© 2004 Williscroft
Carl Jung, the influential psychologist from the mid-20th century, called it the “Aha Experience.”
It’s happened to you several times in your life: that defining moment when you look up from a difficult problem and discover the solution … that indescribable feeling of “Aha … I’ve got it!”
Young scientists often describe that the first time they develop a significant insight, there is an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction, almost a feeling of power that accompanies the discovery. Often they spend the remainder of their lives trying to re-experience this intellectual high. It becomes addictive like a runner’s adrenaline rush or a heroin user’s drug-induced ecstasy.
This experience, of course, is not limited to science. In one way or another we all experience the high of “getting it,” of solving a problem or gaining an insight that carries us forward.
There is a curious aspect to this experience, however, that is not at all obvious at first blush. I will illustrate it with an example from my own writing for the online magazine DefenseWatch. My regular readers will recall my articles about France’s and Germany’s recent roles in the events leading up to the Iraqi conflict (see “Either You’re With Us, Or … ,” DefenseWatch, March 12, 2003, and “Why France and Germany Secretly Help Iraq,” DefenseWatch, Jan. 29, 2003).
I received a considerable response to these articles. The responses fell into two distinct categories. The first category could be labeled: “Right on!” The second: “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Here is an excerpt from the second category:
“Presumably you have no qualms as to the lack of justification or legitimacy for this 'war'? You can add Ireland, UK, Turkey, Italy and Spain to your list of countries to be blockaded as the majority of the populations of these 'democracies' are totally against this 'war'. Following that logic, add the US too because if your media were to do you the privilege of reporting facts, you would realize that the same resistance in public opinion terms exists in your country.”
I answered this writer by pointing out that the writer had missed my point:
“You missed the point: France is supplying weapons and the means of war to Iraq. That is categorically different from disagreeing with our approach.”
I confess that I thought that would be the end of it. This correspondent, however, had a rejoinder:
“You're missing the point, the resistance to war in Iraq by the vast majority of the voting public of the western European 'democratic' states is principled on an absolute lack of moral imperative, underlined by extremely shoddy evidence propounded by Bush and Blair. This includes the French, and the French Government, (who granted have other interests at heart), but then again did not Secretary Rumsfeld once extend the hand of friendship and assistance on behalf of President Reagan to none other than Earth enemy number one on a sunny Arabian day not much more than a decade ago, whilst Saddam's troops gassed Iranian troops? Has the US not provided Turkey with 80% of its military hardware (biggest customer with the exception of Israel) as it carries out ethnic cleansing and genocide of its minority peoples? Not to mention the mess in Gaza and so on, but I'm loathe to refer to that too much as I've been labeled Anti-Semitic for suggesting Sharon may be a little over the top.”
It was clear that this writer wanted to debate the subject, and was not addressing the point of my article. He seemed to be using my article as a springboard for his own argument, so I responded:
“I fully understand your argument. I take no issue one way or the other with your point, except that it is entirely beside the point, my point, in my article. As I already clearly told you, I am not discussing anything but the present situation which is that our young men and women are facing immediate conflict with a well-armed enemy, and our ally France has given that immediate enemy the means to be more effective against our forces. This has nothing to do with philosophy, point of view, politics or anything else but traitorous behavior by a country that was at one time our friend. Let me put it in the simplest possible terms: If my family is under attack by a gang (for whatever reason), and you are immediately supplying that gang with ammunition, I'm going to take you out—period, end of story!”
What was happening here? The writer clearly was educated, and clearly had studied the situation. Yet he seemed completely unable to wrap himself around the point of my article. No matter how many times I told him, no matter how many ways I illustrated the point, he simply didn’t get it.
I’ve run into this before, of course. I don’t mean the case where a person doesn’t make a very effective point, or where a listener doesn’t pay sufficient attention to get the point. I’m addressing the situation where speaker and listener seem to be on completely different wavelengths, as if they are speaking a completely different language.
