This is a post about analysis. I mean nothing magical by that word, just the ways by which we subtract a little from our ignorance. We need a frame to understand the world, and facts to make that frame helpful to our actions. But how can we be certain?
The frames come in the form of stories or narratives that explain to me who I am, where I belong, and what the point is to life, the universe, and everything. These stories are full of assumptions. As they move further from my immediate circle of perception they become sketchier, and ultimately elide into the black vacuum of space.
We can never be certain. That’s the one fixed truth of analysis.
The barbed-wire barrier between the human race and the truth is the feeling that we know. This feeling depends on the relative success of our daily habits rather than on any inner representation of reality. I live in two worlds simultaneously. In my small world, I feel confident about a lot of things, so I say “I know how” about them.
I know how to drive in the toll road during rush hour. I know how to do my job. I know the temperaments of my wife and children. I know where my house is.
Pretty early in this progression, though, I cross into another world – one that is vast, massively complex, and subject to mysterious rules. I should feel a lot less confident, but I don’t notice the transition, so I keep saying “I know.” I know O.J. Simpson killed his wife. I know George W. Bush lied about Iraq. I know how to end poverty and hunger, and what the best strategy against terrorism is.
We are blinded to the truth by the feeling that we know. Because we know, we stop looking, we stop thinking – suddenly, we are tumbling off the edge of complexity, and it’s a long way down.
Here’s a small-world example. My daughter recently lost her cell phone. When I dialed the number from my car, we could hear it buzzing. The phone, we knew, was inside the car. We had performed our analysis, and we had our story: it must be wedged in some crevice in the floor or the seats.
My wife, daughter, and I spent a day rooting around the dusty hidden spaces inside my car, nearly taking the damned vehicle apart. No phone was found. Then, completely by accident, we discovered it: my daughter had left it on top of the hood. We had known that it was inside and down. I had even looked in the same low places two or three times, somehow expecting a different result.
In reality (which is all that counts), the phone was outside and up. Yet I never raised my eyes, not once in all the hours of searching. I never went against the story. That eats at me, even now.
A seductive narrative whispers to the analyst that he knows because he’s scientific. That’s a potent incantation, an argument-killer and discussion-ender. It hints that I have techniques beyond your comprehension. I may have a laboratory, a famous experimental method, esoteric data sets, even mathematical equations. I don’t actually have any of those things, but it’s implied.
“Scientists say” is our equivalent of God’s voice thundering on the mountaintop. It’s tough to dispute without sounding like a devil-worshipper or a buffoon.
The most thumb-sucking version of the scientific narrative holds that the elemental unit of reality is called “the problem.” It has the advantage of following a mechanical format, without ever pausing to think.
Here’s how it works. First, something is described: the latest unemployment numbers, for example, or the Greek elections. Then, add the phrase “The problem is…”, as if the complex situation you just described had become, in your planet-sized analytical brain, a simple differential equation. Finally, toss in your opinion: unemployment is President Obama’s fault, say. Magic happens. Problem solved.
“The problem for Greece,” Paul Krugman writes, “…is the fragility of its banks.” But fragility is a condition, not a problem. If by problem Krugman means “painful circumstances,” Greece has a great many more, and worse, than the fragility of its banks. Greek banks exist as a problem only in Krugman’s enormous brain: when it comes to the convoluted web of history and culture entangling Greece, he has the feeling that he knows, and we need to listen to him.
Charles Krauthammer describes anti-Semitism as a “European problem.” Oxfam takes for granted the “problem of inequality.” Michelle Obama wants to solve the “problem of obesity.” According to a Danish parliamentarian, “the problem is Islam,” but Tony Blair thinks there’s just a “problem within Islam.” Blurting out this formulation has become almost involuntary, like Tourette’s syndrome.
Such language might be construed as metaphorical, but it isn’t. It’s an ideological posture, however dimly self-aware, that makes two demands on the rest of us.
The first is that we swallow a lot of adolescent cynicism. Everything is phony. Everyone’s a fraud. Academics today thus believe that their job is “to problematize.” What is, is a problem: history, society, morality, all false, all to be problematized. Sex, in the past merely embarrassing, is suddenly a big problem. Race relations? Arizona State teaches a course on “The Problem of Whiteness.”
The second demand is for a single final “solution” to whatever is agitating the analyst. If this sounds delusional, it’s for good reason. If it sounds dictatorial – it’s that too. Here the analyst takes up the Mickey Mouse role in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” He thinks he’s riding the fuhrer principle on a cosmic scale, wagging his finger at reality as to a puppy: but reality, the whirlwind of chaos, has other ideas.
The analytic universe is plural, not singular. The human race has an infinite number of ways to get from here to there. While I, the Analyst-Tyrant, command that the solution be found inside and down, the lost cell phone of truth buzzes mockingly at me, concealed in plain sight, outside and up.
Three generations ago it was a commonplace to speak of the “Jewish problem” or the “Negro problem.” Before that, it was the “social problem.” But Jews, blacks, and the working class weren’t really problems. They just were. Analysis, as an activity for grownups, confronts the opposite fallacy: the problem is that problems aren’t.