Do We Really Want to Wonder?

Photo: Boston Public Librarry

Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big book about a lot of things—politics, baseball, family dysfunction, the Iraq War, and the end of the world, among others. But at its heart are questions about contemporary educated Westerners’ relationship to science: why do we expect so much of it? And what happens when we turn to science to explain the parts of our lives that give it meaning? Set in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Index asks how human beings understand ourselves through Big Data: the statistical analysis of giant collections of information that promises to reveal unexpected patterns in human behavior. Beha depicts Big Data in conflict with older humanistic and interpretive methods for understanding the world, grounded in the great books of the Western tradition and in skills learned in literature, history, and philosophy. And one of Beha’s most interesting discoveries is how much the appeal of Big Data lies in resentment. 

Index begins with Sam Waxworth, a young data journalist—modeled on founder Nate Silver—who wins fame during the 2008 election when his statistical algorithm correctly predicts the outcomes in all 50 states. Waxworth moves to New York City to write a column that will apply data analysis to the news. In New York he meets Frank Doyle, a prominent seventy-year-old pundit and champion of old, humanistic ways of interpreting the world. Doyle was once the dean of the New York punditocracy but fell out of favor for supporting the Iraq War and lost his job for making a racially insensitive comment about Barack Obama. Waxworth sets out to write a magazine profile that will “bury” Doyle, but he and Doyle unexpectedly become friends. He meets Doyle’s family, and eventually he engages in a fraught affair with Doyle’s daughter Margo, a talented but struggling poet. Together, Frank and Margo’s humanistic learning generates a strange combination of attraction and antipathy in the young data scientist.

Sam and Frank spar over baseball: both men love the game, but Sam interprets it through data science and Frank through intuitive appreciation. Sam is a proponent of “sabermetrics,” the statistical analysis of baseball portrayed in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which revolutionized the game in the 2000s. He loves statistical analysis because it promises to strip away the surface features that seem significant (hits, runs, the roar of the crowd) to identify the parts of the game that really matter. For example, baseball’s mythmakers believe in “clutch” players who perform especially well when the stakes are high and the game is on the line. But “if you look at the actual numbers,” Sam tells Margo, “No player performs better than any other” in those situations. “Clutch” is a byproduct of our desire to find meaningful patterns.

Frank, by contrast, approaches baseball as a literary critic. He offers thick descriptions of games and tries to understand them by fitting them into narrative forms. For Frank, the crowd’s reaction or the beauty of a right fielder’s catch is as important as the score. He believes that a record of a game is not a tool for predicting the outcome of future games, but “a prompt for my memory … it calls to mind the fact that Reyes charged in and took the ball on a short hop before throwing to first off his back foot.” Frank records games to remember them more vividly afterwards. Then he interprets what he takes to be their broader significance. For instance, in what the novel tells us is “one of his most famous columns,” Frank argues that “growing up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan had been ‘training for liberalism’: It is the liberal’s nature not to be disappointed by human failures but to remain hopeful. Not for us the tragic view of life. ‘We’ll get ‘em next year’ is the liberal’s natural rallying cry.”

Baseball is a metaphor for a debate about meaning. For Sam, information has meaning to the degree that it predicts future outcomes. If it has no measurable effect, it may as well not exist. Like other Enlightenment projects, Big Data imagines the past as a source of “mystifications” that it promises to see through. “We are in a golden era of quantification,” he tells Margo, which will sweep away illusions and enable us to make good predictions about human action. “Everything that really exists could be counted. That’s what it means for something to exist. Either it’s there or it’s not.” Sam takes this line about everything, not just baseball or politics. He is an atheist because God does not admit of measurable predications; he dismisses love, longing, and the soul as myths that can be replaced by science. Love, for instance, is just an adaptation that offers “advantages for procreation and child-rearing” for “social animals” who “survive by banding together.”

But Sam’s argument against humanistic learning is a war on himself. When he was eleven years old, long before he met Frank Doyle, Sam acquired his love of baseball by reading Frank’s books on the subject—books written with the same insight and learnedness as Frank’s political writings. The books “made constant reference to names Sam didn’t know, not just old ballplayers like Ducky Medwick or Hank Bauer but Carlyle, Tocqueville, Rousseau.” Doyle’s blend of baseball, philosophy, and storytelling intoxicated him because it promised a larger world than he knew in lower-middle-class Wisconsin. He had never heard of Carlyle and Rousseau, but their mystery only made them more appealing: “all the things he found difficult about [Doyle’s writing] only made him love it more.” Doyle’s books might have begun an intellectual awakening for Sam, but he had no teacher. His mediocre public school neither understood nor encouraged intellectual adventures, and his fundamentalist single mother saw them as temptations. When he turned toward Big Data he rejected his own longing for Frank’s humanism.

Margo sees Sam’s ambition and interprets it through another of the novel’s crucial conceptual references, the 19th century novel. She calls Sam “the young man from the provinces,” a phrase that the literary critic Lionel Trilling invented to identify a type of protagonist: Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations, Rastignac in Balzac’s Old Goriot, Moreau in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. These characters begin their lives smart, ambitious, poor, and naive. They come from areas seen as backwards—the “provinces” of their name. They have been excluded from the cultural sophistication and economic opportunity of the city. Trilling argues that the young man from the provinces is miseducated: he “must have acquired a certain amount of education, should have learned something about life from books, although not the truth.” Usually, he climbs the social ladder but discovers that the elites are corrupt and that his own ignorance is deeper than he realized.

