One ancient and well-known social phenomenon greatly accelerated by the internet and social media is the spreading of false rumors, particularly politically motivated false rumors, and particularly relatively complex ones such as those that come in the form of conspiracy theories. Many cloak themselves in elaborate pseudo-arguments that can be very easily debunked, and many are passed along and eagerly consumed like a spreading contagion. The phrase “going viral” isn’t just a metaphor; these complex “memes” and narratives are cultural pathologies that sweep through the population in epidemic waves feeding off of one another and forming one, overarching pandemic of enormous destructive power.
The confluence of a set of evolutionarily produced psychological quirks and their strategic exploitation by opinion-makers (particularly right-wing opinion-makers) helps explain how easily pernicious falsehoods resonate and spread.
One such “cognitive glitch” is due to the natural, psychological attraction to anomalies, because we evolved to be attentive to anything out of place (since being adept at noticing things out of place was vital to survival on the African savanna). But that, coupled with a lack of awareness of what I call “the probability of the improbable,” creates a constant attribution of heightened significance to observations of things that have no real significance.
It’s highly improbable, for instance, that any given individual will win the lottery, but it’s highly probable (virtually certain) that SOME individual will. We mostly get that one, because we’ve institutionalized it on the basis of its probability structure. There are lots of similarly improbable events –like a bullet hitting a “lucky” coin in someone’s breast pocket, or someone being delayed by some chance occurrence and thus not getting on a flight that crashed– that occur in general on a regular basis, because in a world with millions of events constantly occurring, it’s highly probable that improbable events will occur at a certain frequency determined by the degree of their improbability.
In a world of instantaneous mass communications, any highly improbable event that occurs anywhere in the world is instantly brought to everyone’s attention, and draws people’s attention in proportion to both the degree of its improbability and its resonance with existing narratives.
If a religious icon appears to be crying, for instance, that is a miracle that confirms the religion. If a disproportionate number of planes and ships have disappeared in any concise geographic area (a probable improbability), that geographic area becomes imbued with a supernatural aura. If some of the vague and broadly interpretable predictions of an ancient mystic “come true,” that is proof of his power of prophesy.
More mundanely, this is part of the larger phenomenon of cherry-picking convenient evidence that supports a desired narrative, such as cobbling together a narrative that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US from any snippets of evidence that can possibly be used to support such a narrative. Our shared cognitive landscape is littered with such products of probable improbabilities or cherry-picked “evidence” and our tendency to imbue them with a special significance (or an evidentiary value) that they don’t really merit.
Another quirk is that we are attracted to the plausible, especially if it fits into some narrative or archetype that resonates with us (again, because primate brains evolving in the wild thrive by being able to create plausible scenarios on which to rely) . So, for instance, when I heard the (erroneous) rumor a few decades ago that Jerry Mathers, the child star of “Leave it to Beaver” in the 1950s, had been killed in Vietnam, I was already aware enough of this quirk to say to myself “it’s too plausible, fits too neatly into a clear and relevant narrative, to be assumed true; it’s exactly the kind of rumor that would be almost certain to exist regardless of its truth or falsehood.” The narrative of the iconic little boy of the 1950s dying in the iconic unpopular war of the 1960s is just too neat and cognitively attractive not to emerge and spread.
Similarly, those who want to discredit Obama are attracted to any narrative that discredits him, and those who want to believe in the mystical supernatural quality of their own religion will be attracted to narratives supported by “evidence” which support that conclusion.
When you combine these, you get the frequent phenomenon of people with ideological agendas cherry-picking (or manufacturing) probable improbabilities and weaving them into plausible narratives that serve their ideological agendas. This can be found across the political ideological spectrum, but it is by far most pronounced on the far-right, which is where reason and critical thought are in shortest supply.
But it’s not just a decentralized, organic process. We’re seeing a lot of the increasingly sophisticated exploitation of known and understood human cognitive foibles by the most greedy and ruthless among us. Whether they would articulate it in the same way I did or not, all of the right-wing opinion-makers understand the cognitive glitches I described above, and know how to exploit them to maximum effect.
And the convoluted irony of it all is a thing of horrible beauty: Those on the far-right, thoroughly manipulated and easiest to manipulate, call all those who disagree with them “sheepies,” and announce that they alone are the ones who “think for themselves,” “thinking for oneself,” in this case, meaning ignoring fact and rational analysis in favor of the preferred dogmatic ideology. Those who are thinking for them know how to exploit their cognitive weaknesses and their lack of commitment to critical thinking, so much so that they turn it into a narrative of independence from such manipulation!
What drives me to confront this phenomenon when I encounter it is my own inability to believe that this fortress of self-delusions in which these cultist ideologues ensconce themselves can’t be breached; to my mind, the walls are paper-thin, the foundations cracked and crumbling. I always feel as though all it should take is one small tap of reason in just the right place, and the whole thing just has to come toppling down. But the one impenetrable reinforcement that this fortress has, that, despite the paper-thin walls and crumbling foundations can’t be penetrated, is the decision to disregard fact and reason under any and all circumstances, and to defend the cultish dogma in any way necessary.
