All Models Are Wrong

or at least incomplete

As a heads-up, the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival kicked off on Friday. I’ve already caught a few of the virtual author talks, on topics from the opioid epidemic to human decision making to nature.

The rest of this week’s entry is about three books, two older and one brand-new.

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The New Age … in Russia?

When I was in India three years ago, I spent a few days at an environmental retreat center in Talegaon, a satellite of the much larger city of Pune, about the size of Houston. The center was a small place, mostly taken up with greenhouses where they were growing gourmet Japanese strawberries in a demonstration of higher value crops, as part of their mission to diversify farmers’ incomes away from relying solely on commodity staples like rice. There wasn’t a lot of room to walk around on the property, and the caretaker couple did not speak much English, so I read a lot while I was there.

One of the books I found in their library was Anastasia, the first of the Ringing Cedars series by a Russian named Vladimir Megre. It’s a New Age story about a perfect woman with god-given psychic powers who lives a perfect life in the Siberian wilderness, raising perfect children (sired by the author). To me, it seemed a pretty standard magical utopia, with special trees collecting energy from the universe for the sole purpose of being cut down to make magic amulets that could heal people and bring good fortune. The marketing strategy was pretty transparent, more or less like the IDIC medallions Gene Roddenberry tried to market on the wave of Star Trek’s popularity (which apparently caused some drama on the set).

Concept sketch for the IDIC (1968), by Star Trek designer William Ware Theiss. IDIC = Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It’s a Vulcan thing.

According to Wikipedia, however, the book series has inspired a conservative family-based back-to-the-land movement, rather different than the hippie communes of the 1960s, though its emphasis on pagan nature gods and reincarnation makes it equally unpopular with the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Much more recently, at a Little Free Library in my neighborhood park, I ran across one of the more popular western visions of New Age human evolution, The Celestine Prophecy. I picked it up out of curiosity. I had heard the title before but assumed it was a standard religious thriller in the style of Dan Brown. The book presents itself that way, but shallowly, with more philosophical discussions (what science fiction calls infodumps) than actual plot.

The author / protagonist, James Redfield, follows a series of meaningful coincidences (or synchronicities) to Peru, where someone has found a 2500-year old “Manuscript,” written in Aramaic, one of the original languages of the Old Testament. The Peruvian government and the higher-ups of the Catholic Church want to suppress the Manuscript, of course, because its focus on direct experience of the divine undermines traditional values, and their own personal power.

Redfield bounces around the country, being handed a series of numbered Insights, fragmentary chapters of the Manuscript, in order (1-9), each of which levels him up and grants him new psychic powers, most of which involve perceiving the auras of living things and channeling the energy of the universe through his emotions. There’s a focus on interpersonal relationships and how dysfunctional dynamics turn us all into energy vampires, draining one another through our emotional dominance / submission games, based on Games People Play, a 1964 bestseller by American psychologist Eric T. Berne.

Anastasia and The Celestine Prophecy have a lot in common. One major difference is that Redfield acknowledges that his book and its three sequels are parables — fiction — while Megre maintains that his ten books are all true, that Anastasia was a real woman that none of his readers have ever met, living in a real undisclosed location that none of his readers have ever visited.

I’m not knocking these books, because all models are simplified. The diagram below, based on years of research by two professors of organizational behavior, has much the same flavor, except they use concepts of power and resources instead of energy, and they acknowledge these as simplifying abstractions of unique situational factors like money or votes rather than literal universal colorful glowing magical / psychic energy.

These more academic authors review the research on power, which they define this way:

To have power over someone, you must first have something, or some things, the other person values. Anything a person needs or wants qualifies as a valued resource. The resource can be material, like money or clean water, acres of fertile farmland, a house, or a fast car. Or it can be psychological, like feelings of esteem, belonging, and achievement. And, as we will see, material and psychological resources are not mutually exclusive.

Whatever you have to offer—your expertise, stamina, money, track record, gravitas, networks—will give you power over someone only if they want it.

They emphasize the difference between power and authority, formally documented rights to give orders and make binding decisions. Authority is one step more removed from reality, something you find in a hierarchical org chart, when humans always operate in networks that are more complicated and dynamic. In other words, authority is a simplified, static model of the reality of power, which is itself only one aspect of human behavior. Models are fractal (don’t worry about the mathematical jargon; just check out the pictures). Reality’s complexity may be infinite.

Further Reading

Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro (2021). Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business. Simon and Schuster. New York, NY.