“Fear is the mind-killer.” — Frank Herbert
The United States likes to think of itself as a courageous country (a country full of heros). This picture is increasingly distant from the reality of a society of cowards who are almost scared of their own shadows. Why? What is going on in our society to drive trend to be scared of everything?Calling the United States a bunch of cowards seems rather hyperbolic, and it is. The issue is that the leadership of the nation is constantly stoking the fires of irrational fear as a tool to drive political goals. By failing to aspire toward a spirit of shared sacrifice and duty, we are creating a society that looks to avoid anything remotely dangerous or risky. The consequences of this cynical form of gamesmanship are slowly ravaging the United States’ ability to be a dynamic force for anything good. In the process we are sapping the vitality that once brought the nation to the head of the international order. In some ways this trend is symptomatic of our largess as the sole military and economic superpower of the last half of the 20th Century. The fear is drawn from the societal memory of our fading roll in the World, and the evolution away from the mono-polar power we once represented.
Where is the national leadership that calls on citizens to reach for the stars? Where are the voices asking for courage and sacrifice? Once upon a time we had leaders who asked much of us.
“For of those to whom much is given, much is required. “
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy.
The consequences of this fear go well beyond mere name-calling or implications associated with the psychological aspects of fear, but undermine the ability of the Country to achieve anything of substance, or spend precious resources rationally. The use of fear to motivate people’s choices by politicians is rampant as is the use of fear in managing work. Fear moves people to make irrational choices, and our Nation’s leader whether in government or business want people to choose irrationally in favor of outcomes that benefit those in power. Fear is a powerful way to achieve this. All of this is a serious negative drain on the nation. In almost any endeavor trying to do things you are afraid of leads to diminished performance. One works harder to avoid the negative outcome than achieve the positive one. Fear is an enormous tax on all our efforts, and usually leads to the outcomes that we feared in the first place. We live in a world where broad swaths of public policy are fear-driven. It is a plague on our culture.
Like many of you, my attention has been drawn to the event in Iraq (and Syria) with the onslaught of ISIS. A chorus of fear mongering by politicians bent of scaring the public to support military action to stem the tide of anti-Western factions in the region has coupled this. Supposedly ISIS is worse than Al Qaeda, and we should be afraid. You are so afraid that you will demand action. In fact that hamburger you are stuffing into your face is a much larger danger to your well being than ISIS will ever be. Worse yet, we put up with the fear-mongers whose fear baiting is aided and abetted by the new media because they see ratings. When we add up the costs, this chorus of fear is savaging us and it is hurting our Country deeply.
“Stop letting your fear condemn you to mediocrity.” ― Steve Maraboli,
We have collectively lost the ability to judge the difference between a real threat and an unfortunate occurrence. Even if we include the loss of life on 9-11 the threat to you due to terrorism is minimal. Despite this reality we expend fast sums of money, time, effort and human lives trying to stop it. It is an abysmal investment of all of these things. We could do so much more with those resources. To make matters worse, the “War on Terror” has distorted our public policy in numerous ways. Stating with the so-called Patriot act we have sacrifice freedom and privacy at the altar of public safety and national security. We create the Department of Homeland Security (a remarkably Soviet sounding name at that), which is a monument to wasting taxpayer money. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the DHS is that entering the United States is now more arduous than entering the former Soviet Union (Russia). This fact ought to absolutely be appalling to the American psyche. Meanwhile, numerous bigger threats go completely untouched by action or effort to mitigate their impact.
For starters as the news media became more interested in ratings than news, they began to amplify the influence of the exotic events. Large, unusual, violent events are ratings gold, and their presence in the news is grossly inflated. The mundane everyday things that are large risks are also boring or depressing, and people would just as soon ignore them. In many cases the mundane everyday risks are huge moneymakers for the owners and advertisers in the media, and they have no interest in killing their cash cow even at the expense of human life (think the medical-industrial complex, and agri-business). Given that people are already horrific at judging statistical risks, these trends have only tended to increase the distance between perceived and actual danger. Politicians know all these things and use them to their advantage. The same things that get ratings for the news grab voter’s attention, and the cynics “leading” the country know it.
