In elementary school, and unfortunately often later too, children are subjected to a very simplistic view of history. There is the time before the middle ages (or “dark ages”), there is the medieval period, and there is after. If they are lucky, the later period gets chopped up in Renaissance, some stuff after and industrial period. Then most of the modern era gets glossed over so the teacher can talk about Vietnam.
On my first day as history major a professor told us “Please forget everything about history you were taught in school”.
The impression most people are left with is that history consists of first a load of guys in toga's doing a lot of thinking and philosophy, then a big meltdown and a big period of time in which nothing happened but burning of witches and heretics by people who thought the world was flat, and then a slow emergence of modern thought. And of course these days we are well away from the irrational flat-worlders. We have science!
I could go on to lecture about how this is wrong on pretty much every level.
I could expose the enlightened classical thinkers for the god-bothering zealots they were.
I could point out the important centres of thought and learning in medieval Europe; maybe even make a detour past the middle-east where they were even better at it for a while.
I could point out that the Renaissance was a time in which many 'modern' ideas were actually discarded in favour of stuff guys in togas thought was just so true many centuries before or how modern medicine was set back ages by the adoption of classic doctrine which was based on religion rather than observation and scientific method.
I could point out that most medieval witch-trials were conducted by men who were trying to be fair and scientific to the point that most tribunals never actually condemned a witch at all. Or how more witches were burned in the 16th and 17th century, well after we'd supposedly shrugged off the clouded thinking of the dark ages.
I could. But I won't.
The point I'm trying to make is that during the so-called 'rebirth' a load of self-important guys started dissing the previous centuries by calling them the 'dark ages'.
They felt that the Roman empire had been the shit when it came to all the important stuff like art and science.
When the Western Roman empire started to slowly degrade, it retreated from many parts of Europe (or was kicked out). So these guys figured; everything that went wrong afterwards was because we 'lost' all this Roman knowledge, the times 'darkened'.
They sortof ignored the fact that what the Romans left behind was, well, Roman. Even those feared Visigoths who supposedly brought down the empire? Well, turns out they considered themselves Roman. But hey, what these guys meant was that we should be making making white statues (because they thought the originals were white) and paintings with (incorrect) perspective.
Not that the Romans were any good at that, they mostly copied Greek art, badly.
So these self-righteous guys liked to go around lamenting how we lost all this classical wisdom and the shining example of rational classical thought. In Byzantine/Istanbul people sorta went 'coohee, over here!' until they were conquered by some dick sultan in 1453, but that wasn't really the west, and they hardly wore toga's at all.
These smartass dicks liked to think that we'd somehow abandoned rational thought when their idea of Rome went 'poof'. They started to quote the classics, studied philosophy (no small thanks to that dark ages stalwart, the Roman Catholic church, for maintaining all those libraries) and alchemy, they called this 'science' and the church was a big dumb poopy-head.
And from that we derive some silly notion that nowadays we are 'rational'.
I call bullshit.
Merriam-Webster defines “rational” thus:
a : having reason or understanding
b : relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : reasonable <a rational explanation> <rational behavior>
Rational behaviour is making that choice which offers the best possible chances for the desired outcome, based on the observed facts.
If the observed facts are fewer, or if you are told 'observed' facts which are not true, you basing your actions on them is still rational. Wrong, but rational.
From this premise it follows that, on the whole, medieval man was no less rational than we are.
The popular notion is that medieval men were dirty, ignorant and superstitious. And they were, compared to modern man. But they weren't irrational. They were ignorant. They simply did not know a lot of stuff we think we know today. They had no notion of bacteria, for example, because they couldn't make the quality glass needed for the high grade optics required to see them. But they were well aware that infected wounds killed you, and that dirt played a role there somewhere.
