The Better Letter: The Heart of the Matter

We need science *and* art, reason *and* emotion.

I am fascinated by opening and closing lines and with the power of words generally. John Lennon wrote perhaps the best set of opening lyrics ever in popular music in 1965. 

Jackson Browne wrote perhaps the best closing line ever in popular music, also in 1965. It’s perversely unfair in that Browne was only 16 when he did it. 

John’s focus was on love, loss, and meaning. Browne’s devastating conclusion points to regret, failure, and our awareness of them, at least after the fact, which is as real as it gets. In each case, they speak to the most important things in life. They get to the heart of the matter.

I’ll take a bit of a circuitous route to get there, but the heart of the matter is the focus of this week’s TBL.

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The Heart of the Matter

For most of us, math is as objective as something can be: 2 + 2 = 4 every single time (in base-10, at least). 

Unfortunately, there are people – many of them influential in academic circles – who think otherwise. For example, a recent program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and which counts among its partners a who’s who of California education, including my county’s Education Office, claims that “white supremacy culture shows up in the classroom when the focus is on getting the ‘right answer’” or when students are required to show their work, while asserting without evidence that the very “concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false.” 

As Princeton mathematics professor Sergiu Klainerman explained this week, attempts to “deconstruct” mathematics, deny its objectivity, accuse it of racial bias, and infuse it with political ideology have become more and more commonplace. Those on the political left are increasingly treating mathematics and science as social constructs that are manifestations of white supremacy, euro-centrism, and post-colonialism. It is all consistent with the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as objective reality.

However, since we are able to construct bridges that don’t collapse, planes that stay aloft, and computers we can carry around inside a pocket, there is very good reason to think there is an objective reality. 

That’s why science works, which is the best evidence for it, and why it is so important to our lives and society. It, and the power of human reason it relies upon, are altogether astonishing.

Three little words — “Follow the science” — have been repeated over and over during the global coronavirus pandemic we have all been enduring. The statement is precisely correct, as far as it goes, but is much harder to put into practice than it seems. Sometimes, it is honored only in the breach.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” It assumes an objective reality able to be discovered. What it means is that we observe and investigate the world and build our knowledge base upon what we learn and discover, but we check our work at every point and keep checking our work. It is inherently experimental. In order to be scientific, then, our inquiries and conclusions need to be based upon empirical, measurable evidence.

It is the best method we have for ascertaining what is real and true. It is the best means we have for overcoming our biases. And it is driven by human reason.

Galileo’s life and work became a scientific watershed with respect to scientific thinking. Most fundamentally, his greatness was a function of his unwillingness to take anyone’s word for something. He checked others’ work, made it his work, and then checked his own work. As such, he is the key to experimental science, an expression that is now redundant, thanks in no small measure to him. When Galileo read Aristotle and his assertion that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, he checked it out himself which, astonishingly, neither Aristotle nor anyone else to that point had apparently bothered to try.

The key to science is perhaps the idea that every concept, no matter how well established, is subject to revision or even rejection based upon new or better evidence. We’ve seen that idea play out throughout the pandemic as ideas and best practices have shifted often and were often (if not always) due to new knowledge or understanding.

That’s how good science works. 

We’re all wrong and wrong a lot even if and as our cognitive shortcomings prevent us from seeing current examples. If we’re going to be any good consistently, we need (counterintuitively) to commit to the idea that we’re going to be wrong a lot and intentionally to look for ways to be shown where and how.

Unfortunately, life experience conspires to make it more difficult to adjust or amend our positions and commitments over time. Inherently, we aren’t as good as we think; we are error-prone.

Then, as we get older, acquire more authority, achieve more success, and become more prominent, it becomes even harder for us to see our mistakes and act accordingly. And since greater conviction leads to greater perceived confidence, certainty, and thus credibility and success, it’s easy to continue to fool ourselves, especially when things are going well.

We are ideological, self-serving, and self-aggrandizing through-and-through. Facts without interpretation are useless. Our foibles impact what we see as facts and impede our interpretations of the facts, real or not.

Thus, for example, coronavirus denialism is a problem on both the right and the left. While the right routinely denies the reality of climate change, the left typically refuses to consider the power of technology (and especially nuclear power, which is carbon neutral and the safest energy source we have) to mitigate the crisis. The scientific literature on secondhand smoke provides little evidence of serious harm despite the alleged risks of passive smoke having been used to justify banning smoking from most public spaces.

As Duke professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biology John Stodden said, “Science is the search for truth, which is often elusive.”

There’s a famous expression to the effect that it’s hard to reason someone out of a position that wasn’t reasoned into, and there’s truth in it. It’s hard enough to influence or help alter a person’s beliefs—about investing, religion, science, politics, or even the Dodgers’ relative evilness — much less someone’s life commitments. 

When confronted by an important claim, we should ask one simple question: Is it true? Instead, when the claim supports what we already think, the framework for our consideration is much more forgiving: Can it be true? When the claim is disconfirming, our review is far more exacting: Must it be true? These differing standards of review are rarely acknowledged or even recognized. Yet they go a long way toward explaining confirmation bias, bias blindness, and why it’s so hard to come to a different conclusion.

Science is designed to offer objective facts, and often does. Yet the authoritarian impulses and implications many offer in the name of science are hardly infallible. That scientists have correctly determined that climate change is real and predominantly man-made doesn’t mean the policy “solutions” they offer are the best ones, or even any good.

