The Age of Simple Answers

Whether I open a newspaper, turn on TV or Internet, or sit in a street café to enjoy the solitude in a crowd of perfect strangers, there is no shortage of people who offer simple solutions. I don’t really mind the talkers, but where have all the thinkers gone?

Comic strip: Boy to teacher: Whaddya mean all my facts are wrong? I copied everything straight off the Internet!

Whaddya mean all my facts are wrong? I copied everything straight off the Internet! — Source: Flickr via Using Technology Better

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, when I cannot be bothered to even drive away a fly sitting on my forearm, I’m inclined to silently dismiss those “diehard advocates of simplicity”.

Education and Common Courtesy

Yet any other day I’m worried about the quality of our education system. I wonder what state of mind it takes to expect “simple solutions” to complex problems, about the chutzpah it takes to offer them with a straight face, and, last but not least, how some people seem to utterly lack respect for their (sometimes involuntary) audience.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956), American writer

If I can help it, I’d rather not get tangled up with people who desperately seek or happily provide “simple answers”. As soon as I hear a string of words including “short question”, or “easy solution”, or related phrases, I tend to plug my ears and pretend to be preoccupied with urgent matters of intolerable complexity.

Make no mistake, I’m by no means arrogant, and I’m reasonably supportive, but my desire to debate with people who refuse to consider anything beyond random one–line statements knows limits.

Approach me with a genuine problem, big or small, and I will make time to consider it thoroughly and try my best to provide a solution (or at least a promising approach) in due course, but I’d paint my toenails a bright pink rather than waste a thought on random “what, if” theories, problems sans (reasonable) solution, and similar insignificancies.

I do appreciate every individual who is still willing to find answers to major (or even lesser) questions of life; and I’m known to be rather lenient with approaches others may consider too eccentric. This said, I don’t think expecting common sense to be applied and some serious effort to be taken is too much to ask.

Trying to confuse unsuspecting people for no better reason than their assumed ignorance or potential lack of suspicion is unreasonable, irresponsible, and unethical.

It is unreasonable because unattended confusion causes chaos rather than order, while the want for order is the obvious driving force behind any attempt to solve problems.

This behaviour is irresponsible because of its utter disregard for the fragility of both social structures and individuals.

There are too many potentially divisive factors to mind already, and it takes more than a “pinch of ignorance” to miss that an ever increasing number of individuals are bothered by these. The last thing a still working, somewhat peaceful society needs is yet another unsolvable problem to consider.

And, last but not least, it is unethical, because overcharging the average person with problems sans solution may lead to severe individual uncertainty and result in unexpected and most undesirable reactions.

People who — and I suspect some do it with full intent — create an environment of deep distrust, who take every opportunity to push others over the edge for no better reason than their own entertainment drive me up the wall.

If the precious reader happens to take issue with this last statement, feel free to contact me after one of your friends of many years (or anyone else you used to care for) killed someone (or committed suicide) in a fit of paranoia and hallucination.

The most savage controversies are about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), British philosopher

I don’t care whether these would–be “prophets of doom (or bliss)” try to be funny or enjoy themselves taking others for a ride. It doen’t matter whether or not the originators consider their follies obvious and therefore harmless pranks.

With the Internet as a vehicle, even the crudest ideas don’t take long to gain momentum and get out of control. One cannot possibly anticipate who one’s audience will be or what some will make of these “offerings”; this is what matters.

It is not the Internet’s fault; to even imply as much were as unreasonable as blaming a fast car for reckless driving. I suppose we all appreciate to gain and exchange useful information in ways considered nearly impossible only half a generation ago, but we also need to develop some degree of genuine awareness for the negative implications (i.e., every nonsense — some funny, some disturbing, and some even dangerous — possibly “going viral”).

Pea Brains and Peacocks

I spent last Sunday afternoon leisurely flipping through the Internet as having my fingers dance across the keyboard seemed to be the physical activity least likely to cause massive transpiration.

At first, I was amused by what “serious information” the ever–expanding stream of data washed ashore. Then I started to get bored by the seemingly mindless repetition of “unconditional, irrefutable truth”, and eventually I was stunned by the increasing number of people who openly, even proudly display their utter lack of civilisation and logic.

I honestly cannot remember such an abundance of absurd theories being openly peddled in my youth, when the pub around the corner was the “forum of choice” for many; neither do I remember so many pea brains prancing around the political (or societal) stage like peacocks, effortlessly gaining a following who is apparently willing to pledge their cadavers to them. And most certainly did no one dare to publicly accuse anyone of lying without being able to instantly produce sufficient (solid) evidence.

You ask all members of a group of one hundred how many liars there are in the group. The first person tells you there is one, the second says there are two, etc. The last person states there are one hundred. How many liars are in the group?

Granted, there was talk about how exactly, why, and by whom John F. Kennedy was dealt with. There were those who believed Elvis Presley did not die, but lived on under the wings of the witness protection program. And, of course, heated debates between the camps of believers and deniers whether or not “The Eagle” ever landed on the moon’s surface never really ceased to this very day.

