Search This Blog

Monday, July 30, 2007

Captain Kirk's Explosive Question

In academic thinking, the quality of persuasion is generally marked by the tonnage of your argument. That is, the more complex, convoluted, and referenced your reasoning, the easier it is to get your opponent down for the count, as you simply squash him with detail. But of course, common folk like you and I know that if you have to make your point with more than a few simple illustrations, you often lose site what the point is. Like assembling a bicycle with the instructions written in Chinese, it's often best to forget the entire thing rather than attempt the job and end up with a pretzel with wheels. Even if life could be managed by remote control, we would nonetheless be fearful of all those buttons, and eschew convenience by living more simply even if inefficiency is in the mix.

When convenience becomes inconvenient

Thus, we take especial pleasure with things that can be explained to us in a phrase or a simple picture. Like pop top cans or E=MC2, just keep it simple and people will understand, or be forced to. Which brings us back to the art of persuasion. If arguments have the appeal of an instruction manual for a remote control, it will be easy to ignore or fault the contraption after a moment fumbling with it. However, if the argument is simple, then its logic and function are apparent at a glance, and there is no getting away from the truth. It is at this moment that we fume and fuss upon being confronted with a new and uncomfortable fact that we must either accept lest we proverbially explode in a cloud of sparks and smoke.

Socrates knew this well, and relished the opportunity to pin folks down with the explanatory power of a simple solution obviously derived from an equally simple question. But if entertainment value is added to the equation, you just can't beat Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise for bringing down hoity toity super thinking machines with a phrase. In the 'The ultimate computer', a computer connected to the Enterprise has gone berserk, as computers are wont to do, and is causing a lot of havoc. Kirk asks the machine to restate its purpose, namely to serve man, and then asks the machine how it can square it with its current behavior, namely serving men up, like toast. Naturally, the computer can't square it's logic with the facts, and turns itself off, or in previous episodes pops, fumes, and ultimately blows up.

And that's why we like people who reason like Captain Kirk, who with simple and ingenious argument render the enemy argument and perhaps the enemy itself into ashes. A modern day Kirk was the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who demonstrated with a glass of ice water how O ring seals were rendered inelastic by cold weather, and thus caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Feynman demonstrating how O Ring does not hold
(Concept later adopted for Polident denture commercials.)

A more current argument was presented by Michael Moore, whose documentary 'Sicko' demolished the health care industry through the mere recital of the facts, colorfully posed of course, that Americans spend twice as much per capita on health care for a product half as good as France (which covers everybody), and just as good as that stalwart of efficiency, the Republic of Slovenia. What is remarkable is that critics behave like Kirk's computer, and fuss and fume with smoke and non-sequiturs (e.g. Moore is fat, a socialist, etc.) that refute nothing. I anticipate that this is a prelude to the American health care system exploding, like O ring manufacturers.

And of course, as the circle turns, we are left with the human psyche, which we are assured is too complex to easily understand, sort of like the intractable physics of O rings. Thus we skip the 'convenience' of a long winded text on psychology for an easier answer gladly provided by the Doctor Phils of the world. But easy answers are no substitute for sharp questions, which is why in these troubled times we need a lot more Captain Kirks to ask a few simple questions.

No comments: