Reality has a liberal bias


This is a  quote from an American comedian, taking the mickey out of imaginary Republicans complaining that reality itself is as biased as the liberal-elite media against Republican beliefs and actions. It is a joke about how people convinced they are right will react when presented with evidence that they are (literally) in fact wrong.

Both liberals, Republicans and every shade in between and beyond exhibit strong tribal loyalty to beliefs, rejecting evidence if it shows they are wrong, and seeking out evidence that they are (literally) in fact right. This is not just political trait but a human one called the Confirmation Bias. But like Paul Krugman says here, it is more apparent in Republicans than liberals.

“liberals don’t engage in the kind of mass rejections of evidence that conservatives do.

Yes, you can find examples where *some* liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right.

Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?” [Link]

Now I’m no expert on American politics, no really I’m not, and this blog isn’t about any of that, but I’ve noticed the same sort of thing in managing in the public sector, a lock-step rejection of evidence cos it doesn’t agree with what they think.

Reality is biased against normal ordinary command and control management. 

This diagram above shows pretty much how people think. All people, even me and you. Course we’re not perfectly accurate in our thinking and mental models of the world. 

The problem arises when we’re confronted with this. There’s Confirmation Bias that biases people towards looking for evidence that confirms their beliefs and rejects evidence that shows it ain’t necessarily so. 

Now this is fine and usual and normal until this evolutionary quirk of the human brain meets modern management thinking…

The thing that gets a leader noticed is THEIR IMPORTANT THING. Could be anything. A new model the business should follow, a big expensive new IT system, a whole new reorganisation of everything. Doesn’t matter if it’s at the national level, like the Troubled Families initiative or locally, in your very own office reorganisation. The thing that matters is the actual thing being proposed. Not the effect that the thing itself is supposed to bring about. No, not that. Nobody can see that yet, not whilst it’s being done.

The IMPORTANT THING inevitably appears with a bang or a whimper and had some kind of an effect. A terrible effect or a brilliant effect, a tiny effect, or a big effect. Either way, out it goes.

Once it’s out there, if it’s some kind of national initiative, there’ll no doubt be performancey measurey people crawling all over it, monitoring it getting numbers from it to look at the effect it is creating. 

Thing is, this isn’t REALLY what decision makers care about. Managers, leaders etc are recruited to do a thing, and they choose their IMPORTANT THING and do it. The important thing is the thing itself, it’s an article of faith. 

The language shows this, in Big Speeches they often use the phrase “I am clear that…” or “let me be clear” which uses a rhetorical sleight of hand to suggest that anybody not agreeing with their IMPORTANT THING can’t see the clarity of it and therefore the problem is with them, not it.

For example in the speech that David Cameron used in announcing his Troubled Families programme, he used the phrase repeatedly, being extra clear for us Muggles.

Sadly, reality is biased. It is biased against things that aren’t reality. Heavily biased. No matter how clear things are to people, it doesn’t give a flying one.

So poor Dave and his Troubled Families, he spent £400m of everybody’s money on a payment by results Local Government ran scheme, that had “no significant impact” according to a big review of it. For half a billion pounds! 

The report, which was published last night, found that families who were on the programme were no more likely to find jobs, stop claiming benefits or improve the school attendance of their children.

Reality really doesn’t give a stuff does it?

And the annoying thing is this will go on and on, because decision making in normal ordinary command and control environments is all about managers and leaders coming up with THE IMPORTANT THING, and poor old reality trailing along in its wake. No wonder reality is biased against managers and leaders, it feels neglected. It should be wined and dined, treated right.

How could you treat reality like it should?

Well I reckon this would be a start

Don’t split up mental models of decision makers, their brave Nobel schemes split from the nerdy monitoring of reality. That Troubled Families programme, it relies on payment by results. If a Local Authority does”turnaround” a family, from being “troubled” to presumably “not-troubled” then they get money. Payment by results ALWAYS screws motives and methods.

Local Authorities were told the estimated number of troubled families within their area, according to some formula, and that they’d receive £4,000 per family turned around.

