We Can’t Think Outside the Box

Updated January 27, 2021

We can’t think outside the box because thinking is boxed in by language; specifically, by the words in language and the meaning of those words. Thinking and language/words are inextricably linked. We can’t have a thought/idea/concept that’s other than what’s (already) designated by the words in our language.

One of the clearest examples I’ve come across of trying (and, of course, failing) to think outside the box was when I was reading Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (This was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.) Pirsig says the basic fault of our thinking, which he articulates in the title, is that we divide reality into the subjective (Zen) and the objective (motorcycle), into spiritual and technological, into subject and object; into mind and matter. But reality, he claims, is a unified oneness; not a duality, but a singularity. Pirsig uses the word “Quality” as the overarching entity/concept/thought whereby what’s divided and dis-unified is unified. However, in order to explain what Quality is, what this oneness is, Pirsig is forced to talk about the duality/separateness that Quality unifies. The only words and thoughts that explain the unity Quality embodies are the words and thoughts that explain the duality. That’s the box our language irrevocably puts Pirsig—and all other English language/thinkers—in.    

Recently, while reading Benjamin Bratton’s 2015 book, The Stack, I found another example of trying, and failing, to think outside the box. In this instance, Bratton is concerned with what he calls/names/words the “physical” and the “virtual,” and he wants us to think about these two separate and different phenomena in a particular way: “it is only by conceivingthe design of both physical and virtualmodesof the urban interface at onceeither asconflating or complementary parts of a whole, that we can hope to intervene in their effects with consequence.” (The Stack, p. 164.)The key words for our purpose here in addition to “physical” and “virtual,” and I have underlined them, are: “conceiving[thinking] . . . of both physical and virtual modes. . . at once. . . as. . . parts of a whole.” Although we can understand what Bratton wants us to think about, the fact remains that our language does not allow us to do that; does not allow us to think of both the physical and virtual at onceand as parts of a whole. In our language, the physical and the virtual are separate; two different and separate words on the page and two different and separate ideas in our thinking. We don’t, and can’t, think of the two of them at once, but only one after the other. Nor can we think of the physical and the virtual as parts of a whole. In our language, there isn’t a word or thought that includes both; rather, the physical and the virtual are by definition/meaning in separate, different, domains.

The Only Way We Think

Thinking, like everything else, evolves incrementally. That’s the only way we think. Our thoughts at any one point in time are incremental modification of our previous thoughts. Over time, incremental changes in our initial thinking, induced by additional information and/or experiences, can lead to breakthroughs, to thoughts, ideas, theories, and understandings significantly better, more complete/accurate and, in that respect, different than the thoughts, ideas, theories, and understandings we started out with. Even Albert Einstein, who is given deserved credit for the theory of special relativity, did not develop it outside the box. Special relativity is an in-the-box culmination of his previous thinking about numerous theoretical results and empirical findings obtained by other physicists and mathematicians, as well as, according to some accounts, “ideas” of his first wife, Mileva Maric.

Think Hard and Long  

If we want to think better about whatever it is we’re thinking about, whether it’s physics, mathematics, cooking, management, engineering, coding, farming, sales, marketing, whatever! then we need to think hard and long about it. Taking a cue, again from Einstein, we can say, better thinking (his word was “genius”) is 1 percent talent and 99 percent hard work. But hard work is not enough. We have to work hard at our thinking for a long time; actually, most of the time. For certain, breakthroughs are unlikely if thinking hard occurs incidentally, or only now and then, or only at scheduled brainstorming sessions, or during annual weekend retreats. Thinking hard needs to be a defining characteristic of our life.

We can’t think outside the box, but we can think hard and long and, thereby, experience breakthroughs to better, more complete, more accurate thoughts, ideas, theories, and understandings. 

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Askers Make Answers Unreliable

Askers, as is the case for instruments and settings, affect answers and, thereby, make them unreliable. Answers may be accurate and correspond to what’s really going on, or they may not. Because askers only have answers, it’s impossible for them (or anyone else) to determine which, if any, are accurate or inaccurate. The only way to know is to check or verify answers with data from non-asking sources; such as observations or experiments. Askers/survey researchers do not have data from non-asking sources; all they have is unreliable information.

Characteristics of askers that cue and induce, and thereby make unreliable, the answers they receive include their styles of behavior (e.g. asking questions rapidly, pausing, voice intonation, and so on) as well as their personal attributes; such as judgments when coding responses, experiences, competencies, ethnicity, socioeconomic features, gender, and age.

