Evidently not

I once visited a place in southern Italy called Paestum, which used to be a major Greek settlement long before the Romans came along. It’s now just a bunch of ruins, except for three relics: a trio of extraordinary temples that still stand much as they did when the place was abandoned. You might wonder, as I did, what would cause a community to leave such magnificence behind; and the answer, I was told, lies in one word: malaria. It was as though the mosquitoes decided that the invasive Greeks had no right to be there, and were bent on driving them out. Of course, humans eventually returned and wiped out the mosquitoes, which made me reflect that it might have been in the latters’ survival interest not to be such a pest.

The tale inspired my 98th Fable, ‘The Conciliatory Mosquito’. It’s the tragicomic story of a visionary mosquito who exhorts his fellows to heal their rift with the humans. Taking his fellows’ silence for support, he leads them off to a pow-wow with the old enemy, content that there’ll be safety in numbers. On arrival, however, he is surprised to find that his fellows have not followed him after all. He is instead alone, and easily dealt with: the chief of men flattens him with a shoe. He dies not knowing what happened to all those other mosquitoes he’d assumed to be like-minded.

The psychological phenomenon here is the ‘False Consensus Effect’: a tendency to think our own beliefs more widely shared than they really are. This curiosity has a ready explanation in evolutionary psychology. All said and done, we are only organisms that have evolved to try and survive and, if possible, thrive. As a social species, we achieve that best by forming bonded groups with others. What provides the bonding is beliefs (or values, or identities) that we jointly share. Consequently, each group needs leaders to create and propagate plausible beliefs, and members to acquire and nurture them, so as to cement the group together. Culture itself is nothing more than the propagation of pretexts for groups of humans to gang together. We must not imagine however that any shared belief is intrinsically “true”, even when huge numbers adhere to it. The beliefs of groups are merely designed to appeal plausibly to the selfish interest of as many as possible, because numbers matter enormously. They are seldom realistic or even scientifically testable, but merely expedient; because, without survival, nothing else matters.

The problem with this fact is that we instinctively detest the idea of believing in nonsense, having evolved to know empirically that to do so is a recipe for trouble. The dissonance this creates might be unbearable; but we have a ready solution. We convince ourselves that our beliefs are true, whatever the truth. We spend our lives collecting evidence to support them (Confirmation Bias, Selective Perception, Belief Bias), and rejecting evidence that doesn’t (Conformity, Denial, Reactance). What we just happen to believe becomes self-evidently true to us. We tell ourselves that, because what we believe must be true – and all our best friends agree! – then surely everyone who’s not stupid, mad or evil must do the same. Even the unfortunate mosquito, whose belief group did not yet extend beyond itself, was convinced that its own belief was universal.

It was this kind of misthinking that led Thomas Jefferson to write that the three foundational “truths” of the American Declaration of Independence were “self-evident”, even though any honest scientist would have the greatest difficulty in proving any of them. What he was up to, of course, was forging a highly expedient new credo: one that would justify his fellow plutocrats’ ambition to seize illegally the means of conducting a hostile land-grab against the French, Spanish, and Native Americans in the face of outright opposition from the lawful government. The fact that Jefferson was an industrial-scale slave-owner makes it doubly incredible that he could pen this stuff, unless he was the most enormous hypocrite, or else had a sublime sense of humour.

The trouble is that, once ‘self-evident’ beliefs become carved in stone and people sign up to them, they embody the existential self-interest of the believers themselves. Consequently, believers will happily dispute, fight and even kill for them (Commitment, Realistic Group Conflict, Xenophobia). Whenever somebody says, “You’re wrong!” in matters of belief, they’re actually saying, “You’re no friend of mine!” The political events of the last year have provided abundant evidence of the mutual incomprehensibility of people who happen to have aggregated behind different self-serving belief systems; and, in the case of the losers, outrage at the sudden discovery that other humans are so ridiculous that they cannot grasp the self-evident truth.

Mankind has only ever devised one robust antidote against the natural human way of believing, and that’s the scientific method. It’s not fool-proof in practice, because it demands a level of skill and intelligence to use, and is always subject to abuse, even by so-called scientists. But it does at least provide some sort of insurance against self-delusion. And it is open to nearly everyone at least to subject their own beliefs to ‘scientific’ scrutiny as far as they are able.

One of the biggest threats to the scientific approach is the legions of self-appointed experts who, mostly via the medium of journalism (as opposed to reporting), spend their lives explaining to their particular readership or viewership how to assimilate the latest news with their existing set of beliefs. It’s stunning to read the journalistic explanations of the same events in, say, the ‘Guardian’ and the ‘Mail’: you would hardly know that they were talking about the same thing. (I read a piece in the former this week that spoke in all seriousness of the “fanaticism” of those who oppose membership of the EU). This fifth column of fourth estatists is far more influential today than science, and accounts for most of the factional antipathy that afflicts contemporary society. Caveat lector.

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