Not one local authority has needed to work with more than their indicative number in order to ‘turn around’ all of their families. In fact, many local authorities can demonstrate a 100% success rate not just in identifying and working with ‘troubled families’ but in turning them around. Manchester, for example have identified, worked with and turned around a staggering 2385 ‘troubled families’. Not one has ‘slipped through the net’ or refused to engage with the programme. Leeds and Liverpool have a perfect success rate in each ‘turning around’ over 2000 ‘troubled families. By my reckoning, over 50 other local authorities across the country have been similarly ‘perfect’ in their TF work. Not one single case amongst those 50 odd councils where more ‘troubled families’ were identified or where a ‘troubled family’ has failed to have been turned around. [Link]

This isn’t a surprise if you know what happens if you give someone a financial incentive to meet a target. They will meet that target, regardless of how silly. This is reality being biased against targets and misapplied financial incentives. 

Strange behaviour by individuals as a result of system rules is common, but cos reality is biased against decision makers, it isn’t the rules themselves that are to blame. The cause lies with faulty individuals.

Take Chuck Finley. Chuck is a VORACIOUS reader. He read 2,361 books in a 9 month period. 

Sadly he doesn’t exist. He was invented by East Lake County library to take books out of the library that hadn’t been checked out in a while, to stop them being removed from the shelves and destroyed according to the rules of the system. This destruction of books meant that if someone, a real reader, wanted a book that had sadly been removed and destroyed, the library would have to repurchase a copy. Again.

So some enterprising librarians decided to save money by keeping unpopular books on a rotation through the imaginary Chuck Finley’s bookshelves. When this came to light, what happened? Were the rules of the system that created this odd behaviour changed, to avoid the wasteful creation of pretend readers and the hard work of keeping track of unpopular books and checking them out and back in again? 

No, the librarians were sacked.

It appears that not only is reality biased against decision makers, but also decision makers are biased against reality.

This entry was posted in command and control, public sector, statistics, systems thinking, targets and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Reality has a liberal bias

  1. antlerboy says:

    Another great and very rich article.

    To be fair, the point of ‘weeding and pruning’ in a library, as in a garden, is to keep it attractive, accessible, and valuable. The librarians might have been right, or the system might have been right, I don’t know. But it is worth saying that working under the radar might be a bold rebellion in the greater interests of the system, or creating an alternative power structure that would make management impossible… but, by the way, you are right that the librarians chose to game the system to achieve the outcome they judged to be correct. Some librarians also insist on labelling on books which adds cost and detracts from value, some librarians also behave in ways that drive people away from libraries… I’m a massive fan of librarians, but just because they are on the frontline, doesn’t mean they are *necessarily* customer focused. So whereas I see the Trouble Families issue in relatively black and white terms, I can see both sides of the library thing.

    In terms of Liberalism etc – one thing I saw recently made the point that, in a tribal world, you don’t choose home-run examples to focus your political campaigning on – you choose *fringe* examples because they mobilise the greatest opposition. Another way of gaming the system…


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Cheers AntlerMan!


    • BobT says:

      No. False analogy. About the only commonality between a book and a ‘weed’ (a very subjective categorisation in itself ) is the presence of cellulose. Reducing the number of different books avaliable in a library diminishes its value. Always. Management is at best a necessary evil, a means, not an end. When it is acting destructively, as in the case cited, a countervailing power is both necessary and desirable.


      • antlerboy says:

        Bob, I always like to see both sides of a story, and I recognise that the narrative here does fit with “Management is at best a necessary evil, a means, not an end.”

        But this is bollocks. I have spent more time than I care to admit working on consultancy with libraries and, in particular, on library stock. And “Reducing the number of different books avaliable in a library diminishes its value” is flat-out wrong, as is every dogmatism. I know about this system from studying it first hand (in the UK), and I’m sure of where I stand. Reducing books sounds bad. And doing it arbitarily or without a system based on analysis and learning would be dumb.

        I know that a library overstocked with tatty, old, never issued and degraded books will have lower footfall, lower users, lower issues, and less opportunity to create value for the public through the edification, education, illumination and entertainment that reading offers. It will discourage particularly those – the at risk, the poor, the downtrodden, the under-educated and the unemployed – who might stand to gain the most. There is good data and real evidence that incontrovertibly proves this to be the case. An attractive library that buys, circulates, and removes its stock to maintain optimal results for the public, that has a lick of paint inside and outside, and that has librarians willing and capable to engage enthusiastically and positively with members of the public of all ages and types, is a library that benefits the public. What is more, the inter-library loan scheme and stock circulation plays a central role in ensuring that all books bought from the public purse are always available to all members of the public – albeit it is, unfortunately, a hassle and an unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming at present (mostly for the public service employees; partly for the citizens).

