08 December 2016

The Hard Truth Behind Post-Truth

This post-truth thing is a blessing in disguise. We've been labouring under a massive misapprehension for a couple of centuries, i.e. that human beings are fundamentally rational.

Those who understand this have been exploiting it since at least the 1920's, when Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, convinced US women that smoking cigarettes was a symbol of their freedom, thus dooming millions of them to miserable deaths from lung cancer and/or emphysema.

Of course using fantasies to change minds on a mass scale has been stock in trade for religion over millennia, but the priests were probably no more informed than their flock and going on instinct. .

There is something sinister about this knowing manipulation of our decision making processes by psychologists. The government now do it as a matter of course. And it's out in the open that lies can be more persuasive than truth in the right mouth.

We knew all this. If for no other reason, than because it came out in the close examination of how Nazi propaganda turned the German people against their neighbours near and far. Of course our governments are almost as bad. The British Empire was a fucking disaster outside of Britain, a genocidal monster, but the government has continuity and controls the narrative at home. They made sure we knew what monsters the Nazis were, without ever admitting to the atrocities that they committed. None of want to believe that our side are the monsters. But in this case we are.

A market executive explained it to me this 25 years ago (For Kiwis, he invented the hugely successful "Trim Pork" marketing campaign). People, he told me on the marketing course for librarians that I attened, make emotional decisions and then look for rationalisations after the fact. All my research, reading, and experience since then has borne this out. Reasoning is often just an after thought to make sense of how we feel about things. It has very little to do with how we decide things.

Sit down to think a problem through and most individual humans immediately fall into one or more of dozens of cognitive biases and/or logical fallacies. It turns out, however, that we do much better in small groups. Here, the ubiquitous confirmation bias allows me to present the strongest case I can for our idea, while the group will look for and find flaws because they have no investment in confirming my bias. Small groups of like minded people are by far the best approach to decision making. of course groups are also susceptible to group-think. Nothing is perfect.

Democracy, as we now employ it, is pretty hopeless because it is predicated on voters having accurate information about who they are voting for and making a rational decision about who would best represent their interests. Since neither of these propositions have *ever* been true, it's probably best that we see the system comprehensively failing because this might provide the motivation to fix it.

But the fact is that the lesson has not yet gotten into the core of our understanding of ourselves. We probably have a couple more generations of ruthless exploitation of our myopia with respect ourselves, by knowing and unscrupulous parasites, before we start to clock that the story was wrong all along and think about rewiring society.

And there is no point in demonising ordinary people in any of this. This is not happening because ordinary people are stupid. If anything it is happening because intellectuals are stupid. After all it is intellectuals that have promoted this completely false view of humanity. Mind you they generally replaced a religious view that was even more wrong, so generally speaking the trend is towards less stupidity. As I've said before, I'm mildly optimistic about the species, it's just the individual members I don't like.

In which case the question becomes, can we finally discover what we really are (i.e. social monkeys) before we cause our own mass-extinction. I'm not necessarily against the mass extinction of Homo sapiens, but it is a shame that we seem so determined to take so many other species with us. But in the long run, life will continue on well beyond any ecological disaster we might cause.

Bacteria are the dominant life-form on the planet, and have been for 3.5 billions years since they appeared. They've survived much worse than humanity in those thousands of millennia. Much worse! So that's a happy thought, eh?

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