On nuanced news, suspect psychology and scientific black holes.
With much fanfare Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. today announced a set of changes to government organizations that regulate and oversee financial markets. Touted by the administration as a sweeping reform that will avoid future mishaps like the sub-prime mortgage mess, it is, upon closer inspection, nothing of the sort. In fact, Paulson’s plan is a market-friendly distraction from the real issues; it has been in the works for a while as part of the Bush administration’s market-friendly momentum toward less regulation. [Since I first drafted this blog entry the NY Times has altered its article to emphasize resistance to Paulson's plan.]
The presentation of Paulson’s plan, however, deliberately aims to make people think that the administration is responding to the current financial crisis by firming up regulation. One has to look twice and read through several sources to uncover the story behind the story. If one just reads the headlines and first paragraph or goes to a less rigorous source, one could be left with the mistaken impression that Paulson is taking swift and effective action.
Reporting on the interface between the worlds of literature and dating, Rachel Donadio manages to make me cringe with embarrassment. Not only have I not read and barely heard of Pushkin, but I’ve raved about Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Both dating faux pas for some of those Donadio interviewed. “When a guy tells me [Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] changed his life, I wish heâ€™d saved us both the embarrassment,” says Judy Heiblum, a literary agent. It seems that many people believe quite strongly that we can tell a lot about a person and our compatibility with them from what they read. Fortunately I had the emotional stamina to read on and find that Donadio also talked to those who think that such literary snobbishness is either overblown or wrong-headed. Writer Ariel Levy’s partner doesn’t read and Levy likes it that way.
And a judge in Hawaii is being asked to put a stop the work on the new large hadron particle collider in Switzerland’s CERN research facility by two men who claim that the experiments being contemplated could result in the destruction of the world. In countering the idea that high energy collisions between protons could lead to a disaster, one scientist who has studied the theoretical work around the artificial generation of black holes, says: â€œMaybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate. But it would really, really have to be weird.â€ Comforting, perhaps, to some, but not so comforting, I’m sure, to others.
These three diverse stories all raise the matter of uncertainty in life and ideas. We read the news but how can we rely on what we read with any degree of certainty? People tell us how they make judgments, but how do we know that we can rely on their judgment? And important decisions get made about things that may affect our lives, but how do we know what to think of those decisions?
This difficulty seems to be amplified rather than assuaged by the amount of information available to us. Multiple perspectives on government, dating, and scientific research can lead to a situation in which nothing seems certain. If people with more direct access to information or more informed opinions than ours take diametric positions, how can we know what to believe?
In approaching the uncertain rationally, we should begin by exploring the reason for the uncertainty:
1. Insufficient information: Paulson’s plan seems appropriate if we only have a little information about it. But the more we know about the specifics of the plan and the specifics of the crisis it purports to respond to, the more we can feel certain of our judgment of it.
2. Conflicting experience: If we listen to the daters who care about what someone reads, we may think that we should pay close attention to what we read or to the literature of potential partners. If we listen to those who don’t care, we may form the opposite opinion. The answer to conflicting experience is to dig beneath the response to the reactions. What do the opinions tell us? How does that analysis relate to us?
3. The real unknown: Even well-informed scientists can’t say for sure that running the hadron colider won’t have unexpected and disastrous consequences. They all speak of the extreme unlikelihood of anything untoward happening. What we face in this kind of situation is a risk analysis. If the risk is infinitesimally small we have, relatively speaking, nothing to worry about. The more renowned scientists examine and discount the risk, the more comfortable we should feel. (But let’s not think too hard about whether we could live without these experiments!!)
We don’t necessarily come any closer to eliminating the uncertainty, but we can rest easier knowing that we know why we don’t know.
For more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Existâ€¦ And What We Must Do To Survive. (more…)