The Unassailable Fortress
How the human inability to reason is our defining characteristic
A long time ago a gentleman by the name of Carl Linnaeus was attempting to classify species and provide each with a suitable name. History does not record whether Linnaeus had a caustic sense of humor or whether he was simply obtuse; whatever the cause, he elected to name our species homo sapiens, which means “wise man.”
Astute observers of human behavior have been falling about in hysterical laughter ever since.
For if there is one thing we can always take to the bank, it’s the fact that our most obvious characteristic is near-total stupidity. We are almost invariably unaware of this because, well, we’re just too stupid to notice. Although each of us has a brain that weighs around 1.4kg and contains around 10⁸ neurons, each of which can have up to 20,000 connections to its fellows, we actually just use this organ as ballast to stop our heads bobbing about when we walk.
Being wise is the one thing we humans resolutely avoid at all costs.
Once we accept this simple proposition, evidence rushes in on us from all sides, every hour of every day. We’d expect grotesque stupidity in the realm of politics, because this is a domain in which lying to the ignorant and simple-minded is the high road to power. We’d expect stupidity in our mass entertainments, because there’s precious little money to be made serving a tiny fraction of the population and it’s far easier to rake in the gold by pandering to the lowest common denominator.
But, alas, we also see stupidity everywhere else.
People text while driving. People make utterly inadequate lifestyle choices that make them very sick and then they pretend these illnesses are merely fashion options about which they should not be made to feel uncomfortable regardless of the overwhelming cost to society as a whole. People do whatever they see other people doing on social media and they repeat whatever memes are circulating among people just like them on social media.
Most of us go from cradle to grave without ever once thinking; we merely repeat what we’ve been told by others and imagine this to be a wondrous intellectual accomplishment.
In theory there is one realm of human endeavor in which quotidian stupidity ought in principle to have less purchase: science.
All of human history has been almost entirely mindless babble about gods and goblins, ghouls and ghosts, and all manner of fantastical nonsense utterly unrestrained by any contact with reality. Only in the last few hundred years have we slowly begun to drag ourselves out of our mental Dark Ages thanks to the gradual emergence of scientific empiricism.
When we force our madcap notions to confront reality by means of requiring tangible proofs, we discover we have a way to side-step our habitual credulity and incapacity for reasoning. We can create a hypothesis (for example, “elephants are really birds that have lost their wings” or “the Earth is really flat”) and we can then test it against available data. Anatomy and DNA analysis proves that elephants never had wings, and simple observations prove the Earth is in fact an oblate sphere. Better yet, all of the evidence available strongly supports these conclusions whereas there is no evidence whatsoever for the contrary hypotheses.
Using scientific empiricism we can therefore reject the spurious hypotheses and focus instead on acquiring more real-world knowledge instead of wasting our time babbling on about imaginary nonsense.
So one would hope that at least in the realm of science we’d be spared everyday human intellectual incapacity.
Alas, this hope is regularly dashed on the very rocks of empirical evidence.
While it is true that the scientific method does eventually yield valuable results, the road to those results is often long and tortuous. Students of science very rarely are taught how to design experiments correctly. As both Nature and Science pointed out in the first decade of this century, half of all published research is complete junk and a great deal more turns out to be unreproducible. In other words, most scientists are churning out worthless nonsense.
For those who subscribe to even a handful of the hundreds of journals out there, this depressing truth becomes evident all too soon. And then we have the mass media which amplifies nonsense because it requires a constant diet of headline-worthy sensationalist garbage. Every single day brings a truck-load of new nonsense splashed across the headlines. And so this intellectual trash buries the few genuinely interesting papers in circulation, and the ordinary person acquires a wholly unreliable notion of reality.
I’m writing this on Tuesday 27th October 2020. On this day the BBC News website leads with a typical sensationalist puff piece. Professor Helen Ward and her team at Imperial College London have just published a paper in which they claim that antibodies to SARS-CoV2 decline rapidly and therefore are unlikely to provide immunity to subsequent reinfection. As the BBC likes to ensure that nearly every single story it now publishes is about covid-19, this fits wonderfully into their editorial policy.
But is it true?
Of course not. When we look at the study itself we see a most obvious and glaring flaw. All the researchers have done is to gather data on tests and antibodies. In July in the UK 60 people per 100,000 had antibodies to SARS-CoV2. In September only 44 people per 100,000 had such antibodies. The team interprets these findings as “proof” that antibody production declines rapidly.
One must pause to emit a long, deep sigh.
Surely even a small child would spot the problem with this reasoning? Surely an entire team of academics couldn’t have failed to see the flaw in their argument? But no. Like most so-called “science” the Imperial College team have merely been practicing cargo-cult behavior that’s utterly worthless.
