The example of the Wright Brothers

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I’ve been absorbed in David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers (2015), the story of how brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright invented and flew the first successful airplane, starting with their historic flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

Although David McCullough is one of my favorite historians, I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d find the book all that compelling. True, I’ve been an airplane geek since I was a boy, and I had long been familiar with the iconic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. But I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story.

Last month, however, I went to a talk by David McCullough about his new book, and the stories he shared from it, with his characteristic enthusiasm for history, stimulated my interest. I started reading and soon became enthralled. I’ve been keeping at it, reading only a few pages at a time, because I find myself constantly putting the book down to reflect upon what a great story this is from so many perspectives.

Orville Wright (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Orville Wright, 2005 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

It was obvious that McCullough came to deeply admire his subjects. He talked about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who believed very strongly in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, especially, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough writes, they had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”

Wilbur Wright (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Wilbur Wright, 1905 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded inventors and scientists were also trying hard to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade them from their goal. In fact, they largely rewrote the book on the science of flying. and in the process refuted the previous findings of many “experts” on aviation.

There is so much more that I want to share about what I’m discovering in this book, and someday I want to write a longer piece that incorporates some of its stories with broader themes about self-education, innovation, individual character, resilience and determination, and bold, smart risk-taking.

Suffice it to say, however, that this is among McCullough’s most important books. He has written about great historical figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Harry Truman, but The Wright Brothers, as he noted during his book talk, is not about politics, conflict, and war. Rather, he compared the genius of the Wright Brothers to that of the Gershwins. Indeed, this is a different kind of historical story, one that may inform and inspire others who want to build, invent, create, and dream, without being cloaked in hazy mythology. We need more stories like that today.

Could we someday “erase” the memories of workplace bullying?

In “Erasing bad memories,” a piece for the February 2015 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor, Stacy Lu examines leading edge research on future possibilities for treating memories of traumatic experiences that fuel post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions:

When we think back on our lives, we generally try to dwell on good times and come to terms with bad. But for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias, just one intractable and unwelcome memory can influence a lifetime of perceptions, emotions and behavior, despite therapists’ best efforts.

But thanks to better imaging technology, neuroscientists and psychologists are able to explore the neural mechanisms by which memories are made and stored. And their research has uncovered several physiological interventions — including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology — that appear to help destabilize fearful memories, a finding that could lead to more effective, targeted psychotherapy in the future.

While practitioners today rely solely on patient reports, “in years to come, neuroscience will inform clinical practice,” says Stefan Hofmann, PhD, who directs the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University. “We will use both biological and neurological measures to give us clues as to treatment.”

It’s an informative, scientifically detailed article on how fearful memories are formed, how they may be changed or eradicated, and how lifestyle factors relate to softening their impact.

Workplace bullying and PTSD

Many targets of severe workplace bullying report or show symptoms consistent with PTSD (go here for Mayo Clinic description), and that link has been observed and accepted by workplace bullying researchers for some time. Anecdotally speaking, post-event trauma constitutes one of the foremost challenges in helping workplace bullying targets to fully reclaim their lives and re-enter the labor market.

Developments and breakthroughs in PTSD research and treatment are thus especially important to these individuals and their families, and the work discussed by Stacy Lu raises both possibilities and concerns. All things being equal, presumably many, if not most, people suffering from PTSD would willingly undergo treatment to erase the memory of the traumatic experience that prompted their symptoms, assuming that the symptoms would disappear with the memories. But some of the potential treatments mentioned by Lu, “including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology,” go beyond the less physically invasive counseling modes, especially if we presume that any drug capable of causing someone to erase a specific memory is made of awfully powerful stuff.

In addition, there are other important considerations associated with any attempt to “erase” a memory. For example, some aptly note the role of bad or difficult memories in building our wisdom and resilience. Others raise more philosophical questions about the role of memory in defining our lives and collective humanity. That said, I’d suggest that for many sufferers of PTSD, these would be trifling concerns, and understandably so.

In other words, we’re dealing with significant but potentially risky treatments here. However, the high stakes involved — i.e., restoring a sense of peace and security to those suffering from the effects of psychological trauma — justify continued, responsible research, accompanied by hopes that we can find more effective ways to help people dealing with these terrible conditions.

Recycling: Five years of August

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

August 2013: Notes on the workplace anti-bullying movement — “If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve figured out that workplace bullying and related issues of human dignity at work have become focal points of my career. …These experiences have been defining ones, personally and professionally. They also have taught me a lot about the challenges of organizing a movement and building public support for it. I’d like to step back for a brief moment to share some of those insights and observations, centering on the types of people who have been drawn to be a part of this. Concededly, these are fairly broad generalizations, and I apologize in advance to anyone who believes I’m overstating my points. But here goes…”

August 2012: Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying — “You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence. You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.”

August 2011: Hiring decisions, hard times, and personal & institutional integrity — “Employers, managers, and HR folks have a lot of power in an economy where jobs are hard to come by. Sometimes, the hiring decisions they make reveal something of their personal and institutional integrity, or lack thereof.”

