I want to know that it’s real, that it’s not just something happening inside my own head, because it matters what’s true… Neil DeGrasse Tyson
In a recent opinion piece titled, “Rhapsody in Realism,” New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about the value of the “crooked timber mentality.” Crooked timber is a reference to 19th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s observation that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” We are, despite our often good intentions, at various and frequent moments in our very human lives, alternately foolish, weak, cowardly, impetuous, impatient or exhibit any number of the moral frailties we’re heir to.
Brooks suggests the more honestly we view ourselves through the “crooked timber” lens, the more effectively we can live.
“People with a crooked timber mentality are anti-perfectionist,” says Brooks. ” When two people are working together there are bound to be different views, and sometimes you can’t find a solution so you have to settle for an arrangement. You have to design structures that have a lot of give, for when people screw up. You have to satisfice, which is Herbert Simon’s term for any option that is not optimal but happens to work well enough.”
The mature people we meet, Brooks observes, are of the crooked timber mindset, eyes and heart-wide-open with acceptance and understanding, and a sense of humor, about the imperfections of life and the unanswered questions that hang in the air, well aware that “Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to the cold-eyed balances of the Constitution. Love starts in passion and ends in car pools.”
The ability to see things as they are, honestly, without embellishment, spin or excuses, warts and all, and furthermore, to be able to often see beauty in that view – perfection in the imperfection – is the hallmark of the self-aware, curious, empowered and empowering individual who isn’t afraid of unanswered questions, of uncertainty, of mistakes or of making corrections.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently wrapped up the first season of Cosmos, the next generation revisit of Carl Sagan’s famous look at the Universe and our place in it, with a an episode called “Unafraid of the Dark ” (transcript here) . Tyson talks about how we overcame our Dark Ages ignorance, a time when “we knew nothing of where or when we were.
“Oblivious to the rest of the cosmos, we inhabited a kind of prison– a tiny universe bounded by a nutshell.”
We escaped that prison, he said,by the grace of generations of researchers who took five simple rules to heart:
- Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so.
- Think for yourself.
- Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.
- Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If an idea fails a well designed test, “it’s wrong,” says Tyson. ” Get over it.”
- Follow the evidence, wherever it leads. “If you have no evidence, reserve judgement. Remember, you could be wrong. ” Everyone makes mistakes, notes Tyson. We’re human. “Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and each other.”
And of course, the hallmark of science is brutal self honesty, that “crooked timber” view of the world, a fearless reality based life where it matters what’s true, but we understand the quest is a long one, that we’re playing the long game with no quick and easy answers to the hard questions of life and being.
The alternative is a return to that tiny universe bounded by a nutshell of ignorance. Those who come after us deserve better.