June 3rd, 2010
Anybody remember that phrase? No? Bueller? Anyone? Am I getting that old? Am I the only one left who remembers Spiro Agnew?
You know what the best part of writing a book is? It’s when you hear from people who “got it”. It’s when you say to yourself, “I sure hope some people connect with what I’m reaching for here,” and then you get emails and see reviews that show that people really did get it. Fortunately, I’ve had a bunch of these experiences concerning my writings on negativity, negation and negativism in science. And one of the best so far appeared this week in a review by a blogger called Skeptvet who is apparently a veterinarian specializing in examining CAM – complimentary and alternative medicine.
From looking at his ABOUT page you can see that “critical thinking” is what he is ALL about. Critical thinking is the good side of negativity in the world of science. Unbounded criticism (and even cynicism) is the dark underbelly. The challenge is to retain a healthy dose of negativity, yet keep it in check. And this is what I wrote about at length in my book, while fearing that some people might miss the point. From reading what Sketvet wrote it’s clear he followed what I was saying, one hundred percent.
Here’s how he starts:
The one concept that struck me most forcefully in Olson’s book, was the image of science as fundamentally a negating enterprise. For all the reading and writing I’ve done on the subject of medical research and the dangers of simply seeking to confirm our preconceptions, I never fully appreciated the implications of this for the appearance of science to non-scientists.
It’s just so true. As I say in the book, I never fully appreciated it until I moved to Hollywood and began to realize how discordant my scientist voice could be. It is extremely hard to realize this when you live within a bubble of like-minded (and like-voiced) people. And of course that’s one of the standard complaints against bloggers who live within their “echo chambers” where they begin to think everyone in the world talks and thinks the same as they do. They don’t. Come visit me in Hollywood and I’ll show you just how much they don’t.
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT EXCESSIVE NEGATIVITY?
I’ve said this a few times before but it doesn’t hurt to run through it again — particularly since I was directing a short film with 5 brilliant improv actors two weeks ago and was treated to seeing the value of great improv work and what it can lead to. Excessive negation inhibits creativity and thus innovation. Jeremy Rowley spoke about this specifically when he talked about how improv fosters innovation. By temporarily removing the crippling powers of negativity, the ideation process can billow outwards in all directions, at least for a while.
I have very strong feelings on this subject for which I offer no apologies. Earlier this year I spoke on the phone with a funding officer at a foundation who ruthlessly shredded my ideas for a film project. It left me baffled and able to conclude only that this person has absolutely no idea of how creativity and innovation work. Such aggressive negation not only halts the current line of thought, it also leaves an echoing voice that inhibits further efforts at creativity. It’s as simple as looking at children who get shouted at for trying something new and making a mistake. After a while they give up trying in an effort just to avoid the burning sensation of such negativity. That is the death of creativity.
I’ve seen it A LOT in Hollywood. I saw it in film school over the three years of our program. At the end of my fourth semester, when I took the wonderful course in Visual Expression that we all had to take sooner or later, I realized that the pattern was laid bare in the seating situation in the lecture hall. Some students took this course in their first semester. They had not yet taken their beatings, so they sat in groups of five or six, all full of smiles and chatting with vibrant energy. The students in their second semester had endured one semester of criticism and were now partnered with one other student in the second semester production course. They sat in pairs, clearly more introspective and inhibited. But the students in their third semester and onward (such as myself) … they were filled with psychological battle scars, and sat quietly by themselves, glaring at the rest of the class, just wanting to get the suffering over with.
And you saw the same pattern in the level of creativity of the films that were made. First semester’s films were exploding with unbridled creativity and ideation. By second semester the stakes were higher, the filmmaking more serious (on more expensive 16 mm film rather than 8 mm), and the films consequently less creative. By third semester there were only four large budget films being made with large crews and as a result, a sad feeling of caution and sameness to the ideas pursued (mostly angst-ridden dramas drawing on childhood traumas of the sort that make student film festival attendees want to gouge their eyes out).
It’s a sad, almost entropic march that creativity follows. It’s not unlike stabilizing selection, where the extremes are selected against, leading to homogenization. It’s a difficult trend to buck. And it’s the reason that a careful eye needs to be kept on the process of negation, otherwise everyone becomes afraid to try anything new, and an element of sameness emerges.
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT EXCESSIVE POSITIVITY
However, in the end, it’s about two things. You need to be positive, then you need to be negative. You need to foster great creativity by holding back the powers of negation, but then … eventually … there has to come a time when the gates of critical thinking are thrown open and all the stoopid and lame and ill-conceived and useless ideas and approaches are washed to the sides and eventually sieved out of the entire process. When done skillfully, it can be refreshing — as when SkepVet does this in examining cockamamie CAM approaches on his blog.
Without that part … you end up with Hollywood. When I go to parties out here and listen to aspiring filmmakers talk about the lamest of ideas for films, I think to myself, “Where are my old scientist friends when I need them?” I only wish I could throw these people into a den of scientists who would eat their bad ideas like a crew of zombies.
Ah, well. In the end, it’s about doing two things, but also developing the ability to partition them so that one doesn’t overly interfere with the other. This is possible. It’s what everyone from car mechanics to doctors do every single day. Scientists like to call it the scientific method, but in the end, it’s nothing more than effective problem solving. And given what’s going on right this minute in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s clear the world could use all the effective problem solving it could get.