Why All the Hysteria

Have you sampled talk radio hysteria lately?

Hysteria is a state of mind characterized by morbid excitement—usually fear out of all proportion to the evidence. You see it on TV news, where one year global cooling will put Chicago under ice, and the next year global warming will put Florida underwater. You see it at work, where a merger rumor sends everyone out job hunting. You see it on the freeway, where an imagined slight sets off a spree of road rage. What can epistemology say about the spread of hysteria?

What do you do when you feel helpless? If you think that you can do nothing about your fears, does that lessen them, or magnify them? Many say that it magnifies them out of all proportion to the evidence. A feeling of mental helplessness could be expected to engender a tendency toward hysteria. But surely, mental helplessness is not recommended by anyone.

In fact, it seems to be recommended by everyone.

"To have fewer arguments," says the therapist, "you should not insist on defining everything exactly, pinning everything down, settling everything in your mind."

"I'm proud to say," says the celebrity, "that the only thing I'm sure about is the impossibility of being sure."

"The most frightening thing about these rebels," says the newsman, "is how certain they are that they are right."

"To be truly creative," says the teacher, "you must be truly confused most of the time."

"Men cooperate," says the sociologist, "because it helps compensate for the inherent ambiguity of language, and so of thought."

Nobody recommends improving your thought process, but just distrusting it. The same experts who complain about the hysteria work to spread the helplessness.

Fortunately, your own participation is optional. If you would rather solve problems than declare them hopeless, nobody will get in your way, since they don't know how. If you would rather overcome difficulties than be overwhelmed by them, you can learn good mental methods on your own.

The method of solving a problem is not lamentation, but analysis. As you make observations and collect data, you compare this problem to others, you compare aspects of this problem to your overall knowledge, and you compare details of this problem to the context around the problem. That is, you look for cause and effect. If the car won't start, you think of other times a car wouldn't start, you think of what cars need in order to start, and you check around the car for the smell of gas and the sight of oil.

When you form the mental habit of analyzing problems, then while those around you are making hysterical incantations about the problem, you will be finding the cause, and devising a cure. Whether the problem is personal, societal, or mechanical, the method is the same: when else did it not work, what does it take for it to work, and what more can shed light on it?

Some think that gaining power over you will solve their problems, so they want you to give them that power. It is yours to give, or to develop for yourself.

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