An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog where I (a random person on the internet) ramble on about concepts, tips, tricks, and plans to help you get through life in this crazy world. Today we’re talking about a concept that should have you questioning everything.
Put simply, you have been lied to. Repeatedly. It was probably done with the best of intentions, and indeed it probably couldn’t have been done any other way, because the human mind needs some lies in order to make sense of the truth, but nonetheless — some things that you hold to be fundamental truths probably aren’t.
Ok, let’s start with a simple statement: the human brain, while a powerful analytical engine, can’t know everything all at once. I think we can all find that a true statement on its face, right? Let’s do another one: most of what we know is built off of something else, some piece of bedrock knowledge that leads to higher understanding. I think we can also let that one stand as true on its face, right?
Hold those thoughts. They’re important, because what they mean is that what you think you know is dependent on a lot of little, disparate chunks of knowledge that your brain has absorbed and lined up into a story that makes sense, given the information available. This has implications, not least of which is that we do not absorb knowledge all at once, and we do not absorb complex concepts easily. Sometimes, it’s useful to absorb a simple concept first, even if it’s not entirely right, to use as a springboard to higher knowledge.
The term “lies-to-children” describes this idea. It was originally coined by scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart to describe the need for simple concepts to describe complicated things. We need lies-to-children as human beings because our minds just are not powerful enough to grasp the true scope, scale, or nature of reality; or at least, not all at once. We generally need a good run-up to get our heads around things, which is where lies-to-children shine. But the consequence is that, once you know this, you have an obligation to question the foundations of your knowledge.
You may not like what you find.
What’s the simplest lie-to-children we all know? That’s easy. It’s a map. Maps divide the world up into mine and thine, and are a central component of all modern life. Maps make things simple; this is here and that is there. But no map adequately describes everything about a location, and almost no map is actually even all that accurate; they are approximations, not realities, and it’s important to remember that the next time you get involved in a property dispute, because you can always challenge the map.
The biggest lie-to-children map that everyone has seen is the Mercator Projection, the most common design of flat map that attempts to represent the globe of Earth. Now, the geometry nerds will know that attempting to describe a sphere as a square grid is going to result in a picture where the further you get away from whatever point you arbitrarily define as the center, the worse the proportional accuracy of that map is going to be. Very few people really take this into account when looking at a world map, which is why most people think Greenland is a lot bigger than it is, and Africa is a lot smaller than it is.¹
That seems like a small thing, until you remember that ideas of geography create ideas of relative importance. We are hard-coded to think “bigger is better,” or at least “bigger is more important,” and it can be very hard to overcome that concept when describing world history or current events to people who are used to thinking of the world as if Europe and Africa are roughly the same size, or who don’t realize that roughly half of the world is the Pacific Ocean, or indeed who haven’t grasped the concept that land doesn’t vote.
Want a more esoteric example? Picture an atom in your head. Most of us will immediately come up with the classic model of a nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons. Typically these models show little balls in the center of the atom, representing the protons and neutrons of the nucleus, with smaller balls a little ways outside the nucleus, usually joined by curved lines, representing the electrons.
Very little about this model is “true.” There is such a thing as an atomic nucleus, and it does contain protons and neutrons, but we haven’t the faintest idea what it really “looks like,” if that’s even an applicable term at those quantum scales. There isn’t really even any such thing as “an” electron, in the sense of a particle occupying a discrete piece of time and space; electrons exist as a probably cloud, which really ought to break your brain if you stop to think about it for any length of time. And nothing about the classical picture of an atom is at all to scale.
But… if you picture an atom in your head, that’s what most of us get. Because we can easily understand little balls, and even the concept of “orbit” when it comes to electrons. We have no real frame of reference to picture what a probability cloud looks like, and it is less than useful to start someone’s journey into the world of physics with the statement, “The fundamental unit of matter defies every human attempt to picture it, get used to it.”
