by Peter Player
It must be so comforting, to have all the answers written in a book that fits in one’s pocket – to literally have a magic talisman that banishes doubt and uncertainty, the plague of just not knowing, well, much of anything.
I have noted before in comments here and there that the world in which we live today is mind-smashingly complex, and not only does it insist on increasing in complexity, but the rate of that increase is skyrocketing. Buckminster Fuller coined the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” wherein he observed that the sum total of human knowledge tended to double every century up to the year 1900. By the end of the Second World War, that rate had increased to once every twenty-five years. Current estimates, averaging the differing information collection rates across the various branches of human inquiry, put the rate at which the sum total of our knowledge as a species doubles at once every thirteen months.
No one can possibly keep pace with that kind of deluge. Forget treading water, now it’s mostly a question of choosing the subjects about which one is content to remain stone-dumb ignorant.
And that’s a frightening prospect.
I know I’m not terribly fond of the idea that every year the relative size of my tiny hoard of facts becomes smaller and smaller – steadily approaching zero, ever more rapidly, caught in a black hole of unimaginable information density. Some of us can cope, barely, with the idea that the days of any one person understanding much of anything are now as mythic as any Arthurian legend. Uncertainty is never comforting, but we find ways to muddle through, and even learn to enjoy the demented explosion of complexity surrounding us. It’s certainly not boring.
But for some, that prospect isn’t merely unsettling, it’s terrifying.
Frightened people don’t want to hear about “grey areas.” They don’t want to hear about possibilities and avenues for future investigation. They’re not interested in murky, complicated, dense tomes that attempt to break down complicated problems as accurately as possible. They don’t want to deal with situations where no one is completely in the right. And they sure as hell don’t want to hear anyone utter the phrase “we don’t know.”
The fearful seek simple solutions. Always have, always will. And nothing can be simpler than being given a book and told that believing everything written therein – even the contradictory stuff – will make everything turn out all right.
When one subscribes to this “solution,” the increasing complexity of the world is suddenly beside the point – after all, if you’ve got all the answers, all of them, in convenient paperback form (and perhaps including a copy of the U.S. Constitution for good measure), what does it matter how fast the world is changing? If any complex moral or technological questions arise, well, just refer to the appropriate passage, and hey presto, problem solved! And if nothing immediately leaps out of your copy of whatever magic book you turn to for answers, well, I’m sure there’ll be a nice televangelist somewhere on the airwaves to explain things. Or a nice conservative columnist in the New York Times. Or Glenn Beck. Or maybe your morning bowl of alphabet cereal.
And here is where attempts on the part of scientists and politicians – and bloggers and podcasters – to engage with such individuals will always, always fail. It is why any fanciful notion Bill Nye might have had of “converting” people away from creationism was absolutely doomed to failure from the beginning. It is why debate, the presentation and arguing of complicated, convoluted, twisty facts, is completely useless in this situation: because we (and I include myself in this, because I’ve known the helpless frustration of hammering away at “God Says!” myself) always attempt to explain complex problems with piles of facts and figures, to break them down with oceans of graphs and charts, to use reason and logic and mountains of statistics to prove our various cases. We counter a pathological need for simplicity with even more complexity. And then wonder why no meaningful communication seems possible.
We try to sell complicated solutions to unbelievably difficult problems – the climate crisis, income inequality, entrenched racism, you name it – with doctoral theses and technological jargon, and are stunned when we are (successfully) stymied by bumper stickers and slogans that are deliberately made as simple as possible. Granted, said bumper stickers are printed by the tens of millions, and said slogans are designed by malevolent marketing geniuses and disseminated by incredibly well-funded media outlets, but in the end, the simpler the proposed “solution” is, the better, at least in terms of market penetration – with bonus points for biblical references, of course.
It’s very hard to chant a Noam Chomsky thesis in response to “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”
If there is to be any hope of some meaningful dialogue between those of us who refuse to subscribe to the “one book to rule them all!” method of comprehending the world and those who demand simplicity – certainty – from their own personal universes, it’s going to have to start with those who come down on the side of logic and reason and science – reality – to recognize the fact that they – we – absolutely suck when it comes to communication.
Hey, the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
Right now, our problem is that we’re dealing with several concurrent crises of nearly-unmanageable complexity, and we keep repeating the same mistakes when we try to present solutions to said crises: babbling statistics, conditional statements, obscure historical details, and minutiae about process to a populace that just wants something simple – something nice and clear and easily understood, that can be readily implemented in their own lives. We’re not going to convince anyone with that kind of sales pitch. Hell, we’re too busy arguing with each other over points of order to generate any kind of mass movement inertia in the first place. And make no mistake, that’s what it’s going to take to encourage anyone to seriously confront any of the monumental international problems we face today (like the climate crisis).
And when we’re confronted with an absolute inability to speak in public, to sell our ideas with anything other than hilarious ineptitude, we fall back to the tactic that seems terribly popular with the left-leaning blogosphere these days: “hey, conservatives and the like are all old – let’s just wait for them to die, then we can get stuff done!”
That’s the easy way out. And it may not work. And we may not have time for it to work.
Waiting and hoping that the current virulent conservative aversion to new facts and complexity dies with the current batch of senior citizens that comprise conservatism’s primary demographic (and that the simplification meme doesn’t spread too far into the following generations) isn’t enough – it’s remaining static, sitting on our hands, doing nothing, and praying (all irony intended) that things will work out for the best – not a gamble I’d make with the spare change jangling in my pocket, let alone the future viability of our political systems, our biosphere, even of our species as a going concern. We’d better start figuring out how to fight our rhetorical battles with something other than terabytes of graphs and charts, or else things are unlikely to work out well for anyone concerned.
Let’s start with you, President Obama. Repeat after me: Medicare for all.
See how easy?