        Librarians who misguidedly think that their job is to protect all books from being taken out of stock – to stacks or to be destroyed if they don’t have second-hand value – are simply making their job harder and making their library less able to create value for citizens.

        I’m sorry to say that it is statistically likely that they are also among the proportion of librarians who prefer to lurk behind the desk or in the shelves or stacks, who believe it is necessary or valuable to add additional manual processing (stickers, labels) that actively reduce the attractiveness of books and detract from the millions the publishing industry invests each year to ensure that covers and spines accurately reflect the content of the book and attract those who will value it, and whose personal and social quirks put off library users, particularly those who for whatever reason, due to their perceptions of their place in society, need absolute encouragement to take up their entitlement to what is theirs, ours, and all the public’s. I have done focus group after focus group with library users and more particularly NON users who still believe the old crap about libraries ‘not being for them’, about librarians being intimidating, about libraries being spaces with social rules for approval and permission that they don’t know, and about librarians saying ‘shush’ and glaring at them, about them not belongong. And do you know why they vehemently believe these things? BECAUSE A LIBRARIAN ONCE PROVED IT TO THEM.

        I don’t know, in this case, if the software to analyse books for weeding and pruning (the terms librarians use) was tuned accurately. I don’t know if hugely precious books not in public library stock at all – or not in the organisation’s circulating stock (based on a precise calculation of the cost and negative impact of keeping that books in stock vs the cost and negative impact of having to get it on inter-library loan) were being marked for sale or destruction, and I don’t know if these particular librarians were deeply conscious and respectful of their impact on the whole system – I did say that all dogmatism was mistaken. They might have been doing the right thing.

        But I do know that public services have a hard enough time without dogmatism on both ‘sides’ getting in the way of an informed debate and deliberative, democratic decision-making. And that anyone who wants to call themselves a ‘systems thinker’ should be beyond blind assertions of absolute, eternal, and all-extensive truth.

        Library cuts are bad, I agree. I think it’s a disgrace and shame that this country isn’t investing in libraries, schools, and lifelong education ‘like cathedrals’, to quote Sam Seaborn. But is it possible to reduce the number of libraries in an authority and increase access, use, benefits and impact? Yes, if you do it right.
        Books are good, I agree. But is it possible that a library system owning particular books is a costly negative preventing it from purchasing better, from maximising impact, from making the case for more funding? Yes, I’m afraid it is.
        censorship is bad. But did seeing the copy of ‘The Anarchists Cookbook’ in a metropolitan library that was returned with an Air Algeria boarding pass as a bookmark make me think twice about the need for sophisticated and widespread librarian education about how to best handle ‘banned and controversial’ books? Yes. Also, ‘banned books week’ is a splendid thing (no reservations about that)…
        blibliographic data is good. But was it sensible for a London library service to still employ a cataloguer to do book-in-hand cataloguing in 2007? No.
        shared services usually fail, and they are often based on flawed assumptions. But is it sensible for us to have over 100 separate library systems with separate catalogues and separate contracts, procured separately to different specifications, when all books are public and bought from public funds? No.

        “Management is at best a necessary evil, a means, not an end.” Bollocks. If you can’t think of one organisation or situation where management is, at best, a necessary good, you either have no imagination or have had a tragic personal history in terms of your experience of organisations, and have developed a one-sided, limited view of the data.

        Eero said:
        “Everyone has their own experience, a unique perspective to the intersubjective truth, which is always co-created. No one by herself has the ‘right’ view to complex problems.
        “It’s hard to look into different points of view and care for them for real – embrace variety. Much easier to see what’s wrong with others. Especially if you happen to have authority.”

        I’d like to think that the ‘bosses’ spoke to the librarians involved, asked them about their decision, checked out whether there was value in their perspective. I’d like to think that the stock analysis software was introduced with the involvement and engagement and based of, on shared understanding of purpose with, all the librarians, and even maybe some of the public…

        I doubt it. But the question for you and me, Bob, is are we seekers after truth and effectiveness, or falling foul of exactly the bias that Mr Onion is complaining about…


        • ThinkPurpose says:

          I love to see comments, and this is a lengthy, thought-through one, so I’m happy anyway.
          I’ve only worked with libraries on one occasion. It was interesting cos after a demand analysis, there was about 80% footfall that was totally opaque. Called it “dark matter”, after the thing that the vast majority of the universe is comprised of. You can’t measure it properly but you know it’s there. Same thing. We knew they were coming through the door, but they didn’t get books out, did nothing that left a trail. Didn’t work any more with libraries than that brief thing, so never got to bottom of it. A nice environment to sit probably?


