The stress test
When you’re trying to figure out how the world works, you can often learn a lot from extreme cases. If you’re putting together a computer simulation, for instance, you can test it for degeneracy by entering zeroes—or another lower or upper bound—for all the parameters and watching how the model responds. In engineering, it’s the principle behind the stress test, in which you subject a system or a machine to unrealistic conditions in order to find its breaking point. Semiconductor manufacturers, for example, talk about process corners, which are the extremes of the parameters within which an integrated circuit is supposed to keep working. As part of the design process, they’ll make corner lots, which are essentially batches of chips that have been deliberately fabricated with these extreme values, and test them against various conditions to see how they hold up. The result can be graphed on a chart called a shmoo plot, which allows you to visualize the operating range of the device that you’re developing. Even if these conditions seem unlikely to come up in practice, they can provide you with valuable data that wouldn’t be obvious using more moderate or conservative assumptions. They can show you the limits of the design. And they can allow you to prepare for “black swan” events that occur more often than experience itself would imply.
Over the last month, we’ve experienced two unforgettable examples of such extreme values in the real world. The first, obviously, is the strange case of Donald Trump, who sometimes behaves as if someone had created a political candidate using an avatar editor in a video game and turned all the knobs to their lowest setting. Trump isn’t qualified to hold office. He isn’t a likable human being. You can’t even say that he appeals to the ideologues, since his ideas are either nonexistent, repulsive, or so unreliable as to be meaningless. He isn’t a good debater; he’s at war with the establishment within his own party; he’s gone out of his way to alienate entire groups of voters; and these days, he doesn’t even seem all that interested in campaigning. Yet his support has held more or less steady at forty percent. It’s alarming, but it’s also an immensely important piece of information. Trump’s share of the popular vote, whatever it turns out to be, represents the effective floor for a Republican nominee in this country. It’s hard to imagine what he possibly could have done to make it harder on himself. As a result, he’s established a baseline for candidates in the future, and he’s taught us that the marginal difference between the worst and the best conservative candidate amounts to something like ten percentage points. If this were a simulation, we’d have trouble believing it.
But we recently saw another test case, at the opposite end of the spectrum, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan has failed to even acknowledge the honor, which has led at least one member of the Swedish Academy to call his behavior “impolite and arrogant.” Yet his response only underlines what many of us subconsciously realized when the award was first announced. It’s going to be harder to take the Nobel Prize seriously in the future, not because Dylan isn’t a deserving recipient, but because when you put the prize next to him, it looks small. Dylan, like Trump, is an extreme case: he’s already acquired all the wealth, critical acclaim, and popular success that any artist could desire. This means that his selection gives us valuable insight into the real worth of a Nobel Prize, when you’ve stripped away all of the usual benefits that it confers. The answer isn’t all that flattering to the prize itself. In fact, it starts to look like it doesn’t mean anything. When you give the most prestigious award in existence to one of the world’s most famous men, it’s a stress test, not just for the Nobel Prize, but for all prizes whatsoever. The committee presumably hoped to make a statement by picking a popular artist, but it would have been better off continuing to award European poets and playwrights who are virtually unknown outside their native countries. By presenting it to Dylan, they’ve inadvertently exposed their own irrelevance.
And such examples are interesting primarily because of the light that they shed on more routine cases. Trump is less illuminating in isolation, since I doubt we’ll see a candidate like him ever again, than in the perspective he affords on all the little Trumps with whom he surrounds himself. He tells us how large a proportion of the Republican base is utterly indifferent to its candidate’s strengths or weaknesses, which is a data point that needs to be taken into account in every future election. Bob Dylan’s lesson is less obvious, but even more instructive. There’s only one Dylan, but he’s just an extreme instance of what every artist ought to be: you stick to your principles, you don’t sell out, you follow your own intuitions rather than those of your audience, and you find satisfaction in the work itself. We should all be little Dylans. If the Nobel Prize doesn’t make a difference to him, then maybe any material reward whatsoever shouldn’t matter to any working artist. (And yes, this includes the money, which few artists would turn down, but which ultimately seems unnecessary, or at least beside the point.) From now on, whenever we hear that someone has won an award, we should ask ourselves: “How would this change Bob Dylan’s life?” The answer is that it wouldn’t, which should serve as a reminder to those who strive to embody his virtues without his fame. The Nobel committee couldn’t add a cubit to Dylan’s stature, any more than Trump could lower the bottom any further. And we’ve learned a lot from them both—which doesn’t make it any less stressful.