Quickie Post — March for Science

Statue of Liberty Girls

Hanging with some new girlfriends, February 2017

I write a column for our local paper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, that runs every two weeks.  It serves as good exercise for me in working on moving many concepts in this blog down to a wider audience.  The piece below is a good example of this — one I didn’t really want to write at the beginning, but was glad that I did when I finished it.  It illustrates a solid appeal for a good empathetic ladder — science, when processed correctly, balancing ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ helps develop the multi-solution mind.

Note that this doesn’t always apply to all sciences, all the time.  Social structure still matters as far as perspective and knowledge creation.  Which means that there’s no substitute for developed mindfulness and reflection, and realizing what v-Meme you operate under.  Yet every scientist with developed reflective practice knows that every piece of knowledge they generate has some set of system boundaries, and recognizing that and contextualizing that information is as important for validity as it is for any other thought we have.  We believed in Newtonian physics as truth until quantum mechanics came along.

One of the purposes of this blog has been to give a theoretical reach to the social sciences that they haven’t had.  Physics has a great tool for rigorous metacognitive speculation and prediction.  We call it ‘Math’.  That helps physicists be a little more empathetic.  My hope is that some critical group of social scientists will also recognize the need, of course, and adopt or modify the principles I’ve laid out here, instead of being captured by their social structure.  That would cut down on the constant, arbitrary psychological philosophizing that occurs with every new experiment some academic does.  While there are some promising signs of this occasionally (shout-out to the Bowen Systems folks!) I’m not holding my breath.

At any rate — here’s my piece on the upcoming March for Science.  Feel free to borrow any messages you want without attribution.  Science is important — and all of us that are committed to it have to be in it to win it.  As I’ve stated over and over, science isn’t the answer to everything.  But without it as part of our scaffolding toolkit, we’re pretty much screwed.

Here’s the piece.

March for Science on April 22

Chuck Pezeshki, Reality-Based Lefty  April 14, 2017

On April 22, a week from now on Saturday, there will be a March for Science – an event that will happen both in communities around the U.S., as well as a large event in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall.  The event in Pullman will start at Pine Street Plaza, outside the Taco del Mar, at 1:00 PM, and proceed to Reaney Park, where there will be speeches and activities that discuss the relevance science has in our lives on the Palouse.

But the reality of the influence of science across our entire modern society goes much deeper. Because the core of science is what is called the Scientific Method – and the short version of that is that various tools are used to collect and measure all sorts of phenomena in our world, and then propose models that explain things that humans otherwise would resort to magical interpretations.

The challenge in today’s society is that as science has gotten more sophisticated, many of the discoveries have gotten stranger.  Not too many people have difficulty in accepting that the Earth is round, and that gravity pulls toward the center of the Earth – though if you go up on any college campus, and ask folks why people don’t fall off the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll find more than one student who looks at you confused.  Basic scientific literacy is definitely a core problem.

But science itself reveals things that bend the minds of many.  Take quantum mechanics, for example.  The idea of relative perspective is fundamentally built into the fabric of our universe.  Look at things as a wave, and they’re a wave.  Look at them as a particle, and they’re a particle.  And therein lies the rub.  The core of modern science rests on foundations of accepting ambiguity as being essential to truth. That’s where things for many people start falling apart.

Why? It takes some intellectual horsepower to hold duality and uncertainty in one’s mind. And with the bombardment of media and politician’s speech asserting what is called ‘dichotomous thinking’ – a right/wrong, Left/Right interpretation to every event, science, with its careful, methodical processes, subject to many opinions and reviews, is suffering.

What’s to be done? Scientists have to get out in front of the public more. One of the key things for the public to understand is that science is done everywhere – not just in a laboratory.  And the other thing that will help is for scientists to translate their work, which often consists of calculations and data, into personal experience that everyone can relate to. In my own world as an engineering scientist, I have no problem believing in global warming.  And not just because I can read the papers and look at the charts.  I have friends who work on the Greenland ice cap, and Antarctica.  I get to hear their stories about glacial recession, or uncanny heat waves over frozen snow fields.  I work with people that observe chimpanzees, and orangutans.  They can tell me how much like humans they actually are, as well as how they differ.

