IdeaFestival

Forget Certainty. Ask a Better Question.

You need questions, forget about the answers - Over The Rhine - "Nobody Number One"

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Oliver Burkeman, IF13

Writing in The New Republic, one theoretical physicist wants you to know that certainty rarely delivers insight.

No great idea is developed in complete isolation, while many other truly bad ideas are immune to every attempt at reason. Carlo Rovelli, Science Is Not About Certainty:

"Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism...."

"Should a scientist think about philosophy or not? It’s the fashion today to discard philosophy, to say now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy. I find this attitude naïve, for two reasons. One is historical. Just look back. Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and having a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he did without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher and started by discussing this with Descartes and had strong philosophical ideas.

"Even Maxwell, Boltzmann—all the major steps of science in the past were done by people who were very aware of methodological, fundamental, even metaphysical questions being posed....

"There is narrow-mindedness, if I may say so, in many of my colleagues who don’t want to learn what’s being said in the philosophy of science. There is also a narrow-mindedness in a lot of areas of philosophy and the humanities, whose proponents don’t want to learn about science which is even more narrow-minded. Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view. The two points of view can teach each other and, I believe, enlarge each other."

Rovelli is careful to point out that science is not about uncovering the data to support hypothesis. If that were true, one might be obliged to plow through a forever data set in an effort to find the facts that would support any proposed theory. And the science would still not be certain, but for an entirely different reason. There is today a never ending stream of new information to consider, and the mind, primarily interested in a world the makes sense rather than the world as it is, can only absorb so much.

Rovelli argues, as he does in the quotes above, that science moves ahead because the experimenter, rather, thinks anew about the question being asked. What assumptions are baked into the question? What predicates, what ends does she have in mind? In order to bring clarity to the question, are there parts of it that can be safely dropped?

We are metaphorical machines, always thinking of one thing in terms of another, which is one reason the IdeaFestival puts so much effort into recruiting a wide range of presenters. Without a head full of different ideas, the methodological, fundamental and metaphysical questions, as Rovelli points out, never get asked. As it turns out, bad metaphors do not just make for lousy science. They make for a lousy party.

I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!

Stay curious.

Wayne

Image of Oliver Burkeman by Amber Sigman

The Art of the Pitch: Explaining Change

Having a great idea and getting someone else to buy it are two completely different things. In this older essay that he identified as one of his favorites, Scott Berkun offers some useful advice on pitches.

He notes that buried in any pitch is the notion that something has to change. Berkun:

Ideas demand change. By definition, the application of an idea means that something different will take place in the universe. Even if your idea is undeniably and wonderfully brilliant, it will force someone, somewhere to change how they do something. And since many people do not like change, and fear change, the qualities of your idea that you find so appealing may be precisely what make your idea so difficult for people to accept.... So when your great idea comes into contact with a person who does not want change, you and your idea are at a disadvantage. Before you can begin the pitch, you have to make sure you’re talking to someone that’s interested in change, or has a clear need that your idea can satisfy.

Pitching is one of those skills useful to anybody, whether that person is summarizing the conceptual strength of a grant proposal, thinking anew about an art project or seeking funding from a roomful of venture capitalists. Berkun's post walks any would-be pitcher through the questions she might want to answer before trying to make the sale.

Have a great weekend!

Stay curious.

Wayne

Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Waldo Jaquith

Pickpocket's Secret: Our Minds Don't Multi-Task

According to BBC Future, the secret to pickpocket's success is that the mind, spectacularly tuned to notice that single difference, can just as easily be misled by that difference to drop its guard.

According to neuroscientists our brains come pretty much hard-wired to be tricked, thanks to the vagaries of our attention and perception systems. In fact, the key requirement for a successful pickpocket isn’t having nifty fingers, it’s having a working knowledge of the loopholes in our brains. Some are so good at it that researchers are working with them to get an insight into the way our minds work.

The most important of these loopholes is the fact that our brains are not set up to multi-task. Most of the time that is a good thing – it allows us to filter out all but the most important features of the world around us. But neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde, the author of the book Sleights of Mind, says that a good trickster can use it against you. She should know: as a researcher at the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience in Arizona, she has studied how Las Vegas stage pickpocket Apollo Robbins performs his tricks.

The rest of the story here, as is a prior IF blog post on Apollo Robbins, the pickpocket performance artist whose thefts were compared to a Salsa in this lengthy New Yorker piece. While the thefts in the video are awfully impressive, Robbins' understanding of human psychology is equally deft.

One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. 'When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,' he said, showing me. 'The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.'

Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. 'If I come at you head-on, like this,' he said, stepping forward, 'I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable.' He took a step back. 'So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.' He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. 'See how I was able to close the gap?' he said. 'I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets.'

Learning how magic tricks are done is often disappointing, because it’s not really magic. With Robbins, though, effect and method are one and the same, and seeing how he accomplishes his thefts is just as impressive as witnessing, or failing to witness, the acts themselves. Each movement dovetails perfectly with the next, with no extraneous steps or flourishes. When he places his arm somewhere, it’s not an accident; he’s blocking his victim’s view or locking him in place or temporarily stashing a wallet by pinning it against its owner’s body.

I loved the comparison of a pickpocket's work to a dance. The comic's ability to slip past our planked up defenses to lift hidden assumptions has, I think, a similar thieving grace. Live every art, its power is revelatory. 

Stay Curious.

Wayne

Hasan Davis - We Cannot Reach Those We Refuse to Touch

The only people that we cannot reach are those we refuse to touch. - Hasan Davis

Striding on to the stage and offering a personal and very powerful story from his life, former commission of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, Hasan Davis, captivated IdeaFestival 2013 attendees. Sitting the crowd, CC Chapman wrote later that he tracked Davis down and to thank him for his work with at risk youth. Chapman:

Before I end, I must shine a light on Hasan Davis. I have not seen someone walk on stage and own it like he did in a long time.

He had me laughing, crying and standing on my feet to applaud him all in the span of fifteen minutes. Thankfully, I was able to track him down in the hallway and thank him for being part of the event and for sharing his story with me. The man is doing great work and hasn’t had an easy road to get where he is today.

Davis' video is part of the IF Uncut series, select IdeaFestival presentations offered in full. Watch it here. You won't be disappointed!

Davis is the founder of Empowerment Solutions, which offers training and resources to correctional facilities, community organizations, schools and non-profit groups nationwide in areas relating to youth, race, cultural dynamics and arts education. Hasan speaks, trains and advocates for justice, education, and diversity initiatives.

Stay curious.

Wayne

'Vision' and 'Visionary' Differ in Degree

No man understands a deep book until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents. ― Ezra Pound

What distinguishes a genius from the merely creative? It's not intelligence, but a cognitive nimbleness with ideas, a capacity to think wide as well as deep according to the neuroscientist and medical doctor Nancy Andreasen.

That capacity for genius, however, may come at a cost. Following decades of work with the mentally ill, she has in more recent years studied the brains of extraordinarily creative people and finds between the two some commonalities.

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as 'obvious.' Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, 'The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it… When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.' Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness....

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.

Her piece reminded me of this quote from Arthur Schopenhuer at The Creativity Post: geniuses don't just hit targets that no one else can hit, they hit targets no one else can see. The difference between having visions and being visionary may be of degree, not kind.

Read Secrets of the Creative Brain and decide for yourself.

I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!

Wayne

Image: IdeaFesival diners on Main St. in Louisville, 2008.


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