Which of your convictions goes against mainstream thought?

I am increasingly suspicious that agreeing is the worst of illusions.” – Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch.

Although some consider it the ultimate question to getting to know a job candidate, I am not entirely convinced of the prudence of introducing potentially divisive topics in the midst of an interview. Nonetheless, I find the question itself to be an exceptional catalyst for introspection, compelling me to examine those deeply held beliefs I have, that stand in contrast to widespread consensus.

In today’s essay, I delve into the intriguing question that serves as the title for this post and provide three personal responses.

The question

Peter Thiel’s name echoes through the halls of entrepreneurship and tech investment. Renowned for co-founding PayPal and for his early investment in Facebook, Thiel has left an indelible mark on the tech world not just with his financial acumen but also with his forward-thinking ideas. In his book “Zero to One,” which delves into the realms of innovation and entrepreneurship, he poses a provocative question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I find the question to be thought-provoking; however, I prefer a slight twist on it, which also serves as the title for this blog entry: “Which of your convictions goes against mainstream thought?” The term “truth” outside the rigorous realm of mathematics, always seems a tad presumptuous to me; I’m more comfortable discussing “facts,” particularly those backed by expert consensus, or “convictions,” which represent my firmly held beliefs yet leave room for debate and dialogue.

Regarding the notion that “very few people agree with you,” I’ve tweaked it too, since it can be a challenging condition to fulfill. No matter how offbeat, unconventional, or even bizarre a viewpoint might be, there’s invariably a group of people somewhere who will share it.

Thiel’s rationale for asking such a question, as he explains in his book, stems from his observation that progress operates on two levels: the incremental enhancement of existing knowledge and the breakthrough of profoundly novel paradigms that challenge the status quo.

Innovation and progress are inherently tied to the type of thinking that dares to question established beliefs. This defiance of the conventional wisdom is crucial; often, progress doesn’t come from treading the well-worn path but rather from venturing into the unknown. History’s most transformative innovations were frequently born from ideas initially dismissed or overlooked by the mainstream.

While not explicitly mentioned in “Zero to One,” Thiel’s line of thought resonates with Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms presented in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn posits that the advancement of human knowledge unfolds through periods of “normal science” punctuated by scientific revolutions that fundamentally reconfigure our understanding, frequently clashing with the previously accepted theories. This dynamic mirrors what happens across various domains of knowledge and practice, where groundbreaking ideas disrupt the old paradigms and forge new avenues for thought and action.

The concept of “creative disruption,” coined by Clayton Christensen, encapsulates the moment when an innovative idea or technology fundamentally shifts our understanding and operations, often displacing established systems or products. Such disruption exemplifies the profound, enduring impact of contrarian ideas.

Our history brims with individuals whose initially contrarian ideas proved pivotal to human progress. From Galileo, whose heliocentric theories upended the established geocentric worldview, to Steve Jobs, whose vision for consumer technology redefined entire industries, these figures underscore the significance of divergent thinking.

It’s crucial, however, to recognize that not all ideas that buck the trend lead to advancement. For every revolutionary concept that withstands the test of time, countless others falter under scrutiny. The hallmark of truly progressive ideas is not merely their novelty but their resilience to critical evaluation and their demonstrated long-term value.

Thiel’s inquiry prompts us to venture beyond mainstream thinking and to ponder which underrecognized truths might be awaiting discovery, truths that could revolutionize our worldview. Yet, to effect such transformation, it isn’t enough to merely unearth unconventional convictions; the imperative lies in rigorously scrutinizing these ideas through reason and evidence. Balancing originality with analytical rigor is indispensable for spurring genuine innovation and advancement across disciplines.

In this essay, I’ll share three personal convictions that respond to Thiel’s challenge, each challenging a different societal norm:

  • Elections, as revered and practiced in our times, are detrimental to true democratic processes.
  • Mathematics should not be a compulsory subject in the school curriculum, but rather an optional one.
  • Peace should be redefined strictly as the absence of physical violence.

These three topics have been recurring themes on my blog. I’ve dedicated a significant effort to developing a clear, informed perspective on these matters, striving for a viewpoint that’s informed yet open to reasoned debate. Nevertheless, when I have written about them, I have always encountered a very critical reaction from my readers, and on some occasions, I noticed that my words hit a nerve. Although I do not believe I am the only person with these convictions, I am pretty sure they are not mainstream. Yet.