Sam is a young man from the provinces (YMFTP) in that he wants the money, power, and status that the Doyles represent. He turns to Big Data in order to force his way into the elite. But Beha’s YMFTP is distinct, and brilliant, because his blind spot is precisely this: he does not know what a young man from the provinces is. He has never been taught to read the books that would give him the ideas and story forms through which to interpret his own life. Humanistic interpretation requires a tradition, a body of references, and a trait that classical writers called prudence: the learned ability to see how an event or choice fits into larger patterns. When a prudent person gets angry, he can compare his situation to previous expressions of anger—not only his own, but examples from literature and history. Comparison enables him to ask, is my anger justified? Or am I becoming angry to protect myself from admitting that I am wrong? Or for one of many other reasons? The intellectual and literary tradition stocks one’s mind with stories, alternatives, and nuances. But developing prudence takes time, and it is nearly impossible without good teachers.

Sam’s exclusion contrasts with Margo’s formation in the great books. In one of the novel’s most moving scenes, Margo tells Sam about a time when she was eight years old and her father walked her through Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” showing her how to interpret it. Throughout the rest of her childhood, she and her father memorized and discussed poetry together. But Sam has never known his father and never developed the habits that underlie Margo and Frank’s literary approach to the world. Without a father, or any real teacher, Sam’s exclusion is farther reaching than money, power, or status. The part of him that read excitedly about Tocqueville and Rousseau is still alive and wants to join the world revealed in the great books. This desire draws him to Margo, but he fears that he is already too far behind to join the cultured world. He suspects, and resents, that he has been excluded from the life of the mind.

Feeling that he cannot participate in humanistic learning, Sam turns to Big Data to show that it is a sham. He rejects those parts of life that he cannot quantify because he feels that he has missed out on them. For instance, the first time he meets Margo, he argues that marriage is “a practical decision to pair ourselves off in mutually beneficial ways,” and that love as the poets describe it—being “transported out of yourself”—is a mental illness. But when Margo jokingly asks him whether he proposed to his wife in such practical terms, he is “unnerved”—because he worries that other people have experienced real love and he has not. When he calls love a “mental illness,” he protects himself from feeling that he has missed his chance at it. His response to the humanistic tradition is like his response to love because the humanistic tradition deals especially with those parts of life that he wants to make irrelevant. If the tradition is a patchwork of self-deluding myths, if good judgment is related to data science as witchcraft is to physics, then Sam has not been deprived of anything after all. If Big Data fulfills its promises, it will show that those who excluded Sam and deprived him of an education were only fooling themselves, that they excluded him from something that had no value to begin with.

But Big Data also appeals to Sam, and us, for a third reason: it offers control. By understanding human behavior, we can overcome our bad habits and live happier lives. Sam believes that he can conquer the New York political scene through hard work and intelligence because he believes in Big Data’s promise to explain human beings. Data analysis will produce reliable rules for life, and if he follows them he will succeed. In this way, he echoes the promises of a new generation of self-help books (James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Cal Newport’s Deep Work, Angela Duckworth’s Grit, and many more), wellness apps, and other tools that make up a powerful but underrated part of the spiritual lives of educated people in the 21st century. Such tools lay out new findings from social and behavioral science, then offer advice that readers can follow to improve their lives. These resources have become extraordinarily popular; Atomic Habits sold 5 million copies in three years, and Noom, a data-driven dieting app, is used by an estimated 45 million people worldwide.

Like data-driven wellness culture, humanistic learning advocates self-mastery: Socrates cites the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” while encouraging his listeners to develop virtue. But one difference is crucial. In the humanistic vision, self-control is only ever partial because greater knowledge always leads to greater mystery. The world—and humans in particular—are both mysterious and free; whenever we progress in understanding them, we find that there is more to learn. When eleven-year-old Sam read Doyle’s baseball books, he felt the thrill of discovering a world full of complicated, multifarious, and unpredictable human beings. Similarly, Margo Doyle argues that we find meaning in those things that we can least control or understand, such as love. She echoes Socrates’ argument from the Symposium, that the madness of love—with all its “losing control, obsession, sleeplessness, being transported out of yourself”—is the first step towards wisdom. But their discovery is double edged. It is a joy to observe such human beings, but it is not always fun to be one.

By his own standards, Sam was right to call love a “mental illness.” Big Data offers to help us navigate life by giving us reliable rules grounded in human nature. In contrast, humanistic learning offers us a way to reckon with mysterious parts of ourselves that we cannot ultimately control. Index reflects the limits of humanistic learning: the Doyles have sophisticated educations but their acts are as self-destructive as Sam’s. And the novel reflects the mysterious depths of human action through the strange, unpredictable causality that runs through it. Characters almost seem to have their choices made in and through them by forces outside of their control. Sam and Margo seem propelled into their affair; Sam’s wife Lucy falls under the sway of a New Age mystic whose powers might be real; Frank is unable to control his alcoholism; other characters are driven to actions that feel at once spontaneous and free but opaque to the characters making those choices. Wonder might give our lives meaning, but it is not tame.

Beha shows us our culture’s interest in scientific explanation as an attempt to evade mystery. Mystery frightens us. Big Data offers to explain it away, thereby giving us reliable tools with which to control our lives. It is no great discovery to point out that such tools sometimes fail. Beha has done something more significant: he has asked why we want them to succeed. The appeal of humanistic learning was only partly its claim to help us navigate the world; it offered at least as much to enable Frank Doyle’s beloved “interpretation,” which describes our lives thickly and robustly to show that the world is bigger and more wondrous than we thought. But we don’t always want a bigger world, and the great appeal of Big Data, Beha suggests, is that it makes the world small.

William Gonch is the Managing Director of Scala Foundation and a Visiting Scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary. A writer and scholar of literature, he earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland, College Park, and his M.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University. Twitter: @goinggoinggonch


Leave a Reply