So they made shit up? Out of thin air? Well, not really. Of course they believed a lot of silly stuff, but most of that silly stuff was believed by old men who never went outside. Those were the men who wrote stuff down. Your average farmer... well, he just knew that dirt made you ill. He knew a wound could get infected and kill you. And he knew that a male cow and a female cow had to put bits of the one into the other to make little baby cows. So they bathed. Not a whole lot, once a week or so because catching a cold could kill you. Still, they were cleaner than our own grandparents, who washed at the sink, at best. (Many cultures, like the 'Vikings', were known to wash or bathe daily.)
If you factor in how little these people actually understood of the world, you could say they were as rational as your most boring professor. They had to be, to survive. People living off the land practice a scientific method intuitively; they observe and they act on what they see. Priests could talk about resting on a Sunday all they liked, if a certain flower hung its petals it meant a storm was coming and they brought the harvest in. (Just guessing here, I know shit about flowers.)
Of course they didn't know what caused the storm, but since learned men were telling them it was done by God, they figured it was perfectly rational to pray to this God to please wait a bit so they could get the wheat stored.
It took a certain wealth to be irrational. The sort of wealth that meant you could stay indoors and not worry about baby cows, flowers and harvests. Unfortunately, this wealth also meant you had time to write your silly thoughts down, and that is what survives of those times. Silly notions by silly guys who never did a real day's work for a living.
The church also wasn't some big institution that set out to kill science dead. Quite the contrary, the churches were centres of learning and science. Just as long as, you know, you didn't bite the hand that fed you. Sure, the earth revolves around the sun... just don't say it, ok? We've told all these people otherwise and shit.
It's a lot like the modern debate about creationism; science sometimes goes directly against what's in the Bible, or what some guys think should be in the Bible in any case. It's not new, but it's not old either.
Medieval man was absolutely sure there was a god. Being an 'atheist' meant you didn't go to church. Denying the existence of God was like claiming there was no sky. Absolutely unthinkable. Meanwhile, people didn't bother God much, and all they wanted from God was that he didn't bother them. Most people didn't even really know what the Bible said, it not having been translated from Latin and all. And that's another thing; those silly things medieval man believed? Look at them as priest's ways of explaining science (because it was the priests doing science) to people whose only frame of reference was a half-understood theology and a lot of common folk wisdom. Put yourself in the shoes of people with no microscopes, no CAT scan, no weather channel and this rock solid knowledge of a God out there ruling it all anyway. Suddenly they don't seem so irrational, just, well ... ignorant, in the true sense; people who didn't know a lot of shit we do think we know today.
God's absolute rule was reasonable to them. What they observed around them was reasonable. From their perspective we modern man are probably some weird hippies believing strange esoteric stuff. And then I'm only referring to actual science.
Because we are silly hippies, believing strange esoteric stuff.
We live in the most irrational times.
I use medieval man as an example because they get slandered the most. When people need a way to express their disdain for something they deem backwards or irrational, they will refer to the 'dark ages'. The mere term 'dark ages' itself is a slander. Those were people without a lot of the science we have today. They can be excused for thinking the world was flat, which by the way, they didn't.
What excuse do we have? Not a whole lot, really. But we worship angels, fear demons and are superstitious as hell. We just give it different names. And our greatest sin against rationality is the overt and explicit denouncing of rationality itself.
As an Objectivist who hangs out with college guys (because that's where the college girls are) I find myself debating philosophy (on a very rudimentary level) and politics a lot. You'd think I'd get some tough competition from our intellectual elite, but no. Usually the debate ends with my opponent accusing me of having an unfair advantage because I know all the facts. It's not about the facts, they argue, but about how you feel about things. Socialism may not work, it may not actually produce the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, but it promises to and that just 'feels right'.
We are all biased
Look around you and count all the people who believe things that can't be proven in any way, because it resonates well with their world view. I don't mean Christianity or any other major religion; that's religion. I mean stuff they present as fact. Daily stuff. Odds are you'll know a few.
