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Opinion-Based Reality

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

Though the phrase above was originally intended to apply to technological gadgets, it applies equally well to any concept of sufficient complexity. The trick is often used to get people to believe things that are wrong or that they would not believe in were they mentally equipped to follow the reasoning. Instead of simply reserving judgment because they don’t know enough, most people will elect to bluff and simply agree with the most competent-sounding person in the room or, failing that, the loudest.

However, instead of being baffled about advanced alien technology (as in Clarke’s case), people are baffled about most of the world around them. They survive only because the world has been so thoroughly idiot-proofed, drawing laughable conclusions that a five-year could tear apart logically, but buoyed in their beliefs because of all of the similarly mentally under-endowed people who agree with them. They perceive their argument as gaining weight based solely on the number of people who believe it and the volume at which they shriek it to others. Since these people have no actual information, they also don’t believe that there is such a thing as actual information. Everything becomes a matter of opinion, a matter of faith. It’s just too bad for them that the real world doesn’t care what they think. Reality does not forget history or basic physical laws.

This mechanic is in ample evidence today as the world tilts into an abyss of its own making. The economic situation is complex and involves many, many factors on which sound decisions about public and domestic policy must be based. The relationship between causes and effects—not to mention second- and third-order effects—is not always obvious and is often counterintuitive.

Nevertheless, people who’ve heretofore spent no time educating themselves about history, the workings of the government or the actual conditions in the nation or the world, are holding forth with opinions. Though this dearth of experience applies to people you know, it also applies to most of the people in the media as well. People are lent credence merely because they express themselves with confidence and use a large vocabulary. They may not use it correctly and the basis of their argumentation may be utter hogwash but, for many people, it is indistinguishable from magic. They believe it because it sounds believable and they are woefully unequipped to dispute it.

For example, a meme currently cruising the airwaves—mostly courtesy of Fox News—is that FDR caused the Great Depression with his social spending plans. The first thing to note is that there no longer seems to be such a thing as lying in American News anymore. In America, everything is a matter of opinion, even historical facts. Fox’s egregious attacks on written history will likely never see a retraction, nor will anyone be thrown off the airwaves for incompetence. This will not happen because no one sees this as a problem; the line between fact an opinion does not exist, so there will never be need for a retraction or correction again. It’s true because they say it is. If you disprove it will “facts”, well, that’s just your opinion, man.

America’s last depression started well before FDR became president. The effects of the depression were being beaten back mostly with social spending, all heartily endorsed by the wisest economist to have ever walked the planet, John Maynard Keynes. When political pressure forced an end to this social spending before it was economically wise to do so, the country resumed its calamitous nosedive into a depression, from which only World War II could rescue it.

Now, the version of history above is easily corroborated—especially with the sheer awesomeness of the Internet—by checking the sequence of events in history books. And, no, a book by a famous television personality does not count as a history book. However, if a person doesn’t know anything about history and doesn’t question authoritative voices, they could easily be convinced that the upswing between FDR’s election and the plummeting return, five years later, to depression conditions, simply never existed. That is, with history and economics firmly in the “magic” category for them, people would then believe that, while social spending is incapable of preventing or fixing a depression, military spending works gangbusters. Though logic says that spending is spending, it’s all magic to them, so they accept the expert opinion on faith.

Unfortunately, because of their information-poor state, they can’t tell the difference between facts and complete bullshit. They are, in fact, woefully unqualified to have an opinion at all, putting them on par with most of the talking heads with whom they agree. With a minimum investment of energy, the system is self-perpetuating and, all of a sudden, they’ve got people with much better things to do spending all of their time debunking argumentation that should never have even seen the light of day. Instead of talking about how to get out of Iraq and stop waging war around the world, you end up mired in a conversation about whether or not there were WMDs; instead of talking about energy policy, you end up in a conversation about whether or not there are waste products from nuclear power plants or whether or not the word “clean” when applied to coal is really all sunshine, unicorns and rainbows. With no history and no information and only magic, useful discussion is dead before it begins.

There are such things as facts and there are such things as opinions that are worth much more than others. (As the old saying goes, “opinions are like assholes…everybody’s got one.”) People who don’t know anything about anything are still strongly encouraged to question what they hear; the whole point is not to simply believe what one hears because it’s been presented in an appealing way. Think about what you hear and learn and don’t accept overly simplified reasoning about or solutions for problems that are clearly much more complex. A good rule of thumb is to disbelieve the person who claims to have the answer to everything and to listen closely to the person who clearly delineates what he knows and clearly indicates that he is only offering a well-educated guess. And, for God’s sake, stop believing things that are so clearly illogical and impossible just because it’s easier than actually learning something or thinking.


The ruminations above were triggered by a few sources.

[1] One interesting source was Spot the math errors!, which presents math problems that, very convincingly, prove that 2 = 1, pi = 3 and -1 = 1. Each problem has a logical error that is not immediately evident to a layman.
[2] Another source was an excellent interview with Richard Feynman, Take the world from another point of view, wherein he declares that the most important thing a person can do is to ask questions. If you can’t justify something based on other information you have, then find out why. His example is about people brushing their teeth; most people only brush their teeth because that is what one does. But, is this behavior based on clinical studies? Do the rest of the people in the world brush their teeth too? Are our teeth better than theirs? Until you find out for sure, you’re simply brushing your teeth on faith, believing in magic.
[3]

Another source was the long-suffering George Monbiot, who wrote Heat about global warming and has been dealing with the particularly mind-boggling level of uninformedness found in people opining about global warming and climate change. It is here that the one finds some of the most fervent practitioners of pseudo-science (creationism is another fertile hotbed of such). A Beardful of Bunkum by George Monbiot has this example:

“Until now the “sceptics” have assured us that you can’t believe the temperature readings at all; that the scientists at the Met Office, who produced the latest figures, are all liars; and that even if it were true that temperatures have risen, it doesn’t mean anything. Now the temperature record (though only for 2008) can suddenly be trusted, and the widest possible inferences can be drawn from the latest figures, though not, of course, from the records of the preceding century. This is madness.”

In the case of climate change, there are entrenched interests deliberately spreading misinformation, which is happily gobbled whole and regurgitated by the bleating sheep until, through the resonance built up by repetition, it becomes true. And don’t expect the newspapers and media to do the research—it’s up to you to provide your own filter.