“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Gravitating Toward Tribal: The Danger of Free-Floating Ideologies

Image from the movie Zardoz. Courtesy of Thersic.com
          Ideologies are usually conceived through a coupling of comfortable tradition with a calculation of self-interest. But they can also be borne of good faith efforts at understanding. More important than their origin and development is the degree to which they are grounded. If you work out a comprehensive and adequately complex ideology that serves to explain an otherwise incomprehensible phenomenon and possibly even offers some guidance for dealing with an otherwise chaotic and frightening dynamic, you’ve created a theory that will appeal to human minds desperate for understanding and a sense, no matter how meager, of control. But does the ideology match up with reality? That’s an entirely different question.

            Free-floating ideologies, those that persist solely owing to the comforts they provide and the conveniences they secure, survive confrontations with reality and subsist despite vast lacuna in empirical support because human perception operates through a process of cross-referencing sensory inputs with prior knowledge. What we see is largely determined by what we’re looking for, and how we see it by what we believe about it. Patterns arising in what ought to be random incidents often sustain beliefs—even though in most contexts humans are terrible at calculating probabilities. A natural confirmation bias has us perceiving and remembering all the times predictions arising from our theories come to fruition while missing or forgetting all the times they fail. We tend to enjoy the company of like-minded others, and rather idiotically have our convictions bolstered by their common acceptance by those with whom we’ve chosen to associate.

            Unmoored ideologies gravitate toward certain predictable tracks in human cognition. We like to think there’s some sort of agency behind everything, an intelligence governing the universe. To think that no one’s in charge of all the swirling and colliding galaxies is variously unsettling and terrifying to us. So we take in the sublime beauty of quiet sunsets and wonder at the beneficence of the creator. Or we note coincidences in our lives, the way they fall together in a meaningful, beneficial way, and we feel a need to express gratitude to the guiding divinity. This is mostly innocent. Though it can lead to complacence and willful ignorance of entire regions where this supposedly beneficent guide has deigned never to set foot, and it can add an extra layer of grief in response to catastrophe, the comfort of believing in an invisible protector and guide has little immediate cost.

            Much more worrying is the gravitation of free-floating ideologies toward tribalism. The pseudo-scientific cult that has arisen around certain varieties of psychotherapy has bequeathed to our culture the horrifying belief that an unknown portion of the population, predominantly male, can induce the modern equivalent of demonic possession, severe psychological trauma, through an inverted laying-on of hands. The ideology has made monsters of men. The fetishizing of free markets likewise entails a belief in a loathsome variety of sub-humans. The economy, true believers assert, is a battle between the makers and the moochers, the producers and the parasites. As a conservative friend put in, in a discussion of healthcare reform, “Giving insurance to the slugs will just make them bigger slugs.”

            If you challenge someone’s beliefs by suggesting theirs is an ideology divorced from reality, as everyone does who advocates for one set of beliefs in opposition to another, the proper response is to insist that the ideology emerged from an awareness of facts through inductive reasoning. But sunsets, no matter how sublime, don’t really provide any evidence for the existence of an intelligent agency behind the curtain of the cosmos. Troubled young women with histories of abuse don’t prove that sexual experiences in childhood cause a wild assortment of psychological maladjustments. And the higher incarceration rate for impoverished groups doesn’t in any way establish some fundamental divide between good and bad types of people.

            Once ideologies reach a certain stage of development, they become all but immune to contradictory evidence. When the facts cooperate, they are trumpeted. When they don’t, the devout have recourse to principles. I’ve referred advocates of particular varieties of psychotherapy to evidence that they’re ineffective. In response, I didn’t get references to other bodies of evidence supporting the beliefs and practices in question; rather, I got an explanation of how the therapeutic techniques were supposed to work. Present a free market purist with evidence that market competition doesn’t led to innovation, or leads to detrimental innovations, and you’ll likely get a lecture explaining the principles behind how it’s supposed to work, according to the free market ideology, rather than evidence that it does, in fact, work in the theorized way. This convenient toggling back and forth between inductive and deductive reasoning literally allows us to explain away disconnects between our ideologies and the world.

            It is the tendency of free-floating ideologies toward tribalism that leads me to advocate a strict adherence to science in matters of public concern. It wasn’t merely coincidence that the enlightenment represented the inception of both the traditions of science and universal human rights, which have suffered through a traumatic childhood of their own, and are now living out a tumultuous adolescence. The tendency toward tribalism is also why I’m wary of commercial fiction which almost invariably makes characters represent ideas and personal qualities, only to pit the good guys against the bad. J.K. Rowling can claim all she wants that the Harry Potter books teach kids the evils of bigotry, but any work with goodies and baddies taps into tribal instincts. Literary fiction, on the other hand, at its best, is an exercise in empathy.

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