The Possibilities Are Endless. Is That a Problem?
This week, one of you sent me an email that stood out. The reader, who asked to remain anonymous, ran a conspiracy theory by me — one that he said a family member had been obsessed with (and thankfully, a mostly harmless one). The reader wanted to tell me that he had stopped sharing my emails with this family member because I keep sharing stories that are “strange but true,” and he feared that by sharing all of these things that are possible despite our intuition, he was fueling his loved one’s passion for conspiracies. I think it’s a fair concern, and I didn’t have a great answer for him other than “yeah, don’t forward Now I Know to him.”
I still don’t have a solution to his problem and I’m not writing today in search for one. But I’m very introspective and I asked myself, why haven’t I fallen into that same trap? I’m very, very skeptical of conspiracies, but I’m also a fan of and believer in a somewhat famous quote by Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” How do you reconcile the two?
I think I have that answer: Occam’s razor.
If you’re not familiar with Occam’s razor, it is typically (but, somewhat inaccurately) summarized as the idea that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” For example, I wrote at least five stories over the last few weeks that had a strange result, but all of them can be explained simply: someone figured out a way to make or save money (without a lot of work), and they did something unusual — but easy — to get there. The stories I shared on Wednesday of last week and Tuesday of this week demonstrate this: in both cases, a company created a sub-brand, mostly in secret, for the sole purpose of appealing to a specific audience, and … that’s basically it. It’s strange, it’s unexpected, but it’s not complicated.
Conspiracies are secret, too, but they’re complicated. A lot of different people need to do a lot of different things for them to work. Because of the secrecy component, those plans almost always fail. Yeah, there are a few examples of this happening. But by and large, just because Truth isn’t obliged to stick to possibilities, it still needs to account for probabilities, and conspiracies are unfathomably improbable.
The Now I Know Week in Review
Monday: Cold + Texting = A Run on Meat Sticks?: I think this is very funny.
Tuesday: This Restaurant Doesn’t Exist: Check out the first of today’s longreads for more on this. Also, the bonus fact references a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich; if you wanted to know how it made it that far without becoming moldy, here’s the explanation.
Wednesday: Why “It’s Time to Change Your Password” May Be a Bad Idea: Lots of changes = lots of data for hackers.
Thursday: When History Forgot About Neil Armstrong: From famous to not and back again.
And some other things you should check out:
Some long reads for the weekend:
1) “What are ghost kitchens – and why are they suddenly everywhere?” (Feast, 10 minutes, January 2021). This article is a deep dive into the “ghost kitchen” phenomenon I spoke about on Tuesday. Highly recommended if you’re interested in the business side of restaurants.
2) “The Brilliant Inventor Who Made Two of History’s Biggest Mistakes“(New York Times, 12 minutes, March 2023.” A key paragraph:
Midgley was laid to rest as a brilliant American maverick of the first order. Newspapers ran eulogies recounting the heroic inventions he brought into the world, breakthroughs that advanced two of the most important technological revolutions of the age: automobiles and refrigeration. “The world has lost a truly great citizen in Mr. Midgley’s death,” Orville Wright declared. “I have been proud to call him friend.” But the dark story line of Midgley’s demise — the inventor killed by his own invention! — would take an even darker turn in the decades that followed. While The Times praised him as “one of the nation’s outstanding chemists” in its obituary, today Midgley is best known for the terrible consequences of that chemistry, thanks to the stretch of his career from 1922 to 1928, during which he managed to invent leaded gasoline and also develop the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons that would create a hole in the ozone layer.
3) “The man who walked around the world: Tom Turcich on his seven-year search for the meaning of life” (The Guardian, 19 minutes, April 2023). This story is amazing — but, to my earlier point, simple. A year or so ago, he did a reddit AMA, if you want to read that, too.
Have a great weekend!