Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

Kurt Vonnegut

Most of you, if not all of you, like me, feel inad­e­quate­ly edu­cat­ed. That is an ordi­nary feel­ing for a mem­ber of our species. One of the most bril­liant human beings of all times, George Bernard Shaw said on his 75th birth­day or so that at last he knew enough to become a mediocre office boy. He died in 1950, by the way, when I was 28. He is the one who said, Youth is wast­ed on the young.” I turned 83 a cou­ple weeks ago, and I must say I agree. 

Shaw, if he were alive today, would envy us the sol­id infor­ma­tion that we have or can get about the nature of the uni­verse, about time and space and mat­ter, about our own bod­ies and brains, about the resources and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of our plan­et, about how all sorts of human beings actu­al­ly talk and feel and live.

This is the infor­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion. We have tak­en it very bad­ly so far. Infor­ma­tion seems to be get­ting in the way all the time. Human beings have had to guess about almost every­thing for the past mil­lion years or so. Our most enthralling and some­times ter­ri­fy­ing guessers are the lead­ing char­ac­ters in our his­to­ry books. I will name two of them: Aris­to­tle and Hitler. One good guess­er and one bad one.

The mass­es of human­i­ty, hav­ing no sol­id infor­ma­tion to tell them oth­er­wise, have had lit­tle choice but to believe this guess­er or that one. Rus­sians who didn’t think much of the guess­es of Ivan the Ter­ri­ble, for exam­ple, were like­ly to have their hats nailed to their heads.

We must acknowl­edge, though, that per­sua­sive guessers – even Ivan the Ter­ri­ble, now a hero in Rus­sia – have giv­en us courage to endure extra­or­di­nary ordeals that we had no way of under­stand­ing. Crop fail­ures, wars, plagues, erup­tions of vol­ca­noes, babies being born dead – the guessers gave us the illu­sion that bad luck and good luck were under­stand­able and could some­how be dealt with intel­li­gent­ly and effectively.

With­out that illu­sion, we would all have sur­ren­dered long ago. But in fact, the guessers knew no more than the com­mon peo­ple and some­times less. The impor­tant thing was that they gave us the illu­sion that we’re in con­trol of our destinies.

Per­sua­sive guess­ing has been at the core of lead­er­ship for so long – for all of human expe­ri­ence so far – that it is whol­ly unsur­pris­ing that most of the lead­ers of this plan­et, in spite of all the infor­ma­tion that is sud­den­ly ours, want the guess­ing to go on, because now it is their turn to guess and be lis­tened to. 

Some of the loud­est, most proud­ly igno­rant guess­ing in the world is going on in Wash­ing­ton today. Our lead­ers are sick of all the sol­id infor­ma­tion that has been dumped on human­i­ty by research and schol­ar­ship and inves­tiga­tive reporting.

They think that the whole coun­try is sick of it, and they want stan­dards, and it isn’t the gold stan­dard. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.

Loaded pis­tols are good for peo­ple unless they’re in pris­ons or lunatic asylums.

That’s cor­rect.

Mil­lions spent on pub­lic health are inflationary.

That’s cor­rect.

Bil­lions spent on weapons will bring infla­tion down.

That’s cor­rect.

Indus­tri­al wastes, and espe­cial­ly those that are radioac­tive, hard­ly ever hurt any­body, so every­body should shut up about them.

That’s cor­rect.

Indus­tries should be allowed to do what­ev­er they want to do: Bribe, wreck the envi­ron­ment just a lit­tle, fix prices, screw dumb cus­tomers, put a stop to com­pe­ti­tion and raid the Trea­sury in case they go broke.

That’s cor­rect.

That’s free enterprise.

And that’s correct.

The poor have done some­thing very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their chil­dren should pay the consequences.

That’s cor­rect.

The Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca can­not be expect­ed to look after its people.

That’s cor­rect.

The free mar­ket will do that.

That’s cor­rect.

The free mar­ket is an auto­mat­ic sys­tem of justice.

That’s cor­rect.

And so on.

If you actu­al­ly are an edu­cat­ed, think­ing per­son, you will not be wel­come in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. I know a cou­ple of bright sev­enth graders who would not be wel­comed in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Do you remem­ber those doc­tors a few years back who got togeth­er and announced that it was a sim­ple, clear med­ical fact that we could not sur­vive even a mod­er­ate attack by hydro­gen bombs? They were not wel­come in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Even if we fired the first sal­vo of hydro­gen weapons and the ene­my nev­er fired back, the poi­sons released would prob­a­bly kill the whole plan­et by and by.

What is the response in Wash­ing­ton? They guess oth­er­wise. What good is an edu­ca­tion? The bois­ter­ous guessers are still in charge – the haters of infor­ma­tion. And the guessers are almost all high­ly edu­cat­ed peo­ple. Think of that. They have had to throw away their edu­ca­tions, even Har­vard or Yale edu­ca­tions, to become guessers. If they didn’t do that, there is no way their unin­hib­it­ed guess­ing could go on and on and on.

Please, don’t you do that. But let me warn you, if you make use of the vast fund of knowl­edge now avail­able to edu­cat­ed per­sons, you are going to be lone­some as hell. The guessers out­num­ber you – and now I have to guess – about ten to one.

This essay was adapt­ed from Senior Edi­tor Kurt Vonnegut’s new best­seller, A Man With­out a Coun­try, which can be ordered at www​.sev​en​sto​ries​.com or call­ing 18005967437.

Kurt Von­negut, the leg­endary author, WWII vet­er­an, human­ist, artist and smok­er, was an In These Times senior edi­tor until his death in April 2007. His clas­sic works include Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons and Cat’s Cra­dle, among many oth­ers. The last book by him pub­lished before his death, A Man With­out a Coun­try (2005), col­lects many of the arti­cles he wrote for this magazine.
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