Why Reason Has No Power
How the human brain’s hardwiring prevents us from understanding reality
Aside from those benighted folk who think the universe was made by one or more magic pixies, the mechanics of evolution enables the rest of us to understand a great deal about why we are the way we are. We humans, like all other living creatures, have been shaped by millions of years of selection pressures acting on our ancestors. Adaptations that on average enabled organisms to survive and reproduce are conserved while less helpful adaptations tend to drop out of the gene pool over time. Thus we end up with what was largely adaptive for our ancestors.
Our immediate ancestors lived on the African savannah and then in the primordial forests of Eurasia. Life wasn’t tremendously complex and as we lived in small groups of a few hundred individuals, our brains evolved to cope with relatively simple problems. Mostly we had to concern ourselves with social relationships: who was on the way up, who was on the way down, who could help us and who might hinder us. Everything in our mental universe was essentially anecdotal.
As thinking burns precious calories which back then were scarce and uncertain, we naturally evolved to get through life with as little thinking as possible. This means we accept assertion automatically provided it comes from a supposed authority figure like a parent or someone higher up in the group hierarchy than us. We rarely (e.g. practically never) pause to consider whether there is hard evidence to support the assertion because for most of our evolutionary history this would have been a waste of calories.
We’re hardwired, therefore, to accept assertion by default. Furthermore, as we spent nearly all our evolutionary history in small groups, we’re also hardwired to extrapolate from anecdote. That’s why we have so many superstitious beliefs ranging from “bad luck” ideas all the way to the magic pixies that most humans seem doomed to believe in.
We see examples of this today on social media. Ordinary people post breathless accounts of someone they know (or someone whom someone they know knows) who’s died of covid-19, thus “proving” how deadly the virus is. Which is precisely the same as someone posting a breathless account of someone they know who died in an airplane crash, thus “proving” how dangerous aircraft travel is.
Of course neither covid-19 nor aircraft travel are actually existential dangers, but inside the human brain anecdote wins over data every time. We react emotionally to anecdote and we don’t react at all to large data sets.
What this means for us today is that the average person has zero capacity for understanding the complex world we’ve accidentally created as a result of innovations by the tiny percentage of people who are genuinely clever. Our ape-brains are not hardwired to understand large datasets and are not hardwired to perform onerous tasks that require real thinking. We are hardwired to sleepwalk through existence, accepting assertions as facts and, because we’re quintessentially a group species, doing whatever those around us are doing.
This is why risible social media trends such as pouring ice over oneself, planking in silly locations, and all manner of other absurd behaviors spread so easily across the Internet. It’s why people believe what they’re told by television personalities whose primary intellectual accomplishment is reading someone else’s words from a teleprompter. It’s why politicians effortlessly manipulate the great mass of people by telling them simplistic fairytales. It’s why we totally fail to understand the web of complexity upon which our lives are based and why we therefore undermine our existence by seeking simple-minded “solutions” to highly complex problems.
For us humans, a sound-bite is preferable to a cogent analysis because the former is easy for our ape-brains to grasp while the latter will be forever beyond the abilities of 98% of the population to encompass.
Obviously this means that representative democracy is one of the worst possible systems of governance imaginable: the ignorant and thoughtless voting for the blustering and incompetent.
But our problems go far beyond governance. Because we’re mostly incapable of coherent thought, we can’t perform the essential task of consistency-checking. This in turn means we self-defeat even when we’re attempting to perform actions that ought to be vaguely beneficial.
One trivial but highly revealing example can be found every single day in our supermarkets. We’re told to re-use cloth bags in order to avoid using disposable plastic bags because plastic pollution is an increasing problem; yet at the very same time supermarkets are swaddling more and more products in more and more plastic. Clearly this is (a) self-defeating, and (b) inane. Yet few if any people notice the contradiction because our brains aren’t equipped to perform seemingly obvious tasks like this. There was never any need for consistency-checking during our evolutionary history.
