Or download the MP3
Saturday, March 18, 2017
But What if We're Wrong?
If you prefer to listen rather than read:
Or download the MP3
Or download the MP3
I already mentioned the road trip I took in February to visit some old college friends. What I probably didn’t mention is the role audiobooks played in that road trip. I would argue that being able to listen to audiobooks (plus adaptive cruise control) makes just about any length of road trip not only bearable, but enjoyable. The trip out and the trip back were both nearly 12 hours and other than the weather I had no problems as long as I had a book to listen to. In preparation for the trip I went to the library and checked out any audiobook that grabbed my attention and wasn’t too long. One of the books which made the cut was But What If We’re Wrong, by Chuck Klosterman. I picked this book up solely based on its title and the fact that it’s a question I ask myself all the time, and I was interested in hearing someone else tackle it.
I have to admit that I was disappointed with the book. Klosterman appeared to be most interested in talking about pop culture, and of all the areas where the title question might apply it was the one I was the least interested in. Fortunately, this mismatch wasn’t as bad as it sounds. His interest and knowledge of the subject made it the most enjoyable section of the book despite my initial ambivalence. And to clarify I’m not ambivalent about pop culture in general, I’m just not very interested in a discussion of the ways in which our judgement of Michael Jackson might change in the next 50 years. Obviously our judgement of Michael Jackson will change in 50 years, but will that matter?
Klosterman offers up the example of Melville and Moby-Dick. When Moby-Dick was published the reception was underwhelming. It went out of print while Melville was still alive and during most of the time it was in print it averaged sales of only 27 copies a year. It was published in 1851 and it was only decades later, in 1917 when Carl Van Doren (Uncle of the Quiz Show Van Doren) wrote an article about Melville that anything approaching our current appreciation begin. The story, as Klosterman told it, was all very interesting, but imagine if Van Doren hadn’t come along, and that Melville had been entirely forgotten, would the modern world look any different? Not really. Which is not to say that losing Melville wouldn’t be a tragedy, it just wouldn’t have had much, if any, impact on the world of 2017.
He also spends some time talking about how generally, with any historical category, people end up settling on a single representative example. He uses Mozart to illustrate the point in the category of classical composers. I’m not sure I agree that people can only come up with one example, I can think of several more even if I’m limited to a fairly strict definition of classical. And even people with no interest in classical music could almost certainly come up with Beethoven. But I do agree that, in general, people have a tendency to distill things down to a few examples. If you look at this list of classical-era composers even if you’re really well educated you’re probably going to see a lot more names that you don’t recognize than names that you do.
Taking this idea and applying it to all of the music which falls under the category of “Rock”. Klosterman wonders who will end up as the single example of the genre that people remember centuries from now. If Mozart (or Beethoven) is emblematic of classical music who is going to be the long term emblem of “Rock”? He goes through various options from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones before finally seeming to land on Chuck Berry. It’s a fun and even interesting exercise, but once again we have to ask if people remember The Beatles as the emblem of Rock instead of The Rolling Stones how does that change the world of 2525? (One might suspect this song from Zager and Evans will be unusually popular.) In other words when applying the title question, “But what if we’re wrong?” to this subject, I’m pretty sure the answer is if we’re wrong so what?
Another area he considers, and one that’s far more consequential, is the idea that we might be wrong about certain scientific principles. This had the potential to be more interesting than the culture discussion, but this potential was mostly unrealized. It became quickly obvious that Klosterman was out of his depth. I think the biggest evidence of this is how he missed out on two huge stories which both would have supported his thesis. To begin with he actually poses the question, “But what if we’re wrong about gravity?” This is kind of silly, there are lots of areas where we might end up being horribly wrong, but gravity is not a great candidate. That said for a long time Newton’s theory could not quite explain the orbit of Mercury, and it wasn’t until Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity added the warping of space due to the mass of the sun that Mercury’s orbit finally made sense. This is a perfect example of his point, and it’s nowhere to be seen.
The other example, which would have perfectly fit his point, would have been to discuss the conflict between the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics and some of the other explanations, in particular the pilot wave model. The Copenhagen Interpretation, which is still the most common explanation, ends up with a lot of weird situations. (You may have heard of Schrödinger's cat?) The pilot wave model avoids all of that weirdness, and so the whole subject is a perfect candidate for something we might be wrong about. But either Klosterman didn’t talk to the right people (though he did manage to talk to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) or he didn’t ask the right questions or he came across both of these examples, but didn’t understand them well enough to include them in his book. Instead he offers up the idea of multiple universes, and points out that different universes could have different physical constants and different fundamental laws. But as interesting as that might be, it’s basically pointless. Yes, there could be another universe out there were gravity works differently, but it wouldn’t mean that we were wrong about how gravity works in our universe, or that we could ever conclusively prove there are other universes.
