Dishonesty is Unsustainable
“I’m a little child. You know the emperor’s new clothes? I can see the naked emperor, just because I’m a little child-minded person. I’m not smart. I mean, good scientists are like that. They have the minds of children, to see through all this façade.” Clair Paterson [Reilly]
By Tony Noerpel
Applied Mathematician Roger Penrose, who won last year’s Nobel in Physics for his work on black holes writes in his substantial work, The Road to Reality: “I believe it is more important than ever, in today’s technological culture, that scientific questions should not be divorced from moral implications. … We need to address the question of separating true from false before we can adequately attempt to apply such understanding to separate good from bad.”
Our hunter/gatherer ancestors learned by experiment, observation and analysis and by culture where the good berries and roots were, which mushrooms were good to eat, which stones flake into sharp blades, how to start and control fire and whose poop is that, does it belong to something good to eat or something which might want to eat us? Replace culture with “consensus view” and we see that this is nothing more than the scientific method or more properly, the scientific method simply codifies how we’ve always learned stuff and formed our world views based on facts. And if facts didn’t matter to our ancestors, we wouldn’t be here.
While it is true every primitive culture seems to have developed stories about all sorts of things that they did not understand and could not explain and yet were curious about, such as their own origin and about the stars and other heavenly bodies, these matters did not impact the reality of their daily lives [Note 1]. Those who may have claimed that poison mushrooms were good to eat didn’t have very many descendants. Evolution has given us the capacity to think both fact-based, science, and story-based, ideology.
It appears to be a consensus view among psychologists that people are not persuaded by facts. If this were true then, besides not being here, our future survival, i.e., sustainability, is hopeless. The reason, I suspect so many well-educated people have become convinced facts don’t matter, is because in reality we are surrounded by noise from the mainstream media, social media, advertising, marketing, politics, extreme religion and economics.
The media is owned by five large corporations in America [Media] and wealth and power are concentrated within an oligarchy of large multinational corporations and billionaires [Li]. We have an economic system, capitalism, which encourages and rewards dishonesty. Mark Twain wrote: “What is the chief end of man? To make money, dishonestly if we can and honesty is me must.” Without lots of regulation by a democratic government, we do it dishonestly. The problem then may not be that we are not persuaded by facts but that we don’t know what the facts are anymore. We are insulated from reality.
A hunter/gatherer was confronted by reality constantly and if he didn’t grasp it, he didn’t eat. A modern American, wakes up, showers, drives to work and on the way grabs a coffee and danish, works (when he is not on Facebook), drives home, picks the kids up from soccer, watches TV and goes to bed and never has time to think about where the water, the materials used to make his car, his bed, and the roads, all the energy came from or how much of all of this is required and its impact on the biosphere [Bradshaw] [Elhacham]. His dinner came from Isle 10 in the supermarket and beyond that he doesn’t need to know. He has very little use for fact-based thinking to ensure his continued existence and he is exposed to a constant stream of stories. And his poor head, instead of being stuffed with important critical facts about his environment and how to make a living off of it such as would be the case of a more primitive hominin, is full of conspiracy theories, opinions, biases, prejudices, social norms and fantasies having nothing to do with reality.
Interestingly, as our science expanded with the codification of the scientific method, and better measurement tools, fact-based thinking proved increasingly successful in describing the world we live in as evident by our smart phones, MRI machines and the discovery of human-caused climate change [Voosen]. The facts we are collectively accumulating are pushing ideology and its stories into irrelevance. The unknowns have retreated all the way to the event horizon of black holes, the cosmic microwave background, the edge of the visible universe, the boundary between the quantum and gravity, and how proteins fold. And of course, we do not yet know what consciousness is. There remains plenty of work for budding young scientists.
But while stories have become less relevant to the functioning of our civilization, they have become more relevant to the vast majority of people. This is not because they are incapable of evidence-based thinking but because they are swimming in the noise of our culture.
A new paper, funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, was published last week [Kubin] with the title “Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts.” But let’s peek under the cover. Personal experiences, according to the authors, involving harm, were much more persuasive than personal stories involving no harm. Had a climate activist survived the Camp Road fire in California and narrowly escaped from Paradise with her life, that would be persuasive according to the authors. But a more mundane and honest fact that the statistics on climate related catastrophes demonstrate that such events have increased more than 300 percent since the 1980s [MunichRE], apparently has no persuasive force, though in reality, this is vastly more frightening when comprehended. Fortunately for us, the [Kubin] study has multiple flaws.
First, the authors made everything up. If you were pro-gun-control, the research assistant told you a personal story about saving her entire family from an intruder using a gun, but she would tell you a completely different story if you were pro-gun. As a point of fact, the stories (as well as the ‘facts’) used to test the subjects were fabricated. The authors write “This research assistant took the opposing stance on gun policy to the participant and offered either personal experiences or shared factual knowledge to support that stance.” Neuroscientist Tali Sharot says in her book that this kind of thing is pervasive in these studies [Note 2]. They are really testing the ability of the researchers to lie convincingly.
Another troubling aspect is that there is generally no follow up. These studies all measure immediate reactions. Once the subjects leave the lab and resume immersion into their comfort zone, how long does the persuasion last?
