The Great Maybe

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-08-18 21:00:00 No comments

I'm neck-deep in Draft 2 of Unmortal, hence slow posting, but I'm trying to carve out a moment here and there to blog. For your edification, Steve Savage:

There are legions of people, for pay and for free, who will pontificate about anything for no good reason.

Our culture has no place for ignorance. For admitting you don’t know. For humility and re-focusing. It’s all about the immediate satisfaction of acting like you’re right. It’s all about a high, engagement numbers, and whatever agenda.

These experts are meaningless. Scrambling, hollow things trying to feed a voraciously empty ego. No plans, no goals, just the next buzz and sometimes a political agenda disconnected from their moralistic posturing.

Skepticism of one's own positions is difficult to cultivate, in big part because the rest of the world openly defies us to doubt ourselves constructively. Bold assertions reap immediate rewards, even if they prove to be hollow. It helps when someone of public standing says "I don't know" and uses that as a rock to build on.  Dan Rather has a newsletter called Steady, where he has demonstrated he's willing to say "I don't know" at least as often as "Yes" or "No".

Populism rewards certainty, even when it's unwarranted. Democracy rewards constructive skepticism, because our doubts have to be at least as strong as our faiths. Sir Karl Popper was convinced we had to make room for constructive doubt in public life, since the mechanisms of self-governance depended on it; one didn't get democracy once and for all, but only as a process that included the ability to criticize in good faith.

There ought to be room for the development of a whole sub-discipline of public relations that uses what we know about behavior on a mass scale to constructively leverage doubt. We have thus far used fear and greed and delusion, but we're not stupid; we can use compassion and generosity and insight if we choose to. We just choose not to, or we do so on a scale that's not large enough to effect change except in a localized, atomized way. These failures are not philosophical (we don't understand) or scientific (we don't know) but political (we'd just rather not).

Hard for me not to believe any history of our time must be written from that point of view. The great failure of our age was not knowledge or wisdom, but political dysfunction sown by bad actors who weaponized the very tools we were supposed to use to lift ourselves up: debate, skepticism, measured distrust of one's ego.

I keep thinking about what a work of SF that tried to encompass this would be like. Modern social organization would seem like science fiction to someone of any previous era, but not because of our technology; rather, because of the social assumptions we try to make about each other, if not always successfully. Some of Le Guin's and Lem's works fall into this category; some of Sturgeon's, too. There seems to still be room for stories about what our societies could be like simply because we want to live that way. As of late such stories revolve chiefly around the idea that the solutions to our problems will come inevitably through technological means because we've failed ourselves as a species in just about every other metric — e.g., we turn governance over to the machines, or the blockchain, or what have you, because we've demonstrated we can't do the job ourselves at scale. I'd like to prove them wrong.

Tags: Dan Rather Karl Popper Steven Savage Dialogues science fiction skepticism