Hunting for reasons at the edge of the burning forest
In 2016 the arrival of the Trump phenomenon in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the accelerating irrationality and incoherence they brought with them perturbed me at the time and ever since. In particular it was the denial of the scientific rationality which underpinned the progress of the past two centuries in Western society that caused me most concern. It was an uncomfortable ending to my life long optimism that no matter what happened humans were essentially rational, were in control and would continue to move forward and find solutions to our problems. I had accepted this model based on the post World War II scientific and technological boom and the “education for all” principles which the Western world had adopted.
However when looking at the affairs of nations in the 21st century on a global scale there was strong evidence that nationalism was emerging again as a troubling force, that wealth was migrating towards the excessively rich, and global corporations were becoming world spanning and uncontrollable. The economic NeoLiberalism theories less and less matched the needs of the world. The use of the internet as a means of mass manipulation disseminating lies and bias and being weaponised by countries to control their populations and influence foreign policy was an observable and accelerating trend. This application of internet technology is diametrically opposed to what was intended at it’s inception as being a positive force for spreading information, democratising governments, enhancing accountability and enabling understanding between peoples across the planet. Add to which we see now indisputable and clear evidence that our economic systems are damaging the biosphere on which we all rely for survival – and still there is no serious effort being devoted to change this.
Fifty years ago there was widespread social concern about the increasing pollution of the environment through technology and continuing unrestrained population growth. Both of these were considered unsustainable at the time and both needed immediate action. In the half century since the 1960s little or no serious action has been taken. There was also concern across the planet about the growth in nuclear weapons which was for a short time alleviated by the 1991 START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) between the USA and Russia. The eroding of this treaty and start of a new Arms Race is an added anxiety to the existential climate change, the pervasiveness, intrusiveness and societal destructiveness of the “mass mind” which is social media, the development of technologies such as genetic engineering, the abolishing of human work through automation, and the rise of artificial intelligence have raised an imperative for citizens to prioritise the “take action” mandate to an entirely different and urgent level.
What do I want to say in this book? I know I want to understand why we are all travelling down this dangerous road, I want to understand what the forces in play are, and ultimately ask if there is a way we can change the destination while inflicting as little painful change as possible. But what would “take action” mean, and what mechanisms would be most successful? And initially where would I go to find answers?
My natural inclination was to look for as much scientific evidence as I could amass and to look for rational arguments and explanations which were well based in facts and corroborated by experts in their fields. That also meant looking at history, sociology, anthropology, economics, philosophy, psychology, politics, mathematics and statistics, art and literature, academia in general and any part of the human experience that had relevance.
Central to all of these however was a starting point of examining the human mind. Since all of what we do as a species is ultimately reduced to how the individual human mind thinks, reacts with the environment and society, is motivated and perceives the world, the study of the 1.5 kilograms of the grey matter in the human brain is going to be an essential primer.
A word about Science before we go further. It is the foundation of critical thinking involving the methods for testing our beliefs about the natural world. The strengths of science are that it is transparent, rigorous, systematic, and quantitative and the results are reproducible. In other words, science is a system of methods that seeks to compensate for the failings of human thinking, perception, and memory.
Often described as methodological naturalism, the stance of science is that there is nothing beyond the natural world. That we, in other words, do not rely upon anything supernatural. There is, for example, an objective reality. If we weren’t living in an objectively real universe, then it would not be possible to investigate how that universe works. It also assumes that the world is predictable and, therefore, ultimately knowable. Furthermore, science does not dictate that these things are true, but it requires the assumption that they are true!
There is not a single scientific method; it’s a collection of methods. At the core of this is the notion of hypothesis testing, or formulating an idea in a manner that it can be theoretically and practically subjected to objective testing. This includes the notion that the idea must be able to be proven false. Beliefs in the existence of ghosts, fairies, extra terrestrial aliens, and supernatural beings are not falsifiable and hence they do not fall within the realm of science. As long as evidence is gathered in a systematic way that can be for or against one or more theories, then the notion is testable – and involves science. We cannot, for example, rerun the big bang in a laboratory. However, we can ask questions about the existence and nature of the big bang and then make observations that test those theories. For example, we can make observations of the cosmic background radiation, the radioactive noise that was left over after the big bang. The evolution of various species cannot be recreated in the laboratory, but inferences can be made from fossils.
I am sure in the process of putting this book together I have made mistakes, but I have tried to always find two or more sources for what I say, and where I am speculating I hope I will say so. But as you will discover as you read on I am subject to cognitive biases as much as the next person. I expect you when you notice them that you investigate for yourself, read much more, and test your conclusions scientifically.
I also realise that the topics I cover are not always easy to understand and while I have tried to keep the text as simple as possible it is inevitable that jargon creeps in. I have also kept in mind that you do not have to complete a single section in order to get the overall drift of my arguments, and if you want you can jump around the book. Indeed – feel free to do just that.
I am finishing this section with the last warning given by the cosmologist and philosopher Carl Sagan in 1997.
“We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?
The reason that I’m worried about this is that science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.
If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next political or religious charlatan who comes ambling along.
It’s a thing that Jefferson laid great stress on. It wasn’t enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. The people had to be educated, and they had to practice their skepticism and their education.
Otherwise we don’t run the government—the government runs us.”
“The thing is, science is after the way the Universe really is, and not what feels good. . . “