This past week was trying for me and millions of Texans as we endured two winter storms without power or with sporadic power, as a deregulated power grid failed. I was angered by our governor, by ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) who ordered rolling blackouts, and certainly by a certain senator who decided to flee to Cancun in the midst of it—and then lied about the trip to save his Herman-Munster face. I was angered by the “rugged individualist” culture that persists in the state—a former governor and slimeball said Texans were willing to suffer to remain free from Big Government. People in power pointed fingers. People without power looked for a warm place to take shelter. People without power also lost water as pipes burst and city water systems broke down.
At the same time, I was aware that at the very least I was failing to understand the world in a factful, rational, reasonable manner, falling victim to what Hans Rosling calls “The Blame Instinct” in his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. (I think this is my favorite read, so far, in 2021.) “The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. . . .It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions.” The simple answer for me and thousands of others suffering without power: it’s all the fault of a corrupt government and greedy capitalists, more concerned about profits than a reliable electric grid. Finger-pointing is easy. The other side did it too. The weasley governor blamed it on a Green New Deal policy that has yet to be enacted. A cloddish mayor said we’re weak freeloaders waiting for the next handout and, in fact, deserve to suffer because we’re weak freeloaders.
Finger-pointing, however, as Rosling notes “steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere. This undermines our ability to solve the problem, or prevent it from happening again, because we are stuck with oversimplistic fingerpointing, which distracts us from focusing our energy in the right places.”
I try to think critically and think of myself as a mostly reasonable person. Of course, as humans, we can’t live in a logical paradise like the Vulcans of Star Trek. And in the midst of chaos, looking for a simple answer, for someone or some entity to blame is natural. It is an instinct, one easy to succumb to. Fingerpointing also tends to hold to ideological lines and makes us blind to other perspectives. We start following what Rosling terms “The Single Perspective Instinct,” which is another way we fail to see reality. “Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective,” Rosling writes. “This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality.”
You can probably tell by the epithets I’m slinging like “slimeball” and “cloddish” that I lean left and live in a predominantly right-wing state. And it was hard to listen to a governor and executives of ERCOT try to explain the grid failure without wanting to strike back on ideological grounds. It was also quite hard to watch a senator decide to take a trip, rather than showing genuine leadership. There seemed to be so much indifference and lack of genuine concern as people froze to death, searched for places to stay warm, and find food and clean water. Yet, I also realize I’m guilty of succumbing to my particular perspective (I’m not quite as far left as I might seem; I tend to subscribe to a traditional liberal humanist perspective) as we all are.
I also hope that at some point conservatives and liberals sit down and figure out in the days, weeks, months, and years what the real problems are and ask questions like “Why did wind turbines freeze?” or “Why did water treatment systems freeze?” and work to find genuine solutions so the grid doesn’t break down again.
I’m sure from now on I’ll slip in my reasoning and fall prey to the 10 instincts of broken thinking Rosling examines in his book. But the book is certainly a great guide that keeps you aware that you’re drifting away from reasoned reality and off into a scrambled view of the universe. I have to recommend this book to everyone, especially those in fact-based professions like journalism—Rosling takes to task some issues in journalism—and educators. The book’s comparable to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, another worthwhile read that helps us see reality as it is and not as we want it to be. Seeing the world factfully, as Rosling notes, helps us “see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”