This post is from my book, The Problem with Survey Research, pp. 199-207, where documentation is provided, and on pp. 207-78 there’s an extended discussion of the characteristics and behaviors of askers.

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Asking Settings Make Answers Unreliable

Settings in which questions are asked and answers given make answers unreliable; that is, answers that may, or may not, be accurate. This happens because components in the two types of settings (societal and immediate, discussed below) skew answers, and since askers/survey researchers only have answers to their questions, it’s impossible for them (or anyone else) to determine which, if any, are either accurate or inaccurate. The only way to know is to check or verify answers with data/information from non-asking sources; for example, from observations or experiments. Askers do not have this type of data; all they have is unreliable information.

There are two types of asking settings: societal and immediate.
• Societal settings are cultures experienced by respondents, and that includes social values, illusions/myths/religions, and descriptions and interpretations of political and economic systems. Also included in respondents’ societal settings are their positions in society—e.g., socioeconomic, organizational, familial, and so on—and the norms and beliefs associated with these positions. Via socialization by parents, schools, colleagues, governments, and advertising, respondents take as their own the societal preferences, priorities, and outlooks they experience and answer accordingly.
• Immediate settings are specific places where asking and answering occur: for example, respondents’ homes and workplaces (via phone and Internet), on streets outside polling places (entrance and exit polls), schools, doctors’ offices, and so on.
Both types of settings (societal and immediate) have powerful attributes or components that affect answers. Characteristics of, and forces within, societal settings—such as cultural values, laws, and media—bias answers, as do aspects of immediate settings, including third parties, gender of interviewer, and so on. Essentially every component of every asking setting “contaminates;” forcing respondents to say what’s compatible with each setting.

This post is from my book, The Problem with Survey Research, p. 165, where sources are cited and where, on pp. 165-95, you can find an expanded discussion of how asking settings make answers unreliable.

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Unrepresentative Samples and Results: Fatal Flaws in Survey Research

Updated December 8, 2020

Unrepresentative samples and, therefore, unrepresentative results, are fatal flaws in survey research. With rare exception, all survey research efforts (polls, surveys, interviews, et al.) are unrepresentative, thereby producing unreliable answers; that is, answers that may, or may not, be accurate. The only way to know if answers are, or are not, accurate is to check or verify them with data from non-asking sources; say, from observations or experiments. Survey researchers do not have this type of data; all they have is unreliable information.

Use Unrepresentative Results

Although valid conclusions about whole populations cannot be deduced or inferred from unrepresentative results, survey researchers do not discard unrepresentative results. Instead, they use unrepresentative results and present them as indicative of what’s really going on.

The Census Bureau, it’s generally agreed, uses unrepresentative answers: e.g., answers that undercount by ethnicity, income status, house ownership, and geographic location. Allan Cox, in his study of American corporations, admits he doesn’t have a representative sample from which “to make statistical probability statements” about corporate executives but, of course, he does use unrepresentative data to make statements about the characteristics of corporates executives. Carole Jurkiewicz and Kenneth Nichols, in their study of ethics in Master of Public Administration curriculums, refer to their “significantly” unrepresentative results that “restrain the generalizability of [these] results.” But they’re hardly, if at all, restrained, claiming that “fundamental findings emerged” from the unrepresentative results.

Unrepresentative results are used in asking studies of organizations, sex, eldercare programs, HIV infection rates, opinions about government, ethics, violence, child mental health programs, number of civilians killed by U.S. troops, illicit drug use, alcohol consumption, effects of corporate policies, and so on. Odds are, if it’s been asked about—and essentially everything has been, and still is, asked about—the answers are unrepresentative. This is to say, the ubiquity of asking guarantees that there’s lots of unrepresentative—that is, incorrect—information about almost, if not absolutely, everything. Think about that!

Justify Use of Unrepresentative Results

The widespread use of unrepresentative results is accompanied by numerous and varied justifications for doing so. Many practitioners (e.g., consultants, marketers, and the like) defend the use of the unrepresentative results of Internet surveys by claiming that they’re “useful,” or that the “data [answers] . . . provid[e] important insights.”

Cox says his “confidence” in “the quality of the samples . . . offsets any loss of corporate representativeness entailed in the design.” Schnaiberg (author of an Appendix in Cox’s book) justifies using these unrepresentative results because they’re the most representative at the date when the Report was published. Cheryl King and Camilla Stivers (authors of Government Is Us) although admitting their data about public sector personnel is unrepresentative, justify its use by asserting that it’s “food for thought” and, as such, generalizable to “people who work in government agencies.”

