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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why Are We Such Pushovers for the Dubious Narratives of Mainstream Authorities?

We are suckers for narratives told by mainstream authorities. A large fraction of us will tend to believe any nonsense they pitch, whenever we keep hearing the same story told over and over again.

Let us imagine an alternate history in which suspected presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was not killed by Jack Ruby. Imagine that most of the TV shows and newspapers began telling us the same story: that Lee Harvey Oswald was an innocent patsy set up by some dark conspiracy to assassinate president John Kennedy. Imagine if Lee Harvey Oswald became a popular celebrity, who went on lots of television talk shows, talking about how he had been framed for the murder of John Kennedy. Imagine if the mainstream media had nothing but nice things to say about Lee Harvey Oswald.

Then on one dark and rainy night, you might open the door of your house, and see on your porch Lee Harvey Oswald pointing at you a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle. What would you say? Given all the media brainwashing you had been exposed to, there's a significant chance you would say something like this:

Hi, Lee! Oh, I see you bought me a rifle as a gift. How nice of you! Come in out of the rain, and have a cup of coffee.

Our tendency to believe any nonsense that is spouted by revered authorities was shown in the prelude to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2013. The government began telling us silly scare stories that were false. President George W. Bush asserted again and again that Iraq had terrifying weapons of mass destruction. A study found that Bush made 232 false statements about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, along with 28 false statements about Iraqi links to Al Qaeda. Some of the claims were absurd, such as his February 6, 2003 statement making it sound as if there was a threat of Iraq releasing aerial drones that would spray biological weapons on the United States. The claim was utterly laughable, because at the time the United States had the mightiest air force in the world, and Iraq's air force was almost nonexistent.

Bush's claims on Iraq's weapons were false, and some of his scare stories were downright ridiculous. But the American people were pushovers for the endless narrative repetition. By the time the war was launched, the White House had persuaded most Americans that the toothless Iraq was a terrifying threat. It was further evidence that large fractions of the population will believe false or absurd statements as long as they are dogmatically proclaimed by respected authorities.

It is amazing that most of the American people fell “hook, line and sinker” for the government's false claims about Iraq weapons of mass destruction. We should have learned a lesson from the experience of the Vietnam war, during which administrations (both Democratic and Republican) fed us a steady stream of outrageous lies for more than 8 years. From such an experience we should have learned to have been more distrustful of authorities in high places.

It is interesting to imagine an alternate reality in which astrologers were in charge of astronomy departments at universities. Astrology is a belief system based on the idea that the stars and planets exert some occult mystical influence on human affairs. You might think that if the departments of astronomy at colleges and universities were all controlled by astrologers, that most of us would shake our heads and ask: what has gone wrong with our astronomy departments?

But here is how things would probably work. Having abundant government and university funding, the astrologer professors of astronomy would be able to produce lots of papers trying to back up their claims. Such astrologers would use expensive computers to examine historical data, looking for particular events that were consistent with what astrology predicted on such a date. Having all of human history to search through, and tons of time to spend looking for matches, the professors would no doubt find some matches. Such matches between historical facts and astrological predictions would be described in scientific papers published by the astrologer professors. Such professors would triumphantly describe such evidence as decisive proof of the claims of astrology, that the stars and planets exert a mystical influence on human affairs. Almost any group with enthusiastic adherents and large amounts of funding can produce superficially persuasive evidence to back up its favored doctrines.

If such astrologists controlled the astronomy departments at our colleges and universities, and they were to get all their papers published in the scientific journals, and the mainstream media reported extensively on such papers, then probably most of the American people would believe in astrology. We would be captives of the endlessly repeated official narrative. Similarly, most Americans would believe in homeopathy if homepathy enthusiasts controlled the medical colleges.

When a mainstream authority holds the levers of powers and influence, it can effectively use various ad hominem techniques to marginalize the critics who point out gaps in the logic or evidence presented by that authority. So during the run-up to the start of the Iraq war in 2003, there was a great chorus of establishment voices denouncing critics of the unprovoked invasion as “peaceniks,” “pacifists,” "anti-American," "appeasers,” and “unpatriotic.” Similar tactics are used by modern authorities who try to paint as “enemies of science” anyone who questions some weakly established truth claim of a scientist.

It seems that almost any nonsensical doctrine could achieve large-scale acceptance just as long as it won large funding to push its message and got its adherents to sit in positions of power and influence. If the authorities today told us (as they did around 1500) that witches were a grave peril causing all kinds of social problems, then many an average Joe would now be arguing: hey, let's solve more of our problems, by burning more witches.

Mainstream authorities help to cast a spell on us by talking in dense jargon that may sound very impressive and learned, even if it states ideas that are poorly substantiated. But almost any nonsensical idea may sound impressive if it is stated in very technical language filled with jargon. A scientist would probably convince many that there is a secret world of life inside a hollow planet Earth, if the scientist stated the idea in a paper filled with dense jargon, twelve-letter words, and esoteric mathematical equations.

