When cornstalks are more than just cornstalks
Why you should look at a field of corn and think "solar panels", and how thinking that way helps beat back conspiracy theories
In life, care must be taken not to let what is obvious obscure what is fundamentally true. A photograph of a combine in a field is, obviously, a picture of a harvest underway. But what is fundamentally true is that a field full of corn or soybeans is actually a giant solar-energy collector. In terms of appearance, it has nothing in common with a photovoltaic panel. One is organic in nature, while the other is assembled in a factory. One changes color from green to yellow and then brown, while the other is almost always black. One must be harvested, while the other needs to be wired.
■ But, at its most fundamental level, a field full of corn or soybeans (or sorghum or basically any other row crop) exists to opportunistically capture sunlight in one place and convert it into another form of energy for use in another place and time. That's exactly what manufactured solar panels do. And understanding that they exist for the same fundamental purpose helps to shed light on why the two uses can easily come into conflict -- as is already happening in Iowa.
■ Being able to see beyond the obvious is a skill we often don't value enough. It's obvious that there are major differences in physical form between a high-voltage line, a green wagon, a coal car on a train, and a natural-gas pipeline. But in fundamental truth, they're really all in essence the same thing: Tools for getting energy from one place to another, which is not only a vital job, it's also a very complicated one. Likewise, a grain bin isn't just a grain bin: It's a giant battery where energy is stored.
■ Life is full of these situations where what is true and what is obvious may have little in common with one another. They occur so frequently that we really ought to give more thought to training ourselves (and our children) in the skills required to see things more deeply. It's not that we shouldn't believe what we see with our own eyes, but we have to insist on making sure that we aren't missing truths that aren't apparent at first glance.
■ That often requires hard work (or at least some unusual concentration), and it isn't always immediately satisfying. It can even lead people to think that you're just a little bit out of your mind. A corn field obviously isn't an organic solar panel -- until you realize that it is. And that's why we shouldn't be satisfied with arguments that end in someone saying that something "is obvious". Yes, common sense ought to be more common. But common sense isn't very sensible if it's used as an excuse to gloss over deeper meanings.
■ The work of thinking isn't really done until you go there: Insisting on seeing the truth underlying the obvious. It makes an enormous difference in getting to the right decisions in life, especially in the complicated and big questions.
■ We have to believe that there really is virtue in seeing beyond the obvious and expect that both our opponents and our allies alike respect the need to see beyond the obvious to find the actual truth. That takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of goodwill. But there really is no alternative.
■ It's sad that in a world so rich with underlying complexity and systems to be discovered, so many people are attracted to conspiracy theories -- about QAnon and chemtrails, vaccines and shadowy cabals. The human inclination that evolved to let us see patterns gives us tremendous survival potential and allows us to experience wonders like seeing pictures in the clouds.
■ But seeing things that are not really there is far less useful than seeing what truths really are. Not shadowy faux-truths, but the whole truths that are neither obvious nor the products of feverish imaginations. The ability to see them requires training and practice, along with a healthy dose of self-discipline. Perhaps if we engaged that ability more often, we'd find less allure in the shadows and more contentment from seeing the surprises right before our eyes.