Some things are not supposed to happen. Due to a mix of historical precedent, data analysis and assumptions about human nature, we go through life with expectations that we believe will be met — beyond a reasonable doubt.
Throughout its 89-year history, the Oscars have seen their fair share of mishaps. This weekend’s flub, though, is entirely unprecedented — the kind of bizarre scene only witnessed in bad works of fiction. The front-runner won, the winners gave their predictable victory speeches and then suddenly a troop of accountants rushed onto the stage and reversed the result. The number of errors that had to be successively committed for this to transpire is remarkably high. It’s the kind of thing that just does not happen.
But following the shocking result of the presidential election, the Oscars debacle should not be so surprising. As we had done with the Academy for nearly nine decades, we trusted the news media to meet the standards it had set for itself, and we trusted our political process to prevent somebody who had adulated a foreign tyrant and boasted of sexually assaulting women from becoming president. But these institutions came up short.
We live in an era where big data provides an abundance of information, and social science research continually makes strides in understanding how the world operates. Particularly at a place like Yale, we believe we have all the information to predict the future. But despite this profusion of knowledge, we keep getting the outcomes of critical events wrong. In fact, seemingly every major cultural moment this past year — the election, Brexit, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Oscars, the Yale-Harvard game — has involved an unprecedented inversion of our expectations. It seems the very fabric of reality is being reshaped.
According to Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, these events prove the simulation hypothesis. The theory posits that we most probably inhabit a computer simulation created by life forms more intelligent than ours. In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, Gopnik argues that recent events reveal some glitch in the code of our simulation, or a malevolent hacker looking to tinker with our stable reality. It is a humorous conceit, but the opposite conclusion is in fact true. The events of the past year prove that our world operates far differently — and more complexly — than a computer. Indeed, if we were in a simulation, the correct winner would have been announced.
Part of the Oscars mistake can be attributed to the attitude of “knowingness” itself. Warren Beatty’s thought process as he looked down at the card for best actress and nonetheless proceeded to read out “La La Land” for best picture is one rooted in an expectation that the information we are given is always accurate. “Hm, that’s weird,” Beatty may have thought. “This says Emma Stone’s name, but it must mean that ‘La La Land’ won.” He trusted the system.
We, like Beatty, go through life taking for granted that things will go according to plan — until this past year, that is. Recent miscalculations should be an education in questioning our assumptions and rebuilding our framework. Only if we dispel the belief that enough data will give us a complete understanding of the world can we see the holes in our thinking.
For those of us at universities, we will have to rework our approach to academics. The predominant pedagogical framework of our era conceives of the world as a machine. We build models with inputs and outputs and use them to analyze historical trends and predict future events. It has become increasingly clear, though, that this machine is overly simplistic and too reliant on statistics. While data collected by political scientists in exurban Florida and suburban Pennsylvania indicated one result, they failed to account for the role of human impulses at the ballot box.
Academics and pundits laughed at the Trump campaign’s focus on “enthusiasm” because it did not fit into regression analyses done by political science professors. What the election showed was that our method misses crucial factors in human behavior.
A liberal arts education is meant to teach us to excavate the foundations of daily life and to ask questions we would not otherwise think to ask. These questions often lie outside the current purview of our curricula. It is incumbent upon the academic community — students and teachers alike — to bring uncertainty back into the classroom and to make room for the possibility of complete shock.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .