Pizza from Scratch, 106

22 October, 2007

Hazzards of intellectual or ideological purity

© Bill Lemmond (Actually, you're welcome to download and share these web-resolution images, and you probably won't be happy with printing them.)

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Anthropology says humans are social animals. We give each other bonuses we can't get alone.

The first panel refers to an old story, about several blind men trying to figure out an elephant by touch. Usually it ends with the radically different conclusions, as though they don't discuss their findings, and, say all shift to the left or right, around the elephant. One runs his hands around a leg and says "An elephant is like a tree." Another describes the tail as "a rope." The one running his hands over one side says "No, an elephant is like a wall." And the way I've heard the story told, they are left in this disagreement.

What would happen next would be an argument, at first, each of them thoroughly convinced by the evidence of his hands. Yet that certainty would also make them wonder about the rest of the elephant. When they talk it over, and put together all the individual impressions, the result is a pretty good idea of how an elephant is shaped.

No one knows everything. I've seen a bumper sticker that quotes Albert Einstein as saying "No nation can simultaneously prepare for and prevent war." I wonder if the creators of the bumper sticker remember that Einstein worked for a while in a Swiss patent office. By his time, Switzerland had been strictly neutral for centuries. The bumper sticker makers, and Einstein, should have been aware of this, and of the Swiss Army.

Back in Einstein's time, every able-bodied male Swiss was required to belong to the Swiss Army. They took the "minute man" concept to a nationally organized level. By the time Einstein made his statement, Switzerland had truly prepared for and prevented war for centuries. This goes to show that no one can be an expert on everything, and if we try, we'll fool some people, the ones who want to believe us. And we and they will make fools of ourselves.

It's better to remember that we need each other, to see into each others' blind spots. NASA has learned the hard way. They've lost multi-million dollar satellites because no one caught a mistake in the calculations. They will now have as many as a hundred people on a project team, each one as different from the others as possible, to cover all the angles.

The alternative is what I think of as intellectual inbreeding. People gather in groups that self-select for an ever more like-thinking composition. They tell each other they've thought of everything, and they believe it. Others call what results "Group Think." One example here, is from me generally left to be a group of one, working on these cartoons, despite my requests for editorial input. The pacifist is based on a large woman who for someone committed to peace was verbally assaultive. I realize I should have used a dove, just a fat one. Now it looks like I think pacifists are "chickens." I know many pacifists are actually very courageous. Unlike many people, they'll confront people who disagree, rather than stick to the safety of like minds.

Panel 2: It's only more obvious when it occurs in religion or politics. Academics and business people become isolated groups in "Silos" (the kind that store grain of one kind). And NASA has shown that engineer teams can have blind spots.

Panel 3: I've heard both of these comments at VCU.

One of my friends who has run role-playing games for one group of friends came up with a rule, just for fun. If two characters both fail in separate attempts AND collide with each other, they fall in love.