The Parable of the Thermostat
“So, an argument is sound when it is valid and actually has all true premises. Any of that stuff about deduction need any clarification or are there any questions or stuff?”
“Professor, it is too warm in the room. Can you turn up the AC?”
“I cannot. But, this will probably be the most important lesson you get in this class: see the thermostat there?”
“It isn’t a thermostat. It is just an empty plastic shell screwed to the wall.”
“Way. Here, I’ll show you….see, just an empty shell.”
“But why? Why would they do that to us?”
“It is so people feel they have some control. What we have here is what some folks like to call a ‘teaching moment.’ So, wipe that sweat from your eyes because we are about to have a moment.”
I was a very curious kid, in that I asked (too) many questions and went so far as taking apart almost anything that 1) could be taken apart and 2) was unguarded. This curiosity led me to graduate school and then to the classroom where the above described thermostat incident occurred. It also provided me with the knowledge that the thermostats in most college buildings are just empty shells intended to provide people with the illusion of control. Apparently, fiddling with the thermostat does have a placebo effect on some folks—by changing the setting they “feel” that they become warmer or cooler, as the case might be. I was not fooled by the placebo effect—which led to the first time I took a fake thermostat apart. After learning that little secret, I got into the habit of checking the thermostats in college buildings and found, not surprisingly, that they were almost always fakes.
When I first revealed the secret to the class, most students were surprised. Students today seem much more familiar with this—when a room is too hot or too cold, they know that the thermostat does nothing, so they usually just go to the dean’s office to complain. However, back in those ancient days, it did make for a real teaching moment.
Right away, the fake thermostat teaches a valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: an exterior might hide an unexpected interior, so it is wise to look beyond the surface. This applies not only to devices like thermostats, but also to ideas and people. This lesson is especially appropriate for philosophy, which is usually involved at getting beneath the realm of appearance to the truth of the matter. Plato, with his discussion of the lovers of sights and sounds, made a similar sort of point long ago.
A somewhat deeper lesson is not directly about the thermostat, but about people. Specifically about the sort of people who would think to have fake thermostats installed. On the one hand, these people might be regarded as benign or at least not malign. Faced with the challenge of maintaining a general temperature for everyone, yet also aware that people will be upset if they do not feel empowered, they solved these problems with the placebo thermostat. Thus, people cannot really mess with the temperature, yet they feel better for thinking they have some control. This can be regarded as some small evidence that people are sort-of-nice.
On the other hand, the installation of the fake thermostats can be regarded as something of an insult. This is because those who have them installed presumably assume that most people are incapable of figuring out that they are inefficacious shells and that most people will be mollified by the placebo effect. This can be taken as some small evidence that the folks in charge are patronizing and have a rather low opinion of the masses.
Since the thermostat is supposed to serve role in a parable, there is also an even deeper lesson that is not about thermostats specifically. Rather, it is about the matter of control and power. The empty thermostat is an obvious metaphor for any system that serves to make people feel that they have influence and control, when they actually do not.
In the more cynical and pro-anarchy days of my troubled youth, I took the thermostat as a splendid metaphor for voting: casting a vote gives a person the feeling that she has some degree of control, yet it is but the illusion of control. It is like trying to change the temperature with the thermostat shell. Thoreau made a somewhat similar point when he noted that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”
While I am less cynical and anarchistic now, I still like the metaphor. For most citizens, the political machinery they can access is like the empty thermostat shell: they can fiddle with the fake controls and think it has some effect, but the real controls are in the hands of the folks who are really running things. That the voters rarely get what they want seems to have been rather clearly shown by recent research into the workings of the American political system. While people fiddle with the levers of the voting machines, the real decisions seem to be made by the oligarchs.
The metaphor is not perfect: with the fake thermostat, the actions of those fiddling with it has no effect at all on the temperature (except for whatever heat their efforts might generate). In the case of politics, the masses do have some slight chance of influence, albeit a very low chance. Some more cynical than I might respond by noting that if the voters get what they want, it is just a matter of coincidence. Going with the thermostat analogy, a person fiddling with the empty shell might find that her fiddling matches a change caused by the real controls—so her “success” is a matter of lucky coincidence.
In any case, the thermostat shell makes an excellent metaphor for many things and teaches that one should always consider what lies beneath the surface, especially when trying to determine if one really has some control or not.