A Cautionary Tale

The Umbrella Man by Errol Morris (2011)

Archaeologists are called on to reconstruct whole worlds from fragments of pottery. Scholars of ancient texts rely on nothing more than frayed pieces of old parchment.

Five years, five hours, a few steps away from an event in time, there’s far less data available than at that moment. Evidence remains helpful and powerful, but it’s inevitably impoverished relative to lived experience, which, thanks to the curiosities of our brains, never quite conforms to what we think occurred.

Making sense of what happened, dealing with this decay, makes for mundane work in many ways. Yet it’s also a fascinating project. One piece of information, and especially the right piece of information, can tell you an enormous amount.

Rarely, however, do we encounter just one piece of information. And in taking a look at something new that we learn, everything points us in the direction of fitting it into our prior experiences and slotting it into a worldview. Human beings are wired that way, set to construct narratives out of a mass of data, so as to not have all our cognitive brainpower set onto the taxing task of explaining. And while we may seek out stories for reasons behind the conservation of energy, there should be no illusions that more reasons are necessary. We are made to make sense of things, if for no other reason than our survival. Living in a world of uncertainty would make us more honest and also ensure we could never move forward.

Errol Morris has a six minute short that is about none of and all of these things, called “The Umbrella Man.” It aired in late 2011, and it’s about the JFK assassination, and about what a piece of information can tell us and how it can lead us astray.

It’s also a welcome riff on a familiar line of thinking. Socrates, of course, was the wisest of the Greeks because he knew what he didn’t know. The height of wisdom, it’s often repeated, is to understand the vast expanses where one remains ignorant.

“The Umbrella Man” complements this cry for humility by reminding us to be modest in the face of what we do know. Human beings, one and all, possess an amazing set of sensory and deductive tools. Even those of without fedoras and pipes are detectives by nature. A person can notice what’s new and what’s different in any number of settings, and spin the slightest piece of information so as to make leaps or inferences yielding amazing insights. We encounter the novel and do a damn fine job of making use of it.

Our unerring ability to explain, however, has consequences. For while we’re in great shape in the face of what’s unknown, and while we can take a few stray bits of information and do incredible things with it, we grow less and less perceptive as we take in more and more. New information begins to reveal less about the world, and more about the story we’ve already set down.

Knowing makes us increasingly confident that we recognize what we’ve seen. We’re usually wrong.

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