Jurkiewicz and Nichols justify their use of unrepresentative data—not as did Cox by asserting confidence in unrepresentative results, and not as did King and Stivers in terms of eating and thinking—but, rather, by asserting that they were the “first” to describe their “fundamental findings” by their small, unrepresentative, non-generalizable data.

John Stevens and co-askers, in their study of information systems and productivity, justify the use of responses that are unrepresentative and therefore cannot be generalized on the grounds that the results are “sufficiently” representative for their purposes and because the results can be manipulated by the statistical tools they are using. Here are their exact (and, I might add, peer- reviewed) words: “The sample . . . is considered sufficiently representative and large enough to be authoritative for the multivariate analysis performed here and for the level of generalizability sought in basic research or construct validation.” Absolutely!

Survey researchers of all stripes always find ways to justify their almost-always unrepresentative results. If they didn’t make these efforts and concoct justifications acceptable to others in the asking professions, they’d be out of business.

This post includes material from my book, The Problem with Survey Research, pp. 270-72, wherein additional sources are provided.

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Asking Instruments Make Answers Unreliable

Asking instruments (polls, surveys, interviews, focus groups, and all other types of asking) produce unreliable answers; that is, answers that may, or may not, be accurate. The only way to know if answers are accurate is to check or verify them with data from non-asking sources; for instance, from observations or experiments. Askers/survey researchers do not have this type of data; all they have is unreliable information.

Supporting evidence that asking instruments make answers unreliable is provided by numerous studies demonstrating (1) that asking instruments produce symbolic and unrealistic answers, (2) that each instrument produces different results for the same question, and that they (3) often generate inconsistent or conflicting answers, (4) much nonresponse and, with rare exception, (5) unrepresentative results.

Discussions and further documentation of how asking instruments make answers unreliable, as well as a full accounting of all the fatal flaws of survey research, can be found in my book, The Problem with Survey Research.

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Nonresponse A Fatal Flaw in Survey Research

Updated December 8, 2020

Nonresponse–that is, not answering when asked—is a fatal flaw in survey research. Regardless of the type of asking instrument (poll, survey, self-administered questionnaire, computer assisted telephone interview, et al.) and regardless of whether the asking effort is face-to-face, on the telephone, online, at home, at the office, or at school, every instance of asking produces nonresponse–and usually a lot of it.

Actually, nonresponse is as ubiquitous as asking. With each passing day, at least since first documented in the 1950s, response rates for all types of asking have been falling domestically and internationally and in both commercial and university-based asking endeavors.

Even a small amount of nonresponse–say, 10-14 percent–could, even askers admit, bias results, could produce what they, themselves, according to their professional standards (AAPOR), call “unacceptable” answers. However, nonresponse rates typically are at least 50 percent, and nonresponse in the 75-80 percent range is not uncommon and, as such, are therefore unacceptable but, nevertheless accepted: there are many published studies with response rates of 10 and even 5 percent. If survey researchers didn’t use “unacceptably” low response rates they’d be out of business.

Some of the material in this post is from my book, The Problem with Survey Research, pp. 140-41.

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9+ Ways Respondents Make Answers Unreliable

Respondents make answers unreliable—that is, answers that may, or may not, correspond to what’s really going on—because they
1. sometimes lie,
2. often do not have relevant and/or correct information,
3. and because their values and norms affect answers, as do their
4. interests in and
5. sensitivity to question topics. Also,
6. respondent’s memory biases answers,
7. they are not always who they say they are,
8. those dissatisfied (with a product or service) are more likely to respond/give feedback than those satisfied, and there are
9. many other ways respondents make answers unreliable; for example, by improperly marking Likert scales, by not following questionnaire branching instructions, and so on.
Discussions and documentations of these 9+ ways respondents make answers unreliable, as well as a full accounting of all the fatal flaws of survey research, can be found in my book, The Problem with Survey Research.

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We’re Fractured and We’re Not Coming Together

Updated December 22, 2020

Our society is fractured and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Neither Joe Biden’s, Van Jones’s, or any other or all kumbaya efforts, no matter how well-intended and/or fervently promoted, can overcome the forces splintering us. We can’t be unified because we live in the Internet+ Age, a time when the Internet plus attendant hard- and software drive us into like-minded groups.

