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Saturday, July 07, 2018

Why does society only fund harebrained ideas?

Humans evolved to destroy what they create. They don't really want anyone to solve problems.

A few years ago my former boss asked me to write a business plan for some start-up. This was back when gene chips were insanely expensive, and idea was that the company would run gene chips for customers. As a bonus, they'd also identify proteins for them by mass spectrometry.

Looking over what I wrote, the boss complained that it wasn't optimistic enough. The guy would never go for it, he said, and I should add a zero to the estimated profit. I protested, saying that would make it unrealistic. But in industry you do what the boss says or you find another job. The guy went for the fake business plan. They bought a bunch of equipment and hired a bunch of people, giving them all fancy titles—they had a scientific director, a director of this and that, a CEO, a CFO, and a technician who would do the actual work. They brought in almost to the cent what I had originally predicted. Then they went bankrupt.

Now, a lot older and a tad wiser, I realize that bankruptcy was actually the goal. The boss wanted them to fail, and it's likely that the entrepreneur, for reasons known only to him and his tax accountant, wanted to fail as well.

We often assume that those who always seem to be doing dumb stuff are merely misguided. But what if they're not? What if they're rationally pursuing a goal that they know is self-destructive?

Harebrained ideas

Here's another example. A couple of months ago, an investor tried to arrange a deal proposed by a former colleague to get me to work on one of that colleague's harebrained ideas.

The entire experiment was orchestrated by somebody else: I would do this, that, and the other thing, and if it worked they'd create a corporation and bring me in to work on the idea.

There was only one problem: there was no way it could work. I'd explained this in detail to the guy when he grabbed the idea out of the research literature and patented it fifteen years ago. Just to test it, you'd need six months of experimentation and testing—hard, tedious work. Well, by gum, they were going to prove that it did work, and they'd save money by skipping the actual ‘work’ part.

The university was salivating over the money they thought would come in. They had meeting after meeting—for whatever reason, academics love useless meetings—and the social dynamics were always the same: no one dared disparage the idea for fear of alienating somebody else. In academia, criticizing somebody's idea is the best way to create a bitter enemy who will do everything in their power to harm your career. Just as in industry, saying no is not an option.

Of course the project failed. Everybody got what they wanted. Afterward I had our lab decommissioned for radioisotopes so the university couldn't demand that it be repeated.

I've come to realize that this is a general phenomenon. People want their plans to fail. They want their companies to go bankrupt. They even want their own species to go extinct, though they'll never admit it in public, or even to themselves.

Non-harebrained ideas

Of course there was a cost: I'd been making progress on finding the cause of some particularly nasty disease, and this project set me back by several weeks. But I realized solving problems and curing diseases is not what the humans really want. What they want is shown by what they will pay for, and what they will pay for are projects that they think will make them rich. It doesn't matter to them that this strategy never works. What's important is the eternal chase.

Humans do this in their everyday lives as well: a man will get married over and over, building up a population of women who despise him because he let them take him to the cleaners. A woman will date the most brutal guy she can find, knowing that he'll come home carrying drugs and be vicious to her. I saw the depressing results of that when I was on a jury.

They also get it in their civilizations. Europeans created a culture of decline in the 18th and 19th centuries: Baudelaire and de Sade typified the decadence, which led to nihilism, which led to political experimentation with anarchism and secret societies. Then they happily waltzed into a war that wiped out an entire generation and set our civilization on a downward spiral from which it still has not recovered.

This can't be ascribed to stupidity alone. The trait must have some survival value or it would have died out. Maybe there's a program in our genes that makes us destroy whatever we create in order to force us to evolve. Or maybe it's in the nature of leaders to create problems. It keeps the rest of us busy cleaning up the mess. It's a full-time job.

jul 07 2018, 6:41 am. edited jul 10 2018, 5:03 am

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