"Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline."
For decades, the standard anecdote about ridiculous consumer-safety warnings has been the story of the woman who sued after she spilled hot McDonald's coffee in her lap. While the story has often been ridiculed in the abstract, we've probably been unfair to the plaintiff: The coffee was, indeed, being served at dangerously high temperatures. Today, however, we have a whole new standard for consumer recklessness which ought forever to displace "McDonald's hot coffee": Garbage bags of gasoline.
■ Due to the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline from Texas to the East Coast, wildly unsafe behavior has been documented as people seek to stockpile gasoline for themselves. A particularly egregious photo showing gasoline in clear plastic bags stuffed into the trunk of a car isn't from the current incident -- it's actually from a theft in Mexico in 2019.
■ But the point has been taken with sufficient seriousness that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a tweet warning, "Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline." Regrettably, that's probably a necessary announcement, since bad ideas can go viral.
■ The "bags of gasoline" photo may be getting lampooned as it goes around, but there's no stopping it from putting panic into the minds of some people and inadvertently suggesting they try the same thing. It's not unlike the problem of videos that show people taking shelter from a tornado beneath a bridge: That's actually one of the most dangerous places to be, but the visual message overwhelms the real lesson. Loud, consistent, frequent messaging to the contrary becomes necessary to counteract the bad images that go viral on their own.
■ There's no disputing that our world is becoming more complex every day. Nobody had to worry about cyberattacks in the 1950s. Many of the things that add up to making life far more advanced, more convenient, and generally safer today than in the past also add up to making it much more complicated to navigate, at least in the finer details. When the "Check Engine" light illuminates, the first thing your mechanic is likely to do is break out the diagnostic scanner, rather than opening the hood.
■ In exchange for that complexity, we get cars that are much safer, more comfortable, and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. Anyone in their right minds would take a 2021 Kia Rio (MSRP: $16,050) over a 1972 Ford Pinto (MSRP: $2,078 in 1972 prices, or $13,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars today).
■ The problem we face, though, is that increasing complexity scares some people. It opens the door to lots of faulty and counterproductive responses. And it paves the way for people to make disingenuous claims and other bad-faith arguments under the guise that heavy-handed intervention alone can stop "big tech" or whichever boogeyman is in fashion at any given moment.
■ The tools we most need in a complex world -- especially from those who make big decisions -- are curiosity, competence, and humility. We need them from our lawmakers and other leaders, most especially. But we need them at the grass roots, too. Curiosity in particular gets stifled when people become addicted to the instant-gratification model. Paradoxically, marketers have become sophisticated at utilizing the "curiosity gap" to trick people into clicking on links that end up deadening real curiosity about the world.
■ And that's what we should be interested in fixing: The gap between the gawking type of curiosity we satisfy by clicking through to the latest outrage and the deeper and more virtuous sense of curiosity about how things really work in a complex world. We can say we want to see more common sense in the world, but the thing most of us really want is for people to slow down long enough to think about their problems, have the humility to ask questions, put their curiosity to good use, and ultimately achieve some kind of competence in the end.
■ It may seem ridiculous that a government agency has to say, "Use only containers approved for fuel", but if we don't routinely treat thoughtful curiosity as a virtue (and train its habits into our children), then people will continue to engage in the stupid, the circus-like, and the ridiculous -- sometimes to the peril of us all.