The physicist Niels Bohr said it very well: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” It occurs to me that prediction is just a short sidestep from analysis. Saying what you think will happen has got to be grounded in some interpretation of whatever is happening now. Maybe Bohr should have said this too: Analysis is very difficult, especially about the present. The problem is, it takes a rare human to being to admit that he or she doesn’t know what may happen, and rarer still to admit to not knowing what it all means right now.
I’ve been sending myself a long chain of links from people who have something to say about the assassinations in New York, Paris, and Yemen (if you haven’t seen it, here’s the roster of targeted assassinations), the NAACP bombing in Colorado. Many commentators are certain in their attribution of causes, which drives me a little crazy whether or not we share a general worldview and values. My problem is the persistent category error that confuses correlations with causes.
It happens I’ve been listening to Think Like a Freak, the recent book by the Freakonomics duo, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I love this stuff, not because I always agree with the authors, but because learning about the pitfalls of the human brain is one of the most empowering forms of study I have found. Especially in a time like this—when there is so much to mourn, so much to feel enraged about, and so much opportunity to feel small and powerless in relation to the changes needed—I take a good deal of comfort from understanding that inside my own skull, where I control the means of production, there are things I can do to improve my own perception, judgment, and therefore action.
Levitt and Dubner stroll through the acres of evidence for our ineptitude when it comes to prediction. All sorts of studies show how experts’ ability to foretell is no better than a coin flip. Sadly, that hasn’t made us less interested in predicting. They show that even skeptics have a hard time resisting, as in this 1998 Paul Krugman essay showing how most economists’ predictions are wrong. As an addendum to the essay, Krugman tries his own hand at prediction (go figure). Here are a couple of his juiciest bloopers:
*The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”–which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants–becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.
* As the rate of technological change in computing slows, the number of jobs for IT specialists will decelerate, then actually turn down; ten years from now, the phrase information economy will sound silly.
Let me say it again: interpretation is no more guaranteed to be accurate than prediction. It merely shifts the possibility of error from future to present.
In response to the current madness, people have been posting all sorts of comments on social media condemning religion as medieval superstition and suggesting that without it, such acts would not have been committed. If you shout, “God is Great!” as you end the lives of those you abhor, you are unambiguously claiming to do so in the name of religion, that much is clear. But those who believe religion per se is the cause ignore so much contradictory evidence. But what about the death factories and gulags of the Soviet State under Stalin, driven by an ideology that was emphatically antireligious?
In history and in the present there have been militant fundamentalists in many religious groups. The Inquisition perpetrated acts of terrorism; that’s also a fair name for the treatment of California Indians at the hands of Spanish priests acting as an arm of conquest. Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League was classified as a terrorist group by the FBI. Pope Francis, who has lately been admired for so many public statements on climate crisis and poverty, is exactly as Catholic as Pope Gregory IX. Kahane and I are both Jews, but my political and spiritual positions are the opposite of his and in some cases, so the polls tell me, out of sync with the majority of my religious group. For every terrorist in every religious category—including anti-religionists, agnostics, and atheists—there are many who perform acts of generosity and kindness, attributing them to religious or philosophical imperatives to stand with the poor and oppressed.
So when people say an act of violence was perpetrated because the perpetrator is Muslim or Jewish or Catholic I must ask if they would also attribute religious causality to acts of kindness. If the answer is yes, then the point self-destructs. If it’s no, they are thinking with something other than their brains.
Just so, when people say that offensive cartoons don’t deserve a death-sentence, but Charlie Hebdo cartoons were often really racist (as well as anti-Muslim, anti-semitic, and sexist), it’s not that both statements aren’t true—they are—it’s that but linking them that sticks in my craw. I hated a lot of the Charlie Hebdo material; offensive is a mild word for it, and I am a member of more than one of the groups they repeatedly targeted. The antidote is to exercise my freedom to express that condemnation. To say that the assasinated writers and cartoonists brought it on themselves (as the always egregious Bill Donohue does in his far-right Catholic League piece on the murders) is to posit a world in which the liberties so many fought and died for have withered like dead leaves. In this world, their only vestige is the crackle they make shattering underfoot as might tramples right. We are asked to accept a terrible choice: surrender our liberties voluntarily to avoid the consequences of exercising them, or exercise them at the risk of life and limb.
Do you want to live there? Me neither, which is why I want to keep sweeping the cobwebs from my brain. Not every correlation is a cause. Not every equivalency exists outside our own minds.
Here are few of the pieces you may find worth reading. You may also find them excellent texts to decode for your personal practice in thinking clearly. Are they? What’s your take?
Teju Cole’s “Unmournable Bodies.”
George Packer’s “The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders.”
Kahlil Bendib’s “A Muslim Cartoonist Draws Lessons from the Charlie Hebdo Massacre”.
“Slow Coming” by Benjamin Booker.
The future is slow coming, honey
The future is slow, slow coming