Look Over There!
How misdirection, intentional or otherwise, leads us into persistent error
If one were unfortunate enough to find oneself in Las Vegas and for some reason unable to depart immediately for somewhere less corrosive, one could take sanctuary in the Theater of the Rio Hotel & Casino, located a short walk from the more fashionable Strip. Seated within the Theater, one could then watch a magic show performed by the incomparable Penn & Teller.
These two performers are masters of misdirection. Their specialty is telling the audience precisely what they are doing, yet still surprising the audience despite having revealed some elements of their tricks.
Their most famous demonstration of the power of misdirection involves wheeling onto the stage a real chicken in a cage supported by a flimsy metal dolly. Penn Jillette then stands in front of the cage to partially obscure it and lectures the audience on the importance of ignoring misdirection because the trick is going to be to make the chicken disappear from the cage. Teller, wearing an evening jacket, then discretely walks onstage behind Penn. Teller ostentatiously hides the chicken under his jacket and then walks offstage as Penn continues to talk. The audience laughs because Penn’s theatrical lecture hasn’t prevented them from seeing Teller in the background leaving with the chicken.
Penn then steps aside and the audience is shocked to see a fully-grown person in a gorilla costume folded tightly inside the cage. The misdirection wasn’t Penn talking: it was Teller pretending to hide his abstraction of the live chicken.
We humans are easily fooled in every realm of life. Our brains simply aren’t adapted to deal with complexity because for nearly all of our existence as a species we lived in relatively simple environments with relatively simple challenges. We therefore crave simplicity in all things. This is why our entertainments are invariably repetitive and shallow and almost never challenge the expectations of the audience. It’s why our politics are akin to a children’s puppet show: all noise and bluster entirely empty of intellectual content. It’s why we vote for people we think we’d like to have a drink with rather than those who attempt to present moderately coherent policies.
Brexit was a classic case of misdirection. Aside from all the infantile lies (“painless” “easy” “great for Britain”) there was intentional misdirection (“£350 million a week for the NHS”). As everyone with more than no functioning neurons knew that Brexit was really about xenophobia (“all them bloody foreigners speaking their foreign babble and eating their foreign muck”) the great misdirections were to pretend it was (i) a revolt against globalization, (ii) all about free trade, and (iii) all about being “British” and “patriotic.”
Amusingly for the British, they didn’t end up with a person in a gorilla suit crammed into a small cage. They ended up with an enormous turd placed right in front of them. And then they decided the turd was really pure gold, and smeared it all over themselves in order to convince themselves they hadn’t actually been credulous morons after all.
Often, misdirection is employed by cynical politicians who know the easiest way to garner votes is by lying to the ignorant and simple-minded, of whom there is always a significant majority. But sometimes misdirection arises out of ordinary human mental incapacity without any particular individual or group intentionally promoting it from the outset. This misdirection quickly gains traction and very soon millions are mindlessly repeating whatever the memes happen to be. Politicians then leap onto the bandwagon, smelling electoral opportunities.
We’ve been seeing this second type of spontaneous misdirection in people’s reactions to, and commentary upon, SARS-CoV2.
Instead of simply looking at the available data and drawing rational coherent conclusions from it, we’re focusing resolutely on concepts entirely irrelevant to the situation. According to the generic narrative which (of course) has been embraced and amplified by the mass media, covid-19 is the battleground over which two opposing political tribes are now fighting.
On the one side we have the tribe of Collective Social Responsibility. This tribe is convinced it is their political duty to regard SARS-CoV2 as an existential threat that will kill us all unless we practice endless hygiene theater and self-quarantine and close everything in sight. For this group, there are no costs, only benefits. Hundreds of millions of people made jobless and thrust into penury are simply overlooked, which is quite easy because those suffering the most have dark skins and live far away and are resolutely ignored by Western media.
This group also overlooks the enormous increase in suicides, the wrecked lives of students who can no longer study adequately, and the adverse impact on people’s health. Most importantly of all, this group overlooks all the data that shows clearly SARS-CoV2 is in fact a very minor threat compared to many others we live with daily, and now that doctors have mostly stopped killing their patents by forcing them into induced coma and ventilating them, the actual mortality rate is only very slightly greater than seasonal flu.
