WYSIATI is an acronym for “What You See Is All There Is.” It’s a concept created by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to account for common human overconfidence in judgments and impressions that are based exclusively on what we already know, or what we think we know. It describes the human tendency to reject new information, particularly when the new information may contradict a cherished belief long held. The longer the belief is held, the more reluctant the subject is to give it up. Hence the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
The truth of the matter, of course, is what each of us knows compared to what we don’t know is so small it may as well be nothing. Most of us will at least pay lip service to this humbling fact. We cannot even stamp our feet and aver with confidence, “At least two plus two doesn’t equal one!,” because if you ask any mathematician they’ll tell you that two plus two does in fact sometimes equal one — in the integers modulo three under addition, for example.
So how is it that we can know anything at all? The answer is we can at least know what little we know with improved accuracy provided that we agree to proceed with care, and that we use rules that are known to work. The best of those rules are the ones we call “science.” I hasten to point out that science doesn’t answer everything. We can’t use science to decide if we love someone, or even if we like strawberries or not. (Unless of course you’re a hopeless nerd.) Science has its limitations. But when it’s appropriate to use science then it should be used.
Yet it’s the rejection of science that makes creatures like Trump possible. If confidence in science were as high as it ought to be, Trump would not be able to fill the BOK Center on Saturday with 19,000 people, because they would believe science with the same confidence that they would believe the signs created by the city of Tulsa telling them how to get there in the first place. Science says that roughly between one hundred and eight hundred of them are going to die, just for attending. They wouldn’t board an airplane with those kinds of survival odds looming over them. But they will go to a Trump rally.
They will also let the human race die an early death due to global warming because Donald Trump tells them global warming is all a hoax. Never mind that every scientist on earth says otherwise: a known con man says it’s a hoax and that’s good enough for them.
Why? Because they believe Donald Trump, a man who has told as many lies while in office as there will be attendees at his Nuremberg-style rally on Saturday. Is that the basis on which they reject the science that tells them they very well may die? It is. But before you leap to attack them for it, ask yourself this question: how likely are you to listen to, or even believe, anything that contradicts your own cherished beliefs? How often do you google something to find out if what you believe is valid, let alone read a book critical to your point of view or consult the findings of science that contradict you? How many of you overeat, or fail to exercise, or smoke, or do any of a number of things the findings of science warn you against, and justify it by minimising those findings?
It’s a common human failing. What can be done about it? For one, we can stop apologizing for thinking in complicated paragraphs while the opposition thinks in slogans. Complicated paragraphs are needed because the world is a complicated place. Laughing off something because it requires an explanation is a habit of the lazy, used by people who don’t want to think. We must learn to be self-critical and, above all, keep clearly in mind that we don’t know everything, that there is always another possible answer around the next corner, or another question, and keep clearly in mind that even two plus two does not always equal one.
As bad as Trump has been for America and the world, some good may come out of our having to endure him. He has made the rejection of science so perfectly ugly, and the consequences of that rejection so catastrophic, that many people who were disdainful of science four years ago esteem science better today. Many who aren’t yet convinced will be by the end of the year, when hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Americans lay dead from COVID-19. Science is the way forward, and rational acceptance of science saves lives while rejection of science leads to ignorance and death. We can symbolically embrace science by rejecting Donald Trump in November. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.