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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The First Bad Man and Very Briefly: Fantasy Football

Everyone lives in a fantasy world, even those of us who purport to be guided by facts. Yes, our brains are amazing super-computers, but we shipped with some very flawed software. The amount of innate, hard-wired biases we came programmed with are staggering. Confirmation bias, optimism bias, conjunction fallacy, etc. Here's a fun list of only a tiny sampling of the ways in which we are tricked by our brains into falsely interpreting the facts.

For this reason, I'm very wary of people who prefer to make decisions "from the gut" because our guts, in addition to being sculpted works of art upon which laundry could and should be scrubbed to perfect whiteness every time, are hilariously wrong almost all of the time. This is why we need a scientific method, and also why the scientific method needs to be repeated over and over again. A recent study (yes, I realize the irony of what I'm about to say) said that more than 60 of 100 social science studies yielded different results when duplicated. Even when we're trying our best, results get biased all of the time.

The article goes into better detail about why this happens, but essentially it's the same reason we like and share flashy articles about human behavior on Facebook. It's because we already agree with it. When I see an article come up that doesn't fit with my worldview, I think "oh no that can't be right" and sure enough in a few clicks I find someone who has torn the study to pieces. Alternatively, if it fits in with the way I already see the world I'm like "this is important and everyone who hasn't blocked me already should see it." (Five people see it.)

Here's another example, and one that I hesitate to share because there's potential that people with whom I play fantasy football may see this (if you're one of the five) and I'm afraid I'll be tipping my hat. For most people I know personally, the first name in fantasy football is ESPN. If you're an awful human being (like me) you might listen to one or two podcasts and read a good five articles about fantasy football in a day from this site. Even if you're a casual fan, you probably let the team autodraft and base your decisions on the projections on the website. Would it surprise you that a study of fantasy football analysts found that on an average of the last three years ESPN found itself at the bottom of all the analysts studied?

I was surprised. ESPN has a slick website. Their podcasts are well produced. The analysts are charming and confident. And because they've been your go-to news and prediction source for years, you want to believe them. And there you have it. By playing on the biases we were born with, the number one sports news networks tricks our brain in any number of ways into thinking we're well-informed when we are decidedly not.

Listen, I'm not going to say it, but I am going to say it. This whole thing is a pretty good metaphor for Fox News.

Fantasy worlds are great. It's fun to imagine that under the mundanity of everyday life there is a spark of real magic somewhere. What if instead of living a boring life of super computers in our pockets and endless free recipes on Pinterest we were whisked away to a magical school where people eat vomit flavored beans and don't play video games and don't actually know what electricity is? What if this magical world had a corrupt government and adults could physically torture young children in a respectable school and the kids would have no possible recourse? Wouldn't you want to go there?

But fantasy worlds are dangerous in real life. Especially when you spend your days secure in the knowledge that you're the only one who sees through all the nonsense. Especially especially if it just so happens that every opinion you had since you were 16 years old is still your opinion today in spite of all the experiences you've lived. I mean, the odds that the values you were raised with just happen to be a sum total of all the right answers in a world where there are so many more answers than there are even questions are, let's say, pretty slim. Congratulations. I mean wow. What a life you must live.

Here's my take on fantasy: I like it when it's being sold as such. I'm less inclined to enjoy it when it's being presented as the real world. And I guess when I think about it, that's why I ended up not enjoying The First Bad Man, by Miranda July.

This book has so much going for it. Eye-catching, minimalist cover, rave reviews, and an immediately engaging character and writing style. Honestly, I was biased towards loving it, and at first I did. It's often funny, and dishes out insights that I found to be clever and interesting:
You know what? Forget what I just said. You’re already a part of this. You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, you will fall painfully in love, you will have babies of your own, you will doubt and regret and yearn and keep a secret. You will get old and decrepit, and you will die, exhausted from all that living. That is when you get to die. Not now.
There is genuine humanity in here, but there are also silly things. There's a therapist whose office is very far from the bathrooms, so instead she encourages patients to use Chinese takeout containers behind a screen in the corner. On her own desk she has a row of full containers she herself has used. It's a funny image, and gross, and it would work in a Saturday Night Live sketch but does not work in the world that I'm supposed to believe I live in.

There is also the normalization of statutory rape, which I am definitively against. Even in a whimsical world where people poop in cardboard containers and then continue a therapy session. There is danger in matter-of-factly describing crimes with far-reaching mental implications and portraying them as having no consequences. Especially when the lead-up to said crime is treated with levity and humor.

I'm glad I'm just a guy with a tiny blog that gets 20 views and most of them come from people who are searching for a book called Hey Howie, which is about a teen drumming sensation who finds God and is sold at many fine Christian book sellers worldwide. I'm glad because telling you if a book is good is hard.

Even as I write this, I'm reminded of many things I enjoyed about the book. But like a handful of jelly beans in which one may taste of earwax, the rest of the jelly beans had better be pretty damned good to make it worth it.

The First Bad Man, to me, is not.