September 18, 2014

A Weakness of Civilization

“If a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”  - Andrew Fletcher

Before I launch into my exposition, let me sketch out a couple of assumptions.  First, I assume that, all else being equal, a polity informed by facts is usually in a better position to make successful decisions than one informed by non-facts.  I am not implying, as some have, that political decision-making should be chiefly informed by academics or scientists.1  I am simply taking as a given that facts are usually a better basis for decision making than feelings, speculations or ideological dogmas.  Second, I assume that one of the characteristics of a good system of social organization (e.g. a government) is that it advances the general happiness of its participants.  By this I am by no means advocating for the superiority of socialism, but simply making the assumption that a government that creates a general state of misery by either intention or incompetence isn’t a good government.  If a government creates a living hell for the majority of its citizens, it doesn’t really matter, for our purposes, how large or beautiful its monuments are.

In an idealized democracy, or any form of government with consequential democratic institutions, an individual voter is assumed to be capable of acquiring at least enough factual understanding of the world to vote for laws or candidates that will promote his or her own interests.  Being able to vote for ballot initiative or candidate “X” over ballot initiative or candidate “Y” is obviously meaningless if one knows nothing relevant about either “X” or “Y”.  An uniformed voter undermines the concept of democracy at its root.  How, we must then ask, do people understand the parts of the world beyond their direct experience?  Broadly speaking, there are two ways one can conceptualize circumstances one cannot directly experience.  The first way is narratively.  The second is by some combination of logical inferences and statistics.  We will begin with the second.

We all know what statistics are, so I won’t bother with a definition.  When I say we can know something logically, I am not talking about a rigorously nomothetic standard, but rather the very mundane sort of induction any more-or-less lucid human being is capable of making.  For example, if one knows that a magnitude 8 earthquake has just occurred under San Francisco, one does not need any further information to reasonably assume that there has also been extensive property damage and probably at least a few deaths.  Likewise, if you know that group “A” has been protesting policy “B”, it is fair to assume group “A” at least feels strongly that policy “B” is objectionable.  This is all I mean by logic in this context – merely the predictable correlation between certain events or circumstances with others.

Statistics can be misleading, incorrect, or deliberately falsified, but if they are collected and presented in good faith they are often the closest approach to truth that we have, particularly about the kind of subjects that are the most likely to arise in a political context.  The magnitude of a problem, and therefore the amount of attention that should be devoted to it, is usually best revealed by statistical analysis.  Despite this strength, statistical analysis has its limitations as a way of communicating information with the general public.  For many people, statistics are indecipherable and boring.  I am old enough to remember Ross Perot’s abortive 1992 presidential campaign.  Perot, a businessman, made a series of half-hour television broadcasts that were essentially business presentations centered around a series of printed graphs.  Informative though these presentations may have been, the public not only yawned, but snickered.  Though Perot dropped his candidacy for other reasons, the public’s lack of interest in statistical explanations was striking.  I had never seen a candidate for anything hold up a chart before, and I don’t believe I have seen one since.

Logical induction, too, has limitations.  One can say that a magnitude 8 earthquake can be expected to cause property damage, but one cannot say with equal certainty that it will cause looting.  The behavior of human beings, a matter of paramount political concern, is much too complex to lend itself to simple causal assumptions.  Worse, the transition from the inductions one can reasonably make to those one can’t is not abrupt, but a smooth continuum.  It isn’t always possible to tell what one actually knows from what one just assumes from the “common knowledge” of long standing prejudice.  Thus, when making predictions about the future behavior of political candidates or the future consequences of policies, logical induction is easily adulterated with all manner of extraneous noise.  The nature of logic is likely to preserve a kind of internal coherence, in which a faulty conclusion follows faithfully from a faulty premise, but coherence is merely the preservation of the form of reason, rather than being any guarantor of truth.  Finally, even when inductions are reasonable and appropriate, the iterative process of basing one induction on another must eventually lead to conclusions which are not, themselves, particularly sound.
Most people, including most intelligent ones, think narratively most of the time.  A narrative explanation is one expressed in the form of a story.  Narrative explanations can also be misleading, of course, and they need not be deliberate fabrications or malicious to be misleading.  Consider the case of the first space shuttle disaster, the explosion of the Challenger in 1986.  All seven astronauts were killed, including, notably, Christa McAuliffe, who was to be America’s first Teacher in Space.  Why was Christa McAuliffe’s death especially notable?  Quite simply because it made a good story.  Children and parents across the nation were heartbroken, or at least they were told to be.  Six other astronauts died practically unnoticed.  Beyond the death of the astronauts, on an average day in 1986, 126 people died in auto crashes.  Were these other people somehow less dead?  Did their families grieve less?  Did their deaths have less real, tangible impact on the lives of most viewers of the news?  In every case, the answer is “no”.  Nevertheless, the TV networks played the video of McAuliffe’s parents watching the explosion, its significance dawning on them with agonizing slowness, and they played it over, and over, and over again.  They milked the story for ratings for a week.  They created, from the tragedy of an individual human being, a tragedy of national proportions.  What I am trying to illustrate here is not so much the well-known cynicism of the press, but the native psychology of our species that such cynicism capitalizes on.