We now organize and form groups with other like-minded people more easily, more quickly, and more widely than ever before. Facebook Groups, which gather around a common interest, belief, or problem to be solved, exemplify this grouping/fracturing/splintering activity, as do other social media groups and platforms, including Twitter chats (e.g., #BufferChat), LinkedIn Groups (e.g., Digital Marketing), a hundred thousand or so subreddits, Parler, 8Kum, and Gab.

Online groups of people with the same interest also are organized via blogging, using, for instance, Medium, an open blogging platform that connects a blogger’s writing to other writers, like-minded industry professionals, and readers. Some people organize and form online groups whose members have the same interest by means of email lists. And then there’s Meetup, a website for organizing and forming like-minded groups, that has millions of members, about 80,000+ Meetup Groups and 50,000 Meetups scheduled each week. “[W]herever you are,” writes Jon Evans, “whatever your interests, however baroque and obscure, you can find and join groups and mini-communities of people who share them. Indeed, you can and likely do find yourself part of several or even many distributed communities, one or more for each subject or context that really interests you.”

In addition to being fragmented into countless single-focus, self-interest arrangements as a result of organize and forming groups, people in the Internet+ Age are additionally splintered into like-minded groups by algorithms. Eli Pariser calls these algorithmically formed like-minded groups, “filter bubbles.” Members of these groups become extremely intense in their commitment to the group’s values, norms, and politics because contrary information is filtered out.

To use the technology of the Internet+ Age is to intensify, as never before possible, our identity with others who think and act like us, and in the process, we become more deeply and, I believe, irrevocably separated from others who think and act differently. This is our situation, and we need to keep it in mind as we move inexorably into the future.

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US Constitution Rigged

As I have pointed out in another blog post, the US Constitution is rigged, designed to give the edge to some while disadvantaging others. Here are Michael Klarman’s comments about the Constitution that also demonstrate its rigging—biases that have been Framed into it.


Constitution Day lecture, Johns Hopkins University, Sept. 16, 2010

I have [two] points I want to make. . . . [Klarman’s original lecture contained four points.]

(1) The Framers’ constitution, to a large degree, represented values we should abhor or at least reject today.

(2) There are parts of the Constitution with which we are still stuck today even though we would never freely choose them and they are impossible to defend based on contemporary values. . . .

(1) The Framers’ constitution was not so admirable.

Most obviously, the Framers chose to protect slavery. I think it would be ahistorical to criticize them for doing so; I don’t think they had much choice if they wanted the South in the Union.  

But, still, it’s hard to celebrate a Constitution that explicitly guaranteed the return of fugitive slaves to their masters, protected the international slave trade for 20 years, and enhanced the South’s national political representation to reflect its slaveholding.

Perhaps less obviously but equally importantly, the Framers’ constitution was mostly a conservative, aristocratic response to what they perceived as the excesses of democracy that were overrunning the states during the 1780s.  

The Framers were trying to create a powerful national government that was as distant from popular control as possible: very long terms in office, large constituencies, indirect elections. They thought of democracy as rule by the mob. They didn’t think poor people could be trusted with the suffrage. They didn’t think women should vote.

A lot of what the original Constitution was about was constraining the power of the states to pass laws beneficial to debtor farmers in a time of economic distress and expanding the power of the national government to that it could efficiently raise taxes in order to pay off government bond holders, who often were merely speculators in such debt rather than initial suppliers of credit.

It seems to me difficult today to celebrate such intentions. 

(2) Although I’m going to argue in my third point that the Constitution is mostly irrelevant to how we run our political system today, there are a few very specific parts of the Constitution that still bind us and are indefensible and indeed pretty ridiculous. Let me give you 3 examples.

(A) two senators for every state. This constitutional provision is a function of small states playing a good game of poker at the founding. Delegates from states like Delaware simply threatened to walk out of the Philadelphia convention if not given equal representation in the Senate. They claimed they were worried about the large states ganging up on them if not given equality in the Senate, but in fact they were just extorting what they could get by threatening to take their marbles and go home. 

It is impossible, I think, to justify in a system that celebrates the idea of all people counting equally–the notion of one person, one vote–the fact that Wyoming has the same two votes in the Senate as California, when the latter has something like 65 or 70 times the population.  

This is crazy.

This extreme malapportionment of the Senate also has real effects: Clarence Thomas would not be on the Supreme Court if the Senate were apportioned according to population. Democrats would have been able to get a more progressive health care bill through Congress if not for having to make concessions to some western senators who represent mostly cattle and trees.

