Big problems invite big diagnoses and even bigger public declarations of those diagnoses. Because big problems are often hard problems, people often get those diagnoses wrong. No one likes to admit when they get things wrong, but doing so is important, now more than ever.
In the spirit of humility, I’ll go first: on August 31, I published a column titled “The Pandemic Is Over.” Though not entirely, a good chunk of that column was wrong.
Where I went wrong was in my declaration that Yale’s reopening was doomed to go wrong. While I don’t regret my skepticism one bit, it’d be malpractice to not acknowledge that my nightmarish visions of sickness and death on our campus hasn’t come true (so far).
Since August 1st, Yale has reported only 34 positive cases of COVID-19. The positivity rate is currently .1%. Cases in New Haven have not exploded either, even as cases state-wide are on the rise. And Yale isn’t the only college success story. The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which received a tidal wave of negative press early last month, has crushed its case curve, administering nearly 520,000 tests with a current positivity rate of .23%.
It’s important to stay cautious, but we can admit that this is good news. In fact, I think we have a responsibility to acknowledge successes as much as we condemn failures.
In the aforementioned column, I argued that the university model was fundamentally incompatible with life in a pandemic, that it just couldn’t work. Turns out, that’s just not true.
My mistake is emblematic of a larger trend. It’s sexy to make big, bold declarative statements about broken institutions and how fundamentally broken they are, how they are “beyond reform.” It’s even sexier to do so while using big words, typically ending in “-ism.” (As someone who used to use “neoliberalism” in every other sentence, trust me, I’ve been there.)
But why do we love these broad strokes?
For one, big words and broad declarations make you feel really smart, and Yalies love to feel smart. One problem with this is that big words and big sweeping statements often obscure as much as they reveal. For instance, it’s easy to diagnose America’s abject failure of a COVID-19 response as a failure of ‘capitalism’. And while there’s certainly truth to that claim, it’s quite the claim nonetheless. Are South Korea, Japan and Germany (by-and-large success stories) not ‘capitalist’ countries? Are Spain, France and the UK (which are currently doing worse than the US in terms of per-capita cases) not ‘capitalist’ countries, too? What do we mean by ‘capitalist country’ anyway?
I’ll stop at the edge of the rabbit hole. I’m not looking to kick the hornet’s nest of “socialism vs capitalism,” nor am I trying to pass off ignorance as enlightened centrism (I’m not a centrist, as ignorant as I may be). My point isn’t that we should never use big words or ignore macro systems, either. My point is that next time you go to use a big academic word to encompass some big, extremely complicated system or phenomenon, ask yourself: “What do I really mean?” If you need more than five syllables per word, you might not actually know.
But there’s another, deeper reason — beyond feeling smart — that people love broad declarations of exactly what is wrong with the world and exactly how to fix it: there are a ton of things wrong with the world, and those things cause a ton of suffering. Broad, axiomatic solutions match the intensity of the problems they seek to solve. Whether they’ll work is a different question.
How and whether we can know things is a central goal of fields from epistemology to economics. It’s very hard to know things for certain. It’s hard to know for certain what small steps will do, and it’s even harder to know what gigantic steps will do. To be clear, this isn’t a conservative argument against change. Calls for change are good, and actual change is even better! We desperately need it.
But when we think we already know the cause and cure for the world’s problems, when we tailor that cure so it will fit nice and snugly into our worldview, we set ourselves up for failure. A better world is possible (it better be!) but that doesn’t mean we know how to get there.
With every step we take, we have to be prepared to be entirely wrong.
To be blunt, I think a degree of humility would do us all good. The world is a complicated place. Things can’t always be chalked up to immovable-object buzzword causes and unstoppable-force buzzword solutions. Turns out colleges aren’t fundamentally incompatible with life during a pandemic, you just have to do it right. What else do we just have to get right?
Think about how many things we’ve gotten wrong about the pandemic. You thought you were going to have a nice four-week spring break, didn’t you? I did, too. We’re not alone. Think about how many things the experts have gotten wrong. On masks and hand-washing, elementary schools, particles and droplets, restaurants and protests.
Maybe if we were all a little less afraid of getting it wrong (and admitting it), we’d get a bit closer to getting it right.
ERIC KREBS is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column, titled “The pin-pen merger,” runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.