Ignorance vs. Imagination

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Many people will readily admit the value of education as it pertains to building up the skills and knowledge necessary to become a functioning adult in society. A subset of these people will even go so far -- even in this concrete-bound, principle-free time -- to concede that a liberal arts education can provide some of these.

This is despite the fact that the humanities aren't often directly applicable to the challenges posed by the daily grind. There is still, even today, an appreciation for the idea that a mind used to functioning within multiple disciplines and thinking about a wide range of topics will have an edge over one more narrowly trained.

We could use a sports analogy to speak of such a mind as having an advantage in "intangibles" over its competitors.

But one thing that routinely gets short shrift, and often even by the most well-meaning proponents of a good education is how important one is to the ability to have a productive imagination.

I am not talking here just of having an ability to innovate, as important as it is. There is also the ability to think outside the box of convention on ordinary affairs, while not easily straying outside that of reality.

I have touched on the former here before:

In too many cases, that period belongs at the end. Image by Marija Zaric, via Unsplash, license.
Aside from the moral battle to turn the tide of political momentum towards capitalism, there is also what I think of as the battle of imagination. Even people sympathetic to the cause of limited government are often flummoxed when considering how certain things done by the government as it is today could be done in a free society.

Here, we see in detail a viable model for spotting and training professional athletes that, unlike systems in place in America today, neither relies significantly on public education nor costs parents significant amounts of money. Incidentally, such a model could easily apply to areas of endeavor besides sports. [bold added]
I thought of this problem again this morning -- but in a different way -- as I was reading Michael Shellenberger's excellent Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.

The following passage in particular provides a great example of how imagination unbounded by reality can help cause panic. Shellenberger considers the vague fear many people have about nuclear waste. "[T]hey often can't articulate why they think it is dangerous," he notes, as he hypothesizes the origin of the fear as being related to nuclear weapons.

Then he uses his better-disciplined imagination to great effect:
[I]t is impossible to imagine a realistic scenario in which terrorists could break into a nuclear plant, use a crane to raise the 100-ton canister of used fuel rods onto an 18-wheel truck, drive it out of the plant along the highway to a coastal port, send it by boat to somewhere with a reprocessing plant, unload it, and then reprocess it. In the real world, the terrorists would be gunned down before getting through the nuclear plant's entrance. (pp. 152-153)
Off the top of my head, this thought experiment very well illustrates an important weapon against the more ridiculous elements of both today's utopianism and its insane degree of precautionary thinking. Both propose to run society based on arbitrarily-imagined outcomes or dangers. Running a mental experiment like this provides a way to challenge the arbitrary by helping people see its lack of any connection to reality. In this case, we see that weaponization of nuclear waste is not something a rational person should worry about, when weighing the costs and benefits of nuclear power.

This is important for several reasons: (1) Few people understand that one is on solid ground when rejecting the arbitrary out of hand; (2) there are many very common ideas (at all levels of abstraction) that few people realize are at least partially arbitrary; and (3) many of these common notions have surface plausibility thanks to our negligent intellectual and media establishments.

Of course terrorists can't wait to get their hands on our nuclear waste, many will correctly think while oblivious due to ignorance of all the boring precautions nuclear plants take: None bled, so none led.

I am in the middle of Shellenberger's book, but it has been as thought-provoking as it has been informative.

Based on what I have read so far (not to mention recommendations from people I highlly respect) I would say this book would be valuable for the huge amount of factual material it presents alone. But it is also a tour de force of the power of a well-informed and well-disciplined imagination.

-- CAV

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