Self-doubt is essential for scientists and inventors. Doubt helps us avoid mistakes. Doubt leads us to discoveries. Unfortunately, it’s easy to say we constantly question our own beliefs--and hard to do.
People try to convince themselves and others that they are healthy skeptics merely because they question and challenge other people’s ideas. Sorry, but that doesn't fly. It’s easy to doubt ideas in which we have little if anything invested. A genuine healthy skeptic challenges his or her own convictions and leanings, and does so repeatedly.
I just finished reading The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a compilation of speeches and other short works by the American Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. The importance of being skeptical is a recurring theme in the book. Some of my favorite quotes from Feynman on the subject are:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."
"I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy."
"…I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing."
Specifically, Feynman said that it’s important for scientists to report all of the details of their investigations, highlighting areas of uncertainty. (Yes, even scientists tend to "spin" their results.) And when following up on recent research by others, they should carefully repeat the original experiments. In Feynman’s view, there is a continuum of certainty. At one extreme is complete doubt, and at the other extreme is complete certainty; science always operates between these extremes. Scientists like to give others the impression they deal with absolute certainty, but that's not true.
I encounter many people who say they are skeptical thinkers, but I encounter very few people who really live by the ideas above. In fact, I see people proudly displaying a distinct lack of skepticism.
For example, I often hear scientists say “We now know (fill in the blank).” What they should say is “We now believe…” or “We now think we know…”
As America’s second greatest inventor (after Thomas Edison), Edwin H. Armstrong, was fond of saying “It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It’s the things people know that ain’t so.”
We tend to reduce any topic we are investigating to a few key facts and principles. It helps us to get our arms around the issues. Unfortunately, there is inevitably some loss of information. The lost information doesn’t seem crucial at the time, but it often becomes important later. That's why it's necessary to remain vigilant.
Apply this thinking to controversies such as global warming, intelligent design, superstrings, and health care reform. I'm not suggesting that the accepted view is necessarily wrong. Nor am I saying both sides are partly right. But we should recognize that our own positions are never completely unassailable, that the other person’s position may have merit we have overlooked, and that as healthy skeptics we should be willing to revisit ideas supported by people who are otherwise intelligent and reasonable—no matter how wrong we previously thought they were.
Note: several changes (including the title) were made Dec. 9 to clarify this post.
Back in April I wrote about the role of technology in the popular 1960s TV series Secret Agent. I promised a future post about Patrick McGoohan’s follow on series, The Prisoner.
Most fans believe The Prisoner is an allegorical story about technologically advanced democracies. Specifically, it is about the struggle to maintain one’s individuality in the face of the increasingly sophisticated tactics used by the media, education system, and government to enforce conformity.
With the winners of the U.S. elections talking about bigger government, community service plans, the Fairness Doctrine, a civilian national security force, and “unity over division,” this seems like a good time to discuss The Prisoner.
The Prisoner was an extraordinary TV series—many critics consider it a masterpiece—about a British secret agent who resigns and is promptly drugged and kidnapped. He awakens in “The Village,” an isolated location from which there appears to be no escape. Most of the inhabitants are either brainwashed or submissive. McGoohan plays an iron-willed individualist, known only as Number Six, who is intent on escaping. His captors use various mind control techniques—most of them futuristic—to get him to reveal why he resigned. The Prisoner consists of 17 one-hour episodes filmed in 1967 in the fairyland town of Portmeiron on the coast of Wales.
In other words, The Prisoner is more about the future of society than the future of technology. Though the technology is often intriguing it is in most cases just a MacGuffin—a story element for moving the plot along. For example, sometimes a pulsating light is used in attempts to control Number Six’s mind, but we never learn whether it emits invisible rays or the light itself is the active ingredient.
Certain technologies appear throughout the series. There are cordless phones—though these did not become commercially available until the 1980s. In fact, the FCC did not issue the Carterphone decision (allowing consumers to attach third party equipment to phone lines) until 1968—the year after the series was filmed. Most locations in The Village, indoors as well as outdoors, are monitored by full-color, full-motion video cameras. This would have been technically feasible but extraordinarily complex and expensive at the time. And then there is Rover, a beach ball-like creature (or device?) launched from the sea floor to capture anyone trying to escape.
Advanced technology is particularly evident in specific episodes. In Episode Three (“A, B & C”), the village authorities use a combination of drugs and electronics to manipulate and observe Number Six’s dreams. In Episode Five (“The Schizoid Man”), a combination of plastic surgery and electro shock therapy is used in an attempt to convince Number Six that he is someone else. Episode Six, “The General,” uses an advanced form of hypnosis to impart voluminous knowledge of historical facts to TV viewers.
Episode Thirteen (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”) is very much a sci-fi episode. A machine invented by a Professor Seltzman is used to transfer one person’s mind to the body of another. Episode Fourteen (“Living in Harmony”) uses a combination of drugs and virtual reality technology to make Number Six think he has somehow been transported to a town in the Wild West.
Other details—often subtle—suggest The Prisoner takes place in the future. For example, The Village contains highly eclectic architecture and residents wear distinctive yet strangely uniform clothing. Signage and ID badges are aesthetically pleasing with, however, a strong hint of totalitarianism.
The main message of The Prisoner appears to be that as human society evolves it will become increasingly difficult to be an individualist. The threat comes not from the police, but from ever more sophisticated and covert forms of brainwashing.