L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

22 March 2008 Blog Home : March 2008 : Permalink

The Easy Option

In the previous post I mentioned that I wanted to discuss a comment made by PZ Myers. This is the comment:

Science is providing a perspective that does not support tradition, that often reveals an uncomfortable reality like global warming or our familial relationship with worms, and it's difficult — there are no simple, intuitive paths to understanding the details of our disciplines. Religion, creationism, climate skeptics, the whole spectrum of ideologies that deny reality are easy: they are selling comfortable lies, the lies your parents and grandparents and whole darn family hold, the lies that make promises that the whole universe likes you personally and will help you out, the lies that require no intellectual engagement to support. You don't even need to be able to read a bible, as long as you can thump it.

Apart from the global warming reference I found myself agreeing with this. People are often unwilling to spend time examining stuff that their nearest and dearest tell them is true and certainly they hate it when someone tells them that not only is what they think wrong but that in order to understand why they need to study things and otherwise use their brain. It has to be said that I have precisely that reaction when I talk to the average "environmental" believer or pretty much any socialist/ communist/ statist because typically answering their objections requires them to go and do some research and/or learn economics.

Indeed the largest problem I have with those climate scientists who claim manmade global warming is occuring and that it will be a catastrophe, is that they seem to deliberately obfuscate their work. I'm willing to try and replicate some of their analyses, as are far more competant people such as Steve McIntyre, but we find it hard because they don't publish all the steps or all the source data. Furthermore, having apparently worked back from the conclusion they wished to the data they gathered and then been called on their inconsistencies they seem to react precisely like the folks PZ Myers is criticising, that is make appeals to higher authority and/or metaphorically stick their fingers in their ears and shout "I can't hear you".

In fact quite a lot of environmentalists seem to have this problem as do all sorts of poverty alleviation do-gooders. They simply hate the fact that some of the best environmental protection and poverty alleviation comes from figuring out the right economic incentives and letting the people involved get on with it. Their prefered solutions all seem to involve government regulation upon regulation along with government declarations, conferences and other similar events that make for good press but don't actually change anything on the ground. Looked at dispassionately these people frequently seem to worship the god of (transnational) government and they come across just as loopy as the creationsists and religious fundamentalists.

Of course while blind acceptance of "authority" in the form of experts, books etc. is bad, so is total skepticsm. I found an excellent essay recently (the essay isn't recent) that quotes a passage by G.K. Chesterton in a story in "The Man Who Knew Too Much":

"You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority."

This blind acceptance of "anything without authority" explains all the 9/11 truthers and most other conspiracy theorists quite well. And in some ways can be treated I think just the same as the blind acceptance of authority. Effectively the easy option for these people is no different in result to that which results from literal belief in the bible or anthropogenic global warming. [Note I'm not denying the possibility that AGW is occuring, what I'm complaining about are people who accept it is happening because they have done no further investigation than listen to the news]

The problem is that I suspect the reality denying "easy option" may be a valid survival technique in many cases. Most of the time we don't have time to investigate whether something is true or not and most of the time it doesn't actually make much difference to our existence anyway. We are better off spending our days hunting, farming, earning money etc. rather than considering the whichness of what. Historically we have turned to our religious leaders to do the investigating of the whichness of what, these days we more often turn to scientists, journalists or government leaders, but in either case what we do is ask an expert and believe his answer without taking time to validate it (or at least not much time) and this is, as I say, a good thing because it keeps us and the rest of society fed, clothed, housed etc.

For the most part and for most of human history it hasn't really mattered which god one worships or which rites and sacrifices are made. Obviously some religious actions (e.g. Aztec human sacrifice) are pretty bad and others (e.g. medieval christianity's distrust of hygeine) are in fact marginally harmful to the practitioners whereas others (avoidance of pork in hot climates) provide health benefits, but in general it hasn't mattered whether one believes in Thor, Zeus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Moses or Mohammed (or any other spirits, gods and goddesses). This is because, while each religion's explanations for our existance are contradictory and generally not backed up by any evidence, the practical behaviour code of each religion has been much the same. All religions pretty much preach not to murder, steal etc., most preach respect to authority and so on. And one can argue that many of the various isms, i.e. socialism etc. are much the same at a personal level. Hence for most humans most of the time, the "easy option" of asking a priest or scientist or government official, works well enough that there seems no reason to do something else.

Unfortunately there are times and places where this isn't the case, where we actually need to work through the evidence and do sums ourselves and here we're left struggling in a modern society. This is in fact where democracy and the internet with its ability to let anyone comment on anything comes up and bites us. The problem is that I think human nature may have evolved so that for many people the "easy option" ends up being the only option.