When did all this start? I tend to think that the tipping point was the mid-1970’s. This era was extremely important for the United States with a number of psychically jarring events taking center stage. The upheaval of the 1960’s had turned society on its head with deep changes in racial and sexual politics. The Vietnam War had undermined the Nation’s innate sense of supremacy while scandal ripped through the government. Faith and trust in the United States took a major hit. At the same time it marked the apex of economic equality with the beginnings of the trends that have undermined it ever since. This underlying lack of faith and trust in institutions has played a key roll in powering our decline. The anti-tax movement that set in motion public policy that drives the growing inequality in income and wealth began then arising from these very forces. These coupled to the insecurities of national defense, gender and race to form the foundation of the modern conservative movement. These fears have been used over and over to drive money and power into the military-intelligence-industrial-complex at a completely irrational rate.
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” ― Benjamin Franklin
The so-called Patriot Act is an exemplar of the current thinking. There seems to be no limit to the amount of freedom American will sacrifice to gain a marginal and inconsequential amount of safety. The threat of terrorism in no way justifies the cost. Dozens of other issues are a greater threat to the safety of the public, yet receive no attention. We can blame the unholy alliance of the news media and politicians for fueling this completely irrational investment in National security coupled to a diminishment of personal, and societal liberty. We have created a nation of cowards who will be declared to be heros by the same forces that have fueled the unrelenting cowardice. The fear that 9-11 engendered in the culture unleashed a number of demons on our culture that we continue to hold onto. In addition to the reduction in the freedoms we supposedly cherish, we have allowed our nation to conduct themselves in manner opposed to our deepest principles for more than a decade.
“If failure is not an option, then neither is success.” ― Seth Godin
We are left with a society that commits major resources and effort into managing inconsequential risks. Our public policy is driven by fear instead of hope. Our investments are based on fear, and lack of trust. Very little we end up doing now is actually bold or far-sighted. Instead we are over-managed and choose investments with a guarantee of payoff however small it might be.
Fear of failure is killing progress. Research is about doing new things, things that have never been done before. This entails a large amount of risk of failure. Most of the time there is a good reason why things haven’t been done before. Sometimes it is difficult, or even seemingly impossible. At other times technology is opening doors and possibilities that didn’t exist. Nonetheless the essence of good research is discovery and discovery involves risk. The better the research is, the higher the chance for failure, but the potential for higher rewards also exists. What happens when research can’t ever fail? It ceases being research. More and more our public funding of research is falling prey to the fear-mongering, risk avoiding attitudes, and suffering as a direct result.
At a deep level research is a refined form of learning. Learning is powered by failure. If you are not failing, you are not learning or more deeply stretching yourself. One looks to put themselves into the optimal mode for learning by stretching themselves beyond their competence just enough. Under these conditions people should fail a lot, not so much as to be disastrous, but enough to provide feedback. Research is the same. If research isn’t failing it is not pushing boundaries and the efforts are suboptimal. This nature of suboptimality defines the current research environment. The very real conclusion is that our research is not failing nearly as much as it needs to. Too much success is actually a sign that the management of the research is itself failing.
A huge amount of the problem is directly related to the combination of short-term thinking where any profit made now is celebrated regardless of how the future works out. This is part of the whole “maximize shareholder value” mindset that has created a pathological business climate. Future value and long-term planning has become meaningless in business because any money invested isn’t available for short-term shareholder value. More than this, the shareholder is free to divest themselves of their shares once the value has been sucked away. Over the long-term this has created a lot of wealth, but slowly and steadily hollowed out the long-term future prospects for broad swaths of the economy.
To make matters worse government has become addicted to these very same business practices. Research funding is no exception. The results must be immediate and any failure to give an immediate return is greeted as a failure. The quality and depth of long-term research is being destroyed by the application of these ideas. These business ideas aren’t good for business either, but for science they are deadly. We are slowly and persistently destroying the vitality of the future for fleeting gains in the present.
“Anyone who says failure is not an option has also ruled out innovation.” ― Seth Godin
Maybe if the United States continues to proudly proclaim itself as the “home of the brave and the land of the free” we might make an effort to actually act like it. Instead we just proclaim it like another empty slogan. Right now this slogan is increasingly false advertising.