One major problem is that every scientist, every doctorate candidate has to publish. Shit to publish about doesn't roll around every day out of the blue, so some pretty outrageous shit gets published. Some of it is even outright fraudulent. But the press likes to pick up on the juiciest shit and unless some judge makes them, they don't retract much. But even if they do, odds are no one hears about it. http://www.badscience.net/2011/01/none-of-your-damn-business/
And when they do hear about it, people tend to ignore information that doesn't jive with what they feel should be true. People also tend to give more weight to the first bit of information they receive, and less to later, possibly contradictory, information.
And then there's the well documented tendency people have to simply make up evidence to support their position. People also tend to see patterns where there are none.
Let's face it, us humans, we aren't so good at thinking straight.
All the facts
But still, we have science and stuff, right? People with big brains and white lab coats who sit around all day and make sure we don't believe the world is flat, right? Well, yeah. But we tend to overestimate how much of science we actually understand. Besides, reading up on the facts is, like, hard work.
Since the seventies things have gotten even worse, with schools shifting emphasis from knowing to feeling. Where it used to be that schools made you learn shit, and understand how stuff worked kinda, these days schools spend most of their time moulding us into good little citizens and focussing on what we 'feel' about stuff. And of course, we should 'feel' how the teachers think is right.
I have actually been called to professor's offices to justify my politics. One told me, flat outright, that he wasn't there to train right-wingers in academic thought. I of course, flat outright replied that he'd taken my money and should damn well teach his stuff.
Don't get me started on the weird shit I encountered in school.
Sociology is a serious major these days, for crying out loud. Academia has had it's waters seriously muddied by woolly thinking and the scourge of the baby-boomer. And this 'feel' based thinking permeates out into society. It serves a lot of people all too well. Politicians will build support on emotions rather than fact. 'For the children', you know.
Coupled with the fact that most people actually know jack shit about stuff, and that reporters often knowingly lie and what we have is a society based on 'should be' and not 'is'.
On my dinner table I have a copy of 'Elsevier', once a bastion of reasonable thought and semi-truthful reporting amidst the many, many, partisan and outright sensationalist dumb-it-down-for-the-masses magazines published here in the Netherlands. In it is an editorial. In the editorial the editor flat out states that the person who recently went on a shooting spree had a permit for a full-auto rifle he supposedly used. There was no ambiguity in the terms he used, no mistaking the one for the other since all scary looking guns are scary, none. He used a term which can only mean full auto. He then used that as basis for arguing stricter gun laws.
There is just one problem I have with this. It is a lie. He knew it was a lie when he wrote it. How can I tell?
You don't get permits for full auto in the Netherlands. Ever. This was even the pivotal point in another article, in the same issue.
Stuff like this goes on all the time. But even honest reporters (insofar as that's not an oxymoron) will defend that sort of thing, you see; it was an editorial. Editorials aren't 'reporting', they are 'opinion'. The idea that even opinion should have a basis in fact is seriously out of vogue. Opinion is about 'how you feel'. That's what we learned in school. How does Johnny feel about the subject matter? Tell us your thoughts Johnny... but not the facts. Facts stifle a child's growth.
I wish I was making this shit up. But I was taught this in my didactics lectures.
Irrational bullshit rules the day
I asked you to think about how many people you know who believe stuff that can't be proven. I'll now illustrate.
Big corporations are intrinsically evil. It just 'stands to reason'. Nothing can grow that big and keep its hands clean, right? We instinctively fear what's more powerful than us, those with more knowledge -especially if we perceive it as shrouded in mystery- and if said entity is also performing some important function, like a pharmaceutical company, we are doubly critical. How many people do you know who are absolutely sure that 'big pharma' is evil? On the basis of what evidence?
Just think for a moment, then read on.
Big Pharma does not exist. Most pharmaceutical companies scrape by on the skin of their teeth. Margins are extremely slim and the cost of bringing a new drug to market are almost prohibitively high. It takes decades to actually develop a drug, then test it, get it approved (also quite costly) and then there is the effort involved in making the medical profession aware of the stuff. (I'd call it marketing, which it is, but then I'd make it seem as if I mean TV ads and such. However you do it, if you have a product to sell, buyers need to know about it. That's 'marketing'. It's a lot broader than a Superbowl ad.) And then, sometimes, they do screw up. Out of stupidity, out of greed, but mostly because sometimes you only find out that people with disease X and condition Y may (or may not) die if they take drug X in conjunction with drug Z when, to put it bluntly, some do.
