Sunday, 30 January 2011

Psychic disease

Over at EU Referendum, Richard North posits;
I am being increasing attracted to the idea of "psychic disease" – not mental disease, as such, but a corruption of the intellect which allows otherwise sane people to do dangerously stupid things.
I think what Richard is referring to is known as 'Cognitive Dissonance', or perhaps more correctly 'Cognitive Bias' which is common to just about every belief system / religion ever invented.

We all do it. Especially when at the theatre or at the movies, we ignore glaring inconsistencies in appearance, reality and plot for the sake of being entertained. Mostly this is quite harmless, and helps take the edge off the vicissitudes of real life. The real problems begin when certain people start to take it seriously. Go to a science fiction convention when the 'hard core' fans are there and you'll understand what I mean.

As humans we indulge in such behaviour to 'fit in' with a family or peer group. To be part of something bigger than ourselves. To not stand alone in the crowd, or even to look as though you're standing alone and trying to look really tough / intellectual / appealing to whichever sex you prefer. Been there, done that, not telling..

A classic example might be otherwise sane, productive people who learn Klingon like it's a real language (and fail to see the joke). What starts as good old fashioned healthy escapism somehow twists into obsession. Similarly, the Animal Rights movement is widely supported by people who believe that animals think and feel as humans do, even when it is patently obvious that said animals don't. They wouldn't be animals otherwise. These are only two examples of legion and often end up as self reinforcing Möbius loops of ideas. Such loops of thought are so commonplace we rarely give them a moments attention. If we do, we dismiss them as mere personal eccentricity, or more darkly "Well everybody else thinks so". Even when nobody has bothered to ask 'everybody' even though somebody said they had. Yet when even the slightest examination of the idea in question demonstrates that logic, deduction and proof have little to do with it, white hot denial by the believer will be the result. It's very human. I've seen it a lot.

Sometimes the decisions made whilst under the influence of cognitive bias (Hands up those with an embarrassing / now unwanted tattoo) runs away from whoever made it, and before long consequence has taken over. Rather like not getting on terribly well with one specific person, turning it into a rabid hatred for everything they are, down to burning down the entire street they live in. The problem being that even if it is decided at some point that said person isn't so bad after all, by that time matters are so far advanced there's nothing that will stop his street being burned down and his neighbours slaughtered, because that will mean the decision makers were 'wrong'. Most people don't like to be seen as 'wrong' because that is a direct attack upon their self esteem, their self confidence. They would rather topple civilisation and create a new dark age than be exposed as a purveyor of simple personal cock-up. The higher up any hierarchy you go, the more accurate this statement becomes; mostly.

Notwithstanding, 'Belief' is a curious and wonderful force. It can drive people to do and achieve seemingly near impossible tasks. Continents have been crossed, Oceans navigated, massive edifices raised, all on the back of belief. So it is not a force to be despised. Yet belief is what happens when we don't understand, so we hide our lack of understanding behind a comfortable fictional construct, or 'lie'.

Despite our wealth of knowledge about the planet we inhabit, many of its processes are still very much a closed book, so we make stuff up so as not to look ignorant or stupid. Others believe what they're told because they don't want to look ignorant or stupid. Hence we're currently in the mess we're in.

In this specific instance, Richard is referring to the continued apparent belief amongst UK (and other) politicians that 'renewable energy' is somehow environmentally friendly, and that man made CO2 emissions somehow (Through an incorrectly demonstrated mechanism) rule the climate. This article rather blows that meme out of the water, and confirms what I've always suspected to be the truth. That we in the 'developed' West have cleaner air and water because much of the manufacturing for our bright shiny consumer toys has been offshored to China and elsewhere. Rather like a great deal of livestock production for the UK has been offshored to Middle Europe, where they aren't so picky about Animal Welfare, and Animal Rights activists don't know, or as in the case of Halal slaughter, are often too frightened of being called 'racist' to care about.

Seen one way, Richard's contention of an endemic 'Psychic disease' is all too real. Looked at from another, such blatant cognitive bias appears closely woven into the basic fabric of humanity, with the law of unintended consequences following like a shadow. It drives and motivates, just not very often in the right direction, that's all. If there is one lesson the careful study of History can teach us, it is this.

Please note; None of the above has been 'peer reviewed' but has been through extensive real-time axiom destruction testing. Empirical proofs can be made available, or made up to suit, whatever......

1 comment:

Angry Exile said...

Kudos to The Mail for coming up with a good one for a change as well as not spoiling it with a load of guff down the right hand side about slebs I've never heard of. Perhaps I'll stop being rude about them for a bit because that's something that needs to be in a big circulation paper. Might be slightly preaching to the choir until one of the 'useful idiot' papers undergoes some kind of Damascene conversion and does something similar.

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