As I mentioned, Klosterman ended up talking to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, specifically about ways in which science could be wrong, and you get the impression that it didn’t go very well. This is not hard to understand. Tyson is one of the more public defenders of science, and I’m sure that Klosterman just seemed like another anti-vaccination, GMO-panicking, global warming denier. (I realize as I write that, that I’ve never used this space to clarify my own views on any of those subjects. I’ll have to rectify that.) Consequently Tyson comes across as being very defensive, and takes the strong position that nothing major in science is going to turn out to be wrong. When you’re talking about gravity (as Klosterman is) then I totally agree with Tyson, but as I’ve mentioned before, people have a tendency to lump the very solid science of Newton and Einstein in with science that is much more questionable, particularly stuff like social social and dietary science. Klosterman once again misses a great opportunity by not focusing on these areas of science, since as we know we’ve found all sorts of places where we’re wrong in these areas.
As I already pointed out, in addition to considering whether we’re wrong, we need to consider the effect of being wrong. And as I point out again and again in this space it’s generally easier to know the consequences of a given answer than to know the answer itself. As we already discussed, the consequences of being wrong about some aspect of pop culture are minor at best. When we move into science, the consequences change, though not in the way you might think. Being wrong about gravity might initially seem like a big deal, but actually we were wrong about it for thousands and thousands of years and it really didn’t have much impact. If there yet remain some tweaks to our understanding of gravity, on the order of Einstein’s adjustment, then it will have very little practical effect. On the other hand once we start to get into the social sciences the consequences of being wrong can be extreme. To take one of the larger examples, we have the failed experiments in Communism and the resulting deaths of tens of millions of people. Perhaps you disagree that this was a failure of social science, but ultimately it was a theory about how people would behave and it turned out to be spectacularly incorrect.
It may seem that I’m stating the obvious, of course there are places where being wrong is cataclysmic. Unfortunately these seem to be precisely the areas that Klosterman avoids. As you have probably already gathered I had serious issues with the book. Which is unfortunate because the title question is one that needs to be asked, a lot, and I think that far too few do so. This is a topic very much in need of more attention, but the attention it did receive in this book was all in the wrong places. The review I’ve done of the book so far is all in an effort to set the stage for a better examination of the question, one that gets into areas where it really matters if we’re wrong.
While Klosterman largely stays away from social science, he does talk about social issues more broadly. From any point of view, the last few decades, has seen a rapid, and unprecedented change in societal norms, particularly in the West. Given how recent and controversial these changes are, they seem like ideal candidates for things that we might be wrong about. But once again Klosterman shies away from talking about anything which could be truly consequential. This is not to say that he avoids the issue entirely. He does bring up the recent changes in western society, but not as candidates for being incorrect, but rather in the exact opposite fashion. He offers these changes up as proof that we were wrong in the past. This ties into his larger point that we might be wrong again, but he gives no indication that we might be wrong about any of the things we recently changed our mind about. In other words Klosterman spends a good chunk of the book pointing out that we are almost certainly wrong about some things, but when it comes to recent issues of social justice he seems to think that in this one area, we’ve finally dialed it in.
Clearly, it is possible that throughout most of human history up until a decade or so ago that we were wrong about Same Sex Marriage. But it’s also possible that we were right throughout most of human history and a decade ago is when we made the wrong choice. You can probably guess where I fall on that debate, but these days you get in trouble for even classifying it as open for discussion, but classifying something as closed for discussion is not the same thing as being correct.
I think it’s beneficial, if not critical, to examine issues similar to Same Sex Marriage, i.e issues where conventional wisdom has been reversed, but where there is limited historical precedent for this change. Things which in the past were almost exclusively done one way, but are now done differently. There are a lot of examples I could choose from and all of them are controversial, so in an attempt to try to keep the controversy to a minimum I will discuss just one example. It will still be controversial, but I’m hoping that I can limit the anger to a single interest group rather than getting everyone mad at me. The example I’m going to use is women in combat.
Similar to all issues that fall into this category, proponents of women in combat point to the many historical examples. Of course, the fact is, that if you dig into history deep enough you find that just about anything you can imagine has happened at least once. If you actually look into it, the truth of the matter is that, while there have been women in combat, it has always been extremely rare and generally either done covertly by the individuals themselves or by a country that had no other choice. But in the end, for proponents of this, and other recent changes it doesn’t matter, if historically it was very rare because we’re in a new age, and everything is different. All the outmoded standards and vulgar prejudices are being done away with. And it doesn’t matter if something has always been done a certain way because we’re better than all those wicked people from the past, and we’re going to do it differently.
