Fear of Mystery

I don’t pretend to know a lot about history, but it seems to be for most of human history, people have been pretty okay with a lot of mystery.

The way the world works and reality is structured has always been discussed, theories always put forward, practices developed. But older cultures seemed to leave large swaths of reality unexplained, or partially explained, or explained only in general, symbolic ways.

Sometime in the last 500 years or so, that changed. Mystery and the unexplained began to make people uncomfortable, as confidence in our ability to understand and explain things grew. I don’t lament this change. I’m more inclined to like it, but it does come with some weird side effects.

The weirdest is our propensity to lie to ourselves and be willfully incorrect.

I’m not talking about the times when our explanations for how reality works are wrong but we don’t realize it. This is pretty much always the case for everything, but if we don’t know that we’re wrong, of course we’ll continue being wrong.

I’m talking about the times when we know that we don’t know, but we choose to pretend we know even though we know we don’t.

Every moderately learned person knows about the “replication crisis”. The vast majority of all “scientific studies” cannot be replicated, which means that, by their own rules of what counts as valid, they are utterly and completely invalid. Everyone knows this. Yet everyone continues to use studies to back up their claims, and acts skeptical if an argument doesn’t have a study.

We are all susceptible to this. In business, I know and believe that most marketing efforts cannot be attributed accurately enough to have high confidence, and that efforts to attribute actually lead to the wrong conclusions more often than not. I see it, I talk about it with marketers, they all agree. Yet what do we do when presented with a choice about strategies? We ask to see the very numbers we know are lying to us.

The numbers feel safer. More comfortable. Why?

Maybe it helps us outsource blame? If I go with my gut and get it wrong, it’s on me. If I go with the numbers and get it wrong, it’s on the numbers. Of course this is also a lie, because numbers can’t act. Only humans can. The choice is mine, whether supported by my gut, the numbers, logic, or Chicken entrails.

Why does invoking numbers or studies make me feel less vulnerable, even though I know full well it’s a facade? Why do I have this instinctive capacity to be comforted by lies?