“The association [between radiation and brain cancer] does not stand out nor does it disappear into statistical white noise. Instead, it remains suspended, like some sort of peculiar optical illusion that is blurry to some and all too clear to others.” (Siddharta Mukherjee, “Do Cellphones Cause Brain Cancer?”)
How do we know what we know, and how, once we know it and know that we know it do we tie it down? You’ll recognize this question as Descartes’, but it is also ours–that is, yours and mine. It is a question we live with on a daily basis, lying somewhere under the surface, half-hidden. When it enters our consciousness, we are not sure what to do or say or make of it.
Already, my introduction fails to do justice not just to the urgency of the question but also to our failure to cope with it. This week I have been thinking about a number of cases that throw light on our predicament. Among others,
- The overabundance of food in the West: How do we know what food is good for us to eat?
- Cosmetics and hair products: How do we know which are safe, which are unsafe, and which are suspect?
- Cellphone radiation: Are we being exposed to radiation at levels that could cause cancer?
- Supplements: Are they good for us, not good, or neutral?
- Running: Excellent for bone density? Terrible for joints?
This list only scratches the surface, covering some rather mundane activities, but perhaps there is the rub. If we laypersons can’t understand some of the things we use and come into contact with every day, then what sense can we make of ethical theories, tax policies, and international diplomacy, all of which are layered with complexity?
I’m circling around the irreducible complexity of the modern world, a complexity that is layered and folded. We’re not clear about the facts concerning X, we’re not always sure what would count as facts concerning X, we’ve only a vague notion of how to weigh the facts (once we’ve got them) here with those over there, we’re muddled about values, we’re even more muddled about how we weigh values against each other, and when we consult experts (the escape hatch, so to speak) they’re not always sure or in agreement or aware of the latest research or… We are awash in a sea of maybe’s.
We need to think about how we can achieve and maintain balance despite irreducible complexity. One feat of strength will be to acknowledge this fact and thus to feel, not with Angst or pathos but with a kind of letting-go, a sense of humility. And humility, ideally, will beget learning.