The Wisdom of a Fiction

Windmill_viaJavierLineraWhen Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.

There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading




“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.

So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.

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True Stories

books_viaxlibberPerhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.

Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.

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Pomp and Cowardice

Syria-vote-640x480The first effect of fear is to sharpen our self-preservation and to enhance our awareness of danger. Those instincts are useful, but hyperbolic—they claim the unfamiliar is more dangerous than it is, and the familiar more benign than we should reasonably presume.

The second effect of fear is that we act, but the choice of action depends on whether we use our fear as an impetus or as a caution.

There are a lot of people consumed by their fear. It’s okay to be afraid, and it’s even okay to be overwhelmed by it. But it is not okay to use your fear to justify prejudice and xenophobia. And it really is not okay to deny your unthinking fearfulness and spin it as a virtue.

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“Causes Cancer”

One can and should simplify scientific research to make it intelligible, but there is a level of imprecision beyond which simplification becomes mere fiction. I think at this point, in most cases, saying something “causes cancer” is effectively fiction. It wasn’t always, but that phrase has been so abused that it now creates a one-to-one link in the popular imagination between the item of the week and our most potent medical boogeyman.

The recent announcement by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and the associated statements by the WHO (World Health Organization) have created a current hullabaloo over red meat, and processed red meat in particular. If you want a good summary of that issue, please read this one, and not any of the more sensationalized pieces exploding into your news feeds.

Because those sensationalized pieces dominate. Most of the media are busily reporting, nuance-free, how red meat and processed meat “causes cancer.” Most are using the most inflated statistic—an increase in risk of 17%. Most are not mentioning baseline risk. Most are not discussing potency. Most are not mentioning that this information is not new, but instead a result of slowly progressing scientific research.

In my view, reporting that something “causes cancer” gives you all the panic with none of the information. What is the baseline risk? In this case, it is 6%, or 6 people out of 100 will get bowel cancer in their lifetimes. What is the increased rate if you eat a lot of processed meat daily? 7%, or 7 people out of 100. So, if everyone ate processed meats only in moderation (about 50 grams is suggested, or two slices of bacon per day, or one bacon cheeseburger per week), we could avoid one additional case of bowel cancer for every 100 people who decreased their consumption.

That matters. That’s significant. But it also isn’t a one-to-one relationship. Processed meat does not “cause cancer” so much as it contributes to a slight increase in your risk of one type of cancer over your lifetime. And that isn’t even that much harder to say. Headline writers, please take note: your hyperbole is helping no one.

In the Public Interest

Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976As someone who hasn’t yet watched the Republican or Democratic debates and hasn’t attended any campaign events, I rely primarily on reporting to keep abreast of the candidates and their positions. Or perhaps I should say “would rely on,” since the things reported in the media and things I want to know have essentially no overlap.

When we, the public, granted private companies the right to broadcast throughout the United States, we also asked for one thing in return: that they spend some time each day in serving the public interest. Thus was born “the news.” Yet the news, in its current incarnation, seems to have shuffled off the public interest in favor of the popular demand..

The things in the public interest to know, in my opinion, would be what positions candidates have taken, what policies they advocate, and what those policies would actually mean for the public. Are these policies feasible? Are they soundly supported by evidence? What are the upsides and downsides? Yet I am hard-pressed to find any mention of policies, let alone reporting that substantively analyzes those policies and discusses the evidence for and against them.

Hillary Clinton has been the Democratic “front-runner” (and already we fall into the horse race) for more than a year, since long before announcing her candidacy. But what do we hear about her policy choices? The media mostly describe them in broad strokes, and when they pass judgment it is out of partisan bias, not evidentiary analysis.

And what about the “leading” candidate on the Republican side, Donald Trump? Reportedly the media are so interested in interviewing him that he can make the absence of policy questions a condition of his participation. Some of his policies do hold the media’s attention, but only those that are so patently absurd (like the proposal of a giant concrete border wall) as to provide gawker value.

Even within the bounds of the horse race, the media can’t seem to base it’s reporting on evidence; instead they suffer from the worst form of confirmation bias: choosing a narrative early on in their coverage and defaulting to that narrative repeatedly, regardless of actual events.

Consider, for example, the coverage of Bernie Sanders (or lack thereof). If Hillary draws a crowd of 20,000 people, this is proof of her “front-runner” status, yet if Bernie draws a crowd of 25,000, it barely registers. Not that I think either of those should define a candidate’s viability, because position in the race has nothing whatsoever to do with value as a leader. At this stage of things, none of the general public has weighed in; the positioning in the race is mainly determined by punditry and biased polling—by candidates, of their supporters, and by media, of their viewers.

Nor is the bias skewed left or right; Donald Trump is, one would think, the undeniable “front-runner” on the Republican side, and yet the media generally treat him as an enjoyable sideshow. In their minds, he is unelectable, which is just the word used by pundits to make their personal biases sound like unassailable facts.

So what am I, a member of the public, to make of this? The things that are in my interest to know are not reported. The things that are reported are irrelevancies plagued with bias. The question of who would lead and serve this country best, and what their positions would mean for us, goes unanswered.

As a member of the public, the message I receive is that the collective governance of our country, and the democratic ideals on which it was founded, and the choice of who will define our polices—these are nothing more than sport.

That is not in the public interest.