Genius is not perfected, it is deepened. It does not so much interpret the world as fertilize itself with it. – Andre Malraux
Hugo Mercier and Christophe Heintz in their 2013 paper “Scientists’ argumentative reasoning” write about how the classical view of science is that it is advanced by a lone genius – a big brain that works in isolation and emerges with monumental finished work.
The classical view is wrong.
Advancement happens as a result of connections. Matthew Syed, in his book “Rebel Ideas” says that the Neanderthals had bigger brains than modern humans but they lived in small social groups while humans lived in larger ones. The advantage of large groups is that ideas spread. It might take a big brain to first use a stick as a tool but once smaller brains learn about fire from each other, they’re more powerful as a group.
This is a hard thing for some of us to accept. We see ourselves as islands, independent entities that don’t need others to do what we do. But we do need others. Companies grow not because of the genius of their founders but because they recruit people – getting a motivated team together heading in the same direction is what you need for results in any field – science, entrepreneurship or sport, to name a few.
You have to make a case to convince others that all of you should head in a particular direction. That direction may be your company strategy or your plan to fight climate change – but success or failure comes down to two things. First, being able to argue your case and convince the audience that of your views. And the second is to evaluate other people’s arguments and see if they are reason to change yours or not.
If you come up with a better mousetrap you are going to have to be able to tell others about it – to sell it. And if someone does have a better mousetrap and you have a problem with mice, you’re going to need to be able to figure out whether it’s better or worse.
This may seem quite theoretical but it’s really of quite some practical importance. We’re faced with propositions these days that are really quite complicated. For example, how many people are really comfortable with the idea of cryptocurrencies or non fungible tokens (NFTs). I had a play with creating an NFT today and it’s pretty simple really – you need some bits and pieces but nothing seems particularly complicated.
Here is an example of a concept that’s new to people – and it doesn’t help that most explanations are bewilderingly technical. But advocates of decentralised technology keep talking about it – they keep putting forward “arguments” until some people try it out and then more and at some point it becomes something we all just do.
But the reason we try it out is because we’re evaluating the argument. An NFT is a way to prove ownership of a digital asset. Why would you want to do that – after all, if you create something you get copyright automatically. But to really understand the value of something that only exists digitally you just have to watch kids interacting with pretty much any game and getting excited about the artefacts they can collect or buy to realise that it’s very real for them – real enough to hand over money. And, of course, anything digital can be copied, so there’s some value in being able to say you own the thing – and being able to prove it.
The reason I had a look at NFTs is because of Twitter’s functionality where you can set an NFT as your profile picture. Accounts with NFTs show up as hexagons. And then you get this weirdness where people show you how you can use a graphic to mimic the same effect. And now you have people who have NFTs and people who are pretending to have NFTs. But here’s the point… only one set can actually prove it. So does that have value?
I think it might, at some point but I don’t know. But here’s the thing – over time things will get clearer as the group brain that is the Internet will help us figure it out. That is, perhaps, the real big brain out there now.