How we rarely understand what phenomena are really telling us

Image credit: BBC

There’s an adage that says, “ordinary people understand nothing, clever people can solve difficult known problems, but it takes a genius to see what’s right in front of everyone’s eyes.”

Or, as per the BBC TV Series Sherlock when the eponymous hero tells his amanuensis Dr. Watson: “As ever, you see but you do not observe.”

I’d argue, however, that we don’t have to be geniuses to see what’s right in front of us. We just have to ignore the clamor of voices telling us what we should believe and instead look at the data and really think hard about what it is really telling us. Very often, the popular narrative is woefully wrong.

For as long as our species has been around, we’ve been clambering over rock formations that were practically shouting their history, yet it wasn’t until James Hutton and then Charles Lyell that anyone began to listen.

Ordinary people, doing what ordinary people always do, merely thought what they were told to think, believed what they were told to believe, and repeated whatever they’d been told to repeat. For ordinary people the world was 6,000 years old and had been created by an invisible magical creature that began its recorded existence as a cult god of an obscure tribe of illiterate and innumerate goat-herders living in the middle-east. Ordinary people knew the world was 6,000 years old and immutable because that’s what they’d been told by purported authority figures. So the rocks told them nothing despite holding rich evidence that showed billions of years of continual change.

For thousands of years ordinary people would look up at the sky and see a golden chariot followed by a silver chariot, each completing a turn once per day. As it was obvious to ordinary people that the Earth was flat it was also obvious that stories about luminous deities chasing each other across the sky were true.

Everything necessary to realize these simple-minded tales were utterly spurious literally passed over the heads of ordinary people. Even after Eratosthenes understood from the form of the shadows that moved across the moon every 28 days that all heavenly bodies must be spherical, and even after he accurately measured the circumference of the Earth some two hundred years prior to the Common Era, ordinary people continued to believe the Earth was flat simply because that’s what they were told by purported authority figures.

All the ordinary people traveling on the Beagle as it went from one Galapagos island to another saw what Charles Darwin saw: animals and plants that differed subtly as the ship moved along the island chain. But ordinary people knew that all the plants and animals had been made by the cult god of Christian mythology and were never-changing because that’s what they were told by supposed authority figures, whereas Darwin realized that these gradations from one species to another was the mode by means of which all life changes all the time.

Ordinary people looked; Darwin saw.

Ordinary people had seen objects falling for all of human history but it took Isaac Newton to realize how important and illuminating this simple fact truly is, because it tells us something fundamental about the universe in which we live. For ordinary people, things fell because presumably their god wanted it that way and that was the end of the story.

There are countless more examples that illustrate all too well how we, as a species, rarely understand the things that are right under our noses. Evolution has hardwired us to do as little thinking as possible, because brain activity burns precious glucose that more often was required to power muscles to search for food or escape from predators. So we blindly accept whatever we’re told by purported authority figures, we conform to whatever group norms happen to apply at any point in time, and we repeat whatever we’ve been told without ever actually thinking about it. We look at things, but we do not see what they are telling us.

Here’s a very pertinent example for our present time of mass hysteria: in World War II, British bombers flew over Nazi-occupied Europe and inevitably were met not only by attack from the Luftwaffe but also from near-constant anti-aircraft fire. A great many bombers were lost to this type of attack, and a great many more returned to home base riddled with holes. In every instance the crews of these returning bombers believed their survival was due to “luck.”

Ordinary people (air crews, military commanders, politicians) all clamored for some magical new lightweight armor to be developed that would save bombers from anti-aircraft fire, because obviously the way to save bombers was to armor them all over and make them invulnerable. It was deeply unfortunate that conventional armor was far too heavy; hence the hysterical clamor for scientists to invent new armor quickly. Everyone knew this was the only possible solution.

Except of course, ordinary people never see what’s right in front of them. Nineteen-year-old Freeman Dyson looked at the patterns of holes in returning airplanes. Ordinary people mocked him: what could he possibly learn? Each of these aircraft had returned by pure luck alone!

Dyson, however, understood that the holes were telling him something very important: every aircraft that returned home did so because the holes weren’t significant. He was looking for where the holes weren’t.

Dyson correctly understood that any aircraft hit in a significant place would not return home and so his sample wouldn’t contain any planes with holes in the vulnerable areas.

Thus, to increase survivability of the bomber fleet, it would only be necessary to place armor at these vulnerable points, not armor the entire aircraft. In the end, Dyson’s analysis showed that a small armor plate just beneath the pilot and copilot would dramatically increase survivability while not adding significant weight.

Of course, ordinary people knew that couldn’t possibly be the answer. But in the end the British bomber command, desperate to try anything because the magic lightweight armor that everyone “knew” to be the “right” answer was still nowhere in sight, adopted Dyson’s recommendation.

And very quickly, Dyson was proved right.

Today, ordinary people gawp open-mouthed at sensationalist context-free reportage that tells them covid-19 is an existential crisis. Dull-witted politicians, ever driven by the imperative of minimizing loss of votes, respond to media-induced hysteria by introducing all manner of highly damaging rules that have crippled the globe and thrown more than half a billion people into absolute poverty. Ordinary people believe these rules will “save” them because, well, that’s what they’ve been told.

