I like to think of myself as a person attached to understanding reality, to truth, to piecing together facts to form a coherent narrative.
That’s kind of what I do for a living, and in the middle of an election year in which at least one straight-up terrible candidate seems to be doing quite well campaigning on non-reality, it seems almost dangerous to give any ground to the fact-deniers of the world.
But over the course of the last few months, I’ve discovered a perverse glee lurking in my heart, a happiness at odds with my claim to give a shit about finding some kind of stable foundation of veracity somewhere in the chaos of the world: Nothing makes me happier than finding out that something we thought was a fact is totally, fundamentally, vertigo-inducingly wrong.
The most recent gem of unknowingness came to light just last week, when the news broke that Facebook had been overestimating how many people watch videos on the site by 60 to 80 percent.
Seems boring if you don’t spend your life in the middle of the internet, but billions of dollars of ad money and publishing budgets have sloshed around in different directions based on those supposedly accurate Facebook measurements. It’s like finding out that your bank statement had been accidentally counting in Laotian kips for the past three years, and every painstaking financial decision you’d made was 100 percent a bad idea.
For some reason, when I read that, I felt a deep, serene joy.
Not because the work of untold thousands was based on a fantasy, or because it’s fun to see a corporate behemoth whose robots can’t even aggregate news faceplant hard. It’s more like the feeling that makes dystopias so appealing, or makes you think that being a prepper isn’t such a bad idea — the sense that maybe, just maybe, everything is based on a set of false assumptions that will someday just fall away.
And based on the number of “lol nevermind” findings that have come out recently, it seems like a golden age for the genre.
There was the recent news that all those studies saying that scientists can tell if you’re really in love by scanning your brain, or drug addiction living in your willpower cortex, or whatever clickbaity brain science thing that makes the rounds every single week, were based on bad software in the brain scanners. Odds are, a lot of that just wasn’t true! When I heard this on NPR on the drive into work one morning, it actually made me bark-laugh, hit the steering wheel and do a little dance in the driver’s seat.
More than half of psychology studies can’t be reproduced? Awesome. The idea that fat’s bad and sugar’s fine is based on the sugar industry bribing doctors in the ’60s to say so? Excellent. Flossing does nothing? So fucking good.
I even wrote one of these things myself last year, about how no one can really figure out how many real people see any one thing on the internet because the basic technology doesn’t work that way — as much as advertisers like to pretend they can figure out exactly who’s looking at what when, they fundamentally cannot do that. Isn’t that kind of great?
The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for why this makes me feel like someone just threw me a surprise karaoke party (and I like surprise karaoke parties) is that it works like a release valve for the internal pressure of wanting to be right. If the things we assume to be true are changing every couple of months, then I might as well save myself the time of trying to understand how the world works and just hang out, relax, and do the crossword until the next shattering revelation comes down the pipeline.
And it’s worth noting: this joy only works in small doses — if I want to stay sane, I have to assume that most of the rest of the world I think I understand is humming along in good faith. Mistaking that initial glee for an invitation to start looking for secret truths leads down the slippery slope to chemtrails, flat Earth, lost mega-forests, reptilians, and every other warped nugget of secular gnosticism that’s spawned an hour-long explainer video on YouTube. And being a truther doesn’t seem super relaxing.
The pleasure comes from being able to, just for a minute, take solace in the idea that everything I’ve ever done, and everything I’ll ever do, will someday be found to be wrong. Fun!
Based on my perfectly non-scientific sample size of one, this is a thing — but what should we call it?
Epistemological schadenfreude? Little wordy.
The brief freedom of fuzzy numbers? Sounds like a screamo band.
Nihilism microdosing? Little better?