Here’s why: in July, testing was very limited in the UK and largely confined to those who had symptoms. In September, testing was slightly more widespread. Therefore more people were tested. We’d expect with more testing to see two things: (a) a greater numerical count of people with antibodies, but (b) a lower percentage of all those tested would have antibodies.
The study did not follow the July cohort into September and re-test them. The study merely extrapolated from large-scale data. For all we know, the July cohort who had antibodies still has those antibodies now. We have no idea, because the research team failed to think about this very obvious and very important detail. Instead, they merely performed a spurious statistical analysis that led to wildly erroneous conclusions.
Conclusions which are now splashed across the UK media.
But don’t worry. The team also claims that even if antibodies fall rapidly, by magic alone a vaccine will be more effective than natural production of antibodies via exposure to the virus. This miracle is of course in direct opposition to everything we know about vaccines and antibodies and directly contradicts the “results” of the Imperial study, but never mind. It’s what people want to hear. A magic vaccine is coming to save us.
And this, supposedly, is “science.”
Things get even worse in the so-called “social sciences” which are pure cargo-cult even at the best of times.
The Economist magazine, home to excitable squealy sparkly young things from Oxford and Cambridge, today published an article entitled Can too many brainy people be a dangerous thing?
In this article a suitably credulous and unreflecting journalist writes excitedly about an academic by the name of Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut who in 2010 published a paper in which he claimed that populism/nationalism is driven by hordes of highly educated people locked in a power struggle with one another as they compete for an insufficient number of jobs.
According to Turchin, populism arises from discontent among the elite. As we’re now living through a tsunami of mindless populism/nationalism, other academics are jumping up and down with febrile excitement declaiming the supposed foresight of Mr Turchin. No doubt a book deal and TV appearances will serve to reinforce his temporary fame and ensure his ideas are spread among the general population to some degree.
There is of course one glaring problem with Turchin’s argument: it is totally at variance with all of the facts.
When we step outside the self-congratulatory walls of academia we can’t help but notice something rather important that Turchin and the sparkly young journalists at The Economist seem to have missed: the tsunami of mindless populism/nationalism that is corroding our fragile civilization is not being driven by discontented elites.
It’s being driven by the under-educated, the ignorant, and the parochial.
Who voted for Brexit? Not the young university-educated urbanites. They voted to remain in the EU because they understood that leaving would be a catastrophe. Brexit voters are old, uneducated, ignorant, stay-at-homes who basically loath foreigners because they speak different languages, enjoy different food, and don’t wear cloth caps in the bathtub.
Who voted for Trump? Not the young university-educated urbanites. They voted for Clinton because they understood Trump is an infantile moron with no redeeming characteristic whatsoever who inevitably would be a total catastrophe for the USA. Trump voters are old, uneducated, ignorant, who loath people with dark skins and hate anyone with an IQ above that of a mentally retarded pigeon.
The facts therefore do not in any way support Turchin’s hypothesis.
So why hasn’t the hypothesis been rejected? Simply because people are (yes, you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) incredibly stupid. Just because someone has tenure somewhere doesn’t make them smart. It merely shows they were able to play the system and are now comfortably coasting toward retirement.
These are just two examples among literally too many to count. Every day brings new evidence of our inability to perform even the most rudimentary reasoning. Every day shows us we have ample reason to shake our heads at Linnaeus’ absurd nomenclature.
So where does this leave us? Do we collapse in despair, tune out the world, and retreat into depression and defeat?
There is an alternative. If we stop believing things just because someone tells us they are true, we can begin to apply some modicum of reason. Instead of being credulous, we can say: show me the evidence.
We can read the published papers rather than the moronic news headlines. We can consider whether the experimental design was adequate (most usually, not). We can look at the statistical treatment to see if it’s appropriate (most usually, not). We can see if the argument is self-contradictory (most usually, yes) and whether the accumulation of other evidence supports it (most usually, not).
We need to remember that there are really no such people as “scientists.”
Science is a process.
Scientists aren’t magically granted exclusion from ordinary human stupidity and obtuseness. Scientists are people attempting to practice science. Mostly they get it wrong. Occasionally, and wondrously, they get it right which is how progress occurs. But getting it right is the exception, not the rule. We can no more “believe in scientists” than we can believe in priests or psychics or Tarot readers or witch-doctors.
Each one of us needs to attempt to use our limited intellects to sift through the endless stream of mental garbage that is spewed out daily in order to find the occasional rare speck of gold.
If we don’t do this we’ll continue to stumble around, imagining that we have something of importance when all we’re clutching is a worthless lump of mental pyrites.