Although they literally stare at the truth every single day, ordinary people don’t see the obvious: covid-19 is a minor, unimportant challenge.

We’ve created massive harm on a global scale because we can’t see what is right in front of our eyes. Today, four months into the pandemic, around 200,000 people have died. Let’s play Devil’s Advocate and assume that by the time we’ve emerged from our self-induced hysteria, twenty million have died worldwide (this is, by the way, a much higher estimate than even the most pessimistic epidemiological projection).

Context-free, this sounds like a huge number. It sounds like everyone on Earth is going to die from covid-19. Our tiny ape-brains are overwhelmed by large numbers. We retreat into fear and any vague capacity we had for thinking shuts down entirely. We yearn to be saved by authority figures. We “rally behind the flag” because we’re a group species and that’s what group species do.

But if instead we do what Freeman Dyson did, we can see the truth: covid-19 is insignificant.

The world’s population is currently around 7.4 billion people. Thus 20 million deaths would represent 0.27% of the world’s population. That’s one quarter of one percent.

As around sixty-eight million people die each year in the ordinary course of things, a twenty-million person death toll would be merely 29% higher than average. And remember: no one thinks the covid-19 death rate is going to be anywhere near that level. Not even close. Not even under the very worst possible scenario.

Of course, ordinary people don’t reason like this. Ordinary people believe whatever they’re told, which is why the great mass of us are reliable dupes for every shaman, priest, politician, and media baron who comes along. As ordinary people, we question nothing. Every war is sold to us as “protecting freedom” and “defending our nation” and we lap it up, never once grasping the obvious fact that wars are fought among the rich and powerful using ordinary people as cannon-fodder.

Even when the blindingly obvious is right in front of us all, we remain clueless. Today, Sweden is routinely criticized by the mass media and ordinary people parrot the criticisms. No lockdown! Not enough social distancing! They’re endangering us all (though quite how is never actually explained…).

But what would Sweden reveal to a Freeman Dyson?

Despite not rushing mindlessly to embrace the stupid self-harming policies beloved elsewhere, Sweden is not experiencing an epidemic of death. As of today, with open borders and free movement of people, Sweden has recorded around 2,200 deaths in a population of over eight million. That’s 0.0275%. And those have been the old and the sick, who would have died within weeks anyway, covid-19 or no covid-19.

Clearly Sweden has avoided mass death while mostly maintaining regular day-to-day life. This tells us loud and clear that covid-19 isn’t a deadly disease that will, unless we’re all locked indoors forever, kill everyone.

Even if Sweden’s ultimate covid-19 toll reaches 20,000 people, that will still be only 0.275% of the population. In other words: sad for those who die, but in no possible way an existential crisis requiring a global shutdown and plunging our grandchildren into impossible debt.

Furthermore, if we’re going to become hysterical about death, why aren’t we concerned about obesity, which kills three million people a year? Or about smoking, which kills more than twice that number? It’s striking to note that nearly all covid-19 deaths of those under the age of 70 are among the obese and smokers. Because when a person’s immune system is compromised by persistently terrible lifestyle choices then their risk of death increases dramatically. We shouldn’t need a virus to make that blindingly obvious. Mindless jabber about “body acceptance” and “no fat shaming” and “the patriarchy” doesn’t cut any ice with bacterial and viral infections, any more than it does with cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Type II diabetes.

We don’t panic over these far greater risks simply because the mass media can’t stampede us into hysteria about these things. Conversely, covid-19 was a dream come true for an industry that relies entirely on endless context-free sensationalism in order to grab eyeballs and thus ensure revenues. So we’ve panicked over the insignificant while we ignore the vital matters of the day.

Ordinary people read stories about hospitals being overwhelmed and how lockdown is “the only way to flatten the curve!” We don’t pause to think why our medical systems are unable to respond adequately to a disease that is causing problems for a minuscule percentage of the population. Instead, we rally behind the politicians whose policies are responsible for this abysmal state of affairs.

In the UK the clownish Boris Johnson is experiencing record polling numbers despite being personally responsible for Brexit, which led to an outflux of 10,000 doctors and 30,000 nurses. Furthermore he leads a Party whose policies over the last decade have persistently under-funded every aspect of the NHS. In other words, the Brits are applauding the man who crippled their beloved health service because ordinary people can’t assemble facts in their heads and derive obvious conclusions.

We are always willing to embrace the absurd. During the Cold War, when nuclear conflict was a very real threat, ordinary people genuinely believed that hiding under their desks would protect them from thermonuclear blasts because that’s what the government and the media organizations were telling them. Anyone questioning this absurd assertion was condemned as unpatriotic, as a danger to others, and as a madman. No doubt a century earlier such heretics would have been burned as witches by ordinary people looking to “save” themselves from the dangers of black magic.

Ordinary people see nothing, even when things are presented to us in plain view. Ordinary people merely obediently parrot whatever we’ve been told to think.

And that’s why we are where we are today, and it’s why we’ll be back here again soon.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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