Outright fiction is being peddled as historical and scientific fact, warns Damian Thompson in an extract from his provocative new book
George Bush planned the September 11 attacks. The MMR injection triggers autism in children. The ancient Greeks stole their ideas from Africa. "Creation science" disproves evolution. Homeopathy can defeat the Aids virus.
Do any of these theories sound familiar? Has someone bored you rigid at a dinner party by unveiling one of these "secrets"? If so, it is hardly surprising. In recent years, thousands of bizarre conjectures have been endorsed by leading publishers, taught in universities, plugged in newspapers, quoted by politicians and circulated in cyberspace.
This is counterknowledge: misinformation packaged to look like fact. We are facing a pandemic of credulous thinking. Ideas that once flourished only on the fringes are now taken seriously by educated people in the West, and are wreaking havoc in the developing world.
Damian Thompson remarks on the apparently contradictory notion that we live at a time when the triumphs of the Scientific Method should allow us to better evaluate data and test reality, but we are failing miserably.
We live in an age in which the techniques for evaluating the truth of claims about science and history are more reliable than ever before. One of the legacies of the Enlightenment is a methodology based on painstaking measurement of the material world.
Richard Landes, in his comments on the story, sees our failures as, in part, the result of post-modernism undermining notions of reality.
His exploration draws our attention to a critical dimension of (an often unconscious) information warfare that we are conducting, in many cases, against ourselves. Nothing illustrates the danger of using post-modernism (e.g., “there is no such thing as objectivity”) to detach ourselves from the kind of “reality testing” that only a sober form of self-criticism can assure.
Both Thompson and Landes have identified a serious danger facing our Civilization, however, if anything I think they underestimate the danger.
Both take the position that in our culture and civilization, rationality and reality testing are the default mode of thinking for the population. Unfortunately, this is exactly 180 degrees off. Rationality and logical thinking are late developments and are not universal. They are mental habits dependent on mental structures that are painstakingly assembled over the course of a long period of time. They are abilities that require a tremendous investment of time and energy to acquire and are extremely sensitive to disruption.
Damian Thompson seems puzzled by the easy acceptance of Conspiracy Theories and nonsense by large groups of people, and distressed to see such beliefs moving form the fringes toward the center. The cruel secret is that such beliefs are a great deal easier to acquire and hold than true knowledge.
As I have noted on many occasions, the human mind is a conservative device. Once a template has been established it is far easier to fit new data into the existing framework than to question one's assumptions and expend mental energy trying to make sense out of contradictions.
If you already know that George Bush stole the election in 2000, then it is much easier to believe he could also be capable of engineering 9/11, of lying about Saddam's WMD, and a host of other nonsense that has flourished on the left. If you do not understand how the theory of evolution has been researched and examined in minute detail by innumerable scientists, if you have no real idea how the edifice of science was built, then the minor flaws and incompleteness of the theory can easily be used to support beliefs that have no evidence to support them at all, such as Intelligent Design. (Perhaps the Deity did in fact create life and the universe and included a consistent body of evidence to support the theory of evolution; if so, this would not be resolvable using scientific methodology and until he or his agent appears or reappears, whichever you prefer, it is a matter of faith not science.)
There have been many factors that have contributed to the assault on reason which have eroded our capacity for reality testing. Science is hard; scientific knowledge is only slowly accumulated by extremely hard work mastered by only an extremely small minority of very bright people. Most science is impossible to understand by most people. We have long since reached the Arthur C. Clarke inflection point where "technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." Magic is explained by magical thinking, not by science. Science has been reliably demonized by those who are incapable of performing or understanding science. The rigors of the Scientific Method, the single most important reason for our civilization's success, are too difficult for our children's tender self-esteem to tolerate. Once we no longer expect our children to understand that 1 + 1 must always equal 2, even if we want it to equal 1.99 or 3, and that all answers are equivalent as long as they are trying really, really hard, we have surrendered our ability to think.
Worse, even among those who should know better, the temptation to take mental shortcuts persists. When rationality is further subverted by unconscious desires, it is no contest, real knowledge has no chance of surviving.
Anthropogenic Global Warming, a theory that is reliably presented as "proven" by politicians who have no idea what they are talking about, is a prime example. AGW might be an adequate focus for current anxiety; it might even be a potential problem down the road; but as an avenue to increase state power in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians, it has already been "proven." They do not see themselves as cynical manipulators but as visionaries warning of danger and trying to save the planet. That science does not proceed the way they think it does completely eludes their attention.
We are living in dangerous times. Anxiety over the future and the pace of change (change ushered in by magical technologies that no one can fully understand) naturally produces powerful regressive forces in a culture. Our rationality can be so subtly and easily subverted that we usually don't recognize it until far too late. Worse, those whose grasp of reason is weakest, either through limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy, are most susceptible to adopt the easy solutions of irrationality.
Just beneath the surface of even the most stable and reasoned mind exists a cauldron of irrationality. The Unconscious can never be fully tamed and is forever attempting to find access tot he Conscious mind to enable and effect its desires. Conspiracy Theories, false prophets and messiahs, and easily identifiable scapegoats are the result; they are here to stay and will plague us and increase until we re-establish the safe haven that can only come from Knowledge.