The question few are looking at

democracy by D’Arcy Norman

Democracy under strain
[Via Hot Topic]

I have recently often found myself thinking of a sentence in the late Stephen Schneider’s book Science as a Contact Sport, reviewed on Hot Topic a year ago. Towards the end of the book he reflected on the greed and short-term thinking which has led business interests to advance a campaign of confusion and doubt on the science of climate change, aimed at stalling action. It didn’t surprise him, but what worried him was that so many decent people are still taken in by it. Then came the sentence which reverberates almost daily for me:

What keeps me up at night is a disquieting thought: ‘Can democracy survive complexity?’

It is the run-up to the US mid-term elections which has ensured Schneider’s sentence nags so insistently. Candidate after candidate (mostly Republican) asseverates “I don’t believe in manmade global warming” or “I have not been convinced” or “I am sceptical about the science” or any of numerous similar positions which can be coupled with an assurance that he or she won’t back action to reduce emissions, and may even move aggressively to prevent it. As I read or, if I can bear it, listen, to these confident deniers, many of them articulate and well presented, I wonder where they find their assurance. Generally speaking they seem ignorant of the science. In fact their confidence seems in inverse proportion to their knowledge.


This is just a delaying tactic because science moves us towards a truer description of the world. These people simply want to slow that down. The big question is whether their delaying tactics will slow us down enough to make it ever more difficult to solve the problems we face?

How does a wide swath of people become convinced that scientists are lying and that politicians or corporations are telling the truth? Why do they recede into Cargo Cult Worlds?

Perhaps the inability to adapt and to deal with complexity holds part of the answer. People adapt to change with a well-defined process. The time it takes for people to traverse each step of the process determines how rapidly they can adapt to changes they see.

Some people move very rapidly through this process. Others get stuck and move very slowly. It may hard enough for these people, who actually may represent a majority of the population, to adapt to even one thing that might display complexity. They actually refuse to move forward, refusing to allow new data to move them through the process of change.

The hallmark of a Cargo Cult World is the active warding of their world from new information, especially data that contradicts their narrative.

But what happens when almost everything pushing at us today involves a high degree of complexity? The Great Recession, terrorism, climate change, healthcare, social safety nets, energy, etc. All require answers that rely on an understanding of the complex nature of the problem. This includes the interconnectedness of several of these.

What happens if most people are incapable of helping to find answers because they are simply unable to adapt? They inhabit Cargo Cult Worlds where only simple solutions are seen, all of them actually maladaptive for the real world.

“They hate us because they are jealous of our freedoms.” “The current recession was because the banks were forced to sell houses to poor people.” “Drill, Baby, Drill.” “The warmists are only trying to get grant money.” “Vaccines are deadly.”

All provide a simple mantra for something much more complex. They are like blind men – who refuse to even see that they are blind – all looking at the tail of the elephant and declaring that it represents the entire animal. So if they only grab the tail, they can control the movement of the elephant.

How do you pull people like that away from their Cargo Cult Worlds? It is not easy. Direct presentation of the facts usually has little effect. That is why they retreat into these fantasy worlds to begin with. They have to find ways to repudiate the facts. Follow almost any discussion with creationists and you see just how hard it is to get them to see facts or to understand how science attempts to provide an accurate description of the world around us.

The ability of people to rationalize their Cargo Cult World makes an appeal to factual information almost impossible.

One way is to help them gain a better understanding in one small area, show them that there are other heuristics to use and make the complex seem a little simpler. This may work with some. But their inability to easily deal with the multitude of connections in a complex problem makes it harder for them to see the whole picture. You can show them that the tail is really just a tail but they have a hard time seeing how the elephant’s legs are connected at all.

The thing to remember is that most of these people change their views or alter their Cargo Cult Worlds because everyone else they know changes or a community leader tells them to.

As so many community leaders for these people are actually telling them that their Cargo Cult World is actually correct, the latter is an unlikely option. And many stay within the echo chamber of their Cargo Cult community, making the former an unlikely option.

It will not be easy. But if we want democracy to survive complexity, we will have to find a way. And I hope we then have some time to actually effect a successful solution.

2 thoughts on “The question few are looking at

  1. Talk about a Cargo Cult World! Along with John Kerry, you guys seem to think that out in the world, we are too stupid to understand “complexity” and, therefore, just ignore it all. The point is that scientists are suppose to be showing us about things by breaking the complex down to bits we (the unwashed and uneducated) can understand. Instead you ask us to blindly follow just because you know it all. Maybe you do, but as long as we feel you are insulting us, we won’t listen. And that will be a shame.

    1. You bring up a tremendous number of rhetorical points that I never touched on at all. Where in the world did John Kerry come in? Where did I say this was a left vs. right thing (I quoted someone who said most of the anti-AGW (anthropogenic global warming) candidates were Republican, an objectively true fact but not what I discussed at all)? Where did I ever say to blindly follow anyone? Why is the world suddenly split into you and we?

      I never said that simply questioning means someone lives in a Cargo Cult world. Scientists question all the time. A Cargo Cult World has a very specific definition. It is not simply where I send people who disagree with me.

      I’ll say it again. The hallmark of those that live in Cargo Cult Worlds is the fact that they DO NOT WANT TO understand anything more. They already know the answer and refuse to objectively examine anything more. They no longer want to look or explore the world around us. They wield confirmation bias as a sword to prevent any of their rules of thumb from being altered. They do not want new data and they refuse to alter their view even when it conflicts with objectively real data. They will not adapt nor change their worldview, rules of thumb or basic perspective no matter how much conflicting data is shown. The more you present facts that contradict their heuristics, the more they retreat.

      They often believe things that can be demonstrated to be objectively false. This is not a skeptic. It is someone who refuses to continue exploring for greater understanding. Many AGW-skeptics fall into this category because they simply do not examine the data that has been generated in a way to gain greater knowledge of our world. They provide no model for the world that yields greater understanding.

      As a scientist, I have to admit that AGW may not be totally correct. But it is the best we have so far and nothing has been shown to be better. After 30 years of trying, no one has come up with a better model. In fact, 30 years of research has only strengthened AGW, not weakened it.

      I have pointed out several times on this blog but I will do it again – if you want nice simple explanations of all the science and data behind AGW, spend some time at Skeptical Science. It has very simple explanations with pictures and links to the original papers. It provides examination of the data that has been generated and demonstrates how AGW is a model that best explains all of it. It can do a better job of it than anywhere else.

      Then after spending some time getting simple explanations of the underlying data you might understand why AGW is the best model we have. Or maybe you’ll come up with a better model and win a Nobel Prize.

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