T H O U G H T  P R O V O C A T E U R S


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Solving Social Problems
Bob Korn


In recent centuries humanity has made great strides in overcoming the obstacles of nature. We can house and feed and clothe ourselves better than ever. We can communicate almost instantly and travel halfway around the world in a day. We have made progress against many diseases and maladies that do much to increase our lifespan and comfort. Nevertheless, we still have war, oppression, hatred, bigotry, crime, overpopulation, poverty, and unnecessary destruction of the environment. These are not problems that can be solved by technology alone, since they require improving human behavior. Many of us have felt the frustration that humanity, despite all its enormous advances, cannot do better at solving social problems. We are held back by our inability to cooperate. Far too much of our effort and resources are wasted in conflict, and the conflict hurts even those who are not part of the fight.

Why other approaches fail

When people see a problem in the world, they often propose a solution, but usually it is a solution that involves somebody else behaving differently. "If only the government would stop catering to special interests, things would be a lot better," we might hear, or "The newspapers have a responsibility to the public - they should report more substantial issues and not so much sensationalism," or "Businesses shouldn't be so greedy." So, we should ask, why don't they change? The reasons are not hard to figure out: Elected officials cater to special interests because that helps them get reelected. Newspapers use sensationalism because it sells papers. Businesses are greedy because that's why they exist - as a way to make money for their owners.

These things happen because people work in their own self-interest. But the problems wouldn't go away even if we could persuade some of the people in control to work more for the common good. Some good politicians may ignore the special interests and not worry about their campaign donations. But after the next election, many of them are likely to have been voted out of office as a result. A newspaper may decide to always take the high road. A couple of years later, we may find it out of business because of poor circulation. Businesses that aren't greedy may go bankrupt because they can't keep up with their competitors.

If we want the world to improve, we can't wait for other people to sacrifice their own interests to do it. We cannot count on the rich and powerful to "do the right thing". That's not how they got rich and powerful.

The key to change is to look at where these leaders get their power. For the most part they are very dependent on the rest of us in order to do what they do. The politicians need our votes. The media need us as an audience, and they need us to purchase the products of their advertisers. Businesses need us to buy their products and services. Despite this, the powerful often act in ways that are detrimental to the overall good. How can they do this? Because we are misled by their advertising and their propaganda and their sensationalism. We, the consumers and voters, elect people who aren't really working for us, buy products and use media that are not in our best interests, and support other leaders with questionable agendas because they get us to believe things that aren't true.

The Solution: Responsible Thinking

There is a factor that is crucial to turning humanity around. It is caring about truth. To the extent that the people of the world have a greater respect for, love for, and understanding of truth, we can make progress toward solving the world's problems. If we love truth, we will constantly strive to avoid beliefs that are false. We will learn why people believe things that are false so we can avoid making these mistakes ourselves. We will point out these principles to our friends and neighbors and coworkers and offspring, and teach these principles in our schools. As people get better at avoiding false beliefs, conflicts between well-meaning people will be reduced and leaders will have to work for the public good if they wish to stay in power.

We must educate ourselves and others on how to avoid believing things that aren't true. The politicians can raise all the money they want for advertising, but if we are properly educated we will ignore their ads and phony images, realizing that they are irrelevant. The media can sensationalize or otherwise distort the news but they will lose our business if we learn to use only those sources that are most accurate and impartial. Businesses can try to sell us things we don't need, but we won't buy them if we recognize their marketing ploys. Cult leaders, phony psychics, and con artists will be unable to enrich themselves at our expense. Eventually the successful businesses and media and politicians and spiritual leaders will be the ones that are serving the people's needs - not because they have become self-sacrificing and public spirited, but because they will fail if they don't.

The virtue of an effort to reduce false beliefs is that it does not require anybody to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the rest of us. People who improve their ability to recognize falsehoods should find themselves better off than they were before. We are only asking people to do what is in their own best interest. The only people who would oppose such an effort are those who profit by deception. Such people will no doubt exert their influence, but they are in the sorry position of trying to support the idea that people should believe false things.

While there are many sources of power in our society, the only one that can be expected to consistently act in the public interest is the public itself. If we, the people, do not understand what is in our own best interests because we delude ourselves or are deluded by others, there is little hope that our problems will be solved. We must engage in a serious effort to promote responsible thinking in ourselves and others if we really want the world to be a better place.

Bob Korn has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, where he specialized in Artificial Intelligence. He recently retired after working 25 years as a software engineer doing systems programming and computer aided design. This work kept him financially afloat while in his spare time he would think about truth, how the brain works, and solving the world's problems. He is married to a middle school math teacher, and has one son who has recently completed his Ph.D. in mathematics at M.I.T.

The original version of this essay appears in Dr. Korn's Website Responsible Thinking. The material there is a hypertext book (in progress) that addresses the question: "What can be done to improve society's concern about truth and responsible thinking?"




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