On the Wisdom of Crowds

“It was an interesting study,” I said. “They showed that people in groups use group intelligence to solve problems that no one individual in the group could solve.”

“It may be true that the intelligence of the group is greater than the intelligence of the individual,” Mr. Magundi replied. “But history shows, over and over, that the stupidity of the group is many times the stupidity of the individual.”

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On Abstract Art

“It’s like, they don’t care about drawing,” said Brielle, the art student. “And I like to draw, but I think I’m already better than the teachers. I’m not bragging, I’m just—you know—complaining.”

“An artist I know,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “once told me that Picasso spent the first sixteen years of his life learning to draw better than Rembrandt, and the rest of his life learning to draw like a six-year-old. Many people who derided his art never knew how perfect his technique was: he could paint exactly what he set out to paint, and what was on the canvas was exactly what he meant to be on the canvas. But far worse are the artists who think they appreciate Picasso, and yet have no idea how perfect his technique was. There’s a great difference between an artist like Picasso or Mondrian, who painted abstractions because he could paint anything, and an artist of today who scrawls ‘AIDS is bad’ on a canvas because he can paint nothing else. Picasso and Mondrian we justly call geniuses; the AIDS-is-bad artist seems more like a fraud to me.”

On Torture

“But you still haven’t proved to me that waterboarding is torture,” said Mr. Bates. “I don’t think you can argue that way until you have.”

“I haven’t proved to you that water is wet, either,” Mr. Magundi replied. “If I have to prove that deliberately inflicting pain and distress for the purpose of extracting information is torture, then I can’t think of a single word I can say without referring you to a dictionary for verification. If that’s the way you prefer to carry on a conversation, we can give it a try. Perhaps Brielle has a dictionary app on her phone, and would be willing to lend us her assistance.”

On Unreasonable Beliefs

“Well, I can’t prove it,” Mrs. Bowman said after Mr. Bates had grilled her for a bit, “but that’s what I believe.”

“If you don’t know why you believe it,” Mr. Bates answered, “then you’re just being unreasonable.”

Here Mr. Magundi stepped in. “All our most deeply and sincerely held beliefs are unreasonable, in the sense of being inaccessible to reason. There is nothing wrong or even regrettable in that: all ethics must begin with certain postulates that cannot be demonstrated. It’s wrong to kill an innocent man, you say. If I demand that you prove it, what will you tell me? You may be very clever; you may be able to prove conclusively that without such a principle the human race would certainly be extinct; and yet I could still ask how you knew that the extinction of the human race would be a bad thing. Nothing in science proves that the human race must continue. The most we can say is that we really, really want it to continue—which is an unreasonable belief, but not a bad one.”

On Republicans and Democrats

“But you already know I’m a Republican,” said Mr. Bates, who was never shy about airing his political views, “so that shouldn’t surprise you.”

“Why,” Mr. Magundi asked, “do we have the same two parties now that we had before the Civil War?—which, by the way, was largely a war between Republicans and Democrats. One would think that, as the issues facing us changed, the parties would change as well. We ought to have expiration dates on our political parties, and when they expired we could form new ones based on the most important questions facing us at the time.

“In 1860, broadly speaking, the Republican Party stood for a strong central government and the abolition of slavery; the Democratic Party stood for decentralized government and the perpetual subjugation of the African. Today the two parties have reversed their rhetorical positions on ‘states’ rights,’ although of course no one on either side really intends to weaken the central government; and as for slavery, we don’t hear as many Democrats advocating it as we used to hear.

“The questions facing us have changed, or the parties have completely different positions on them; yet we still have the same two parties. And I think that simple fact cuts through all the rhetoric and shows us the one real issue that separates Democrats from Republicans: that Republicans believe government should be run by Republicans, whereas Democrats believe government should be run by Democrats.”

On Razor Blades

“I don’t know why,” Brielle said. “I mean, he’s really smart, and he knows lots of interesting stuff, but I just can’t stand him.”

“To speak like a Greek philosopher,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “a dull razor blade cuts by virtue of its sharpness. It hurts, not because it’s blunt, but because it falls just short of being sharp enough. In the same way, a dull person—

“Now, why is everybody looking at me that way?”

On Human Evolution

“Otherwise,” I said, “you end up with something like Lysenko, and that’s the end of science.”

“Lysenko was a tyrant and an ignoramus,” said Mr. Magundi, “and the damage he did to biology in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of human lives—was incalculable. He seems not to have had the slightest idea of how science works. Yet for all that, by some lucky instinct he grasped a truth that eludes most armchair biologists. He did not believe that Darwinian evolution could account for human progress, and he was right. Human evolution is Lamarckian. The forces of natural selection have been largely neutralized, because we cherish our weak and infirm; but we pass on our acquired characteristics to the next generation. One generation discovers a cure for polio, and the next generation is immune to that disease. One generation laboriously builds up the Internet, and the next seems to be born with a Facebook account. We progress as a species by extrabiological means: because we have language, and tradition, and writing, and education, the accumulated experience of all previous generations is ours, and our lives begin where our ancestors’ lives left off. In a way, you could say that old man Lysenko was right about that. He was just wrong about everything else.”