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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

No One Knows What To Do

No One Knows What To Do

Author: Reilly Capps/Thursday, April 17, 2014/Categories: humor

I don't know what to do. Do you know what to do? Beyond having a snack and watching "Cosmos" and going to sleep on time? 

I mean ... 

Should we be passionate or stoic? Paper or plastic? Stay married or divorce? 

Literally no one knows. 

Worse, the really educated people in our society are wracked with doubt. "Yes, maybe, but, on the other hand, have we considered..." they always say. 

The bigger problem is that there are lots of people who think they know. These pepole are comfortable shouting out: "Bomb 'em!" "Let's give up!" "It's the fault of the Jews (or gays or immigrants or whatever)!" These people are, invariably, the stupidest people on Earth. 

So what do we need? 

I think we need to encourage the smartest people, people who are already trying to understand things, to make more decisions. 

This is not a new idea. 

Epictetus, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, said that "man is a spectator of the universe, and not only a spectator but an interpreter." 

And you can't take anybody else's word for what's going on. Emerson said that you have to till your own soil, meaning -- get out the microscope and look for yourself. 

Fine. That was more or less fine in 300 BC and even 1840, when there were about 10 things to figure out. Now, there are billions. To name just a few: does aspartame cause cancer? How much methane leaks during fracking? Does pot hurt my brain? 

These are things that I cannot -- absolutely cannot -- figure out on my own. And so I need really smart people to look at these things. 

Do you have a minute? This next part of this article is really geeky, so I hope you'll stick around. I think that a clue about what we should do might come in looking deeper into that quote from Epictetus. He said that we are supposed to be "spectators and interpreters," as the most common translation has it.

But the word rendered "spectator" -- θεατὴν-- could also be translated, more exactly, "the man who sees." And the word rendered "interpret" -- ἐξηγητὴν -- has more to do with the idea of leading, or advising.

So a more accurate way to phrase this respected philosopher's statement on the purpose of life is to say that we are here to see and advise.

And the problem today is that we have separated the jobs of seeing and advising - looking and leading. 

We let the really smart researchers, reporters and filmmakers look at things and then we let dumb politicians make the decisions. 

This is crazy. 

It's crazy because all of the lookers are secretly trying to make decisions about all the things they're looking at. If there really was this huge difference between seers and advisers, then the lookers would just be looking at random things. They would spend their days cataloguing the size, shape and makeup of the rocks in the front yard at 342 Long St., Aiken, S.C. They would organize conferences dedicated to listing the ninth letter in each sentence in every book in the public library of Clearwater, Fla. 

They don't. They look at cancer, the causes of war, the roots of inequality and melting icebergs, because they want to know what we should do about it. 

But you would hardly know it by reading their papers. 

If you look at the papers about, say, climate change, their true meaning is often hidden very deep. A paper might be about, say, the correlation between albedo and airborne water vapor. But the conclusion - written by a very smart person - can usually be understood only by other very smart people. 

The researchers need to be bolder. They need to see -- and then advise. The dude in the lighthouse needs to chart the shoals. The garbageman needs to make some recommendations about recycling. 

So, I propose that we add two new sections to the end of every academic paper. They would be called "What This Means in Language a 6-Year-Old Can Understand" and "Our Wild-Ass Guess About What We Think We Should Do Now." 

In a paper about albedo, for example, the first section might say: 

"Snow makes the planet cooler, and there's less snow than there used to be."

The next section, "Our Wild-Ass Guess About What We Think We Should Do Now," might say: 

"Paint all the roofs white," or "wear white hats" or "tax carbon" or "end gerrymandering" or "abolish the Senate." 

Everyone could understand that these were over-simplified conclusions and wild-ass guesses, but at least it would be something. Bias is inevitable. But this biased thought might be more useful than all that unbiased information that doesn't mean anything to most people. 

I think that just looking without judging is nearly as bad as judging without looking. A first-rate scientist who spends her life looking at the world and cataloging it and understanding it but never stands up and says "this is what I think we should do next," is nearly as derelict in her duty as an ignorant politician who says, "well, I don't understand the first thing about the Ukraine, but here's what I think we should do next…" 

Right? Right. I think. 

Well. We've reached the end of this article. So... I'll start ... 

What This Means in Language a 6-Year-Old Can Understand:

If you understand something, say so. If you don't, shut up. 

My Wild-Ass Guess About What I Think We Should Do Now: 

Go outside and exercise. Eat a meal -- with lots of plants. Then read a good book. And kiss your wife and kiddies. 

(Okay, that wasn't very revolutionary advice. But maybe it's a start.) 
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