In related news, the reach of science is less than commonly assumed, especially by scientists. At its best, science can tell us what is. It cannot tell us what ought to be. And it has precious little to tell us about life’s most important matters – like love, priorities, and meaning. It cannot get to the heart of the matter.

We need art for that.

It has been more than 60 years now since C. P. Snow gave his famous lecture, “The Two Cultures,” in which he lamented the great divide between science and the arts. These two cultures shared “little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike.” Snow proposed that scientists and artists should reach out to each other and bridge the gap between them to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t take. In science, as in the law, all that matters is what you can (sufficiently) prove.

The arts can’t prove anything. They relate to things that are more subjective and ultimately more important. 

I think we can sometimes “know” in excess of what we can prove. For example, I know that torturing infants is wrong. Artistic expression can point us to the Truth. We live on “a hurtling planet,” the poet Rod Jellema informs us, “swung from a thread | of light and saved by nothing but grace.”

Art, unlike science, doesn’t set out to prove anything. It merely (but so much more than merely) hints at and sometimes points out the Truth, converting our imaginations. We have to see differently if we want to think differently.

The baseline Platonic picture of humanity, still dominant today, sees reason ruling our passions. That’s why we think getting people to change means effecting a change of mind. I see no evidence sufficient to convince me that’s generally or widely true. If behavioral finance means anything, it means that. 

The Christian metaphor describes less a change of mind than a change of heart, from “the imagination up,” based upon the truth of a story that supposes, stirs, and explains. And puts us right in the middle of it. In this context, the narrative “fallacy” is more feature than bug.

Too, we don’t need to be like Dr. Spock to make good decisions. In fact, that wouldn’t likely help. Imitating Spock would leave us devoid of phronesis – the subtle, embodied, practical wisdom that comes from combining learning with judgment born of experience, and that which used to be the goal of education in the Renaissance. It would also leave us cold and thus less likely to follow through with our plans. 

Consider this Mad Men clip. 

Don Draper uses his depiction of the Carousel not to tout its newness and efficiency, but rather to conjure memories that allow us to circle back towards home, security, and presumed truth, despite the chaos and uncertainty that seem to overwhelm us. We may even tear up in the process. Notice how psychiatrist Steven Schlozman of the Harvard Medical School describes it

“We remember what we remember not just for the facts but also for the feelings that go along with the facts, and the ability to balance feeling with fact is what keeps us out of trouble. The converse, however, is also true. The inability to balance feelings with facts allows all hell to break loose.”

Narratives are crucial to how we make sense of reality. They help us to explain, understand, and interpret the world around us. They also give us a frame of reference we can use to remember the concepts we take them to represent. We all recognize that value judgments are often powerfully and dangerously emotional. Thus we need both reason and emotion to make good decisions.

As I have noted previously, this idea is consistent with research showing that in order to help people understand the implications of various findings and conclusions – and to change behavior – we often need to do more than lay out a data-driven, logical argument. Instead (or, better yet, in addition), we need to provide a sort of emotional charge. Thus, for example, instead of simply showing people the numerical consequences of a certain action, we need to find a way to load the results with aversive emotion. “Load” is obviously a – well – loaded word. But I chose it to emphasize the size of the stakes.

In the context Don Draper created, the Carousel seems to sell itself. I have watched this scene many times, and I always feel (more than think) that the “wheel” is not worthy of the talent that sells it. Moreover, the line between being sold and being inspired is blurred to the point of disappearance. Yet, utter rationality alone – without emotion to provide a kick to make the experience stick – makes it much harder for us to make tough decisions.

In this song, Don Henley wrote perhaps the best set of lyrics ever in popular music. It’s true that “the more I know, the less I understand.” But, like Henley, I also know the heart of the matter is love, luck, loss, undefined yearning, trust, grace, and forgiveness. As he said, it takes four minutes to sing but it took 42 years to write.

Science is incredible. But the arts do a better job of pointing me toward Truth and what’s most important – the heart of the matter. We need them both.


Totally Worth It

President Biden held a memorial at the White House last week with 500 lit candles, one for each 1,000 lives taken by COVID-19. The U.S. Marine Band (“the President’s Own”) played “Amazing Grace.”

My darling bride claims to hate slapstick. But she loves stuff like this.

This is the best thing I read this week. This is the funniest. The most important. The most powerful. The coolest. The most nightmarish. The most troubling. The most impressive. The most insightful. The most random. The most ridiculous. The stupidest. The luckiest. The most insane. Not a parodyYikesDouble yikes.

You may have heard of the Big Mac index, whereby economists use the price of a Big Mac to determine how a country’s currency is doing? And maybe you’ve heard of Goodhart’s Law, where anything that becomes a target gets manipulated? Argentina is accused of pressuring McDonald’s to underprice Big Macs to get better terms on its debt.

The head of San Francisco’s public school system, Gabriela López, announced the plan to rename dozens of its schools after controversial public figures would be pushed to the back burner so the district could focus solely on school reopening. Ms. López didn’t say whether this decision was due to an earlier TBL on the subject.

Please contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) with questions, comments, and critiques. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Benediction

This week’s benediction is Kirk Franklin’s exhilarating recent Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.

“Gospel music – the message of hope and light.”

Thanks for reading.

Issue 53 (March 5, 2021)