Let us delve a little deeper.  Imagine, if you can, that you were alive 8000 years ago – a neolithic farmer living anywhere in the world.  Your perception of that world would have been completely different than your perception of the world today.   Your world would have consisted almost entirely of the people and the environment that you happen to experience first hand.  You might have had some acquaintance with a few nearby villages, and maybe some dim idea of the distant lands from which peddlers or occasional raiders came, but most of the world you would have known would have been the world you would have seen.  In such a world, a narrative explanation would be fairly likely to be both accurate and relevant.  The story of your cousin’s death might well have had real consequences for you.  A flood that removed a neighboring village could be both a real tragedy and a possible concern.  Critically, most of what you learned from others narratively could have been verified by your own first hand experience.  Such was the world in which almost all of our evolutionary history was spent.  It is true that pre-civilized societies used the narrative form to brew up deities and mythological histories for themselves, but, in a small community, in most instances narratives would have been testable.  The narrative form of understanding was both appropriate and sufficient for the context.  It is, in fact, hard to imagine what a neolithic farmer would have done with a modern notion like statistics – with the knowledge, say, that 57.8% of the neolithic farmers on his or her continent happened to suffer with tooth decay.  It mattered if the farmer himself had bad teeth, or if anyone in his family or maybe his small village did.  The fact that we no longer live in neolithic villages is the problem.

When a TV reporter shoves a camera into the face of some weeping person on another continent, the audience they are appealing to is our prehistoric inner selves.  They are, in effect, making that person part of our mental community.  That, of course, sounds very nice and decent and humane – until you realize how incredibly deceptive it is.  Consider a harmless, non-controversial example.  There are on average, about 50 fatal lightning strikes in the US every year.  Imagine that, for whatever reason, the news media suddenly decided to cover all of them, and not merely cover them in passing but in depth and intensity – breaking in on regular programming, showing pictures of the victims and their stunned and saddened relatives.  Imagine further that the legislature mandated lightning safety training in all schools and businesses, to be carried out at regular intervals.  Without any knowledge of statistics regarding the actual frequency of fatal lightning strikes, you would begin to imagine Zeus had run amok.  You would inevitably see lightning strikes as a significant cause of death, and perhaps as a national or global crisis demanding governmental action.  You would, like it or not, see lightning killing a member of your mental community on weekly basis.  While no one has a particular interest in magnifying the importance of lightning, the phenomena I have proposed is entirely real.  There is, frankly, no such thing as fair and balanced news.  When you accept someone else as a reliable source of information, whether that someone is a TV network, a web site, a magazine, an educator, or a government – you are giving them the power to rank the importance of events beyond your visual horizon.  You are accepting that, for the most part, the things they choose to emphasize will be relevant and the things they choose to ignore will not.  This is not merely a characteristic of those with particular political axes to grind, but a feature of mass communication itself, no matter how well-intended its purveyors might be.  The reality is that, while each of us has a certain set of impressions about the parts of the world that are beyond our individual perceptual horizons, those impressions are features of our minds and not necessarily the world.  In short, most of what we think we know about the world is merely a set of distortions others have created for us.

The natural human tendency when confronted with this idea is to think to oneself – “sure, there are plenty of naive people in the world who are gullible enough to believe whatever hype comes their way – but I am different.”  My contention is that no one is different.  We all get second-hand knowledge in the same limited number of ways.  People who like to see themselves as sophisticated tend to be drawn in by more elaborate and nuanced narratives than the rest of humanity, but an elaborate and nuanced story is nevertheless still a story, no more necessarily true than the crudest bumper-sticker slogan.  “Yes, but my story is supported by the data,” one might protest.  Data is a wonderful thing in principle, but we have only the data that someone else has chosen to collect, interpret, and present to us.  In other words, even the statistical perspectives we get are like pictures from a carefully chosen angle, emphasizing those parts of reality someone wants us to see, and concealing those elements that don’t advance their story.  I am pretty confident that the lightning fatality figure I cited earlier is approximately accurate – but only because I am also pretty confident that no one has much interest in distorting it.

