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.
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.
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.
This is our truncated version of Rob Mielcarski's outline for our predicament:
Recently the activist collective, TheRules.org, 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.
- 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
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.
Two conversations about the same topic —
yet they are largely disconnected from each other.
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.
Next week, in the meantime, we will examine some corollaries that proceed from this analysis.