The now-essential thing evolution hasn’t equipped us to do
Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to be convinced that the Apollo moon landings were faked, the Earth is flat, lizard people are secretly controlling the world from underground lairs, Enneagrams are meaningful, and who knows what other sorts of nonsense fetid minds can conjure up.
Millions of people believe this spurious junk, just as billions believe equally implausible stories about invisible magical gods and goblins and reality-defying miracles. Moreover plenty of Westerners mouth vapid statements such as “it was meant to be” and “everything happens for a reason” and “the universe will provide.”
So why do so many of us become such easy prey for such empty ideas? How is it that the vast majority of us are so gullible? And why do we reliably fall for the frothing bluster of demagogues whenever they emerge, as they so reliably do throughout recorded history?
Simply put, it’s because our brains aren’t evolved to do thinking.
Our brains evolved under very different conditions from those pertaining today. We evolved to cope with the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. We evolved to do as little thinking as possible, because thinking burns precious calories that would be needed to power muscles instead. Imagine if, tired from extensive cogitation, our ancestors had lacked the blood sugars necessary to run from predators or continue to search for roots and grubs. You and I wouldn’t be here today.
So for humans, thinking represents a last-ditch strategy. That’s why even today with our superabundance of calories we rarely think. What we imagine to be thinking is really only repeating memes and simple concepts we’ve been fed by someone else.
Worse still, because it never mattered back on the African savannah or the primordial forests of Eurasia, we never evolved the capacity to check whether the things we believe are actually mutually consistent.
Hence we can believe things that are mutually contradictory without ever once realizing there’s a problem.
While the human brain lacks the general capacity to check for consistency, the universe itself is highly consistent. All the fundamental forces of nature are the same wherever we look. Things always work in the same way and are entirely consistent with each other, even at Planck scales. Although present theories may be irreconcilable (for example quantum field theory and General Relativity) they are not mutually contradictory. That’s the key point here: they both are excellent descriptors of what we observe, merely at very different ends of the scale.
This means we do have a mechanism we can use to augment our own cognitive limitations should we seek to do so: consistency checking. This is how scientific progress is made. When our theories have inconsistencies we know something’s wrong so we look for the solution. The inconsistencies within Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism ultimately led to the Special Theory of Relativity. The inconsistencies between accepted notions of life on Earth and the visible geological record, not to mention observation of living creatures, led to the Theory of Evolution.
When we employ the concept of consistency checking we can achieve great breakthroughs.
But in everyday life we rarely if ever do so, because it’s not part of our natural intellectual repertoire, any more than is the Calculus. It’s a discipline that has to be learned and cultivated, and in everyday life we never do so. Hence silly ideas spread like wildfire provided they are simple enough for the average mind to encompass.
But consistency checking is how we can sort fact from fiction.
Let’s take a couple of examples of consistency checking. The first is the faked moon landings claim and the second is the idea than con-trails are “really” the result of a conspiracy to poison the air with some secret and undefined chemical.
The context of the Apollo program was a contest between the USA and the Soviet Union to demonstrate technological superiority. National pride and global influence were at stake. Each side was trying to beat the other to the moon and billions of dollars were being poured into the endeavor.
In those days radio communications weren’t encrypted, so anyone with a radio receiver could monitor the chatter between those in orbit and their respective ground stations. What this meant was that NASA listened in to Soviet space missions and the Soviets likewise listened in to NASA’s missions while they were in progress.
Given this single fact alone, what’s the likelihood that the Soviets would sit quietly and not expose US deception, if the USA really was faking the moon landings? Forget about all the nonsensical “evidence” the conspiracy theorists always recycle; simply ask this one very basic question. And then ask if the hundreds of thousands of people involved with the moon landings would all, without a single exception, keep quiet about this gigantic fraud for over fifty years.
Now let’s apply the same logic to con-trails, which have a very simple physical explanation (condensation of water vapor) but which for conspiracy theorists are “proof” of some vast conspiracy conducted by some vast unknown secret organization (perhaps the Lizard People?).
This so-called conspiracy would require the efforts of tens of thousands of people in the USA alone, and hundreds of thousands worldwide. These co-conspirators would be collaborating in poisoning their own loved ones. Why has not a single scientist worldwide come forward to reveal the chemical signatures of this claimed persistent malfeasance? Why has not a single person out of hundreds of thousands stepped forward and blow the whistle?