As you can probably gather I think there are many reasons why history and tradition should not be cast aside so casually, but before we get to those, and to the larger issue of whether we might be wrong, let’s examine why people think we might finally be right about this issue. One argument I’ve heard (this was actually brought up by a friend of mine) is the idea that it’s a government benefit. That at it’s core being able to serve in the military is not that different than Medicaid or food stamps (SNAP). One could hardly imagine forbidding women (or men) from taking advantage of Medicaid or food stamps. And we spend more on defense than both of those put together. In this light if being in the military and specifically in combat is just viewed as one other way to get money from the government, restricting it on the basis of sex doesn’t make much sense. Personally, I think if the military is just another form of welfare or even a variety of job training that there are better, cheaper, and more efficient ways to accomplish that. But I probably haven’t done justice to my friend’s argument. I’ll make sure to point out this entry so he has an opportunity to give it the defense it deserves.
The argument I’ve just presented is merely a specific example of the more general argument that women should have the same opportunities men do. Closely related to this is the principle of equality. These are great ideas in theory, but it’s unclear, when speaking of women in combat, if they work in practice. I am not saying that opening up combat positions doesn’t increase both opportunity and equality, more that I’m not sure what else it might do. For those that think it’s a good idea, the fact that it increases these two core values is all that they need to know. But I’m more interested in how it affects the military as a whole, and on this count I find very few people arguing that it makes our army/navy/whatever better at fighting. There seems nothing inherent to the waging of war itself that makes it better done with an integrated fighting force. And here we start to get into some of the reasons why it might be a bad idea. Why it’s worth asking if the current policy might be wrong.
During the tumultuous years when the US military was in Iraq I don’t recall hearing anyone saying that the problem was too few women in combat roles. In other words we aren’t correcting some perceived deficiency. Rather, this appears to be strictly an issue of making things better for a certain number of women who want to be in combat, rather than making the US military better at it’s core mission. Now it’s possible that things have advanced enough and the US military is dominant enough that even if it does make our military slightly less effective that we don’t have to worry about it. This is the anti-historical argument from another angle. The argument that, yes, there were a variety of reasons why women weren’t put into combat in the past, but those reasons no longer apply.
How do we know those reasons don’t apply anymore? I know that many people want to ignore history, but what data do we have on this? If we just look at the US, women have been allowed in combat roles going, at best, all the way back to 2013, so we have, maximum, four years of data so far. That’s not a lot. Normally when you’re doing something new and you’re not sure if it’s going to work, you might implement it on a limited scale, collect some data, then introduce it a little more widely, collect some more data, etc. If you’ve read much about conditions among the infantry during larger wars (and I would even include Korea and Vietnam) than certainly you would think there are ample reasons to at least exercise some caution. But I don’t get the sense of any caution here. When Leon Panetta made the announcement, it was very broad.
Thus far we don’t really have any data on women in combat, at least that I can find. (If someone knows of any, please send it my way.) This isn’t surprising given the limited amount of combat since 2013. We do have some data from the longer period during which women have been in the military, though within this data I don’t see any examples of an integrated military being more effective than a male only military. I know of no wargames pitting one style of military against the other. I haven’t heard any stories of female pilots regularly out dog-fighting male pilots. (Once again please feel free to correct me on this.) The stories and numbers I do see mostly concern harassment. The most recent story making the rounds is of a vast network among the marines for sharing nude photos of female soldiers. Less publicized, are stories of the Navy having a growing problem with pregnancy among women who’ve been deployed. Apparently rising from 2% of women in 2015 to 16% currently. Both of these stories come on top of persistent stories of sexual harassment in the military going back to at least the Tailhook Scandal in 1991. (It’s certainly possible that there were reasons other than combat effectiveness for historically not having women in the military.)
Contrary to what you might be thinking I’m not actually trying to make the case that we shouldn’t have women in the military. I think that case could be made, but my focus is more on framing the question we started with. What if we’re wrong about women in the military? Are we enabling a large amount of sexual harassment that might not otherwise happen? Are we sacrificing military effectiveness on the altar of political correctness? Are we overlooking the wisdom of centuries?
Not to minimize it. in any way shape or form, but an increase in sexual harassment could end up not being the worst thing to come out of an integrated military. Earlier in the post I mentioned considering not only the probability of being wrong, but the consequences of being wrong. If we’re wrong about whether the Beatles are the quintessential rock group, it’s not a big deal. But if we assume that an integrated military is just as effective as a male only military and we’re wrong about that, the consequences could be the end of the US. The primary purpose of a military is to ensure that a country continues to exist. We mess with that at our peril. History is replete with stories of formerly dominant powers who found out in the space of a single engagement that their military was not as effective as it once was. I know I’m already violating my resolution to be more optimistic, and your welcome to disagree. Still, if nothing else, I would urge you to really look around at the world and it’s customs, at the current dogma and it’s recent triumphs and ask, “But what if we’re wrong?”