But What If We’re Wrong?

but-what-ifI read Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur a few years back and remember liking it, but also don’t remember much about it. So when I saw he had a new one out called But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking about the Present As If It Were the Past, I jumped at the chance to read him again.

The book’s title also serves as the thesis statement, and it’s one I fully support and think about all the time, probably to a fault. Constantly assuming I could be wrong about anything can be crippling at times, lead to endless perseverating and second-guessing. It is also empowering and relieving: I can rest assured knowing that I am not my ideas, that my identity is not tied to how tightly I cling to beliefs or how many I convert to my causes.

In But What If We’re Wrong? Klosterman turns this same duality into high cultural criticism. Like a home inspector in search of weak spots, he wends through contemporary issues in sports, politics, science, and history to interrogate the conclusions we’ve turned into self-evident assumptions. Do we have gravity all wrong? Will the NFL be around in thirty years? Are Americans too obsessed with freedom? Removed from his commentary these questions look like clickbaity headlines, but they are worth prodding within the purview of Klosterman’s thesis.

To start off my highlights, there are benefits to assuming you might be wrong:

There are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder. It’s good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is. And it’s exciting to imagine the prospect of a reality that cannot be imagined, because that’s as close to pansophical omniscience as we will ever come. If you aspire to be truly open-minded, you can’t just try to see the other side of an argument. That’s not enough. You have to go all the way.

This is exactly right. Humility and wonder are two sides of the same coin: to be incurious and doggedly certain is to be prideful. It also means you’ll be a pain to be around:

I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversation and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be.

He digs into the current obsession with the “You’re Doing It Wrong” style of commentary, which seeks to replace one idea or style of thinking with a new one, despite the fact that they are not mutually exclusive. It’s not the new idea that’s the problem; it’s the need for someone to insist New Way Desirable, Old Way Undesirable with a disturbing disregard for the possibility that two ways can exist at once.

“I realize certain modes of thinking can become outdated,” Klosterman writes. “But outdated modes are essential to understanding outdated times, which are the only times that exist.” New does not equal better. This is essential to understand when studying history, or when trying to look at today through the eyes of the distant future.

We’re all outdated—we just don’t know it yet:

We spend our lives learning many things, only to discover (again and again) that most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant. A big part of our mind can handle this; a smaller, deeper part cannot. And it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are (whether we like it or not).

Or, as Ben Folds puts it in the song “Bastard”:

You get smaller as the world gets big
The more you know you know you don’t know shit
“The whiz man” will never fit you like “the whiz kid” did
So why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know?
It’s okay if you don’t know everything

I love those lyrics. It’s applicable in so many situations (especially in an election year), but it’s most applicable to that “smaller, deeper” part of our minds that transcends our earthen fallibility. It’s the kind of thing I imagine a monk learns once he reaches nirvana. Then again, maybe it’s something most of us learn as we age.

I do think Klosterman goes too far out on a limb here about the use of math:

We are not the first society to conclude that our version of reality is objectively true. But we could be the first society to express that belief and is never contradicted, because we might be the first society to really get there. We might be the last society, because—now—we translate absolutely everything into math. And math is an obdurate bitch.

Reconcile this sentiment with what he writes later about sports analytics:

The problem with sports analytics is not that they are flawed; the problem is that they are accurate, to the benefit of almost no one. It’s being right for the sake of being right, in a context where there was never any downside to being wrong.

His point about analytics, basically, is that they are overkill in sports, which as spontaneous, low-stakes entertainment should be enjoyed rather than dissected. Yes, math gives us a certain comfort about our certainty about things. But to think we’ve reached the pinnacle of civilized thought simply because we turn everything into numbers directly contradicts the whole point of this book. C’mon, Chuck, don’t go soft on uncertainty now!

(If I can add another quibble: the book is rife with a pet peeve of mine. It’s when counterpoints start with “Now,”—as in I’m making an assertion. Now, I understand why some would disagree. This drives me bonkers. In absolutely every instance the Now is unnecessary, yet the book is full of them. </rant>)

The preface insists the book is not a collection of essays, probably because that’s what most readers are used to from Klosterman. He’s right in a way; the chapters depend on and link to each other more than a usual collection of essays. But it also felt like a large merry-go-around that you can jump onto at any point and still enjoy the ride. And I really did. It would make a nice companion to James Gleick’s forthcoming book Time Travel: A History (which I reviewed for Library Journal), another omnivorous and stimulating conversation on a topic you didn’t realize you wanted to consider.

3 thoughts on “But What If We’re Wrong?

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