and prepare for them by practising with someone you trust. Have friends test the waters by asking questions.

            You need an exit strategy. If worse comes to worst and you are ostracised or defamed, with relationships and career in jeopardy, have plans for what happens afterwards. This includes ensuring financial survival and obtaining emotional support.

If all this seems too much to handle, then reconsider your plans. Maybe it’s better for you and everyone else to avoid sensitive topics, or to lie with confidence.

Dissent can be powerful in stimulating others to reconsider their assumptions and viewpoints. But only sometimes. It’s worthwhile to try to figure out when and how to challenge orthodoxy.

Final thoughts

It’s also worthwhile to think of times when your view is the dominant one. How do you respond when someone questions your deepest assumptions? Would you welcome having a discussion or do you join in attempts to silence the dissenter? Do you try to change the topic when a sensitive issue arises? Are you tempted to terminate a relationship with someone when you learn about their contrary political or religious views?

Assuming you’d like to enable dialogue rather than shut down those who disagree, it’s useful to consider your options in advance, and be prepared. This includes being prepared to intervene when others try to discourage dissent.

And what if no one ever disagrees with you? That might be a cause for worry. Maybe you’re living in a bubble or others are afraid of how you’ll respond. If others never disagree with you, perhaps you should disagree with them!

For helpful comments, thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Isla MacGregor, Monica O’Dwyer, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Majken Sørensen, Melinda Waterman — and “Richard.”

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

O beautiful for polluted skies

Energy politics in Wyoming are hazardous for free speech.

A fracking operation in Pinedale, Wyoming.

The US state of Wyoming sits in the Rocky Mountains north of Colorado. It is large in area but sparsely populated: its two largest cities have just over 60,000 people each. Wyoming is known for Yellowstone National Park, a popular tourist destination. It still retains the image of the wild west, with farmers and cowboys enjoying the open skies and a clean environment.

However, that image is dated. Today, Wyoming might better be described as “energy country” or “pollution central.” The state has an abundance of coal, oil and natural gas, the major fossil fuels. It also has great potential for wind and solar power, but the carbon-based resources have become the basis for a booming industry. Along with the industry have come economic and political power — and intolerance of any public criticism.


Wyoming

            For decades, I’ve been studying suppression of dissent, especially dissent in science. When a scientist speaks out critical of orthodoxy, sometimes bosses or outside groups find this unwelcome. I discovered numerous cases in which scientists who did research or spoke out about pesticides, nuclear power, forestry, fluoridation or other contested topics experienced reprisals, for example having articles censored, research grants denied, promotions blocked or access to research materials denied. Some lose their jobs.

In most of these areas, scientists confront an orthodoxy that aligns with powerful economic and political groups. For example, concerning pesticides, the mainstream scientific position aligns with pesticide manufacturers. Concerning genetically modified organisms, the mainstream scientific position aligns with GMO companies.

Interestingly, there are two prominent exceptions: smoking and climate change. The tobacco industry has waged a long campaign against medical orthodoxy on the hazards of smoking. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry has done what it can to question the dominant scientific view about climate change.

In Wyoming, it might be said that the energy companies are in charge in a way unlike most of the rest of the world. To obtain a sense of Wyoming energy culture without experiencing it directly, there’s no better source than Jeffrey Lockwood’s book Behind the Carbon Curtain. The title is a play on the phrase “behind the iron curtain,” which refers to life in the former Soviet bloc, where there was pervasive censorship.

Sinking Carbon Sink

Lockwood tells about a long-running saga involving an art installation at the University of Wyoming. Here’s a picture of it.

Just by looking at the work, you might think that there’s nothing contentious about it. But the title was Carbon Sink. All it took was a bit of media coverage about it and executives of energy companies swung into action. Carbon Sink had to go because it implied criticism of fossil fuels, and that could not be tolerated. The executives applied pressure on senior figures at the university.

Next came a sordid process of public relations blundering. University officials gave lip service to the ideal of academic freedom, as indeed did the companies. So when Carbon Sink was prematurely disassembled, university officials gave out a false reason, which caused further embarrassment when their lie was exposed.

The story of Carbon Sink is revealing in several ways. It shows how incredibly sensitive the energy companies are to criticism. Despite their immense economic and political power, a piece of art was seen as threatening.

The story also showed how tied university officials were to big funders. From the university administration’s point of view, they were doing what was needed to ensure continued funding. The energy industry provided massive grants directly to the university and also indirectly influenced most of the rest of the university budget, because the state government was beholden to the industry. Lockwood writes, “At the university, speech is not free — it’s bought and paid for by the energy industry” (p. 68).

The industry’s feeding trough

The story also shows how subservient many citizens are to the industry. A common comment was “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Lockwood obviously finds this attitude objectionable. It implies that people in Wyoming are akin to dogs being fed by their master. It assumes that the energy industry is like a generous royal patron, granting largesse to grateful subjects. Criticism of the industry is an insult to the ruler, something called lèse-majesté, and amounts to heresy. In this picture, the industry is entitled to own and exploit the state’s resources.

            An alternative perspective is that natural resources are a form of heritage, to be used for the welfare of all, which includes both local residents and all life on earth, and the natural environment too. For many in the US, this perspective is almost unthinkable: it is the sort of thought that underpins socialism.

A more conventional alternative is the economic view in which so-called externalities such as polluted lands, health impacts of mining and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions should be included in the cost of doing business. This is a mainstream economic position that takes environmental costs seriously. It is also anathema to Wyoming industry. This is perhaps one reason why the industry reacts viscerally to any criticism of fossil fuels: any hint that it is involved in exploitation of the population and the environment is intolerable.


A photo by Ted Wood from an exhibition cancelled due to pressure from the energy industry

Lockwood versus Wyoming industry

Lockwood’s book is remarkable in several ways. It is a rare account of suppression of dissent that gives a careful and detailed explanation of the sordid details of censorship. The cases are complicated in their ins and outs, with claims and counterclaims and all sorts of devious behaviour. Lockwood takes a leisurely stroll through several stories, giving plenty of background and context. He tells of artworks and scientists that became targets of industry censors operating through the political system and the university. At the same time, in another way the cases are simple: free speech is the victim.


Jeffrey Lockwood

            Behind the Carbon Curtain is also remarkable in being so well written. It is more than a documented contemporary history. It is filled with portraits of individuals, activities and poignant observations that together make this an engaging book to read quite independently of its lessons about economic and political power.

Finally, the book is remarkable because Lockwood is employed by the University of Wyoming. He works in the very organisation that was the target of concerted actions by companies, politicians and university officials to squelch any dissident voices. Lockwood was better placed to speak out because he works in a part of the university not directly dependent on industry money: creative writing. But that alone was not enough. He had to be willing to speak out. Few others were.


University of Wyoming

            Behind the Carbon Curtain is a scholarly book, filled with references. The main text is less than 200 pages, and there are 75 pages of notes. This is a sort of protection against the possible claim of academic shortcomings. However, in the main text, the scholarly apparatus is carried lightly. Unlike the majority of academic writing, Lockwood’s prose contains both sadness and delight: sadness over the human and environmental damage caused by the energy industry, and delight in exposing political shenanigans and pathetic excuses for censorship.

Tactics

One chapter is titled “Where the skies are smoggy all day,” a variation of a classic line in the song Home on the Range, “And the skies are not cloudy all day.” Gas production near the town of Pinedale led to serious air pollution, a sort of photochemical smog much worse than downtown areas in big cities. This might seem to be a problem, especially when residents of Wyoming pride themselves on their pristine environment. Moreover, the pollution had damaging effects on people’s health and led to townsfolk demanding action.


Pinedale Anticline drilling rig

            This story provides a capsule lesson in the methods commonly used by a powerful perpetrator to reduce outrage over an injustice. The methods regularly used are to cover up the action, devalue the target, reinterpret the action by lying, minimising, blaming and framing, use official channels to give a misleading impression of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved. Lockwood’s account of struggles by Pinedale residents to raise their concerns offers evidence of all of these techniques.

In the case of air pollution affecting Pinedale residents, it was hardly possible to hide the actual pollution, but industry supporters did what they could to deny responsibility.

“The governor and others implausibly attributed the pollution to the interstate highway 80 miles south of Pinedale, dirty air drifting 250 miles from Salt Lake City, and automobile exhaust from the residents of Sublette County (population density, two people per square mile).” (p. 149)

This is a good example of the tactic of blaming others.

The Pinedale Anticline Project Office refused to finance research that would identify sources of pollution. This is an example of what might be called cover-up. It’s an illustration of “undone science,” research that government and industry refuse to do or sponsor because the results might be unwelcome.

Then there were official channels. One was PAWG (Pinedale Anticline Working Group). It was chartered by the Bureau of Land Management, which did everything possible to prevent PAWG from having any influence. The existence of PAWG thus gave a misleading appearance of doing something about the problems.

The tactic of intimidation was apparent in the industry’s threat to leave the area, thereby withdrawing the financial bonanza from industry that supported employment and government income. Taxes paid by industry operated as a type of bribe.

Intimidation was also used in more targeted ways in attempts to silence critics.

“For example, a gas-field manager stopped by the Ford dealership to tell the owner that it would be good for business (the energy industry bought lots of vehicles) if the fellow would quiet down his father, an irascible legislator who sometimes spoke ill of the industry. Walker [Perry Walker, a citizen activist] also knew several other owners of small businesses in Pinedale who didn’t dare to speak up because the gas companies were paying top dollar for their services.” (p. 155)

There is one revealing sign that the energy industry is not all-powerful in Wyoming. The industry seeks to shut down criticism, and has many ways of doing this, but it is not so powerful that it feels able to censor critics openly and blatantly. Instead, censorship efforts are covert, while the main players announce that they respect free speech or just that they were not involved. As Lockwood puts it,

“However, overt acts of censorship can be self-defeating when they draw attention to the message they seek to quash. The alternative of frightening people into silence is a potent strategy, an advantage of which is that powerful individuals or corporations keep their oppression out of the limelight.” (p. 11)


The geyser Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, an image preferred by tourist operators

Conclusion

Jeffrey Lockwood writes from the belly of the beast or, in his own metaphor, from behind the carbon curtain. Few others have done so. Most would rather offer justifications for acquiescing to power.

It’s useful to reflect on ways in which we accept dominant institutions that seem to have made themselves essential. This includes governments, corporations and authoritarian workplaces. Lockwood sends his epistle from behind one curtain. His book is a model for how we might reveal our lives behind other curtains, ones that few are willing to question.

Brian Martin

bmartin@uow.edu.au

PS When writing this post, I originally mistyped the title as “O beautiful for specious skies.” It is strangely appropriate.

Thanks to Kathy Flynn, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde, Olga Kuchinskaya, Jody Watts and Qinqing Xu for useful textual suggestions.

Comment by Jeffrey Lockwood, 1 June 2021

Regarding ongoing energy politics in Wyoming, nothing much has changed.  Our governor and legislature seem dead set on denying the precipitous decline of fossil fuels.  In a pathetic effort to prop up this industry, the state government is providing tax breaks to energy companies (see https://www.wyofile.com/lawmakers-weigh-tax-relief-for-oil-and-gas-again/) and suing the state of Washington for its refusing to permit the construction of a coal port to ship Wyoming coal to foreign markets, primarily China (see https://www.wyofile.com/gordon-asks-ag-for-strategy-to-sue-washington-over-coal-ports/).  Having failed to diversify our economy because energy revenues were so lucrative for so long, the legislature’s “plan” is to double-down on carbon-based energy (see https://www.wyofile.com/unable-to-diversify-legislature-doubles-down-on-energy/).  The state is investing heavily in carbon capture technology, unable or unwilling to recognize that sustainable energy sources are favored not so much for their greenness as for their lower cost.  Indeed, the legislature is actively favoring coal plants with (unproven) carbon capture technology over solar and wind energy (see https://www.wyofile.com/stripped-of-1b-limit-gordon-carbon-capture-bill-clears-house/).  The politicians want to blame President Biden and climate change activists for the decline of coal when it’s obvious that even if we had a way to burn coal with zero CO2 emissions, the market would still favor natural gas (and sustainable sources).  As for industry-driven censorship, the dramatic decline in state revenues translates into deep financial cuts to the university which means the fear of offending the increasingly conservative legislature is surely quashing dissent.  In the most recent round of cuts, the creative writing program was slated for elimination (retribution for having spoken out?), but the administration botched the fiscal analysis and there was significant public support for the program (see https://www.wyofile.com/creative-writing-to-be-cut-uw-counts-on-you-not-caring/).

Conspiracies are everywhere!

What’s going on with the alarm about conspiracy theories?

It seems that conspiracy theories have become a new, even urgent danger. There are numerous articles and commentaries decrying beliefs in seemingly implausible conspiracies, often holding these beliefs up to ridicule. Examples include that the moon landings were faked, that KFC has a secret lab producing genetically-mutated chickens, and that the world is ruled by alien shape-shifting lizards.

            What exactly is a conspiracy theory? Simply, it is a belief or claim that people are plotting to accomplish something. A conspiracy must involve at least two people secretly arranging to do something, most commonly for ethically dubious purposes. The “theory” part of the term just refers to an explanation. So a conspiracy theory is a proposed explanation for events based on the assumption that some people are covertly cooperating for a shared purpose, often one contrary to others’ interests.

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as absurd ravings emanating from impressionable or paranoid minds. The most common way to discredit conspiracy theories in general is to refer to ones that seem absurd, at least on the surface. Is the US government really covering up information about visits by aliens?

By pointing to allegedly absurd beliefs, the very idea of a conspiracy theory is made to sound irrational. The assumption that conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous has become so common that to call something a conspiracy theory has become a way to discredit it. The label “conspiracy theorist” has become a term of abuse.

Philosophers have a look

Looking more closely provides a different picture. Unbeknownst to most people, for many years philosophers have been debating claims about conspiracy theories. One set of philosophers argues that there are features of conspiracy theories that make them suspect, so they should be dismissed out of hand. For example, new evidence can never refute a conspiracy theory because the evidence is just part of the conspiracy — or so these philosophers say. They are called generalists because their assessments apply to conspiracy theories in general.

Another set of philosophers argues that conspiracy theories are not systematically different from any other explanation for events and that each conspiracy theory should be examined on its merits. They are called particularists: they argue it is wrong to dismiss explanations according to generic features.

            Particularists like to point out that there are plenty of actual conspiracies, ones that have been exposed and widely acknowledged. For example, in the Iran-Contra affair, the US Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran despite an embargo and used the money to fund rebels in Nicaragua that were falsely claimed to be independent.

Some people define conspiracy theories in more limited ways than I’ve indicated here. Whatever the definition, particularists would argue that the onus is on those who dismiss an explanation just because it is categorised as a conspiracy theory.

