Many years ago an online acquaintance of mine started a website, comprised almost wholly of quotations, called These Tragic Events Only Prove My Politics. He eventually abandoned it because, well, what was the point? Evidence to support the core thesis emerged every hour. You might as well create a website to document sunrises.
The current crisis simply continues this theme. For me, the whole situation has been a daily reminder of just how impervious people’s narratives have become. Donald Trump is a vain, ignorant narcissist; the arrival of the coronavirus has merely offered him further opportunities to display his vanity, ignorance, and narcissism. Before the coronavirus arrived, a great many American journalists saw everything bad that happened as a direct consequence of Donald Trump’s vanity, ignorance, and narcissism; since the coronavirus, those journalists have thought and written in precisely the same way (to the immense frustration of Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others). For free marketers, the current crisis proves the necessity of free markets; for socialists, it proves the necessity of socialism. If the people who keep gathering in churches end up contracting COVID-19 in high numbers, do you think they will question the wisdom of their leaders or the prudence of their decisions?
A doctor named Aaron Kheriaty, at The New Atlantis, writes movingly about his fears for his patients, the “impossible ethics” generated by having limited resources with which to address a pandemic, but also notes: “In the few moments when we slow down, we occasionally think about the opportunistic lawyers and prosecutors who will later go after doctors no matter what choices we make.” And you know this is going to happen, because when something goes badly wrong for Americans, we look for someone to sue. That’s just how we handle tragedy. And the overwhelming force of the coronavirus is powerless to change those ingrained habits.
Self-dramatizers, we can be certain, will self-dramatize, while self-promoters will self-promote. Chastisers will chastise, and accusers will accuse. Encouragers will encourage, and servants will serve. That’s how it has gone, and that’s how it will go. The pandemic hasn’t really changed many people, though I think it has revealed the character of more than a few.
All of which has me thinking about a section of my book How to Think in which I reflect on a 1954 book called When Prophecy Fails. Here’s how I describe that book:
In 1954 three social psychologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, read in the newspaper about a religious cult whose leader, a woman they called Marian Keech—her real name was Dorothy Martin—was prophesying the end of the world. Keech claimed that she had received messages from the inhabitants of a distant planet named Clarion, and from them she had learned that the world would be destroyed by a great flood on the twenty-first of December 1954. (She received these messages through automatic writing: She felt a tingling in her arm and a compulsion to write, but when she wrote, the words that emerged were not her own, nor in her handwriting. This was the method of communication the beings from Clarion chose to use to warn the world of its imminent destruction.) Those who heeded this warning and joined Keech’s group would be rescued by the arrival of a flying saucer from Clarion.
Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter pretended to be true believers in Keech’s message so that they might infiltrate and study the group. They had formulated a twofold hypothesis: first, that Keech was a charlatan; and second, and more interesting, that when the falsehood of her prediction was revealed her followers would not abandon her but rather escalate their commitment to the cause.
The psychologists’ prediction proved accurate, as I explained:
With every step they had taken over the previous months, the little group—the little Inner Ring—had invested more and more in the revelations from Clarion. They had abandoned families, jobs, social respect. For them the entire world had become the RCO [Repugnant Cultural Other]. It had become, just as Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter had predicted, impossible for them to question the validity of their decisions. Their rigidity had become absolute; the immensity of their sunk costs had made them terrified of resuming the work of thinking.
The strange thing, for me, is that people whose sunk costs are not nearly as great as those of Marian Keech’s followers will often exhibit precisely the same tenacity in the face of evidence that questions, or might reasonably cause them to question, their preferred narrative.
I suspect, but do not know, that the informational triage required by our hypersaturated media ecosystem—by the overcrowding of what Matt Crawford has called the “informational commons”—makes us more resistant to changing our minds than our ancestors were. (Despite the popular conception of those who have gone before us as narrow, rigid, stubborn.) In their superb book Intellectual Virtues, Robert Roberts and Jay Wood describe the virtue of intellectual firmness, which lies between the opposed vices of rigidity and flaccidity. I can’t imagine a better question for me to ask myself in our strange moment than this: How, in this moment, may I achieve genuine intellectual firmness?
After some reflection on that question, I have decided to adopt a new hero: Ross Macdonald’s fictional detective, Lew Archer. My shelter-in-place reading has shifted from tales of horror to the Library of America’s three-volume collection of Macdonald’s Archer novels, and reading so many of these novels in sequence has me noting certain themes. (One, unrelated to this essay, is that Archer gets knocked on the head a lot, usually by pistols, sometimes by blackjacks. How he doesn’t develop CTE is beyond me.) The chief of these themes is this: At some point in each novel, Archer has acquired sufficient evidence to have a clear, sometimes an utterly compelling, sense of who has committed the crime or crimes he is investigating—and then he doesn’t stop looking. That’s the key. No matter how compelling the narrative he has developed, no matter how neatly the ducks are lining up in their row, he continues to investigate. And then, detective novels being what they are, at some point he acquires new evidence that sends the ducks scattering. That is to say, Archer holds his narrative firmly but not rigidly; he has the perseverance to acquire new information and the humility and honesty to alter his understanding of events in light of the new information he has acquired.
Lew Archer, I say, should be the hero of our time. I plead with you: Be like Archer.