Needless to say, some kept mourning even decades after the fall of the Third Reich the loss of their “beloved Führer” — but, I suspect, the majority of those merely failed to realise that they wouldn’t have fared any better inside this system than they did outside — or that they themselves would have fallen victim to this system sooner or later.

Yet the mentally more stable adults were not prepared to give any of these theories much consideration until evidence beyond reasonable doubt should emerge (which never quite happened); there simply were more pressing issues to consider — and to be honest, I think there still are plenty of that kind.

I’m not saying we are not deceived sometimes; there most certainly are clandestine operations planned and executed around the world, and some are covered up afterwards to avoid uncomfortable questions. Yet not every clandestine operation is kept under lock for some illicit, strategic reason (and I doubt that the majority of accusers would easily stomach the answers to mentioned uncomfortable questions).

I’m not pretending everything we are told in the media is nothing but the truth; journalists are only human, after all. They may fail to research an issue properly, misinterpret their findings, exceed the drama for profit’s sake, and sometimes they are simply deceived by their own sources — just like everyone else.

Media who fail to say it exactly “as it is” or report what we “want to hear” are not necessarily lying. The real villains — and definitely more dangerous — are those who try and create an environment of inherent mistrust in media by pointing fingers and yelling “bloody murder” at the mere sight of a headline challenging their individual or collective conviction.

I’m not brusquely dismissing every conspiracy theory as utter nonsense; we have good reason to question our political and economic leaders’ intentions (and ways) every so often. This said, not every “conspiracy” is worth the debate.

I’m not sure about the United States (i.e., I don’t know when exactly American pupils are taught the fundamentals of Euclidean geometry, Newtonian principles, etc.), but the average 14–year–old in Europe (or average 11–year–old in Southeast Asia, I would assume) should be able to easily detect the scientific and logical blunders upon which some of these theories rest.

And everyone (regardless of age or location) who knows more than two people will instantly realise that it is virtually impossible to keep secrets of exorbitant proportions from being leaked to the greater public for decades or even centuries — whether or not individual confidants are sworn to secrecy at the pain of death or torture.

To be sure, I adore simple solutions (that actually solve problems); there is no better way to prove that at least some of us still care for the world in general and the individuals populating her in particular. Yet solutions that require a multitude of absurd assumptions and impossible prerequisites to work are anything but “simple” — even if they should miraculously happen to work, now and then.

A Phenomenon Apart from Moderation Factors

What I realised on that Sunday afternoon disturbed me more than any real or imagined conspiracy ever could. Reason is no longer commonly considered a constant, employed to calculate the value of unknowns, but rather a variable that may be assigned the most convenient value at any given time.

The quality of information is gradually becoming secondary to the fashion it is proposed or its source of origin. This phenomenon is insofar insidious as it is not restricted to individual interest groups, education, environments, or a certain period of time — it exists outside any known moderation framework.

As a consequence, it has become increasingly difficult for the individual to evaluate information properly by logical means. The abundance of contradictory and incoherent fragments of facts and factlets randomly disseminated renders any attempt to immediately identify propaganda almost impossible. Traditional, straightforward exclusion procedures are no longer applicable, as, by now, only a marginal fraction of the information available online may be considered reliable beyond any reasonable doubt.

Can We Please Return to Talking Sense?

Fortunately, I’m too old to seriously care whether or not we (mankind, that is) will eventually manage to return to a state of relative normalcy, but I’d rather not spend the rest of my days among paranoid zombies.

I don’t want to steel myself for random (physical or verbal) attacks delivered by fruitcakes who happened to gather their “privileged information” from Tinseltown movies, who were taught mathematics by Sigismund Arbuthnot, or who believe the drain of their bathtub might be a gateway into a separate reality, every time I leave the house.

I’d prefer to live among people who talk sense, who prefer solutions to problems, who don’t mind telling search engines operators to stop pretending quantity beats quality hands down, who remind social media platforms that they have a responsibility toward all their users, who dare to openly oppose low–scale actors turned would–be dictators, and so on — in short, people who are not afraid to apply common sense.

Mop and Broom

I don’t know whether there is an easy solution short of introducing both the Internet and the physical world to mop and broom (neither were a simple solution, really), but a number of viable approaches do instantly come to mind.

What the Individual Could Do

Rejecting science at all costs is not a legitimate stylistic device, but merely a cheap means to avoid obvious opposition. It doesn’t matter how advanced our scientific skills are, how sophisticated our methodology is, or how knowledgeable we happen to be in general. In the majority of cases, we do have sufficient scientific knowledge to solve any problem — if we manage to define and discuss the question properly, put our knowledge into the right context, and otherwise rely on common sense.

We need to develop enough self–confidence to use our individual skills to effect — even at the risk of utterly contradicting the mainstream — and we must be aware at all times that published opinion does not necessarily have to correspond to public opinion or even objective truth.