And by the way, this provision is unamendable without the consent of every state, which I don’t see Wyoming volunteering anytime soon. 

(B) Consider a second example of a constitutional stupidity: The Guvernator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, cannot be president of the United States because of the Constitution. Now you may be thinking that’s a good thing, and I’d probably agree with you. But it’s not a good thing that no foreign-born person can be president of the United States. That’s rank discrimination–especially abhorrent in a nation of immigrants.  

It’s in the Constitution for reasons that have no applicability today. The Framers were worried that some foreign agent might ingratiate himself to the American people, be elected president, and then sacrifice the nation’s interests for a pot of foreign gold. I don’t think we’d lose a lot of sleep over that possibility today if this constitutional barrier were removed. 

(C) My third example is the electoral college system of selecting the president, which has the same effect as the Senate in over-empowering states with tiny populations. It is also virtually impossible to defend today, was put into the Constitution by Framers who didn’t trust the People to elect the president, and yet we’re still stuck with it. 


The US Constitution, as Professor Karman indicates, is rigged in numerous ways, as is every constitution, law, policy, institution–actually, everything! The goal should not be to try to find or make something that’s not rigged, that’s not biased. That can’t be done. The goal is to identify the rigging and deal with it.

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Is Everything Rigged? Yes, Always Has Been

Updated November 30, 2020

Everything is rigged and always has been. This is to say, everything is biased/skewed and gives the edge to some. That’s because everything (a government, an electoral system, an economic system, a game (football, chess, Grand Theft Auto 5), a constitution) has a design, a structure, a form that guarantees that some people because of that design/structure/form, will be affected differently (for example, find it easier to succeed in that government, economic system, game, or constitution) than others. 

Consider America’s electoral system:

For sure it’s rigged; not, as The Trumper alleges, by demonic Democrats, Dominion voting machine software, or dumps of votes but, rather, by design. For example, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts and the candidate who receives a plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. This “first-past-the-post” system fosters a two party system and is based against the development of a multiparty system. Numerous other riggings/biases in the American electoral system are discussed in a Wikipedia article: “First-past-the-post voting.”

Consider America’s constitutions:

The Articles of Confederation (in effect from 1781 to 1789) was America’s first governing structure. It was rigged/designed to advance the authority and power of the states, allowing each of the 13 to govern themselves as each saw fit. The central/national government (the Congress of the Confederation) was essentially powerless concerning affairs within and among the states. 

The Articles were also rigged against a strong executive (President of Congress) and for legislative supremacy. “Congress held all the central government’s power,” and the President was “by design,[emphasis added] a position with little authority.” Essentially ceremonial, the primary role of the President of Congress was to preside over meetings of Congress.

The Constitution into which we are now Framed (in effect from 1789 to . . . well, no one knows the future) is rigged for the success and dominance of the central/national government vis-à-vis the states. This bias is baked into the document by the “supremacy clause”  and the “necessary and proper clause.”

The Constitution, by design, establishes an executive (President of the United States) with extensive powers; for instance, in treaty making and appointments. In addition, the President can veto legislation and he/she is Commander in Chief of the armed forces. 

The Constitution of 1789 was also rigged against the general/voting populace in that only the House of Representatives was directly elected and, by itself, could do nothing.

In addition, America’s second constitution tilted the never-level playing field in favor of slavers and against slaves. Numerous provisions in the Constitution protect the institution of slavery; for instance, Article 1, Section 6 prohibits Congress from banning the importation of slaves until 1806.

Also, the Constitution was drafted/designed/rigged by the upper class for the benefit of the upper class.  This bias is documented in numerous studies, including Charles A Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States; Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution; and Michael Klarman, The Framer’s Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution.

Since everything that exists has a design/structure/form and therefore by its very existence is rigged/biased/skewed, there cannot be anything—a constitution, government, game, automobile, algorithm, app, whatever!—that affects everyone equally. You can’t make or find anything that’s not rigged, that doesn’t advantage some people more than others. 

Here’s how to move ahead in a rigged world, the only world there is:

* Acknowledge and accept the universality of rigging/bias.

* If the rigging of whatever you’re interested in–say, an economic system–is acceptable to you, maintain that rigging/design or, perhaps, strengthen it. 

* If a particular rigging is not acceptable to you, modify or eliminate it and rig the system to your liking.  

* Whatever you do, don’t try to make or find anything that’s not rigged, biased, skewed, or discriminatory. Don’t try to do what can’t be done. This is not Smokey and the Bandit.

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