Chris Stewart, a long-standing e-friend in South Africa who loves language as much as I, brought to my attention today a phrase created by Keunwoo Lee in October of 2001. At the time, Mr. Lee was a graduate student in the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. According to Mr. Lee (personal communication), “The term was inspired by a sequence from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon wherein one character is observed to have had a ‘fractally weird’ life.” The phrase I find interesting is fractal wrongness and Lee defines it thus:
“The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person’s worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person’s worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.”
“Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person’s opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one. It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.”
“If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person, . . . your best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any replies, thus saving yourself time.”
This phrase impresses me because I have known several people who wandered into my life suffering from the malady it labels. I have broken off friendships with the comment, “I’m tired of your pretending to argue with me.” My thought was that some people argue; others merely pretend to. The latter live in the safety of fixed convictions and see argument as a defense of those convictions rather than as a test of them, a test which is a requirement for a healthy Self.
I’m thinking now that such people are not pretending to argue but are fractally wrong about everything and are comfortable in their wrongness so long as their corporate and political leaders agree with them on most if not all points.
You can tell a fractally wrong person that the world is round and they might respond that it is a square, flat plate resting on the back of a turtle. You think that you can convince them that you are right, so you ask, “So how is it that people can start out in Philadelphia, travel in a straight line, and end up in Philadelphia?” “They are confused and don’t remember turning around,” could be the reply.
You might persist with, “So why does the Earth cast a round shadow on the moon during an eclipse?” They might respond, “Everyone knows that light traveling through space rounds off corners.” You don’t have time to waste disproving that.
Finally, you know how to pin him or her down: “OK, if the Earth is resting on the back of a turtle, what is the turtle standing on?” And, as the fabled student of William James once responded to the identical question from Professor James, you might hear, “Oh, no, you can’t catch me there: it’s turtles all the way down!”