As a result, our answers may eventually prove wrong, but at least they will be wrong for all the right reasons — even then, we would have learned a valuable lesson.

The only lesson that may be learned from the alternative — and, of late, more frequently proposed — concept is, that it is irrelevant whether a problem was solved as long as enough individuals approve of the answer. To assume and defend conditions under which even absurd answers appear correct is the diametrical opposite of a scientific approach.

We are well advised to remain unimpressed by the white noise, willfully created by some in order to prove our model of objective truth wrong (or at least faulty), and keep focusing on the problems we try to solve instead.

Corrupting repeatedly tried and proved scientific approaches by mistake (resulting from individual lack of knowledge) is not equal to lying; suspending or abusing them at will (against better knowledge) for gain (financial or personal), on the other hand, is reprehensible.

Practically speaking, use your individual degree of knowledge to define the problem at hand properly, refuse to get distracted (or even carried away) by fancy ideas spread by self–styled experts (which lead to more lofty questions than serious answers), take to the simplest scientific approach available to discuss your problem, and dont’t lose heart.

What Corporations Could Do

We are living in times when an ever increasing amount of information is available online (some even exclusively so). This is good news for those whose physical access to useful information is limited for a number of possible reasons.

The internet is an “open space” for everyone (meeting only a minimum of necessary prerequisites) to communicate with others, gather and disseminate information (ranging in quality from trivia one never actually wanted to learn to content of academic relevance), or just “hang out”.

Depending on the individual’s technical, rational, and emotional approach, it can be a digital waterhole, a gymnasium (in the classical sense), a street corner, or the road to nowhere (and many other “places” in–between) — alternatively or simultaneously.

The bad news is, this ever growing collection of data is neither seriously structured nor properly curated. What few rules there are fail to help manage the system or support the individual user, as rules in the digital sphere are usually considered recommendations at best. The Internet may convey an impression of freedom, but it comes with the rich scent and eerie sounds of the wilderness after dark.

While I see no reason to “shut down the Internet” or “go back to start”, I think taking a few steps back to consider the greater picture might go a long way toward a more enjoyable experience for the majority of users.

Search engines returning to demand and store only content–related metadata (keywords, description, category, language, originator, time of creation/last adaptation, permanent URL, etc.) rather than using strings randomly gathered from poorly curated content in order to match queries at any price, and a strict observance of these conventions, would clearly help render individual queries more efficient and effective, while substantially reducing the amount of stored data necessary to fulfil this task.

This way, the user would receive fresh, search–relevant content first and old, less relevant (or shall we say, potentially useless) content last.

It is difficult to believe that search engine operators would lose a single penny, if they limited returns to a reasonable amount of relevant information instead of a plethora of crap. Displayed adverts are triggered by the search query, not by the content returned (hence the need for proper keywords and categorisation in order to render results relevant).

If social media platforms issued warnings to every user who happens to violate common decency — and temporarily or even permanently suspended the accounts of those who repeatedly fail to comply — they would manage to keep bad behaviour from spreading like bushfire, instead of having to waste energy dodging liability charges. If they are able to filter content in order to place adverts, they are also able to implement effective “decency filters”.

It is seriously beyond me how anyone can fuss about “hate postings” and such, when the likes of the President of the United States are apparently granted irrevocable letters of credit to frequently torment the world with their verbal obscenities. If the gander is allowed to be saucy, the geese will naturally demand the same right.

If we officially keep pretending to believe what utter nonsense would–be dictators keep spreading in order to justify (ethnic or political) large–scale cleansing in their countries, we should not be surprised that the number of unfounded arrests on one ridiculous pretext or another soars.

We pretend to be concerned about the increasing number of people being radicalised, and yet we allow, even support — on the pretext of preserving freedom of speech and opinion — rather obvious large-scale ventures in order to further confuse those who seek clarity.

To the Rescue, Mr Einstein!

Albert Einstein is said to have postulated that one cannot solve a problem with the same thinking one employed to create it, and I think this piece of wisdom is applicable to a fair number of issues we are facing today.

We may go ahead and try to settle cultural or political issues by means of war and isolation, but we should be aware that these usually also started with war and (subsequent) isolation.

We may go ahead and try to settle societal or economic issues with “quick–and–dirty” policies, but we should not expect success, as many of these issues developed in an environment created by short–sighted attempts to appeasement.

We may go ahead and try to “rescue the world” by skipping from one poorly contemplated concept to the next, but we should keep in mind that many a poorly contemplated concept executed with gusto successfully helped create the situation where rescue appears indicated.

A simple solution — affectionately also called a “life hack” of late — is fine and dandy when the circumstances call for a quick rescue and the problem at hand is comparatively insignificant. Trying to indiscriminately introduce it to every issue is a quick–and–dirty way to render it a problem worse than the issue it was supposed to settle.