One simple change we can make to stop nationalists, anti-vaxxers, climate deniers et al from destroying us all [analysis]

Here’s a recipe for global disaster: a foundation of faith, mixed with a mistrust of intellect; add a teaspoonful of fear and loneliness, and anything can happen. From this recipe we have created white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and the Flat Earth society.

In 1983 author Terry Pratchett published a hilarious fantasy novel that takes place in a fictitious world.The Colour of Money, was the first of over thirty of what was to become known as his Discworld Novels. He founded these on the hilarious premise that the world was a flat disc sitting on the backs of four elephants on the back of a great turtle in space. While combining these tropes from the Hindu World Turtle and World Elephant, Pratchett set out to create a world of the ridiculous which permeates every part of the series. Now, just a few decades later, a notable portion of the population does not see the humour, but rather takes it seriously (albeit minus the celestial animal stack).

The flat earth rises

A new documentary online called Behind the Curve shows these Flat Earthers who believes we live on a disc-shaped world. The producers of this passive aggressive documentary portray the fringe anti-science movement as misguided yet manage to create empathy for the community it subtly destroys over ninety minutes. I came away feeling overwhelmingly sad for the protagonists. These desperately lonely people have found a calling so ridiculous that incredulous people sat up to take notice of them. They are no longer outcasts and have found others with whom they can associate. This movement has given them purpose, community and a reason to live; life goals we all desire.

This society believes in the flat Earth so much that they decide to co-opt the scientific method to prove this truth. One of the society members, Bob Knodel, working with others, buys a $20,000 gyroscope to measure the rotation of the earth. If it shows 15° of change per hour it proves the Earth a spinning globe, if not: we’re all wrong. They run the experiment and what do you know: it rotates fifteen degrees. We then overhear Knodel explaining confidentially to another Flat Earther how to hide this discovery until they have time to explain how it fits into the flat Earth model. They run other scientific tests which also prove the earth to be a globe.

the flat Earth
The flat Earth
Credit: Creative Commons cc 4.0/ PizzaPlanet

The source of delusion

These individuals feel so excited by their newfound infamy that not even their own proof can stop them from their movement. At the centre of the documentary sits a sad romance between a flat Earth YouTuber and flat Earth podcaster. Their awkward time together in front of the microphone and onstage at the Flat Earth Conference reminds us of how much we all crave acceptance, companionship, and recognition. This desire completely replaces reason, making them believe their own implausible story, no matter what. These people mean well, but with the power of social media their spreading belief sets a precedent for disaster.

Evolution screws us again

While flat Earth in itself does little damage it represents a symptom of a greater danger. The same dynamics of faith, reverence of ignorance, loneliness and disenfranchisement lead to disasters of real consequence. Take for example the climate change deniers who hurry the end of the human race in a few decades. Or the anti-vaxxers whose unfounded beliefs have already killed scores of children and could lead to worldwide plague. Consider ISIS’ message of hate couched in religious dogma which turned disenfranchised youth into an army of extreme violence and lack of conscience. This environment allows hateful leaders to succeed, conmen to rise, and people of faith to lead armies to genocide. However, it may come as a surprise that this is all a logical consequence of a useful human trait.

What we all believe

It all starts with the willingness to believe stories without evidence. For the scientifically-minded, belief in unsubstantiated facts seems like the end of the world, however it is not all bad. Indeed, our dominance of this planet has depended on our ability to believe in stories.

Just as our opposable thumbs represent the unique physical characteristic that separates humans from other animals, the ability to believe in fiction constitutes the mental equivalent. Our ancestors who were able to imagine a danger that might happen and prepare for it, survived. Their ability to pass this knowledge along to future generations in speech and writing helped greater and greater numbers of us to survive. This ability to have stories define groups led to economy, culture, and art. It also led to war, racism, and social media.