Whistleblowers

Having read arguments by generalists and particularists, I started thinking about what I know about conspiracies, and eventually reflected on the experience of whistleblowers. For decades I’ve been talking with whistleblowers, who are individuals who speak out in the public interest. A typical whistleblower is a conscientious worker in an organisation who notices something that seems wrong and reports it to the boss or someone else in authority. They might report a discrepancy in accounts, abusive behaviour, danger to workers or customers, or deceptive claims. After making the report, which in many cases means just doing their job, suddenly the worker starts experiencing adverse actions, which can be called reprisals. These include ostracism, petty harassment, rumour-mongering, denunciation, demotion, punitive transfer and/or dismissal. In nearly every case, superiors claim the actions taken against the worker are justified.

            The worker’s concerns might or might not be validated, but in quite a few cases they are, and most of those cases involve conspiracies. Occasionally just one manager is fiddling the books, but in many cases the fraud involves more than one: a conspiracy. In many cases, higher management knows what is going on and tolerates it. Then there are the reprisals, which often are coordinated. Another conspiracy.

Police conspiracies

In many police forces, it is common for officers to make false arrests. Someone talks back to them and they arrest them and then coordinate their lies to justify the arrest. When officers lie in court, this is called verballing. It is perfectly routine.

The worst thing a police officer can do is report on wrongdoing by another officer — the worst, that is, from the point of view of senior police. In what is called the police code of silence, officers are expected to remain silent when their co-workers steal from premises or take illegal drugs. Those actions might be wrong, but not as wrong as reporting on them.

            In Los Angeles on 19 March 1991, around midnight, a motorist named Rodney King was arrested after a car chase. During the arrest, he was badly beaten. Four officers were involved in the beating and more than a dozen others were at the scene, which was illuminated by a helicopter’s spotlight. This beating might never have been known to the public except that George Holliday, who was living nearby, was woken by the commotion, and recorded the beating on his newly purchased videocamera. Later, he took the videotape to the media. When it was broadcast on television, it caused a storm of outrage against the police. But were the police at the scene concerned? No, not a single one reported the beating. Nor did a single one of them testify in the subsequent court cases.

This sounds like a conspiracy. It happens all the time. The only difference in the beating of Rodney King was the videotape. Few police conspiracies are ever revealed. Only occasionally, as in the killing of George Floyd in 2020, does the non-local public become aware of police abuse. (My analysis of the beating of Rodney King.)


A still from George Holliday’s video of the beating of Rodney King

Developer conspiracies

Next consider property development. In Australia, there is rampant corruption at the local and state government level. Property developers influence politicians and government employees to rezone land, give building permissions, enable clearing of land and a host of other actions that benefit the few at the expense of the public. A play was written about corruption in Wollongong. It started off with a list of other local government areas that had been exposed for corruption. There’s no reason to think this sort of corruption occurs only in Australia. Every time, it involves a conspiracy.


A shot from the play “The table of knowledge,” about corruption in Wollongong

Corporate conspiracies

Advertising is all around us. Some of it is honest and straightforward, such as the price of bananas at the local fruit shop. However, much advertising, especially the more expensive varieties, is deceptive: using the most sophisticated persuasion techniques, it is designed to manipulate the desires of consumers. This is business as usual but, arguably, it involves conspiracies. Few workers in advertising agencies — who perhaps should be called conspirators — break ranks and explain in detail how they omitted information, massaged statistics and appealed to unconscious prejudices.

In pharmaceutical companies, scientists make choices that favour their employer’s drugs, for example by ignoring side effects, excluding certain subjects and using placebos with active ingredients. Then they recruit academics who were not involved in the research to be authors of publications about it. This is a massive deception that has led to harm to hundreds of thousands of patients. Surely it should count as conspiracy. Indeed, many of the biggest companies have been fined billions of dollars for their activities, though this is a small penalty considering their much larger profits. The few regulators who tackle big-pharma fraud certainly treat it as a conspiracy.

            Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes claim that big conspiracies cannot be maintained because too many people are involved. There are lots of contrary examples. Think of Volkswagen’s fraud about its emissions being low. None of the Volkswagen workers who knew about the fraud spoke up. It was only revealed by outside testing.

Surveillance conspiracies

Do you have a loyalty card at a supermarket, or regularly use a credit card when making purchases? Do you know that doing this enables the company to keep track of every purchase you make, and that your data might be sold to other companies, so that the advertising you see online is tailored to your interests? Data collection and sharing occurs all the time, usually without your knowledge. It’s a type of conspiracy. In some ways it’s in your interests, to better supply you with products and provide you with information about things you can buy. It can also be used to manipulate your preferences. Be assured that highly talented experts in psychology, marketing and data heuristics are working hard to collect and use your data without you taking much notice.

Governments also engage in surveillance, both of corporations and other governments, and of their own citizens. The US National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic communications around the world, was once so secret that even the massive agency was hardly known to the public. Edward Snowden’s revelations exposed some of the NSA’s activities. Still, it’s reasonable to say that the NSA and its Five Eyes partners (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) operate as conspiracies against both external adversaries and their own citizens.

            Harmless? Hardly. If you live in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan, you would have reason to worry about being targeted by a drone strike. Military operations are typically carried out in secrecy, while plans and consequences are hidden or disguised through disinformation. For many purposes, militaries are giant conspiracies. If they’re on your side, you might say they are for a good cause. Enemy operations are always thought to be sinister.

And more

Torture occurs in many countries around the world. Just read reports by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Torture is nearly always hidden from the public. It is a conspiracy. So is genocide.

A widespread conspiracy was maintained for decades by hundreds or thousands of people: the cover-up of paedophilia in the churches.

A lot of what goes on in corporations, churches, trade unions, environmental organisations, police, militaries and governments is plotting to achieve goals. Some of this is for the good of others; much of it is not. Some of this plotting is known to informed outsiders; a bit of it is known to the wider public. It all can be categorised as conspiratorial — but seldom is.

Conspiracy and social theory

Jaron Harambam is a Dutch sociologist. For his PhD, he spent two years in Dutch conspiracy-theory circles, talking with key figures, attending meetings and in other ways learning how participants — called, by others, conspiracy theorists — thought and acted. Among his many insights is one about the connection between conspiracy theorising and scholarly social theorising.


Jaron Harambam

            Few academics like to be called conspiracy theorists. Quite separately from the derogatory associations of the label, social scientists think what they do is different from uncovering conspiracies. What Harambam discovered is that there is much in common between conspiracy theorising and conventional scholarly theorising in the social sciences.

In both cases, the social world is explained, in part, through processes that happen behind the scenes, in ways about which most people know nothing. In conspiracy theorising, the processes involve plotting by individuals, usually powerful ones. In social theorising, the processes involve systems of power that shape people’s thoughts and behaviour.

A standard concept in social science is neoliberalism, which is a particular manifestation of capitalism. Neoliberalism is both a set of ideas and a set of practices. One facet is turning activities into markets, for example through privatising health care or prisons. This doesn’t happen by magic but by people making decisions, for example to set up a private hospital and to change laws to make this possible and lucrative. This involves people getting together to achieve their aims, often ones that give them wealth and power. This isn’t greatly different from a conspiracy, if a conspiracy is defined as people plotting to achieve certain aims.

Another example is patriarchy, the collective domination of men over women. Patriarchy is a standard concept in social science, though often contested. For patriarchy to operate, men (and women) need to make decisions that maintain certain patterns of thought and behaviour, for example that combat is a male domain. So it seems that patriarchy involves conspiring, for example to block women from being front-line soldiers. Think of the old boy’s club, an expression referring to the insider groups of men and some women that ensure that men are given preference for appointments and opportunities.