Rationally, there is no reason to suspect any kind of super conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies. The cold hard evidence, in fact, points to the exact opposite. Not because they are all saints. They want to make a buck, just like Starbucks, just like your local organic market, just like you. There is just no real evidence whatsoever that pharmaceutical companies go about it any better or worse than all of us.
But people love to believe they are evil, and no amount of evidence will sway them from this belief. It is a comfortable belief. It's a demon. And once such a comfortable belief takes hold, people will in fact value evidence that supports their position higher than evidence to the contrary. In psychology it's called Confirmation Bias. Of course the media then lies about it. (Hostile media Bias.) And evidence is weighed against what 'feels' like it's true. (Wishful thinking Bias.)
So, psychology even has names for all these ways people avoid rational thought. Guess there's something going on there, eh?
The comfortable demon.
I called this irrational belief system, which I illustrated with the example of 'Big Pharma' a comfortable demon. That's because its function is the same as the belief medieval man had in demons; to explain bad stuff happening, give it a pattern of sorts you can delude yourself into thinking you can recognize and therefore avoid if you perform the appropriate ritual. Bad stuff 'just happening' is uncomfortable. But rationally, that is what we have to conclude is what is reality. Your organic market probably has about the same chances of killing you (especially now that, it turns out, organic farming may taint veggies with multi-resistant bacteria) as your pharmacy; very slim, but if you are shit out of luck, it may happen.
For the same reason people will gladly believe that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people all conspired to kill thousands of Americans just so the US could go to war in some shitty-ass country (which used to be our/their ally, by the way) rather than believe that twelve religious nuts happened to pull off hijacking some planes and flying them into two buildings oddly not designed to withstand that sort of thing.
And they will believe this, even though the evidence of their own eyes could tell them that governments can't even keep it secret that the president boinks an intern, stuff your average Joe manages to hide from his wife.
The sheer lunacy of thinking that anything like that can be done without some part of the chain talking too much in a bar, growing a conscience or someone finding out in some way is paralleled only by the idiocy of thinking any government even needs that sort of thing. The Vietnam war was started over an attack on a ship that, as it turned out, never even fucking happened. Between making some shit up that supposedly happened somewhere far away, or actually flying remote controlled multi-million dollar airliners into actual occupied buildings, well...
Of course that may be a bit too outrageous for some people, although according to one media poll 86% of US-Americans question the official account of 9/11. Not surprising, since ten years in marketing research has taught me that most media polls are absolute bullshit. But conspiracy theories are rife, that much is certain.
Once people grab hold of such a belief, they will find evidence for it even in the lack of evidence.
A prominent conspiracy theorist or whistle-blower happens to die, as people are wont to do every now and then, and it's 'evidence' that the government hides shit, clearly they gave the guy cancer to shut him up. But those same evil murderous guys couldn't quietly pop a cap into Monica Lewinski?
Scientists debunk the bullshit? See! A cover up!
The government tells some Foil-hatted conspiracy blogger to piss off because they have real reporters to talk to about real issues? A cover up! See! They are afraid to talk about it!
If you dissect many of the commonly held beliefs, from the more outrageous yet common (911 conspiracy) to the very widespread and generally accepted to some degree or other (big Pharma), you find fuck all for actual evidence, but a lot of 'it feels correct' wishful thinking. They are our comfortable demons.
On the other end of the spectrum, we believe in angels, too. There must be a 'good' counterbalance to the evil. If it were just demons, life would be shitty indeed. We need angels, to turn to for aid.
Organic farming is one of those Angels. There is actually no proof whatsoever that this method of farming is any better for humans or the planet than modern methods while there is ample evidence that it is a non-sustainable method which could not even feed all of the world's population if we actually destroyed all existing ecosystems to create farmland.
