The world’s WORST problem

Brian Kent
10 min readJul 25, 2018


(by a long margin, actually…)

If this is true…and I believe it is…

After yesterday’s meltdown (my post on “Suicidal indifference”) I spent another long day contemplating the future — which at that point, for me, appeared to be compressed into a series of a couple hundred days.

I spent another long day contemplating the problem; where I had gone wrong. Where WE had gone wrong. And believe it or not, I think I’ve finally come up with the ultimate of ultimate questions. It may sound like BS (no, actually it DOES sound like BS. The suggestion that a plain old guy like me could have come up with the fundamental question. That couldn’t have happened, right?)

It’s certainly unlikely but it’s far from impossible.

And even now, you think I’m baiting you. Because of the somewhat deplorable state of things, the chances are incredibly high that you think I’m promising the moon but hardly ready to deliver it. Think again.

Judge for yourself, but the question I found defines the world’s MOST serious problem, and there is absolutely no denying that it does.

  • it is more serious than climate change
  • it is more serious than who our President is or who our next one will be
  • it is more serious than even whether we will go to war or not

It’s more serious than any other existing problem, too. In part because it is the reason why ALL of those problems exist to the extent they do.

  • It is the reason why the curators of don’t ever promote the posts which carry the most gravity
  • It is the reason why newspapers do not consistently report on the most impactful news story
  • It is the reason why you feel $hitty when you’ve forgotten something that you just had to remember
  • It is the reason why people tend to misinterpret the things other people — even people they love — say and do
  • It is even the reason why you’re seriously considering not reading this. Which essentially means waiting until others read it and then realizing through them that what I’m saying is the case.

It is a ridiculously simple yet deceptively difficult puzzle involving just a scant few psychologically provable concepts which are rooted in our temporal understanding of things. That is, it’s very simple to see once you abandon your temporal reasoning in favor of a more self-aware reasoning process.

At issue are these four things:

  1. Failure to recognize and take into account opportunity cost
  2. Limited bandwidth
  3. Confirmation bias/cognitive dissonance
  4. Dunning-Kruger effect

It is these four items which, ‘conspiring’ together, lead us to quite literally ALL our inefficiency. ALL OF IT.

And here, to save you Googling those terms in case you’re not familiar with one or more of them, I’ve listed the definitions to which I refer:

Here’s why:

If we assume any single one of those things can be eliminated as an issue, we then automatically have access to the best path which the currently available knowledge base presents in any given situation.

In other words, solving *ANY* of those gives us access to the best path available. EVERY SINGLE TIME.

The primary issue is the way the first of those two items ‘conspire’ together to give us what we believe is the best answer even though we’re almost always wrong. We evaluate the thing that we’re doing, not the thing that we’re not doing, and our limited bandwidth and inability to effectively entertain other people’s viewpoints all but ensures that we cannot have access to a fair comparison between what we’re doing and what others might suggest is a better use for our time.

And the reason why this becomes such a grave issue is because we’re afflicted by the last three of the items on the list:

  • Confirmation bias in some fashion leads us to want to believe that new evidence confirms rather than refutes our existing assessments
  • Confirmation bias likely does this to some degree because evolution recognizes transaction costs — or to put it another way, it is statistically sensible to continue a known approach until you’re certain it does not work. This is because full revision of your technique tends to be extremely time consuming and difficult. For example, if you’re used to hammering nails using a grip very close to the head of the hammer and very rapid, short strokes, it is typically very difficult to imagine the value of competency in holding the hammer ‘the proper way’ i.e. toward the end of the handle. Any person can easily tell that it is much more challenging to hit a nail squarely with a long swing than it is to hit it with a short swing, but subscribing to that temporal reasoning very often leads to amateur carpenters never learning ‘the best way’ to swing a hammer. (That is, the ‘best way’ to swing a hammer such that you can pound the maximum number of nails into whatever you’re building in the minimum amount of time.)
  • Cognitive dissonance is essentially the pain your ass feels when you’re sitting on a pointy picket fence entertaining the thought of which lawn has the greener grass. It is the feeling of simultaneously holding two conflicting concepts in your head, and it tends to result in ‘lazy’ brains opting for the answer which seems easiest in the moment rather than the one which may be just as plausible but more aggravating to implement. Try as they might, human beings are still incredibly bad at distinguishing between the best path and what seems the easiest right this moment. Again this is the fault of our temporal reasoning processes; the bias we have toward putting off until tomorrow the things which are more easily handled today. There IS some sense in this, but when you subtract that amount of sense from the reality of all situations taken in aggregate, the remainder is most or all of the trouble we get ourselves into. In other words, selection effects encourage us to believe every time that we’re making a good decision this time and people who are not especially capable of holding multiple concepts in their mind at once are MOST PRONE TO THIS DIFFICULTY. This is a significant part of the reason why we need to specifically train creativity in our schools; why teaching tools like Ms. Putnam/Calleri’s weekly brainstorming activity in the fourth grade can make such a difference in the world today: a world where change is happening all the faster.

Because brainstorming (and travel, and opening your eyes and mind to cultural differences and different ways of doing things) is the best way to encourage yourself to believe there are multiple ways of accomplishing a given objective.

