Imagine a world in which almost everything you hear or read is bullshit. Almost everything. Almost all the time the purveyors of this bullshit—they are legion—do not know they are offering up bullshit. In short, almost invariably these people believe their own bullshit, often because it is self-serving. Those who are serving their own self-interest have what Mark Twain called corn-pone opinions. Completely fabricated stories (within conspiracies) are rarer than people think in this world (that's often another form of bullshit). Even then the conspirators often end up believing their own lies.
On the receiving end, the vast majority of people can not distinguish bullshit from non-bullshit. In this world people believe what they want to believe according to their previous indoctrination, their innate instincts and temperament, and the unconscious dictates of their psyche, which is the source of their emotional responses to new "information" (as nonsense is often called). Reason, common sense, rules of evidence, the scientific method and any other process which might enable them to spot bullshit have been all but banished.
Sounds like a nightmare, doesn't it? I'm sure some of you have already figured out that this "imaginary world" is a reasonable facsimile of the world we actually live in, sometimes called the Real World. To take one example I discussed recently, almost all Americans believe they live in a democracy. Almost all Americans purvey this bullshit, especially if their self-interest is wrapped up in doing so, and almost all Americans swallow this bullshit hook, line and sinker when they hear it.
Indeed, humans have always lived in a world of their own making which works this way, a world we might dub the Kingdom of the Blind. The real currency of this world is not money, as you are often led to believe. The real currency of our world is bullshit, for it is bullshit (e.g. Federal Reserve and fractional reserve bank lending ) that creates the money and determines where it flows.
Into the "breach" between truth (in so far as we can know it) and nonsense have stepped some scientists who study people's "competence" to distinguish bullshit from non-bullshit. As it turns out—as it had to turn out—almost all people do not have the cognitive tools required to separate fact from fiction. The bad news comes from two reports, Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It, and People Aren't Smart Enough For Democracy to Flourish. I cited the second report in my small essay Democracies Always Fail. I will quote indiscriminately from the two articles.
A growing body of psychology research shows that incompetence deprives people of the ability to recognize their own incompetence. To put it bluntly, dumb people are too dumb to know it. Similarly, unfunny people don't have a good enough sense of humor to tell.
This disconnect may be responsible for many of society's problems.
No kidding! Ya' think?
... With more than a decade's worth of research, David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, has demonstrated that humans find it "intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don't know." Whether an individual lacks competence in logical reasoning, emotional intelligence, humor or even chess abilities, the person still tends to rate his or her skills in that area as being above average.
The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.
As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is," Dunning told Life's Little Mysteries.
Although it may seem to some of us that Dunning and his colleagues have rediscovered the wheel, it only seems that way. Do you ever wonder why large numbers of Republicans are voting for Rick Santorum? Look no further than this, remembering all the while that people are able and willing to believe anything according to their previous indoctrination, their innate instincts and temperament, and the unconscious dictates of their psyche, which is the source of their emotional responses to new "information" (as I said above).
Dunning's "rule" is applicable anywhere bullshit thrives, which is just about everywhere. If you think I am partisan and have singled out Santorum unfairly, and a huge number of Americans would react just that way if they happen to run across this post, look at yesterday's post Obama's Heroic Struggle To Save The Nation to get a good example of bullshit from the "other" side of the political fence (it's all the same nonsense).
You may think that my using a political example is too easy; politics is notorious for its high incidence of bullshit. However, in the technologically advanced, complex, industrial civilizations in which most people on Earth live, politics is the be-all and end-all of most human affairs. If you endeavor to live outside of politics and the economic system it determines, you have effectively removed yourself from society.
Unfortunately, even Dunning and his colleagues do not understand the full scope and nature of what they study. Let's take this example to illustrate—
If only we knew ourselves better. Dunning believes people's inability to assess their own knowledge is the cause of many of society's ills, including climate change denialism. "Many people don't have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don't have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don't realize how off their evaluations might be," he said.
Moreover, even if a person has come to a very logical conclusion about whether climate change is real or not based on their evaluation of the science, "they're really not in a position to evaluate the science."
There's a boatload of bullshit right there, so let's try to straighten it all out.
- It's not as if most people actually care about understanding climate science without realizing "how off their evaluations might be." Whether they "believe in" global warming is determined according to their previous indoctrination, their innate instincts and temperament, and the unconscious dictates of their psyche, which is the source of their emotional responses to new "information". For example, innate (and thus unshakeable) optimism and the innate urge to grow (often tied to religious beliefs) appear to be the roots of climate denialism in most cases. There is nothing rational going on here. These denialists simply refuse to believe that there may be good reason for pessimism and the end of growth. It follows that—
- People in the the general case are not making (or even trying to make) a rational (logical) judgment based on their own underestimated lack of understanding of the climate science. It follows that Dunning's observation that people are "really not in a position to evaluate the science"—whether they think they can or not—is irrelevant because that's not what people are trying to do. Dunning buys into a fallacy which I called the Imputation of Rationality in my post Humans Are Not Rational Problem Solvers. (Most academics do.) Training in science (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with anything for all but a tiny percentage of people living today. As I have pointed out, climate activists and scientists themselves do not understand the importance of energy in human economies —economies and growth are sacrosanct—and therefore consistently overestimate what can (and might) be done about anthropogenic climate change. That's yet another brand of bullshit.
In other words, we (and Dunning) are living in a world of almost total confusion. I am aware that what I just said may be hard to follow, but untangling bullshit is often more complicated than the original bullshit itself, as I have learned through painful experience. One must question the assumptions behind the bullshit, which are often bogus (just more bullshit).
To sum up, the human world is largely an irrational world of spin, gross distortions, half-truths and lies, and that's not going to change anytime soon. We live, and have always lived, in the Kingdom of the Blind. At this point you might be asking whether I myself overestimate my own competence to make these confident statements about Human Nature and the Human Condition on DOTE. I am preparing a post on that subject which I will be publishing soon. I have found that explaining myself is difficult, but not impossible.
And that concludes this Sunday post. I always reserve some of my best stuff for Sundays, which is the day I assume my regular readers stop by and incidental visitors do not.
Bonus Video — George Carlin on advertising and bullshit in America. Laugh out loud funny, my favorite Carlin bit, and so true, so true...