How many times in the last few years have you asked, “Can it get any crazier than this?” It has become the refrain of the times.
The study of how we know what we know—epistemology—has always fascinated me. In these crazy days, epistemologists must be scratching their heads with a pick axe trying to alleviate the itch of bewilderment. In my doctoral research, I journeyed through the world of epistemology to examine the influence of the religious beliefs of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on foreign policy that resulted in my monograph, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy. I was faced with reckoning the squishy world of faith-based beliefs on presidential decision making. The model I developed to assess these impacts is called cognetic profiling. It considers and weighs what we know as a matter of empiricism and experience with what we believe as a matter of faith gained through socialization and indoctrination on our decision making. It allows us to explain, and (with due humility) predict, the behaviors of world leaders. (Putin’s recent decisions were entirely predictable based on his cognetic profile.)
One of the greatest ironies of today is that with all the amazing advances in information technology we have seen in the last two-plus decades, our capacity to make better more rational decisions appears to have plummeted. Rational models in epistemology have, no doubt, been found wholly deficient in explaining why on earth we are making such bizarre decisions. What is missing in my model of cognetic profiling is a research pathway that includes stupidity, which seems to be ascendant in America today. When faced with incontrovertible facts, many Americans decided to embrace what Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, infamously titled, “alternative facts”; heretofore known as falsehoods, or lies. Even with our lives on the line during the pandemic, nearly half of Americans chose to ignore empiricism forcing policymakers to offer a combination of incentives and disincentives to coax us to get the jab. Our fantasy world, founded in magical thinking, has apparently become more precious to us than reality.
The twentieth century in America was an era of what I have called “the scientification of everything.” As we applied scientific method to all aspects of our lives, we attempted to assert the rational will of humans in all of our decision making. Mastery of anything and everything was simply considered a matter of data processing. If it could be quantified and fit in an equation, it was considered relevant. There was little room left, in any of our decision models, for narrative, impulse, or faith-based beliefs. And, there was no room for “alternative facts.” In this new century, we have decided to rebel against reality—against facts—and elevate things like meme-based whims over empiricism. The “scientification of everything” certainly had its faults, but today we live in a world that would make Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter blush with envy. Crazy? Yes, it is.
So, why is this happening and what can we do about it?
The first thing I will point to, in a constellation of culprits, is that we are overwhelmed with information sources that arrive at the speed of a click or, more recently, are pushed in our face whether we like it or not, as in “banner notifications.” The promise of information technology has morphed into the nightmare of disinformation technology. We are faced with what the psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has identified as the “paradox of choice.” Like the three-hundred or so choices of cereal in the grocery aisle, we would much prefer ten. Abundance breeds anxiety, which has dramatically increased our error rate when making decisions.
The second culprit is the media—both traditional and online/social. In the twentieth century, media was, for the most part, a reliable source of information. The processes and ethics that journalists subscribed to assured the reader/listener/viewer that what they were consuming was likely true. Deceit bore consequences; today it bears benefits. The problem that arose is that as new sources proliferated—as quantity increased—reliability/quality decreased. Instead of a moderate flow of reliable information that was easy to consider and digest, we got a firehose level of (largely) bullshit that hit us in the face 24/7, producing a disorientation that would make Kanye West appear sane. In the same manner as Eisenhower warned us in his farewell address of the “military industrial complex,” perhaps Obama should have warned us of the disinformation complex. Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, codified the strategy of our 45th president when he proclaimed, “The real enemy is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” The result? Regardless of how many times we scrub and wash, the stain fades but the stench remains as the flow of crap continues at firehose rates.
In response to being overwhelmed by a flow of disinformation, our coping response has been to seek simplification through association with groups, organizations, and political tribes, which naturally provide us with a set of filters in the form of prescriptions and proscriptions—what to believe and think or not to believe and think. In the history of humankind this function was the exclusive domain of religion. Today, every group of any orientation or function seeks to affect our decisions. In other words, we have abdicated both the consideration of information and its use in decision making to those we wish (for whatever reason) to associate with. Every group or organization has its own norms and rules that we are, either implicitly or explicitly, required to follow. Call it the hidden cost of membership. This is the most insidious of all the factors in the constellation of culprits that have degraded our decision making. It is through our choices of associations that we have become lazy and, frankly, stupid. In effect, we have taken a vast complex world made possible from our success and allowed its walls, ceiling, and floor to collapse in on us in order to affect simplicity.
Among other things, this explains the proliferation and acceptance of conspiracy theories in spite of empirical evidence that easily disproves many conspiracist’s claims. At the heart of conspiracies is simplicity, which is why they have become so popular. It is easier to accept a claim from a Facebook group that Ivermectin paste—something used to de-worm horses—might prevent or cure Covid-19, rather than wade through epidemiologist’s reports and seek the advice of medical professionals, let alone endure the public health gauntlet to be vaccinated. And, Ivermectin now comes in mint flavor! (Kidding. I think.) It may seem ironic that opposites—the far right and the far left—were those most resistant to Covid vaccines, but they are also those who are the most ardent subscribers to group-think. Their identities—their personal brand—are closely tied to their associations. They claim to be independent free-thinkers since they live at the margins of the socio-political spectrum, and yet, in reality, they are some of the most zealous close-minded people among us.
As the risk essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan and Antifragile) once told me, as the world grows more complex, events compound such that outliers (black swans) become more prevalent. For those of you who are statistics junkies, the effect of this is to flatten the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution; more like a cymbal than a bell. This condition implies higher risk and is naturally disorienting. It requires much greater and more sophisticated capacities for decision making. Reliability of information is paramount. Unfortunately, the disinformation complex has come around to bite us in the ass.
The solution resides in adopting three new practices: slow down, discard and disassociate, and recommit ourselves to a sense of personal responsibility to be accountable for our own unique and discrete decisions. Just because technology moves information faster does not mean we need to make decisions faster. Deliberation is a choice. Just because everyone else belongs to a group and accepts edicts without inquiry, does not mean you have to. Be unique; be independent. Finally, don’t let others tell you what to think or do. The consequences are your own, the decision should be too. Our destiny—individually and collectively—depends on our willingness and capacity to regain control of our lives. No more delegating or abdicating. The biggest culprit in the constellation of the disinformation complex is us.
It is your mind, use it (again). Zombies may be entertaining in movies, but it is no way to live.