Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tell Me a Story

Adam Davidson touches upon our need for a single correct narrative of events that comports with what we want to understand to be true. This is a difficult topic to work with, because the idea of wanting something to be true implies a certain level of intentional self-deception and so people shy away from the thought. But it's important to realize that everything that we believe has a level of conscious or unconscious will attached to it. We believe things because, on some level, we are willing to believe them. While a commitment to our own sense of objectivity often leads us to think that we believe things that we'd rather not, the actual fact of the matter is that if you really don't want to believe something, you don't believe. Intellectual consistency or standards of evidence don't tell us that we MUST believe - they reassure us that it's OKAY to believe.

The central question of Mr. Davidson's column "It Is Safe To Resume Ignoring The Prophets Of Doom....Right?" brushes up against the flip side of this. the tendency to seek reassurance that it's okay not to believe things that, for whatever reason, we'd rather not believe. Even when we've already seen evidence that what we're pushing aside is reality. In Davidson's case, this is a doubly important question. After all, Mr. Davidson is a journalist, and for respected media outlets at that. For all that we should really know better many of us begrudge the time it takes to seek out and synthesize multiple viewpoints into a coherent (if complex) whole, and so we tend to fall back on those media sources that we trust. Although, it should be pointed out that in many cases "trust" is something of a euphemistic way of saying "fits in with my preconceptions about the world."

And this walling ourselves off from "untrusted" sources is dangerous. In the run up to the financial crisis it undermined those who began to suspect that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, and reduced the cognitive dissonance that a belief in economic perpetual motion may have engendered. And it allows us to believe that we already know the truth of the matter - all that we need do is find the right sources to corroborate, and our work is done.

Mr. Davidson, in the long form of his column, makes a very important point, even while he seeks to use it as a means of covering himself, rather than confess to a shortcoming:

The economy is so complex that any forecaster must construct a simplified model that is an inexact fit for reality. Some models explain some periods better than others, but no model explains everything correctly. Choosing just one can be like choosing a religion — you ignore the faults in your own belief system and don’t pay much attention to the good ideas in someone else’s.

The problem is that there’s no perfect model.
Adam Davisdon "It Is Safe to Resume Ignoring the Prophets of Doom ... Right?" The New York Times Magazine. Tuesday, 1 February, 2012.
Instead, I submit that the twin problems that we deal with are that we tend to search for explanatory narratives for complex phenomena that are both simplified and perfect and when seeking to educate us, media outlets cater to this, and tend to seek out models that are not only simplified, but attractive. Few wanted to hear that the economic activity that was being driven by the housing bubble was based on unsustainable levels of debt, masked by illusory growth in household wealth. So no model of that narrative, no matter how correct, was palatable.

But when people with real money on the line were found to have realized that the ground was shifting beneath them, and started preparing for the new reality, we were shocked, and then outraged. But little of what they had done was a secret. Wedded to the rosy models that they wanted to be correct, the financial media simply waved away the story.

I often find myself wondering if the world really is a complicated as I understand it to be, or if I've created an overly-involved and cluttered model of the world because it self-justifies the decisions that I've made. I avoided being caught up in the housing bubble mainly because of circumstances outside of my own control. I'm not certain that I would have avoided being taken in. But while I'm sure that I'm better off with a messy, convoluted and sometimes contradictory worldview that eschews narratives for so many things, I've also learned that it's dangerous to become comfortable with it. Unchallenged, it ossifies, and the world moves on without it, even while it blinds me to the changes. And when none are forthcoming, seeking out challenges is work, and easy to put off until another day. Because I'm a smart person, who's in touch with the world around me. I won't become too caught up in attractive, but inaccurate narratives... right?

No comments: