By David L. Brown
The text for today concerns linear thinking and how it fits into long-term planning and survival of civilization and the human race.
To define linear thinking, it is the tendency to think that things will keep on in the same way they are at the present time. For example, if there has for a certain time been a steady upward trend in the stock market, then linear thinkers will believe it will continue to go up ad infinitum in just that same way. Another example: If you are a lemming rushing along with your fellow lemmings, you will probably imagine that you will just continue to gallop along until, well, until you decide not to.
An examination of the fate of stock market optimists and lemmings might raise some doubts about the validity of linear thinking. The real world, when viewed in a somewhat longer view, is fraught with an alarming amount of change. Stock markets go up and down, sometimes crashing spectacularly. Lemmings make a regular habit of rushing right off of cliffs (or so it is said). But the tendency to embrace linear thinking continues to cripple the ability of many people to think rationally about the future.
The problem is that people tend to be myopic in how they view the flow of time — they judge the long term from their own short term experience. It is a particular problem for the young, because their experience is relatively short. Perhaps that has something to do with the ancient and now seemingly obsolete idea that wisdom comes with advancing years.
On that point, I remember an episode about 35 years ago when I had a young man of about 26 working at my public relations agency. That was in the early 1970s, and I was (in his eyes I suppose) a haggard and broken down 32-year-old. Although not actually a hippie, the “young” man was taken with some of the Flower Child culture and used to constantly throw up the idea that one should “not trust anyone over 30.” Wherever he is today he would be about 61 years old, almost ready to draw social security, and by his own words, for over three decades he has been completely unable to trust himself. What a tragedy. I wonder if he can look himself in the mirror? Oh, but wait, surely as he grew older he attained some of that wisdom that so often escapes the young. He may even have come to the opposite point of view (POV) and now looks with mistrust at the youth culture that is so much in evidence today. We can hope so for his sake.
Linear thinking is particularly apparent in attitudes about climate change. For some unfathomable reason, vast numbers of people “assume” (and remember that the word breaks down to reveal that “when you assume, you make an ass of u and me”) that climate change takes place in a linear fashion, and that it takes place everywhere in the same way. Tell one of these twits that the Earth is growing warmer and they will tell you that where they live it happened to snow on April Fool’s Day or some such irrelevant factoid, and therefore there is no global warming. Well, they are the April fools because their dim thought processes fail to alert them to the fact that climate change is not only non-linear, it is complex beyond our present ability to understand and predict.
It is a conundrum, particularly since the largest challenge to climate models is to “see” into the medium future. Yes, we can predict weather patterns a week or so in advance, and sometimes more. And we can with confidence see at least the broad outlines of the consequences of greenhouse gas warming over the next 50 or 100 years. But we cannot yet with any confidence say whether next year will be warmer or cooler, whether there will be more or less rain, or whether hurricanes will be severe.
That is a problem, because it leaves climate scientists open to ridiculous claims by linear thinkers, from whose POV any deviation from the erroneous and simplistic straight-line model they envision discredits the entire storyline of climate change. Let them hear from some guy in a bar that this year is slightly cooler, or that the Arctic ice cover hasn’t melted quite so much as it did last year, and off they go into a confident expectation that there is no reason for concern. They are like draft horses with blinders on, steering straight ahead oblivious to what is behind or beside them.
Not only do people tend to engage in linear thinking because of their own short term experiences, but they are also loath to study and especially to learn from history. That is a great shame, because the lessons of history are the keys to developing a long term view of civilization and the doings of Nature. I blame this anti-history trend in part on our educational system, which has confronted generations of students with history “texts” written to please every politically correct viewpoint and in such dry and uninspiring language that it would cause a sphinx to go crosseyed. Posturing teachers and tenured but wacky professors with far-out political agendas make history even less appealing to the inquiring mind, and the result is that history is viewed as “cold and dead,” with no relevance to today.
It has become a cliche but I cannot pass on without mentioning the famous quote from George Santyana, who said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So true, and so sad.
The problem with applying linear thinking to your life is that if the world is changing in various non-linear ways, and you are following a straight line path, you are not going to end up where you thought you were going to. In the case of the linear stock market investor or the lemming, that place may not be anything like what you expected. In fact, it might be altogether different.
Now perhaps not all lemmings are linear thinkers. Here is an amusing cartoon from Google Images that perhaps offers a glimmer of hope, for the tribe of lemmings at least.
Well, the threat of climate change is a lot more complex than the question facing lemmings, to wit whether or not to run off that cliff. For one thing, due to the uncertainty of medium term forecasts, people are not sure what to expect. The possibly disastrous longer term forecasts do not have the power of immediacy, and are not easy for the linear thinker to process into his/her world view. For them time spans much longer than a few years tend to blur into a gray fog, when looking into the future as well as when trying to imagine the past without having learned history.
I once was chatting with someone I had encountered and happened to mention the Roman Empire as an example of something that lasted for a long time. He looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, “But it fell!” That was all he knew about the Roman Empire, the most successful and longest lasting civilization in history, a cultural and political phenomenon that endured for many times the entire span of American history. My unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is in seven volumes, and yet this man could summarize it in just two words: “It fell.” My, if only Gibbon could have been so concise and to the point! Linear thinking honed to a sharp edge indeed.
How can anyone who does not understand the vast periods that characterize historical, much less geological time manage to grasp something that may not even come to pass during their lifetime? It is too easy to marginalize the dangers of climate change, and linear thinking makes it possible to imagine that things will only continue to get better, get worse, or stay about the same at the present rate depending on one’s situation. Nothing to be alarmed about there (unless one is particularly pessimistic).
Linear thinking does not engage well with the possibility of sudden, precipitous changes of direction such as many climate scientists fear might occur. The concepts of feedback effects and tipping points that could result in sudden and catastrophic climate changes remain beyond the scope of the linear thinker, for not only do they see the future merely as a continuation of the present, but they tend not to look very far into that future.
Unfortunately, linear thinking provides a comfortable cocoon in which to insulate onself from having to act in preparation for change. This cocoon is particularly helpful to politicians and others in leadership roles who are disinclined to commit to long term strategic plans to deal with climate change. As long as the subject remains uncertain, linear thinking will continue to be the “norm,” perhaps right up until it is too late to turn away. Lemmings will be lemmings, it seems, and even if one lemming were to take up the question of measuring the acceleration of gravity, most of its fellows would still be running straight on over that cliff.