Another dot in the blogosphere?


Posted on: September 26, 2020

The latest podcast episode of the Pessimists Archive was partly about one of my pet peeves. I hate the liberal and uncritical use of “unprecedented”.

The title of the episode was 224 Years of Election Hacking. It detailed how some think that the foreign interference and social media influence in the 2016 and 2020 US elections is unprecedented.

As usual, the host of the show, Jason Feifer, did his homework and showed how such election interference was not new in occurence, method, or scale. It was and is not unprecedented.

Calling a phenomenon unprecedented without first making sure that is factually true is a failure to learn from history. Why do this then? If you do not bother to look, you can claim to say it did not happen.

The problem with not looking is that you start with the wrong assumptions or oversimplifications. Feifer put it succinctly at the 10min 14sec mark of the episode:

Simplify a problem and you are unable solve it because you can’t see its fullness.

Some problems, like the current coronavirus pandemic, are complex and defy reduction and simplification. People that do these want easy answers to difficult problems.

One easy answer is to say that this has never happened before (it is unprecedented!) so they can offer any solution that suits them and/or we should forgive them for making costly mistakes.

For me, one sign of lazy thinking is the use of unprecedented. Such thinking is reductionist and formulaic. It does not embrace complexity and nuance. This mindset is what needs to be nurtured in schooling and education. We need learners and workers who not only know content but also context.

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