I’m surrounded by naked emperors

With age comes wisdom, apparently. But it looks more like an accumulation of bad experiences to me. Bad experiences which teach you how to avoid similar shemozzles next time.

And yet politics seems to be an exception. Nobody learns anything, no matter how bad the experience, nor how similar the repeat.

“Boris Johnson promises transition period will not extend past 2020” says the Express. Oh come on! Hasn’t anyone learned anything?

In fact, we seem to be in an unlearning phase. Things we hold as simple truths are turning out not to be true at all. Naked emperors lurk everywhere.

Let’s fast-track through some recent examples from the last few days’ worth of media stories. Disproven things people commonly believed.

The Telegraph reports that “students from similar socio-economic backgrounds and with the same A-level grades in the same subjects were just as likely to get into top universities, irrespective of which kind of school they went to.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you go to a private school or not. What matters is other factors. A conclusion so shocking the Telegraph had to change the headline which explained it in blunt terms…

Another economic curtain which dropped to reveal the ugly truth lurking behind it is all about the euro’s viability. Hungary’s top central banker described the common currency as a “trap”, “a mistake” and in need of an “exit mechanism”. That’s not exactly conventional wisdom you’ll usually find in the Financial Times. But there it was…

HSBC’s survey of British businesses has revealed that “The United States has pushed past Germany and France as the most common trading partner for British businesses”. Not that anyone should mention this in the Brexit debate.

What about the environment – a topic on everyone’s newspaper. Quite a few inconvenient truths have emerged there too.

The electric-powered London Underground “is by far the most polluted part of the city” reports the Financial Times. “A scientific paper published this week found that the air in Tube carriages was up to 18 times worse than the city’s roadside air.”

Even organic food isn’t safe from inconvenient truths. “Trying to get all of Britain eating organic would create an environmental catastrophe,” said researchers at Cranfield University. The list of reasons is long, but one is all about crop yields.

Organic farming yields less, which means it would take more land for the same agricultural output. That land could be used for more environmentally friendly things.

Exponential Investor’s usual haunt of technology and science is looking a little shaky too. The New York Times conducted an investigation which discovered that breathalysers are in fact far from accurate. Instead, they “generate skewed results with alarming frequency, even though they are marketed as precise to the third decimal place.”

The fallout has already begun in the US:

Judges in Massachusetts and New Jersey have thrown out more than 30,000 breath tests in the past 12 months alone, largely because of human errors and lax governmental oversight. Across the country, thousands of other tests also have been invalidated in recent years.

But how can modern tech get it so wrong? In surprising ways…

The machines are sensitive scientific instruments, and in many cases they haven’t been properly calibrated, yielding results that were at times 40 percent too high. Maintaining machines is up to police departments that sometimes have shoddy standards and lack expertise.

In some cities, lab officials have used stale or home-brewed chemical solutions that warped results. In Massachusetts, officers used a machine with rats nesting inside.

But it’s not just the police using and maintaining their tech who get things wrong:

Technical experts have found serious programming mistakes in the machines’ software. States have picked devices that their own experts didn’t trust and have disabled safeguards meant to ensure the tests’ accuracy.

Now you might think that we know how the testing devices work, so how can this scandal go on for so long? But companies had managed to keep their devices’ functions secret from court proceeds. Until 2007:

But in 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted a request by defense lawyers and ordered Dräger to allow outside experts to analyze the software for the Alcotest 7110 machines in use statewide. The experts said it was littered with “thousands of programming errors,” according to their report to the court.

That’s just a few days’ worth of truths and beliefs melting away in the media. The diesel subsidy scandal is another prime example of a tech failure. There is no shortage of similar stories over time.

But my point here isn’t about breathalysers specifically. Nor organic farming, the Tube, the euro, or anything else.

It’s the fact that what we believe is often completely wrong. That our technology is often deeply flawed. That our science is misguided. Even when the burden of proof required of that tech is extremely high – proven guilty, beyond reasonable doubt.

Think about how dramatically different many lives would be if these false beliefs had been exposed earlier, or avoided altogether. How many people wouldn’t have had traumatic experiences?

What I find most interesting is that it is outrageous to question our beliefs and our technology, despite the constant failures in the news. Challenging the scientific validity of breathalysers or the environmentally friendly credentials of diesel would’ve branded you a conspiracy theorist not so long ago. It was all proven by science, to the third decimal place.

But suddenly, everyone knows that it was all rubbish all along. And all those who used to believe it have no trouble dramatically changing their views.

And yet, they never ask, “So, what other technology that we rely on today is deeply flawed without us realising yet?” Question the prevailing proven wisdom of the day and you’re just as daft as when you questioned diesel or claimed you weren’t drunk at the wheel.

In many cases, questionable motives are behind the decision to believe in what technology promises. Selling those breathalysers enriched some people enormously. No wonder they wanted to avoid being exposed.

But bringing flawed assumptions to light also offers returns. Providing tech that really does what it promises can generate a genuine boom.

And in the face of so many naked emperors all around us, this technology really could be a rare real deal.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Southbank Investment Research

Category: Technology

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