Likewise we are incapable of dealing with large data sets. Charities learned this the hard way: an appeal based on the suffering of millions of people will go unheeded, but an appeal based on the photogenic suffering of a single child will be very successful. We see the same effect with the present mass hysteria regarding SARS-CoV2: the Internet and mass media is full of anecdotal stories about individuals who’ve experienced highly unusual side-effects, but statistically these anecdotes are completely meaningless. When we remember the tens of millions of people who’ve been infected it becomes instantly obvious that there is a large enough sample size for us to associate anything whatsoever with covid-19. For example, by judicious use of filtering we could “prove” that being infected with covid-19 increases or decreases your desire to consume ice-cream, increases or decreases your probability of memory loss, and increases or decreases any other variable we care to select.
Of course no one understands this. The mass media has no interest in providing context because revenues aren’t generated by sensible rational articles any more than charities can raise money by talking about the suffering of millions. News articles and charities alike require easy-to-grasp anecdotes about individuals, ideally highly emotive so as to be sure of grabbing eyeballs for a few moments.
Thus ordinary people consistently over-estimate the risks of what are in reality extremely low-risk events. This in turn means public policy is nearly always catastrophically inept and self-harming, whether it’s a matter of providing sufficient housing stock for growing populations, addressing different types of crime, or responding to purported pandemics, we will reliably do the wrong things and thus make the situation worse.
Again using SARS-CoV2 as an example, everyone “knows” Sweden was irresponsible for failing to lock down like the rest of the world. Yet, if we were capable of thought, we’d understand the real story is precisely the opposite of what all the pundits claim and precisely the opposite of the nonsense people blithely spread on social media.
Here’s why: first of all, now that widespread testing is becoming more prevalent, the data shows that the vast majority of people infected with covid-19 are totally asymptomatic (WHO data). Furthermore, of those who do exhibit symptoms, nearly all are very mild and recovery is swift. That leaves around one-tenth of one percent of the population who suffer more severe symptoms. So to be clear: 99.9% of us are at zero risk from covid-19.
But what happens when we all panic and rush to lockdown (aside from the catastrophic self-inflicted economic damage)? The spread of the virus is slowed, which means fewer people develop antibodies. Which means when lockdowns are eased, infection rates will rise again. Which means more panic-induced lockdowns, which means when easing occurs the infection rates will rise again, which means more lockdowns.
As Einstein noted, a good definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome next time.
The absurd yo-yo policy adopted by politicians desperate to avoid loss of votes ensures maximum damage to our economies, and tens of millions of people remain without jobs. All to supposedly protect one-tenth of one percent of the population who would actually be much better served by more targeted methods. And then there are the 250,000,000 people the WHO estimates will die over the coming decade because of the collapse of the global economy, but as they have dark skins, live far away, and aren’t being reported by the Western media, we can ignore all these folk. For us, they don’t matter because our own hysteria is far more compelling.
We don’t see how stupid the yo-yo policy is because our brains aren’t capable of processing information in a coherent and rational way. We’re hardwired to follow the group and believe anecdote, so that’s what we do.
If we weren’t so simple-minded we’d check the data and then note that supposedly irresponsible Sweden’s mortality curve looks like this:
And then we’d realize that of course it looks like that because enough of the population has developed resistance that the virus can’t spread as easily as in the early days when the oldest and sickest people succumbed, as they always do with every new disease that comes around.
As for the idea that Sweden experienced “too many” deaths in the early days, let’s wait and see how many additional deaths mount up in the yo-yo countries. It is highly probable that the per capita mortality rates will all look roughly the same in the end; only the yo-yo countries will have created far more unemployment and far more damage to their economies than Sweden where the social damage has been minimal and largely an inescapable consequence of all the other countries around it embracing foolish panic-induced policies.