Challenging the Sanctity of Elections

Among my core convictions, this may well be the most contentious: elections, widely held as the bedrock of democracy, are fundamentally flawed and can actually hinder the pursuit of genuine and effective democratic governance in today’s world. This view counters the common conviction that elections are inherently just and reflective of the “people’s will.”

My critical examination of elections began in 2018 with an essay that I hoped would strike a chord with readers, especially given the prevailing dissatisfaction that followed elections or referendums all around the world. Instead of providing solutions, elections seemed to breed further division and unrest.

What took me by surprise was the intense aversion my piece provoked. The kindest of my critics offered jokes or mild agreement, attributing my perspective to a deep pessimism (the view that all is bad, and politicians corrupt; thus, noticing that elections are harmful is merely a coda). Yet, others responded with vehement and passionate criticism.

I pressed on, delving deeper into the subject of elections through various blog posts. Viewing elections as a form of social technology was a revelation, leading me to understand that, like any technology, elections warrant rigorous analysis, critique, and—most crucially—innovation or replacement if found wanting. This critique echoes thinkers like David Van Reybrouck, who label elections a “toxic technology” for converting the people’s will into government and policy.

However, I’m acutely aware that in broaching this topic, I’m rowing against the tide, and I doubt I’ve ever swayed anyone to reconsider their stance on elections. The mere hint of opposition to elections, or worse, the act of not voting, is abhorrent to many.

The most frequent misinterpretation of my viewpoint is that it arises from apathy or an undisclosed political bias. This couldn’t be further from the truth. My primary contention is that elections, as a construct, demand perpetual innovation. While I don’t profess to have the perfect remedy, I do believe that an effective solution will likely differ across societies and decision-making contexts. But crucially, we must not regard elections as sacrosanct and immutable; rather, we should see them as systems open to enhancement and evolution.

Who comprises this small, critical chorus questioning the electoral process? We are a niche collective, often with academic leanings, typically aligning with progressive politics—a fact I find somewhat discomfiting. I would prefer a broader and more inclusive critique of the electoral process, one that recognizes its widespread flaws and resonates with people across the entire political spectrum, from moderates to radicals, on both the left and the right.

I hold no grand illusions of spearheading a significant social movement to overhaul the electoral system. Instead, my aim is that my writings might spark thought in others, potentially those with greater influence, to take up and advance these discussions. Perhaps, over time, these musings can ignite a real transformation in how we conceive and enact democracy.

Rethinking Math as an Elective in Schools

In the same vein as my views on elections, I hold another potentially contentious belief: math in middle and high school should be an elective, not a compulsory element of the standard curriculum. This isn’t to suggest we should do away with math education; rather, we should reform it to align better with each student’s unique needs and interests.

As someone who is deeply passionate about math, my critique arises not from disdain for the subject but from a place of deep respect and appreciation. My journey through academia and my professional career have prompted me to challenge the unchecked prominence of math in our school systems, where its mandatory nature often incites fear and aversion, overshadowing curiosity and comprehension.

The way math is taught can sometimes seem more like a tool for intimidation, leaving many students with a sort of academic trauma. The esteem and importance granted to math in educational settings do not translate into a positive learning experience. For many adults, the memory of math classes is one of anxiety and intimidation, a far cry from genuine appreciation and understanding.

The common justifications for compulsory math education in high school — its omnipresence in our lives, the structured thinking it fosters, and the career doors it opens — warrant a more critical examination. Though math is vital for the advancement of science and technology, its high school instruction often fails to make the subject relevant or engaging. Instead of captivating students with math’s elegance and practicality, the current curriculum tends to drown them in rote procedures and out-of-context theories.

Furthermore, the belief that math study is the exclusive route to rational and analytical thinking dismisses other cognitive development methods that can be just as beneficial and less intimidating, like brain-stimulating games and activities.

The argument that math education is a prerequisite for lucrative careers in engineering, computing, or finance is also oversimplified. While math skills are indeed necessary for many professions, this notion doesn’t hold up in the classroom, where practical applications are scarce. Additionally, equating math proficiency with career success overlooks the myriad fulfilling professions not predicated on advanced math.