          • antlerboy says:

            LOL – we’ve done demand analysis in libraries (not based on footfall but on the requests to librarians). The number one and two enquiries were: ‘can I use the toilet’ and ‘can I have help with the photocopier/computer/internet access’?


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Its weird, Dilbert is great, but ever read any of the Scott Adams other stuff, like on his blog? He’s a genuine weirdo. Quite dislikeable.


        • ThinkPurpose says:

          he DID, yes.
          But is this survivor bias? Someone will have predicted Hilary correctly in an alternate universe.
          I like his stuff on “create systems not goals”

          “A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, its a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good everytime they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • antlerboy says:

            I did wonder – but that post has the smack of not randomly predicting the outcome, but also understanding the method. it’s very interesting!
            And yes, his systems vs goals thing deserves to be a long-running memetic idea 🙂


            • ThinkPurpose says:

              Oh yes, he totally believes it. And later posts too. This isn’t him just clicking on one and hoping.
              At quite a late age I’m realising that just cos someone on the internet, or a writer or some other form of ideas merchant, is “good” at one thing, it doesn’t mean that the totality of what they say or stand for is similarly “good”. E.g. Nassim Taleb. love his books, and enjoy reading his Facbook posts, the ones I understand. But read his twitter, if you dare. Cripes, he appears a bit of a knob or even a bully. Full of machismo about deadlifting, bizarrely, being a heuristic for evaluating the worth of someone’s ideas. I.e. if somebody deadlifts, then their ideas are sound. If they do not deadlift, then they are an IYI (an Intellectual Yet Idiot). I’m being rough and ready with his logic, but he DOES repeatedly ask “look at him, does he deadlift?
              Now I go to a gym where people deadlift and I am 100% sure this confers no knowledge or wisdom other than how to deadlift.


          • seschoen says:

            Jane Lebak, set herself a goal one year. 12 accepted pieces, or 100 rejections. . She reached the goal in November.

            Stever Robbins, in his talk Living an Extraordinary Life, , says to choose goals based, not on the destination, but whether they will take you on an interesting journey.


            • ThinkPurpose says:

              That writing post is REALLY interesting, thanks for linking it.
              It’s a bit arguing over semantics, but still here goes, could you say she built a system where she would write and submit regularly enough? Like they first bit “A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, its a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal”, and she wasn’t waiting for the future, she was building the system to do it now and everyday?
              It’s a tricky one, cos like Deming said every system has an aim, or a purpose. They come as a pair. But perhaps FOCUSING on building the system and living it, is the thing? Ie she wrote and submitted regularly, as her ongoing system-supported purpose, rather than set out to achieve a pretty arbitrary pair of numeric goals?
              Either way, I really like that post, setting out the target of FAILING by a certain numeric goal is v interesting. Cos perhaps of course there is no such thing as success or failure, only feedback.


              • seschoen says:

                I’ll ask her. Given the variety of lengths she writes, and all the unpredictability that goes with a busy family, it would be more a system of habits than a regular schedule.


              • seschoen says:

                Jane’s reply:
                No, it was absolutely haphazard in the most laughable way possible.
                Sandy’s comments:
                I’ve followed her for 15 years, including a few years on Twitter. She works in spurts. When the muse hits her, it hits hard. She had to learn to slow down to avoid burnout.
                She had to keep track of where each piece went, and then send rejected pieces out again to the next place. Plus any revisions the editors requested. She also was careful to get and follow the ever-changing preferences of each agent and/or editor. (The site helps a lot with that.)
                She had 3 (or maybe 4) young kids at the time, with the usual clubs and sports and appointments and illnesses. So it definitely wasn’t a firm schedule.
                Still, she estimates over 80 submissions in 11 months. That requires dedication, and doing what you can when you can, even if you don’t know what that will be until the moment arrives.


              • ThinkPurpose says:

                Love this story, thanks for telling it.


  2. Right to the root of most interaction problems.

    Everyone has their own experience, a unique perspective to the intersubjective truth, which is always co-created. No one by herself has the ‘right’ view to complex problems.

    It’s hard to look into different points of view and care for them for real – embrace variety. Much easier to see what’s wrong with others. Especially if you happen to have authority.

    Liked by 1 person

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