Go forth, and be unreasonable

Today's Australian runs a version of my ANU graduation speech in the Higher Education section.
Progress rarely plane sailing but dare to do it anyway, The Australian, 25 July 2012

In 1931, the British air ministry decided to experiment by commissioning a new fighter aircraft. The bureaucrats wanted aviation engineers to abandon past orthodoxies and create something entirely new.

The initial prototypes were disappointing. But then a company called Supermarine approached the ministry with a radical new design. A public servant by the name of Henry Cave-Browne-Cave decided to bypass the regular process and order it. The new plane was the Supermarine Spitfire.

The Spitfire was one of the greatest technological breakthroughs in aviation history.

One British pilot called it "a perfect flying machine". It fundamentally changed aviation wisdom, which had been that countries should focus on bomber fleets.

It's no exaggeration to say that without the Spitfire, Britain may not have been able to fight off the Luftwaffe to win the Battle of Britain. Asked what he needed to beat the British, a German ace told Hermann Goering, "I should like an outfit of Spitfires."

As economist Tim Harford points out, without the Spitfire, Germany might have occupied Britain. The course of world history was changed because a public servant decided to experiment with something new.

I am interested in the virtues of experimenting and taking risk, and their flipsides: making mistakes and being wrong. Having doubt is a good thing. As US judge Learned Hand famously said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."

IN 1984, a young psychologist called Philip Tetlock had the job of summing up expert opinion on how the Soviet Union might react to Ronald Reagan's Cold War policies. He was struck by how often the leading US experts flat-out contradicted one another, so he designed an experiment.

Tetlock asked 300 expert commentators to make specific forecasts about the future. Then he waited to see their results.

From nearly 30,000 predictions, he found the experts were as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys.

Among these professional pundits, the least accurate were those who viewed the world through the lens of a single idea - what philosopher Isaiah Berlin once called hedgehogs. As new facts came in, these pundits stuck inflexibly to their initial views. Those who did a better job were the group that Berlin called foxes, who based their analysis on observing as much as possible. They were much more willing to change their analysis as the world shifted.

While we should remember what we've said in the past, we shouldn't be slavishly bound to it. If it helps, remember that there are virtually no atoms in our body that were there seven years ago.

It's OK to change your mind. And when you do, you might as well admit it. As John Maynard Keynes once put it when asked why he had changed his position on monetary policy during the Great Depression: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?'

Investor Nassim Taleb argues when it comes to adjusting to a changing world, some people are better than others. Entrepreneurs are very good at it. Senior businesspeople are often too reluctant to admit a mistake. Politicians, Taleb argues, are the worst of all.

In her splendid book On Doubt, ABC journalist Leigh Sales writes that "Politics is littered with the carcases of the indecisive". In 2004, US president George W. Bush used the flip-flopper tag to devastating effect on rival John Kerry. Yet it's hardly radical to imagine that the world would be a better place if Bush had been a little more self-reflective.

A good way of achieving this is to surround yourself with people who disagree with one another. Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest leaders in history, partly because he chose a cabinet who argued among one another, what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called "a team of rivals".

And yet it is too easy to see groupthink on all sides of politics. Take the case of anthropogenic climate change, where scientific evidence has grown stronger while political support has weakened.

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, "once group loyalties are engaged, you can't change people's minds by utterly refuting their arguments".

It shouldn't be this way. Any politician who is truly committed to evidence-based policymaking ought to be willing to admit when their policy doesn't work.

In her book Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz compares the feeling of being wrong about something fundamental to feeling like a toddler lost in Manhattan.

But if you can master the art of experimentation and learning from your mistakes, you'll achieve a great deal. Without the willingness to risk failure, you may never truly succeed.

You should also be open to serendipity. Accidents can lead to breakthroughs. In 1928, Alexander Fleming's dirty laboratory led to him discovering the world's first antibiotic in a contaminated petri dish. Serendipity is literally in our DNA.

Evolution is a series of random experiments carried out by nature. Each of us is the product of millions of years of experiments by nature.

When experiments succeed, the result can be an extraordinary breakthrough like the Spitfire. But very often, experiments fail. That shouldn't stop you from pursuing life with a spirit of sceptical experimentation.

Apply the same principles to those around you. Don't try to surround yourself with people who are infallible, but with people who try to learn from their errors. In your workplace, try to create an atmosphere in which people are able to take risks.Being sceptical doesn't mean lacking passion. You can be passionate about the change you want to see in the world yet willing to be guided by evidence on the right way to achieve your ideals.

Sales points out that many of the great breakthroughs in history have begun from a position of scepticism. Copernicus asked whether the earth sat at the centre of the universe.

Martin Luther asked whether God's forgiveness could be purchased with money.

Mary Wollstonecraft asked why women didn't have rights. Nelson Mandela asked why South African blacks were kept separate. Each refused to accept the prevailing wisdom.

As the saying goes, the reasonable person adapts to the world; the unreasonable person adapts the world to him or her. Therefore all progress depends on unreasonable people. So go forth, and be unreasonable.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. This is an edited extract of his address to graduating students at the Australian National University.

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