String Theory, Shoestring Theory, and Your Entry in Modern Jackass Magazine

In 2010 Kathryn Schulz, a journalist for the New Yorker, wrote a book called Being […]

Ethan Richardson / 4.22.16

ackbarrealIn 2010 Kathryn Schulz, a journalist for the New Yorker, wrote a book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. This passage comes from that book, and describes a phenomenon we know all too well: that we pretend to know something that we, in fact, don’t know anything about. Maybe we lay out the chief causes of the Flint, Michigan water crisis because we skimmed a Washington Post story on it. Maybe we throw out some statistics about incarceration in America–statistics even we didn’t know before they came out of our mouth. Maybe we describe to our spouse how he/she should water the fig plant. None of these things are our actually areas of expertise–we have never studied them, even had much experience with them–but suddenly, somehow, we are experts. We have these knee-jerk opinions about things we don’t have enough (or any) facts to support, and our opinions tend to lend us all the authority we need.

The technical, psychoanalytic term she uses for this phenomenon is confabulation: the ability to misinterpret or distort memories without the intention to deceive. We don’t intend to deceive, she writes, but we do. But what Schulz is getting at here–and what she is getting at throughout the book–is that we love the illusion of control we can summon in our big and small moments of uncertainty.

How good we are doing this varies significantly from person to person. Some of us have voluble and inventive inner writers, some of us have meticulous inner fact-checkers, and a lucky few have both. Most of us, however, are noticeably better at generating theories than at registering our own ignorance. Hirstein says that once he began studying confabulation, he started seeing sub-clinical versions of it everywhere he looked, in the form of neurologically normal people “who seem unable to say the words, ‘I don’t know,’ and will quickly produce some sort of plausible-sounding response to whatever they are asked.” Such people, he says, “have a sort of mildly confabulatory personality.”

Actually, all of us have mildly confabulatory personalities. Take (just for example) me. Not long ago, I found myself participating in a lively discussion about the likely accuracy of string theory. The contributors to this conversation included a lawyer, a labor organizer, an environmental consultant, a graduate student in philosophy, and a journalist (me). One of us (me again) had a friend who was a real-live string theorist. All of us had read a recent New York Times piece describing some recent disputes among theoretical physicists about the future of the field. All of us had also read or heard something else on the subject, at some point, by someone or other–or at least so we claimed in the course of the conversation. None of us had taken a physics course since high school. I sincerely doubt that any of us were capable of solving so much as a quadratic equation.

7811050This was a conversation to give the phrase “theoretical physics” a whole new meaning. My friends and I were the most outrageously unqualified group of string theorists ever assembled. In fact, we could far more aptly have been called shoestring theorists: virtuosos of developing elaborate hypotheses based on vanishingly small amounts of information. The Chicago Public Radio show This American Life once dedicated an entire episode to this kind of mild confabulation, in the course of which they did us all a favor by coining a vastly better term for it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that they launched an imaginary magazine devoted to covering it–a magazine they called Modern Jackass.

Modern Jackass: once you learn the phrase, it’s easy to find yourself using it all the time, which says everything you need to know about the pervasiveness of mild confabulation. One of the producers of the show, Nancy Updike, joked that she herself is a frequent contributor to Modern Jackass: Medical Edition–you know, the one where you bullshit your way through an explanation of the merits of antioxidants or the evils of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. I introduced the Modern Jackass concept to my family and within a matter of hours they were turning around and congratulating me on my cover story for the magazine. (It was about the origins of ethnic tension in the former Yugoslavia, about which I know only slightly more than I do about string theory.) And I recently offered a friend a position as a staff writer, after he tried to explain the difference between alternating and direct current, and, immediately thereafter, why the Americans and the British drive on different sides of the road.

As ill-informed as these ad hoc, out-loud musings can be, such Modern Jackass moments can play a useful role in our lives.  Assuming we have the internal flexibility (and the communal permission) to backtrack and revise, they can help us solve problems, arrive at answers, and figure out what we really believe. But…these intellectual improvisations can have a troublesome outcome. For us…something in the alchemy of the interaction often cause our half-baked hypotheses to congeal on the spot. Thus one extremely good way to become wedded to a theory you’ve just idly expressed is to have it  contradicted by, say, your mother. I myself have gone from noncommittal to evangelical in a matter of milliseconds using this technique. Likewise, an acquaintance once confessed to me that when his spouse contradicts a theory he’s just hatched, he begins spontaneously generating “facts” to support it–even when he realizes that she is right and he is wrong. In cases like these, we actually do know the limits of our knowledge; we just can’t stop ourselves from barreling right past them. As with our individual and collective difficulty with saying, “I was wrong,” we aren’t very good at saying, “I don’t know.”