The basic premises for how one should farm “organic” were laid out by Rudolf Steiner, a fucking architect in the 1920ies. Now, I'll gladly have an architect design my kitchen, but please leave farming to, you know, fucking farmers. And I know a few of those. And you know what they tell me? They tell me that organic farming is pretty much impossible because the rules set out by this buildings-doodler are based on wishful thinking and astrology (!) not simple day to day fact.
Now, I know people who breed horses in part based on the ideas of Steiner, and their horses do very well. Pretty much any philosophy can work if applied with some common sense and when incorporating new ideas. The problem is that in order to be allowed to call yourself “organic” you have to work according to the rules set out by an international overseeing body which, to be blunt, doesn't.
Organic farming actually depletes the soil, pollutes the environment by the overuse of manure and produces food which can, in extreme cases, actually be bad for you. Not because of those multi-resistant bacteria I mentioned earlier; those are an issue only when you are already immunosuppressed, and even then they are found on other veggies as well. So cancer patients should wash their apple, ok? No, organic food may actually be bad for you because the stringent avoidance of pesticides means the plants are under constant attack by bugs, and in response they produce natural pesticides which at best stop your body from actually getting any nutrients out of the fruit and veggies and at worst are carcinogenic or even acutely poisonous.
That's why large grazing animals migrate.
This information is out there. When I tell organic-food-eaters about this, they usually know. It just doesn't 'feel' right. Farming should be dirty, manure-soiled work. It just shouldn't be done in clean greenhouses, and pesticides are poison, right? It kills bugs! It must be bad! (Most pesticides these days are completely harmless to anything but bugs, and what kills a bug doesn't necessarily kill anything else. But hey, killdeathmurder bad! It just feels bad, and reading science is, like, hard work.) So the bad thing 'feels' good, the good thing 'feels' bad, and a billion dollar industry gets to charade as the underdog selling overpriced food to yuppies.
But it is science!
While researching this article (yes, I do that) I came across this quote:
“That analysis has been criticised by Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute, who contends that the review claimed many non-organic studies to be organic, misreported organic yields, made false comparisons between yields of organic and non-organic studies which were not comparable, counted high organic yields several times by citing different papers which referenced the same data, and gave equal weight to studies from sources which were not impartial. The Center for Disease Control repudiated a claim by Avery's father, Dennis Avery (also at Hudson) that the risk of E. coli infection was eight times higher when eating organic food. (Avery had cited CDC as a source.) Avery had included problems stemming from non-organic unpasteurized juice in his calculations."
That is a whole lot of sciency bullshit in one quote. People reading regular media sources are likely to only read the outcomes of such 'research' and not how they were derived at. What the above quote basically says is that the research referenced is beyond flawed. It is lies, more lies and some statistics.
Seriously, shouldn't it at least raise some eyebrows that seemingly every position in any debate these days quotes some 'scientific' research? How can that be? Science is, after all, pretty absolute. Something is true or false, right?
Science is a process of continuously trying to disprove ideas. Disprove? Yes, disprove. A scientist will form a hypothesis, and then try to disprove it. If he can't, then it may be right. Then a scientist will try to prove the hypothesis, while simultaneously trying alternate hypotheses, just to see if those might work, too. If all those exercises produce compelling enough results to publish, the scientist will throw them out there for other scientists to try and replicate the results. Fresh thinking often leads to new avenues of experimentation, and a scientific study gets demolished.
Even when the most stringent scientific rules are followed, outcomes may just be a fluke. Scientists don't publish new truths, they publish outcomes so other scientists can see if they can get the same results.
So you can find a scientific report to support most any idea. You can also find reports to demolish same idea. Science isn't interested in backing some politician or manufacturer of the latest weight-loss pill. Science is interested in science.
And then there are a lot of people who simply lie.