As we humans can’t perform consistency-checking, we don’t notice the inherent contradictions within our beliefs. We’re told that pursuing herd immunity is an irresponsible strategy because no one knows if immunity will work. Yet simultaneously we’re told that vaccines are being developed that will protect us. How do vaccines work? By stimulating the immune system just as the real virus does.
So either immunity does work, or it doesn’t. We can’t have it both ways. But according to the media and to politicians, we can, because the media and politicians know we’re a simple-minded bunch and we will believe whatever we’re told regardless of how incoherent it may be. We’re just not equipped to evaluate statements rationally on the basis of real evidence.
The one great benefit of SARS-CoV2 is that it has revealed in stark terms the fundamental limitations of human cognition. Our belief in magic is undiminished, only today we don’t go around blaming witches for our misfortunes and resorting to prayers. Today we believe in facemasks and “science” although nearly nobody knows what “science” means — it’s just modern-day magic for the masses.
Anyone who bothered to read the actual studies that purport to show the benefits of facemasks (e.g. precisely no one) would discover that the supposed evidence is actually risible. The experiments are poorly designed, the statistical validity non-existent, and many studies are merely assertions based on no hard data at all. These are then subject to “meta-analysis” which amplifies the original flaws. Of the 29 studies reviewed recently by Stanford University Medical Center, nearly all failed even the most basic requirements for real empirical scientific studies. What we’ve seen is a rush for RO1 grant funding reminiscent of Pons and Fleischmann and we all know how solid their “research” turned out to be.
But even if (to take the most notable example of magical thinking) facemasks had some minimal efficacy, look what we do in terms of policy: one must wear a facemask in a restaurant, but obviously can remove it in order to eat and drink. Which means, magically, the virus must kindly pause in its attempts to infect us while we ingest nourishment, resuming its deadly assault on us only after we’ve replaced our masks. How charmingly polite of the virus to be so obliging!
Once again, a tiny amount of reasoning would reveal the impoverishment of our beliefs but we’re simply not equipped to do this. For more than 400,000 years we never needed to think about anything much at all.
Fortunately we don’t need to think for ourselves because, as with all magic, we have purported authority figures to tell us what to believe.
Oh, a doctor says it? Then it must be true!
Except of course doctors aren’t trained to be rational evaluators of data. They’re trained to believe what they were taught in medical schools, which are still teaching students as though we were back in the eighteenth century. Doctors are very often the last people we should be listening to: not only are a great many contemporary medical practices contra-indicated by outcome evidence but doctors have also been responsible for making antibiotics useless and for creating the USA’s massive opioid addiction epidemic, among many other unhelpful outcomes.
In an ideal world, we humans would search diligently for data and discard data generated by poorly-designed studies (e.g. the vast majority of research results). We’d perform our own proper statistical analyses because we’d know that most researchers don’t understand statistics and thus their analyses are too often hopelessly wrong. (Nature and Science both pointed this out nearly fifteen years ago, and nothing has changed since then.) And then we’d come to logical conclusions which we’d hold tentatively until such time as sufficient data all pointed in more or less the same direction or contradicted our original conclusions.
But we don’t do any of this because our brains aren’t evolved to function that way. Instead we believe whatever we’re told by TV pundits. We fit in with whatever the people around us are doing because “if so many people are doing it, then it must be the right thing to do.”
It would be lovely if there were a possible solution for today’s terrible accidental mismatch between the human brain and our present environment. It would be great if we could somehow over-ride our hardwiring and be less susceptible to all the many cognitive errors we naturally commit. Perhaps, some distant day, a new generation of AI systems will help prevent us from making the most egregious mistakes, much as antilock brakes and airbags in automobiles protect us from the worst consequences of our standard atrociously poor driving habits.
But that day is far, far away. Until then, we will continue to be simple-minded because that’s precisely what we’ve evolved to be.
And so the great theatrical farce of the human race will continue to be played wherever people live, to the detriment of ourselves and of the global stage upon which the drama endlessly repeats.