The I of the Beholder
The Emperor and Enron
You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but the easiest person to fool is yourself. Especially when the products of your own wishful thinking are also being peddled by higher authorities.
So it struck me as particularly apt that I took a class of UCLA students to the oddball Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City during a week when the Enron mirage was dissolving; when dubious claims for the production of fusion energy got major play in the journal Science; when Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson was trying to turn people's attention to wholesale extinction of life; when military planners were blithely bringing back nuclear weapons as instruments of foreign policy.
The struggle of science has always been somehow to get outside ourselves, so we can see the world objectively. The struggle has always been doomed. "We each live our mental life in a prison-house from which there is no escape," wrote the British physicist James Jeans. "It is our body; and its only communication with the outer world is through our sense organs-eyes, ears, etc. These form windows through which we can look out on to the outer world and acquire knowledge of it."
The windows are cloudy, of course, veiled by expectations, distorted by frames of reference, disturbed by our very attempts to look. Especially when we stand so close that we can't see through the fog of our own hot breath, our own smudgy fingerprints.
This is the sort of thinking bound to trail you like a wake out of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. If you haven't been there, I'm not going to recommend it. It will make you laugh, but it will also upset you. It will leave you wondering if you just didn't get it, or if you got it too well, or if someone was pulling your leg, or if you were pulling your own. You will wonder what thoughts are yours, and which are planted, and why we are so exceedingly well wired to believe official pronouncements-especially when they are obscure, pompous, and make us feel a little stupid.
Probably just as artist/creator David Wilson intended.*
For example, this funky piece of performance art might bring to mind-as it did for one of my students-Enron. How could so many people, so many accountants and investors and regulators and business journalists, believe so completely in so much thin air? At least in part because the "authorities" convinced us it was okay to do so and, worse, convinced each other.
The mind creates reality as well as muddles it. That is how placebos work.
As a friend likes to say, far more insidious than an emperor without clothes are clothes without an emperor. Authorities should always be stripped.
Scientists have thin patience for mere veneers, which is why many physicists complained loudly when the prestigious journal Science prominently touted a breakthrough in tabletop fusion technology-despite the widespread skepticism of the scientific community, despite failure to duplicate the results. Not that there was no there there. Just maybe there was. But tentative truths do not deserve such royal window dressing. The authority of science (or Science) is too powerful to toss around lightly.
Of course, as Jeans pointed out, our view is always partly cloudy. The closer we are, the harder it is to see. The greatest danger is believing we can ever completely separate ourselves from our surroundings. Consider, as E. O. Wilson does, the blatant absurdity of talking about the environment as if it were something apart from ourselves, a special-interest lobby, remote and foreign, like "outer space" or Afghanistan.
Increasingly, we are the environment.
As E. O. Wilson points out in The Future of Life, when humanity passed the six-billion mark, "we had already exceeded by as much as a hundred times the biomass of any large animal species that ever existed on land." We consume and exhale stuff in such huge quantities that we have already changed the air, the water, the continents. By the end of this century, we may well have extinguished half the species of plants and animals that ever lived.
We take comfort in the thought that extinction happens only to exotic creatures-big scary dinosaurs and tiny insignificant fish. Not in our backyards. The truth is, we are in serious danger of extinguishing almost everything, not excluding ourselves. And we can't stop if we can't see.
Self-referential systems are a bear. This sentence is false. Or not.
The authorities aren't helping. Instead, some authorities are telling us that we should be ready to use nuclear weapons-which do not merely destroy cities but vaporize them-to make the world safe from terror.
Somebody please get the Windex.
I didn't understand what a truly bizarre place L.A. was until a few months after I arrived and was invited to a Halloween party. Despite considerable effort, I couldn't find an appropriate "costume": No matter how outrageous a getup I picked, I was informed it was "normal" attire for someone.
A scant year later, a friend visiting from the East Coast kept surprising me by exclaiming every time we passed a thong bikini or a crown of spiked hair.
For her, these oddities demanded attention; for me, they were already wallpaper.
So it goes. What at first glance sets off sirens in your cerebellum, after a while fails to stir up so much as a neuronal breeze.
I was horrified to see my daughter go to school with bra straps showing, only to realize that all her friends were wearing more or less the same attire.
These days, I don't even notice errant lingerie-on myself or anyone else.
We get used to almost anything that comes upon us slowly. The classic example is the frog plopped into a pot of hot water; he promptly leaps out. Place the same frog into cool water and turn the heat up slowly, however, and he'll sit contentedly until he's cooked.*
It can be useful not to notice things, of course. You'd be endlessly distracted if you couldn't shut out constant signals such as the feel of clothes on your skin, the glasses on your nose, the nose on your face. (And when would college students ever sleep if they couldn't tune out professors during lectures?)
Then again, some people become so accustomed to their own bad smells or foul manners that their "normal" becomes unbearable for anyone else.
Resetting "normal" means, in effect, resetting the zero point for sensation. (Physicists even use a version of this-appropriately enough called renormalization-to set unwanted effects to zero.) To register, a signal needs to rise above the background-like a car radio in a convertible. Like the stars over city lights.
It's a now classic L.A. story: After the Northridge earthquake, when L.A. went suddenly dark, hundreds of worried people called Griffith Observatory wondering about those strange lights overhead. So steadily that hardly anyone noticed, we'd been spilling city light into the sky, washing out the stars; and while a nearly starless sky seemed "normal," the sight of thousands of stars was shocking.
Leave it to the Czech Republic (a nation run by a playwright) to become the first nation to pass a law prohibiting light pollution.
Here's a scarier example: Not so long ago, the deadly microorganism known to biologists as Clostridium botulinum was known primarily as the source of a lethal poison found lurking in bulging soup cans-one of the most poisonous substances known. Today, it's a beauty treatment, injected at some expense into foreheads to make wrinkles go (temporarily) away. This has gotten to be so "normal" that Botox parties are today what Tupperware parties were to my mother's generation.
This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. A...