The deadly truth about ... truth

November 20, 2008

How did we get into today's financial mess? A month before its catastrophic failure, Wall Street analysts rated Enron a "buy." So, why then did the Enron debacle happen?

How do groups privy to special knowledge and "truths" make decisions that lead to disasters like the Iraq War, the sinking of the Titanic, and the blow up of the Challenger Shuttle? How could such informed experts end up being so wrong?

In DEADLY DECISIONS: HOW FALSE KNOWLEDGE SANK THE TITANIC, BLEW UP THE SHUTTLE, AND LED AMERICA INTO WAR (Prometheus Books, $26.95), Christopher Burns, one of the country's leading experts on modern information management, searches the biology of the brain, the behavior of groups, and the structure of organizations for practical answers to the problem of "virtual truth"--elaborate constructs of internally consistent evidence and assumptions that purport to describe reality, but can often be dead wrong.

While other information experts were pushing technology on corporations, industries, and government to help their flow of information, Burns--who has served on several national commissions on information and communications technology, economics and public policy, and on the board of the Information Industry Association for eight years--looked toward the human side of the problem. He turned to the science of the brain, philosophy of truth, and sociology of groups. He analyzed major disasters like Three Mile Island, the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes, and the rising incidence of medical error. He discovered that leading organizations full of smart people working hard with the best available tools became more vulnerable the more they depended on information.

DEADLY DECISIONS is a catalog of horrors, from the sinking of the Titanic to the decision to invade Iraq. It looks at failures in government, in business, in science and in our personal lives. The bankruptcy of Enron, the terrorist attack on 9/11, the collapse of the Ted Williams tunnel in Boston were all information failures. People dismissed warnings, didn't read the fine print, distorted the facts, guessed at the answer, kept silent in a crisis and then pretended that nothing happened. But the book is also a serious attempt to gather what is known about how to avoid these disasters.

Burns suggests that, as individuals, we must learn to be skeptical of our own sly and beguiling minds. As members of a group, we need to be more wary of the omissions, inventions, and distortions that come naturally to all of us. As consumers of information, we have to hold professionals, politicians, and the media more accountable.

Paul Zurkowski, founder and former president of the Information Industry Associations notes, "Burns has searched through the details of a dozen disasters in recent years to find an alarming and consistent pattern of false knowledge and failed decisions, explaining in the process how many of these are the natural result of the brain's biology, individual behavior, and group decision-making. If your company's success, your security, or your life are riding on someone else's information skills, urge them to read this book."

As Burns makes clear, only through a deeper understanding of how individuals, groups, and society process information can we succeed in those extraordinary endeavors that are the promise of the Information Age.
Christopher Burns (Ipswich, MA) has been a news executive and an independent consultant to government and the private sector for thirty years, advising clients on emerging information management technologies and the evolution of the information economy. His previous positions include vice president of the Washington Post Company; senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune; executive editor of UPI; and president of Christopher Burns, Inc.

Prometheus Books

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