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Insights 15: 3 May 2019
Watch: Matt Burgess discusses on TVNZ Breakfast the Government's 100% renewables policy
Watch: Duncan Garner interviews Barbara Oakley on The AM Show about the science of learning
Auckland event (supported by the Initiative): Jonathan Haidt - Moral Psychology in an Age of Outrage (tickets for purchase)

Disagree more constructively
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
When US psychologist Jonathan Haidt published The Righteous Mind in 2012, he himself may not have known how prescient it would be. The book’s subtitle is Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Though such divisions were clearly visible even then, they were just a foretaste of what was to come. Trump, Brexit and the global surge of populism have created more politically divided societies than at any time during the past half century.

Against this polarisation, Haidt’s book was a passionate plea for dialogue across all divides. A plea that is even more relevant today than when it was published. This is why the Initiative is proud to support Haidt’s first tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Based on psychological research, Haidt shows how people who perceive themselves as reasonable, kind and well-meaning can and do vehemently disagree with one another – especially on politics and religion.

The key to understanding this phenomenon is morality.

As Haidt puts it, “Morality binds and blinds.” On the one hand, morality allows us to form stable groups based on shared views. It brings social order to an otherwise atomistic society.

On the other hand, morality inevitably pits different groups against one another. In classic psychological experiments, even randomly assembled groups soon begin to develop animosities towards others. This process can be stronger when group membership is based on shared values or beliefs.

For Haidt, morality thus “binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle.” And worse: “It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

In his most recent work, The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt applied his analysis to the state of American universities. He demonstrated how the moralisation of academic disputes threatens both academic freedom and students’ learning.

Haidt is one of America’s most important and innovative thinkers, contributing regularly to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. With his plea for people to disagree more constructively with one another, he has an important message for New Zealand as we deal with our own divisions.

Book your tickets here for Jonathan Haidt’s only public event in New Zealand, supported by the Initiative, in Auckland on 1 August. We hope to see you there.

Keys, please! Opening the doors to New Zealandís future
Professor Barbara Oakley | Guest contributor |
Students and employees – even high-tech workers – are usually taught what to learn but rarely how to learn. This gap is an enormous opportunity. If ever there was low-hanging educational fruit for New Zealand business leaders, educators, workers, students and parents to grab, it is in teaching people to learn more effectively!

For centuries, researchers did not understand what was happening in the brain when students were learning. Not surprisingly, this made both teaching and learning more difficult. It is like trying to make a car run more efficiently – but without being able to look under the hood to see how the engine operates.

Luckily, in the past few decades neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have made enormous advances that can help students avoid frustration and learn more efficiently. Learners find these advances to be of real and practical use in their everyday lives. This is probably why Learning how to learn, which I teach with leading neuroscientist Terence Sejnowski, is one of the most popular online courses in the world, with some 2.5 million students enrolled.

Many learners believe they do not have a talent for language or math because the subject never came easily to them. But the fact is, they can succeed using a few simple mental tools. The Pomodoro Technique, for example, allows people to focus intently, accomplishing far more than usual in shorter periods of time, and also allows them a brief rest to make better sense of what they have just learned. The Hard Start technique allows students to solve more difficult problems piecemeal through tests, which lowers stress. Reviewing a hard-to-learn item right before sleeping can allow neural pathways to develop more easily while you sleep. This means you are more likely to wake up with the solution in mind.

Underneath the neural “bonnet,” we are discovering the reasons why some people are slower learners – and that this slowness can give these seemingly sluggish brains an advantage. It is like the difference between a zooming race car driver and a hiker who has to walk every step to the finish line. The race car driver does get to the finish line faster – but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker, on the other hand, gets to the finish line much more slowly. But while walking, the hiker can reach out and touch the leaves on the trees, smell the pine in the air, and hear the birds. Hiking is a completely different experience than race car driving, and in some ways, far richer and deeper. Indeed, research shows that sometimes, slower learners can make discoveries and breakthroughs that even geniuses cannot.

Most people all over the world – including Kiwis – remain unaware of these remarkably useful new insights. It is time we made learning easier for all.

Click here to download Professor Barbara Oakley’s presentation to the New Zealand Initiative event held at the University of Auckland on 1 May.

Spanking another dodgy stat
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
It’s too easy for bad statistics to influence policy. About a decade ago, BERL added up every dollar spent by heavier drinkers, counted some other costs twice, and claimed that alcohol use cost New Zealand $4.8 billion per year.

The number still floats around when someone wants to justify the next round of restrictions on drinking. So I pay a bit of attention to dodgy-looking statistics.

The Los Angeles Times last week reported on Chinese youth boot camps encouraging boys to shape up into ‘alpha males’ rather than emulate ‘boy band’ idols. It all seemed a bit humdrum. But a supporting statistic in the piece was eye-catching.

According to the Times, the People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper complained that “20% of recruits were not fit enough to pass the fitness test for admission because they were overweight, watched too many cellphone videos, drank too much or masturbated too often.”

I couldn’t let a statistic like that just pass by.

What proportion of recruits failed the fitness test for each of those reasons? And how could the PLA possibly know about that last one?

While China has compulsory registration for military service, Wikipedia says volunteers staff their army. So the statistic likely wasn’t generated by opportunistic ticks of a box on a recruitment form (or worse!) to avoid the draft. Getting out of the army can’t be that easy, Klinger!

So I wondered again, how could they know? – and, with horror, realised that a government spying on everyone’s movement and their web history could probably make a pretty good guess. Ceiling Xi is watching you.

I tracked the statistic to an August 2017 article on the Chinese Ministry of Defence’s website – which Google Translate helped me read.

I couldn’t find the 20% statistic. But of those unfit for service, 17% were ruled out on a blood or urine test, 46% by an eye exam, 20% due to obesity, 8% due to varicoceles, and 13% for heart conditions or high blood pressure.

And then, without any justification, the military website blamed mobile phones for eye problems, and that for the varicoceles. While embarrassment prevented me from calling up our GP, neither WebMD nor the Mayo Clinic website listed that as a risk factor for or cause of varicoceles.

Dodgy statistics can be bad for policy. Hopefully, this one winds up providing more amusement than harm.
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