Noubar Afeyan, the co-founder of Moderna, took part in a great podcast with Tyler Cowen just recently. A recurring theme of the conversation was about learning, experimentation, and overcoming pre-existing dogma.
There are, of course, some dogmas which are good. For example, I am dogmatically against murder. That’s a good dogma – and I am not interested in arguing about that dogma! But other dogmas, especially around science, often have hidden and non-obvious harms.
Late in the podcast, Cowen asks what is surprising about how Afeyan works, and Afeyan says:
I’ve got a strongly evolutionary kind of mindset, and and this notion of emergence. So I think that if you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you have to be very humble, in recognising that you don’t know what the right thing to do is, but also nobody else does.
And in that milieu, you need to create a culture where people are willing to say things be wrong, so that others can say other things. And over time, whatever is right can emerge. So I think probably the most unusual thing that I insist on is people’s willingness to say things that are not backed up by all the facts that one would typically need. And then to engage them in a dialogue that will eventually get us there. It’s tiring. It’s not a pleasant activity. But I’ve developed a sense of that, because I think that that gets you to new truths, as opposed to repetitions of current dogma.Noubar Afeyan, Permission to Leap
In our modern, complicated, world, it is not obvious who has the right answer to a given issue. I’ve written here on these issues before. As a general rule, if you have a group of ‘experts’ who come up with a unanimous decision on a contentious issue, your ‘experts’ are probably not working well:
This is why free speech is so important in a community: the so-called experts often get it wrong. Whether it be the Catholic Church declaring that the Earth is the centre of the solar system, or modern corrupt officials declaring that coronavirus does not spread from human to human, or local ‘experts’ who warn that masks might spread the coronavirus disease. In each case, the so-called ‘experts’ decided what the truth was, and in each case, they were wrong. A public and open conversation allows for falsehoods to be discredited, even if the officials who spread such falsehoods remain in power.
In closing the podcast, Cowen asked one last question: How can America attract more people like Afeyan to America. Afeyan’s answer was to simply “Be America” and by that, Afeyan meant:
“What I mean, is recognise that the country is itself one giant experiment, it’s a melting pot, it has been a melting pot, it should continue to be a melting pot. A melting pot means that people come here to effectively make the country like them, and themselves like the country, and that that this solution is not a source of negative I know, there’s lots of people who, who kind of want to create ethnic differences and all the differences among us.
But there’s an element of this where where I think people have come to this country, fully intending to adapt, and to contribute, but also to add of themselves to what is considered America today. And I, I think that that system, that cooperative system, between the precedented and the new is what accounts for, you know, unimaginable creativity, resilience, resourcefulness that this country has, and I would protect that far greater than any monument or any other national treasure.
That’s personally, you know, it may seem romantic, but that’s what I think is attractive about this country, this country has that as a core advantage. And I think that’s a tough thing to pull off, let me tell you, a lot of other countries that kind of come and go and civilizations who don’t have that, who become a bit more homogeneous, more exclusionary, kind of lose their I’ll say it evolutionary advantage, their competitive advantage to adapt, and to respond. And so I think we clearly have a bunch of things to fix, as it relates to the way the governance of the country is being executed. There’s a level of over maturation of that and over stagnation of that, that seems that seems very, very troubling. And I don’t know how that gets changed is beyond my, my experience base.
But I would say whatever happens should, and I’ve not said should protect immigrants or immigration, but should protect this type of dynamism. That comes from that. I also would say that, as a country, there’s so many people who have the experience of coming here, that that experience can also be transmitted to people who are born here, for whom the same mindset of being willing to imagine a better future, every single person who comes to this country imagines a better future for themselves. That’s my belief, and maybe not every single person 99%.
So imagine if all of us were also born, imagining a better future for ourselves what we shouldn’t be, but we got to work to get that an immigrant who comes here, understand that they got to work to get that they have to adapt. The problem is if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’re going to work to get that you might think you’re born into it.
This will be kind of a funny thing to say, and I apologise to anybody that I offend: If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America. Because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be. Versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility. So I think that that is something needs to be said about that is to really make a new pact or compact to say, “What’s the America that I really want to be contributing to?” And if that’s more equal, less discriminating, different rules and laws, etc, We should we should be open to talking about this.Noubar Afeyan, Permission to Leap
There’s probably something to learn in there for other nations too.