For 12 years, beginning in 1894, France was divided by a political scandal that began when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a 35-year-old French artillery officer of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason. He was sentenced to life
imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris and spent the next five years imprisoned on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
In 1896, evidence came to light, primarily
through an investigation instigated by Georges Picquart, head of counter espionage, which identified the real culprit as a French Army major, Ferdinand Esterhazy. High-ranking military officials suppressed the new evidence, a military court unanimously
acquitted Esterhazy after a trial lasting just two days, and the Army used forged documents to bring additional charges against Dreyfus.
In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial, in part because of a public
outcry initiated by Emile Zola’s public letter, J’Accuse …! The result was yet another conviction and a 10-year sentence, but Dreyfus was pardoned and released, exonerated in 1906, reinstated as a major in the French army,
and served honorably during the First World War, culminating with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
The affair, which bitterly divided France into pro-republican, anticlerical, Dreyfusards and pro-Army, mostly Catholic, anti-semitic
“anti-Dreyfusards”, gives rise to the question, why is it so difficult, in the face of all of the evidence, to acknowledge that one has been wrong about something and to put aside one’s ego without shame and without acting defensively?
Julia Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality and the host of the podcast Rationally Speaking, offers an analogy to help understand this dilemma. Suppose, she asks, that you're a soldier in the
heat of battle. My imagination went immediately to the eve of January 21, 1879, and the battle of Isandhlwana when the adrenaline ran high in the camps of the British redcoats and the Zulu impis as they waited to engage. As with most
battles, the actions of soldiers on both sides stemmed from deeply ingrained reflexes to protect themselves and their comrades from ‘the enemy.’
Rather than being a warrior, Julia invites us to imagine adopting
the role of the scout. Our job is not to attack or defend so much as to understand. We have to reconnoitre the terrain, identify potential obstacles, choose routes of communication and report back with accurate information. The scout wants to know what
is really there, without bias or preconception, and the generals rely on him or her doing just that.
In an army, both mindsets - the warrior and the scout - are essential. And if war is too extreme an example, think of a sports
team : the quarterback who depends on tactics developed from scouting the opposition.
The soldier mindset is when our unconscious motivations, our desires and fears, shape the way we interpret information. The driving force is our reptilian
or primal brain, which controls our innate and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns, thus ensuring our survival and that of our species. Some ideas feel like our allies - we want to defend them and for them to win. Other ideas are the enemy and
must be shot down. To return to our sports analogy, when the referee judges that our team committed a foul we are highly motivated to find reasons why he's wrong. But if he judges that the other team committed a foul -- awesome! That's a good call …
just don’t examine it too closely.
Our judgment is strongly influenced by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. It shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide for whom to vote, and what
we consider fair or ethical. And it is totally unconscious.
By contrast is the scout mindset and, in the Dreyfus Affair, Georges Picquart is a prime example. It's the drive to find what's out there as honestly and accurately as one
can, even if it's inconvenient or unpleasant.
The question then, is what determines the difference? Julia’s answer is emotion rather than intellect; in fact these mindsets don't correlate very much with IQ at all.
Just as the soldier mindset is rooted in emotions like defensiveness or tribalism, scout mindset is rooted in sentiments like curiosity. Scouts are more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or are driven to solve a conundrum.
They're more likely to feel intrigued than defensive when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations. Scouts also have different values in that they’re more likely to believe it is virtuous to test one’s own beliefs, and they're
less likely to say that someone who changes his or her mind seems weak. And above all, scouts are grounded, which means their self-worth as a person is not tied to how right or wrong they are about any particular topic.
Just how does this
relate to honey bees and their keepers? Clearly the house bees who defend the colony quickly and instinctively are warriors, compared to the foragers who go daily scout the terrain, identify potential obstacles, choose routes of access, report back
with accurate information to their sisters, and in return receive information about what the hive needs most - pollen, nectar, propolis or water - and then adjust their behavior accordingly. And to an extent the roles are interchangeable : scout
bees can become warriors (guard bees) if the colony is under threat, but worker bees cannot suddenly become foragers, because that role requires knowledge and experience they do not yet have.
When a swarm selects a new home,
the scouts want to know what is available without bias or preconception, and to agree on which is most preferential. The future of the colony depends on them doing just that. Meanwhile the house bees in the swarm, normally gentle, can quickly become
warriors if the swarm is threatened.
And beekeepers? There are invariably a few warriors in most associations who are wedded to old ideas, reluctant to accept a different point of view or a new approach, defending their
point of view defiantly. I recall vividly being told as a young teacher that when a new idea was introduced into the faculty room, the old guard would explain that it had been tried ten years earlier, had failed, but they would try it again anyway. They
give it 5% of their effort, it fails, and they say, “See, we told you so!”
In my case I have long defended the vital role of the honey bee, believing her almost exclusively to be the essence of successful pollination and vital
food resources for an expanding population. And I hung my warrior hat on the statements of a few, often expressed in no more than a paragraph. Dr. Margarita Lopez-Uribe of the Department of Entomology at Penn State was instrumental in changing
my mind set by the use of data, first in a bee club presentation and secondly in an interview in Bee Culture. And she did it in such a way that I felt proud rather than ashamed when I realized I had been wrong; exposure to information that contrasted
with my prior conviction evoked feelings of intrigue and excitement rather than defensiveness, and I feel excited as I begin to scout out a new terrain using data that has long been there - I simply had not been able to see it before.
To illustrate the power of emotional mindsets, in particular the importance of vision as inspired by the scouts, Julia Galef quotes Saint-Exupéry, the author of "The Little Prince” : “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up your men
to collect wood and give orders and distribute the work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” I still believe in the importance of the honey bee, but not exclusively so. I am now a beekeeper more than exclusively a
honey beekeeper, in the belief that there is a synergy between all pollinators that is the essence of a successful future. That is the ‘vast and endless sea’ about which I am now curious.