Monday, October 19, 2015

Life is complicated

The human mind is good at making sense of all kinds of things.  Clouds, random statistics, inkblots.  It's always a bit of a struggle, trying to sort out the things that make sense to me from the things that actually make sense.

Conspiracy theories are a good example of this.  It feels really good to take a dozen random facts and fit them into a connecting pattern.  Nothing sticks out, nothing is meaningless or random.  We like things that make sense.

Other ideologies do this too. When I was reading up on agrarianism, everything seemed connected to agriculture.  Unemployment?  It's because their ancestors sold the family farm.  Epidemic of depression?  Too little exposure to nature!  Health problems in this country could all be traced to overconsumption of processed corn products.

And it's not like these things are totally unconnected.  There is a real relationship I was seeing.  But it was always tempting to paper over the things that didn't fit -- the Facebook friend whose husband profitably manages a commodity corn farm, the joy a friend has working in technology and rarely going outdoors, the way I really do love the taste of Taco Bell burritos.  They made the pattern less beautiful and so I didn't want to acknowledge those things.

Libertarianism was another, for awhile.  Libertarianism can connect to agrarianism, as I spent a lot of time working out, but there were moments they did clash, and it made me feel uncomfortable sometimes.  For instance, when reading Fast Food Nation, I could see that the sustainable food movement had nothing at all to do with a right-left dichotomy.  Sometimes the big food lobby got Democrats to vote for increased regulation to drive out their smaller competitors, and other times they got Republicans to vote for decreased regulation so they could get away with some shady business practices.  It felt like they were using people's interest in the question of "more vs. less government" to manipulate them to back certain things.

I realized that more vs. less government is a line, but the right policies are a picture, a picture which sometimes calls for government action and sometimes not.  In general I still feel that people neglect the possibility of solving problems without government, and underestimate the negative side effects which always crop up when you use a blunt instrument like government to solve problems, but that doesn't mean that you can answer all questions with a simple "just legalize/deregulate it!"  There are some problems that won't be solved without government.  All but the most radical libertarians acknowledge this, but it is a good deal harder to keep this in mind than I would have thought.

It's occurred to me that habits of mind like this -- of seeing everything along a single axis, "more or less government," or "conventional or alternative medicine," or "conservative or liberal" -- are very tempting and very problematic.  It leads us to team up with others who see things on the same axis, which makes it even more tempting to focus only on the things that match the pattern and ignore all the ones that don't.  That's why libertarians are always so sure that food stamps aren't really necessary (because if they are, then federal involvement in them is justified) and alternative medicine proponents don't want to hear about scarlet fever and atheists think all Christians believe the earth is 6,000 years old.  It's simple, it's easy, it allows you to keep seeing the pattern you think the world is.

I wish I knew the cure.  For now, I just remind myself often: any time I notice that everything seems to be fitting into one unified pattern, I should look around for the pokey bits that aren't popping into place.  They're there, my mind just has trouble seeing them.


SeekingOmniscience said...


I use this pretty frequently--while in matters of evidence re. facts of the case, sometimes evidence is one-sided; but as regards what to do, fairly frequently every side has something genuine they are concerned about.

Most lately in the debates of immigration in Europe, I rather hated how people on one side were like "Look at extra difficulties letting these people in!" and on the other "Look at how these people are suffering horribly!" And it seems like someone should have probably said something along the lines of "Yeah, if you look at crime rates among the Middle Eastern immigrants to European countries, it appears extremely unlikely that there will be zero bad side effects to letting so many Middle Eastern immigrants in. On the other hand, lots of people are dying. How can we best decrease the number of bad things happening, given no matter what we do some bad things are certainly going to happen?"

SeekingOmniscience said...

Although... rather than complaining about other people, what I should be doing is thinking of things which appear to me to be this way and try to eliminate bias and simplification there.


Sheila said...

I did read that, and it made me think, "I should really go ahead and write that post about this that's rattling around in my head."

When you mention that immigration case, it makes me think, "But we can't admit that Side X is even a little bit right on this issue, or they'll just feel justified in being extreme about it!" Alas, tribalism causes me to be even more biased than pattern-matching does. The trouble is that in politics, no one has the privilege of coming up with nuanced policy that actually gets used. Citizens have to join a party to have any political effect (I've been forced unwillingly to conclude) and the party always has a one-sided view. Meanwhile the representatives have to cater to the party platform or they're seen as traitors. John has been defending having a camera on the gazebo in the middle of town, because before it was put in the gazebo was full of graffiti and drug addicts, and he's being smeared as "hating liberty." The rewards are entirely set up to encourage one-sidedness. And yet the set of incentives in a republic are less perverse than other systems -- which is downright sad. Sometimes I try to dream up a better system, but sadly any system exposed to people seems to devolve into problems.

I think you probably examine your own bias all the time. I am working on it myself. Just little ways like, "Just because I've never gotten in a car accident doesn't mean I never will," and, "It may feel like the universe is out to get me this week, but in reality there is no reason to believe today won't be great."

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