Incredible as it may seem, not least to himself, Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba is in charge of a team of
three four people. This is up from zero three short years ago, when he was granted the opportunity of creating an Applied Research department – and demonstrating, to the people who pay for it, that a pack of researchers could actually be of any practical profitable use.
The people who are paying for this grow algae for a living. Yes, this is a thing.
And the thing they wish from Applied Research is to keep those algae happy and healthy. Happier and healthier than before, if can. With lowered costs of production, if can. Within your budget or else, Buster.
Alas, unlike, say, wheat, rice, or maize (“corn”, to you Yankees), algae have been grown as crops for a very short time. Which means that “happier” is not generally a matter of picking the correct fertilizer off the garden supply store shelf. If Issue X comes up, chances are good that no one has encountered it before (or, they have and aren’t telling). There are no guidebooks, no agriculture extension agents, and even the scientific literature, if any exists on the issue, may not answer the question or, worse, it may present answers that prove to be wrong. If answers are to be had, therefore, they must be baked from scratch. See “budget”, supra.
Many, many moons ago (almost 500 of ’em, in fact), a well-respected supervisor, mentor, and coauthor passed this advice on to YFNA:
Never admit you’re wrong.
The advice that a much grayer and more weathered Amoeba now passes on to his folk is [ahem] somewhat adjusted:
We are ‘Research’. By definition, we don’t know what we’re doing. The minute we do, it becomes somebody else’s standard operating procedure. And we’re on to the next WTF.
Because we don’t know what we’re doing until we figure it out, then Mistakes R Us. Indeed, if mistakes aren’t happening, then we’re probably not trying hard enough, not providing the service that we’re being paid for: We Go Splat So You Don’t Have To.
This is not a comfortable space to be in. In a world where so-called ‘winners’ are asserting their authority, we are admitting our vulnerability, our kinship with Thomas Edison and his proclamation about his results, “I know several thousand things that won’t work.” I make many mistakes, as a scientist and as a person. The best I can do with that is to learn from the mistakes, and to serve and support others while the learning goes on, with the goal of turning the lessons into stuff people can use. If you are better than I at this, bless you. But I have no business expecting it.
I offer this covenant. I ask you to give us your best, each 40-hour week. Your best labor, your best intelligence, your best wit, your best courage. In return, I pledge to do all I can to support your efforts, to put you in a space where you can best succeed, where your success can give us all a boost. In particular, I pledge to listen. Grant me the privilege of understanding your molehills. Alas, I cannot fix all things, but it is my responsibility to try, or to explain why another way, or simple patience, may be best for now. And molehills are far easier to level than mountains.
Above all, I ask that we serve each other. In the practice of mutual service, we will better sustain each other during the challenges, and reap better rewards during prosperity – which will come soonest if we can do this. I will err along the way, and I expect you will too. But I’ll do my damnedest not to err the same way twice.
And if I heedlessly break this covenant, I expect to suffer the consequences.
Sometimes, YFNA reckons, keeping algae healthy in 2018 CE is a lot like keeping the human body healthy was in 400 BCE. The ancient physicians were forced to make decisions on the fewest of clues, with life itself at stake. Rather like the modern algae farmers are. After all, Hippocrates lived and worked a full two millennia before William Harvey published his account of blood circulation (which was sharply criticized on publication), and an additional 100 years would elapse before Louis Pasteur and his contemporaries established the links between various microbes and human disease.
In this atmosphere of uncertainty, when an overly adventurous physician could maim or kill the patient, and thus be accused of having offended the gods and be at risk of the associated consequences (usually execution or banishment, both of which were death penalties), the Hippocratic Oath represented a covenant between the physicians and their patients. Though, YFNA reads, the phrase “First, do no harm” was coined much later than Hippocrates, the principle (“I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm”) was firmly established from the outset.
Though some passages of the original oath were, to these modern eyes, obviously self-serving, intended to preserve the integrity of the guild, not to mention its income, overall the message is that the physician is to serve patients, not be served by them.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba is long enough in the
tooth pseudopod to remember how, in the 1960s, physicians, with their perceived wealth and their increasing unavailability to, and disdainful treatment of, patients, got stuck with the label, not of ‘servant’ but of ‘self-serving’, thus breaking the Hippocratic covenant. The result was passage of the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, the first push down the slide to the current disastrous state of affairs that is “health care” in these Untied States, for all but the wealthiest citizens, the disparaged residua of Medicare and the Affordable Care Act notwithstanding.
For many years now, YFNA has been in the same straits as the person identified (not by name) in the Preface to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (in YFNA’s opinion, the only truly worthwhile section of the book, for reasons discussed here), who professed atheism, yet continued to attend church “out of loyalty to the tribe”.
Together with the late Stephen Hawking and many other prominent persons of science, YFNA accepts that there is no objective evidence for the existence of a deity … and, moreover, he wouldn’t care to live under the capricious rule of a deity who could make that objective evidence null and void at will. Especially not under the terminally insecure spoiled brats that appear to represent the acme of what the human imagination can conceive under the heading of “omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent”. Not, of course, that he would have any choice in the matter, under these circumstances; he, like Winston Smith and everybody else, would be loving Big Brother in a fog of foul gin.
But, those terminally insecure spoiled brats sure as hell can organize people, Adolph. While even Dawkins, that most ardent (and self-regarding) of atheists, bemoans the corresponding organizational failures of atheists and atheism. There may indeed be atheists in foxholes, contrary to the common trope. But they generally don’t admit it, preferring, for the while, to sign on with those with a committed cause (usually assigned to a god or a godhead). Because, YFNA argues, those with the committed cause win wars. How the hell else do you think that two flavors of an obscure Middle Eastern deity without so much as a picture to go with the name managed to split the whole world, outside of China and India, between them? While the socially uncommitted atheists are scattered to the hills, and consider themselves lucky to have achieved that much.
Those “loyal to the tribe”, YFNA thinks, have signed on, tacitly or explicitly, to a covenant. That, in exchange for conduct of their lives contrary to increasingly evident fact, they become part of a social contract that will authentically promote service to others, both within and outside the group, as the best way for members to sustain each other during times of challenge, and to reap better rewards during times of prosperity.
Those “loyal to the tribe” have tried to soldier on in their thinking, in the face of published evidence that those in “the tribe” are actually less inclined to service, especially to those outside the tribe’s increasingly narrow definition of “neighbor”, than are those outside the tribe. As they observe, increasingly, “the tribe” cast itself in terms of self-serving “us vs them” rhetoric. As they observe the election of a President of the United States who embodies none of the stated ethos of “the tribe”, solely because he represents a vehicle through which “the tribe” can achieve its narrowly-defined, self-serving goals. An election against which other members of “the tribe” have spoken ineffectually, or not at all, as these “liberals” discover that they speak for nobody; their communities are choosing against irrelevance, and for either fundamentalist social cohesion, or atheist recognition of fact.
And when YFNA and Quilly finally were confronted, inescapably, in their own lives, with self-serving reality that was obliterating empty preaching of service by the ostensible leader of “the tribe”, it was enough. When they saw ignorant authority assert itself over expertise, offered in humble service, it was enough. When they realized that superficial achievement by that leader was masking an all-too-typical toxic leadership profile, capable of ignoring facts in the quest for power and its attendant self-gratification, it was more than enough.
The covenant is broken.
What remains is for those in possession of the facts to find an answer for Voltaire’s pronouncement, Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer. To master the challenge of creating social cohesion, based on the concept of mutual service, across society at large, in the absence of a god or godhead on which to pin false hopes.
Before it’s too late.
If it isn’t already.