Neat, plausible, and wrong: Mencken’s Observation and how people embrace ideologies divorced from reality

Reality is complex. The human mind, as a coping mechanism, tries to find order in the chaos, to systematize.

Up to a point, this is a highly adaptive reflex, with the human venture which we call science being perhaps its most successful expression.

But as with most if not all good things, every good thing can be taken to excess.[*] H. L. Mencken famously quipped, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong.” [“The Divine Afflatus,” New York Evening Mail, Nov. 16 , 1917] This is often paraphrased to

Every human problem has a solution that is neat, plausible, and wrong.

ALternatively: … that is simple, elegant, and wrong.

The idea is of course not original: it is just a pithy formulation of what Francis Bacon, the father of what we now call the philosophy of science, called the first idol of the mind, the “Idol of the Tribe”

“Idols of the Tribe are rooted in human nature itself and in the very tribe or race of men. For people falsely claim that human sense is the measure of things, whereas in fact all perceptions of sense and mind are built to the scale of man and not the universe.”

Novum Organum (London, 1620), Aphorism 41.

Bacon includes in this “idol” the predilection of the human imagination to assume a greater degree of order to reality than there really is. (A contemporary example would have been the supposition that planets move in perfect circles, which had just then been challenged by Johannes Kepler’s three laws of motion.)

Bacon’s remedy was a science rooted firmly in experiment, in empirical observation, in what we call the inductive approach rather than the deductive one. (Pure mathematics is the ultimate deductive science, and one without which the more empirical sciences would not have the most powerful tool to do their jobs. But the mindset of the pure mathematician, of trying to reduce everything to logical conclusions from a few axioms, becomes less and less adaptive as sciences move further and further from neat physical models into messy chemical and then biological reality. (How much more so when we go still further up the complexity scale, to human society.)

Alas, the pull of “simple, elegant, and wrong” explanations for reality exerts a powerful pull on humans. It might be tempting to ascribe “wokeness”, third wave misandry “feminism”, and the like to naked Nietzschean ‘will to power’. You might even be largely right about that — and Mencken, a lifelong admirer of Nietzsche, would surely smile from the great beyond — but this cannot by itself account for the great appeal these misbegotten theories have to many people who ought to know better. The hunger for a “neat and plausible” explanation goes a long way towards that.

I call it the “gnostic reflex”. There is a priceless scene in David Weber and Steve White’s “In Death Ground”, where Terran Sky Marshal Hannah Avram tries to explain this particular Terran mentality to an Orion space admiral:

“Well, Lord Talphon, some humans tend to believe that the further removed a political philosophy is from reality, the more morally pure it must be. […] [Terran] civilization’s dominant religion […] was heavily influenced in its formative years by a philosophy called Gnosticism, which held that the world as reported by the senses was inherently corrupt and deceptive. Given that assumption, the only reliable source of knowledge was correct doctrine, and the attitude lingers on in secularized form. Demonstrated unworkability in the real world merely proves a belief system’s ‘higher truth’ in the eyes of its true believers.”

(Ch. 11: online text here.)

I was prompted to these reflections by two videos I saw yesterday and today. The first is about the hunger for “quick fixes” in pop psychology: simple, elegant, and for the most part useless (if not worse than useless).

The second, in part satirical, is by Gad Saad:

And speaking of Gad Saad, here is an oldie but goodie: a 1hr-discussion between him and self-described ex-feminist Janice Fiamengo, about the internal contradictions and divorcedness from reality of simple, elegant, and wrong third-wave fauxminism.

And no, those on “our” side of the political spectrum should not get complacent. This “neo-gnosticism” is today particularly prevalent on the Left, but I am sadly seeing examples on the conservative and libertarian sides as well. As just one example, the defense of Big Social Media in the name of “the government has no right to regulate private companies” — when the said companies collude (including with the government) to implement a level of social censorship that would have been every historical dictator’s wet dream.

[*] “Everything is poison and nothing is without poison: it is only the dose that makes something be [not] a poison,” as Paracelsus famously formulated the fundamental law of pharmacology. This is often compressed into “Only the dose makes the poison” (Latin: sola dosis facit venenum.)


5 thoughts on “Neat, plausible, and wrong: Mencken’s Observation and how people embrace ideologies divorced from reality

  1. Old salt close to retirement to a young one just starting out: “You are getting paid to make decisions. If you find it easy, you are doing it wrong.”

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