You Can't Handle the Truth

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Chuck Klosterman on But What I... Munger on Slavery and Racism...

wrong.jpg Did you know Moby Dick was a flop until well after Herman Melville's death? Which author of today will be the most highly regarded 100 years from now? Which rock star? Which TV show? Fun to ponder, but we'll never really know...But that's exactly the sort of metaphysical space this week's EconTalk episode stakes out. Host Russ Roberts welcomes writer Chuck Klosterman to talk about his new book, But What If We're Wrong?

So what's the point in seeking truth if it whatever we find will ultimately prove false? (Next, we'll ask about the meaning of life...) Give it some thought...and please share your thoughts with us here. We love to hear from you!

1. One of the fundamental questions posed by Klosterman's project is, why do so many things we're so sure about today turn out to be wrong? How does he answer this question? Do you think our power to predict is better or worse than Klosterman suggests?

2. Some argue that NFL football can't survive because it's too violent. On the other hand, Klosterman argues, it just might flourish because it's so violent. What does he mean by this? If he's right, what sort of change ought the NFL make to the game, and to what extent do you think they'd be successful?

3. Russ recited the opening lines of Tennyson's "Ulysses." I can still recite all the prepositions in alphabetical order (thank you, Mrs. Pulver). What can you recite? What has memorizing this done for your understanding? Should we emphasize rote memorization more or less with young people today? Why?

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CATEGORIES: Books (305) , Extras (145)

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Daniel D writes:

What's the jazz documentary mentioned in the episode?

[That was the documentary directed by Ken Burns, You may be able to see it free via your TV stations or cable broadcasts.--Econlib Ed.]

Martin writes:

This reminds me of the Lindy effect:

Per Kurowski writes:

What if we do not even dare to find out if we’re wrong or not?

“If one is pretending to knowledge one does not have, one cannot ask for explanations to support possible objections.” John Kenneth Galbraith, “Money: Whence it came where it went” 1975

Wayne D writes:

Circa mid 1970's, in Elementary School; we had to memorize all the States of the Union (alphabetically) & the President's, in order of serving.
--It was actually a fairly "fun" process-- we added a new President & State every day, & did it as a group & individually.
(There is something to be said for pure memorization.)

Eric Mustin writes:

Thanks again for a great episode, will try to keep my responses brief.

1. Klosterman responds to his book’s title question, ‘So What If We’re Wrong?’, by highlighting the uncertainty and misplaced confidence an average listener experiences daily. While a novel way to write about the world with broad strokes, this response has few practical applications. Personally, I'm optimistic about the tangible benefits of good predictions. For example, the accuracy of predicting weather has helped families find safety and shelter before dangerous storms or natural disasters.
2. An original writer for ESPN publication, Klosterman has written about sports often in the past. However, even the most violent sports like boxing, mixed martial arts, or hockey has reduced the intended violence in their rules over time. For example, the famous ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ boxing match between Ali and Frazier ended in a TKO after 14 rounds, but would’ve ‘gone to the cards’ using today’s 12 round rules. Football specifically already has reduced violence in its rules, changing the distance of kickoffs to reduce injuries, decreasing the amount of yards a cornerback can make contact with a receiver, banning specific blocking techniques, and prohibiting tackling initiated at the neck or higher. I believe this trend will continue.
3. “I am a part of all that I have met, yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move” (also Ulysses). I think memorization is one good practice among many techniques for learning and studying.

Thanks for reading,

Roger McKinney writes:

Predicting the future and increasing knowledge are very different things. We have learned a great deal over the past 300 years in science and economics, but that doesn't mean we can predict the future. We can predict some patterns, but no details. There are too many variables and the interactions are too complex.

We can never know everything, but that doesn't mean we can't know some things.

Some things we'll never know. Hayek wrote that we will never understand the human brain because for one entity to understand another it must be more complex than the object it's trying to understand. So only God can understand humans exhaustively. Still, we can know some things.

Roger McKinney writes:

BTW, TS Eliot wrote that humans can handle very little truth.

Jerm writes:

2. Klosterman's idea is that a future society that values violence might demand an entertainment product like football, making it more popular in the future.

But he completely misses the supply side. In what way would society change such that large amounts of parents would send their children off to play football? Especially considering that the gruesome lifetime effects of football related head injury are the types of things that aren't seen on a football broadcast, how would that be a viable path?

I think that Klosterman's consumer-oriented perspective of culture is fine for movies, music, and television, since those products could be made without causing brain damage. But applying that same framework to football is flimsy.

Wouldn't an increase in demand for "violence" have to be paired with a lack of damage to the underlying person? In that case, maybe the bloodthirsty culture of the future would just be big fans of pro wrestling.

And I'll call it here first. Future society will shake their heads when they see that we didn't fully appreciate M. Night Shyamalan while he was alive.

John Christopher writes:

"Who's woods these are I think I know..."
"Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary..."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..."

I was required to memorize the last one (in addition to many other Bible verses) and in the long run I think it has very positively influenced my life. The other two I learned on my own. I just liked them and know them and turning them around in my head once in a while and sharing them brings me joy.

I think it depends on the student. For some memorization might be quite productive. For others not so sure. Could be demoralizing if you are not good at it. I wasn't good at it generally. But still memorized a few things along the way.

Question: Russ and Chuck referenced some believed to be great contemporary authors that may or may not be highly thought of in the future.

What were those names again? I hadn't heard of them before.

Like to stay up with what is great now even though they may be duds in the future. :-)

Amy Willis writes:

@John, two they mentioned are Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace (neither of whom I can admit to getting into...) Stephen King and JK Rowling, on the other hand...

Jerm writes:

Best way to get into David Foster Wallace:

The Kenyon College commencement address (which was turned into a film on YouTube)

And if you like that, then read "Consider the Lobster" from Gourmet Magazine or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."

And if you like those, then down the rabbit hole you go.

Trent writes:

Answering #3:

One of the first things I recall having to memorize in school was the preamble to the Constitution. The ironic part of that is that I already had memorized it...from watching "Schoolhouse Rocks," which aired in between Saturday morning cartoons. As Mr. Klosterman mentioned in the podcast, it's easier for us to memorize a song lyric because of the music/rhythm/rhyme, and I certainly learned that at a young age. In fact, in high school when we had to memorize calculus formulas, we created our own rhythm/song, and they stuck...I can still remember those today (even though I never use the "product rule").

As for what it'd done for my understanding, I'm not sure. I think it's helped me organize my thinking and/or make me more aware.

For example, I attended middle school in Louisiana, and they made me memorize all the parishes in the state - our "final" was a blank grid of the state, and we had to fill them all in. Essentially useless to me today sitting in Chicagoland, except that it built on my knowledge of maps and how cities and counties fit (had used the "Map & Globe" series in grade school), and I kept on learning about maps as I grew up. And part of my job today ironically involves analyzing data using mapping software.

And in high school, I had to memorize Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Today I can remember most of it - not all of it. But what I can tell is if I pause what I'm doing and start reciting it aloud or to myself, it's like a different/creative part of my brain is sparked. Akin to the calming emotional effect of reciting the 23rd Psalm to myself.

I think what memorization allows us to do is to do higher-level thinking while we're recalling the words - instead of having to process the written word, our brains can focus on imagery, memories, ideas, etc., etc., etc., while we recite from memory. So yes, I do think there's value in requiring some sort of rote memorization in schools/with young people. I wouldn't overdo it & I would of course make sure it's related to the core material.

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