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Introduction | Feelings (δ) | Beliefs (γ) | Facts (β) | Ideas (α) | Conclusion

(double-click any word to see its definition)

Alpha (α): Ideas
Creates new realities

You may already have guessed that the term “ideas,” as applied to this level, is no more than a handy label. The other names — feeling, belief, fact — are not very ambiguous in their meaning, but describing the entire human creative endeavor as “ideas” is only a convenient word, not a full description.

This is true because the idea level encompasses all those disciplines that shape the human world. It is the endeavor to understand our relationship with nature and build the delicate partnership between ourselves and nature.

It is not possible to overemphasize the difference between the idea level and the levels below it — there is little basis for comparison. Unlike the true believers discussed earlier, and those in the thrall of facts, alphas (people at the idea level) actually explore the world as they find it and learn how to maximize their own effectiveness in creating new knowledge. Alphas do this by minimizing the occasional negative effects of the lower levels in their own lives.

For example, a doctor who fainted at the sight of blood would not be very effective. For this reason, doctors learn to control their own feelings to some extent, replacing one feeling (shock and fear at the sight of blood) with another (a passion for the practice of medicine).

In a similar way, to produce useful results scientists must avoid their own emotional biases, fixed beliefs and an excessive reliance on facts. The discipline of science contains procedures to minimize the effect of these subjective forces, and the structure of the scientific method reveals our knowledge of our own vulnerabilities.

The safeguards built into science are meant to avoid the intellectual traps described in the previous sections, and instead focus our attention on — not a subjective, distorted view of nature — but nature herself.

Sister Kenny
Here's an example. In 1952, 58,000 cases of poliomyelitis, a virus-borne disease, occurred in the US. Polio is a disease that paralyzes those it doesn't kill outright. This is the story of how two very capable individuals — people operating at different levels — dealt with this disease.

Sister Kenny

Sister Kenny, a health practitioner originally from Australia, treated many cases of polio during her long, very successful career. She developed clinical methods for treating polio's paralytic symptoms that minimized the loss of function, the paralysis, that so often accompanied the disease.

Sister Kenny became famous for her novel therapies, therapies that confronted the more traditional (and largely ineffective) methods practiced by others. Many people owe their ability to function, even their lives, to the methods she pioneered.

Jonas Salk

In 1955, using the methods of science, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that prevented polio. His vaccine, and to some extent the later live-virus Sabin vaccine, virtually wiped out polio. In the US, polio cases went from 58,000 in 1952 to less than 10 in 1961.

Jonas Salk
Salk knew that polio was caused by a virus, and that, if the body's own defenses could be prepared in advance using a dead copy of the virus, the real virus would not have a chance. The first virus vaccine was developed by Jenner in the early 1800s, used against smallpox. Jenner discovered that cowpox, a closely related virus that is harmless to humans, would prevent smallpox if people were inoculated with it. Salk built on this idea, using more modern methods.

The methods developed by Jenner, Salk and others are now the standard treatment for viral diseases. This treatment is possible because we know why viral diseases come about. We understand the life cycle of viruses, and we know how to control viral infection for many diseases. Today, as a result of this knowledge, widespread polio epidemics are a historical footnote, and smallpox has been entirely eradicated — wiped out completely by 1980.


Polio Clinic
I should mention that the “sister” in Sister Kenny's name is not a religious title, it is an honorific that she adopted while she was a member of an organization of nurses — she was not a nun. So this story isn't really a medical version of “Inherit the Wind” (a play that dramatizes the trial of a schoolteacher who taught evolution), a classic conflict between religion and science — not at all. Sister Kenny was quite a character, very effective, patiently tolerating many stupid opponents over the years. Her personal motto was “It's better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.”

Nevertheless, the polio story starkly contrasts the idea-based and fact-based approaches. Sister Kenny treated the symptoms of polio. Over time, because of direct clinical experience, she learned increasingly effective treatments for polio's symptoms. But if her methods were our total understanding of the disease, we would have Sister Kenny clinics in every neighborhood in the country and we would expect to see very many polio-disabled people. If the trend set in 1952 had continued unabated, today we would see as many new polio cases every year as the total US death toll for the entire Vietnam War.

But this is not what happened. Jonas Salk developed a cure for polio. He used the methods of science and the fledgling discipline of microbiology to create an effective treatment for the disease, not just the symptoms.

Here is a comparison of the two approaches:

Sister Kenny's approach evolved over time, was based on a gradual accumulation of experience, and was evolutionary. It was based on facts. Jonas Salk's approach attacked the root problem, it did so with imagination and vision, and was revolutionary. It was based on ideas.
Sister Kenny's method was reactive — it was developed as a response, a practical solution to the problems caused by polio's symptoms. Jonas Salk's method was proactive — it looked entirely beyond the immediate issue of the victims of polio, and found a solution to the disease itself.