But most importantly, by connecting with these people, they tell me when, with evidence, my assumptions about the world and the various things in it, are wrong.  And by doing so, they keep my intellect developing.  Because believing in the scientific method forces me to change my mind.  That critical thing, linked to what is called ‘neuroplasticity’, keeps my brain alive, and keeps me learning.

Make no mistake that the current administration wants to gut science.  They want to do that because then they get to control the end result – the truth – as well as your ability to take in information and make up your own mind.  That’s beyond dangerous.

So turn out for the march.  It’s a small thing.  There are activities for the kids guaranteed.  And you might walk away with your mind changed about something!

Quickie Post — Donald Trump, Reflective Personalities and Their Pathologies

Colombian Folk Dance

Colombian Folk Dancers, Cartagena, 2014

Here’s a piece that came flying across my feed today.  Titled Donald Trump’s shifting positions have everything to do with the last person he spoke withit makes the point that once you either make it into Trump’s In-Group, or an external influence is endorsed by someone in Trump’s profound In-Group, he assumes the role of a reflector, locked in at the lowest level of mirroring behavior.  The article points out two examples — the first being Trump’s about-face on Chinese currency manipulation after meeting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the second after a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping on the challenges of the situation with North Korea.  Mnuchin definitely comes from Trump’s In-Group — a rich, New York globalist and former lead banker at Goldman Sachs. (I predicted Mnuchin’s meta-type in this piece.)

My guess about Xi is that the men have much, v-Meme-wise in common.  Both are narcissistic authoritarians, and likely think alike on most issues regarding approach and dynamic, if not substance.  That makes Trump’s disordered sense of boundaries feel at ease.  President Xi is predictable, in a strange way, to the impulsive mind of Trump.

Which is scary — because the next person to walk through the door may want war with North Korea. Not good.



Quickie Post — United vs. Delta, and the Power of Personal Agency

747 Pan Narita

Narita airport in the morning, 2014?

One of the more interesting contrasts in how promoting independent agency can save everyone money and increase performance just popped up in the last couple of days.  United Airlines, in a viral public incident, yanked a seated passenger off a plane, in full view of a range of iPhones and Galaxies, in order to fly another United crew to a waiting plane.  After not receiving any volunteers, and increasing the price of refunds/ticket vouchers, they hit some arbitrary ceiling in their pricing ($800) and instead decided to go the ‘forced eviction’ route.  The various videos and such are contained in this Esquire article here.  Calling in the po-po and having someone alleging to be a doctor flying home to see patients yanked out of his seat and dragged off the plane screaming (I haven’t seen the official confirmation of the fact that he was a doctor, but it’s still a great story) is about as Authoritarian v-Meme as you can get.

And now United is paying a price in stock price loss, as well as future market revenue loss.  I have some choice when I fly, and I rarely, if ever, fly United.  They’re a last-choice carrier for me, and nothing that happened yesterday will change that.

What’s interesting is that Delta has managed, through a more Performance v-Meme-based approach that emphasizes personal agency, to create a system creating the least numbers of kerfuffles for the chronic problem of over-booking.  When Delta approaches an overbooking situation, they announce early, and have customers bid what they would take for getting bumped off the flight.  It’s a little manipulative, to be sure, because passengers are bidding against each other, and can’t know what other passengers are also bidding.  But it does do a good job of popping people out of their limbic brains through a form of ‘priming’ — and that’s not all bad.  If you bid, you were obviously someone who thought they could miss that flight, and at least had time to activate a little Kahneman System 2 thinking, engaging that pre-frontal cortex, instead of just wallowing around in the amygdala.  Details about Delta’s system are here in this National Public Radio piece. 

Much better than selecting people, already seated, at random. Two cops approach you in an airplane seat, you’re going to get down into that Survival v-Meme pretty quickly.  There will be blood — especially, for me, if I’m already seated in an exit row!