August 2010: Can an apology help to prevent and settle employment litigation? — “It would take considerable reworking of the commonly assumed role of an employer’s lawyer to encourage, when appropriate, apology and disclosure as a healthy approach toward resolving employment disputes.   Right now, too many management-side lawyers assist their clients in creating a public fiction: We do no wrong — never, ever.  However, is it possible that a different turn will lead to less litigation, less contentious dispute resolution, and — ultimately — better employee morale?”

August 2009: Bully rats, tasers, and stressNew York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has an interesting piece in today’s edition…about an experiment using lab rats to assess the effects of chronic stress, feedback loops in the brain, and how to reverse the damage.  It’s a good report on a thought-provoking study, but for me it confirmed what has become obvious…”

Recycling: Meaningful books about career and life planning

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This week, something seems to be drawing me to write about authors and books! So I’ve gone back into the blog archives to dig out some posts that discuss titles that I have found inspirational over the years:

1. Seth Godin, Tribes

Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin is one of my favorites. In this 2008 book Tribes, he describes how people are coming together around common interests, projects, and values in ways that transcend traditional organizational and geographic boundaries. In this 2010 blog post, I explain how “Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.” Reacting and responding are easy, but initiating is “what leaders do.”

2. Steven Levy, Hackers and Barbara Sher, Wishcraft

A book about the early days of the computer revolution and a pioneering self-help guide led me to the path I’ve been pursuing since 1991. In a 2011 blog post, I talk about these two books and their influence on me. Here’s a snippet:

Twenty years ago, I found myself yearning to do something different with my work life. I had been practicing as a public interest lawyer since graduating from law school, and although I liked certain aspects of the work, I didn’t see myself as being a litigation attorney for the rest of my career.

…It was around that time that I encountered two books that encouraged me to think more expansively about my career. One was Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984; now in a 25th anniversary 2010 edition).

…I also got hold of a self-help book, Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (1979; now in a 30th anniversary 2009 edition). Wishcraft helps readers identify their strengths and interests and overcome resistances to change, a terrific mix of inspirational and practical advice.

3. David W. Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (2006), economics professor David W. Galenson writes about “sprinters” who make their signature contributions earlier in the lives and “marathoners” whose breakthroughs may classify them as late bloomers.

In this 2009 blog post, I wrote how Galenson’s ideas helped to inspire me as I approached age 50.

Want more socially intelligent workers? Hire novel readers

If you want to hire more workers who understand the human condition, you might set up a recruiting table near the fiction shelves of your local library or bookstore.

Emeritus professor Keith Oatley (University of Toronto) is among those studying the effects of novel reading on the emotional development of readers. He and others are finding that, contrary to popular belief, those who immerse themselves in fictional worlds and characters may be more empathetic, open minded, and socially aware than those who do not.

Oatley gathered these emerging insights in a Scientific American Mind piece (Nov.-Dec. 2011), “In the Minds of Others.” Here’s a snippet:

Recent research shows that far from being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view. It can even change your personality. The seemingly solitary act of holing up with a book, then, is actually an exercise in human interaction. It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.

Although the full article is not freely available from the magazine’s website, a brief summary and ordering information may be accessed here.

Workforce implications

Oatley’s article doesn’t dwell on the implications for the workforce, but it’s pretty easy to take that step.

At a time when we seem preoccupied with finding workers who possess technological and computer skills, let’s not overlook qualities of social intelligence in evaluating job applicants. Indeed, if you spend any time talking to those who interview prospective employees, they’ll tell you that sometimes it’s hard to find people who can carry on a decent conversation and relate to others.

Also, these findings buttress the case for how a liberal arts education can prepare people to enter the workforce and even to play leadership roles. It reminds me of a blog post I wrote three years ago suggesting “that the study and application of philosophy can help managers sort through difficult decisions at work.”

Call me “old school,” but when it comes to hiring new co-workers, Oatley and his colleagues may make a strong case for hiring the young person who just finished Moby Dick over her college classmate who spent that time texting furiously about like, u know, whatever.

***

The Scientific American Mind issue containing the article is worth ordering if this topic interests you. It’s a full feature that also lists suggestions for further reading.

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator

I’ve just finished Stephen King’s new bestseller, 11/22/63, which centers on a modern day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, going back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though it weighs in at nearly 850 pages, it’s an absorbing tale. And like the best of popular fiction, it’s both accessible (i.e., perfect for a long Thanksgiving weekend) and thought provoking.

Although the challenge of saving the President is the main plot driver, the novel also offers a terrific backstory about Jake’s work as a teacher, and naturally I found myself dwelling upon it.

Butterfly effect

King’s novel, and many time travel tales in general, embrace the idea of the “butterfly effect.” In science, the butterfly effect theorizes that a butterfly’s wings potentially could create a tornado hundreds or thousands of miles away. In popular culture, it has come to represent the idea that small changes in choices or actions may trigger or lead to ripple effects of a profound and unanticipated nature.

