In But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman puts forth a fairly straightforward question and then follows it out to a number of logical and illogical conclusions. Illogical conclusions are not a criticism – they’re part of the point.
Klosterman’s essential question (as you may have guessed from the title) is whether or not we’re wrong. Not on an individual level, like being wrong about specific decisions, but more globally like whether we’re wrong about things like how gravity works, or how we understand reality. (He specifically stays away from climate change. Then doesn’t.)
A book positioned to investigate questions like “what if we’re just living in a giant computer simulation?” could very easily slip into undisciplined pseudo-inquiry more akin to late nights of questionable sobriety in bars, dorm rooms, or on the roofs of buildings. Klosterman (mostly) saves himself from this by keeping close to the book’s subtitle “Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past” and it is this perspective that makes the text potentially useful in a school setting.
Fictional Future History
At the most obvious level, some select chapters could be a really good hook into why we study history and how historians actually purport to know anything to begin with. I could see using these early in a history class to position the study of history beyond “to avoid repeating past mistakes.” The chapters on rock music (4) and freedom (9) are good for this in that they use very specific historical examples to think about how future historians might think about our time. Those two chapters hew most closely to the premise from the subtitle.
My preference, however, would be to use the chapter on television, titled “Don’t Tell Me What Happens, I’m Recording It.” In this chapter Klosterman examines how future generations might use television to understand our present. In doing so Klosterman makes a strong argument for how historians use cultural artifacts by imagining if ancient Egyptians had TV saying: “From a sociological vantage point, the most compelling footage would be the national news, closely followed by the local news, closely followed by the commercials… What we’d actually want from ancient Egyptian television is a way to look directly into the past…” (pgs. 162-163) I think this could make for strong classroom discussion fodder on the purpose of history. Unfortunately the chapter somewhat undermines his overall theme. If anything, the book is somewhat disjointed and could be considered a series of essays. (Klosterman insists that the book isn’t a series of essays in the first couple pages, but does so in a way that doesn’t instill confidence. Again, this is sort of the point of the thing.)
From a certain perspective I agree with Kolsterman and his argument is supported by the value current historians place on items like newspapers, political cartoons and the like. Klosterman’s central premise, however, is about wondering if our current assumptions hold true, so it’s also possible that TV will be treated more like art where were retroactively ascribe importance to works based on their lasting impact. (Klosterman examines this at length in an earlier chapter, referencing Melville coming to a substantially different conclusion about books than he does about TV.) There’s plenty of meat for discussion here as to the purpose of history and how different types of history might place different value on the same artifact.
So How Do I Even Know Anything?
In later chapters Klosterman strays a bit from his subtitle and the book takes on a different feel of using the idea that we might be wrong in order to inform our current life choices. Specifically, Klosterman spends a few pages exploring current societal preferences for certainty, simple answers, and quick resolution, writing:
But I think there’s a greater detriment with our escalating progression toward the opposite extremity – the increasingly common ideology that assures people they’re right about what the believe.
I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversations and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be. (pg. 239)
This quote (and the few pages around it) are classroom gold when it comes to discussing epistemology. This most obviously fits into a course like IB Theory of Knowledge (which is an epistemology class) and it also fits well into government, or really any class where students are expected to discuss perennial issues like balancing individual and collective rights. I would love to unpack this section with students to see how they interpret Klosterman’s claims that people’s high level of confidence in their beliefs is actually detrimental while attempting to balance healthy skepticism with self confidence. We have to believe something, don’t we?
So Should I Read It?
The book’s arguments are often shallow and there is more than enough internal contradiction to keep a stickler busy for a while. The book also unendingly self-referential and while that works most of the time, it’s a bit overused. But What If We’re Wrong is imperfect, but it’s worth your time. (The whole thing is a quick 260 pages.)
Klosterman is posing questions that are inherently unanswerable at our present moment and “there are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder.” (pg. 253) At it’s heart the book is an homage to complexity insisting at every turn that things might not turn out the way we expect and that our assumptions might be wrong. This is a critical message that isn’t being presented very often.
If we want to be open-minded we have to continually maintain the possibility that we are wrong. We have to be willing to change our minds in response to new evidence. It’s healthy to stay reminded that important some things are unknowable. While Klosterman wrote the book before the presidential election, it feels like perhaps the perfect premise for the Trump era of high certainty and declarative tweets.