That’s a very arcane example, to be sure, but it highlights the idea that most of us picture a central idea of basic science incorrectly. Things get worse when you start to think about more day-to-day things. Let’s look at another lie-to-children: hard work will make you successful. You can find this one pop up in concepts such as the Protestant Work Ethic, or in any one of hundreds of self-help books and articles out there.
This one is laughably untrue in the modern world, at least if you think about it proportionally. I know plenty of successful people; by most metrics, I am one. Most of the really successful people I know don’t work as hard as, let’s just say, the average Hispanic agricultural worker picking a field in Georgia. Most of them don’t have more than one job. Most of them, in fact, barely work a forty-hour week. They are, broadly speaking, successful and happy in their lives not because of hard work, but because they possess an in-demand skill or have some particular natural talent that allows them to execute a strategy where they don’t have to work hard to get paid. And then they got lucky.
Oh, and by the by — did you see what I just did there? I just directly linked hard work to making money and therefore being successful. Do you think “success” requires making lots of money? Well? Does it?² Or is that another lie-to-children, too? Now, that being said, hard work certainly helped these people at least once in their lives, and the capacity for hard work is definitely a component of living a successful life, alongside such virtues as forward planning, education, and getting lucky in your work and relationship choices, but it certainly isn’t as simple as hard work = success.³
So, you might reasonably be asking yourself at this point, what exactly is Allen banging on about here? Everything is weirder than we think or more complex than we think, big deal, what else is new? Why bother writing an article about this??!
This series is called The Modern Survival Guide. It’s about giving you the mental tools you need to stay sharp in the modern world, and part of that is realizing our own weaknesses. Lies-to-children are a weakness in an adult. They exist for a reason — to simplify tough concepts — but we need to take some time, every day, to remember that simplifying something doesn’t necessarily make it useful. It just makes that thing comprehensible.
If what you comprehend isn’t what’s true, you’re doing yourself a disservice and weakening your ability to understand the world. Instead, I think it’s a good idea to approach almost every concept that we take for granted with a healthy dose of doubt, at least until we delve a little deeper, because there are two key points about all lies-to-children that should make you uneasy.
The first is that you might be at least slightly wrong about some very basic things that other people around you might understand on a more correct level, and which might provide tangible advantages to you if you, too, understood those things. Conversely, not understanding those things might be harming your image, your competitive edge, your grip on reality, or all three.
The second is that lies-to-children are lies, and most lies are told for a reason. That reason might be to make it easier for you to comprehend a concept, or it might be that the person who is feeding you a simplified concept knows damn well that they don’t want you to get the full dose. You’re never going to know which of those things it is (assuming they are mutually exclusive) until you start asking questions.⁴
Either way, it behooves you, and me, and everyone else to take some time to question the things we think we know. As an old Greek said, a wise man is one who knows he knows nothing. It is better to acknowledge our ignorance, and correct it, than it is to remain blissfully watching the shadows on the cave wall because they are easier to view than the light outside.
²If anyone is curious, I tackle this subject in another article. My personal opinion is that money does not equal success, but it sure helps. I prefer to believe that success is about the achievement of personal goals; that being said, it is much easier to achieve your goals if you have resources to throw at problems, and as such, money is useful.
³In case anyone is even more curious, the “successful” people I know include folks like a friend-of-a-friend named Jason, who works for a major video game studio. The man gets paid to design games for a living, and he gets paid very well, which is certainly not the norm in that industry. He’s happily married, has a kid, owns a house, and lives the exact lifestyle he wants to live. Could he use another million dollars? Sure. But it wouldn’t materially change his world. His life is low-stress, full of friends, and features good beer and good food in appropriate amounts. Folks, that’s as successful as we should expect it to get.
⁴By the way, “I did my own research” is the rallying cry of deluded idiots the world over. Find an expert in the thing you want to know more about, or for preference find more than one, and ask them. Keep doing that until you are an expert. This is also known as “education,” and it does place a hard limit on the number of times you will be able to get away from lies-to-children, because time is a resource. I’m hiding that little gem in this footnote, because it’s depressing.