Book Review: Reframe

My friend Rob has a brother called Eric. Eric Knight is one of those high-achieving types. Sydney Law School, Rhodes Scholar, economics consultant to the OECD and the World Bank, media commentator and now the author of a book called Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems.

Aside from the content, which I will get to shortly, perhaps the best thing about the book is its readability. Eric doesn’t make any assumptions about his readers. Any experiments or historical events he recounts are clearly explained, and his anecdotes are interesting and pertinent. He constantly asks the reader to reflect on the themes of the book and he neatly summarises the story so far at the end of each chapter.

So what is the book about? The title is quite self-explanatory, although Eric writes about something that is often neglected when we are confronted with world problems. He argues that “the most common mistake is to search for answers in the wrong place without thinking to adjust our point of view.” The chapters are organised thematically and each serves to highlight that particular point: from a financial institution seeking to beat the market, to the US Government fighting terrorists and dealing with illegal immigration, to the vexed questions of the politics and economics of climate change.

Fundamentally, as Eric himself notes, it is a book about human psychology. Humankind has a wonderful capacity for intellect and achievement. However, our minds have limitations — we have a tendency to fixate on one thing (or a limited range of things), thereby preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. This is what Eric calls the magnifying glass trap. For example, when US authorities during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan focused on defeating the people with guns, they became embroiled in a military quagmire. Over time, the commanders realised they needed to take a step back and view it as more than just a clash of weapons. Conflicts have a number of different dimensions: cultural, political, economic. In broadening the scope and viewing each dimension as a problem to be solved — eg, befriending the local populace, leveraging political connections — the military goals became much more achievable.

Reframe resonated with me because it is a deeply pragmatic book. It is not a book that leans on a particular ideology or agenda. Eric is genuinely passionate about the ability of people to solve problems grassroots style (localism), citing many examples, and seems wary of top-down government (cue cheers from libertarians and capital-C conservatives). On the other hand, when it comes to investment in certain markets (such as health and clean-tech), it is clear that he is not a proponent of the idea that government intervention is always bad bad bad. This is something that is very appealing to me. I’ve said before, generally the optimal level of something lies somewhere in the middle of a continuum — in this case, government investment in technology. While it won’t be the simple black-and-white that people instinctively feel for, as Eric notes: “[it’s] a messier process but one more in tune with the economy’s inherent complexity.”

In reflecting on Eric’s conclusion (that if we would take a deep breath, step back, examine the big picture, examine the complexities and not-so-obvious things, we’re able to make changes for the better), I have one concern with it. My beef is not with any shortcomings in the book per se but rather my pessimism at humankind’s limited thinking abilities. Eric writes in a very optimistic manner and I absolutely commend him for that (I wish I could remain as optimistic as he is when I’m 28!). However, practically speaking, I don’t know how possible it is for the message to get out and make a sustained difference to people’s thinking that is necessary to tackle the greatest challenges facing us.

For example, Eric very astutely observes that in the climate change debacle debate, the issue is not whether we’ve had a blisteringly hot week or a once-in-a-generation winter cold snap. It is not about weather, but climate. And none of us (meaning the general populace) are qualified to answer the question “is our climate changing.” So the real question becomes “whose expert opinion is worth listening to?” The answer to me is a no-brainer: actual climate scientists (or more accurately, their consensus view). Eric then throws another curve ball: there is a difference between science (how the world works) and politics (what we should do about it). He queries whether scientists (with their consensus view being that the climate is warming) should be giving their opinion on non-scientific matters. For example, what about people who believe it is too costly to take action, or who would rather just accept the inevitability of a warming planet?

Coming back to my pessimism: to the extent that people realise it is a question of whose opinion is worth listening to (they have properly reframed) and they choose the non-expert opinion (ie, fixating on radio shock jocks, loud denialists, selective data, ‘false emails’), my concerns are highlighted. Furthermore, I take issue with a neat dichotomy between scientific and political matters. Sometimes the science is so compelling that it can and should dictate what action our society takes. For example, there is compelling science that says exposure to alcohol during childhood and adolescence is extremely bad, with the damage rising in proportion to level of exposure, and governments respond accordingly with rules and regulations. Analogously, why shouldn’t scientists help identify the upper danger limit of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as Eric recounts? If they can roughly show that at such-and-such level, there will be increasing (and irreversible) incidents of wild weather occurrences, rising sea levels, desertification, loss of water, loss of biodiversity, etc etc, is this not just a scientific measure but a social problem? And, for those who don’t disbelieve the science but rather claim that their democratic freedom to choose a dangerous future is being infringed, should we really take these people seriously?

There are times when reframing the problem isn’t enough. In the end we have to examine the deeper sources of people’s beliefs and motivations. Often (as is the case with climate change), our conception of and response to the problem is shaped by our own self-interest (“if we do something and others don’t, we’ll be at a disadvantage!”), our greed (“it’s too costly to act!”) and our failure/refusal to sacrifice short-term pain for long-term gain. They are quintessentially human traits and will bedevil any effort to effect meaningful change.

However, none of my pessimistic ruminations should take away from what Eric has done. The magnifying glass trap problem he identifies is a pertinent one. I applaud him for writing a book about the processes of solving a problem — the how as opposed to the what. It is something everyone needs to think more about. Now if only we can also get people to think about their internal motivations and prod them into being less self-focused and more others-focused. Then I’ll be a happy chappy.

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