Guelph Mercury
Chuck Erion on books - Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril
By Chuck Erion - April 4th, 2011

When Margaret Heffernan was in university, she struggled with George Frederick Hegel's obscure text Philosophy of History and presented her analysis to her professor, Michael Turner. Looking to him for praise, she was gobsmacked when he responded: "That's fine. Now what's wrong with Hegel?"

As Heffernan says in her new book, Willful Blindness (Doubleday Canada $32.95), that was the beginning of her education.

I've been thinking about Willful Blindness (and its first cousin, the book Unintended Consequences) ever since watching the 2010 TED lecture by Bill Gates on climate change. In it, Gates insists that the world must reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Even though I agree with his analysis, I have disturbing doubts that mankind is capable of altering its behaviour and technology in time to avoid the projected drastic outcomes. Why are we so blind?

Heffernan was born in Texas and studied at Cambridge University in England. Her career has straddled the Atlantic; she has worked as a BBC producer and as the CEO of several multimedia companies, also a writer for Fast Company and Huffington Post.

This is her third book and it is a litany of scenarios of ignored and denied truths from business, Nazi Germany, the Catholic Church, government and the military.

The financial meltdown of 2008 (including the mortgage and housing meltdown, the Bernie Madoff scam, the Wall Street derivatives fiasco) is carefully analyzed. What was the corporate culture that drove its players for higher bonuses, with no regard for the bubble they were pumping? Who were the whistleblowers who were shouted down and fired? Heffernan looks to brain and behavioural science studies to probe how wilful blindness takes place: how perceptions are shaped by Groupthink and how monetary rewards alter our moral awareness.

The data on inefficiency resulting from working more than eight hours a day is overwhelming. The fatal explosion at BP's refinery in Texas in 2005 can be traced to one overworked supervisor who had worked 12-hour shifts for 29 days in a row. Add to this the fact that BP had demanded a 25 per cent reduction in costs from all its divisions, regardless of overdue safety violations and worn out equipment. (As I write this, former BP boss Tony Hayward is being investigated for possible manslaughter charges in the deaths of oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform.) How many companies in our own region still operate with long shifts and rare days off in a machismo belief that long hours produce better results?

But if that example of BP's corporate blindness seems remote, let's turn, as Heffernan does, to tanning beds. How is it that tanning salons are allowed to attract clients when all the data shows a direct link between UV exposure (whether from the sun or from tanning beds) and melanoma? Or, why did it take two decades (1956 to 1977) for the proven link between childhood leukemias and X-rays during pregnancy to finally alter prenatal practices?

Heffernan piles up the examples of wilful blindness. Some of her studies are wrapped up in a few pages; others keep unfolding through the book. Her data is drawn from Canada, the United States and Britain.

Most of the social experiments offer pretty gloomy conclusions. As her focus shifts to analyzing the character of whistleblowers, there are grounds for hope. The latest research in neuroplasticity tells us that our brains are capable of change and that we can become aware of our mental blinders, which are not hardwired. And not all corporations and government agencies are locked into coercion and domineering management. (Heffernan's previous books, Woman on Top and How She Does It point to a more open-to-dissent approach among female-led businesses.) Like her philosophy professor, we must keep asking: What's wrong? And - What could or should I know that I don't know? Just what am I missing here?

This is an important book that should be read by every MBA student, every lawyer and politician, every educator and everyone concerned about our future.