            In social science, there is a longstanding tension between structure and agency. Structure refers to widespread patterns of regular activity. Neoliberalism and patriarchy are concepts of social structure. Agency refers to what people do. Structure is maintained and sometimes changed by people’s agency, while agency is channelled by structure. Trying to reconcile these two perspectives on the social world has exercised generations of social theorists.

Many academics prefer a structural perspective. Those who are called conspiracy theorists typically use an agency perspective: they explain occurrences through the activities of individuals. In many ways, this is not all that different from what social scientists do. After all, the social world is composed of individuals whose activities maintain what are called social structures.

Why discredit conspiracy theories?

Given that numerous conspiracies are around us all the time, most of which we are not aware, why do conspiracy theories have such a bad reputation? How is it that the label “conspiracy theorist” has become a term of abuse?

One explanation is that in the late 1960s the CIA initiated a programme to stigmatise conspiracy theories. Why? The CIA wanted to discredit challenges to the view that President John F. Kennedy was murdered by a lone gunman. Previously the term had few negative connotations, but the CIA’s efforts associated “conspiracy theory” with lunatics.


Lance deHaven Smith writes about the CIA’s role in stigmatising conspiracy theories

            This explanation is itself a sort of conspiracy theory, but should not be rejected on that basis alone. There is evidence to back it up. However, even if the CIA played a role in discrediting the idea of conspiracy theories, that doesn’t easily explain why so many people have jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation, especially because so many conspiracy theories these days have little to do with the CIA or national security.

Another explanation involves the concept of boundary work. Scientists make efforts to distinguish their activities and knowledge claims from neighbouring endeavours or claims. This protects the status and domain of science. For example, astronomers distinguish their field from astrology and from the study of UFOs (unidentified flying objects). This ensures there is a clear boundary distinguishing science from what is labelled non-science or pseudoscience.

            As noted, many conspiracy-theory explanations are not all that different from scholarly explanations of the social world. However, there is an important difference. Most so-called conspiracy theorists are not academics. Some of them are highly knowledgeable but do not have the degrees, scholarly publications or jobs that are characteristic of professional scholars, ones with positions in the academic system. These conspiracy theorists are, from the academic point of view, amateurs. To defend academic turf from interlopers, it is useful to discredit conspiracy theories. If the theories can be discredited, then so too are those who endorse them.

Yet another explanation for the attack on conspiracy theorising is support for the status quo, in particular support for dominant political and economic institutions, along with the experts who gain their livelihood from these institutions. Many conspiracy theories are about plotting by powerful groups. If taken seriously, these ideas could threaten these groups.

In this context, it’s highly convenient to apply the label “conspiracy theorist” to anyone who questions orthodoxy. You think pharmaceutical companies are selling drugs they know are dangerous? You’re a conspiracy theorist, and not to be taken seriously. You think Google, Facebook and Apple are manipulating people’s desires? You’re a conspiracy theorist.

            There’s a straightforward way to test this explanation: have a look at those who are most vociferous in condemning conspiracy theorising and see whether they are supporters or critics of dominant institutions. Do they defend or attack the US government or big companies?

Is there a lesson here? Personally, I support the particularists who say explanations should be judged on their merits. This has an uncomfortable implication: it’s no longer easy to dismiss ideas that might seem crazy on the surface but you haven’t investigated in depth. It’s reasonable to think that establishment experts are often right, but also reasonable to leave open the possibility that they might be wrong or that there are other truths available.

This means being sceptical when hearing the term “conspiracy theory.” An appropriate response might be, “So what?” or “What exactly is wrong with this particular explanation?”

I’ve talked with whistleblowers from all walks of life, including those working for government departments, private companies, the police, the military, schools, universities, churches, environmental organisations and Indigenous organisations. Their stories are remarkably similar, and nearly all involve conspiracies to cover up wrongdoing and to take reprisals against the whistleblowers. Conspiracies are everywhere, and some of them are affecting you. Who doesn’t want you to take them seriously?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kurtis Hagen and Jaron Harambam for valuable comments.

The watched versus the watchers

Surveillance has become pervasive. What can be done?

Do you have a mobile phone? Do you ever use Facebook or Google? Do you have a credit card? Do you ever walk on a city street or enter a shop? If so, someone is collecting information about you, using it to better understand your thoughts and behaviours and possibly to influence them.

As you scroll through a website, you’re being targeted with ads, and some of the ads are chosen according to your previous web use. Nothing to worry about perhaps, unless your web use provides clues about your medical conditions, relationships, addictions, political leanings and personal finances. How long you pause over a picture on the web can be, and is, used to learn more about what makes you tick.

            If you subscribe to a customer loyalty scheme, for example at a supermarket, then a record is maintained of every purchase you make, providing information to inform future marketing. Banks and credit card companies have a lot of information about your financial activities.

It has become a cliché to say that we’re being watched, yet it is true far more than ever. Measures taken to control covid-19 are in addition to everything being monitored before.

For decades, I’ve been following studies of surveillance and privacy. This is important for anyone concerned with social control and how to resist. In societies with authoritarian governments, data is collected by authorities in order to maintain power and prevent challenges. In societies with less formal repression, vast quantities of data are collected by both companies and governments. This is a big risk if the wrong people gain power. Indeed, it’s already a big risk.

Many scholars, commentators and insiders have written about the surveillance society. There have been numerous powerful exposés. I’ve long thought that this is an area simply waiting for a social movement to emerge and counter the increasing power of watchers. That was true in the 1980s, yet no movement has emerged in the following decades. Why not? Perhaps because many of the tools of surveillance are part of everyday life, have obvious benefits and are used voluntarily. A mobile phone has many practical uses. It can also be used to track your movements throughout the day, record when you’re awake and how many steps you take, and collect data on who you connect with, when and how long.

The big surveillance organisations — governments, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and others — do everything they can to make you believe your data is safe in their hands. After all, it’s in their interest to do so. In this context, it’s valuable to turn to critiques. There are many to choose from. Here I tell about a new book by Carissa Véliz titled Privacy is Power. It has many attractive features.

Privacy is power

Véliz begins by describing a typical day, pointing to all the ways that data about you might be collected, mostly without your knowing or noticing. While driving, texting, banking and just walking around the streets, your data is being collected, and not always with your interests at heart.

The next step is to point out that data can be misused. Your credit rating is downgraded because of a mistake or you miss out on a job because of something online about someone with the same name. There are biases in the algorithms used to analyse data. Then there are malicious uses, for example identity theft and credit card fraud. But there are deeper issues.

            Véliz presents a simple yet powerful idea: stores of personal data are toxic. She makes an analogy to asbestos, which is an exceedingly useful material for buildings and other purposes because it won’t burn or degrade. The trouble is not when it just sits there in the walls of a building; it’s when it escapes, becoming a serious health hazard. Data is similar. There are vast quantities of it sitting in computers around the world, and it can be used for beneficial purposes like medical research. The problem is when it escapes. Then it’s toxic.

A famous case involved Ashley Madison, an online service for affairs and discreet married dating. Except it turned out to not be so discreet when a vast quantity of data held by Ashley Madison was hacked and posted online, to the embarrassment of those exposed.

Then there are the cases of exposures of credit card information, passwords, medical records and other data. Toxic indeed, both when the information is accurate and when it is inaccurate.

Part of being free is being able to experiment with ideas and actions. Not all of them turn out well, but in the old days it was possible to tell inappropriate jokes or hold prejudices, yet to learn, change and move on. With the recording of so much of what we do and say, the past can hold us hostage. A racist or sexist comment can be held against you decades later. Of course, we should be held to account for serious wrongs. The trouble with having vast stores of personal information is that it is too easy to target someone, using a minor fault as justification for adverse actions.

