Some Thoughts On “Explaining Stuff”

obama clintonPresident Obama was so delighted with Bill Clinton’s speech at the September Democratic convention that he remarked to the press, “After [Clinton] spoke, somebody sent out a tweet that said “you should appoint him ‘secretary of explaining stuff.’ I like that!”

The President’s reaction to the tweet was not surprising. On two earlier occasions, he had acknowledged his own shortcomings in “explaining stuff.”

In July he told Charlie Rose of CBS, “And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism.” In an August interview with Time, he expanded on that remark: “Well, what I meant by that is that we were in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, so we had to just do stuff fast . . . and we didn’t have the luxury of six months to explain exactly what we were doing with the Recovery Act . . . .” (It really would have taken six months to explain what he was doing?)

These statements enjoy kinship with Nancy Pelosi’s well-known remark about Obamacare: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

The President seems to believe that having “to just do stuff fast” justifies not explaining what one is doing.  To Ms. Pelosi, in controversial matters, explaining is an obstacle to achievement, and a better approach is to act and just see what happens.

In times past, people thought more highly of explaining than do the President and Ms. Pelosi. The common belief was that explaining was the best way of proving we know what we are talking about.

There’s an old story about a man who wanted to know the meaning of life and traveled the world in search of an answer. After an arduous journey, he arrived at last at a remote mountaintop where, it was said, a wise hermit possessed the elusive answer. The man approached the hermit and asked, with great anticipation, “What is the meaning of life?”

The hermit looked up and with great solemnity replied, “A wet bird never flies at night.”

Dismayed, the man blurted out, “That’s the meaning of life? ‘A wet bird never flies at night’”?

The hermit paused for a long moment and answered: “Well, maybe it’s ‘a wet bird does fly at night.’”

Although the traveler was no closer to the answer he sought, he had learned at least one thing—the hermit didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

That silly little story underlines an important truth—we can believe we understand something quite well and yet be mistaken. For example, if we asked a friend the difference between fact and opinion, we’d probably get a response like this—a fact is a proposition or statement that is beyond dispute, whereas an opinion is a judgment that is open to dispute. (These are pretty standard dictionary definitions.)

If we then asked the person for an example of a fact, we’d no doubt get a response like “The earth revolves around the sun” or “Dirty hands can spread infections.” Those statements are indeed facts, but they were once considered fallacies. For centuries it was “beyond dispute” that the sun revolves around the earth, and whoever doubted it was considered an imbecile, a heretic, or both. And in 1847, when Ignaz Semmelweis suggested that physicians should wash their hands when they left the autopsy room to do their hospital rounds, he was denounced as a quack. Even after he proved the point, it was still rejected. (Only after his death, when Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur confirmed his findings, was his idea accepted.)

Such information raises more questions about fact and opinion than our friend may have realized: Do facts change? In other words, would it be correct to say in the case of the sun and earth that one fact was replaced by a very different fact? Or was the old “fact” never really a fact at all? Can opinions become facts? That seems to have been the case with Semmelweis’ idea about dirty hands. It was an opinion when he offered it—a rejected one, at that—and now it is a fact. Then again, if it is a fact now, was it not a fact (albeit an unrecognized one) even before Semmelweis’ time?

This example demonstrates that we can’t be sure we really understand something until we probe deeper than our initial impressions or assumptions, address the hard questions, and are prepared to explain our findings. The quality of our explanations is the measure of our understanding. As Albert Einstein once remarked, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

With these thoughts in mind, what can we say of President Obama’s and Ms. Pelosi’s persistent avoidance of explaining? At very least, that they didn’t really understand their own initiatives; at worst, that they knew they didn’t understand and wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having their ignorance exposed.

Let’s ponder that for a moment. The bills in question—the Recovery Act and the Health Care Act—were the signature initiatives of the Obama administration, and among most expensive initiatives in history. President Obama and Speaker Pelosi went to great lengths to have them passed and, in the process, demonized anyone who questioned them. And yet, in all probability, they didn’t really understand what they were championing!

It’s hard to imagine a more outrageous example of irresponsibility in government. Add to that the likelihood that others, in both political parties, are similarly derelict, and we can begin to appreciate the cause and rapidity of America’s fall from financial stability and global leadership.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved