Sunday, February 5, 2017

Viral Conspiracies

"Now that President Trump has brought fake news out into the open, is it safe to call bullshit on the 9/11 story?"

When we watch the near-hysteria going on in the United States as the country tries to come to grips with the consequences of its recent choice of government we notice how completely out of touch the usual pundits in print and broadcast journalism have become. Their world has been turned upside down. The tired nostrums that provided a handsome living for them before no longer apply.

Analysis is cheap and abundant. However, done well it takes time, and those now in charge are using that delay to advantage.

Most who try to make sense of the rapid changes we are witnessing fail to appreciate the important work on cognition provided by Gregory Bateson (ecology of mind), Alfred Korzybski (general semantics) and Noam Chomsky (transformational grammar), among others.

The polish-born Korzybski (1879-1950) was a Russian intelligence officer in the First World War. His first book, Manhood of Humanity (1921) set out a new theory of humankind as a "time-binding" class of life (humans perform time binding by the transmission of knowledge and abstractions through time, which are accreted not in pack knowledge, but in cultures). Korzybski suggested that humans are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems and (2) the structure of their languages. Humans cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). This provided the foundation of general semantics. His best known dictum is "the map is not the territory," meaning that no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain's responses to reality.

In November, 2011, we posted here:
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 or optimism bias. In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities.
Our fondness towards normalcy and predilection for optimism, both acquired through Darwinian selection, let us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allow us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination, or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software, even if it means, in the case of 9/11, that we must repeal the laws of physics.
You will have noticed a fairly common response when the 9/11 massacre enters a discussion. Smart people will say that they “will not go there”, which brings to mind the “here be dragons” warning on uncharted bits of medieval maps. That response is not stupid. It hints at an understanding that there is no way back once you enter that realm. There is simply no denying that if you accept the essential conclusions of the official 9/11 report you must also concede that laws of nature stopped working on that particular day. And, true enough, if you do go there and bear witness publicly to what you see, you may well be devoured; your career in many government positions, the media and even academia is likely to come to an end.
— Karel van Wolferen, The Unz Review

A recent book on human evolution, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, makes clear our metaprogramed biases are what allow us to carry the knowledge of our own mortality and still take risks like flying in an airplane or crossing the street. We are hard wired to ignore danger if it stands between us and a more immediate goal. As Tali Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, points out, we are likely to think everything will work out with big challenges like a right wing coup d'état, nuclear deterrence or climate change because we are genetically predisposed to assume it will.

Varki and Brower explain that the mechanism within the brain that denies reality works in much the same way the fear suppression module does. When mammals need to fight, they not only deny their own mortality, but also tend to deny anything they find unpleasant and often deny rational logic that conflicts with what their limbic (primitive) brain wants to do. And thus, while we can perform impressive intellectual feats such as visiting the moon, we do so by rapidly depleting non-renewable resources and destroying the habitat we need for survival on Earth.

Every religion has some form of life after death story. Religions can and do tell every conceivable oddity of story but religions do not need a life after death story to unite a group. It might be reasonable for a few random religions to include life after death in their stories, but it is not reasonable that every religion has a life after death story.

— Rob Mielcarski, On Religion and Denial

The genetic justification for religion is that having a false story about life everlasting allowed intelligence to evolve to permit self-awareness, including awareness of one’s own mortality. Our ability to delude ourselves — something we tend to ritually practice on a regular schedule — kept us from going crazy from the kinds of knowledge that our rapidly expanding neocortex opened up to us.

Groups frequently devote all of their surplus wealth to constructing structures to please and communicate with gods in the after life. Pyramids and cathedrals being two of many examples. The … behavior remains strong in modern times because new religions, like Scientology, continue to have life after death stories.
— Mielcarski

This is our truncated version of Rob Mielcarski's outline for our predicament:
  • The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth;
  • The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption;
  • All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity;
  • The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline;
  • The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction;
  • Citizens have wildly different beliefs about our predicament: there is no problem; there is a problem but it’s not caused by humans; I don’t want to think about it; technology will save us; it’s in the hands of God; I’ve already done enough; someone else needs to do something first; my actions won’t make a difference; someone else will consume whatever I give up; it’s too late to do anything;
  • The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump
  • The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter
  • We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil
  • Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: energy extraction cost + debt
  • The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists
  • The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett
  • The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists
  • The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities
  • All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines; natural gas for fertilizer
  • All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)
  • Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars
  • The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet
  • The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news
Recently the activist collective,, used data analysis visualization to look more closely at “Fake News.” The team included data scientist Federico Cruz, complexity researcher Mehul Sangham, visual artist Lucila Sandoval, and cognitive linguistic Joe Brewer.

Two conversations about the same topic — 
yet they are largely disconnected from each other.
Our team took a unique dataset of 60 million tweets referencing the US election on Twitter during the week following its completion (November 8th to the 13th). This was a global media conversation that spanned at least 74 countries. We used visualization software to create images of the relationships throughout this massive web of information. The graphic above was generated from this dataset. The colors represent webs-within-webs for each meshwork of tweets that connect with each other in some way.


When we drilled into the data, we saw that many conversations are disjointed and don’t overlap with each other. Individual people can have as much influence on the information that spreads as the “official” media outlets. One lesson we can learn from this is that stories can come from anywhere that resonate with the feelings people have in the moment.

Another lesson is that the facts-on-the-ground don’t really matter. People share what feels true to them and now they have communication tools to organize around. Those of us working to tackle the global threats to humanity must cut through the many layers of meaning to make sense of things ourselves. Then we’ll have even more challenges to communicate what we discern about reality once we’ve done this.


What we all need to do now — collectively as a species — is build the institutional capacities to make sense of big data on a regular basis. Having a biased meshwork of corporate media outlets won’t be sufficient. Neither will the “democratized” independent people in the grassroots who have shown us how biased they can be in their own worldviews as they interpret the world to serve themselves.

In 2004, David Suskind interviewed White House spokesman Karl Rove about the layers of unreality in the Bush-Cheney policies, foreign and domestic. Rove's reply was prophetic. First, he took the journalist to task for working in “the reality-based community.” Then he said:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” 

Of course he was absolutely right. As Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen wrote last week for the Unz Review,

With President Obama as a mere spectator, the neocon/liberals could – without being ridiculed – pass off as a popular revolution the coup d’état they fomented in the Ukraine.
Putin was held personally responsible in much of the media for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner flying over the Ukraine, which killed 298 people. No serious investigation was undertaken.
As the fighting in Syria reached a phase when contradictions in the official Washington/NATO story demanded a stepping back for a fresh look, editors were forced into contortions to make sure that the baddies stayed bad, and that no matter how cruel and murderously they went about their occupation in Aleppo and elsewhere, the jihadi groups fighting to overthrow the secular Assad government in Damascus remained strictly labeled as moderate dissidents worthy of Western support, and the Russians as violators of Western values.
How could Rove’s predictions so totally materialize? There’s a simple answer: ‘they’ got away with momentous lies at an early stage. The more authorities lie successfully the more they are likely to lie again in a big way to serve the purposes of earlier lies.   VanWolferen continues:

We have experienced massive systemic intimidation since 9/11. For the wider public we have the absurdities of airport security – initially evidenced by mountains of nail-clippers – reminding everyone of the arbitrary coercive potential that rests with the authorities. Every time people are made to take off their belts and shoes – to stick only to the least inane instances – they are reminded: yes, we can do this to you! Half of Boston or all of France can be placed under undeclared martial law to tell people: yes, we have you under full control!

How can anyone quarrel with Rove’s prophecy? Mainstream media and social media are in a tizzy to try to keep up with newly created realities. Rove's words made it very clear: you have no choice! This is what the White House strategy is all about. Shock and awe, nonstop. You go ahead and study the last move we made while we are busy making our next.

Now that President Trump has brought fake news out into the open, is it safe to call bullshit on the 9/11 story?

The science of climate change, as we have been showing in this series of essays, is not seriously in doubt, at least not when rationally scrutinized by any objective standard. What is in serious doubt is the ability of superstitious, authoritarian-cleaving, greedy, fecund and destructive humans to muster the social cohesion to follow the science and do the right thing, and soon.

Joe Brewer says,
The deep truth about fake news is that a great deal of moral integrity and analytic skill is needed to make sense of the world in our complex media environments today. These cultural capacities are desperately lacking today. This is about connecting the dots, revealing system-level patterns, and searching for root causes.
It is also about having the luxury of enough time to do that.

We cannot be sure we will get to where we need to be before it is too late for our species. Maybe the next round of evolutionary biology will get some form of life there — perhaps Earth will be re-seeded from the microbes we left on Mars. It may take a few hundred million years to find that out, and by then Earth would be perilously close to drifting out of its orbit of habitability as the Sun radiance gradually enlarges. Any recapitulation of life as we know it would be relatively short-lived compared to the potential we have if we act to save the current enterprise.