A teacher challenged the principal of her school. To get back at her, a search discovered a student complaint about her teaching made five years previously, so trivial that she had not been told about it at the time. This illustrates two points about toxic data. First, small bits of accumulated data can be used in undesirable ways. Second, it was the principal who had access to files on teachers, while the teachers did not have access to files on principals.

Collective effects

Privacy is often seen as strictly a personal matter. My interest is in my privacy, not in yours. Véliz disagrees. She says we all benefit from everyone else having greater control over data about them and how it is used. In other words, privacy has vital collective dimensions.

            Suppose you use encryption for your communications and for the data on your phone. If no one else is using encryption, then your use of it may make authorities suspicious. They might wonder what you’re hiding and make special efforts to access your data. But if lots of people are using encryption, then you’re less likely to be singled out. Your privacy is enhanced by others’ privacy.

Another example is genetic information. If a close relative of yours has their DNA tested to determine their ancestry, that same information will have many overlaps with your own DNA profile. If your relative’s genetic data is compromised, then so is yours.

            If there are security cameras on every street corner, you can try to escape surveillance by using a disguise or by not going outside. Getting rid of the cameras benefits your privacy, and everyone else’s.

“Our interdependence in matters of privacy implies that no individual has the moral authority to sell their data. We don’t own personal data like we own property because our personal data contains the personal data of others. Your personal data is not only yours.” (p. 79)

What to do?

Véliz offers numerous recommendations for greater privacy. At an individual level, there are quite a few things you can do. Avoid Facebook if you can. Use a search engine that doesn’t track your searches: not Google, perhaps Duckduckgo. Don’t carry around your phone unless you really need it. Don’t join loyalty programmes at shops.

If asked for information beyond what should be needed, make mistakes: “Whoops, I got confused when writing my birthdate.” Ask permission before posting information about others. That includes baby photos on Instagram.

Individual-level steps to greater privacy are, in many ways, the easy part of the process. These are things under your control. You can’t evade all surveillance, but you can definitely reduce the amount of toxic data about yourself.

The bigger challenge is collective steps. The longest chapter in Privacy is Power is about measures that Véliz thinks should be taken to ensure greater privacy. She devotes many pages arguing why personalised advertising should be stopped: it involves sacrificing privacy for very little benefit individually or collectively. She continues with a variety of other recommendations, including stopping the trade in personal data, making data collection opt-in rather than opt-out, stopping the use of algorithms to make inferences about people, deleting data and reducing government surveillance.

These are all worthwhile. The question is, what will bring them about? We can hardly rely on governments and big corporations to suddenly change course and start taking measures to empower citizens by ending their current data-collection practices.

I remember the struggle over the Australia Card, a personal identification card proposed by the government in the 1980s. This triggered the rise of a remarkable opposition movement uniting left-wing and right-wing groups, and the Australia Card proposal was withdrawn. Not long after, though, the government introduced the Tax File Number, for purposes of paying income tax, solemnly promising that the number would never be shared with other government departments. The promise obviously meant nothing because before long people’s numbers were shared with numerous other government departments.

            It’s not likely that governments and corporations will voluntarily cut back on their data collection. The evidence that security cameras in public places reduce crime is questionable, but this seldom leads to cameras being removed. Cameras are widely used by repressive governments to monitor the population. In a free society, it would be wise to avoid technologies that governments could use for repression and select ones that empower the population. So far, this has not been the pattern for surveillance technologies.

The one thing that has a chance of making a difference is a social movement based on an aware and aroused public, with campaigners taking direct action against surveillance. This is happening to some extent with personal devices, for example to use of secure phone software.

What will trigger the formation of a powerful anti-surveillance movement? That is unclear. Anyone potentially interested can benefit from reading Privacy is Power and getting ideas about what needs to be done.


Carissa Véliz

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kelly Gates, Olga Kuchinskaya, Julia LeMonde and Qinqing Xu for helpful comments.

PS My own writings about surveillance, from many years ago: “Antisurveillance“; “Opposing surveillance“.

Humans: reconciling bad and good?

I’ve read two books that seem to come to opposite conclusions. They are about humans’ capacity for good and evil. Could both be right?

The first book, by philosopher and psychologist Steven James Bartlett, is titled The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. It is a huge and wide-ranging study pointing to deep-seated features of human thought and behaviour that are highly damaging to humans and the environment. Bartlett argues that people don’t want to face up to this side of the human species.

The second book is by historian and writer Rutger Bregman, and titled Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is an exposé showing flaws in studies and episodes claiming to show that humans are easily susceptible to doing harm to each other, and an argument that humans have a natural inclination to do good. Bregman argues that people don’t like to acknowledge this inbuilt drive for goodness.

Perhaps these two perspectives can be reconciled by saying that humans have the potential for both bad and good. Yet it seems contradictory that Bartlett says people don’t want to acknowledge human evil whereas Bregman says people don’t want to recognise human goodness. And even if humans have a capacity for both bad and good, do these writers offer insight into what enables the worst and the best?

Here, I’ll first give a brief outline of the ideas in each of these two books. Then I’ll address some key contrasts between them and suggest what we might learn from them.

The pathology of man

Steven Bartlett set out to examine the psychology of human evil. He uses the word “evil” in a clinical rather than a religious sense, to refer to humans harming each other and the environment that supports their life. Evil in this sense includes torture, genocide, war and ecological destruction. Bartlett’s quest is to identify the source of these sorts of harmful activities. His diagnosis: features of human thought and behaviour are pathological. In other words, the human species is diseased. This sounds gloomy indeed.

The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, is lengthy and erudite. Bartlett examined a great range of studies of human evil, for example by prominent figures such as psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, ethologist Konrad Lorenz and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson. He made a detailed examination of studies of genocide.

A widely held idea about evil deeds is that they are committed by psychopaths or others who are psychologically deviant. According to this view, evil is done by others, by people who are different from the norm, not like the rest of us who are normal.

Bartlett challenges this view. In a chapter on terrorism, he examines studies of the psychology of terrorists. Far from being mentally ill or deviant according to the usual ways of diagnosing mental illness, most terrorists are psychologically normal.

In his examination of genocide, especially the Holocaust, Bartlett comes to the same conclusion. Leading Nazis as well as men who were killers were, for the most part, psychologically normal.

In another chapter, Bartlett examines war, noting that it fits perfectly his definition of evil. As well as finding that most men who go to war are psychologically normal, he also notes that most people do little or nothing to try to stop war. Indeed, there are many who cheer for the troops and condemn anyone who questions their sacrifice, indeed anyone who is not patriotic. Bartlett says war is a manifestation of a disease afflicting the human species, writing that, “In short, war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).


A product of human ingenuity

Bartlett also examines human thought and behaviour in relation to ecology. He looks into standard definitions of parasites and concludes that humans are a parasitic species, living off other species and the natural environment, which can be thought of as the host. Furthermore, humans have proliferated to such an extent that they are destroying the host that enables them to live. This, Bartlett says, is an ecological pathology. He writes, “In the human species, the genetic selfishness of the parasite has taken the form of our species’ self-centeredness, our opportunistic exploitation of environmental resources, and our species’ disregard of the degree to which human activity and reproduction displace and exterminate other forms of life.”

Bartlett does not claim that everyone is involved in damaging activities. He recognises that some actively campaign against war and against ecological destruction. However, the efforts of some, or even many, do not alter his diagnosis of the species as a whole.


Steven James Bartlett

It’s not possible in a short exposition to give a sense of the massive scholarship, detailed argumentation and extensive evidence that Bartlett provides in support of his view. Suffice it to say that Bartlett makes a strong case that there is something seriously wrong with the human species, something seemingly deep-seated in patterns of thought and behaviour. (I’ve written elsewhere about some implications of Bartlett’s analysis.)

Humankind

For a complete change, turn to Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind. Bregman sets out to challenge what he sees as a widespread assumption that people are inherently bad. To do this, he describes his investigations into some of the most famous stories and studies that paint humans as ready to hurt each other.

William Golding’s famous novel The Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. It tells the story of a group of British schoolboys who are stranded alone on an island. They start off harmoniously but then gradually turn against each other. Symbolically, they regress to a pre-civilised state involving cults and murder.

The Lord of the Flies was a best-seller and made into a movie. As a moral fable, it was widely seen as an accurate representation of what would happen without adult social control. But, Bregman asked, was it actually accurate? He set out to find a real-life example and after much exploration discovered that a group of schoolboys from Tonga had been stranded for over a year before being rescued. Unlike Golding’s fictional portrayal, the boys cooperated to make life as safe and sound as possible. However, unlike the response to Golding’s novel, the actual story of stranded boys received almost no attention. Bregman concludes that people are primed to think the worst of each other.

Then there are experiments that seem to show the susceptibility of people to doing bad things. In the Stanford prison experiment, run by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, male university students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or prison guards. The experiment had to be terminated early because the students’ behaviour was becoming too extreme. Ever since, this experiment has been used to show that people can quickly adopt roles.

Bregman started digging and discovered evidence casting doubt on the usual interpretation. Zimbardo and the other experimenters manipulated the situation to foster conflict. Bregman talked to participants in the experiment who said nothing much was happening until they decided to play the roles expected of them. Contrary to Zimbardo’s interpretation, the experiment did not show that the students quickly adopted the stereotypical behaviours of prisoners and prison guards.

Bregman also tackles Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments that showed that a high percentage of Americans were willing to administer serious shocks to a volunteer “learner”, following the instructions of a scientist. Bregman suggests that the experiments didn’t show nearly as much obedience as claimed.

Then there is the famous case of Kitty Genovese who in 1964 was assaulted and murdered outside a New York apartment block as numerous residents watched — and did nothing. This event was trumpeted ever after as showing that bystanders often will do nothing to stop a crime. However, Bregman discovered bystanders who helped. He also found out about journalists who had written cynical narratives about uncaring bystanders and who refused to listen to evidence contradicting their narrative. These journalists wanted people to believe in the worst interpretation of human behaviour.


Kitty Genovese

Bregman’s telling of his investigations into the Stanford prison study, Milgram’s obedience experiments and the Kitty Genovese story are models of engaging writing. In each case, he presents the orthodox view and then tells about his efforts to uncover a deeper, hidden story. Parts of Humankind read like a page-turner novel. There is a mystery, and the truth is stranger than what everyone believed for decades.

As well as critically analysing claims that humans are inherently bad, Bregman describes many examples of humans behaving with remarkable cooperation, sympathy and sacrifice for the common good. He tells about non-agricultural societies that are cooperative and non-aggressive. He presents the evidence that most soldiers do not want to kill. He tells about a prison in Halden, Norway, that is a model of enlightened rehabilitation. The prisoners are supported to become better people, and they have a lower rate of subsequent offences than those who endure prison time based on punishment. Bregman tells about Jos de Blok who runs a large business in the Netherlands that gives great freedom to employees to proceed as they see fit, with striking results. He tells about the altruism of Danish people who helped Jews to escape the country in 1943 to avoid an impending Nazi roundup.

A scene from the prison in Halden

Bregman says there is too much attention on the negative sides of human behaviour, which makes things worse in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He blames news media for continually focusing on the worst aspects of humans. He argues that humans have a great capacity for good, and that is cause for hope. Humankind is an inspiring book. (Previously I commented favourably on Bregman’s earlier book Utopia for Realists.)


Rutger Bregman

Shortcomings

Before looking at some direct comparisons, it’s worth noting some shortcomings in Bartlett’s and Bregman’s treatments. An obvious criticism of The Pathology of Man is that Bartlett gives little attention to human virtues: it seems to be a relentless focus on flaws. Bartlett acknowledges this one-sidedness, saying it is necessary to counter people’s refusal to face a bitter truth. Another potential shortcoming of The Pathology of Man is its concentration on psychology and neglect of the role of social institutions in shaping human behaviour. I will come back to this.

Humankind can be criticised for an opposite one-sidedness, namely its focus on human goodness. Bregman argues that he is redressing an imbalance and is recommending a positive sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of Bregman’s treatments of case studies can be criticised. Majken Jul Sørensen analysed writings about the Danish nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupation. She found much excessive glorification, noting that the rescue of Danish Jews was neither as courageous nor as altruistic as normally portrayed. Bregman devoted enormous energies finding flaws in classic research studies and stories that show humans in a bad light but apparently did not devote quite the same critical effort when investigating stories of positive behaviour.

What do people not want to acknowledge?

The most striking contrast between Bartlett and Bregman concerns their views about what people prefer to avoid. Bartlett observes that humans shy away from recognising their capacity for evil.

“There is a strong avoidance-wish among many people that prevents them from recognizing the ugly side of the human species. It is a very nearly automatic resistance, sometimes a repugnance, to consider, even as an abstract possibility, the hypothesis that mankind may in reality not be a source and model of goodness, but rather, and to a significant extent, possesses many of the characteristics that we tend to associate with pathology. This automatic resistance or repugnance usually appears to be both emotional and intellectual in nature. It is deeply rooted—so much so that many people whom one believes to be open-minded and committed to truth in inquiry, as soon as the topic of human evil is brought to their attention, feel called upon to proclaim man’s native goodness and the praiseworthy qualities of the species, in a kind of reflex arc that blinds our species to its own failings.” (p. 7)

Bregman, in contrast, says humans are reluctant to recognise their capacity for good. He writes, “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic” (p. 4) and “In nearly every country most people think most other people can’t be trusted” (p. 12). He says, “The question that has long fascinated me is why we take such a negative view of humanity” (p. 12).

This seems like an irreconcilable difference in perspective.

Perhaps Bartlett and Bregman are both right. A key theme in Bartlett’s analysis is that most people who do horrible things are psychologically normal, so when he says that people don’t want to recognise human pathology, he’s referring to people not wanting to recognise the presence of this disease, or flaw, in themselves and those close to them. Instead, evil is always what someone else is doing: enemies, terrorists, genocidal killers.

When Bregman says that people don’t want to recognise human goodness, this may refer especially to the goodness of others. Bregman repeatedly complains about news coverage, which is primarily about bad things that people do — especially bad people somewhere else. It is implying that badness is elsewhere, thereby exempting the media consumer.

The difference between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s assumptions about recognition of evil and good may be the difference between out-groups and in-groups. Perhaps people think differently about these two groups.

Obedience studies

Bregman offers a powerful critique of studies apparently showing that ordinary people — specifically, people in the US — are easily led to do harmful things. For a comparison with Bartlett’s view, it’s convenient to look at Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority, because Bartlett also addresses them.

Milgram found that most men designated as “teachers” would keep increasing the voltage of the shock to the “learner” (an actor), even when the voltage was apparently causing serious harm. Bregman, with access to video recordings of the experiments, reveals a number of flaws in Milgram’s studies. One of them was that Milgram had no plausible explanation for the results.