I find the practice of using math as a gatekeeper for higher education and certain professions to be deeply flawed. It’s not uncommon for students to be required to master advanced math courses like Calculus, regardless of their future career interests or aptitudes. This approach not only generates needless stress but also imposes an arbitrary barrier that may not reflect an individual’s true capabilities or potential.

I advocate for a paradigm shift where math becomes a choice, not a mandate. For students with a genuine interest, we should offer more advanced and challenging courses than the current ones. This would include a more detailed approach to mathematical theories and their practical applications, such as Analysis, Topology, and Differential Equations; areas that are rarely explored in the context of today’s classrooms.

For everyone else, a curriculum that covers basic arithmetic, statistics, and numerical literacy, alongside modules that demystify math’s broader concepts and uses, would be more appropriate. This would allow students to develop essential numerical skills without the pressure and anxiety that often accompanies the learning of more advanced mathematics.

Making math optional would allow us to create a more inclusive educational environment—one that encourages students to pursue their individual interests and develop their unique talents. By adapting math education to better fit diverse student profiles, we can cultivate a climate of learning where each student has the opportunity to thrive and discover their own path, both academically and in their future careers.

Defining Peace as the Absence of Physical Violence

My third and final conviction that goes against the mainstream, is related to the notion of peace, specifically in the context of Colombia—a nation marked by an 80-year legacy of conflict. In my view, peace in Colombia should be defined as the absence of physical violence. This stands in contrast to the often broad and ambiguous concept of peace that is ingrained in the collective mindset and reflected in the policies of my country.

Understanding peace as the absence of physical violence means our main measure of any peace effort’s success should hinge on a very specific set of statistics: homicide rates, killings of social and political leaders, extortion, forced displacement, disappearances, massacres, kidnappings, and the forced recruitment of children to irregular armies, for example. Yet, in Colombia, peace and violence are rarely framed in such clear terms.

The 1987 Commission for the Study of Violence (Comisión de Estudios sobre la Violencia, CEV) exemplifies the flawed and predominant approach to this critical issue that I’ve noted. The CEV was tasked with diagnosing the causes of violence in Colombia during the peak of the drug cartel wars. However, it erred significantly by defining violence too broadly, encompassing everything from economic inequality to social intolerance. This excessively wide lens diluted the concept of violence, making it unwieldy for crafting effective policy.

The CEV’s ambitious but unfocused take on violence, which included a myriad of issues from domestic and economic violence to political and drug-related violence, failed to offer a clear strategy for tackling the core problem. Almost every societal issue was reframed as a form of violence, leaving policymakers and citizens without a unified framework for addressing the real issue at hand. This lack of focus has hindered the fight against violence.

The 2016 peace deal with the FARC further illustrates the muddled understanding Colombians have regarding the nation’s most profound crisis. Touted as a step toward peace, the agreement didn’t address the reduction of violence effectively or directly. The discussions and policies surrounding it focused more on conditions for the disarmament of one guerrilla group (which, in particular, was far from monopolizing violence in Colombia) rather than on resolving the structural issues of violence in the country.

The benefits of the FARC agreement, particularly its first point on comprehensive agricultural development and the sixth on victim recognition and reparations, are significant for the country’s transformation. Nonetheless, the agreement failed to connect how these points would lead to a tangible decrease in physical violence. That the number of homicides has barely fluctuated between twelve and thirteen thousand per year in the nine years since the bilateral ceasefire with the FARC is a clear indication of a resounding failure of the agreement, and that in Colombia we never came close to anything resembling peace. The reality of violence was so overlooked that even during the accord’s ratification stage, it was already predictable that violence would not diminish, even if the agreement was signed and implemented. But this should not be surprising, of course: what it was understood as peace during the 2016 referendum did not include anywhere the hopes of decreasing in violence.

As we stand in 2024, it’s clear that without a proper understanding of peace, Colombia remains engulfed in the same fears and turmoil as a decade ago.

We must sharpen our definition and approach to peace. It should not be an all-encompassing term that blurs a range of social and economic problems but should concentrate squarely on eradicating physical violence. Only with this precise and quantifiable approach can we hope to craft effective strategies that will significantly reduce violence and steer Colombia towards a genuine and enduring peace.

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