Mistaken Identities

Note: this post originally appeared as a blog arc on my old BizMediaScience blog. I’m resurrecting the complete arc here as it’s referenced in That Think You Do‘s “Unhealthy Comparisons” chapter

I was reading a news release in Science a while back and have been thinking about it for a while. The complete news item, In The Courts, is about a man of supposed superior intelligence who, for whatever reason, did an unwise thing.

The unwise thing this man, 70 years old and a pioneer in gene-therapy research, did was molest a young girl. He’ll now spend 14 years in prison, most likely in solitary because he’ll be at risk from the other inmates.

The news item shares that scores of letters asking for leniency were sent on this fellow’s behalf to the judge.

Sometimes, and I’m not sure why, we think that people of great intellect aren’t subject to baser thoughts and desires. I remember so wanting to meet Dr. Edwin Teller, the so-called father of the American H-bomb. I wanted to meet him because I was so enraptured by his science, by his intellect, by his ability to reason and find answers where others couldn’t even come up with the questions.

Of course, anybody with qualities to which I aspire must be much like me. Peaceful, caring, loving, giving (if, indeed, those are qualities I possess). This concept — our heroes must be just like us — is something I touched on in Not So Social Networks (a BizMediaScience post from Jan 2007. Happy to resurrect it if you wish).

Imagine my chagrin when, hearing him lecture, I heard a warlike, hawkish man. Someone I considered fearful yet unaware of what he was afraid of.

It was a shock to me.

Many years later I learned to separate the elements I admired from the individual containing them.

Lots of people are awestruck (and some made nervous, as documented in Conversations with the Past, Part 2 (a BizMediaScience post from May 2007. Happy to resurrect it if you wish)) at my ability to know what and how people are thinking. If I make some nervous, one of my mentors would downright terrify them. I use to joke with him that not long ago he would have been burned at the stake for his skills. Not only did he teach me how to observe and how to document my observations, he also taught me that people of great ability are, in the end, still people.

In every class and regardless of the size of the class, graduate or undergraduate, he would find one female and make her his favorite. I asked him about this once. Not confronted, asked. He knew. He admitted it. His reasoning? “Joseph, I’m just a man, much like any other.”

His greatest lesson to me, I think, was one I stated to Susan (wife, partner, everything), “I want to be like him, but not all of him.”

Many years later I was studying with another fellow who was an expert on several native american belief systems. There were about ten or twelve of us in the class. Close to the end of the class he had to go to Wisconsin for some family reason. When he returned he was so drunk he could barely stand.

The other students were incensed, near riotous. Everything he’d been teaching and sharing was now, according to them, bullshit.

“Really? This makes him an idiot and a faker, a charlatan? I hope to god my students never hold me up to such high ideals.” In the end, I was the only student in the class. I think the students who either left or transferred lost out on much, and that’s just an opinion, one I’ve shared when I run into them from time to time, because he taught me things he’d never taught others and only because I was willing to accept his mistake and not punish him (and myself!) for it.

So a pioneer in gene-therapy research is also a molester of young girls. I’m truly sorry that he will not be able to continue his research and glad that a molester of young girls is no longer able to perpetuate that aspect of his life.

We need to know we might be guilty of mistaking identities with our heroes and probably others. Humans are amazingly complex creatures and I’d like to think we are mature enough to accept each other with our flaws even when our flaws are such that we must be isolated from society.

There are qualities we admire or aspire to. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to mistake those who contain those qualities with the idealized individuals we create — yes, we create — because we need idealized identities — hence shallow, not complex. Two-dimensional if dimensional at all — to contain them.

Real people are rich and complex creatures, even when we don’t like the richness and complexity they bring into our lives. We dishonor ourselves, deny ourselves our own complexity and richness, mistake our identities with theirs, when we do not allow each other such.

(Information in this arc is from Reading Virtual Minds Volume 2: Experience and Expectation.