Again, at least with regard to political knowledge, this is not a kind of error to which our remote ancestors were really subject.  The family, the village, and the clan are knowable entities.  The nation of a million or a billion is not.  The nation is a fiction of the mind, a creature made of sweeping ideas anchored loosely to a few well chosen facts.  When an official of the state makes a statement in the form “the nation grieves with the Smith family for the loss of their son,” he is making a normative statement, telling the public how to feel, not a descriptive statement, derived from the results of some sort of comprehensive national poll.  The power apparatus of the state is sometimes small and coherent enough to know itself, but the hearts and minds of millions are inevitably heterogeneous and largely unknowable.

The most obvious and painful consequence of this phenomenon is that it renders democratic processes farcical.  Even assuming the mechanisms of voting and district apportionment are left untampered with, the democratic process is ultimately reducible to a dual between competing advertising agencies – or, to use the more quaint term, between opposing balladeers.  It is a contest between two or more worldviews, each of which is an expedient mixture of carefully selected facts, promises that cannot be guaranteed, and poetic visions that mean little or nothing.

It should be noted that while democracy suffers greatly from this barrier to human knowledge, other forms of government do not fare any better.  Whether a society is governed by elected officials, communist committees, or an individual autocrat, it is still a problem that no one can grasp the totality of the populations’ desires, capacities, or needs all at once.  The cold blooded tyrant has the curious advantage of not caring much about the public interest – but this conflicts with my second assumption: successful oppression does not constitute good government.  While it is theoretically simpler for a small elite of leaders to have a decent grasp of reality than it is for some enormous national polity, it is also easier for them to pursue the most preposterous and dangerous delusions.  This is because elite minorities are naturally more insulated from the immediate consequences of their own bad decisions than democratic polities are – as well as more clever in the sophisticated task of repairing their own narratives.  An aristocrat can be persuaded that a starving peasant is actually well-fed, but the balladeer has reached his limit when he tries to convince the peasant himself with the same story.

It is ironic that contemporary humans tend to think of mythology as a feature of ancient times, while we are arguably now more deeply embedded in mythology than we have ever been.  In part this is simply because the mythology of the past usually appears childish and naive, whereas contemporary mythology seems pertinent by definition.2 That which a culture ascribes value to acquires its own aura of importance and reality.  In absolute terms, though, it is hard to say our remote ancestors were childish because they didn’t use corporate buzzwords or immerse themselves in celebrity news.  We are more technologically advanced, certainly, but much of our most soaring technological ability is used for little more than the care and feeding of various illusions – video games and fashion being only two of innumerable possible examples.  As a species, we have never really liked reality very much, and we are happy to depart from it at the first opportunity that presents itself.

While I will not deny a certain schadenfreude in criticizing humanity’s epistemic limitations, I am not an utter defeatist on this matter.  It is not the case that all suspect ideas are equally near the truth – it is just the case that we are usually neck-deep in uncertainty regarding which ideas are actually nearer to it.  To take a popular example from history, we know in some meaningful sense that the First World War really occurred.  We can induce that there are just too many photographs, written accounts, and otherwise inexplicable dead for the whole thing to have been a hoax.  We have logic and statistics on our side.  We know about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the lamentable cascade of treaty obligations that set the armies of the European powers in motion.  We know innumerable facts about the subsequent fighting.  What we do not know are the answers to the overarching “why” questions.  We cannot justify claims like Lenin’s, that the First World War was an inevitable consequence of the imperialist stage of capitalism, in which the lower classes had no honest stake.  Neither can we meaningfully claim, like the historian Barbara Tuchman did, that the French national lust for revenge was a contributing factor.  These are narrative explanations, intended to bestow a sense of coherence on events that the events themselves do not record.  It is probably fair to say, however, that both Lenin’s and Tuchman’s narratives are nearer the causal mark than those the explanations for the war that have been provided by astrologers.  There are explanations we can reasonably exclude, but beyond that we are lost in a sea of more-or-less coherent but untestable theories.  We should not confuse “what is true” with “what makes sense.”

1 I think Sam Harris at least implies this in The Moral Landscape.

2 There are exceptions.  The 7th century mythology of Islam has clearly become quite pertinent to some.

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