Seth Godin Akimbo: Belief and Engineering

In his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discussed the differences between belief vs. engineering-oriented thinking.

All species navigate the world based on some belief they hold. Belief is what we think is going to happen next, and the hope that things will be as they were. It would be difficult to operate in our world without some level of belief. As human society evolves, we also have acquired more logical reasoning along the way.

Logical reasoning and rational thinking are the ability to make decisions based on how the world is. Often the rational thinking would conflict with our beliefs. That does not mean that belief is not important. Belief remains essential to us, but belief and engineering sometimes do not go well together.

What does it mean to get hung up on belief when we are facing an engineering problem? When there are two competing engineering solutions, the solution that performs better will prevail and become the accepted approach. When there are two competing beliefs at work, it rarely happens that one side will completely accept the other.

What we seek in engineering is someone who can prove us wrong. When that happens, we know that we may have found something better. We get into trouble when forces are encouraging us to maintain our belief at the very same time that engineering and scientific methods are showing us that it cannot be true.

When belief overshadows scientific methods, that becomes pseudo-science. We practice pseudo-science when we are seeking to defend our belief using terms of engineering and science. These are some symptoms of pseudo-science.

The first symptom is talking with vague, exaggerated, or unstable claims. The second is the over-reliance on confirmation rather than repudiation. The third rule is a lack of openness to testing by others. The fourth is the absence of progress. The next one is the personalization of feedback. And the last one is the use of misleading language to evade challenges.

All these do not mean holding a belief is a bad thing. Leveraging belief in a positive way can result in the placebo effect, and placebo can be powerful for human beings. That is because belief can change how humans act and live.

When we see how belief can heal someone’s illness, the placebo effect feels real to that person. In many cases, belief will increase human performance on certain activities for some people. While there is nothing wrong with someone’s placebo, we should not confuse those cases as proven scientific facts. Positive results from placebo are not engineering thinking. Placebo is someone telling themselves a story because it makes them feel better.

So why do we stick with our beliefs? One reason is peer pressure and tribal belonging. The second reason might be status-seeking. And the third reason is the need to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Our present challenge is to avoid falling into the trap of pseudo-scientific, non-engineering beliefs. How can we build beliefs that are resilient in the face of engineering truth and continue to take forward motion on evolving our beliefs? How do we create beliefs and adhere to them in ways that help more of us? When the tension between the belief and engineering arises between people, how can we create unity, rather than division?

We now have the opportunities of accessing to a more accurate explanation of how the world works. What we have is the opportunity to build on that knowledge and find resilience with each other. We do not need to work so hard to defend our belief for the sake of denying engineering truth. Instead, we should leverage the available engineering know-how and get back to becoming the capable people we seek to be.