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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

May you live in interesting times

It was Christmas, and the friends and relatives were visiting. Our gathering was full of interesting conversation, but alas it was all eminently forgettable, which is why an annual get together is useful to remind ourselves of the transitory accomplishments of our lives. Not so however for two members of the group, one of whom was my father. Both men in their eighties, they were spry and alert, and both had interesting stories to tell. It was about their experience in WW II, a time if not for bravery and heroics, then at least for stories that had a unique and abiding interest. From 1944-1945, My father had flown a military transport plane, the DC3, in missions to resupply Italian and Yugoslav partisans, meanwhile having a darn good time in Italy. The other was a gunner in a military bomber, the B-29, and had flown missions in China, and reveled us in tales of not combat, but how they frequently found their way home while running out of gas. We all listened raptly to their stories, as if the war years were the only times that it was truly interesting to be alive, or attempting to stay alive as it were. We could of course have responded with our own stories, and embellish them with fanciful events that would dwarf these oft told wartime adventures, but we would be drawn down by our fibs by either our audience or ourselves. Better then to listen to listen to these shopworn tales from a fading breed of men.

Being interesting is important, and oftentimes it's more important than to be useful or true. It is all a matter of storytelling, or the use of new and colorful metaphors to describe new worlds. In our personal lives, we can scarcely get away with a tall tale, but not ironically in the world of academics, where being interesting while shading the truth is the key to publication, fame, and tenure. The problem is, as we learn more and more, there are fewer things that can be called truly interesting. In his book 'The End of Science', the author John Horgan surmised that soon we will have explanations for all there is to be, leaving only ironic tales of fabulous futures that are no more fanciful than the daydreams with which I would hardly dare to rebut my father.

For psychology in particular, we want new stories, new insights, and new truths. Whether that new drug is no better than the one it replaced, or new therapy is no more likely cure a troubled mind than an older form, they at least represent new stories. And of course, we will listen. There's a certain faddishness to it all where novelty is the true measure of the mind of man, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that the stories of the pop gurus of contemporary academic and popular psychology will fade faster in the minds of men then the true stories I heard one December night.

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