Design Thinking -> Servant Leadership Podcast

Rainbow bagel

Conor with the Holy Grail — a Rainbow Bagel from Brooklyn.  With cream cheese, it tasted like a cheesecake!   February 2017.

In order to expand my media offerings, I’ve been making podcasts.  This one has material that’s been covered on the blog, but now you can listen to my sonorous tones as you make the larger connection between Design Thinking, social structure, empathy, and leadership.

There are a couple of key concepts that I write about in my scholarly work that I lay out in this podcast.  Largest of these is the idea of a meta-linear and a meta-nonlinear social system, and how it aggregates information.  A typical hierarchy behaves like a meta-linear system, in that knowledge aggregation, is essentially additive (nothing much changes except putting stuff together) and happens above the knowledge producers.  The node


above the leaves is responsible for combining the information.  Since statistically, the person at the node can’t have the consummate knowledge of both the leaves, what happens is knowledge is added together, and passed up.  No opportunities for synergy.

Contrast this to a more empathy-driven, real-time social network.  See below:


Connections are dependent on agency of the individuals, and their level of empathetic development.  These kinds of relationships take more time (connection is only partially driven by titles, and more by data-driven exploration) but are based on more realistic trust, and because they’re predicated on exchange, produce far more meta-nonlinear synergies and divergent design thinking.

And THAT leads to the need for Servant Leadership 2.0, which takes Jim Collins’ version of leadership, and couples that to an enhanced ability to connect with all sorts of different constituencies.  Which in turn, enriches the idea AND the information pool for better designs, with much greater potential for breakthroughs.

Here’s the podcast:

I do understand that this is hard stuff.  But it’s pretty cool.  Here are some links below for folks who just want to read the text.

Servant Leadership 2.0
Servant Leadership 2.0 — A Starting Point
Servant Leadership 2.0 — It’s coming, whether you like it or not
Servant Leadership 2.0 — some Semi-Final Thoughts
Servant Leadership 2.0 Continued — the Evolved Global Holistic Team
Design Thinking and Servant Leadership — the First in a Series
Design Thinking and Servant Leadership — Part II — Understanding the Legalistic Transition
Design Thinking and Servant Leadership — Part III — Trust-Based Relationships and Leadership Acceleration
Combining Servant Leadership 2.0, Empathy, and Design Heuristics in High Performance Teams

Donald Trump and Modern Authoritarian Systems


Just get on the bus — Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 2017

There’s so much to unpack on modern authoritarianism.  I’m listing a couple of links below that may help you understand some of the larger dynamics.  Since the demand has been so high for understanding them, I’ve made a podcast that integrates many of these ideas that I’ve discussed earlier.  As usual, I don’t dwell so much on particular issues, but work on understanding the larger social dynamics and information flow that underlay how these systems operate.

Go here —


And here are some links:

What To Do (or Meta-Do) About Trump

David Byrne, Nokia, and how Self-Referential Systems are Doomed for Collapse

New Year’s Reflection — Dunning-Kruger and Confirmation Bias

Quickie Post — Bill Nye, and The Perils of Responding to High Conflict Systems

Introducing The Dark Side — What Happens with a Lack of Empathy?

Mapping Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovations to Empathetic Development


Donald Trump and Alternate Facts

Times Square

Times Square, New York City, February, 2017

Well, I’ll be honest — I did the webinar, and it just really isn’t my thing.  Part of doing a webinar is breaking stuff up into fragments, which is hard, because this blog is about, if nothing else, integration of thought.

So, to lick my wounds, I did something that suits me far better — a monologue about Donald Trump’s Alternate Facts.  Click below to listen and let me know what you think.  Folks have been after me to make podcasts forever.  OK — now you have to listen to them!

What’s the takeaway?  Your own v-Meme, which is keyed to your dominant social structure, will profoundly affect how you understand and filter Donald Trump.  And that’s likely to cause conflict with someone you know.  Which is exactly what he wants.

Piece about Donald Trump and Knowledge Fragments


Empathetic Evolution — What’s So Hard, Really?