The foundation of our entire way of life

The human ability to believe fictions lies at the foundation of nation states (what is a nation without a history?), economy (what is a brand but a unifying story around products?) and religion (all faiths have a storybook at their core). The thousands of religions that have existed throughout human history have formed and shaped our culture all based on faith, which quite literally means ‘belief without evidence’. We believe these stories so fervently that we lie for them, fight for them, and kill for them. As Yuval Noah Harari says “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.” Human stories are powerful indeed.

In the early days of human evolution these stories helped unite family groups and subsequently whole tribes. Communal knowledge allowed for cooperation, defense, expansion and migration of the tribes. Today this same mechanism forms the foundation of racism and bigotry, driving intolerance and hatred with startling ease of acceptance into the modern zeitgeist. Us vs Them. Believing fictions is neither good nor bad in and of itself, however, the content of these stories and the environment in which these beliefs rise can affect us greatly.

Ignorance is king

The premise of the Big Bang Theory sit-com concerns the lives of a bunch of geniuses all working at a university. The smartest of which, Sheldon, far outstrips his fellow brainiacs in terms of intelligence, ability to learn, and insight, but Sheldon has socially awkward tendencies. He lives as an outsider and an outcast even amongst his genius friends. Sheldon is not alone. Take a look at ten average American TV shows. Almost all of them will include an intentionally intelligent, educated character. Hollywood will have written nearly all of them as unattractive, derided, or socially awkward. Even in a show that celebrates nerds, the uber-nerd becomes a figure of ridicule.

The cast of The Big Bang Theory on TBS

Whether these shows reflect our society or has caused people’s acceptance of this as reasonable behaviour does not really matter. We bear a distrust of knowledge, a lack of critical thinking, and a desire in our children to not become the person at the focus of such derision. Fictions can lead to disastrous outcomes when fed into a world that has learned to despise intelligence and distrust facts.

The solution?

So how can we redirect this train from its rapid journey to malignant idiocy? We could just throw in the towel and see what can be salvaged post Armageddon, or we can learn to put our stories back in context. We can begin with education.

Education has two key aspects: memory and thought. Our current system dates back to the Victorian era when we designed schools to create workers, not thinkers. This school system, still in use today, leans heavily on memorising facts and rote learning, the ‘memory’ side of education.

Some 500 years ago a few critical thinkers, with the means to do so, followed the path of curiosity. This lead to the formalising of the scientific method, the writing of the basic laws of the universe, the codification of the core principles of math, a plethora of new artistic styles, an explosion of technology and much more. Every discovery built on the shoulders of those who came before. This evolution fed the thoughtful side of education: exploration, discovery, curiosity and understanding.

How we learn

Perhaps the time has come to tip the scales back from memory to thought, from rote learning to critical thinking. It is time to teach people how to create models in their mind, argue creatively, assess information sources, and above all doubt themselves without being embarrassed. It is time to admit not-knowing is the precursor to learning.

The end is not neigh

Whether you see the four horsemen of the apocalypse as: pestilence, war, famine and death, or the more modern: faith, ignorance, anger and social media; we can avoid their scourge by learning to love to learn again. I have faith in this. Do you?


Addendum

I was commissioned to write a review of Behind the Curve for a high-brow publication. I submitted this post, and after a few days of silence, the publisher decided to send a response. Here’s an excerpt:

“I believe your attack on people of faith rose to the level of hate speech. The irony was that the history, description, and purpose of religion you postulated read like pure fiction. No serious theologian, religious studies, or religious text scholar would agree with your story of religion.”

Let’s put aside the arrogance necessary to assume I wrote this without doing any research. Or the irony of a white, privileged American pointing out hate speech to a person who has been a minority in 50 countries around the globe. The piece does talk about the mechanism of faith and belief – all pretty well documented in history, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience – however, I certainly neither make a comment on people of faith nor their beliefs. I even applaud religions contributions to history and stay clear of judgements of any particular faith in this piece.

I decided to share this response from a well-educated, non-religious American as (ironically) it underlines the point of the article. Education without real critical thinking and comprehension skills can make even a reasonable person believe the oddest of unsubstantiated ideas; ideas which taken to extremes could present a real danger to this world.

Originally published on Medium