And that is why I think our greatest responsibility is to consider how to cultivate the habits of mind and interaction, of disciplined reason honed in rational debate in which the best informed and best reasoned arguments prevail, following the rules similar to those of scientific methodology and legal procedure, all channeled in service to our shared humanity. That is who and what we should be; that is who and what we can be.
The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.
The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.
That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?
The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.
The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.
We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.
The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.
In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.
Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.
The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.
The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.
There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.
To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.
(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)
There is a great deal of emphasis on “messaging,” which, as it is commonly used and understood among blogosphere politicos, means out-sloganeering the opposition. While this is a necessary aspect of the political strategic struggle we are trapped in, it is also a surrender to that which traps us in it, and a ceding of the subtler and more essential narrative to those positions which benefit most from the reduction rather than expansion of information. That which is less rational, and that which is less motivated by goodwill, gain strength from the characterization of the competing positions on diverse issues as mere opposite and equal ideological convictions, on an issue-by-issue basis. That achievement obscures the fact that underneath this issue-by-issue struggle is the deeper, more coherent struggle between reason and goodwill, on the one hand, and irrationality and indifference to the welfare of others (if not outright malice) on the other.
The remedy to this problem lies in adding a new layer to our efforts. We cannot abandon the superficial political struggle, the battle of messages in service to reason and goodwill on an issue-by-issue basis. But that does not mean that we cannot also confront the deeper and more consequential challenge of writing the underlying narrative in favor of reason and goodwill, not as they relate to each issue, but rather as they inform all issues. This is what I call “meta-messaging.”
Perhaps the subtlest and least “nailed down” aspect of my proposal (A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world) is how to use frames and narratives in service to reason and goodwill. In the posts I linked to, I used the example of “A Christmas Carol,” which is both such a form of communication, and is a story about a magical analogy of such communication. Another that is very similar in both of these respects is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Obviously, there is a Christmas “goodwill” narrative that is reinforced in several Christmas stories.
But many other narratives also qualify, including several fictionalized popularizations of real people and real events. Some examples are “Gandhi,” “Invictus” (which I just watched last night), “Amistad,” to name a few that come immediately to mind. There are real events, documented and incorporated into our national meme-scape, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and countless movies and stories that reinforce the idea that goodwill makes us whole and happy, whereas malice and extreme individualism diminish us.
There are competing narratives as well, narratives that glorify individualism, that make a virtue out of mutual indifference, that rationalize and justify social irresponsibility. In one sense, the political substructure, the zeitgeist, is the product of a complex articulation of narratives, and the political struggle at that level is over influencing how these narratives aggregate, what overarching paradigms emerge as a result. And that is the struggle that is most critical to win (see The Politics of Consciousness).
I believe that narratives informed by reason and goodwill enjoy a “comparative advantage” (as economists put it), particularly in the long run, for two reasons: 1) They engender a more pleasant feeling in those who embrace them than the opposing narratives engender in those who embrace those (just as Scrooge was happier when he embraced the former, after his transformation, than he was throughout the many years in which he succumbed to the latter, prior to his transformation); and 2) the slight but constant pressure on history favoring rationality, or “utility,” causes those arrangements which yield greater aggregate benefits to prevail in the long run over those that don’t.
So the challenge is to play on these advantages, but not to passively rely on them. We need to compose, coopt, weave together, reinforce, assemble, and disseminate “armies” of narratives which coalesce into the maximum transmission of the desired effect, using all of the skills of the human mind and of human organization available to us. This is the second component of my proposal, which forms a kind of bridge between organizing in service only to mutual goodwill (not substantive political agendas), and lubricating the means of making well-informed and well-reasoned assessments of what public policies serve goodwill on a societal-wide scale.
This bridge, therefore, needs to take existing narratives in a particular direction, emphasizing our interdependence, emphasizing our ability to use government as an agency of a collective will, emphasizing the logical extension of interpersonal goodwill into public policy goodwill, and emphasizing that this is possible, that this is plausible, that this is right and good and natural.
There are huge bodies of existing literature to build on, from ancient epic myths to historical chapters to triumphs of collective will over shared adversity and in service to shared aspirations. Think how often we do this using the “Apollo Moon Landing” narrative: Every time someone wants to argue in favor of a concerted national effort to tackle a national problem, the fact that we collectively landed a man on the moon is invoked as a narrative argument in favor of national collective action in pursuit of difficult to achieve massive goals.
But it has been, up until now, a haphazard, decentralized, seat-of-the-pants strategy, used sporadically in service to uncoordinated and disparate arguments. This, in a sense, is my central point: Rather than invoking powerful tools in scattered and uncoordinated ways, it’s time to make an effort to focus them on pressure points that underwrite the entire spectrum of reasonable policies in service to universal goodwill. It’s time to work on developing, consciously and painstakingly, one integrated, powerful narrative to reinforce one coherent and unifying pair of values, and by doing so, advocating for everything that adheres to those values.