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.