Searching for Certainty in a Complex World
People often get caught up in the ideas that have come to define their identity, especially when they have little else to guide them. That is when they begin to lose their balance. We live in a complex world, much more complex and ever changing than before the industrial revolution. Cultural values slowly evolved to fit the conditions under which we lived. Our life ways worked for thousands of years.
Those same values guided communities, families, and individuals. Not so today: we tend to adhere to the words but not the deeds. Many individuals fall for the twisted twisted images of traditional values that propagandists use to gain control over them in the valueless world of indifferent institutions.
Personal, family, and work life are often fragmented. Promoters persuade us to adopt all sorts of consumerist, economic, and political beliefs and actions that serve the interests of some corporate or political interest in gaining more power. Grifters couch such beliefs in illusions about how they are of value to us because they expose claimed conspiracies of imagined evil. Such imaginaries become the fodder of pretenders to glory. Propagandists influence groups to which we may belong and our group’s beliefs strongly influence our own. Certainty overrides evidence or lack thereof.
The Wrong Way
So, how can you be going the wrong way on a two way street when either way is right? Well, maybe you’re holding the map upside down, or you don’t have a map (or GPS) at all. Look at a very old map and it will be clear that in the words of the famous semanticist Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory.”
Nothing we know is absolutely certain, but in times of great anxiety and widespread uncertainty about the changing world and our place in it, people seek the comfort of certainty, often in the imaginaries presented to them by unscrupulous characters who seek to control us. You are not likely to get to your destination from the wrong side of the road.
Consider all the social controversy over things that are very close to certain, but not quite. It is mistaken to think, for example, of climate science as uncertain and therefore not to be believed. Climate is an extremely complex system that in its finest detail is very difficult to predict. Yet with the massive amounts of data we have today, we can predict general trends if not moment to moment local changes.
We can predict the path of a hurricane as it develops, within a certain range if not its exact path. The same is true of longer-term climate patterns. That is where the scientific findings on climate change today become so worrisome. Seldf-amplifying changes are the bane of complex systems.
We know that large complex systems can destabilize when new factors disrupt system stability—such as carbon injected into the climate system causing stable patterns to become unstable and harder to predict. To deny such findings is equivalent to crossing the double yellow line of knowledge to head directly into oncoming traffic.
We know a lot about pandemics too, even though we cannot predict exactly where the “vectors” of transmission will occur. We do know that without modern international commercial air travel, the highly transmissible COVID-19 disease could never have spread across the whole world in a matter of weeks. However, as with climate, public health authorities collect a great deal of data on its spread.
Meanwhile, viral researchers were developing a whole new approach to creating vaccines. Because of the new technologies of gene sequencing and the ability to split genes into their component parts, scientists were able to create an entirely new type of vaccine. These new vaccines contain a gene fragment of mRNA–known as messenger ribonucleic acid—from the SARS-CoV-2 virus gene, which when injected into our body appears to the human immune system as the threat to our cells, which it mimics. That stimulates our immune system to produce the antibodies needed to kill the actual virus if it enters our body.
So-called “anti-vaxxers” are going the wrong way down a two-way road because they base their fears on imaginary threats from a product about which they appear to know nothing of how it works. Out of fear and ignorance come a host of imaginary threats and conspiracies, especially when enabled by political demagogues. You do not need to be uncritical of government or un-skeptical of preliminary research findings to acknowledge that once huge amounts of data demonstrate the efficacy of a drug or vaccine, it works and works safely.
N95 masks provide an effective barrier to the oncoming traffic of viral infection. Anti-vaxxers don’t seem to have a problem with coffee filters if they don’t like mud at the bottom of their mug. With no mask as a barrier and no double yellow line of social distance, a head-on collision with the SARS-CoV-2 virus is much more likely. And a wellbeing-based economy will do a lot for the weather too.