Bartlett also cites Milgram’s studies. Without the benefit of Bregman’s analysis, Bartlett is not critical of them. However, Bartlett has a different complaint: given the real-world evidence about obedience from the Holocaust, other genocides and warfare, he argues that Milgram’s studies were unnecessary. This evidence shows that most soldiers will obey orders to kill others.

One of the sources quoted by Bregman is Don Mixon’s 1989 book Obedience and Civilisation. For his PhD research in the early 1970s, Mixon reproduced a version Milgram’s experiments. Mixon says that a key issue is whether the “teachers” in Milgram’s studies — namely, the experimental subjects — believed the “experimenter” or believed their eyes and ears. The nominal experimenter was acting a role for Milgram, and displayed no alarm when the “learner” was crying in pain. Most of the “teachers” believed the “experimenter” when he told them that the “learner” would not be harmed by the shocks.

I knew Don Mixon. He worked in the Psychology Department at the University of Wollongong, and we were co-supervisors for a PhD student.

Mixon argues that Milgram misinterpreted his experiments: they didn’t show obedience to legitimate authority. However, Mixon has something else to say: although Milgram misinterpreted his own experiments, his conclusions about obedience were correct. Mixon says that people are even more obedient to legitimate authority than Milgram concluded. In saying this, Mixon refers to German soldiers in Nazi Germany. This is the same example used by Bartlett to argue that Milgram’s experiments were unnecessary.

This seems a bit complicated, with Bartlett, Bregman, Milgram and Mixon. The takeaway message is that there were serious flaws in Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority. Nevertheless, both Mixon and Bartlett think obedience outside the laboratory is sufficient to show humans’ willingness to harm others. Even Bregman, after showing holes in Milgram’s research, still accepted that they showed worrying levels of willingness to harm others, writing that “No matter how you look at it, Milgram’s results remain seriously disturbing” (p. 169).

The role of hope

Towards the end of The Pathology of Man, Bartlett discusses hope. He notes that most treatments of social problems include some positive angles, some reason to hope for the future. Bartlett says hope, faith and optimism have a downside: they can obscure human shortcomings.  By constantly looking for bright spots, it becomes too easy to turn away from the threatening truth that the human species is itself diseased, with its pathology deeply embedded in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett says that when confronted with bad things, it’s better to deplore than to hope.

Nevertheless, one topic treated by Bartlett has a positive side: moral development. He examines features of individuals who develop a strong set of principles that reject the usual justifications for causing harm, and implement those principles in their lives. An example would be a pacifist who takes a stand against military systems. Bartlett’s view is that few individuals are morally intelligent in this way. Even so, figuring out how to foster this sort of thought and behaviour is a worthy task.

For Bregman, hope is crucial. The subtitle of his book is A Hopeful History. His purpose is to counter the usual negativity about humans and point to their capacity to do good. He introduces the nocebo effect: when people are told they are going to get worse, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Constant news coverage of violence and exploitation makes audiences think the world is a terrible place. Bregman says, to the contrary, there are signs of hope even in the most dire circumstances. In his final chapter, he tells about the troops in World War I who, on Christmas Day in 1914, left their trenches and joined with enemy soldiers in a cooperative celebration. If the troops had been left to themselves, the war might have been over then. Commanders had to threaten their own troops with serious retribution to get them back to fighting against the enemy.

Lessons

A key lesson from The Pathology of Man is that ordinary people, who are psychologically normal, have a capacity for evil, for harming others. Furthermore, the human species, made up for the most part of ordinary people, is causing massive damage to the natural world, undermining the systems that enable all life to exist. Only a small proportion of people make concerted efforts to oppose these damaging activities. Governments spend billions of dollars training soldiers for war and developing ever more deadly weapons, yet most citizens either support these preparations or are complacent about them. Bartlett argues that the lack of interest in opposing evil reflects deep-seated flaws in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett would like readers to look into this heart of darkness and truly acknowledge it, because otherwise we are fooling ourselves with superficial optimism.

A key lesson from Humankind is that most people want to do good: they want to cooperate and to help others. We should not assume the worst, namely assume that people will quickly and automatically succumb to their worst impulses, becoming cruel prison guards, harming helpless “learners” or doing nothing about a crime in progress. Bregman thinks there is too much attention to the bad side of human behaviour and that by paying attention to the good side, the positives can be made even stronger, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe others will do what’s right, they are more likely to do it.

These seem like contrary lessons, but in principle we can take them both on board. Indeed, it might be argued that by starting with what is good, it’s more possible to act against evil.

The flaw in humans

Bartlett examines human thought and behaviour, delving into what he sees as fundamental flaws. In doing this, he relies on studies of the psychology of evildoers, finding that most are psychologically normal, which is a serious problem: we are all potential or actual perpetrators.

By focusing on psychology, Bartlett gives relatively little attention to the role of social institutions such as the family, patriarchy, bureaucracy, the military, capitalism and the state. Social institutions are in a continual process of change, being the result of human efforts, yet can be remarkably stable in their basic features. Human psychology both shapes social institutions and is shaped by them. If Bartlett has identified a flaw in human thought and behaviour, how is this flaw related to the ways that humans organise their lives?

Concerning this question, Bregman offers insights. Building on studies of human prehistory and present-day non-agricultural societies, he argues that for most of human evolution people lived in small groups that were cooperative and egalitarian. Their lifestyles were ecologically sustainable. They did not manifest the evils of war, genocide and environmental destruction. Nor were racism and economic oppression serious problems.


Agriculture: beginning of the downfall?

Bregman, like a number of other authors, traces the beginning of the downfall to the rise of agriculture. With agriculture, human groups settled in one place, and it was possible to accumulate a surplus of food and material objects. Along with the surplus came hierarchy and a division of labour — and exploitation, oppression and organised violence against other humans.

With this picture of human social evolution, it is possible to see a reconciliation between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s analyses. This starts with the simple observation that humans have capacities for both good and evil, for living together in harmony and for the most appalling actions. How these capacities are allowed, encouraged and channelled depends heavily on the way humans organise their lives, in other words their social arrangements. When they live in autonomous groups of one or two hundred people, hunting and gathering, their positive sides are evoked. When they live in settled communities, creating large surpluses, developing advanced technologies and dominating nature, their negative sides become enabled.

Another crucial factor is hierarchy, in which some people have more power and status than others. Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Bregman cites the fascinating studies by Dacher Keltner on the damaging effects of power on those who have it, including that those with power over others “are more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average” (p. 229). Modern societies are set up with command hierarchies, with some individuals having vastly more power than others, thus fostering corruption and abuse. As as well as Keltner’s research, it is worth exploring the earlier empirical studies of the corruptions of power carried out by psychologist David Kipnis.

Where does this leave us now? Some people, called primitivists, advocate a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but in the foreseeable future this is not feasible for most of the world’s population. A more plausible path forward is to build on the positives of humans and to find ways to counter the negatives. How to do this is not obvious in a world in which scientists design ever more deadly weapons, psychologists design ways to manipulate people, economic systems lead to greater inequality and the environment comes under ever increasing stress due to population growth, affluence and technological change.

The clue may lie in social arrangements. If, as Bregman argues, many of the problems of contemporary societies stem from the rise of agriculture and all that came after, then there still remains the possibility of finding better ways for humans to live together, in other words to create better social institutions.

These need to be something different from capitalism, militarism, states, mass surveillance and other systems that enable domination of humans and the environment. Many activists and social-change agents are challenging these systems and building alternatives. In these efforts, it is worthwhile being inspired by examples of cooperation and altruism, while remaining aware of the dangerous capacities in every one of us.

