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.

(Continued from Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, which addresses the question, in general, of our conscious role in the evolution of human consciousness.)

In a series of posts over the past few days (The Dance of ConsciousnessThe Algorithms of Complexity, Transcendental Politics), I’ve explored the connection between, on the one hand, “the evolutionary ecology” paradigm (found in a series of essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts) encompassing not just the biosphere as we normally think of it, but also the anthrosphere subsystems of it (i.e., our cognitive, social institutional and technological landscape), and, on the other, the social movement that I’ve been conceptualizing and advocating which seeks to most robustly produce and spread the memes and “emes” (i.e., the cognitions and emotions) of imaginative reason and compassionate goodwill. Combined, they form aspects of a single paradigm, a set of memes articulated into coherent unity by other memes which identify organizing principles.

Though I enjoy a steady flow of visitors to my windswept cave in these virtual mountains, and hundreds of folks who have registered on Colorado Confluence and “liked” my Colorado Confluence Facebook page, still, this blog is just one marginal eccentric’s voice lost in a cacophony of virtual noise. There is nothing other than the judgment of readers, and their active communication of that judgment, to commend (or condemn) me to others. I am not an accredited source of wisdom, nor even a recognized pundit called upon to share my insights on talk shows generally more focused on the relatively superficial and transient (which is not to say necessarily trivial or unimportant).

There are many ways to promote reason and goodwill that have nothing to do with Colorado Confluence. Certainly, every kind word and gesture, every calming voice, every act of forgiveness and tolerance, every compelling argument gently delivered, every reminder of our humanity to those most inclined to forget it, is such service of the highest order. It is always the most essential and, ironically, often the most difficult to achieve.

But what I hope I have done here is to provide one well-conceived and precisely articulated framework through which to focus and organize such efforts. I am certain that it is not the only such attempt, nor is it necessarily the best such attempt, but it is one of the relatively few contributions to a meta-dialogue that we too infrequently have, and too meagerly invest in. Those most engaged in our shared endeavor of life on Earth are also most focused on the issues of the day, leaving relatively unattended by a combination of too little time and too little interest (and perhaps too little belief in our ability) the deeper questions of what we can do to affect for the better our long-term evolution as a civilization.

There is nothing new about such attempts, but previous ones have generally acquired much baggage along the way, or were conceived in cauldrons of assumptions and beliefs that doomed them to the dust heap of history. This may well meet the same fate, but it is one of a smaller subset of such attempts which consciously strives not to: It is an attempt to reach farther and deeper into “the suchness,” to assume less but accommodate more, and to focus on the process of discovery and realization rather than to fetishize and ideologically enshrine its products.

History is strewn with the successes and failures of imaginative intellectuals with too much time on their hands (or an obsession that drove them to spend more time than they had), and the best bet right now is that I’m just another who won’t even rise to the ranks of a forgotten footnote. But ideas beget ideas, and well-reasoned, imaginative discourse generates more well-reasoned, imaginative discourse. The value of the ideas expressed on this blog may well be the ideas they spark in others, the swirls and eddies they contribute to in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, themselves mere catalysts that are forgotten by all but their author.

But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished here, proud of the coherently eclectic, humbly ambitious, richly informed, frequently insightful, occasionally psychedelic yet assiduously realistic and practical vision of the underlying nature of our existence, what we are capable of, and how we can most robustly and effectively navigate the former to realize the latter.

So I’m going to ask those of you who agree to some extent, who believe that the ideas published on this blog make a valuable contribution to our shared discourse and our shared endeavor, to help me to broadcast them more widely. The internet has provided us with an amazing tool to amplify both noise and signal, one which can utilize the logic of chain letters and pyramid schemes not merely to enrich a few enterprising con artists, but rather to enrich, even if only marginally, our collective consciousness.

We all know about entertaining videos and clever compositions (such as the college application essay that included, among other things, “full contact origami”) going “viral,” something that has occurred throughout human history (as I explained in Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I) in the forms of rumors and religions, techniques and motifs, stories and strategies. The wheel has rolled across the planet many times over, probably originating with a prehistoric potter seeking symmetry rather than transportation. The floods, the phalluses and fertility figurines, the flutes and fletched arrows; the games, the gadgets, the gods and guns. Memes and paradigms have been going viral throughout human history. It is incumbent on us to strive to spread “eases” rather than diseases, and to foment epidemics of marginally increased wisdom and humanity.

The internet has given us greater power to do so, and greater responsibility to help others cut through the noise to find the signal. If you believe that there is something here of value, please help others to discover it too. By your even minimal and occasional assistance, I gain only the gratification not only of doing what I do well, but also of inspiring others to increase its reach and effect, in what I hope may become rippling waves through our shared cognitive landscape.

Please, repost and share what you find on Colorado Confluence, new and old, as liberally as your conscience permits, and encourage others to do the same. Follow me (steveharveyHD28) on Twitter (which I use almost exclusively to link to posts on Colorado Confluence), and retweet my tweets. Recommend Colorado Confluence to friends (by going to the Colorado Confluence Facebook page, for instance, and clicking the “suggest to friends” icon in the upper right margin, then selecting some or all of your friends to recommend it to), and encourage them to recommend it to theirs. Help me to create or contribute to a grass roots movement that aspires to something beyond immediate political advantage and looks beyond the false certainties we all are so often seduced by, yet not removed from the ultimate political struggle of discovering and realizing the fullest extent of our humanity.

Let’s once again transform the world in ways few have yet begun to imagine possible, but many will some day take for granted.

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