Warnings and off-putting personalities

I already posted one article on the book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. Here's another few excerpts highlighting characteristics of the sort of person who might issue warnings worth thinking about:1

OFF-PUTTING PERSONALITY: Because of the frustration of seeing a threat and wondering why others can’t, because of their personal sense of responsibility for promoting understanding and action on their discovery, and perhaps because of their high level of anxiety in general, Cassandras may at times appear obsessive and even socially abrasive. While they can be personally charming under the right circumstances, many of the individuals gifted with the intelligence and strength of personality required to be a Cassandra may sometimes seem aloof, condescending, socially maladapted, or absent-minded.12 Many Cassandras might score low on what is sometimes called EQ, or the emotional quotient of personal interaction skills. That characteristic may prevent them from communicating in a way that will elicit the appropriate response to get their warnings taken seriously. The work of Lee Ross, a Stanford sociologist, demonstrates that most people are unable to differentiate a message from the messenger.

Orthogonal thought is also highlighted as an another personality characteristic:

ORTHOGONAL THINKER: Cassandras tend to be among the first to think about a certain problem or issue and often are those who acquire the data that then causes alarm. Because of their originality, Cassandras come at the issue from a new perspective and incorporate data and concepts from other fields. This characteristic is called orthogonal thinking. They have the self-confidence to be first but not the arrogance that would interfere with their understanding of the nuances of the data.

And then there's the desire to question things - which also can interact with the off-putting personality elements:

QUESTIONERS: Most Cassandras tend to disbelieve anything that has not been empirically derived and repeatedly tested. They also tend to doubt their own work initially, especially when it predicts disaster. This characteristic is more than just a belief in the scientific method. Rather, they challenge what is generally accepted until it is proven to their satisfaction. They are the philosophical descendants of Pyrrho of Elis, a philosopher in ancient Greece who accompanied Alexander the Great to India. There Pyrrho learned from Indian philosophers who challenged everything. Pyrrho’s teachings influenced another Greek philosopher who taught that all beliefs and assumptions should be challenged, that doubt, skepticism, and disbelief are healthy. This later philosopher was Sextus Empiricus, and his name is forever attached in our minds to the empirical method: doubt until proven by data, by objectively true, observable facts.

Many Cassandras seem to have incorporated Albert Einstein’s belief that “unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” When the authority figures to whom they report their warning reject their analysis for what the Cassandras believe are non-evidence-based reasons, our warners begin to lose respect for the decision makers. They often are unable to hide that disrespect well.

I think that a lot of people seem to think that for a system to be worth labeling authoritarian, it needs to ban all questioning and all dissent. It seems to me that rather questioning things can be allowed and encouraged as long as those questions target certain groups or avoid those sensitive areas.

  1. Note that this is an incomplete list of the characteristics - the other hightlighted elements are being a proven technical expert, being data driven, having a sense of personal responsibility, and being high anxiety. ↩︎