It is obviously important to BELIEVE there are multiple ways of accomplishing a given objective because THERE ARE multiple ways of accomplishing any given objective! [Not to mention the fact that the surest way of NOT finding the best approach is to ignore that methods other than the one you know even exist.]

Yet EVERYONE falls into this trap. Everyone prioritizes “getting things done” over figuring out the best approach to getting things done. At least more often than not they do. Ultimately, they say, the work has to start. As if mental work is a thing less challenging or worthwhile than physical work. <sigh>

Dunning-Kruger’s curve shows this graphically. If you trained it out on a third axis, a z-axis into the page showing the energetic effectiveness of the methods of these people’s actions based on how much they think they know you’d see a red field to the left where costs greatly exceed benefits and a green field to the right, where benefits are optimized intelligently for costs incurred.

But even THAT doesn’t tell the full story. Why?

Because scientists and other very-well-informed people generally became very well informed by investing a lot of time and effort in their understanding of things, and that is an additional cost we cannot simply ignore.

The *ONLY* way for this to make maximal sense is if the real proceeds of their quest for knowledge and understanding can effectively be communicated to the maximum number of people, and as we’ve seen above this cannot readily happen.

And the reason for this lies in the interaction of the terms I’ve listed above.

There is a one word antidote to it, however. To all of those things.


It solves ALL of those problems:

  • it persistently encourages you to evaluate the cost your actions have on others, even when you’re already trying to evaluate that as your primary objective.
  • it dispenses with the idea of ‘limited bandwidth.’ It suggests to you that the reason you’re here is for a purpose higher than yourself. Whether it be ‘to do the work of God’ or ‘to better the world for everyone concerned.’
  • you aren’t prone to the negative impacts of confirmation bias because you’re just as happy to be proven wrong as to learn that you were right. Your objective becomes being more correct as it pertains to your behaviors in the context of the world around you rather than to maximally guard yourself from the intimation that you might be wrong and the associated embarrassment that all too readily implies.
  • you embrace cognitive dissonance as an interesting thought puzzle to sort out, because your objective is no longer figuring things out expeditiously it’s figuring things out well.
  • Dunning-Kruger no longer applies because smug overconfidence is replaced with a willingness to assume you’re probably mistaken. Openness to the viewpoints of others. Imagine how far you’d go if you entered into each and every conversation openly and sincerely assuming you might well be wrong. All of those conversations would become less a battle of the other person seeking the flaw in your argument and you in theirs. They would become exercises in people reinforcing each other’s valid points rather than exercises in attempting to build people up by first breaking them down.

To refer again to the above:

Knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right question.

If this is in fact true, does it not occur to you that having the right answer is irrelevant if no one else knows it, and no one else has time to agree or disagree?

Is it not true that plenty of people have the right answers and the issue is fundamentally whether we can agree on what those right answers are?

Stay with me for a moment here, lose the temptation to go into the weeds and flip out about the assertion I’ve made there [that some people have the right answers] merely because you’ve convinced yourself that *I* am going to suggest what the right answer is. Because I’m not.

I DON’T know what the right answers are, but I sure as hell know the right question.

And I’m just here to define that question. Then the rest of you can sort it out.

It IS true that some people have some of the right answers. There can be no disagreement that there is some sort of optimal path forward for humanity, and that it’s a path of either few or many parts. A path which in some kind of freakishly complicated or incredibly simple way, every person’s goals and desires are fairly taken into account. The only possible way to deny this is to mistakenly assume this is a grand game of king on the mountain — which is a viewpoint which cannot end other than poorly.

And because we by default know that some people have some of the right answers — at the very least the best answers we currently have — the only way we can effectively move forward is by replacing the sand of interpersonal strife with the lubricant of humility. And lest you errantly believe that’s me offering the solution, rather than a damned good question, I’ll phrase it another way:

How are we EVER going to do that?

How are we EVER going to stop frittering our time away every single day and devote a sensible amount of attention — energy, money, and mental resources — to problems we all know exist?

How are we going to address homelessness? Starvation? Child abuse? Animal abuse? Environmental abuse? Wastefulness? Our unsustainable economy and lifestyles? How do we stop terrorism without understanding what its root causes are?

How are we going to stop terrorism when we keep lying to ourselves — to summarize it in the convenient-to-ourselves nutshell “they’re just crazy is all”?

When are we going to stop taking advantage of one another virtually every single chance which presents rather than giving each other a chance every chance that presents? When are we going to become givers instead of perpetually focusing on how much we can maximally take?

When are we going to realize that in a hundred years, we’ll all be dead and the only thing left will be our legacy?

If those aren’t the best questions, then I sure don’t know what are. You can go ahead and question my motives if you like — if you think that’s a better question then I’d say you need your head examined. Questioning another person’s motives is the first stop on the confirmation bias gravy train, anyway. It will take you straight past Cognitive Dissonance town and you’ll shortly arrive at Villa de doing what you damned well please.

I hear it’s pleasant there this time of year, and the Farmer’s Almanac confirms it to be the one place where it will never once rain on your parade.

Oops, I almost forgot:



Brian Kent

I’m a sustainability advocate working to promote proliferation and understanding of electric vehicles and photovoltaic technology. Please send your questions!