Thursday, December 15, 2005

Your Best Guess

Kurt Vonnegut has an essay up at In These Times. The essay, Your Guess Is as Good as Mine is adapted from Vonnegut's new book Man Without a Country. The essay turns out to be about politics and the prevalent tendency to use guessing in making decisions and policy and the refusal to use education and information. I got sucked into the essay though thinking is was about something else. Here's the first paragraph:

Most of you, if not all of you, like me, feel inadequately educated. That is an ordinary feeling for a member of our species. One of the most brilliant human beings of all times, George Bernard Shaw said on his 75th birthday or so that at last he knew enough to become a mediocre office boy. He died in 1950, by the way, when I was 28. He is the one who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I turned 83 a couple weeks ago, and I must say I agree.
Wow, I thought, I frequently feel like I have been inadequately educated. If Shaw felt that way and now Vonnegut, there is no hope for me. Vonnegut goes on to talk about great guessers in history including Aristotle and how we are fortunate to have so much information these days. But I would argue that we are still guessing as much as Aristotle did, just on a different level. It's like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part of the animal and makes guesses about what it must be. Well, we are like those blind men, we just happen to have mapped out a bigger portion of the elephant. The complete nature of the animal still escapes us so we guess until we find another piece of the puzzle that fits. I think books, especially good fiction, are one of the best places to read about those guesses. It is in the minds of our best writers where the implications and consequences of our guesses are played out. I suppose I am biased and only a reader would think this. Scientists probably think the best place to learn about guesses is in a lab. But most of us aren't allowed in labs or other places of experimental guessing. So we use our imaginations and engage with the guesses via literature. There is nothing inherently wrong about guessing. It's when politicians and others turn proven fact into guesses and guesses into proven fact that problems arise. And there are irresponsible and morally wrong guesses too. Maybe it's time to start a Campaign for Responsible Guessing.