Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.
So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.
In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, a recipe of elmleaf blackberry root provides not only an effective barrier to infection, but a barrier which is non-disruptive to the biosphere (unlike traditional antibiotics, the concoction doesn’t eradicate the infecting bacteria thus provoking it to develop an eventually stronger attack which might overpower the antibiotic over time).
There are different ways to practice anything. There are approaches which are wrong in fundamental ways. There are others which are right but become wrong because they only want to be right, and when presented with complexity which challenges their assertions, they want to ignore it. As Newton found, an object at rest shall stay at rest. What that tells me is that even the most progressive of us are capable of stubbornness, shielding our lack of perfection from scrutiny until we can no longer do so without harming ourselves in the process. That thing pressing us to adapt, to change our minds, to get off our asses. To keep moving.
I have eye strain from rolling my eyes as a result of witnessing magical thinking. My own, others’. I don’t know whether it’s because we are witnessing our own naivety on display — an earlier, younger one typically — but I have less and less patience with it, especially when I see it coming from people who have the means and overall awareness to know better. To walk away from an idea if it’s no longer realistic — not even wrong, theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli would say, referring to any answer which was so wrong as to not have any bearing on anything addressed by the question. It’s hard to let go of a bad idea we nonetheless cherish, and cherish for really strong subjective reasons owing to a million charms and insults we’ve received in our lives. We cling to notions which make us feel better.
I suppose what I want to say is that I understand why we cling to things jealously, our conscious or less-than-conscious reasons intractable. And I think, as a society, we could do a lot more to make the transition from ignorance to knowledge less stigmatizing for individuals. Because no one wants to be wrong. Perhaps it starts with embracing fallibility, an approach hermeneutic psychologist Donna Orange suggests. If we felt that making mistakes, and (I put this in quotations to underscore the stigma) “being wrong” were permissible (which, I realize, means having an infrastructure in which we have the encouragement to seek guidance and support), then perhaps we wouldn’t have such a problem with moving forward.
We are complex, the workings of nature are complex. We don’t need to even think about a higher power, like God, when we stop to consider the incredible depth of our universe, which is not to say there isn’t room for belief in a higher power. The hardest thing about life is that everything is on the table, it’s only a question of what we are willing or able to see at any given time. Perhaps that is the threshold of cognition, which emphatically suggests that we’ll get more done as a group than on our own, challenging our presumptions, asking us to keep moving.