The most troubling aspect of this kind of research, besides being of suspect value, is that the authors divide issues up into those that are perceived as political/moral issues and those perceived as being in the fact-based domain. They give two examples in the latter case: investment opportunities or buying a car. Apparently, the authors never heard of bank runs and market crashes and never watched any car commercials, loaded as these are with emotional appeal. Stories work best in the political/moral domain again according to the authors. This categorization has an obvious flaw. Policy should be based on facts, not stories and what does morality have to do with dishonesty? According to Penrose, precious little.
So here is the problem in our society. The age of the Earth and our evolution are matters of fact having been liberated from the ideological domain by accumulated evidence and yet somehow have become moral/political issues for conservatives. Most liberals have no idea how old the Earth is but they do not think of it as a moral issue, and therefore are most likely to be persuaded by facts.
Facts being what they are, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and this fact is one of the most remarkable facts we humans have discovered. It should be widely known and celebrated and though due to one remarkable scientist, Clair Paterson [Reilly], he could not have discovered it, without having stood on the shoulders of millions of other humans, cooperating, and not just with other scientists and engineers but with farmers who grew the food that he ate and tradesmen who put the roof over his head. Unfortunately, facts conflict with conservative ideology. This is the palpably real divide in our country which many psychologists and pundits overlook.
Human-caused climate change is a matter of fact, which should drive good policy and therefore honest politics. Denying the truth is hardly a moral position. The Pope knows how old the Earth is, knows we’ve evolved, knows the reality of climate change and understands the danger of extreme wealth and power inequality [Note 3]. Religion need not be in conflict with facts.
Aside from right-wing religious objections to facts, conservatives have economic objections. But economic theory which requires one to deny climate change, and wealth and power inequality, is neither good policy, nor moral and most certainly wrong.
All organisms are sensorimotor phenomena. Humans, crickets, bacteria, whales, bee hives… have both sensory components to measure and observe the environment, and motor components to act. Free market capitalism would eliminate all sensory components (science-directed governance) and allow motor components to act indiscriminately (markets, billionaires, and multinational corporations).
We make the mistake of assuming it is only the fossil fuels industry which is not telling the truth about climate change. What all this means is that if we think we can persuade people of the reality and danger of human-caused climate change and the sixth extinction by telling stories we are competing with Rupert Murdoch, Charles Koch, and a host of well-financed individuals such as William Happer [Noerpel]. The only tools, people have, are the facts. If facts don’t persuade people, the human enterprise is unsustainable and humanity is likely finished.
I want to switch gears and discuss the solution space in future articles. This assumes we all appreciate the human predicament.
[Note 1] except for the odd fact that we tend to kill each other over differences in our various stories.
[Note 2] What I found and what was later confirmed for me by the neuroscientist Tali Sharot, is that psychologists fabricate hypothetical expert consensus out of whole cloth and pass it off as if it was really true in their studies [Sharot]. In an experiment on capital punishment, she admits “in reality the studies had been fabricated” (page 15). On another experiment about climate change acceptance, she again admits that the information given the subjects was made up (page 16). Both experiments in my view demonstrate nothing except the audacity of psychologists to believe they could lie convincingly.
[Note 3] Since the COVID 19 quarantine, the 660 billionaires extracted over $1.1 trillion dollars from the US economy [Collins] at the same time the economy shrank 3.5 percent [Siegel].
[Bradshaw] Bradshaw CJA, Ehrlich PR, Beattie A, Ceballos G, Crist E, Diamond J, Dirzo R, Ehrlich AH, Harte J, Harte ME, Pyke G, Raven PH, Ripple WJ, Saltré F, Turnbull C, Wackernagel M and Blumstein DT (2021) Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Front. Conserv. Sci. 1:615419. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419
[Collins] Chuck Collins, https://inequality.org/great-divide/updates-billionaire-pandemic/
[Elhacham] Emily Elhacham, Liad Ben-Uri, Jonathan Grozovski, Yinon M. Bar-On & Ron Milo, Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass, Nature, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5
[Kubin] Emily Kubin, Curtis Puryear, Chelsea Schein, and Kurt Gray, Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts, PNAS 2021 Vol. 118 No. 6, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2008389118
[Li] Jie Li, Bruce M. Boghosian, and Chengli Li, The Affine Wealth Model: An agent-based model of asset exchange that allows for negative-wealth agents and its empirical validation, 2018, https://arxiv.org/abs/1604.02370v2
[Noerpel] I wrote 6 BRL articles exposing William Happer’s dishonest defense of denial of climate change but they seem to have gone missing. You can find them on the Loudoun Climate Project website.
[Reilly] Ray Lucas Reilly May 17, 2017, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/94569/clair-patterson-scientist-who-determined-age-earth-and-then-saved-it
[Sharot] Tali Sharot, The Influential Mind
[Siegel] Rachel Siegel, Andrew Van Dam and Erica Werner, Jan. 28, 2020 was the worst year for economic growth since World War II, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/28/gdp-2020-economy-recession/
[Voosen] Paul Voosen, Global temperatures in 2020 tied record highs, Science 22 Jan 2021: Vol. 371, Issue 6527, pp. 334-335, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.371.6527.334