From the man who brought you The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein–his latest comic blockbuster:
Reality keeps changing. Before passing on the latest hard evidence for that proposition, however, let me tell you how I first tumbled to this interesting fact.
Authorities progressively less authoritative. Remember when you were a kid? Back when you believed your parents knew everything, and could always be relied on to give you the straight goods? That was back in a time when you assumed politicians were competent, occasionally even statesmanlike. Successful politicians were experts, after all—knowledgeable, experienced and working for the greater good of all. Just as doctors and bankers and scientists were highly trained professionals you could count on to deal in nothing but the facts and expert, effective services.
If these pillars of our societies were going to saw your leg off, or send you to fight a war in malarial jungles on the other side of the world, or sell you investment instruments that defied explanation, you could rest assured they knew what they were doing. Hey, it was in your own best interest to let them take care of business, right? The same went for most adult occupations. People with legitimate jobs generally knew whether to wear a lab coat or a suit and tie, so you’d recognize them as the appropriate sort of expert right off. In the same way, they knew how to hold their eyebrows and mouth just so, thereby inspiring no end of trust in your average citizen.
I first caught my parents out in glaring errors of information and advice fairly early in life. I was shocked, the first few times this happened. Then I hit my teens, and realized it was actually me who knew everything beyond any doubt, so parental error became nothing more than what I expected.
It took longer, though, to recognize just how many feet of clay were tramping around messing up our world. It came to seem, at times, as though most politicians, for example—where they weren’t clearly meretricious, licentious or larcenous—could be ranked on scales that ranged only between mediocre and incompetent.
Long after I’d advanced to an age where I had to question my own omniscience, reality continued to take serious hits. Jacqueline Susanne’s “literary” success was a staggering body blow, followed by Ronald Reagan’s election as President after 12 years of pretty much fulltime effort portraying himself as a credible candidate.
I found myself looking wildly all around, searching for kindred panic in the faces of my fellow human beings—or, better, barely suppressed hilarity, suggesting they were finally about to let me in on this giant practical joke. But it was no joke. You could get accepted as anything you wanted to be, as long as you had the time and money and dedication (megalomania?) to say you were this thing over and over again, till everyone said, “Okay. If you want to be a rich and famous writer, go ahead. US President? No problem.” (Strange to say, we did not cut the same slack for people claiming they were Jesus Christ or Napoleon.)
Was it reality that was changing, or was it only my perception of reality? (“What’s the difference?” asks the Al the Alien Solipsist huddled in the corner over his Grande Latte and MacBook Air.) Was it possible to redefine our reality simply by repeating a claim over and over again till some deus ex machina said, “For Christ’s sake. Okay, have it your way”? Or was all this shedding of new light on things simply me growing up?
Subsequent events suggest it’s been more than that. Years later, George “Dubbya” Bush also made the grade and then, forget about his first-term record, he did it again. Other recent developments are over the top even by Mel Brooks’ standards, and here I am in no way referring to Sarah Pailin or Glenn Beck.
In Thailand, meanwhile, we had the richest man in the country portrayed as a prime-ministerial friend of the poor and downtrodden, winning the biggest “democratic” mandate in the history of the country. (The first time he was elected, he barely survived a high court hearing that decided, by the slightest majority, that he hadn’t really meant to hide his assets when he handed over large portions of his estate to one of his maids and a driver. Well, yeah, eh? You have to expect this kind of generosity from deadset Friends of the Poor and Downtrodden.)
Now other Friends of the People, some of them instrumental in having our other Friend ousted, are waxing ever-more jingoistic, tinpot dictators-in-waiting, instructing the current government about what to do, even prepared, it seems, to go to war with a neighboring country, if that’s what it takes to maintain an enthusiastic following. Never mind they have no official status in government, they say there’s to be no negotiation. Just do what they say, now. (Some people are so unkind as to suggest these people mean to secure their own eventual role in administering a version of democracy that is such only in name. Indeed, these particular friends of the downtrodden suggest the poor are too poorly educated to choose their own representatives, and the Constitution must be changed so that Parliament becomes largely appointed.)
New cosmic scriptwriter revealed. Lots of other things were happening as well, the sum of which caused shivers to run up and down my spine. This had to be more than merely me growing up and becoming cynical. Then I had a revelation, the likes of which probably hadn’t been experienced since Einstein conceived his theory of relativity and the peculiar nature, within it, of space-time. Whoa! And now, for the first time in print, I will share this earth-shattering insight.
God is not dead. Furthermore, several years ago he hired Mel Brooks as His new Scriptwriter-in-Chief, with special responsibility for the USA and Thailand plus other gigs around the world as needed. Swirl that around your mental palate, eh? It makes perfect sense. Like e=mc2, it explains much. Nearly everything, in fact.
Reality fades? But now we’re seeing more hard evidence for reality’s essential malleability, talking at least about reality as we know it. Jonah Lehrer marshals this evidence in a much-discussed essay for the current New Yorker (“The Truth Wears Off”).
At the least, it seems, reality can appear to be fading. Lehrer brings together recent experience from a number of prominent scientific researchers to ask how much, even in the scientific community, we routinely deal in “collective delusions” perpetuated by selective reporting (Stephen Jay Gould’s “shoehorning”). Basically, even highly trained experimenters tend to be blinded by their presuppositions and expectations of what they’re going to see. And scientists can allow their fondness for a good theory to effectively blind them to annoying facts that don’t quite fit.
Droller and droller, or clearer and clearer? According to the theory of the Mel Brooks Effect, as I’ve outlined it, much of the change in our realities reflects conformity to whimsical change directed by a cosmic contractor. Lehrer, on the other hand, concludes that “the decline effect [the fading of reality] is actually a decline of illusion.” Reality, according to the arguments he has synthesized so ably, remains constant. It’s merely our perceptions and understanding of the universe that change.
I suppose this is reassuring. Nevertheless, Lehrer quotes Michael Jennions, a biologist at the Australian National University as saying, “This is a very sensitive issue for scientists… You know, we’re supposed to be dealing with hard facts, the stuff that’s supposed to stand the test of time. But when you see these trends you become a little more skeptical of things.”
All that may be true, but I’m more and more inclined to believe that our world itself, independently of our knowing of it, is becoming dangerously unpredictable—even blackly comic (did we not have to live in it).
Yeah, well. Plus ça change, eh? Like, Attila the Hun and his boys appearing on the horizon wasn’t unpredictable, at least among optimists, or dangerous?
Or the Internet didn’t eat our concentration spans, for example our capacity to undertake any creative project more extended than this blog post? (Though I’ll admit it’s pretty extended, as blog posts go, and I suppose I should apologize to anyone who’s actually read this far.)