“In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.”
At Thanksgiving in the USA everyone gets a few days vacation from work to celebrate the colonial beachhead from Europe on the North American continent, landing at Plymouth, and the near-starvation and loss of the entire first colony, but for their rescue by generous albeit naive natives. The tale is seldom continued in its telling that the colonists afterwards conspired to slaughter the natives and steal their lands, or that what had been revealed to them as a land of plenty, seemingly empty and naturally bounteous, was in actuality a meticulously cultivated ecosystem with human inhabitants, nutrient cycles and carrying capacity in delicate balance.
We don’t tell ourselves these stories, choosing instead a more heroic myth of rugged individualists breaking free of tyranny, overcoming adversity, and taming a savage land. It plays well with children, especially young boys.
|Original Buffalo Range|
|Harvested Buffalo Skulls|
|Current Remnant Herds|
|Albert Bates and KMO on the road.|
Not shown: the lovely Olga K.
Or did we?
|KMO and Albert Bates, ASPO book table|
|Oil Addiction slide by Wes Jackson|
With all this brainpower one might expect new flashes of insight to beam like a mirrored ball in the grasp of colored spotlights. Actually, the 7th Annual Meeting was little improved from the 6th, or 5th, or any of the others of its ilk — ASPO International, Petrocollapse, or, for that matter, Local Future in Michigan. Rapid collapse, and soon, seems to have more adherents now than gradual collapse, some unspecified distance out. What we found ourselves rotating around was our own confirmatory bias.
Who knew that while petroleum may have spared the sperm whale for a century, the climate change it brought may have doomed not just marine mammals but all ocean life?
|Keystone Protests Ring the White House|
Or that 4.5 billion of Earth’s present human inhabitants owe their food supply, antibiotics and prescriptions — their longevity and fecundity — nearly entirely to petrochemical processes that are about to become unavailable at an affordable price?
|Secret Service Eye-View of Protesters|
Well, actually we have, here and in our books, articles, lectures and interviews. For 40 years, more or less. Sorry to nag.
So why don’t more people seek shelter from the coming storm? Why don’t election year debates get real? Two reasons: confirmation bias and normalcy bias.
|Jan Lundberg at Zucotti Park library,|
shortly before it was destroyed by NYPD
“Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? … Why this dictatorial approach to learning anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church was wrong to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing ‘evidence’ is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence.”
In Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, (New York: Springer, 2012) Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek describe the lifestyle of a wealthy family in ancient Rome. Work, such as it was, ended by mid-day and afternoons were spent at the baths, evenings in social banquets. The diet was well-balanced, children well-educated, and all of it was accomplished with about 6 slaves per family. The Tawantinsuyu (Inca) were even more efficient, their whole pre-Columbian society spending about 65 days per year to meet basic needs. Slavery, while not unknown in the Andes, played a much smaller — principally military — role.
So, if the Tawantinsuyu could get by with almost no domestic slaves, the Romans with only a handful per wealthy family, how is it that we need 36 billion of them in the United States to take our kids to soccer practice and pop popcorn? Tainter and Patzek say it in a single word: complexity.
We have become inured to complexity. Today we can barely fathom getting around in a strange city without a smart phone. We think nothing of flying a thousand miles for a business meeting or a week at the beach. This energy-enslaved world is our insular cocoon, the norm that we have been socialized into, and with confirmatory bias and normalcy bias we defend it from any “abnormal” opinion that it is immoral, wrongheaded, or doomed. Like an advertisement for cigarettes or one-ton automobiles, we do not imagine our slaves could make us unhappy or unhealthy. Quite the opposite. We confer on our outsized, outmoded, profligate lifestyle an absolute, inviolate authoritativeness. “The American way of life,” George H.W. Bush whorishly opined, “is not up for negotiation.” The War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld told us, is to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life.
This is the reflex that keeps the majority of us frozen in the headlights as collapse rushes at us from all sides — militarily, environmentally, financially, and socially. We are Romans with the barbarians at the gates — we just keep sending our slaves out to pick more fruit and bring us wine.
|Protesters Return to Zuccotti Park|
Let us stop looking for confirmation of our views or trying to conform to “normal,” whatever that is. This Thanksgiving let us give thanks that what we have been bequeathed by generations before us — less the avaricious colonists than the generous natives, less the hybrid buffalo than the ecology of the forest, less our myths than the hard realities — have brought us benefit beyond measure. Let us resolve to squander it no more. Gaia grant us clear eyes and ears to see through the fog of our own self-deceptions.
On this day let us resolve not just to thank the natives but to free our slaves. Addiction to slavery is the same as any other addiction. First it feels good, then it destroys you. Just ask a wealthy Roman.