The Bright Side of Self-Deception
When the facts don’t fit our narrative, we often change the facts. Sometimes that’s a good thing.
I was thrilled today to read a short article in MIT Technology review, about a team of researchers who’ve successfully made an airplane that flies without the use of moving parts. The technology that makes it possible — the same “ionic wind” phenomenon that powers Dyson’s bladeless fans — holds huge promise for safer, more efficient air travel some day, but still faces a lot of obstacles.
In fact, it’s faced a lot of obstacles already: the 60m flight was the culmination of nine years of focused effort.
The question this raises for me, more than anything else, is how do you keep working on something for that long without a single concrete success, or indeed any guarantees that success is even possible?
A brief passage in the article hints at an answer:
When [electroaerodynamic flight] was conceived of in the 1960s, researchers came to the conclusion that it couldn’t create the level of thrust needed to sustain flight. When Steven Barrett, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, took a closer look at this research in 2009, he wasn’t deterred by those results. He saw untapped potential. “I was inspired by the science fiction ideas of planes and spacecraft,” says Barrett. “I thought about what physics could allow that.”
Barrett is the one who formed the team that eventually enabled the successful flight, despite previous conclusions that it couldn’t be done.
We’ve all heard countless stories of visionary inventors who are initially dismissed, and told their ideas could never work — it’s such a common trope that it hardly bears noticing. But imagine you’re in Barrett’s position in 2009: an experienced professional, well-versed in the science and technique of flight, reading research results by other experienced professionals who say something isn’t possible.
What makes you try it anyway? What makes you keep trying for nine years?
“I was inspired by the science fiction ideas of planes and spacecraft,” says Barrett.
Not by the findings of a previous researcher, or the failed attempt of another inventor who just got one small thing wrong. Inspired by science fiction. By stories.
This, too, is nothing new. Many observers before me have remarked that the science fiction of one decade profoundly shapes the scientific innovation of a few decades later, when the kids weaned on those stories grow to become the experts pushing the limits of technology. The Flash Gordon stories of the 30s inspired the space programs of the 50s and 60s. The communicators and tricorders of Star Trek planted the seeds of mobile phones and connected devices in the 80s and 90s. And the massive expansion of web technology in the early 2000s clearly drank from the well of cyberpunk and “hard” sci-fi in the 1980s.
We’ve written before about the human tendency to think in narrative terms, and how this can even cause us to dismiss or alter facts if we can’t fit them into the narrative we’ve already constructed. Often this is a bad thing, making people immune to reason but susceptible to emotionally appealing fictions — a tendency that political and cultural leaders have exploited for personal gain, and that lies at the root of most of humanity’s great tragedies.
But our stubborn bias for narrative can also make good things happen. They can sustain in the face of foregone conclusions, and inspire ongoing effort even when the facts don’t support it.
Yes, I realize this sounds like an inspirational poster, and I don’t want to imply that this suspension of disbelief is an unalloyed good. But it does point to a silver lining on the clouds that so often impede reason: our capacity for unreasonable pursuits.