By Bill Frayer

Paradigm Pioneers


In last month’s column, I discussed the importance of paradigms which sometimes limit and restrict our ability to look at problems and issues clearly. People who develop the ability to think in new ways often develop powerful new ways of thinking. It’s easy to conceptualize, but difficult in practice. We are all attached to our paradigms because they make us feel comfortable. But they can also paralyze our thinking.

In its November issue, The Atlantic put together a collection of “Brave Thinkers,” people involved with science and technology, medicine, politics, economics, international relations, and media, who are breaking established paradigms in order to solve difficult problems. I’ll share a few with you this month as a follow-up to last month’s column.

Thorkil Sonne, like so many parents today, has an autistic son. Most autistics are not employed; only 6% have jobs. Autistic people have difficulty with social relations and in dealing with change. They are also methodical, have excellent memory, and pay close attention to detail. Sonne realized they would actually make perfect software testers, so he started the Copenhagen-based Specialisterne in 2004. Thirty-seven of its 51 employees have autism, and the company now generates over $2 million in revenue from companies like Microsoft and CSC. Perhaps a new paradigm for legions of autistic adults?

Freeman Dyson, a physicist, has challenged the established paradigm for dealing with climate change. He does not deny that humans are causing destructive climate change, but he rejects economically-draconian solutions to reduce our carbon footprint. Instead, he has proposed that the answer might be in biotechnology, specifically using genetic engineering to produce carbon-eating plants which could mitigate the damage to the environment more painlessly. The existing debate between the two sides is getting nowhere, in his view. Although his ideas are not popular among climate-change scientists, he hopes they may eventually be able to look at the problem using his new paradigm.

Henry Greely believes, contrary to popular opinion, that “cognitive enhancing” pills like Ritalin and Adderall are no more harmful than other tools students use to increase their intellectual productivity like getting more sleep, using computers, and drinking coffee. As we learn more about brain chemistry, Greely believes more “smart drugs” will be developed and accepted as a legitimate ways to improve our cognitive performance.

Paul Polak criticizes the proliferation of NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) around the world trying to fight poverty. He thinks the world’s 1.2 billion poor people represent a good market and that entrepreneurs should treat them as a potential market for cheap tools. By providing inexpensive tools, like manual pumps for irrigation and solar-powered water purifiers, poor farmers could lift themselves out of poverty and quickly recoup their small investments. Polak believes that profitable markets in poor areas will do more good than direct donations.

Of course, not all paradigm shifts work out well. The Atlantic article also featured Jeff Zucker as a brave thinker who came up with the brilliant idea of taking successful late-night host Jay Leno and moving him to primetime, definitely a risky paradigm shift. It simply didn’t work.

Now, the answer to the puzzle in last month’s column: First, turn on two switches, say A and B, leaving the third switch C off. After a few minutes, turn switch B off. Then walk into the room. If the bulb is on, it’s switch A. If the bulb is off, but warm, it’s switch B. If the bulb is off but cold, it’s switch C. To solve the puzzle, you need to consider that bulbs emit heat in addition to light, not just the common paradigm that bulbs only emit light.

Next month I’ll examine how to have a productive debate.

Ojo Del Lago
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