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The Mirage of Control

These days of information glut remind me of something the poet Percy Shelley once wrote back in 1821:

“We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage. We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.”

Now, of course, we are far more enslaved by a false sense of knowledge and of control over what we call the world. If you read in the newspaper that too much of something, coffee, sugar, milk, eggs, is bad for you, you will read a few years later that the research has been definitively debunked by a new, wider, more scientific survey. So the eggs go back into the diet, sugar is not so bad, chocolate in moderation is better than no chocolate at all, and the FDA removes its warnings from its advisory lists. Turns out, the original survey was too small, or it was sponsored (i.e., supported by an interested party who stood to gain or lose by the results, and was thus tainted), or used the wrong parameters to get to the truth. But the truth remains elusive, subject to the next survey or re-examination of the new survey’s results. The same goes with day care, too much or too little can have certain bad effects, but these effects change their meanings from year to year.

We are overwhelmed by the vastness of the world we presume to know, and each of our samplings of its contents shows us now one thing, then another. We are fooled into drawing conclusions prematurely, wanting to master the slippery world of data and make it say things that can’t or won’t be changed We crave certainty, and will pay dearly to reach for it. But in truth, no sample is good enough or deep enough or sensitive enough to plumb all the possibilities within a single category of things. But the need to generalize and sum up quickly are so great that it makes everyone in society do it – because if we hold back, or take a more skeptical view of the possible answers to a question, we are doomed to sound academic or afraid to commit ourselves to an answer.

Hence, the debate now raging between climate change and climate denial. Both sides have their selective data from which to draw conclusions, and both sides have their champions, their authorities to quote. If you have Darwin on your side, and perhaps Einstein, and a meteorologist of renown, then climate change is about as certain as you can get in the debate. If you quote the Bible and a few ministers and politicians, your appeal may be wide but shallow, extending to only those who have already drawn their conclusions and only want to hear affirmations. But to keep things hot and edgy, television news quotes the deniers as often or more often than the changers, and it keeps everyone guessing what the truth might be. In short, we have NASA satellite data, and climatology studies, samples of the upper atmosphere full of the particulates and dust that are thickening our deadly canopy. But there is no bottom line, no settlement of the question so long as the opposing camps keep exercising their right to warn or to dismiss.

When there are too many facts to deal with, no one is quite sure where the thread of truth might be hidden. We don’t have a Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s indomitable Belgian detective, to apply his Cartesian method of beginning at the first incontestable fact of a case, and following its links to the next and the final fact that reveals the perpetrator of the murder. We are lost among the possible clues, and like Poirot’s foils, Chief Inspector Japp and the gullible Captain Hastings, always surprised to learn that some obvious first clue was ignored in the rush to judgment. We are always wrong in the end, as Poirot is only too happy to point out. Christie was assessing the dilemma over too much nformation in the Edwardian age, and showing what it takes to discover a subtle and limited truth among the deceptions and false leads laid down by the elusive murderer.

Her detective, and the detectives invented by Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, presaged the next several generations of so-called experts and gurus who could sift the mountains of data and claim to find the golden thread of truth. Alas, none was as good as the literary sleuths. Take Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, who was venerated by the media and quoted his every pronouncement on the economy as gospel, no matter how equivocating his jargon might be. He sided with the Republicans on privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and before he stepped down, was an undeviating advocate of easy money, the unbridled bundling of subprime securities and other risky financial trades on Wall Street. When he stepped down in 2006, he narrowly avoided presiding over the Great Recession of 2008. All that veneration of Greenspan obscured the fact that he was talking out of his hat, deluding the public while holding forth from his high government seat. He was a fool and we were his credulous stooges to believe him.

The imaginary sleuths are gone but the modern age is no less hungry for an inductive truth of sweeping magnitude. Take Sarah Palin, whose attempts to speak with authority were greeted almost immediately with guffaws (thank you Tina Fey), or the inane swaggering of Michelle Bachman, John McCain, Charles Grassley. Each made a sober-sounding case for the “truth” which they alone possessed and used as a bludgeon against the hated liberals. The truth is not a club for dashing out the brains of others; like my old friend Shelley said, belief is not something that can be forced upon one, it simply occurs in the light of perception. He was soon kicked out of Oxford for saying so. Truth is made of light, and has no substance but what the mind perceives. It’s so diaphanous, it’s easy to miss lying in the debris of all that so-called knowledge piling up in the data caves under Google and the NSA.

But to tune in to the nightly news is to be treated to low comedy as anchor people profess to have all the facts. From night to night those facts evolve, or transform themselves into opposites, become mocking reminders of what one said a week before. The biggest hurricane in history turns out to be a tropical storm; the closing of a highway in California may well be a tragedy of unknown proportions, or a mere wrinkle in time. There is no fear of contradiction when these generalities are puffed up with video clips and expert interviews. The right is no more capable of the truth than is the left. Each side takes its handfuls of data and sorts them into patterns that are like water falling through your fingers.

When I pick up a literary magazine, I thumb the pages looking for original voices. But I find nothing more than the editor’s rigid, niggling perspective on a certain style or school of writing --- whether it’s the pale, indefinite suggestiveness of half stated thoughts or the murky rhetoric of language poetry; or the cautious, retrograde eloquence of academic poetry. But all the great diversity of actual poetry is dismissed to find the one organizing thread of a few poems that stands for control over the oceans of contradiction. No poetry review I know is worth a damn these days; I don’t read them. I know I am reading the desires of an editor, not the voices of the America I live in now. I am watching the lurid exercise of control over the many, the vastness which cannot be acknowledged without fear of losing one’s grip.

In the age of information glut, we lack the humility to admit we know far more than we can understand, and are reduced to ignorance once more. The dream of the Enlightenment, as Denis Diderot grasped it in his famous encyclopedia, has faded. We cannot encompass the world we live in, much less the local reality we pass through. To let go of the hubris to pretend we know would be to start over again, from the first incontestable little clue, a hairpin on the carpet, a smudge on a candle stick, as Hercule Poirot did. He may have been fussy and even priggish, a bit egotistical in his own vain way, but he knew one thing – the truth is hard to know, and requires infinite patience to get to.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen