Apocalyptic Visions and Narratives.

This is an excellent stream of tweets from billmon, although I’d suspect that the observations apply generally to all manner of apocalyptic beliefs, and, indeed, for that matter, the “cultural cognition” in general.

While Dan Kahan has been expounding on the relevance of “cultural cognition” a great deal, the boundary between what constitutes “cultural cognition” and just plain old ignorance is not very obvious–and, in practice, it cannot be made very obvious.  The prototypical example of cultural cognition that shows up a lot is “creationism” vs. “evolution.”  Often, people who claim to “believe in” evolution are as ignorant of the science as creationists–or, conversely, creationists are surprisingly (to those who expect otherwise anyways) knowledgeable of science.  Creationist students who are well learned in biology are perfectly capable of acing biology exams because they know the answers that are expected.  They just don’t believe in the answers they give–and, when necessary and possible, they add qualifiers to make their answers compatible with their beliefs, such as “scientists believe…”  On the other hand, many “believers” in evolution often subscribe to long-discredited fallacies like Lamarckism or worse, scientific racism.  That one side “supports” evolution and the other does not is not a particularly informative clue to their understanding of the sciences.

However, it is beyond dispute that, ultimately, the real body of scientific understanding is compatible with evolution in a way that it is not with “creationism.”  What makes the “beliefs” in evolution or the lack of thereof irrelevant for gauging the true state of scientific understanding is that the real evolutionary science is complex enough that very few people really understand it, and in this vein, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between reasonably “informed” creationism and relatively ignorant “evolutionism.”  One might say that, because the variance of the “truth” is sufficiently high for most people (and perhaps, the underlying support of the distribution multidimensional) that being slightly farther from the true mean along just one dimension does not mean much for how much one understands “science” or not.  As long as something is not so outrightly false and the benefits of using it as a focal point irrelevant, it can be sustained as a focal point.  It is, therefore, not illogical that even otherwise reasonable people, like engineers, could subscribe to creationism, of sufficiently informed variety.  Even biologists might find ways to bend their beliefs to accommodate a flavor of creationism–I personally know some, who actually evolutionary biologists, no less.  BUT, the closer one gets to the kind of professions where a precise understanding of the evolutionary science is necessary, the extent to which they can bend their understanding of the reality to fit their beliefs is reduced.  Thankfully, in a manner of speaking, the inherent complexity and uncertainty in the universe probably means that uncertainty will never be reduced to zero–regardless of the faith of data science types, apparently–so the room for “faith” of some sort may always remain.  Thank Quantum Mechanics for God, if you will.

Simple addition problem, on the other hand, does not lend itself readily to cultural cognition, for example.  It is obvious enough, even for the relatively ignorant, that 1+1 = 3 is not true.  Worse, subscribing to such belief with any sort of seriousness will immediately  bring the person who does so with serious and costly conflict with everyday reality, unlike the nuanced, scientifically accurate understanding of the evolutionary theory.  The variance around the “truth” is small, for everyone involved, that no reasonable person could seriously believe it, nor a community of persons form around this belief as a focal point.  Unlike something more complex, there isn’t enough wiggle room in some very “obvious” facts.

But what exactly is “obvious”?  This is a good question.  This is the role of narratives and common knowledge:  we think certain things are “obvious” without too much thinking because we are conditioned to accept such beliefs as natural and “intuitively true” without questioning.  So we believe that the politics can be configured along a simple left-right scale, analogous to a number line.  As long as we accept this universe, the question of “ideology” is reduced simply to assigning appropriate numbers for the liberals, conservatives, and those in between.  Those who say otherwise, who question whether this “intuitive truth” is at all true are just creationists, who must be dumb because they cannot understand what does not even need to be explained.  When the reality ambushes them by raising the heterogeneous coalitions that don’t neatly correspond to the spatial ideology behind Sanders and Trump, they alternate between forcing these crowds into the spatial dimension and belittling these folks for not abiding by their definition of “obvious.”  To be fair, of course, they are not 100% wrong:  the overlap between the Sanders and Trump coalitions is relatively small:  the average Sanders voter would probably never vote for Trump and vice versa for the average Trump voter.  But a significant minority, under right conditions, might–and that should be enough to subject the standard narrative to serious questioning–if one can get that far.

