I recently wrote a blog about nuclear weapons. I had argued that cataclysmic inventions like the atomic bomb are products of flaws in human nature. These include endless desires to innovate and conquer, and the refusal to give up territory or influence. Hunter wrote this blog in reply, and I wrote a response to that. (Below are the links for my original blog, and my reply to this one. This is part two in the trilogy of our dialogue about nuclear weapons and psychology.)
Recently, a fellow Mixed Mental Artist wrote a piece on The Dark Magic of Nuclear Weapons. I enjoyed it because as Andrew points out nuclear weapons are an amazing tool to reflect on the conflicting side of human nature. However, there was one word in his post that tripped me up, he described human psychology as “flawed.” And I think that’s a really problematic idea that is at the root of many of humanity’s problems. It’s the idea that somehow we’re broken or should be some other way. Reality is. It does it’s own thing. As a scientist, when it doesn’t behave the way I’d expect, my job is to get curious and try and figure out why.
This is actually where science’s biggest breakthroughs come from. If everything you observe perfectly fits what you believe, then there’s nothing to learn. BORING!
The real fun starts when facts build up that don’t fit your view of the world. Now, we have a problem. And that’s exactly what happened to physics over 100 years ago. At that point, physics seemed to have it all figured out. There was Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s equations about electricity and magnetism…physics had nailed it. They had it all figured out.
And then, all this data built up that didn’t fit this Classical Physics. Experiments like the photoelectric effect were super annoying. Was the experiment flawed? Nope. No matter how many times these experiments were run reality kept behaving in the same way. And then there was the behavior of stars. They were doing things that didn’t fit existing models like giving off light that was shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. Stars were being weird.
Or were they? Was the problem in our stars or in ourselves?
Some people decided the problem was in our stars. They dismissed these problems or downplayed them. It’s the age old problem of You Know Nothing, Jo(h)n Snow. But, a group of nobodies went and engaged with that new data and went about trying to make sense of it. Rather than blaming the stars, they blamed themselves. They said the problem isn’t with reality. The problem is our understanding of reality. The result was quantum physics and relativity. This basic pattern of data building up that doesn’t fit what people believe is the structure of scientific revolutions. If you haven’t read Thomas Kuhn’s famous book, well, you may not have to.
Like so much of what academics write, Kuhn’s book describes what is a scientific revolution in an unnecessarily convoluted way. Take this gem of a sentence which sums up the big takeaway of the whole book:
“Its assimilation requires the reconstruction of prior theory and re-evaluation of prior fact, an intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completed a single man and never overnight.” — Thomas Kuhn
Catchy, Tom. And yet, that experience of scientific revolutions isn’t something you need to go to a particle accelerator to see in action. It’s a process that all of humanity is having to deal with right NOW. People (who are part of reality) are behaving in ways many of us don’t understand.
Now, you have to make a choice. You have to make the same choice Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Werner Von Heisenberg and many more made. Do you blame reality for not working the way it’s supposed to or do you put responsibility on yourself to figure out how reality actually works? I made the decision to blame myself and it has and continues to radically improve my life for the better. Accepting that all human behavior is something you have to make sense of you are forced to confront what you believe about what one human in particular: you. It was easy for me to believe that the people who were in a cargo cult were somehow “flawed.” It was easy for me to believe that the people who went along with the NAZIs or Stalin were somehow “flawed.” And it was easy for me to believe that somehow scientists were special people and that religious people were somehow “flawed.” However, I came to accept that the real flaw was not in those tiny, distant dots scattered across the globe and across history. It was in what this human wanted to believe about himself. I wanted to believe that I was a star. My tribe was better. I wanted to believe that I was better. And then I realized that accepting I was no smarter than anyone else came with a surprising benefit: it meant the great men and women of history were no smarter than me and I could do what they did.
Human progress rests on embracing the fact that what seem like “bugs” in reality are actually “features” and can be exploited. Alexander Fleming had some petri dishes and saw that somehow colonies of fungus had gotten in there. However, rather than throwing them out, he noticed something odd.
Around the colonies of fungus, there was a ring where there were no bacteria. “Hmmm,” said Alexander Fleming.
And then he figured out how to exploit that odd bit of behavior. What if we could extract this compound this Penicillium fungus was producing and give it to people? The resulting compound was known as penicillin and because Fleming was curious about this flaw he pioneered the antibiotics that are such a feature of modern life.
So, what did Andrew describe as a flaw? Our tendency to be “wary of giving up any influence or territory once it is gained.” For a long time, I thought of that as a flaw. It’s massively counterproductive to the scientific effort that powerful people dig their heels in and say “You know nothing, Jo(h)n Snow.” It’s also annoying that companies like Hewlett-Packard and IBM with lots of power don’t use that power to launch personal computing revolutions. And it’s annoying that aristocrats don’t change their behavior. However, you get a revolution when a group of nobodies decide that that “flaw” in human psychology isn’t going away. It’s a feature. Incumbents resist change. Once you accept that, then you focus your energies on building something better that can disrupt the incumbents.
The existing cultures of the world are going to try and hold onto what they got. That’s what offers Mixed Mental Artsthe opportunity it has. We have nothing to lose. We have no privilege or power to defend. And so, we can be the force that drives the I.Q. Revolution by shaping better and better mental tools. And so, here’s another one.
There are no flaws. There are only features waiting to be understood and turned to humanity’s advantage.
Fortunately, there’s science here to help you make sense of how humans behave.
Mixed Mental Arts is here to help extract the best mental tools from these books and more. In the end though, as you earn your Mixed Mental Arts red belt, you’ll come to realize that Pogo got it right in a comic nearly 50 years ago.
Any flaws you see in human psychology are in you and it’s only by accepting them that you can work with them to make a world that works better for everyone.