"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


There's a simple story that sums up the perils of global terrorism. "Once there were two people sitting in a rowboat. One suddenly started making a hole on his side of the boat. The other screamed. The first countered and said, 'What do you care what I do on my side of the boat?'"

 Todd Siler

In your search for a new Science Advisor, I strongly recommend that you select an individual who has as much common sense as he or she has accomplishments in the sciences. Equally important, this open minded advisor needs to approach our world of interrelated problems with a systems view of things, which is something compartmentalized thinkers struggle with conceptually. This systems view is essential for effectively dealing with the web of gnarly problems that entangle nations and strain international relations.

In reviewing the list of challenging scientific issues that need your immediate attention, few strike me as being as important as fighting the war on terror. But fighting it to win in both the short and long run. As the world wrestles with how to best respond to terrorism in the wake of September 11—and as our nation grapples with the lethal threats of tyrants and their irrational actions—your advisory board needs to be as agile and open to the possibilities of a "chance discovery" as an inventor on the verge of a major breakthrough.

Sparking breakthrough thinking and accelerating innovation are two of my specialties and passions. If I was fortunate enough to serve as a member of your ad hoc committee on terrorism, I would suggest taking the following course of action:

I'd help organize a maverick group of professional thinkers (scientists, engineers, artists, educators, scholars, policy-makers, and polymaths), and invite them to delve into a pool of obvious and deep questions concerning national security.

I'd compare this exploratory work to the adventurous endeavors undertaken by the American military strategist and futurist, Herman Kahn, founder of the Hudson Institute think-tank and author of On Thermonuclear War. Ideally, I would hope to see the creative energies invested here parallel that of other intensely focused science-technology-civil society-oriented projects in the past; imagine a sort of Manhattan Project for Peaceful Solutions or a small scale Pugwash Conference (without any formal conference which comes with a certain structure that can inhibit the free exchange of ideas). Our group would scope out a long-term strategic vision for securing our nation and safeguarding the world from the projected charges and potential damage of "rogue elephants."

Note that we would engage in this collaborative envisioning activity using some unconventional, yet proven, techniques of communication that involve symbolic modeling. One outcome of this work would be a set of tactical, implementation plans. These practical plans could then be evaluated and contrasted with the research-based recommendations of groups such as the Rand Corporation, among other solution providers.

They could also be run through the mill of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis, a business practice I'm quite familiar with having facilitated many strategic planning sessions for executive officers of Fortune 500 Companies.

The types of open-ended questions this ad hoc group might consider responding to could include the following:

• How do we foresee the forces of terrorism growing during this decade? How will this growth impact our collective future? Describe these forces.

• What are some non-military solutions for stemming further acts of aggression against our principles and practices of democracy?

• How will this constant presence of terrorism profoundly affect the American way of life as well as our dreams for improving the state of the world?

• How will terrorism affect our advanced warfare programs and defense policies?

• Is there any way to avoid the inevitable build up of weapons of mass destruction in defense of by attacking civil liberties and basic human rights for all?

• How can our world community do a better job of policing renegade groups of people and organizations whose raison d'etre seems to be to spread anarchy and other forms of social unrest?

• Other than U.N. disarmament resolutions, what additional agreements would we need to have securely in place in order to begin to abolish of chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programs? Specifically, how will the advancement of these programs help our prospects for a lasting peace?

• What benefits will the next generation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons "offer" us which an improvement in human communication cannot?

These are merely a handful of basic questions that come to mind at the moment. Any one of them could be explored by this group of thinkers using the tools of science and common sense to solve this gravest of problems: fighting a war on terror that doesn't perpetuate the cycle of violence but rather prevents it by fostering a new understanding. The main task of this group would be to find more ingenious ways of dismantling this Gordian Knot of political, ideological and religious beliefs other than reaching into that old Pandora's Box and taking out another weapon to whack away at our worst primal fears.

Clearly we have much more scientific work to do to better understand the nature of fear and terror, and to recognize the patterns of ineffective responses to these phenomena. Whenever our brute fears overpower our rationality trouble abounds.

Finally, we need to explore our deepest, most ambiguous questions about the roots of terrorism that have as much to do with science as they do with philosophy and religion. Naturally, your new Science Advisor needs to handle this reality with the utmost sensitivity. And the advisory board needs to value the fact that there's always more than one viable solution to any given problem, when viewed from many perspectives. Without this broader and deeper exploration, our world may remain pinned and pained by the headlock we're in.

There's a simple story that sums up the perils of global terrorism. "Once there were two people sitting in a rowboat. One suddenly started making a hole on his side of the boat. The other screamed. The first countered and said, 'What do you care what I do on my side of the boat?'" I thank you for caring about the hole in our boat. Now you need to get the rest of the world on board about caring too.

Todd Siler
Founder & Director, Psi-Phi Communications, LLC.
Former advisory board member of the Council on Art, Science, Technology at M.I.T.
Author of Think Like A Genius and Breaking the Mind Barrier

 

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