My students are at the
phase of senior project where they are done summarizing research papers; now
they have to compare and contrast them, to integrate them into a single
argument. I’m practicing along with
Tuesday night Geeksboro played three episodes of Twin Peaks, a 1990s show that I watched
like a millenial, all at once over a three-day VHS binge sometime during my
two-year sabbatical between college and graduate school. I didn’t think of it as a break at the time;
I thought (hoped) I was done with school forever. But I got tired of waiting tables and serving
as a tape monkey in a prescription data library, alongside the robot that would
eventually replace me. The internet did
not exist then, so finding information about jobs or programs was a lot more
difficult. I had heard somewhere that
people taught English overseas, and that sounded interesting, but I never
managed to meet anyone who had any experience with that system until I was
already in graduate school. By then it
seemed too late.
Today we have the opposite problem, the problem of having
too much information. The difficulty is
one of sorting, prioritizing, and checking the zillions of “facts” we have
available. It seems to most of us that humans are simply not smart enough (or
patient enough, or long-lived enough) to scan through all of that information
individually. Compare your Google
results (which are filtered and sorted for you, based on your prior Google
activity) with your results from DuckDuckGo, a search engine which does not
save or process (or sell) your search strategies. Google is quicker, easier, more seductive. In a competitive environment, it seems to most
of us that we have to filter. Otherwise
making decisions and acting seems overwhelming.
That filtering is a major function of cultural training. When we are young, we absorb the priorities
and strategies of our communities, and so many of our decisions are made for us,
in a sense, unconsciously, by just following those rules. The advantage is that these decisions are
quick, convenient, and don’t consume a lot of calories in conscious
deliberation. Too, uncertainty is
stressful; it feels bad to be confused, and most people instinctively avoid
that feeling. Unfortunately, this kind
of information filtering can set up a positive feedback loop, where our personal
and cultural biases are continually reinforced.
Duck Duck Go calls this a “filter bubble,” but it can happen off the
Internet, out in the real world of social interactions, just as easily and just
as invisibly. We only see confirming
information reflected back from our peers, which feels good, and we become ever
more convinced of our own rightness, and of the wrongness of people who
disagree with us. Because of our social
nature, our tendency to group together and “tribe up,” most of those people who
disagree will be outside of our tribes.
Sociality magnifies our disagreements into wars.
According to Amir Alexander in his math-history book Infinitesimal, science as we understand
it today arose as an answer to this problem.
The religious wars of the Reformation were bloody and brutal, prompting
Thomas Hobbes to call life itself “nasty, brutish, and short.”1 The Jesuits (and later Hobbes) responded by
trying to clamp down on dissent, by trying to build a system of belief so
consistent and so powerful that dissent and war would be impossible. This is the positive feedback solution, not
positive in the sense of good, but positive in the mathematical sense of
recursive, self-reinforcing. It
concentrated power at the top, which is dangerous, because mistakes are
magnified right along with good decisions.
In Italy, the Jesuits and the Inquisition won. They silenced dissent, and according to
Alexander, helped end the Italian Rennaissance.
The Royal Society of London came up with a different
solution. They encouraged discussion and
dissent, up to a point. The ultimate decider was the publicly performed experiment,
as interpreted by the audience, not a single fallible dictator. They prioritized information from outside
their white aristocratic male bubble (not people, sadly, but at least
information collected through experiments).
They found a way to cede some of their personal authority not to another
human being, but to Nature. Arguments
did not have to spiral upwards into wars, and noone had to be right all the
time. In England, they won their battle. Hobbes died a grumpy old man, not a hero. His ideas returned, though, used by
totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
I mention these two case studies because the strategies they
represent continue their struggle for our hearts and minds today. Scientists identify with the Royal Society,
who won, and with Galileo, whose ideas were good, but who lost his personal
battle with the Jesuits and spent the last eight years of his life under house
arrest. Scientists may not personally
know that the Inquisition burnt the astronomer Giordano Bruno as a heretic, but
most of us are deeply identified with that cultural ideal of the scientist as a
rebel against the totalitarian religion engineered by the Society of Jesus
almost 500 years ago. For many of us who
chose to join the culture of science, our decisions were in part driven by
personally enduring a family tradition of totalitarian religion. I’ve heard this story over and over again; I
lived it myself. I left the religious
culture of my birth and joined the scientific culture. Thus each cultural tradition sustains itself
by selecting for those people who agree with it.
What happens, though, when you put a rebel in charge? Power corrupts, the old phrase goes. There are now scientists (not all, by any stretch, but some) defying the
tradition set by the Royal Society, demanding that people believe in evolution, in climate change, in vaccination, whatever. These scientists are correctly recognizing
that belief can often be a shortcut
to action. I imagine they feel the same urgency that the
Jesuits felt at watching the Protestant Reformation sweep across Europe. They see the world coming apart around them,
and they want us as a society to respond to it, together, and quickly. They are not wrong in this. Their intentions are noble and good. But they are giving in to the same fear that
drove the Jesuits and Thomas Hobbes to build their Leviathans, their elaborate
deductive systems of control. It’s a
desperation move, one that might work in the short term, but which is not
sustainable. Understanding is better
than belief -- although as a teacher, I’m the first to agree that it’s a hell
of a lot more difficult to achieve.
Thus endeth the sermon.
Time for bed.
1. As an aside, I have to credit Bill Waterson for his
restraint in never (to my knowledge) having Hobbes the tiger make such an
obvious joke about his little buddy Calvin.