Book Review: But what if we’re wrong? Thinking about the present as if it were the past

This 200 Book Review written by Helen Cameron, Fall 2018.

Being predisposed to choosing the title that proposes more unanswerable questions than answers, I chose But what if we’re wrong? Thinking about the present as if it were the past by Chuck Klosterman, which is a pop-culture critic’s collection of musings about our presently-held beliefs, including many conversations with recognizable experts that inevitably come back to the question posed in the title: But what if you’re (the expert) wrong?

        I think this is a hard question for us to grapple with, as students of library science. We thrive on our belief that we can trust in science and facts. We, as future librarians, must consider the nature of information, as it constitutes our entire relationship with those we are meant to be helping. I believed, before reading this thought-provoking text, that we as librarians must be clear and firm in our ability to disseminate this information in order to guide our patrons towards THE RIGHT ANSWER.

        However, Klosterman has proved to me that there are no universal truths. When I was talking to a friend about Klosterman’s account of his conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, describing the ways in which Tyson would not entertain any of Klosterman’s “problematic, silly supposition[s]”, my friend responded: “I get why Tyson would be inflexible about this (Klosterman describes it as “willful, unilateral agreement” with certain scientific principles) – but you have to be flexible about everything, because new information comes to light every day” (Klosterman, 2016, pp. 102, 112). He summarized Klosterman’s thesis quite well: “the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrong-ness to begin with” (Klosterman, 2016, p.17). Inflexibility is not the lens through which we should look at everything around us: we must be adaptable caretakers of information.

        Klosterman’s premise is that, if we are to look at our present lives as if we were looking back at the past, “we must start from the premise that–in all likelihood–we are already wrong” (Klosterman, 2016, p. 12). Each of his chapters is devoted to a different topic that is so much a part of our daily lives, it is difficult for us to think about it in a historical context. For example, how will “rock music” be remembered in the future, and what one artist will come to represent it for future humans? Choosing just one person to represent rock feels impossible. This is his point. There will come a time, he argues, when “tangential artists in any genre fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated, until the genre and the person have become interchangeable” (Klosterman, 2016, p. 65). It is easy for us to agree with him that Bob Marley will be remembered as interchangeable with reggae music, but it is not as easy to agree with him that The Beatles will be the (sole) face of rock music. As he writes, “my faith in wrongness is greater than my faith in the Beatles’ unassailability. What I think will happen is probably not what’s going to happen” (Klosterman, 2016, p. 68). It is basically impossible for us to view our present in a historical context, but fascinating to do so, once Klosterman teaches us how to start.

        As studiers of information communities and information seeking, Klosterman’s book forces us to keep in mind that ideas change all the time. He writes about a childhood love of dinosaurs, and how he and other dinosaur-obsessed kids knew that a brontosaurus dinosaur was “a fiction” and anyone who talked about a brontosaurus was an “uninformed dilettante” (Klosterman, 2016, p. 98). We have all felt so sure about a real, absolute fact. But Klosterman was forced to change his position when, in 2015, “a paleontologist in Colorado declared that there really was a species of dinosaur that should be rightfully classified as a brontosaurus, and that applying that name to the long-necked animal we imagine is totally acceptable, and that all the dolts who had been using the wrong term out of ignorance for all those years had been correct the whole time” (Klosterman, 2016, p. 98). Imagine that: totally acceptable.

        This cyclical understanding of truth led me to think about information seeking and Savolainen’s article about everyday information seekers, specifically his ideas about “small world people” and the ways they seek (or don’t seek) information. He argues that “potentially useful information will be not used because people living in a small world do not see a generalized value of sources provided by outsiders intended to respond to their situation” (Savolainen, 1995, p. 1783). “Potentially useful information” is useful only because of the way those of us who think they understand that information perceive and value that information. Savolainen’s ideas about small world inhabitants can be translated into the world in general. He goes on to argue that “Small world inhabitants ignore information if they perceive that their world is working without it (i.e., they have enough certainty, comfort, and situational predictability so that the need to seek information is negated)” (Savolainen, 1995, p. 1784). Why would we attempt to understand the crazier theories Klosterman describes like the Phantom Time Hypothesis (“the past (or at least the past as we know it) never happened at all”) or the Simulation Argument (“what we believe to be reality is actually a computer simulation”), when we believe that our world is working without knowing (or not knowing) the details of these things.

        This idea made me consider the Information Community I am studying: pro-anorexia online communities that support one another in believing anorexia is not the terrible mental illness/disease doctors and loved ones are telling them it is. These groups are categorized as a new type of  “Online Negative Enabling Support Group” – and now I see the judgment inherent in this categorization. These pro-anorexia communities are labeled as “negative enabling” because current society believes that anorexia and self-starvation are a negative behavior.

Saint Catherine of Siena, who died of starvation at age 33.

        Using Klosterman’s affinity for historical examples in order to show how ideas have changed over time, I did not have to look far to get into the complicated ways we have viewed self-starvation in the past. In Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: The History of Self-Starvation by Vandereycken and van Deth, the ways in which our idea of anorexia has changed over time are neatly outlined: anorexia has been mis-represented as a “modern illness” that is not historically significant, and that recent incidences of anorexia have been increasing dramatically. They argue that “fasting” has been used by the pious in order to become closer to God. As stated on their book jacket, “In the twelfth century when divine miracles were accepted realities, an emaciated girl would have been seen as holy and touched by God.”  We, as a society, using science and our faith in the biological need for caloric intake, no longer believe these views. We no longer beatify these girls, we try to get them into inpatient treatment programs to stop this behavior.

        This is Klosterman’s point, though: we cannot know that we are right when we have been very wrong in the past, and know that we cannot predict the future. How can we, as information seekers and guardians of information, say that this pro-anorexia information community is an example of an “Online Negative Enabling Support Group” when the ideas that they share could, potentially, be true. They certainly comfort and give each other the support they are lacking in their everyday lives. This was once an acceptable way of life, and it is no longer seen that way. Even though we have (better) doctors, the urge to control one’s diet and restrict one’s intake of food has not changed over hundreds of years – our perceptions of this have changed.

        So, I have learned many things from Klosterman’s book. Specifically, that change really is the only constant, and that flexibility in our idea of what is fact is the only way we can move forward as stewards of information.