Basically, the polio story is a story about science. Although it is not the only one, science is a good example of the idea level of human experience. Science is also misunderstood by many people — some think it is a vast collection of facts, or a rigid search for truth using telescopes and computers.

Science actually bears little resemblance to the popular view. For example, finding the truth is not the goal in science — in fact, truth is not even a proper word in scientific discussions.

Science relies on evidence — observations — to support or falsify theories about reality. Sometimes a theory is shaped before any evidence is collected, sometimes the other way around, but theory and evidence are both important. A theory without any evidence may be interesting, but it is not science.

Science is an open, basically anarchistic, system. Ideas have the highest priority, and those with supporting evidence become the new science. Authority means precisely nothing. This is how a lowly patent clerk, working in his spare time in Berne, Switzerland, could overthrow all the physical theory of his time with a few short articles (Einstein).

And scientific theories are never finally declared “true.” This is why, in science, truth is not an appropriate word, along with common brainless expressions like “a proven scientific fact.” A scientific theory can be disproven, but it can never be declared proven. There is always the chance that new evidence will appear to disprove a theory, or a new, better theory may come along that explains more things, predicts more observations, and retires the prevailing theory.

This statement about science, that theories are never declared proven, never become laws, comes about because the core of science is not the theories or the evidence, but the process. Science doubts everything, re-examines everything, tries to avoid hidden assumptions. It tries to find alternative explanations, tries to create new theories that describe more, or are more “efficient” — meaning theories that use fewer rules to explain more of reality.


The car stopping-distance example in the “facts” section of this article is a trivial example of an “efficient” explanation (kinetic energy) compared to an inefficient one (a list of facts). Without the kinetic-energy explanation, people would have to carry around a list of stopping distances — imagine it! In fact, guess what? Americans do just that. In this country, young drivers are handed a list of stopping distances without a word of explanation.

But when this happens, students are not surprised in the least — most of American education consists of handing out of lists of facts. This is just another list, another fact to add to the collection. By the way, here's the list:

Speed MPH Reaction Distance Braking Distance Total Distance
20 44 20 64
40 88 80 168
60 132 180 312
80 176 320 496
100 220 500 720
120 264 720 984

This list gives distances in feet for automobile speeds in miles per hour. The reaction time is assumed to be 1.5 seconds, a conservative assumption now that car radios are standard equipment. The results apply to dry, level asphalt.

It is important to realize that, without the key idea (kinetic energy), creating this list is like tearing a leaf from a tree — it promptly dies. The leaf is still there, it has marks on it, but it is quite dead. American education is based on a teacher handing out leaves ripped from the knowledge tree, which the teacher briefly glimpsed, once.

Can someone please tell me how the above list constitutes an improvement over:

(1) Braking distance (feet): bd = (s^2) / 20

Where s = the car's speed in miles per hour. Then

(2) Reaction distance (feet): rd = t * s * 22/15

Where t = reaction time, and s = the car's speed in miles per hour.

Combining the two equations:

Total stopping distance (feet): d = (s^2) / 20 + s * t * 22/ 15

Many educated people in the Western world will say “Indeed! Why would someone want the list when the equation is available?“ But not in America — for most Americans, mathematics is not learned beyond some simple exercises like memorizing multiplication tables, learning long division and, for some students, a little algebra later on. But after school lets out, in everyday American life, people don't use mathematics. That's for scientists.

People who have been properly educated will glance at this equation, see the “s^2” term, and say “Whoa! Stopping distance increases roughly as the square of speed!” Guess how many Americans know this about their beloved cars? The same number who know people don't speak Latin in Latin America — almost none.

I wonder — how many American teenagers have been handed the stopping-distance list without comment, only to die later because they never learned the idea that created the list?

Efficiency is a good general term to describe the idea level. People who create new realities have more than imagination going for them — they also know how to be efficient. And know this — for each idea, there is an optimally efficient expression, as shown above.

The difference in size and processing time between a set of dependent facts, and the idea that creates the facts, is why the idea is more efficient. And in one of the great ironies of intellect, the efficient expression, the idea, often reveals meanings the inefficient one cannot.

If you have only the car stopping-distance list, you are not likely to realize it contains within it the kinetic-energy idea. But if you ascend to the level of the idea, you might use it to compute the size and speed of the asteroid thought to have killed off the dinosaurs, or anything else that has mass and moves. Your mind needs much less storage space for the kinetic-energy idea than for the list, but the idea is much more powerful.

This is how ideas work. This is how you work, at the alpha level.


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