The Joy Of Unjoined-Up Thinking
‘I’d love to see what happens in the threshing machine of your mind,’ Tony Hancock says to Bill Kerr in his 65 year-old radio show, still relevant. ‘The whole ideas go in there and come out here in tiny bits.’
‘Why should shampoo mend split ends?’ Victoria Wood asks Julie Walters. ‘It’s the herbs,’ comes the reply. ‘What do they do?’ asks Vic. ‘They mend the split ends,’ says Julie, as if talking to a simpleton.
Welcome to the world of unjoined-up thinking, where we never went to the moon and aliens make crop circles rather than two kids with a plank and a rope. Last night I asked my friend Maggie why she voted ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum. She explained; ‘We survived the war, it’s what Jesus wanted and I don’t like couscous.’ This, from a woman who unplugs ‘the router-thing’ at night because it wastes electricity.
It’s fascinating, getting people to explain how they arrive at their ideas, and of course this week the press has been full of choice examples, one being ‘When I voted Leave it didn’t occur to me that we would actually leave.’ At least it finally got people discussing EU power across the nation, even in the unpopulated bits no-one cares about, like Wales.
But how does one reach valid opinions? Londoners are pretty well-read on the major issues – they buy the bulk of the intelligent newspapers, but fresh evidence suggests the vote came down to newly entrenched class barriers that ended the ‘golden era’ of social mobility, effectively freezing out parts of the country from participation.
I try to read the New York Times, the Chicago-Sun Times, Al-Jazeera, El Pais, the Independent, new Statesman and the Guardian, topped up with websites. I stay away from the traditional knee-jerk agenda-rags although I sometimes glance at the Telegraph (at least, I did until the pay wall) because despite endless stories about royalty, pensions and wildlife it has some decent writers. The Mail specialises in unjoined-up thinking in extremis, what a friend of mine calls Housewife Folklore. But how much can you make someone believe before they draw the line?
Apparently the Flat Earth Society is alive and well and undaunted by centuries of proof otherwise. It’s part of something called Zombie Economics, theories that survive even though they’re dead, having been refuted by real scientific events.
An example is the notorious Efficient Markets hypothesis, which says that financial markets are the best possible guide to the value of economic assets and therefore to decisions about investment and production. Not only was this refuted by the global meltdown of 2007, it probably caused it in the first place.
Now, here’s how this pertains to writing. From ‘Interstellar’ to ‘The Walking Dead’, from space travel explained by poking a pencil through a folded piece of paper to TV commercials showing CGI globules inside your hair, we live in a world where no-one adequately explains why we should believe anything. But at least ‘Interstellar’ put out an unreadable book of quantum physics to justify its plot.
Sometimes it only takes a few feasible-sounding lines to set up a wild theory – think Michael Crichton’s still terrific novel ‘Jurassic Park’. Dan Brown may have started with false reasoning in ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but the Vatican still put out hilarious rebuttals. So you can convince readers and viewers if you provide some joined-up thinking, even if it’s wrong.
One of the best examples of feasible explanations I’ve come across is in Jack Finney’s ‘Time And Again’, which explains how time travel is possible. The general rule states you must get your characters right first, then worry about plausibility, because believable humans will get you through bad science, but not the reverse.
Of course you can join up your thinking and come to spectacularly wrong conclusions, as Michael McKean’s character in ‘Better Call Saul’ has done – the lawyer believes that electromagnetic impulses are ruining his health. And occasionally truly freed thinking leads to tremendous leaps in literature and the arts. There are books and films that make you thinking you’re going mad (I’ll share in the Comments section below if you will)
Alternative timeline novels also provide fascinating insights into our choices, two of my favourites being Robert Harris’s ‘Fatherland’ and Ian R MacLeod’s ‘The Summer Isles’, because you can see how one decision leads to the next. Vampires, werewolves and the whole panoply of judo-christian superstition remain problematic if you get down to the joined-up thinking level, but even there reading is ultimately about feeling. No amount of artificial intelligence will ever be able to explain why my friend Maggie cites couscous as a reason for leaving the EU.
‘The X-Files’ mantra was ‘I Want To Believe’, but wanting it doesn’t make it true. I’ve had friends dying from cancer who’ve explored all kinds of mad homeopathic remedies (all expensive) in their last days. Wanting a government to listen was different to wanting out of the EU. But it’s hard not to sense now that the one thing everyone wants is a united Britain.