Looking at mass media, it’s extremely easy to make the mistake that the world is concrete and definite, that there are absolute causes to issues. Furthermore, there’s the even more prevalent idea that if there are absolute causes to a phenomena, we are certain of knowing them.
The problem with absolutes is that they don’t include any wiggle room. Speaking in terms of statistics, if there’s only one state that represents your absolute, there are infinitely many other states that could be your answer. Therefore, the chance that you are correct is infinitesimal. Obviously, this depends on the total number of possible states for a situation, but you can imagine that there’s always a good chance that you aren’t perfectly correct.
Let’s face it: our universe is amazingly complex.
Declaring absolutes is almost never worth it. It’s a way to be wrong about ideas that you wouldn’t be wrong about if you had kept an open mind. Absolutes force us to be sure of things, but the reality is that we are rarely certain of events.
Unfortunately, there is another factor at play. When we propose absolutes, the fact that there is no wiggle room makes us look certain of ourselves. Done well, this can lead others to have a higher opinion of us, simply because we are steadfast in our beliefs. The incredible thing is that this can happen even if we are making an error. Just from the certainty in our beliefs, we can convince others that we should listened to.
As you can imagine, this can be downright dangerous with the wrong person. If he or she does not care about the facts more than about people following them, deliberate warping of the facts can be done in order to weave doubt and uncertainty in the minds of those who thought otherwise. One need only look at one of the most troubling problems for humans in the twenty-first century: global climate change. Despite the near-unanimous agreement that global climate change is happening, there are still those who doubt the claims of scientists. However, due to their prominent positions in society, they are capable of reaching a greater number of people than the traditional scientist can. This is disconcerting, because these people can spread misinformation, a catalyst for discouraging science from being a driving factor in these kinds of decisions (when they should be).
If we’re honest, we can acknowledge that absolutes sound better. They convey confidence in an idea. Plus, communicating in absolutes is simpler. Instead of having to qualify each statement with the relevant background context, people can jump right to the heart of a message. This makes language more efficient, which should be the goal of any communicator.
The caveat, though, is that this only works up to a certain point. This system will work when two people are talking and are already versed in the relevant background details. As a result, those don’t need to be reiterated. Imagine two scientists in the same field discussing the latest research. Most of the background information about the science itself will be understood by both parties, eliminating the need to carefully explain everything. There’s less explaining to do because the concepts are already understood.
On the other hand, if you look at a platform where someone is popular, this is much more difficult. After all, it’s easier to know if the person in front of you understands the background context you don’t have to refer to anymore than a massive following one may have with the public (where people cease to be people and become numbers). At this scale, it’s basically impossible to be certain that everyone understands the background context you carry with you, so you are faced with two choices: either you simplify everything in order to be more accessible (creating absolutes) or you can keep everything just as complex, but make an effort to show people the reasoning behind an idea.
Too often, I fear, we see the former. In an effort to communicate a message, we strip it down until it becomes so bare that the wonderful science has been lost.
Science is complicated. This is because, as I said earlier, the universe is complex. Conversely, so much of our media is driven by simplified messages. Dramatic headlines dominate the world, and the message within is often simplified. As a result, the message tends to work in absolutes.
We love knowing things. It’s more fun to see “Scientists detect aliens!” than “Scientists have found a strange disturbance at a nearby star”. Dramatic headlines feed right into our tendency to want to know more.
However, we must be smart, and realize that our universe is much more complex, layered, and nuanced than many people give it credit for. As such, we need to be mindful of how our words affect the perceptions of those around us. When we communicate in absolutes, we are saying that we now for certain what is happening. We need to start being more humble and acknowledge that this is not usually the case.
A good rule of thumb is this: if someone says something with any notion of absolutes, there’s a fair chance that they are incorrect. Therefore, we need to call them out on it (without being mean about it). Engage them in a dialogue about the subject, and bring them evidence that proves otherwise to their claims.
The worst thing we can do is try to ignore them, thinking that everyone else is smart enough to know better as well. For a lot of science, this is just not true. There are so many different concepts and ideas in science that it’s impossible to understand it all. The time where a scientist new all of the world’s knowledge in every scientific subject has long passed. Now, it’s great to be just an expert in a specific niche of a field.
Therefore, we have a responsibility to encourage accurate information to spread. By using absolutes, we tend to oversimplify, even when it’s not needed. Opposing those who did this is one small step towards creating a society that is more scientifically literate and has a default reaction of asking questions.
Absolutes are rarely real. Most of the time, they are only simplifications (and can be dead wrong). As such, spot them and take responsibility to spread accurate information. It’s the best way to combat absolutes.