The fly in the window

A few days ago, for the first time this summer, there was a fly inside our apartment. I opened the smaller window to let some fresh air in, and the fly came in immediately. However, it was not happy to be inside; just as soon as it was, it flew to the larger, closed window, and started trying to furiously buzz through it. This went on for several minutes, with the small window open next to it all the while, until I forced the fly out. Naturally, it resisted.

How often when we are trying to solve a problem, or unintentionally causing one, are we like a fly trying to go through a window? My informed guess is that often, or even most of the time. The fly may be trying hard, but it can’t succeed because it’s got the wrong idea of what it’s doing. At best, its random flailing might lead it to accidentally move from where it is and fly through an open window instead of the closest one, but that would be sheer luck, and it might take indefinitely long. We are in the same position when we try to reach our goals but follow false and unhelpful ideas of how to get there.

The metaphor can be used on different levels. First is when you try to reach your goal too directly. The fly presumably “thinks” (whatever the fly equivalent is) that if you can see a place with no obstructions, you can get there in a straight line. Thus, it’s being logical enough when it tries to fly outside in a straight line with nothing in the way that it can see. But it can’t comprehend, even with experience, that this time, the idea isn’t working, and you’d have to do something more complicated like move to the side to find an actually open window.

In more complicated issues, humans are also prone to trying to head to the goal in a metaphorical straight line and refusing to take detours even when they would be necessary. Thus, we get the Prohibition and the War on Drugs, both trying to stop the use of different drugs by prohibition and force — even though it never worked. The opposite is the notion, correct or not, that the disadvantages of drug use could be cut down by legalising drugs instead. This straight-line attitude can also involve a hostility to any deviations from the line, like thinking that providing free clean drug needles to people who would use drugs anyway to prevent the spread of diseases mustn’t be allowed because it’s “condoning” drug use.

Another way to use the fly metaphor is this: if you have the wrong model of what you must do, trying over and over again is useless — yet it’s what people often do. You can put any amount of effort into trying to follow the wrong model, but it won’t do what it’s supposed to. It might even make things worse.

I just read about how the ancient Chinese emperors invested huge sums in astrology, run by experts with impressively incomprehensible mathematical apparatuses, in an effort to improve things in their kingdom. Obviously, this didn’t work and could never work. Then the article went on to say that economics with its empirically unsuccessful but mathematically specialised theories has gained a similar status nowadays. I’ve heard similar allegations before, numerous times, though I can’t evaluate them myself. But let’s just consider the ancient Chinese as an example: they were investing hugely in trying to reach the desired outcome, but doing it in a way that was based on an entirely faulty model that was never going to work. You can practically hear the buzzing against the window.

Or take Al-Qaida. I read somewhere that their idea has been that if they kill enough people, God will usher in the end of the world, which they apparently want. Assuming that’s correct, it’s an example of three things: One, what we already saw, you can’t make something work if you’ve got entirely the wrong idea of how it works. Two, these wrong ideas can have very damaging effects; Al-Qaida would not be doing anything like this if they were at all rational on this level. And three: One’s end goals may also be irrational, even though they may seem like a good idea to one. So they need to be examined as well.

Of course, working by the wrong model happens all the time in politics where everyone blames everyone else of doing it, so it’s hard to tell who’s right. The critics might be just as wrong or worse as the targets of their criticism. It’s typically tied to some kind of ideology; the unquestionability of ideologies allows one to keep banging one’s head on the window for any amount of time without noticing all the feedback. If anything, the lesson is to be adaptable instead of stubborn. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that politicians will be regarded badly if they (gasp) change their minds with new evidence. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what should be done.

It may seem obvious that you can fly out through what looks like open space. The surprising thing is how long people just as well as flies can keep banging their heads against the window without realising they’re doing something wrong.

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