Bartlett and Bregman each see themselves as voices in the wilderness, challenging serious gaps in people’s understanding of human capacities and predilections. Given their own analyses, it’s quite possible that their diagnoses will be little noticed or actioned. The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, has not received much attention. Nor has there been much further investigation into pathologies in human thought that underlie behavioural pathologies.


Is anybody listening?

A precursor to Humankind was a 1990 book by Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature. It seemingly did not dent the prevailing views about humans, otherwise presumably Bregman would not have felt the need to write his own book. Humankind is so well written that it may make more of a difference. However, it is one thing to read a book and be alarmed or inspired or both. It is something else to change the way we live in the world.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Majken Sørensen and Pheobe Wenyi Sun for useful comments.

At your best

Do you know for sure when you are being your best possible self? And how can you be that way more often?

            I came across a recommendation for a book titled Exceptional: build your personal highlight reel and unlock your potential by Daniel Cable. The title made me a bit sceptical. A “personal highlight reel” sounds suspect, reminiscent of the US self-help genre that is all about the individual and says nothing about social conditions.

Still, I was intrigued. Even since I was young, I’ve experimented with self-help techniques. They don’t have to encourage self-centredness and self-indulgence. After all, if you can be more effective in achieving your goals, you can be more effective in helping others and in contributing to positive social change. Personally, I didn’t feel a great need to unlock my potential. But I thought, “I’ll give this book a try. Then I can tell others if there is anything from which they might benefit.”

Cable tells about a man named Dave Maher whose friends thought he had died while in hospital. They posted touching comments about him — then he awoke from a month-long coma.

It seems a pity that you have to die before those who know you tell stories of what a wonderful person you were in their lives. So why, Cable asks, do you have to wait? He says there’s a great reluctance to talk about people’s strengths while they’re alive, a reluctance he calls the “eulogy delay.”

            Most people — narcissists excepted — also have a reluctance to talk about their own excellence. Combined with the eulogy delay, the result is a continual focus on shortcomings. Many people are down on themselves, being constantly self-critical. They focus on what they’re doing wrong and spend enormous energy trying to fix their weaknesses. This self-critical attitude is often applied to others. Bosses criticise their subordinates for what they do wrong.

For decades, I’ve seen this orientation to flaws among academics when they comment on each other’s research papers. They focus on mistakes and weaknesses, saying little about strengths. No wonder so many people suffer the imposter syndrome, believing that any day others will discover that they aren’t nearly as good as imagined.

Cable’s programme

Cable shows how to identify and then focus on your strengths. To benefit from this programme, you have to undertake some tasks. Just reading his book is not enough.

The first major task is to write down times when you were at your best. I did this by selecting five categories in my life where I thought I had done well.

I can understand why some people would be reluctant to write about when they’ve been at their best. It might seem too much like self-promotion. And besides, what about all the bad times? A good part of Exceptional involves Cable trying to convince you to get past these sorts of reservations. He’s seen them all before, many times, and argues that they are misguided rationalisations.

After writing about your own highlights, the next major task is more daunting. You write letters to other people in your life telling them when they were at their best. It’s sort of like writing eulogy letters, except they’re still alive.

I knew about writing gratitude letters as a result of co-teaching a class on happiness for nearly a decade. Researchers have identified a number of different activities that make most people happier, including physical activity, relationships, optimism, forgiveness — and expressing gratitude. If, every day or every week, you stop to reflect on three things that you are thankful for, like a friendship, nice weather or listening to music, this is likely to make you happier. It’s simple and easy and remarkably effective. In the happiness class, students were asked to try out an activity shown by research to increase happiness. Many of them chose expressing gratitude.

            There’s also a more powerful method for evoking the benefits of expressing gratitude: writing a gratitude letter. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, tells about doing this. You write a letter to someone important in your life thanking them for everything they’ve been and done for you. For maximum effect, you read it to them in person.

By all accounts, this is a powerful emotional experience for both parties. However, despite knowing about the research, I had never written a gratitude letter. Cable’s programme provided both the stimulus and the rationale for writing letters of gratitude. Well, not exactly, because Cable’s task is to tell others when they’ve been at their best, which is not quite the same. But there’s a significant overlap.

Cable quotes several participants in his classes who say to write as many of these letters as you can, to people in all parts of your life, past and present: family members, friends, work colleagues, neighbours. Here’s the extra part: when you write a letter to one of these individuals saying when you’ve seen them at their best, you also ask them to reciprocate by writing to you saying when you’ve been at your best.

Then, Cable advises, don’t read the replies right away. Wait until you’ve received at least ten responses, find a quiet place and read them all. Powerful indeed.

If you have doubts about your own worth or feel down on yourself in some way, this exercise can be a way to dramatically raise your morale. Moreover, it can shake you up, helping you see better what’s worth doing.


Dan Cable

Continuing

But wait, there are several more chapters in Exceptional to read. Figuring out when you’re at your best should be more than a brief feel-good exercise. You can use the insights gained from your own reflections and from others’ comments about you to identify your signature strengths and practise using them more often.

Signature strengths, also called character strengths, are things like bravery, kindness, humility and humour. There are 24 possibilities in all. Two of mine, according to an online assessment, are creativity and curiosity, and some respondents concurred. One wrote that I “latch onto a new idea or process and stay with it. You test it, integrate it, write about it, share it in all sorts of different ways.”

            You may think that focusing on your strengths is a very self-centred sort of thing to do. However, Cable has observed that it often makes people more other-directed, using their strengths to help others, to make organisations better and to engage in campaigns to improve society.

After receiving comments from many correspondents about my strengths, I felt a sense of responsibility. It’s going to be a challenge to continue to be at my best. My feeling was just what Cable said: “Learning about your most exceptional qualities doesn’t make you arrogant and complacent; instead, it makes you humble and energized to work harder” (p. 163).

Many people take their strengths for granted. Because they seem to come easily, they aren’t valued all that much. Instead, they put more effort into fixing weaknesses. Cable argues against this tendency. He says that you can often do more by building on strengths.

Habits

The biggest challenge is ahead: changing your habits. It might sound wonderful to use your signature strengths more often and more effectively, but this requires change, and this is difficult.

Years ago, I read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. It uses engaging stories to explain how habits are broken and formed, offering great insight. I thought the book was fabulous and then discovered that so did lots of other readers. If you can identify your signature strengths, then you can formulate and execute a plan to use them more often and consistently, and to turn doing this into a habit. Not easy but very worthwhile.

I’ve noted some but far from all of the key aspects of Cable’s programme. Should you follow it? He’s the expert at using it, having worked with over a thousand people to develop their personal highlight reels and build on them. That’s why I followed his advice. His programme has strong connections with findings from research on happiness and habits. That gives me confidence.

I think the programme will be especially valuable for anyone who has doubts about their life and where they’re going in it, for anyone who wants to build stronger connections with others important to them, and for anyone who wants to make better choices about what to do with the rest of their life. That sounds like just about everyone. However, I know that overcoming the mental resistance to the activities involved can be enormous.

Last year, one of my most valued colleagues, Mark McLelland, died. Our offices were a few doors apart and we often chatted about common interests, including defending against attacks on academic freedom. We co-supervised two PhD students. I now regret that I never wrote Mark a letter expressing everything I treasured about him.


Mark McLelland

Then I think of others who have died in recent years to whom I now wish I had written a gratitude letter. Cable is quite right about the “eulogy delay.” Henceforth I’ll continue to try to overcome it.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au