GUARDIAN ARTICLE 25th JANUARY 1997AWAY WITH THE GANG OF THREE
We spend far too much time looking backward in our thinking. Blame the Renaissance and the Ancient Greeks, argues Edward de Bono, who has plans to guide us into a truly intelligent new century
At the last Renaissance, universities discovered that more could be learned by looking backwards than by looking forwards. They have never recovered. The result is that the bulk of the intellectual resources of a country are poured into a steriliser and effectively sterilised.
Eventually the whole of our intellectual effort will be devoted to studying yesterdays. We are told that "if you do not learn the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat them". We could just as well reply: "If you do learn the lessons of history you are doomed to repeat them." For in a changing world, the old lessons may be misleading. Generals are always fighting the last battle, not the current one.
There are three basic aspects of thinking: "what is"; "what may be"; and "what can be". We are almost totally obsessed with "what is". We underestimate the extremely valuable contribution that "what may be" has made to progress. We do very little about "what can be" - even though our future depends entirely on this aspect.
This obsession with "what is" has come about since the last Renaissance, when, through the Arabs in Spain, came a knowledge of the powerful Greek Gang of Three. The thinking of the Gang of three became the dominant "software" of Western thinking and has remained so to this day.
First of the Gang of Three was Socrates, who was mostly concerned with proving things wrong. In 80 per cent of the dialogues in which he was involved there was no constructive outcome at all. He held the dangerous belief that if you removed all that was wrong , you would be left with what was right - a belief that has led to the negative bias of so much thinking. We over-esteem criticism and encourage those creative eunuchs who can do nothing else.
Socrates is reputed to have asked questions. He rarely did so. His questions were not exploratory questions but confirmatory questions in which the listener was merely invited to agree with Socrates.
Then we have Plato, who was an arrogant Athenian authoritarian. He was a fascist whose design for a modern state, The Republic, became the official doctrine of the Nazi party in Germany (no voting but scientific breeding of rulers: no families but government creches etc). Plato was an admirer of Sparta, which was a fascist state that once a year, for one week, everyone was allowed to declare war on their servants. Killing a servant during this week was not murder but warfare. Plato did a great service to society by providing the notion of the "inner truth", which became a great motivator for subsequent enquiry. At the same time this notion of "truth" became the weapon of perpetual conflict and persecution between those who possessed rival truths.
Finally there was Aristotle, with his word-based inclusion/exclusion logic. Aristotle believed that men had more teeth than did women. Although he was married twice, he never actually counted the teeth of either wife. He did not need to. With horses, the stallion had more teeth than the mare; so he "knew" that the male of the species has more teeth than the female. Aristotle derived his categories from the past and then argued whether something did or did not fit into a particular category.
The Gang of Three came to dominate over the more sophisticated Sophists because Christian thinkers needed the absolutism of Plato and the argumentation of Aristotle. Civilisation suffered. I believe we would now be 500 years further forward if the Gang of Three had not come to dominate our thinking.
For 1,500 years, people believed that a heavy object fell with a greater acceleration that a lighter object - because Aristotle had said do. Then Galileo carried out a thought experiment which cast doubt on that idea. An even more elegant thought experiment than that of Galileo could show in 15 seconds that Aristotle was wrong. So why wait 1,500 years? When Lotfi Zadeh introduced "fuzzy logic" in the United States, all the learned journals refused to publish any paper unless the fuzzy logic was removed. This was because fuzzy logic contradicted Aristotle's second principle.
We do not make very full value of the opportunities provided by technology because we prefer critical to constructive thinking, argument to design.
The search for Truth is like digging for gold. You remove the dirt. You wash the nugget under the tap and you have the full value of the gold. But if you are building a house, you have to design and construct the house. You are not going to "discover" a house.
In practice "truth" like "freedom" is a phoney concept. Lies exist, and so we call the opposite "truth". Tyranny exists, so we call its absence "freedom". These have no more reality than does am "un-orange".
The Gang of Three proclaimed that "knowledge is all". This has had a disastrous effect on education and on society.
In education we are concerned with literacy and numeracy. That leaves out the most important aspect of all, which I call "operacy". The skills of action are every bit as important as the skills of knowing. We neglect them completely and turn out students who have little to contribute to society.
In a stable world, knowledge of standard situations and the routine ways of dealing with then is sufficient. Not so in a changing world. Routines and category judgments from the past may be inadequate, misleading and dangerous. Instead of analysis and judgment, we need design. We need to be able to "design" ways forward.
Traditionally, we have solved problems by analysing them and seeking to identify, and then removing, the cause of the problem. Often this works, but at other times there are too many causes to remove or we cannot remove the cause because it is human nature. The ceasefire in Northern Ireland was squandered because the Government could not design any constructive way forward. That is mostly a design problem, but it is not getting any design attention. Argument will never solve the problem.
Most of the world's major problems (poverty, crime, conflict, pollution etc) will not be solved by yet more analysis and yet more information. We need to design ways forward - leaving the cause in place. Unfortunately, the traditions of education and the thinking culture of society make no provision for "design" - we see it as applying only to buildings, furniture and Christmas cards. This is a fundamental weakness, derived from the last Renaissance, which never encouraged innovation or design but believed that truth was enough.