Authorities prod the sheeple to parrot the official line

Two classic psychology experiments have shown how prone we are to conform with authority, “tow the line” and go with the herd, even when doing such a thing makes no sense or contradicts the evidence of our own eyes. One such experiment is the Asch experiment. In that experiment a group of nine people were asked to judge which of the three lines in a rectangle on the right was a match for the single line in the rectangle on the left.

The Asch Experiment ( credit: Wikipedia Commons)

 The first eight people would always give the same wrong answer, because they were confederates of the experimenter, and had been told beforehand to give such an answer. The only person really being tested was the last of the nine to be asked about which line on the right rectangle matched the line on the left rectangle. Even though it was quite obvious to the eye that the answer by the eight was wrong, about one-third of the participants (the ninth person to be asked) gave the wrong answer, conforming to the other eight. In the control group, in which only a single person was asked without the other 8 present, less than 1% gave the wrong answer. The lesson of the experiment: large fractions of us may judge or state illogically when we feel social pressure to conform to some majority or authoritative opinion.  

Another relevant experiment was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were told to deliver electric shocks to an unseen person in another room, whenever the person failed at some verbal task he was given. The participants were told by a scientist figure in a white coat to deliver progressively more dangerous electric shocks to the unseen person in another room. If the participants objected to delivering such shocks, they were simply told something like, “Please continue” or “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or “You have no other choice but to continue.” Two-thirds (65%) of the participants delivered what they thought was a 450-volt shock to the person in another room, even though on the machinery they were using, that level was marked “Danger – severe shock.” The person in the other room wasn't actually being shocked, and the experiment was purely to test the obedience level of the person who thought he was delivering shocks.

The Milgram experiment is usually described as if it was only dealing with obedience, but it also can be interpreted as telling us that most people are pushovers who will believe something illogical when some scientific authority asserts it. Those who delivered what they thought was a 450-volt shock were apparently thinking things like, “I don't have any choice but to continue,” or “Even the severe shock won't hurt the person,” even though such beliefs made no sense given the circumstances and the labels on the machinery. People who heard about the Milgram experiment thought to themselves things like, “So if there's ever some evil Nazi-like scientist who wants me to do bad things, I shouldn't listen to him.” They should have been making a much more general conclusion, such as, “People are way too trustful of scientific authorities – we should question their claims, and accept nothing on the basis of authority.”

Some may say: but once something gets very popular in the universities and colleges, then surely it is something we can believe in. But that's not necessarily so. The 2016 book Imbeciles by Adam Cohen tells the story of the forced government sterilization of Carrie Buck. Carrie Buck was a woman of normal intelligence who was forcibly sterilized by the government in 1927, on the claimed grounds that she was “feeble-minded.” This was done under a Virginia law passed when eugenics was extremely popular in colleges and universities. Advocates of eugenics argued on Darwinian grounds that those with inferior genes should be sterilized to preserve the survival of the fittest. The book says this on page 4: “Eugenics was taught at 376 universities and colleges, including Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, and Cornell.” The book notes that many professors were ardent supporters of eugenics, which went out of style after its ideas reached a climax under the Nazis.

The case of Carrie Buck went before the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 in 1927 that Carrie Buck (a woman of normal intelligence) should be forcibly sterilized. Citing eugenics with approval, the distinguished justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. wrote in favor of the decision, in a decision that was quoted by a Nazi in the Nuremberg trial, who cited it as a kind of legal inspiration. Thousands were forcibly sterilized under the Virginia law, and the forced sterilizations continued until 1972. The Buck case shows how there can be diverse layers of authority that all are infected with the same false idea (something also shown by the 2003 WMD-lies fiasco, where diverse types of authorities kept feeding us the same falsehoods).

The reason why we should not trust a doctrine purely because it is taught extensively in colleges and universities is that our academic ivory towers are very prone to become ideological enclaves, where sociological effects, tribal enthusiasms and groupthink may cause some dubious doctrine to become enshrined as some “darling of the tribe.” That's what happened with eugenics for decades, and the same thing has happened to quite a few dubious doctrines that continue to enjoy undeserved popularity in academic circles.

Part of the problem is what I might call the “pinnacle perspective.” A person using this perspective will regard our current state as being the pinnacle of human progress. He may think: we can't be too far wrong, because we're at the pinnacle of human progress. The problem with such a perspective is that you could have thought in exactly such a way 500 years ago or 200 years ago. We can imagine someone during the witch-burning craze around 1500 reasoning: we can't be too far off the mark, because we're at the pinnacle of human progress. Such a person would have been very wrong indeed. To help cure yourself of the pinnacle perspective, imagine some human civilization 100,000 years in the future. What will they think about our current ideas about morality, life, and Mind? They will probably think that our ideas are largely primitive foolishness. After taking such a perspective, you may apply the proper scrutiny to the dogmatic claims of today's authorities.

Do not believe anything merely because a president, a preacher or a professor proclaimed it, but subject all of their claims to critical scrutiny.