The frame of reference which guides our perception. It shapes our minds and the logic they recognise. It calibrates our evaluation of good and bad; it is the paradigm in terms of which we think we understand something, or assert it to be self-evident.

Freedom from control by the mindset is rare. Perhaps it doesn’t exist. But this is by no means always a bad thing, since it provides the frame of reference needed to form a judgment. Here are two examples of mindset in action. One comes from the most rigorous and objective of sciences. The other comes from a man who needed a smoke.

Superstring theory, if correct, would get close to providing physics with its “unified theory”—linking up our understanding of gravity, matter and quantum mechanics with an explanation of the existence of the universe. It was developed by John Schwarz and Michael Green in 1984, and initially it seemed that it might achieve this without having to live with anomalies which, for a theory in physics, would appear to disprove it. It is a complex theory, requiring ten dimensions (the three dimensions of space, one of time, and six others), but it flashed through the scientific community at the speed of FedEx (there was no email at that time) and remained the dominant paradigm for twenty years. However, it remained at the level of conjecture; observations that pointed in another direction were—as the physicist, Lee Smolin, writes—“ignored because, if confirmed, they would be inconvenient for our theorising”. Careers were sucked into this mindset; other points of view and careers had a hard time overcoming it. At the end of such a process, as Smolin observes, “You have little more than you started with: a beautiful picture on the jacket of a book you can never open.”M15

There is nothing wrong with a widely shared focus of interest on a theory as interesting as Superstrings. The problem arises when “widely shared” matures to an orthodox mindset which is intolerant of any other interest which seriously challenges it, or which is moving in a radically different direction—especially if that intolerance means that tenure and research grants are unavailable to potential challengers. But there may be a deep instinct here: mindsets are home territory, to be defended at all costs. Heresy can be silenced by the denial of a job, research facilities or publication unless (like Charles Darwin, or Miriam Rothschild, the pioneering authority on flower meadows) you have private means, or (like the scientist Rupert Sheldrake) you can write bestsellers, or (like the organic movement and critics of biotechnology in agriculture) you are prepared to plod on, insecure and borderline broke, for generations, or (like the oil heretic Colin Campbell, and the population heretic William Stanton) you are retired.

The smoker’s story comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was a journalist in the Spanish civil war, and had been arrested by anarchist militia for watching the loading of goods onto a truck at three o’clock in the morning. He was taken to a basement . . .

My captors handed round my camera as evidence to convict me. Some of those who were yawning, lounging on their rickety chairs, stood up with a bored expression, and propped themselves against the wall.

For the dominant impression was that of boredom. Boredom and sleep. The power of concentration of these men seemed to be exhausted. I almost wished for a sign of hostility, as a human contact. But they did not grant me any sign of anger, not even of reprobation. Several times I attempted to protest in Spanish, but my protestations came to naught. They gazed at me without any reaction, as if they were looking at a Chinese fish in an aquarium.

They were waiting. What were they waiting for? The return of a companion? The dawn? I thought: “Perhaps they are waiting for hunger”. I also thought: “They are going to do a silly thing. It is absolutely ridiculous . . .” My feeling then, more than anguish, was a disgust of absurdity. I thought: “If they wake up, if they want to act, they will shoot!”

Was I really in danger? Did they still ignore the fact that I was neither a saboteur nor a spy, but a journalist? That my identity papers were at the hotel? Had they made a decision, and if so, which one?

Then the miracle happened. Oh! a very discreet miracle. I had no cigarette. As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes, no longer to my tie, but to my face, and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile. It was the dawning of the day.

This miracle did not conclude the tragedy; it removed it altogether, as light does shadow. There had been no tragedy. This miracle altered nothing visible. The feeble oil lamp, the table scattered with papers, the men propped against the wall, the colours, the smell, everything remained unchanged. Yet everything was transformed in its very substance. That smile saved me. [. . .]

Nothing yet had been said. Yet everything was resolved. To thank him, I laid my hand upon his shoulder, as he gave me the cigarette. And now that the ice was broken, the rest of the militia also became human, and I entered into their smiles, as into a new and free country.

~ from Letter to a HostageM16


Related entries:

Calibration, Different Premises, False Inference, Humility.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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