Next week, in the meantime, we will examine some corollaries that proceed from this analysis.



Wolfgang Brinck said...

Carl Rove: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
True enough, journalists are doomed to comment on the acts of our government. It's what they have to do. They are not actors in Carl Rove's reality. But on the other hand, each and every one of us is an actor while at the same time a spectator on the actions of everyone else. We each get to act out our own reality and have the option to ignore the Carl Roves who think that their actions are the only ones that count.

Joe said...

If the apparently obvious and physically reasonable explanation for the downing of the twin towers (terrorists flew planes into them) is taken to be false, then a plausible explanation for the faking of that act is needed. False flag operations can happen, but when they do the motives are usually obvious. What possible motive do you see for the US government, or any one else, faking the 9/11 attacks? I see none, except those that would also justify the wearing of tinfoil hats.

Albert Bates said...

Firstly, in any crime one must establish that a crime was committed. The skyscraper architectural/engineering community has done that.

Secondly, to solve the crime is a separate question, but one usually begins with motive and opportunity. You see no motive apart from that which would justify wearing tinfoil hats and on this we are not far apart. The well-known group, Project for a New American Century, provided motive ("make American strong again") and was able to draw together enough top-shelf tinfoil fashionplates to supply abundant opportunity.

Hope this helps.

Paul Downey said...

My boss pointed out the edge of the energy cliff to me in 1969. His opinion was we were going to "bet the farm" on fusion/uninvented battery tech. (we were working on long range planning of the UK’s motorway network). Seems he was correct. It has to be said we both had a background in Structural Engineering so we shared a common language and I was no stranger to the Laws of Thermodynamics. For me the only real question has been would the people of the world be so stupid as to use up the planets wealth (ie. its easy oil) in a 40 year binge. I think I answered that one within a few years.

I only learnt about AGW in 1975 so the next question was will you all be dumb enough to fry the planet in the process of burning all the easy oil. Well it didn't take too long to answer that one either.

And 9/11? The Structural Engineer in me wondered as the first tower was collapsing just who would be stupid enough to believe a plane had brought it down. And the answer? Just about the whole world except a bunch of engineers/architects/airline pilots. The usual suspects ie. people who know their science/maths.

Seems to me that if you want answers it is really just a matter of asking the right questions of the right people- hint try to avoid politicians, priests, the media,in fact anyone offering an answer that attempts to make you feel comfortable! It may be that without a good grounding in the basic physical laws of the universe you are not even equipped to form a sensible question but if you had been interested in reality as a young person the trajectory of our race would be of no surprise to you

Kelpie Wilson said...

Thank you for this: " Now that President Trump has brought fake news out into the open, is it safe to call bullshit on the 9/11 story? "
Nothing - absolutely nothing will change in this country until we address this foundational lie at the heart of our politics.

Paul Downey said...

I would encourage anyone to look at the bigger picture as far as 9/11 is concerned. America has been built on a very special type of oil. The infrastructure can only be maintained using this oil and almost all of the vehicles; the cars, trucks, planes,trains and ships can only run on this oil. The oil is called very cheap oil.

The amount of expensive oil in the world is almost limitless but no modern economy is able to run on the expensive sort and America's own cheap oil peaked well over 40 years ago. If 9/11 had worked out properly the US would by now have total control of the oil-fields of Iraq and happy motoring would have been given a new lease of life.

I have no doubt the US government will do whatever it takes to maintain the American way of life; that is what you all elected it to do isn't it? Looked at from that perspective the loss of 3000 souls was a small price to pay in a gamble to postpone the inevitable mayhem in which many more people could die. The alternative to 9/11 was for the Administration to start an adult conversation with the people of the USA back in 1970 when your cheap oil production was starting to decline. But that was never going to happen now was it? Here in the UK we came much later to the oil age with our relatively cheap oil peaking in 1999. No hint that HMG is about to instigate such a conversation here. But if a fall in standard of living is mentioned it may be that all of the adults you see around you would turn in a moment into that child you see bawling its eyes out because it can't get what it wants. In other words there may be no adults to have the conversation with.

Only time will tell

sbutler said...

Thank you for your blog, Albert. Your amazing life experience and your permaculture orientation makes you one of the few people in the world whom I completely trust and look to.




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