“You Can’t Change Something Unless You Love It”: The Case of Dr. Gilmer and Dr. Gilmer

“It’s a funny thing,” Jane Jacobs told an interviewer in an interview I cannot find, “you can’t change something unless you love it.” (By “change” she meant improve.) She had seen that people who disliked cities gave poor advice about improving them and understood that it wasn’t just cities. To improve something, it isn’t enough to have a good idea. You also need to (a) pay close attention and (b) overcome obstacles. (a) and (b) aren’t easy. You are unlikely to do them without strong motivation, such as love.

Jacobs’s point is at the heart of the success of my personal science. My personal science is hugely different from professional science, but different may or may not be better. It has succeeded, I’m sure, because of what Jacobs says. How did I manage to find new ways to sleep better, lose weight, and so on? I had good ideas, yes, but so do many people, including professional scientists. One reason for my success: I observed myself closely. Now and then I noticed outliers (e.g., nights when I slept unusually well, days when I lost my appetite). These gave me ideas to test. In professional science, this rarely happens. For one thing, they can’t wait for outliers. They are under pressure to get results soon. Another reason for my success: I persisted. For many years, I measured my weight, sleep, mood, and so on. Unlike a professional scientist, I had no required output. I could spend as much time as necessary.

I keep coming back to this because Jacobs’s point is absent from conventional American thinking, such as New York Times op-eds. But it is illustrated again and again. A recent episode of This American Life, titled “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde“, is about two doctors named Gilmer: Dr. Benjamin Gilmer and Dr. Vince Gilmer (who are unrelated). VG kills his father and goes to jail. BG replaces him at a rural clinic. His patients tell him what a nice man VG was. This puzzles BG: Why would such a nice man kill his father? The legal system had ignored this question or at least not provided a convincing answer. BG, on the other hand, actually cares. (Spoiler alert.) He gathers information about the case and visits VG in prison. With the help of a psychiatrist friend, he comes up with a new idea: VG has Huntington’s disease, whose symptoms include aggression (such as murder). In prison, VG has been far too aggressive. His hands shake some of the time; this had been called “malingering” (faking) by a psychologist. When tested, it turns out VG does have Huntington’s disease, in the sense that he has the gene for it. When VG was given medication appropriate for Huntington’s disease, he got much better.

BG, who cared about VG, managed to improve his condition. The legal system, which did not care about him, did not. The implication for all health care, including research, is straightforward: Empower those who care.

6 Replies to ““You Can’t Change Something Unless You Love It”: The Case of Dr. Gilmer and Dr. Gilmer”

  1. Of course, where this point is present in American op-ed thinking is in those that call for government-hater politicians to get out of the way of those who would actually attempt good governance.

    Seth: You might be right: people who dislike government will be bad at it. But the original claim is about the objects of governance.

  2. Without love, you not only can’t change something, you can’t even truly understand it. Loving a thing gives you the opportunity to know it.

    This is also true of creative endeavors. Sometimes people who don’t like a given creative genre – say, country music – will still set out to write something in the idiom, thinking it is “easy.”

    They invariably do atrocious work.

    The audience for creative works – and perhaps for things like cities, phones, etc – is itself there in the hopes of loving the thing. So only through love does the creator have even a chance of creating a thing a user would love.

    Love from creators is crucial yet undervalued. And the result on the audiences’ side is delight, which is also usually an afterthought.

    A good case in point is New York’s repurposing of the disused elevated train tracks into a park. For years it was mocked as a foolish idea. Now cities all over the world are falling over themselves to create their own parks in the sky.

  3. As such government should get out of the way of people that love to help others. Remove licensing laws (AKA “grants of monopoly”).

  4. Allen K.,

    I agree with you whole heartedly. We need to help those that truly care about good governance by getting rid of the monopoly of government, or rather, statism. This would enable those that truly care about others, through the free market, to help their fellow countrymen.

    As we saw from Seth’s anecdotal story (which holds much truth) the monopolies don’t work, it is the individual who has interest in making a difference that does. Unfortunately monopolies only create bureaucratic entities that don’t care about their customers.

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