Metropolitan Papua New Guinea

Austronesian Art exhibit — Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, February, 2017

In advance of my first webinar tomorrow, I thought I might shed some light on what I perceive think are some of the largest perceptive hurdles in understanding my Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  Here goes!

Empathy is NOT Sympathy

This is a big one.  Sympathy is an emotional response to someone else’s suffering, where connection does not play a large role.  You can have sympathy for the drowned refugee infant, laying on the beach.  Sympathy is a route to compassion, and is an important part of the human experience.  But it is not empathy.

Empathy, as used in this blog, implies a duplex connection between at least two individuals, or as I would say, sentient agents.  This is well-established in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature, and is the bedrock of my work.  Not everyone, even in the scientific community, views empathy this way, but the vast majority of empathy researchers do.  So it’s kind of like global warming.  The consensus is that empathy is about connection, just like the consensus of scientists regard climate change as real.

The model of empathy used in my work is an augmentation of the scaffolded version put forward put forward by Frans de Waal, that maps empathy to the three primary brain activity areas, that, of course, are all linked together.  They’re all part of the brain, and no part of the brain does something that is completely isolated from all the other parts.

Empathy is NOT Mind-Reading

One of the interesting observations I’ve had explaining empathy to people is the idea that somehow empathy is mind-reading.  It’s not, though someone who is highly empathetic on all the various levels can definitely appear to be! Empathy is fundamentally statistical, or really probabilistic in how it works.  We take in signals from others, and send signals back in the context of any exchange.  These signals are language, sounds, facial expressions, hand gestures and so on, and interpretations our own minds make of various information we receive.

Understanding this, and truly internalizing it into our thinking process, is a big deal.  Our brains like to work immediately and transactionally.  Lots of famous people have documented this, like Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for studying this kind of thing. Our brains don’t like statistics so much, or holding the idea of a probabilistic exchange.  The reasons for that are laid out in what I write about (how your v-Meme helps you construct knowing) but as you read through the posts, you might put a self-check on your own thinking and understanding.  On this blog, one of the biggest points I make is that empathy creates information coherence between people exchanging information.  Think about the difference in information quantity between a phone conversation and a face-to-face meeting.  Which one is easier to convey nuance?  Which one is easier to make sure you both understand the same thing?  There is really little definitive work that I’ve found (though there are dominant mental models!) on the ratio to verbal and non-verbal communication.  The standard comes from the work of Albert Mehrabian, who came up with the 7%-38%-55% Rule (Words/Tone of Voice/Body Language).  But it’s obviously highly contextual.

If you think that when you tell someone something, without any feedback or verbal cues, they understand, take it from someone who has taught for 30+ years.  I find that students regularly walk with about 20% of the information you present in any given class.  Or ask the parent of a teenager!

What business does a professor of engineering have writing about empathy?

I’ve found when I talk about empathy to academic audiences, the worst actors in attempting to understand my argument and theory are sociologists.  Why that’s true is what I write about on my blog!  It’s not 100%, but these individuals can’t get past what I am, to consider what I write. They are classic authority-based thinkers (entrenched deep in the Authoritarian v-Meme), and to them, a Ph.D. in sociology is the only gateway to being able to discuss many of the ideas presented in this blog.

Titles have purposes, and we cover that extensively on this blog.  You don’t wander down the street asking strangers for diagnostic help if your liver hurts.  You go to a doctor.  That said, if you need some title validation, part of the reason we get a Ph.D. in general is that it gives the well-schooled the set of skills to investigate new areas of research.  No one’s Ph.D. can completely educate them in their own discipline, in this day and age.  There is simply too much knowledge out there.  My Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Duke, and the tutelage from my advisor, still profoundly helps me decipher all sorts of information, both engineering-related and not.  I owe my schooling a great debt.  But if your advisor does a good job, they school you in general inquiry as well.

If you decide to read my blog, and you’re getting stuck on the idea of me as a mechanical engineer, here are a couple of thoughts to help you get over your reticence.