So this brings us back to the apocalyptic narratives:  if we do not do X, the world will burn, but if we do Y (something extreme and perhaps foolish), we shall triumph.  How do we convince them that what they believe is foolish and nonsensical?  I had mentioned the Aztecs’ religious beliefs before:  in a sense, they too were an apocalyptic cult, who believed that, without continued human sacrifice, the world will end as sun will never rise again.  All their data corresponded to their belief system:  they have always conducted human sacrifice as long as they have known and the sun always came up.  There is no data where they did not conduct human sacrifice and the sun still came up because they never dared to try that experimentation.  To the Spanish, this sounded absurd–but only because the whole logic was “obviously wrong” to them on its face, purely on the matter of faith.  The ban on human sacrifice the conquistadores imposed, from the Aztec perspective, was an unreasonable, even cataclysmic gamble that ran contrary to all reason and evidence, motivated purely by childish “faith.”  So, in an odd way, we might be thankful (or not) that faith triumphed over reason in Mesoamerica.

I wonder how much “evidence” the Ghost Dancers had, or indeed, what kind of evidence they would have considered reasonable, given their belief system and the overall state of affairs.  Or, indeed, how much “evidence” was necessary.  Creationists, by and large, do not require good understanding of evolutionary biology for their lives:  the idea of “social cognition” is simply that, even flawed knowledge, if shared and sufficiently “believed,” without obvious enough disproof to the contrary that materially affects their well being, can serve as a focal point.  Until they discovered that the Ghost Dance did not bring back buffalo herds, and more important, did not cause the calvarymen’s bullets to bounce off of their bodies–which was not until when it was too late–the material well being of the Lakota tribesmen was not so affected by the particulars of their cult.  Until that moment that the narrative broke, the Lakota kept on believing.

So when do we know if the narrative is actually broken?  This is actually an even dicier question.  In case of the Ghost Dance, the breaking point was obvious:  the cult said that, if the rituals were performed, the bullets will not harm the cultists.  They did, ergo, the cult is wrong.  But was it?  Was the dance performed correctly?  Were there evil influences corrupting the dance?  It is not easy to find an example of a cult that breaks down completely without a whimper.  The Revolutionary era French believed in the power of French military elan.  Even during the Revolutionary Wars, and later throughout 19th century, French armies were broken multiple times, demonstrating that the theory of the elan might be problematic.  But, nope.  The problem was not that of the French army and the bravery of its soldiers.  To suggest so would be unpatriotic.  No, it was the incompetence of the lousy generals, traitors, and other corruption.  Once the French became a Republic, led by competent generals, and the army enjoyed universal support of the patriotic citizenry, the French elan will be invincible.  All these were not indisputably present until 1914, when the French Army went to fight World War I, and the combined power of heavy artillery, machine guns, and the trench system made mockery of the elan argument (and it still wasn’t completely extinguished–the Japanese, on the other side of the globe, held on to their version of this argument until World War 2, when it met an even greater proof to the contrary, in form of the a pair of atom bombs).  Breaking a narrative, in other words, is not easy.  Once the narrative itself becomes complex enough, its own inherent variance becomes large.  How do you know if you have left the woods?

This is hardly a new argument:  this recapitulates the points raised by Kuhn about the Copernican Revolution.  The reality was complex enough that it took centuries of additional accumulation of knowledge that the scale between geocentrism and heliocentrism began to turn, in a manner that was actually informed and reasonable.  If anything, the inherently conservative nature of “science” made the transition difficult, because, in absence of a decisive evidence to the contrary, the inclination of scientists is to accept the existing narrative as true.  And it was not until Newton that sufficiently “decisive” evidence in favor of “heliocentrism” was assembled–and of course, that involved developing a whole new system of science that implied far more than just heliocentrism.  In some sense, then, the Rennaissance (and beyond) scientists might be applauded for their willingness to ditch the conventional wisdom and start thinking out of the box, for, without their creativity, the foundations of the Newtonian physics that eventually furnished the convincing evidence that Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler lacked, would never have been assembled.  But, at the same time, it also involved a big intellectual gamble, for which many paid in their reputations.  While we might be lucky thinking that the bet paid off in physics, moreover, there are many other intellectual risks that were taken…and led absolutely nowhere so that we don’t know of them.  For all we know, of course, they might have been right, and a few hundred years later, we might know of them, much the way we do Kepler now.  But little consolation is the modern recognition to Kepler.



6 thoughts on “Apocalyptic Visions and Narratives.

  1. Frank November 10, 2016 / 12:47 am

    I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!


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