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We are living in the era of the clever fool

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
Abductive reasoning is so powerful because it is the one form of reasoning that sets out to be totally free of dogma and preconception.

We are living in the era of the clever fool. If it sounds like a Chinese curse, it very well could be, but the fact of the matter is that we have never had more information than we have now in the human era - and yet we’ve never been more misinformed.

It’s tragic. We are glued to our smartphones and tablets; always on, consuming information voraciously. But we never really digest what we are consuming, instead we flit on like butterflies, alighting here before flying off to there, cross-pollinating fake news and conspiracy theories in the process.

In Victorian times, there was less access to information but people knew more - because they spoke to each other and in doing that, tested theories, discarding those that were obviously flawed and perhaps starting to believe in others that they might have struggled with initially.

Today that doesn’t happen. In fact, the power of the all-conquering algorithm locks us into the era of the clever fool more efficiently than we can imagine, keeping us in a perpetual loop of information that tends to reinforce and normalise our prejudices rather than shake them.

There is a tendency to describe this as being intellectually lazy, but self-condemnation is a dangerous cop-out. By externalising the problem, we are almost giving up any chance of being able to turn this around and of course, this isn’t true, we aren’t intellectually lazy - well not everyone.

What is perhaps truer is that the sheer volume of information, and the attendant uncertainty that all this tension creates in our brains, is probably overwhelming.

Creatures of habit

Human beings like certainty. We like plans, it’s why there was such a rise in - and an irrational adherence to - fake news and crackpot science during Covid-19, because it felt better to have something to cling on to - like ingesting sheep dip - than be faced with a perennially shifting landscape in which face masks were deemed unnecessary and then critical and in which vaccines would be developed and then superseded by others.

Clever wise people suspend judgment, they take a step back, identify the root causes of a problem and consider other possibilities when it comes to developing a solution. Clever fools on the other hand pick on one thing and create a whole edifice of reason that is entirely built around a false premise, creating a narrative around it to sustain it.

What makes everything worse is that clever fools appear incredibly clever, but they are not that clever at all. It’s like Smart A#$ MBAs, call them Sambas, who know the jargon and the theory but don’t have the experience. What we need instead are the Lions, the Simbas in Kiswahili; the Shrewd Intelligent MBAs. A great business school produces Simbas by teaching business leaders interpretation, a sense of wisdom and sense-making under complexity, rather than allowing them to be dogmatically or culturally attached to the result.

Guy Claxton wrote a wonderful book titled Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, sub-titled “How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less”. Hare brain, he said, is the deliberate conscious thinking that happens when reason and logic are applied to known data. Tortoise mind on the other hand is a more contemplative and meditative mode of thinking, allowing us to solve a problem - paradoxically by not actively thinking about it.

Smart A#$ MBAs, consultants and politicians often use the hare brain to provide solutions all presented in the right jargon. They are super articulate and highly plausible, but their answers are all based on either false premises or self-interested ones; in the worst case, their answers are both self-interested and false.

Think different[ly]

The benign clever fools trumpet their beliefs because they actually believe what they are saying and they have no idea of the danger they are causing. The anti-vax lobby was one example, voters who support populists on identity politics are another. They do it because they are scared.

The malign clever fools are the corporate shills and lobbyists; the climate change denialists on the payroll of oil-producing countries creating highly plausible arguments against the need to cut carbon emissions and pivot away from a carbon-based energy system.

To overcome this, to see past it and not be drawn in, takes incredible self-mastery. In fact, we might argue that true intelligence is the capacity to be detached and to have mastered our emotions and prejudices. You have to be able to weigh up opposing views and understand that dogmatism is not just dangerous, it is stupid.

Steve Jobs famously described being trapped by dogma as “living with the results of other people’s thinking”. He went on to say: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”.

But it is very difficult to do this. Seeing things from multiple perspectives means you have to listen to the voices of fear and of authority. It’s confusing and irritating and terrifying - often all at the same time. But you have to let the tortoise mind deliver the epiphany. Protect it, prototype it, run it through the heuristics and then formulate your theory.

Wisdom is following a process of detachment, suspending judgment and leaning into the fear of being wrong. It is about accepting and trusting the process, understanding that creativity is reinventing things. It means being open to the outliers, as Jobs says, not letting the agglomerated wisdom of the mob drown out your theory.

Abductive reasoning

Roger Martin, the Dean of Toronto’s Rotman Business School, came up with the idea of abduction in his work on design thinking. It is different from deduction which is much like Sherlock Holmes used all those years ago: everything that is left after you have ruled out the improbabilities is probably true. Abduction observes all the evidence, especially the outliers, and then tries to find the simplest and most likely explanation.

Abductive reasoning is so powerful because it is the one form of reasoning that sets out to be totally free of dogma and preconception. It is particularly useful when you are faced with a brand-new phenomenon for which the existing playbooks don’t cater - like the recent pandemic.

We are living in a world of increasing complexity, volatility and uncertainty. We face threats that cannot be simplistically solved, in fact, we face threats that most of us have not even considered yet.

We can only start to do this by being shrewd and intelligent, not show off smart arses. For some of us, that’s going to be difficult, learning to consciously listen to hear rather than waiting for a chance to get our voice heard.

The world has enough clever fools; it’s time that the truly wise stepped up and cut through the noise of the dogma of the day.

This article was originally published in Daily Maverick on 30th August 2023.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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