No, it’s simply not good enough to claim that they’re all afraid or they’re all being silenced by the Lizard People (doubtless in conjunction with the UN and their terrifying black helicopters…).
Add in the fact that (i) there are so many more problems with these two conspiracy theories than sketched above, and (ii) there is overwhelming evidence to demonstrate without any doubt whatsoever that the alternative explanations are factually correct, and we see that conspiracy theorists can only hold on to their crackpot ideas by steadfastly refusing to perform even the most rudimentary consistency-checking.
Countless studies have shown this is precisely what we humans do when confronted with irrefutable evidence that our beliefs are mistaken: we double-down on those mistaken beliefs.
That’s why it’s utterly pointless attempting to have a rational discussion with anyone who believes in any sort of magical conspiracy or invisible beings or malevolent global forces or fairies or gods or goblins. These folk will actively resist any such assessment because it threatens their unsupported beliefs.
Changing one’s mind is exceedingly difficult because of the cognitive resources it consumes. Hence we have a strong emotional resistance (because emotions are what drive behaviors) to changing our minds. It consumes fewer calories to deny reality than to try to accommodate reality.
The same is true for our favorite example of ignorant nonsense-peddlers, the Flat Earthers. Blowing a soap bubble is enough to be certain that the Earth is a sphere. Of course, there’s overwhelming evidence from literally hundreds of other directions as well, but the soap bubble alone is enough.
Why are all soap bubbles floating in air perfect tiny iridescent spheres? It’s because a sphere is the shape that enables the least surface tension for any liquid object (and congealing planets at scale are simply quasi-liquid/gaseous bodies). There is no mechanism for our planet to defy basic physics. All the planets and stars we see through our telescopes are spherical. By what magic could our planet be the sole exception in all the visible universe?
Furthermore, if the Earth really were flat then everything we know about our planet would be utterly different. Oceans would be impossible unless each was bounded by high mountains (e.g. they’d be lakes). Our atmosphere would be impossible, full stop. Even the water cycle (evaporation, rainfall, pooling of water, leading to more evaporation, etc.) wouldn’t work because the surface of our planet would be heated uniformly, leading to a perpetual steam-atmosphere instead. It’s also amusing to wonder how GPS could function.
It is, however, much easier to ignore all these obvious problems because “Flat Earth” is a simple idea and our brains are hardwired for simple ideas. We don’t do well with complexity.
Compounding this problem is the fact that for many people the educational system is utterly inadequate. Conspiracy theorist are always profoundly ignorant of basic knowledge and thus lack any ability to draw inferences therefrom. The “facts” they rely on are infantile nonsense but for these people the nonsense is their reality.
When a person knows little or nothing, anything can seem valid, especially if it’s simple enough for our tiny ape-minds to grasp.
So what can we do to mitigate the problems arising from our intellectual incapacity and the huge harms that fairytales can cause? Is there any way to stem the tide of anti-vaccers, Flat-Earthers, con-trailers, Enneagrammists, fortune-tellers, and religionists everywhere?
Well, each of us can become a little more aware of our own cognitive limitations. We can try to look for information from credible sources rather than automatically assuming the veracity of what we read on someone’s blog or in a glossy magazine or in a conspiracy-theory email newsletter or promulgated by any of Rupert Murdoch’s poisonous media outlets.
We can attempt consistency checking: is this information consistent with what seems to be true elsewhere? Does it seem consistent with other things I believe?
Our educational systems need to move from pointless memorization such as in the USA learning the capitals of the fifty States toward learning how to gather reliable factual information and how to draw inferences from that information. We need to teach consistency checking because, like the Calculus, it can be learned.
And we need to realize that no society aspiring to humane and civilized values can permit the intentional deceit of millions of its citizens. We have to stop pretending free speech is a blanket permit to lie to the credulous and dupe the unintelligent. Ideally we’d set up non-governmental bodies to do this so their independence could stand as one of many bulwarks against government censorship, much as central banks were granted independence to free economies from government-directed financial catastrophes.
For all the obvious risks of censorship and establishing a monopoly on information (risks which in fact can by mitigated), the downside of carrying on as we are today is far, far worse.
Unless, that is, you’re a Flat Earth anti-vaxxer.