Facts and Dreams of the Future

Posted April 09, 2015 kmcgovern

The human race, without its opposable thumb, would not have evolved. With only four fingers, the hand is not confident. Economists and political decision-makers sometimes forget this and, in using “measurement” to determine advice, delude themselves that their proposals are whole and effective and are not a chimera. Politicians innately understand this, yet find it difficult to argue against a Treasurer or Finance Minister briefed in the numbers and estimated impacts of decisions. Do not get me wrong. Those who ignore the numbers and the facts (like a hand without a thumb) are doomed not to evolve.

And evolve we must. In 1937 Miles Franklin, one of Australia’s premier writers and thinkers, reported on her conversation with the 35 year old American analytical economist and historian Clinton Harley Grattan (Miles was 57):

“He (CHG) says what we suffer is a dearth of facts scientifically assembled to support our windy idealism. This is a good and penetrating thrust. But I led him on to enlarge it and felt he knows the world by facts. Facts, facts. Yes, but a factual world that discounts the dream world would never rise above the dust. There never yet was a fact but it was hatched from the brain of a dreamer. Take flying. Think of the facts that were adduced of old to show that iron ships could not float in water, let alone in air! If the winged dreamers were not enslaved by the wingless grabbers – well, that would be paradise, and there never will be heaven in this dimension, for the dreamers are forever checked by the grabbers whose flag is facts. They know how to plunder and exploit and then when gorged and dyspeptic cry to the dreamers for comfort and diversion.”[i]

In the 1930s, like today, thinkers sought certainty from “facts”. J.M. Keynes, a critic of the conventional thinking of the time, in the General Theory, reported on the power of “the gradual encroachment of ideas” of economists and political philosophers. He finished the General Theory with the statement “..it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous of good or evil”[ii]. At that time, a new system was needed, one that was “more favourable to peace than the old ha(d) been.”

Ideas, based on the agreed “facts” that lead inevitably to destruction need to be questioned.

The technological revolution has put “facts” in everyone’s hand, and the balance has tilted to a fascination with “evidence-based decision-making”. The marketers of our products have led us to believe we are making decisions with reference to evidence. But this is not necessarily so. One example was explained when  “The Lancet Commission on Culture and Health” (The Lancet, 384(9954), 1607-1639) [iii]was launched with the conclusion that the “systematic neglect of culture in health” is the greatest barrier to achieving the highest attainable standards of health globally.

If the efficacy of medical science is limited by the current culture, could it be more generally stated that it is not the thumb alone that makes us human, but our ability to coordinate our thumb with our four fingers and all that represents? We evolved to be humans when our ancestors used their thumb to throw and to club, with, it is asserted, “the best throwers and clubbers rising to male dominance hierarchy” [iv]. Now it is the throwing of, and clubbing with, ideas that determines the hierarchy. This is reflected in government, business, civil society and in households.

With computers government are now able to collate and report more “facts” than ever before. Yet if  it is the culture that poses the greatest barrier to achieving the highest attainable standard of human society, how do we test the efficacy of public decisions?

The “outcomes” sought by governments are being dissected and measured. Anything that does not succumb to measurement, or can be adduced to be “facts”, tends to be declared invalid as more elusive influences are not convenient to our economists and political philosophers.  Our dreamers, who create a future not considered possible within the confines of the agreed “facts” at any one period of time, are being ignored.

Our collective means to move forward safely, like our use of our physical hands, require coordination of all aspects of life; culture, society, nature, dreaming and economies, if we are to create a system more favourable to peace and hence worthy of our investment.  To achieve this we have to balance our hierarchies by admitting the dreamers, not just to provide comfort and diversion, but to create the possibility of a peaceful future[v] that contains as yet unimagined facts.

[i] Brunton, Paul ([Ed.] 2004, “The Diaries of Miles Franklin”, Allen & Unwin, p 64.

[ii] Keynes, J.M. 1936. “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” from “The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol VII”, Macmillan, London, pp 394-5.

[iii] http://www.mamaye.org/en/evidence/lancet-commission-culture-and-health

[iv] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1571064/

[v] This step is already being taken. See, for example, Security Council resolution 1325.