On Solving the World’s Problems In Decreasing Order of Badness

Alex lives in an average, everyday medieval fantasy town, Hypothetica, which is at present being threatened by an enormous evil dragon. The dragon burns buildings and kills people and sometimes makes offhand, hurtful comments that people can’t stop thinking about for days afterward. If it isn’t stopped, it will destroy the town, kill everyone in it, and hurt a lot of people’s feelings.

Fortunately, several dragonslayers live in Hypothetica. Unfortunately, the week before, when the town was being threatened by an equally powerful and dangerous enemy in the form of an evil sorcerer who performed dark magic (and made disparaging remarks about several people’s shoes), a spell was cast on the dragonslayers that put them into a deep, year-long sleep. Thankfully, Hypothetica is also home to several sorcerers who, together, should be able to undo the spell and wake the dragonslayers.

Alex goes to the sorcerers’ tower and tells the sorcerers to begin the counter spell that will awaken the dragonslayers. As Alex is leaving, however, another Hypothetican citizen, Sam, walks up to the sorcerers and starts yelling at them for focusing on breaking the sleep spell instead of killing the dragon.

“Who cares if a few people are asleep or not when there is a dragon to be dealt with?!”, Sam shrieks.

Exasperated, Alex tries to talk some sense into Sam.

“Spells have barely any effect on dragons,”, Alex explains, “and the dragonslayers have the tools and experience we need to kill it.”

“The dragon is the biggest problem we have right now!”, yells Sam. “Sleeping people come second to killing dragons!”

“But if we wake them up, they will be able to help us kill the dragon!”

“We can’t put any energy into waking people up until we have dealt with the dragon, though. Don’t you care about the dragon? Don’t you think killing the dragon is MAYBE A LITTLE MORE IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW THAN A FEW PEOPLE OVERSLEEPING?!”


Alright, I am going to go out on a limb here and presume that we all agree that Sam is the irrational one in this story. The thing is, Sam-like people take a lot of different forms, some more obvious than others. There seems to be an obsession among certain groups of people with telling other people what they should and should not care about. Why focus on sexism in the geek and scientific communities when in other places there are problems like female genital mutilation? Why focus on people being mean to other people on the Internet when “people are starving in Africa”?

I can’t find the post, but I believe it was Greta Christina who I read saying that by this line of thinking, one could conclude that the only problem any of us should be focusing on at any time is global warming, given that a strong case can be made that it is the biggest problem facing our species right now.

There are a lot of reasonable counter arguments to be made in the face of the “We must solve all things in decreasing order of badness* and therefore we should not focus on that problem while this problem still exists.” line of thinking, but there is one in particular I want to focus on right now. That problem is this: problems do not exist in a vacuum. They intersect. They affect each other. Just look at Sam and Alex’s argument: Sam is absolutely 100% right that the dragon is the worst problem facing the town, but is still dead wrong about what to do about it, because the problem of the sleeping dragonslayers has a direct impact on solving the problem of the dragon.

Problems in real life tend to work like this. Why solve sexism in science when we have global climate change to worry about? Well, part of the answer is because brilliant science-minded women are being prevented from working on the climate change problem because of the depth and breadth of the scientific community’s misogyny problems. Why spend time worrying about Stephen Colbert’s satirical racism when there are “real” racism problems like stand your ground laws and the school to prison pipeline? Because casual, offhand racist jokes like that contribute to the perpetuation a culture of acceptance of racist opinions and beliefs that is the driving force behind those “real racism” problems. Why focus on improving education when we have giant corporations decimating the economy, polluting the atmosphere, and destroying net neutrality? Because better education will create a population better equipped to challenge harmful corporations in effective ways that are more likely to bring about real, lasting change.

It sounds childishly obvious when put like this, but: most of society’s problems have to do with each other. Most of them are connected. At the very least, on a basic level, any time you solve a problem affecting one group of people, you free up those people to help solve the rest of the problems we have. At times so much so that you actually solve the “bigger” problems faster than you would have otherwise. See the dragon fable for a hypothetical example of this, and how about Alan Turing for a real one? How many people do you think thought homophobia was a more important problem to address than Hitler was in the middle of the 20th century? How many more lives would have been lost if Turing had died before his contributions to cracking the enigma, and how many brilliant ideas have we lost as a result of him dying when he did?

How many scientific geniuses are we missing out on because of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, able-ism, etc. in the scientific community? How many problems might we have solved years or decades ago if we had addressed those issues sooner? How many people may have suffered and died because someone said “We have bigger issues to deal with than X-ism.”?

Let’s try a new rule: if a group of people thinks something is a problem for them, let’s maybe believe them and let them deal with it and try to help out instead of denigrating their concerns. We should be doing this anyway, because, you know, compassion and stuff. So many people seem to be comfortable with not being compassionate, though, that I figured I would take some time to write this post illustrating why caring about problems you, personally, might see as “small” can be the most rational approach to solving the problems you think are “big”.




*Phrasing borrowed from Cliff at Pervocracy in another post I have failed to locate.

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