Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Simplicity, Complexity and Facts

A very conservative friend, not quite but bordering on Tea Party extremism, posted a cartoon on Facebook ridiculing an ABC newscast assuming the Aurora shooter may have had Tea Party connections, and then having to retract it moments later.  Another conservative friend posted and angry statement about liberals, who fail to check the facts, leaping to the conclusion that guns should be prohibited.  I was not surprised, but disappointed just the same, that they seem to have no recognition of the assumptions and conclusions to which they jump without the slightest bit of reliable evidence to support them.  It’s the old problem of the speck in the neighbor’s eye and the log in one’s own.
Nevertheless, they had a point.  ABC was guilty.  Jumping to conclusions without first checking the facts is a serious problem.  We do it all the time based on nothing more than unreflective assumptions based on attitudes and beliefs that are themselves rarely examined.  When conclusions come out of assumptions followed by facts contrived to support them, we have problems.  The banality of common gossip is an example of which we are all aware because we all engage in it without giving much consideration to the harm it may cause.  
The movie star and super market tabloid press of past decades made a lot of money out of gossip mongering.  Relatively few of us took seriously anything they printed.  It was just entertainment.  We knew the gullible ones who believed all without the slightest doubt.  It never occurred to them to ask, Is it true?  It was a little discouraging, but in the scheme of things it didn’t matter a lot.  The National Enquirer just didn’t have much influence in the national debate.  Their gullible readers were not thought and opinion leaders in our communities.
The national debate could get hot, tempers could flair, goofy ideas could gain some traction, but, for the most part, the agents of debate including the press, network news, and political leaders, were serious about the issues, challenged each other in good faith, and believed that some form of agreement would eventually be worked out.  It was not always pretty.  The civil rights and Vietnam debates tore the country apart.  Johnson was a ruthless arm twister and Nixon was a crook.  But always there were influential pubic voices asking, Is it true?  How do we know?  Is the evidence verifiable?  What else is involved?  How can we work together to move on?
Things have changed in many ways, and not for the good.  Conservative talk radio honed the art of interpreting events to match assumptions, manipulating data to imitate facts in support of predetermined conclusions, and contorting monologues into diatribes of attack and ridicule.  Fox News brought that style into television, as did a few important newspapers.  Audiences swelled as their own worst fears and prejudices were fed with fodder that reinforced and encouraged them.  Political strategists, using every bit of the transformation, employed blitzkrieg, take no prisoners and never back down tactics as the most efficient way to gain and keep political power.  The worst of Tammany Hall has become the archetype for a significant portion of the electorate.
Moreover, anything smacking of intellectualism or the academy seems to have become suspect as significant numbers of the electorate take refuge in the glorification of ignorance.  Scientific theory is dismissed as nothing more than the opinions of elitist academics, opinions no better and probably worse than whatever opinions you or I hold.  “Oh, it’s just a theory,” means “Oh, it’s just an opinion, and probably not a good one at that.”
The important question of Is it true? is too easily answered with claims to facts, taken out of context, without regard to an understanding of the relationships that tie a multitude of things together.  

Complex issues are made to look simple, and simple solutions are made to look virtuous.  There appears to be little understanding that there is a huge difference between understanding complexity in simple ways, and reducing complexity to simplicity by ignoring inconvenient evidence.  The quest for simple solutions to complex problems has merit only if one understands the web of consequences that even the best of simple solutions initiate.
Evidence that affirms one’s assumptions is seldom checked for accuracy.  Evidence that challenges one’s assumptions is disregarded if it cannot claim 100% accuracy.  Black and white certitude is lionized.  It cannot accommodate the shades of gray in the world in which we live, but that doesn’t matter if one ignores or denies the existence of gray.
I’m curious to see how this all works out, and, frankly, not all that hopeful.

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