Furthermore, it’s actually very difficult to contract SARS-CoV2. After nearly a year, the global infection rate is about one week’s worth of infections for a regular flu season. Which means it’s not a very infectious virus after all, which means our absurd self-induced harms are totally disproportionate in terms of costs versus benefits. It’s no good shouting about forty-one million cases of covid-19 worldwide when annual flu infections number in the billions.
But none of these real-world facts matter. All that matters is the chicken of misdirection: covid-19 is all about social responsibility.
On the other side of the misdirection fence are those who believe that SARS-CoV2 is all about personal liberty. These folk are the mirror-image of the social responsibility group. For those self-identifying as Conservative Libertarians, there is no such thing as social responsibility. It’s all about personal freedom.
These are the people who think vaccines cause autism, who think the Earth is flat, and think guns save lives. It doesn’t matter than all the evidence shows irrefutably that their beliefs are totally wrong. They are wonderfully simple beliefs and this is all that matters. Complicated ideas, nuances, and ambiguities are anathema and therefore a simple meme or two is so much nicer and so much more comforting for tiny fearful minds.
Obviously we are all interdependent.
Brexit and MAGA are infantile delusions packaged for consumption by the stupid and ignorant. They are based on a fallacious notion. Amusingly, those who imagine they are for “freedum ’n’ demokrisy” are those who are often most dependent on others. Without the large pharmaceutical organizations manufacturing medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and all the other ailments the obese and malnourished are prone to, most Trump and Brexit supporters would be dead within months. Without global supply chains, those Trump and Brexit supporters would not have their smartphones and clothes and shoes and automobiles and adult diapers.
But Trump and Brexit supporters are ignorant and simple-minded, so they are utterly oblivious of these basic facts of life. All they know is that they have to resist “socialism” and “foreigners” in order to be “free” and “safe.”
And the mass media laps it up and churns it out and reinforces the misdirection constantly. Everything is presented in terms of one or other of these two distorting mirrors.
Sweden is presented by the social responsibility folk as a heartless wicked nation that sacrificed its elderly population and experienced a death rate that surely must have left Stockholm strewn with unburied corpses.
Sweden is presented by the individual freedom folk as a bastion of right-thinking that shows the importance of not surrendering to socialism.
Both groups are hilariously wrong.
Sweden did have a higher death toll than its nearest neighbors, but this was because the pandemic hit old people’s homes the hardest and many deaths were attributed to the virus that would have occurred anyway. People in their eighties don’t have decades of life expectancy ahead of them. Today, the cumulative per capita mortality rate of Sweden attributable to covid-19 is approximately equal to that of the UK, France, and several other nations. The difference is that Sweden has experienced an effective zero mortality rate from covid-19 for the last six months and continues to do so even as infections rise.
But Sweden is also one of the most socialist countries on Earth, where people readily acknowledge and embrace their inter-dependence on each other and their mutual responsibilities toward society as a whole. It is about as far from a loony gun-brandishing Ayn Randian nation as it is possible to imagine.
Sweden does have important lessons for us, but these lessons are being ignored because of the misdirections we’ve embraced. The social responsibility camp refuses to see that Sweden hasn’t inflicted massive unnecessary self-harm by destroying jobs and making everyone fearful and mistrustful of their neighbors. Instead, the social responsibility group say things like “Aha! Sweden’s economy has suffered!”
Of course it has. Sweden has a population of 10.3 million people and is hugely dependent on global trade, like every other developed and developing nation on Earth. It’s hardly to be expected Sweden could be unscathed by the absurd economic vandalism we’ve created by disrupting global supply chains, shutting borders, and throwing 1.5 billion people out of work. That’s like claiming Sweden should remain untouched by global thermonuclear war merely because it doesn’t possess any nuclear weapons itself.
The freedom-at-any-price camp fails to see how the absence of corrosive lying shock-jock media sensationalism has permitted Sweden to take a level-headed approach to SARS-CoV2. If the Swedes were subject to the same barrage of sensationalist fearmongering that comprises 99% of the market-economy-based “news” in the USA, the UK, France, and far too many other nations, they’d be running around like headless chickens too.
In short, no one is learning any of the valuable lessons Sweden (and Switzerland, and a couple of other nations) could teach us. Because we keep looking in the wrong directions.
Misdirection is a useful and amusing thing when confined to Las Vegas magic shows.
It is a very dangerous and destructive thing in everyday life.
It’s a shame we’re unable to tell the difference.