I read through tens of websites and even dusted off some old books from my college days for this article. Reading up cost me days more than writing up. And I'm writing an opinion piece here. And I'm not a scientist. I just play one on the internet.
Who checks claims made in newspapers or on the packaging of those fresh organic apples? It's, like, hard work. And we don't WANT to. What we want is the warm glow of doing the right thing, and the snake-oil merchants give us that by claiming science, because science is the new Bible. If it jives with what we 'feel' is right, it must be. We'll pretty much actively ignore any evidence to the contrary. We are even encouraged to by our own educational system.
I think not
We like to think that we are a rational species. In reality, we are motivated by emotion and irrationality far more than rational thought. On many levels this is a good thing; in daily life we are constantly bombarded by decisions to make. Our little fallacies and biases help us make those decisions in the absence of real data, because we can't go home to bone up on traffic statistics each time we cross the street.
Our 'information society' however, has brought with it the notion that because we have a lot of 'information' we are also 'informed'. Truth is that to be informed we'd have to be experts at, well, everything.
Snake oil merchants and their more insidious cousins; politicians, know this. They back up spurious claims with some pseudo-science they know we will fall for because, well, we are ignorant and we WANT to. We 'feel' they are right.
Ask me about Vikings and pirates. I majored in history for three years. Ask me about photography or webdesign. Stuff I know shit about, somewhat. I know jack shit about nuclear physics. I can't math my way out of a paper bag. Organic farming? Shit, I can barely tell a hoe from a pickaxe. I research what I write about, and by doing so I rely on other people hopefully telling the truth.
We go to yoga classes because we believe in the wisdom of the ancients. Those same ancients lived to be fifty, but hey, it's old wisdom, it must be worthwhile. It FEELS worthwhile. We eat organic. We distrust big pharma. And so on, and so on.
You know, to some degree that's all well and good. We need our demons and angels to simplify life, to keep things manageable.
But rational? Hell no.
Like I said; rationality is making that choice which offers the best possible chances for the desired outcome, based on the observed facts. And as I (hopefully successfully) argued in this piece, we live in a time when it's not only common but often even the norm to ignore observed fact in favour of what we think the fact should be, on what we 'feel' should be.
You'll note that I'm not citing references. Please read up and make your mind up about any of the issues I use as examples here, but in the scope of this article they are just that; examples, vehicles to carry a broader argument. I'm running to nine pages already with this piece. Lets just assume that I'm making all this shit up to illustrate a mechanism, ok? I know I'm right, I have the references, the data. But it does not matter. I could be making shit up about purple duck-billed ants. My point is, that we tend to, want to, believe that there are bastions of goodness out there. That there are rituals we can perform. We need alternatives to the demons, perceived and real. And in order to have them, we'll believe some absolutely stupid shit.
The average medieval farmer, who believed in actual demons, actual angels and that the priest (who often barely spoke Latin himself) was dispersing truth from the pulpit and not just mumbling some Latin-ish mumbo-jumbo, was more rational than we are. He was fed wrong data, but he acted rationally upon that data. Because medieval farmers starve if they don't.
So, next time you encounter something really backward and need a strong metaphor, why not call it 'the internet ages'? You'd be a lot more accurate.
I dropped out of college after three years because I got ill. I got a failing grade for Philosophy because my interpretation of Nietsche differed from that of the professor. I got a failing grade for local history because I refused to revise my findings regarding the location of an important 11th century bridge which, according to the professor, couldn't possibly have been where I put it. A few years later its foundations were discovered, spot on where I'd put it. (Without my help.) I'm also an Objectivist AND I'm religious. I'm not free of sin and I'm a college dropout. Take what I say with the appropriate grain of salt. I recommend a lot of further reading, but a good starting point is The Autumn of the Middle Ages and for more about our own bullshit, I recommend Penn & Teller's 'Bullshit' TV series.
Gorilla photo by noladoc30
Physics instructor photo by Royal Endorphyn
Cherub picture by Claudia Meyer
Dinosaur picture by Jim Daly
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