Technology development and life lessons

Published: January 30, 2018
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. 
He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

As someone who works in technology development, I know the importance of failure and mistakes. This is perhaps the most important lesson we have learned as we have developed solutions to tackle global health challenges, including testing of substandard and fake drugs. While never desired, we have made mistakes in design, in calculations and in implementations. Acknowledging these errors have allowed us to change course, recognise the limitation of our approach and help us learn about who we are. Recognising mistakes are painful, often embarrassing and undoubtedly an acknowledgement that important resources, whether time or material ones, were lost. But there is no alternative. Any engineer or technology developer will tell you that when something goes wrong due to an error in judgment, calculation, design or implementation, insisting that it is not an error, or pinning the blame on someone else, is dangerous, unprofessional and never acceptable. Errors and lapses do happen and acknowledging them makes us human.

Often lessons flow from experiences in life to experiences in the lab, but every now and then they can flow the other way as well. A recognition of errors, and the ability to fully and wholly accept responsibility, is one such scenario.

Three independent events, over the last six months, have made me realise how rare this basic attribute is. First, let us start with the UN General Assembly and the speech by our ambassador, where she used a picture of a Palestinian girl to highlight the Indian actions in Kashmir. It was an error and an international embarrassment. It was indeed unfortunate, but the right thing to do was not to go on the offensive with India, but to say that this was indeed an error. For showing the wrong picture was unfair and insulting to not only Kashmiris but also Palestinians. The right thing should have been to say that we made a mistake, and say a five-letter word: sorry. Instead, we tried to deflect, made a series of wild accusations and seemed to show that we either didn’t care, or we didn’t understand the value of being professional.

Let us now move to recent weeks. The editor of Newsweek Pakistan made a series of highly insensitive and inflammatory remarks on Twitter. They were misguided, misplaced, inappropriate and just plain wrong. The best thing to do, in that case, was not to attack anyone who questioned them, or to somehow insult the intelligence of everyone by suggesting that the remarks were right but those who read them somehow didn’t understand them. The best thing to do was to simply say folks, I messed up. It was wrong and I am sorry about this.

Fast forward another few days and we have the story in a late-night show about a wild conspiracy theory about the incident in Kasur. That story has now been thoroughly debunked. The story captivated the interests of people from the apex court to the armchair analysts in the drawing room for about a day and a half. Unfortunately, public time and expenses were used to investigate the myth perpetuated there. Here, the anchor could have taken the high road, and said that I made a mistake. The information that I had, he could have said, was incorrect and I should have taken more responsibility in verifying it. He could have said that this was a gross error, and for which, he is sorry. But he didn’t. Spinning new conspiracy theories that are grander than the last one, and showing defiance in the face of truth, is not only unprofessional, it is also a huge disservice to the memory of the innocent victims.

The judgment to recognise an error is about humility and respect for others, who we somehow believe are going to buy our arguments or approve of our arrogant insistence. They often don’t. Better to respect their intelligence and keep our dignity intact by recognising that we are ultimately quite fallible.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2018.

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