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Reblogged:A Two-Edged 'Hair Dryer'

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Via Hacker News, I ran into an excerpt from a much longer post of psychiatrist-blogger Scott Alexander's Slate Star Codex.

I'll present an excerpt of the excerpt here before moving on to my own thoughts:

Image by Element5 Digital, via Unsplash, license.
[An] obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she'd drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn't really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It's a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job -- I think a lawyer -- and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn't able to go out with friends, she wasn't even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She'd seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she'd done all sorts of therapy, she'd taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her "Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?"

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she'd start worrying she'd left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she'd look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.
Alexander goes on to elaborate that about half of his colleagues were scandalized by this solution, but that he loved it.

I love it, too, and I found his longer post worth reading. That said, I would wager that at least some among the scandalized half of his coworkers were right to have misgivings.

And I say this as someone who has taken his own hair dryer to work, so to speak: There are some very elegant solutions to problems out there -- and there are some tempting ideas that look like that kind of solution. I would hazard to guess that many or most such solutions crop up in areas -- like psychiatry! -- that are at the frontier of human knowledge.

Alexander's post treats epistemological themes along with thorny issues about how to help people with psychological conditions like depression or being transgendered. I'm not sure I agree with everything he says there, but it is worth considering. But if he doesn't hold or agree with the following sentiment, I would add it: Take your hair dryer to work, but don't be blind to possible unforeseen consequences -- or to solutions you do understand and might want to implement instead -- that may crop up down the road.

We all have to attempt to solve problems we don't understand completely from time to time, which means we are having to navigate without a complete map. It can be tempting, as saturated as our culture is with Pragmatism, to see something (apparently) working and simply run with it. Or -- particularly with some difficult problems -- it can be tempting to evade signs that the solution isn't right.

That is the big danger a "hair dryer solution" can pose: You think you're clever. The problem is licked. But then, for example, you move to a house with a gas stove that you can't seem to remember turning off after you fried your bacon in the morning. Good luck setting that thing in your front passenger seat.

Perhaps taking the hair dryer to work will buy you time to try new meds or do work that nips the real problem in the bud. Or maybe you're lucky and the hack really is all it will take to shake a less-serious-than-it-seems problem. In either case, take it with you, being honest with yourself about the fact that you should be on the look-out for a real solution and may face the consequences of basically driving without a map. (This is hardly to say that one can't make mistakes in forming or applying principles on which to act.)

I like the outside-of-the-box symbolism of Alexander's hair dryer. But I will also take it as a reminder not to confuse a clever hack with principled action.

-- CAV

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