Willful Blindness

Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan has written a book on willful blindness [excerpt] and there’s a great article in New Statesman. Here’s just one of the telling quotations Heffernan uses to illustrate her case. It comes from the economist Paul Krugmann, speaking of the blind spots in his own economic modelling:

“I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that the stuff that I stressed in the models is a less important story than the things I left out because I couldn’t model them.” [Paul Krugmann]

We all risk seeing only part of the story – the part we want to see. It’s really important to notice this and try to do something about it. I’ve written before now that Cultural Theory is one attempt at trying not to fool yourself. It seeks to understand how our social contexts effectively do some of our thinking for us. They make some thoughts easy and others hard. They make some things easy to see and render others invisible. Margaret Heffernan cites the example of Richard Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers. Before that company’s collapse Fuld would get to work by helicopter and chauffeured limo in such a way as to avoid seeing anyone. The point is that while he may have made the bubble in which he lived, nevertheless the bubble also made him.

The subtitle to Willful Blindness is “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril” .  Surely part of an answer is that the obvious is less obvious than it should be. It is our institutions, not just our brains, that make it so.

More reading:

Flaw in the model

Switching Strategies

How to spot a model

Models, reality and the limits to growth

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