People Who Need Certainty Are Stupid And Ruining The World

Here’s a reason the world’s tumbling into ruin: if you want to be a popular pundit, it’s far better to be certain than accurate.  That’s right; more people will listen to a person who is factually wrong but confident over a guy who’s accurate but honest.

There are days I despair for the world, because our tiny monkey brains are forever seeking out shit that’s bad for them: sugar. Sex.  And certainty.  Basically, it’s a terrifying thing to think that this universe is full of so many factors that no one, literally no one, can predict what’s going to happen next with any confidence, and so we’ll happily listen to awful pundits who fill us up with the lie that yeah, someone knows, and it’s me.

And we never care.  Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise has a whole chapter on how horrifically bad television news pundits are at predicting things, and why do they stay on the air?  Because people like hearing confident people make interesting calls.  Does it matter whether those calls are wrong?  No.  As long as they’re firmly expressing bold and wretched predictions, they’re interesting.  They have made us feel like we’re witnessing something worthwhile, not some namby-pamby hand-wringer who’s saying, “Well, could be this way, could be that way.”

The reason our political system is so fucked is that this is our discourse.  The general populace doesn’t want the leaders saying, “Well, this has a good chance of working” – hell no!  That reminds them we live in chaos, that no approach is guaranteed to succeed, that literally the smartest people in human history have been wrong a staggering amount of the time.  We want our leaders to be godheads, infallible… and the price we pay to get that illusion of fallibility is forever ignoring all the times they fucked up.  This time.  This time they know how it’ll work.  All those other failures?  Not their fault.

And so, because a willingness to look at the best way we as humans have to interact with the universe – which is to say, odds and risks – seems uninteresting to our primitive brains, we constantly listen avidly to fools.  We hire fools to lie to us, with them knowing full well that the only way they can possibly get elected is to lie to us, and then wonder why they seem so contemptuous of us.  Why should they respect us?  They know how things really work, and know that largely we’re revulsed by the idea.  So wave a flag!  Speak boldly!  Pronounce it as if it’s all but done!

Our world would be solved by now, if only we could get people to stop thinking that the loudest voices are the best voices.

You know.  Like the tone I took in this essay.

2 Comments

  1. Heather
    May 31, 2013

    Sugar and certainty are pretty clear, but why is sex bad for us?

  2. Steve
    Jun 5, 2013

    It isn’t just the public at large. Legislators and executives, who are paid to know better, routinely succumb to the same fallacy. The rule is “Do something, even if it’s the wrong thing!”, ignoring the fact that the first thing you think of in a crisis, before all (or at least enough) of the facts are known, is almost sure to be the wrong thing. The canonical example is the USA PATRIOT Act, and related legislation that, collectively, could have been titled “Repeal of the Bill of Rights.”

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