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Jan 19, 2022

On rumors of impending doom

Posted by in categories: governance, government, human trajectories, internet, journalism, philosophy, science
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park

Throughout most of human history, the goal was to establish a better life for people. Whether proponents of change admit to it or not, they hope to make everything perfect. However, this very impulse to improve security against everything bad and eliminate all physical ills could precipitate just another kind of doom.

To borrow the words of a Jeff Goldblum character, those of us who did the most to uplift humanity may have been “so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, he pointed out that the modern world is complicated. Everything we don’t understand is something to fear (unless you are a specialist in it), and it is a thing that can be ignorantly speculated about in a vacuum, as vaccines are by many on social media.

Rather than give up on humanity’s ability to come to correct judgments, Sagan offers the tools of critical thinking, taking the form of the famous Baloney Detection Kit. The rules are things you can always try to offer someone if they believe nonsensical conspiracy theories.

For example, Occam’s Razor: we must default to the candidate explanation that requires the fewest assumptions. To claim all the word’s governments are in cahoots to push a hoax or poison everybody, and that their opposition to each other is false, requires innumerable assumptions about innumerable people and organizations. Any suggestion that sources of information refute you because they are in a conspiracy is bunk, because the claim relies on violating Occam’s Razor, which requires that we concede these sources agree most likely because they are all correct and succumbed to reality.

Unfortunately, offering such help is often a nonstarter for an avowed disbeliever in authority or science. They regard any intelligent challenge as simply proof you work for the elite they despise.

What makes the above even worse is that intelligence is no guarantee that you won’t believe and defend utter nonsense to the death. Many are not aware of basic logical fallacies and signs of poor reasoning. Education is usually restricted to one field of study, allowing no knowledge of the other fields. This is why false experts usually come from a different field of study than what they are being cited on. That of course is the argument from authority, where authority in general or in a different field of study is cited rather than the authority of data and consensus within the correct field.

Strong distrust in authority figures seems to arise regardless of society’s overall affluence or success. Paranoid impulses and attempts to denigrate authority figures are as vicious as ever. Perhaps due to our evolution as predators in resource-scarce environments, we may just be hardwired to think we need to fight over things. For some, this means whoever is in charge is evil and must be overthrown.

Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, maintains that things have been improving and violence has declined. However, if there is something primitive and defective in people, preventing their minds from accepting such improvements, and in fact compelling them hallucinate even worse injustices to fill in the blanks where they can’t find anything, we are going to encounter a lot of trouble. People could fight over different fictions, while burning down what could have become a resource-abundant utopia. We see the rejection of technological improvements almost every time they happen and the resistance seems like it is getting more violent, the more advanced the technology. Note the arson against 5G towers and assaults on telecommunication workers a while back.

You could literally create a machine that solves humanity’s problems or cures cancer, and there would be groups trying to destroy it. It suggests something very much wrong with either the current zeitgeist or with human nature as a whole, which will perpetually obstruct technological progress and compel us to descend back into a world of disease and poverty.

The reach of many conspiracy theories on social media seems unprecedented. The mobilization of people, whose paranoid and idiosyncratic views don’t even match one another, to march in the real world to protest what they really claim to be a medical genocide suggests something troubling. In the absence of true injustices and faults in society, many people are willing to make them up, even if they can’t agree with each other about which hallucinated injustice or threat is real. It is almost as if protest, revolt and riot just originate from being human, even in the face of nothing being wrong or things in fact getting better for all.

What is described here could ultimately suggest that the social betterment and ease of life brought about by modernity is in some ways backfiring due to the innate human paranoia not finding anything real to latch onto, and inventing fictional evils instead. It may be worse than Sagan suggested. With a substantial percentage of people rejecting authority with insufficient reason, we could see a kind of mass delusion in the era of the least violence, in which many people imagine they are suffering grave oppression and start acting on their belief even though they are not suffering at all.

The lack of severe injustices and easy access to food and modern conveniences is unnatural and might be akin to sensory deprivation, which rapidly causes vivid hallucinations, because humans did not evolve for it and their brains aren’t adapted to the situation. Not only would this explain random citizens hallucinating about medical conspiracies and protesting against them, it may even be prevalent on university campuses where academics and students probe each other, construct convoluted theories of oppression, and work towards hallucinating new injustices they can protest among themselves. Humanity seems to need bad things to talk about and rally people to do something about, even if previous generations would have laughed at us for how petty it is.

If Carl Sagan’s assessment that a complicated technological world leads to more people biting the hooks of false claims as they try to satisfy their need for explanations, a truly futuristic society for all may eventually prove too difficult to establish. Maybe the people refusing modernity should somehow be given their wish and allowed to opt out of it all, although how to do this unclear. If we try to drag everybody along with us into the future, we may end up forming a utopia only for it to be destroyed by some, convinced that it was all an evil plan in disguise. The human psyche has not evolved alongside our technology. Paranoia and pointless protest will remain, even if all the material causes of conflict are resolved.

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