It is truly astonishing that Western culture has never developed an idiom of "constructive" thinking. We have the absurdity of "argument" as our basic idiom. We worship the nonsense of "debate". Each side claims the truth and seeks to attack the other claim. This way we are supposed to arrive at the truth through triumph or synthesis.
This basic idiom is appallingly weak. There is no creative, constructive or design energy in it. Even synthesis of two opposing views is only a small sample of possibilities. It is the reliance on this absurd dialectic idiom that has so held back the development of civilisation. Progress in science has depended on the "what may be" idiom of speculative hypothesis ( pre-Socratic thinking). Amazingly, virtually no time is given in science courses to this very basis of science. Progress is assumed to be due to information, analysis and logical deduction. This is another absurd myth, since the analysis of information will not produce new ideas. The brain can only see what it has been prepared ( by speculation) to see.
For design we need "parallel" thinking. Some years ago I designed the Six Hats method. Each hat indicates a mode of thinking (white for information, red for feeling, black for caution, yellow for value, green for creativity, blue for control). At any one moment, all parties are thinking in parallel in the same direction. This method is now rapidly being taken up by corporations such as Du Pont, IBM, NASA, Prudential, Texas Instruments, NTT, Statoil, Shell etc. Meeting times are reduced to a quarter of what they had been. Output is far more constructive. In a recent experiment with 300 senior public servants, the use of the hats resulted in a five-fold increase in thinking productivity. For people with high IQs are not necessarily good thinkers; in fact they are often poor thinkers. Less than ten per cent of what is taught in schools is of the slightest use to society in general or to the students involved. It is taught because it is there - and it is there because it has been there before. In effect, education is mostly expensive baby-sitting. It sets its own exams and criteria of success and is happy to satisfy these. That these are of very little relevance to society seems to matter not at all.
In OECD countries, an average of 24 percent of the time in school is spent on mathematics. Of the mathematics taught, probably less than five per cent is of use in life to most students. We do not need to spend all this time on mathematics in case a few students want to become engineers As for the argument that mathematics trains the mind, if this was our purpose there are much more powerful ways of training the mind.
Students in Britain know most of the names of Henry VIII's wives, the date of the Treaty of Utrecht and even the shape of a Roman legionnaire's sandals. But they have not the faintest idea how the corner shop works or how society works in general. They have no idea of how value is created in society.
The most basic human skill, and the one on which both social and economic progress depends is not taught. The single most important thing that any government can do anywhere is to teach "constructive" thinking to its youngsters. So why, except in a few countries, is this not being done?
A two finger typist with hundreds of hours of practice is still a two finger typist. A few hours learning touch typing would have made a huge difference. It is the same with thinking. The basic skills of thinking need to be taught directly and explicitly. The teaching of "critical" thinking is totally inadequate. Judgment is not enough. We need generative, productive, design and creative thinking.
From where are we going to get the new ideas that are needed to design our way into the future? Not from the greater exercise of our traditional thinking, which is much too slow at producing new ideas. Nor can we waite for the slowness of chance and evolution.
We do not have to wait. Creativity is no longer a mysterious talent. Any consideration of the brain as a self-organising information system shows both the logical necessity for creativity and also the techniques we need to generate new ideas (provocation, random entry etc). That is the basis of lateral thinking. We now know there is a mathematical necessity for lateral thinking. Any self-organising system stabilises as a local optimum. We need to upset the local optimum in order to move towards the global optimum. I once designed a computer model of a brain with just five neurons. This was capable of more than 50 billion thoughts. This would seem impossible to any mathematician or electronics engineer, and yet it is relatively easy using a biological principle which would be unknown to them.
Without new ideas, civilisation stagnates. Civilisation becomes worthy and weary. It gets bedded down in a stable equilibrium state and refuses to budge. Yet there is a mathematical need to budge if we are to make fuller use of the resources provided by science and technology.
Does all this mean that traditional thinking is wrong and useless? Not at all. It has been and continues to be wonderful and highly useful. The front left wheel of a car is wonderful and essential. But it is not enough.
It is the old style thinking that claims that something has to be proved "bad" before it can be changed. The new thinking accepts that something is wonderful but may be inadequate. Everything that is currently taught in school has a value. But there may be many other things that should be taught because they have a higher value.
The Millenniums Commission should be forcing �50 million on me to set up a "Center for New Thinking". I have to tell you they are not. They are required to spend their funds on paltry PC pap which will not make very much difference to society. Compare this with the opportunities in Australia, where a small-businessman, Ron Andrews, has offered $8.5 million to set up a Centre for New Thinking. If I had the time and the energy I would like to see set up a New School of Architecture, a New School of Philosophy, a New School of Education etc. etc. The millenium provides an excuse - but the need is much more fundamental. It is no longer enough to consider "what is". We need to learn to design "what can be".
(Reproduced by permission of the Editor, The Guardian. Published on Saturday 25th January 1997)