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But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman

February 9, 2019


How do we know what we know is right?

This is a book about a meta concept—the knowledge of our knowledge. When we look back on now from twenty, fifty, one hundred years in the future, what will we see as our biggest misunderstandings, miscalculations and mistakes? What will be the thing that we are so sure of today that makes us look foolish to future generations? What is today’s equivalent of the geo-centric model of the universe before Galileo?

It’s hard for us to think about the future this way, because we generally assume that we know what’s going on (in the same way we generally assume humans are the peak of evolution—first there were monkeys, then apes, then homo erectus, etc. and then, ta da! Here we are!). “We constantly pretend our perceptions of the present day will not seem ludicrous in retrospect, simply because there doesn’t appear to be any other option.”

It’s easy to look back at history and see plenty examples of human fallibility in our most certain beliefs, from some of our best thinkers. Aristotle was right about many things, but he also believed that a rock sits on the ground because it wants to be on the ground. It seems dumb. It kind of is dumb. But it also probably made a lot of sense at the time. This book isn’t about outliers like the few (but, really, alarmingly many) dim-witted modern flat-Earthers. It’s about our accepted knowledge, stuff that most of us—even the experts—generally believe, and its rightness and potential future wrongness.

Klosterman comes at the topic from a number of angles, some of them a little incongruous (if still entertaining). He examines scientific knowledge in a section that questions if the fundamental shift that happened with the Scientific Revolution has made our science more future-proof. Does the way we use the Scientific Method to interrogate our knowledge make it unlikely that we’ll have another flub as big as geocentricism or flat-earth? He interviews a handful of experts and the consensus is…maybe.

He also looks at artistic “knowledge,” specifically our perception of what is good. Shakespeare is arguably the greatest playwright ever, but how did that become accepted belief? Why did he stand out against the playwrights of his day, let alone the rest of history? And how did Moby-Dick come to be considered one of the greatest novels ever after being a commercial failure during Melville’s life? (Klosterman includes a funny aside about a 2014 Amazon reviewer who describes Moby-Dick as “Pompous, overbearing, self-indulgent, and insufferable,” noting that anyone can publish his opinion as if they have authority these days, despite the fact that this particular person’s only other review was for an HP printer—two stars.)

Moby-Dick isn’t the only example of an overlooked great. Van Gogh went unappreciated during his lifetime, another in a long list of unfortunate artists. Which is all to say, people were wrong about Van Gogh and Moby-Dick. So how do we know we’re right? When the future looks back, who will be our great artists? Klosterman guesses that Elvis or Dylan will most likely represent our time in music, but he also weighs the possibility of someone coming out of nowhere, especially with today’s technology and viral media culture.

But, again, who decides? With Elvis and Dylan, there’s the traditional pop vs critical divide, but there’s also the fact that those elevating certain works (e.g. any “Best Of” list, greatest novels/movies/shows of all time) are either myopic (too Western, too male, too elite) or over-engineering for inclusivity. Throw on top of that the unpredictable way ideas spread in our modern world, and who knows what the future will see when it looks back on today? As Klosterman says, “History is a creative process.”

There is a thread throughout that feels uber-relevant now—the dangerous and mistaken notion that because some knowledge will prove incorrect, any knowledge can be disputed. Facts are reduced to opinions, driven by political convenience or other lazy biases. We aren’t able to address problems when we can’t even agree on the simple facts. We’ll likely look back on today and discover not that we were wrong about something major (e.g. climate change), but that we didn’t couldn’t overcome the willful ignorance of a good portion of the population.

This is a wonderfully thought-provoking book. It offers more questions than answers, and I often found myself setting the book down to think about some of the questions. It ranges from the relatively insignificant question of taste and art criticism some existential questions, like are we living in a simulation created by a future world?*

But the other thing I love about this book—and probably Klosterman in general (I’ve only read this and I Wear the Black Hat)—is that I feel like we’re on the same wave length. Klosterman’s definitely smarter than I am, but his language, his reference points, his sense of humor and his general style speak to me. He interviews people I love—like the writer George Saunders and the filmmaker Richard Linklater and the podcaster Dan Carlin (though he has a factual error in his description of Carlin’s podcast), uses references I understand—like when he refers to Ray Kurzweil and Chinese Democracy in the same sentence (Kurzweil is a futurist and great prophet of The Singularity; Chinese Democracy is the Guns ‘n’ Roses much-lampooned, 11-years-in-the-making 2008 album), and says they eat “weird food” in Cincinnati (I assume he’s referring to Skyline Chili).

Anyway, I don’t know that this book is for everyone.  It’s a little abstract, a little inconclusive, a little non-linear in its exploration. But I found it provocative, entertaining and very well-written.

* This idea, from philosopher Nick Bostrom, is that we’re headed toward a world in which people will create hyper-real computer simulations populated by AI beings that believe they’re real. And maybe we’re not there yet, or maybe the future people will decide not to create these simulations. But the third possibility is that this has already happened, that we exist in a world where these simulations do exist, and we’re in one of them, believing we’re real. The reasoning is that if a simulation has been created, eventually the “people” within that simulation will advance to the point where they create simulations, and within those the “people” will create simulations, etc., creating a reality of infinite nested simulations. In that case, the mathematical odds of us being the real, original world, are essentially zero. If we’re in this nested-simulation reality, we are almost certainly living one of the simulations. [smoke from ears]

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