October 28, 2014

SUSSER | Fact Hoarders

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Remember learning that the Boston Tea Party caused the American Revolution? Or that Babe Ruth caused an 86-year World Series drought for the Boston Red Sox? And how could you forget that World War II ended because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

History often times finds itself attributing intricate conflicts to relatively neat precipitating factors. While wars may materialize in the immediate aftermath of a simple event, there are usually a series of undercurrents that bring a conflict to fruition. It’s human nature to simplify our lives and the lives of others. So when extreme strife — between countries, industries, sports teams, rappers or roommates — occurs, popular thought shackles itself to simple answers to simple questions. But enough generalities. Take the recent Israeli-Palestine conflict for example. On June 12th this past summer, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered while hitchhiking near a suburb of Jerusalem. Why these kids were hitchhiking — in a conflict-ridden country whose every neighboring country wish to see their demise as badly as the Cornell Police wish to doll out noise violations — beats me. The three were abducted and killed. Hamas, the military wing of Palestine, initially denied involvement in the murders, yet were accused, leading to a full-fledged military confrontation between Israel and Palestine in the ensuing months (Hamas later admitted to the killings). Those who followed the conflict watched in awe as the brutality between the two countries escalated to such levels that the fatalities started to become just another number.

While I personally am not well versed in the intricacies of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and have little authority to hypothesize the true cause of this most recent war, it would be hard to believe that the simple precipitating force was the killing of the three boys. Even if this event did trigger a chain of hostile rhetoric and violence between the countries, other conditions must have simultaneously been ideal for conflict to materialize. Nevertheless, history — and our collective memories — will be written as such: “The 2014 Israeli-Palestine conflict was caused by the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.”

The tendency to assign causality to important events is dangerous and limiting. It prevents us from digging to the root of relevant matters; something that inhibits further inquiry. There is a certain satisfaction in hoarding facts in one’s knowledge bank in a cause and effect type manner. Here are two sources of justification for retaining this innate ability to simplify the world into a series of simple facts.

Where does this strong preference for accumulating knowledge in a simplistic manner come from? Maybe we were brought up to acquire information in this method. History lessons in middle and high school ultimately came down to knowing the facts. Only in the rigor of advanced placement courses does one see the kind of synthesis of information that it outside the realm of fact-based learning. The further removed we get from history — and the more it becomes a series of facts — the less we stand to learn from it.

We could also just plainly be hardwired to remember stuff by using causality to simplify the world around us. Social psychologists call it the attribution bias. We like to attribute causality to things because it facilitates an easier understanding of complicated issues. This could ultimately leads to an encyclopedia of facts in each of our brains; it makes it difficult to think about things in ways that are more complicated than simply remembering that, for example, Steve Jobs studied calligraphy at Reed College, which is why the Mac typeface is so unique.

Confucius once asserted, “Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated.” Aside from the inherent charm to this quote, there is a possible counterargument. We struggle to confront complexities because they force us to move outside of our predisposition for simplicity. Intricacies will give undue headaches, heated argumentation and self-doubt. But at the very least, they will spice things up.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.