I did a comment a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think and NASA and the Challenger explosion and Richard Feynman. I got Feynman’s book (What do You Care What Other People Think?, the one that includes his account of the investigation of the explosion) from the library yesterday – it’s a fascinating read. It is all about bad or non-existent communication between managers and engineers, along with the fact that the managers make the decisions. Baaaad set-up. However good a manager you are, you can’t manage a cold stiff non-resilient rubber O-ring into doing its job of holding in the hot gases during launch. That just isn’t a managerial skill. O-rings and rubber just aren’t…manipulable or commandable or influenceable or persuadable in that way. They just do what they do, no matter what plans the managers make, no matter how many zeros the managers add to the number an explosion can’t happen in. That kind of thing just doesn’t change what happens when a cold O-ring isn’t resilent enough to expand when the joint expands. It just can’t be coaxed. It doesn’t expand, the gas escapes, blam; that’s all.

I’ll tell you more another time, but there was this one passage I read this morning that made me sit up and take even more notice than I already was, which is a lot. It’s highly interesting in itself, but it also exactly echoes something I was thinking…the other day, recently some time, but I couldn’t remember when. You know how that is. I enjoyed that ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s just what I was thinking…whenever it was,’ but I wanted to remember when I was thinking it. (I don’t know. I just did.) I knew I could find out though, because I scribbled a note about it at the time. I scribble notes about things like that in a notebook. You never know when you might want to recall them. It took me awhile to find the note, but I did, and oddly, I scribbled it the day after that post. (I date them. I do several every day, so I insert each day’s dates. I don’t know. I just do.) I’d forgotten that it had anything to do with NASA. But I ended up having the same thought Feynman did about the whole matter. I find that interesting.

Here’s some of what I say in the notebook (don’t mind the sketchiness and crudeness, it’s just a note, a scribble, a memory-aid):

Politics is like NASA. It’s about taking off your engineering hat and putting on your management hat. It’s about – agreement, compromise, persuasion, manipulation, acceptance, opinion. It’s got nothing to do with accuracy, evidence, inquiry, critical thinking – it’s all mush. Mush-world. Baby world. Coax world. ‘Is this okay, will this do?’ Who cares; is it right, or not? [etc] But the political way of thinking – at the extreme – is like NASA – and is a kind of magical thinking – if the majority thinks so then it is true, which can even become, if the majority wants it to, it will happen. Like prayer, perhaps – a background idea that our hopes and wishes (and prayers) really do affect rocks and gases – really do protect the shuttle and keep it from exploding.

That’s politics at its worst, of course, but still, it did strike me with a peculiar force or clarity at that moment, and explain to me why I’m really not very interested in politics these days. So you’ll be able to see why this bit of Feynman’s book made me sit up.

The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty. In other fields, such as business, it’s different.’ He cites advertising, where the goal is to fool the customer, and then: ‘When I see a congressman giving his opinion on something, I always wonder if it represents his real opinion or if it represents an opinion he’s designed in order to be elected. It seems to be a central problem for politicians.

Yes. It does. That’s exactly it. It’s wearing a management hat not an engineering hat – which means ignoring what the engineers tell you if it’s not what you or the voters want to hear. Even if that means ignoring the engineers telling you it’s dangerous to launch when it’s this cold and launching anyway, as if managers or politicians have some kind of magical power to over-ride physical reality and make O-rings resilient by the mere power of wishing. Step right up, buy our magic hats, they can make you beautiful and healthy and young, and they can prevent shuttles from exploding and hurricanes from breaching levies.

Once you’ve been impressed by that difference, it’s hard to go back, I think.

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