The Unique, Experiential, Anecdotal "You"

The other day, when almost a foot of snow fell on Cedar City, I heard someone remark, “so much for global warming.” Yet even this early in the year, a great number of climate scientists are predicting that 2010 will be among the warmest years on record. With normally comparatively balmy Washington, D.C., suffering its worst blizzards in decades, and Siberia colder than in half a century… how can this possibly be?

For the same reason that people insist that e-books of new publishers’ releases can profitably be sold for $9.99 — personal experience! Forget about all those hundreds of pages of publicly available financial statements, or the percentage of books that fail. Just because individuals can copy an electronic file for next to nothing, that personal experience means that electronic books shouldn’t cost anything, either.

Human beings gather patterns to make their way through life, and those patterns are all concentrated and analyzed on a personal level. Even the stories and anecdotes have more impact on humans, far more, than do facts and statistics. The problem with this experiential and anecdotal approach is that — without “outside” information and wisdom — it’s lousy for dealing with events larger than the life and attention span [or lifespan] of an individual.

Take the problem of global warming. It’s been a cold winter in much of North America and parts of Europe and Asia — but the area above the Arctic Circle has been running as much as twenty degrees above normal. That’s because for the past several decades, in the winter, wind patterns have confined the chill to areas well above the Arctic Circle. This year the warmer air has disrupted those patterns and sent comparatively “warmer” air south — except that comparatively warmer air is a lot colder than what we’ve experienced in recent winters. Even so, the overall temperature of the northern hemisphere is predicted to be warmer than it was last year, but since none of us happens to live near the north pole, all we see is that it’s colder where we are. That’s experiential information, and it’s limited to where we are.

Recently, the Economist had an article chronicling the pattern for economic booms and busts, and the patterns date back to before the Dutch tulip boom, and they all proceed in the same fashion, whether the commodity is tulips, South Sea or Florida land, stocks, or real estate. So why doesn’t anyone learn? For two reasons. First, often those who fuel the boom didn’t live through the last one, and they have no experience, and, second, because, as human beings, each of us likes to think that we’re unique. That is a survival trait, necessary for beings who have self-awareness, because it would be too depressing for most people to carry on without that spark of uniqueness. And each of us is unique — just as each snowflake is unique. And just as the patterns and uses of snowflakes are limited by their structure, so too are human interactions limited, if to a far larger compass. But our sense of uniqueness blinds us to the fact that human patterns repeat, time and time again. We can read about past patterns, but most people dismiss them with the thought, “I’m different. It won’t happen to me.” Yet it does, and all too often.

Another part of the reason is that there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and an old saying illustrates that: Knowledge is as old as the oldest cave painting or hieroglyph, but wisdom is only as old as the oldest human being.

A number of those of us who either served during the Vietnam era or lived through it had great concerns about military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq and opposed it from the beginning. We weren’t and aren’t against our troops, and we certainly don’t like either the ideology or politics in those areas But we lived through Vietnam, and we saw how it is almost impossible to combat ideologies, especially ones fueled by fanaticism, without the total commitment of the entire nation and the expenditure of far more in lives and in resources than any administration would be allowed to make in the political conditions that exist. Yet the decision-makers vowed that the military effort would be limited and surgical and effective. Those were essentially the same terms used by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the early 1960s, and that war dragged on for almost fifteen years and killed more than 55,000 Americans. We’ve now been fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan for close to nine years, and matters still aren’t anywhere close to resolution, not to mention the restrictions on everyday freedoms that having to combat the terrorist backlash has placed on all Americans.

But two administrations have vowed that matters would be “different.” How different? Well… one difference is that we don’t have a draft, so that national outrage over casualties is muted, even if career soldiers and National Guard troops are being deployed time and time again — like the former student of my wife who’s still in his twenties with something like five National Guard deployments. And we’re using far more high-tech gear. So we’re not losing nearly as many soldiers, but a lot more of them are surviving with high levels of physical and mental disabilities, and the resource cost is getting astronomical, at a time when our failure to learn from past experience created the second largest economic meltdown in a century — and thus drastically reduced tax revenues… and boosted the deficit and thrown millions out of jobs.

Yes, each of us is unique, and all too many of us are uniquely unable to see and learn from wider knowledge, the past experience of others, and impartial and non-experiential knowledge, because, after all, we are unique, and oh-so-different from our forebears, and we’re practical and see clearly everything around us. And that makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

6 Responses to “The Unique, Experiential, Anecdotal "You"”

  1. hob says:

    The kind of data one would need to make educated decisions is not so easily available or collectable without disturbing many economic and social structures.
    If we as humans made decisions based only in known facts and observations, then known facts and observations would govern humans–But only Humans govern human societies, and those facts and observations are always at the direction of what humans think they want to, or have to do in life. Which is why stories and anecdotes would have more lasting effects on humans and why cold hard facts would not. One is relatable and enforces, defines our relationships to the world and people around us, the other highlights the idea that human relationships are fictional and have no meaning outside of
    ourselves, the effect of losing ones feeling of being human, of being irrelevant.
    A charge that is often thrown at scientists is one of inhumanness, playing god etc. But even the idea of playing God, is a relatable concept, a relationship between humans and gods, and so, many scientists can indeed play God. How many would and could play a robot as we today define a robot? What about a cyborg? Easier to picture?
    The only time people change are when their stories show relatable change to the things and people around them.

  2. L.E. Modesitt says:

    What you're saying, in essence, is that human society is incapable of using facts or knowledge that cannot be personalized in order to effect change in a society.

  3. hob says:

    I dont mean that facts and knowledge have to be personalized, I'm saying that Facts and knowledge serve humans, and humans are defined by their stories/music/art, so predicting based on known facts that global warming would kill off more animal and plant species in the future would be treated differently in a culture that valued some life vs a culture that valued all life. The facts would be the same but their effect on change in both societies very different.

  4. Frank says:

    I would be interested in reading the Economist article. Could you provide a link (if it is available on line) or sufficient further information so I can find it in a print edition?

    Much appreciated — not only the info, but your continued thought provoking posts.

  5. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Because I don't keep archives of all the magazines… I can't give a precise reference, but it was by Edward Chancellor, an economist who wrote "The Devil Take the Hindmost," which is a book about booms and busts. He's also a regular contributor to The Economist.

  6. Frank says:

    Thanks for the information. I'll try to track it down.