Author: Chuck Klosterman

Publisher: Blue Rider Press

ISBN: 978-0-399-18412-3

Chuck Klosterman had an interesting idea for a book: What of the things we believe are true today turn out to be wrong? His example is Aristotle's theory of gravity: A rock falls to the earth because it wants to return home. People—or at least those people who cared about such things and were familiar with Aristotle, an itsy bitsy fraction of humanity—accepted that theory for almost two thousand years. If such a crackbrained (to us) idea can last that long, what current accepted truths will seem equally foolish in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years? It was a good enough book idea that he sold an editor on it and Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has now published his book: But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.

Klosterman is a writer, not an academic. After college, he was a reporter on the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, worked for five years on Spin magazine, and for three years wrote "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine. He's published two novels and six books of non-fiction. He bases his new book on his research and interviews with authorities like Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, movie director Richard Linklater, Zed Adams, an assistant professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and more.  

And because he is someone who has to earn a living as a writer, the book is lively and engaging. Even when he writes himself into a corner. In his chapter meditating on the future of television he asks, "Am I arguing that future generations will watch Roseanne and recognize its genius? Am I arguing that they should watch it, for reasons our current generation can't fully appreciate? Am I arguing that future generations might watch it and (almost coincidentally) have a better understanding of our contemporary reality, even if they don't realize it?" [Italics in the original.]

His answer to these questions: "I don't know."

He continues: "I really don't. It's possible this debate doesn't even belong in this book, or that it should be its own book. It's a phenomenon with no willful intent and no discernible result. I'm not satisfied with what my conclusion says about the nature of realism. But I know this matters. I know there is something critical here we're underestimating, and it has to do with television's ability to make the present tense exist forever, in a way no other medium ever has. . . ." [Italics in the original.]

Klosterman grants that we cannot know the future if only because we cannot know of a reality-changing discovery before it's discovered and therefore we cannot know its effects. He laces his text with examples of forecasts that either misjudged the timing (the 1948 prediction that it would take science 200 years to solve the problems of landing and returning from the moon) or missed a key development entirely (no one in 1980 imagined that the cost of a sixty-minute phone call from Michigan to Texas would ever cost less than mailing a physical letter the same distance). Given the unknown unknowns, Klosterman does not make his own predictions other than to forecast that the future reality will be different from today's.

What he does do is write about books, popular music (i.e., "rock'"), the multiverse (i.e., an infinite number of universes exist), Phantom Time (i.e., all information we have about the distant past is unreal), television, sports (i.e., the NFL has passed its peak), politics, and more. I found it a fascinating trip, much of which I disagreed with or regarded as pointless. Yes, it is possible to speculate about other universes, but why bother? We can by definition know nothing about them. The speculation tells us more about the mental state of the speculator than about another universe. And personally I don't find that aimless inquiry interesting.

At the same time, I thought But What If We're Wrong on the whole stimulating. Klosterman reminds us that everything we know is provisional. Virtually any certainty we hold today may be overturned tomorrow. The pencil I knock from my desk may not, next time, fall to the floor but float. Unlikely, and I plan to live as if gravity remains in force, as if I will die, as if a body in motion tends to remain in motion, as if the sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar. And yet, and yet. What if I'm wrong?