June 20, 2014

The other day I walked into a book store to check out the science section. And I noticed a trend. A lot of books were eager to claim that everything I knew was wrong.

Seriously -- everything! You've seen this sort of book: "Why everything you know about subject X is wrong."

According to a book called Talent Is Overrated, everything I know about talent is wrong. According to The Upside of Irrationality, everything I know about irrational thinking is wrong. David Brook's book The Social Animal promises to reveal the "hidden sources" of love, character, and achievement -- because apparently everything know about those is also totally wrong. There's always a "hidden side" to everything.

This subcategory of science journalism has been going on for years now. It's not just books. Newspapers and magazines and the web are filled with pieces offering the "counterintuitive" take on something that you thought you understood. The web site Slate just published a piece on why everything you know is "doggie acupuncture" is wrong.

Now, I understand why publishers print this stuff. It feels fun to pounce on a new study that claims to "overturn" common knowledge. I've done it myself -- I've written columns for Wired arguing why fan fiction is actually good for you. I've written about the "hidden benefits of multitasking".

But seriously, we're often making mountains out of molehills. Human wisdom isn't overturned that often. Not everything we know is so shaky! We're publishing this stuff not just because we think it's true but because it's a good way to get pageviews.

So maybe it's time to calm down. Let's proclaim the opposite. Maybe everything we know about being wrong is wrong.

Except here's the thing. It turns out there's a hidden side to this.

Think about the readers.

Why do readers love this stuff so much? Why do they so eagerly read stories claiming everything they know is wrong?

I think it speaks really well of them. On some level, they "get" the basic skepticism of the scientific method. After all, science is all about overturning our paradigms. Einstein and Newton basically found a "hidden side" to reality. And they revolutionized scientific knowledge!

So in another sense, maybe the boom in "counterintuitive" stories is a healthy sign. It shows that readers are really open minded. They're eager to have their sense of the world overturned. Sure, the publishers may be behaving in a kind of weasely fashion. But the readers -- they're a sign of cultural health.

Or to put it another way, maybe everything we know that's wrong about being wrong is also wrong.

Although I could be wrong.

From a piece originally published in Wired Magazine: "Clive Thompson on the Hidden Truth of Counterintuition."

commentary, Clive Thompson, Culture

Previous Post

Old Placebo Effect, New Applications

Next Post

To Understand Risk - Play Poker

comments powered by Disqus