Complexity, laziness, and the internet?

Posted on October 7th, 2015 by

Every Nobel conference seems to offer sub-themes that are at least as interesting as the stated theme. This year it seems to me that the panelists are reminding us over and over that any human experience is uber complex. All of them. I am also hearing over and over about the need for judgment about what others want us to believe. I want to tease both of those topics out a little bit.

Flanagan: There is no mono-cause for anything that happens, to anyone.

So, is it Kandel, who says everything we are is because of what our brain is? Is it Hart, who says we have to link wide empirical findings with the social and political facts of racism and funding agendas before we assert anything about anyone? Is it Flanagan, who makes firm distinctions between what we can know about ourselves deriving from brain studies, and what we can know about ourselves based on approximating the experiences of those who have actually **been** something?
Flanagan: Human experience is a complex sociocultural phenomenon.

The whole idea of ‘willing addiction’ includes many of the same sociopolitical and cultural roots of what Hart talked about: the differential privilege, for example, of being an addict when one is white, British, wealthy, or creative. We even use different language to describe what is most likely the same experience in real life: mind-altering usage of drugs or alcohol to deaden boredom or despair; to extend good humor or a peak experience; to manage the day-to-day that is really a series of repetitive events only occasionally punctuated by something interesting, novel or joyful.

As an ethicist I see continued calls to resist easy problem description and even easier (pseudo) solutions. The political landscape, particularly acute in this campaigning season, is littered with folks who feed us the easy stuff. I just went to a session at the Midwest Academy of Management where the authors re-visited Steve Kerr’s 1975 article about behavior—reward follies, and among the examples he cites is politicians’ propensity to do just this thing—reductionist thinking and fixing of complex and persistent social issues.

The challenge is teaching students to not accept the first answer, the first explanation, the easy fix. The best solution to any complex phenomenon might, actually, be quite straightforward, but that cannot come without full examination and as Hart says, without evidence and without knowing the roots and the science. The transferable skill is vetting out what others want you to believe. And, we have to be alert to our complicity in going along with solutions or holding positions we actually have not researched ourselves. It’s not enough to say we are busy—too busy to check out the roots of what others want us to believe.

I’m guilty, for sure. I don’t always go to the source, ferret out the original literature to make sure I understand what the authors are trying to say and why. We can’t engage with everything, all the time, about complicated issues. This is a particular challenge for ethicists, and for students of ethics in any discipline. What we have to do, though, is create networks of trusted secondary sources, of those folks who can troll the literature and data and help us translate it. And I mean trusted: those that are open about their biases and agendas, that do not hide their funding sources, that have goals that align with our own while subjecting their work to critical analysis and data triangulation. The internet poses particular challenges for understanding quality and science. The great thing about the internet is that any idiot can post to it, and the lack of censorship is a triumph of modernity. The terrible thing about the internet is that any idiot can post to it, and the lack of censorship is a challenge of modernity.


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