  1. My background is in a form of mathematics known as complex system theory, as well as design theory. The first I trained formally during my graduate study.  What the math gives is a variety of paradigms — ways of thinking about patterns that help match to physical phenomena. The second is lots of practice watching people (my students and sponsors) design stuff.  This gives me lots of experiential patterns that I then can map to the empathy literature, which I read extensively.
  2. One of the things about empathy is that it’s largely a developed ability.  And if you ask me personally, I think the best way to develop it is to meet people who are profoundly different from you, and figure out how they think.  I’ve traveled to about 37 different countries, and speak a variety of languages poorly 🙂 .  I’ve also had a pretty wild life, both good and bad, that’s given me a lot to reflect on.  When scaffolded with the empathy literature and the stuff up above, it’s proven to be very useful in concepts, experiences, and enough self-doubt to keep down the confirmation bias!  Like Mark Twain said, “never let school get in the way of getting an education.”

Empathy is NOT always an explicit moment/thought/action in time – it’s an encompassing dynamic

One of the interesting things I’ve observed about the empathy discussion is that most people having it want to isolate empathy, which is fundamentally about connection, onto its own little piece of intellectual real estate, that doesn’t affect the perceived model of constant, fundamental separation from other human beings.

That kind of thinking has its purpose.  By isolating empathy, It can lead to some useful insights and techniques for practicing empathy. My empathy buddy Edwin Rutsch and others work on refining such techniques as Empathy Circles.  These are great things, especially when you might be called into a company that is having problems from a lack of empathy, to daylight problems that are getting in the way of your company/society making progress.

At the same time, when you draw a circle around empathy in that manner, there is a very real risk that you miss the boat on what empathy is all about.  Empathy is a constant dynamic that pervades our entire existence. When you walk into a room, and someone yawns, you don’t suddenly think “Mirroring Behavior — time to yawn!”  It’s automatic.  You just do it. And here’s a big secret.  If you practice, empathy at the higher levels (or the lack of it!) becomes ingratiated into your fundamental Way of Being and becomes a core part of your cognitive and limbic processing.

Here’s an example. I was asked on this NPR show, To the Best of Our Knowledge, about why a professor of design would be interested in empathy.  I gave a standard answer, expounding on the differences in design (which I also write about) — algorithmic and heuristic.  The first, involving improving the performance of a rocket engine by about 5%, is more non-empathetic.  The expert knows, and you listen to them.  The second, involving coming up with a new concept for a cell phone, like the iPhone, is decidedly more explicitly empathetic.  You go out, talk to customers, empathize with them and their actual uses, and then come back and create a whole new paradigm of how people will use phones.  This likely appeals to you, my reader, and makes sense.

But what is missed in this discussion is that even with engineers working on designing a 5% improvement in rocket engine performance, the ability for empathetic exchange profoundly enhances the progress of development of that rocket engine, because it increases the information coherence in all information exchanges required.  

This is a huge point, and one easily overlooked.  Empathy is embedded, in a self-similar fashion — sometimes automatic, sometimes not automatic — in all our transactions with others.  As well as ourselves.  It’s nice when we can point to it in the context of product design.  But we swim in a sea of empathy, whether we realize it or not.  It’s time to move empathy off of Intellectual Flatland.

What are you really doing on this blog?

I don’t want to downplay my role on this blog as far as original ideas.  There are a few.  But mostly what I’m doing here is connecting the dots — drawing supportable, reasoned linkages between lots of different fields of study.  How I do this is I operate under a dominant assumption — that nature does things with simple dynamics, that can generate all sorts of beautiful and complex patterns.  I think some of this ability/line of thinking comes from my study of fractals — complex geometric patterns based on typically a very simple underlying dynamic.

The other thing that I’m doing is working on understanding how people understand, and boiling that down to first principles, which from thermodynamics has to be time, space and energetics.  It’s likely an odd way for most people to think about what we consider a complex emotional and cognitive phenomenon.  But Albert Einstein said it best (paraphrasing) — of all our thought processes, it’s all got to come down to thermo.

And who am I to speak against the genius of the age?

Hope this helps!