I make no claim of expertise about the butterfly effect’s legitimacy as a scientific theory, but I have to say that as a social phenomenon, it makes intuitive sense to me. One thing leads to another, say two of my favorite educators about the art and process of learning, Drs. John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, and the butterfly effect takes that idea to more dramatic ends.

Of course, inherent in the butterfly effect is its unpredictability. We can’t necessarily foresee these significant events, and they will be a mix of good and bad. (Butterfly. Tornado. Only good if you’re a storm chaser or a bored weather reporter.) That’s what makes the theory so appealing for time travel stories.

The work of an educator

However, I also know as an educator that a good action one day can spawn further good actions by others in the years to come. Indeed, that’s what teaching, mentoring, and scholarship are all about: If we’ve been at this business long enough, we’ve witnessed what happens when our work has a positive impact somewhere down the line.

In essence, being an educator is an ongoing act of faith. On a day-to-day basis, the benefits of our work to others may not always be evident. In fact, a class or course that didn’t go as well as we had hoped, or a publication that doesn’t appear to be attracting much attention, may well cause us to wonder if we’re spinning our wheels or wasting our time. But on occasion, perhaps on many occasions if we are fortunate, we are gifted with the realization that our work allows us to make a difference, even if we’ll never be aware of its full effects.

Responsibility

I don’t want to overstate our potential influence. Folks, it’s not like our students and readers are hanging on to our every word — a basic truth that too many educators forget or never learn. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to put into the stream of human ideas and activity our best insights, understandings, and instructions.

And — even then — we have no guarantees how our lessons will be used or misused or forgotten. After all, butterflies are free, yes?

***

The butterfly effect and teaching

Heather A. Hass, “Teaching and the Butterfly Effect,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2004)

Paul D. Carrington, “Butterfly Effects: The Possibilities of Law Teaching in a Democracy,” Duke Law Journal (1992)

Wikipedia articles

Butterfly effect

Butterfly effect in popular culture

Book recommendation!

It has nothing to do with the main themes of this blog, but if you’re into time travel stories, check out Jack Finney’s classic illustrated novel, Time and Again (1970), which takes its protagonist back to New York City, circa 1882. Stephen King calls it the best time travel story ever written. For me, discovering the book some 25 years ago was a magical reading experience.

The “pseudoscience” card as intellectual bullying

If you’re in the scientific biz and you really don’t like what someone else is doing or saying, one of the easiest cards to play is the”pseudoscience” card, especially if the object of your scorn challenges accepted orthodoxies. The tag can be devastatingly effective and stick for a long time.

Some people commit big chunks of their careers to taking down the work of others in this way. For example, Stephen Barrett is the founder of Quackwatch, a site devoted to the relentless criticism of alternative medicine and natural health care and their providers, as a 2008 piece in the Village Voice reports.

Not so easy

Of course, there are quacks, charlatans, and frauds out there who masquerade as having knowledge, evidence, and expertise they simply don’t possess. They should be called on it.

But on other occasions, playing the pseudoscience card is a form of intellectual (or is it anti-intellectual?) bullying. It’s a way of diminishing work that threatens or questions accepted theory and practice.

Michael Shermer, in a piece for the Scientific American titled “What is Pseudoscience?” (link here), recognizes that the lines between science and pseudoscience are not as easily drawn as one might think. But rather than simply railing against the difficulties of doing so, he sets out a fair minded way of making the distinction. Shermer asks:

…(D)oes the revolutionary new idea generate any interest on the part of working scientists for adoption in their research programs, produce any new lines of research, lead to any new discoveries, or influence any existing hypotheses, models, paradigms or world views? If not, chances are it is pseudoscience.

On the other hand:

If a community of scientists actively adopts a new idea and if that idea then spreads through the field and is incorporated into research that produces useful knowledge reflected in presentations, publications, and especially new lines of inquiry and research, chances are it is science.

Fear and intolerance

Two years ago, I saw just how strongly the scientific and public health establishment can react to challenges of conventional wisdom when two very reputable health journalists were skewered because they dared to report on research that questioned the efficacy of flu vaccines. Their article appeared in The Atlantic just as the country was facing the H1N1 flu virus.

The harshest criticisms of The Atlantic piece came from the mainstream health sector, but a lot of others with no apparent scientific or medical expertise jumped on board. For example, one prominent law professor, apparently beset by fear and rage, blogged that “many people will get sick and some may even die because these two are too stupid to be able to analyze and evaluate the relevance of evidence,” adding that the authors were “dangerously stupid” and “irresponsible hacks.”

Not too long ago, doctors appeared in ads and commercials touting low-tar menthol cigarettes. Over the years, those trying to lose a few pounds have been alternately urged to eat more meat or less meat, more pasta or less pasta. Soldiers without visible wounds who could not return to the front lines were once deemed “shellshocked.”

In other words, we don’t have to return to the Middle Ages to find plenty of examples where conventional scientific wisdom was simply wrong. We are not even close to reaching the outer frontiers of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That awareness hopefully brings with it a humility that gives us pause before we engage in facile putdowns of cutting-edge work.

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