Dr. John Gray addressed a particular aspect of this situation in his book, Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus. He wrote that the difference between male and female was significantly more than the differences in our bodies. He suggested that men and women perceived the world differently, that we are hard-wired in significantly different ways.
In a 1966 study, Voices of Time, edited by J.T. Fraser, perception takes center stage. Children were asked to view a situation and then comment on what they saw. The situation consisted of a model train layout with several tunnels and two parallel train tracks. Two tunnels of unequal length were set up so trains would enter both tunnels simultaneously. If the trains were traveling the same speed, of course, one would appear before the other. When asked whether the trains were going the same speed or different speeds, young children invariably concluded that the train that passed through the shorter tunnel was traveling faster, even though it was completely obvious to the adults that both trains were traveling together at the same speed around the track. No amount of argument could convince the younger children that this was so. To them it was completely obvious that the train that emerged first was the faster train.
It’s a matter of perception. With time, a child’s perception changes as its experience with the real world expands until it comes into alignment with mainstream perceptions of the world around us.
But somewhere between that point and adulthood something else happens. My correspondent and I both looked at a set of facts. I saw the French selling spare parts for helicopters and jets to the Iraqis, and I extrapolated to the inevitable consequence of these transactions on the well-being of our troops.
My correspondent, on the other hand, somehow saw these facts as supporting a mental construct he obviously carries around with him, a construct against which he apparently measures everything he sees. It appears to me that he validates facts that find a place within his construct, and rejects those that don’t.
For him it isn’t a case of adapting his construct to the observable facts, but of adapting his perception of reality to fit his construct.
A glaring example of this thought process from recent history is the mindset of adherents to Marxism. When the Soviet Union collapsed, demonstrating Socialism’s complete inability to govern the workings of society, diehard socialists continued down their path toward economic oblivion. Their mental construct prevailed, not the facts.
We can identify this mindset with the reaction of those on the political left.
Scientists frequently are part of this mindset as well. At first glance, one might believe that someone who relies upon facts for a living would think differently. Actually, a scientist relies on the scientific method, which – at least theoretically – attempts to fit hypothesis to observable facts. In reality, however, most scientists will reject observed “facts” that seem to conflict with accepted hypothesis – their mental construct.
Breakthrough discoveries happen when observed facts force a researcher to reexamine his mental construct. This doesn’t happen very often. Most scientists deal with every day life in the same way, and so their politics are typically to the left. This is why for every Prof. Edward Teller (renowned “father of the Hydrogen Bomb”) there a slew of Einsteins and Oppenheimers (well-known scientists who were instrumental in developing nuclear weapons, but who later opposed them adamantly) lending their considerable influence to the political left.
Engineers, on the other hand, are constrained by what they do to adjust their mental constructs to what they actually observe in the real world.
When the theory of flight predicts that a bumblebee cannot fly, an engineer observes the obvious fact that bumblebees do fly, and figures out why. Engineers are rarely to the political left.
It is important to understand, however, that the mindset I am discussing here is not limited to the political left. The shoe fits any time ideology drives human perception, so that the observer adjusts his observations to fit a mental construct.
This article contains an obvious bias. I have made it abundantly clear that I believe life is better when we adjust our preconceptions to fit what we observe. And this seems to be the great divide between “us” and “them.”
When the “other guys” run the show, everything gets out of kilter, because they are constantly adjusting what is to make it fit what should be. There’s a lot of truth to the old saw that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They do a lot of fixin’.
In a democracy, inevitably “they” will gain control from time to time. The longer they run the show, the further from reality things will get, until eventually, the population will grow sick and tired of the way things are, and will vote them out of office. Or the economy will finally collapse and things will get chaotic for a while, as they did in the former Soviet Union.
I don’t have a solution, except to urge that when you vote, to vote for men and women who are willing to adjust their perceptions to fit reality, instead of giving control to the ideologues of the left or right. The world is sufficiently challenging as it comes to us without our having to deal with the consequences of those who constantly try to force reality into their particular view of how things should be.