Eric Knight is a former Rhodes scholar, who has worked as an economics consultant to the OECD, the UN and the World Bank, and has written for various Australian newspapers. Andrew Wrathall spoke to him about his first book Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems (Black Inc.). (See the book review here.)
You write that we get distracted by what is visually compelling, but how do we change our focus to look at the bigger picture?
Near the start of the book, I describe a simple puzzle which was developed in the 1940s by the psychologist, Karl Duncker. I won’t go into the details here, but the puzzle intrigued me because I failed miserably at it. I later learnt that five-year-olds were the best at solving it. My mistake—and the one I examine throughout the book—was to view the elements of the puzzle in a stereotypical way and miss the hidden connections between things. Five-year-olds, by contrast, approached the problem with fresh eyes.
Reframe is an attempt to apply Duncker’s insight about human psychology to politics. The way we look at political problems directly affects our ability to solve them. I show a different side to our stickiest problems–from the frontline of the war on terror to Mexicans crossing the border into Tea Party America. The book is an attempt to reframe each of these problems. But even if you disagree with my final conclusions, I try to offer a new way of thinking about how to change the world. Our best answers arise by trial and error, not by the neat application of abstract ideas.
Did your frustration with the way people think drive your need to understand them?
No, I actually came to write Reframe for a very different reason. I’m an optimist about human nature. There have been many books written recently which essentially argue that people are irrational. I make the opposite case: people are rational with a good heart and head.
History, however, is obviously filled with many instances of human misjudgement and error. I explore several of them in the book. My first chapter, for example, is called ‘Why people are smart but act so dumb’. My claim is that these are momentary blips rather than structural flaws. Correction is possible.
We all want to distil complexity in the world around us. When we fail, it is usually because an issue has been misrepresented rather than because of mindful malice. Our greatest challenge is to frame political problems in the right way. An alternative, and inferior, approach is to assume there is a dark side to human nature which can be curbed by benevolent dictum.
Do you believe our world leaders often neglect historical fact?
I think our world leaders are guilty of something more subtle. Politicians simplify messages because they think it makes them easier for us to understand. However, I actually think simplifying problems can make them harder to solve.
World leaders might be better served by heightening their respect for our natural intelligence. They could trust us with more complexity not less. We are not in a political stalemate because our world leaders neglect historical facts, as such. We’re in a stalemate because leaders presume we won’t understand complex facts.
Reframe tackles global problems. Have you thought about writing a book that looks at local issues in Australian politics?
I have thought about it and that might be my next book! But I wrote this book after spending three years living in England. What fascinated me whilst there was that the British fought over political issues for remarkably similar reasons to why we did. The same applied in the United States and continental Europe. The players were different and the factual contexts were obviously unique. But the reasons—the common, almost universal, nature of political misunderstanding—were similar.
That contradicts something commonly said about Australian politics. Australian politics is parochial, people say. They don’t sweat the small stuff in the grander political pastures of North America and Europe. I disagree. It’s the common thread you can weave between the immigration debates in the United States and the climate conundrums of Great Britain which really intrigues me.
I’ll let my readers apply the lessons to Australia. But I think you can get a deeper understanding of your own country by observing a parallel political world abroad.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I really enjoyed Michael Lewis’ new book Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour (Allen Lane). He is a fantastic writer and has a wonderful way of making economics come to life through its quirkiest characters and their real life stories. I also liked Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane). He has built a reputation for arguing the counterintuitive side of history. You don’t have to agree with Ferguson to appreciate his ability to distil very complex ideas into simple prose.