Epistemic humility and existential dread

November 25, 2016

Health

I’ve been under the weather for months. Fatigue, light headedness, limb tingling, coughing, phlegm…all in different mixes. I date it to February which makes it about 10 months.

Some of this is “standard” for me. I’m immuno-strange both due to my arthritis and my arthritis meds (or so we believe). But this period has been noticeably worse. The past few weeks have been particularly annoying as the “cough/flu” symptoms have been particularly continuous (i.e., runny nose and productive cough and just so tired).

Back in February, we thought it was just some bacterial infections. My sweetie had a respiratory one (confirmed by culture) and we both had some antibiotics (two rounds for me!). There seemed close correlations between the medication and (some) improvement of the symptoms, which is some sort of indicator.

But then I didn’t get any better. And I didn’t get better. And still no. And so on.

We went through a battery of tests. We ruled out diabetes (which I was scared of having for a few weeks while waiting for the results). We also ruled out thyroid problems and B vitamin deficiency. We did a lung xray (it was clear). We did a testicle ultrasound (it was clear).

After a battery of tests we concluded that I was perfectly healthy except for all the crap I was experiencing. These could be partly stress related so I’m on a beta blocker. That’s helpful, but the symptoms have persisted through two months of beta blockers. One might have thought that the regulation of stress the beta blockers bring would have mitigated the symptoms to some degree, but no. The past few weeks testify otherwise.

At the end of all this I’m left in the following state: I don’t know what’s going on; I feel like crap; but I’m probably not going to die or have a severe hospitalisation or anything like that. I do have to figure out how to function, but it’s not the first time I’ve had some long term, debilitating, mysterious condition I had to cope with.

Epistemically, I’m at a loss. No one has any ideas or interest in pursuing further investigations (including me, at this point). Existentially, I’m pretty calm. I don’t feel any acute dread, but my ennui levels are high.

Politics

Trump won the presidential election. Unlike Brexit, I’m hard pressed to think that there will be any way out of it. The Brexit vote was  disaster, but it wasn’t the event itself. The referendum is advisory and didn’t present a specific deal. We have some further legal groundwork which supports the need for more consideration. There are people who are determined to make it happen come hell or high water and the loser opposition continues to be loser (the Labour leadership should be ashamed of itself). But it’s not wholly unreasonable to hope for the longshot.

The Trump adminstration and, thus, unified Republican government is coming. There’s no reasonable hope here. The electoral college is not going to install Clinton. There will not be an overturning recount. There’s not a shadow of a chance. Trump is the next president and the next Congress is Republican and the vacant Supreme Court seat will be filled by them (shameful though that may be procedurally).

I don’t know the precise mix of bad things coming, just that there are lots of bad things coming. Unlike in George W. Bush’s first term, there isn’t a big foreign policy idee fixe a la Iraq. But we have Ryan and the Assault on Medicare (as well as the ACA) to look forward to. Governance (i.e., the basic execution of governmental functions) is likely to be very bad, i.e., Michael Brown FEMA bad is going to look pretty good. We have a dangerous tendency toward personal profit and favoritism that goes well beyond mere incompetence.

Scary stuff.

We learned some stuff in this election, perhaps. Campaigns don’t seem to matter very much. Fundamentals based models did ok (but that’s sort of boring; the Republican won and most predicted a Republican win). Disentangling the causal picture is going to be tricky and take a while (to the degree that we can do so at all), but I think it’s fair to say that, absent some internal campaign data that dramatically shows otherwise, advertising and ground game are not big movers. Clinton’s campaign was far ahead on both of these and it didn’t do the job.

The result wasn’t “impossible” given the polling…just unlikely. The fact that Clinton has a huge popular vote win is rather surprising (FiveThirtyEight consistently gave very low probabilities (≈1%-5%) to this outcome).

It goes back to what I was saying all along: If you are the nominee of one of the two major parties, you can win. Polarization  and voting identity makes this fairly inevitable. The big issue is whether the elite interventions (esp. by the FBI and media follow up on email non-scandals) against Clinton were decisive or just noise.

With both the Brexit vote and the US election, there was reason to believe that the better outcome was coming. I’m trying not to feel too broken about that.

The outcomes are bad enough, but the knowledge failures (even if not strictly failures, due to hedging) are adding a level of additional pain. I strive to be epistemically humble. I’m well aware of the vast panoply of cognitive biases. Furthermore, I’m acutely aware of my own (specific) limitations.

And yet.

Core to my identity is being a knower, however humble, fragmentary, and fallible. “Know” has many shades of meaning and many of them are under assault in the world we are making (even if against our will). I don’t want to know the bad stuff if only because my individual capacity to resist is so limited. People with with positions and platforms a thousand times larger than mind have nearly zero ability to even mitigate these bad things.

Being a witness to disaster is terrible. Not as terrible as being the target of that disaster, but terrible enough.

Connecting

In both cases, we have complex phenomena that resist successful manipulation. There’s a sense that if we just knew the right levers to pull, we could fix things. For health issues, that almost surely is the case. With enough knowledge about the whole of my body, we should be able to alter how it works to fit a desired profile. That level of knowledge and control is far beyond us now, but it seems a bit more possible.

With the political world, it’s less obvious to me. Perhaps we’ll have a wave election in 2018 that sweeps in a Democratic congress, but this is very hard to ensure…maybe impossible. It might still happen, but it’s hard to see what we can do to further it. (Well, other than the bad things happening…but even bad things don’t seem to motivate people in the right way, i.e., against the real causes.)

It is bewildering.

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