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springtime for rationality
and why you really do need to fear fear
many have asked me, “why now?”
why is is suddenly becoming OK to doubt lockdowns and masks and wonder about wuhan labs?
why are politicians pivoting, bureaucrats starting to try to make sense, and people in lockdown occupied territory suddenly breaking free as if waking up from a bad fugue state?
why are ideas shouted down as conspiracy theory and tinfoil hatted lunacy suddenly mainstream and why are the narratives that were so mainstream suddenly revealed to be so lacking in foundation?
it’s because the fear stopped.
fear is not only an irrational process but one that shuts off rational ones. it’s the more primitive part of your limbic system. people call it “the lizard brain” and the analogy is not inapt. that’s about how smart it leaves you.
terrified people cannot process information well. they cannot make sound judgements. they do not weigh risk and reward, cost and benefit. they freak out, they demand action and flock to leaders with loud shouty voices and simple narratives to tell them what to do.
they become a sub-rational mob and seek protection via in-group allegiance and to unify against out-groups. it’s evolutionarily hard coded.
but as fear recedes rationality returns.
humans become a mob all at once and come to their senses one by one, but as more and more do it becomes easier and easier for the rest to join them.
this is the end of a global panic possibly unprecedented in human history. of course it carried with it a global decent into irrationality and dogmatic tribalism. no other outcome was possible in the face of so much carefully (and willfully) inculcated fear.
as rationality returns, we’re going to have a sea change. it will feel like the dawning of the enlightenment. we’re going to be able to see again, to think again. and see and think we must because learning the correct lessons from this debacle is how we prevent the next one. all the ideas that seemed like shouting into the wind are going to suddenly find root and grow. more and more will be able to see them and willing to speak up about it.
study your fear. study where it came from and what it made you miss. embrace the data, new and old, with your eyes and mind open again. learn the tools that made you too afraid to see and too afraid to speak. learn how it broke apart the society and ostracized those who tried to keep it from derangement.
terror NEVER helps decision making. never.
whatever views you come to, come to them rationally.
learn to spot the fear monger and to decline his invitation into unthinking panic.
there is a reason that fear has always been the tool of the demagogue. it’s because it works, and it works not just because of those it renders incapable of rational thought, but because it weaponizes such people into a braying mob of cancel culture that, in turn, silences the rest.
those who should speak up cannot or will not. they are censored, attacked, vilified, and ostracized. it prevents even those who keep their heads from spreading calm.
one of the last threads i posted on twitter before getting de-catformed spoke to this. i’m going to reproduce it here, and then i’m going out to barbecue stuff and ignore the internet all weekend.
if i may be so bold as to offer some advice: do the same. step away from the doom scrolling and idea wars and unplug. cook stuff, see friends, live a little. you’ll be glad you did.
"if so many smart people knew that this covid response was absurd and unwarranted, why did so few speak out?"
this is an interesting question.
i think a great deal of the answer hinges upon the one-sidedness of the bet that requires.
let's perform a thought experiment:
imagine you live in a primitive, superstitious tribe. you, for whatever reason have special knowledge that others do not.
an eclipse is coming. you know that is is simply the moon passing in front of the sun.
but the tribal elders claim it is angry gods and demand sacrifice.
consider the position in which this places you:
you can stand up and say "no. do not sacrifice our food. people will go hungry and this is simply a celestial process, not the gods threatening us to demand tokens of devotion."
and you will be 100% right.
but now what?
the elders will call you crazy and tell the people that you are putting all their lives at risk. terrible things will happen if we do not sacrifice. you are a heretic and must be silenced before you anger the gods even further.
so you get the classic emotion vs reason debate.
and perhaps you can sway some of your fellows. perhaps not. much of it depends on how many listen to you vs them.
this means that if your voice is small, even if others agree with you, you have little chance to prevail.
one shouty chieftain drowns you out utterly.
and even if you can convince some of the reason of your argument, will that belief hold when the sky goes dark and fear takes hold?
believing in the abstract is one thing. believing in the face of terror is another.
limbic system trumps rational thought in most people.
so you run into the "there are no atheists in foxholes" problem. when the sky grows dark, the elders will scream about how wrong you were and the crowd will turn into a scared mob and turn on you.
fear demands simple solutions, not complex analyses.
this is why whipping up fear is the time honored tool of the demagogue. a sufficiently frightened populace is immune to reason and ripe to be preyed upon by those adept at conjuring hobgoblins.
and the social pressure to conform is enormous. humans dislike being odd man out with unbelievable intensity.
this is the classic asch conformity experiment.
you are simply asked "which line is the same length as x?"
easy, right? 90%+ get it right when asked alone.
but the experiment is more cunning. it places you 7th in a group of 10. unbeknownst to you, the 6 in front of you are confederates of the experimenter.
all pick the same (wrong) line.
faced with this setup, 90%+ of people ignore what they see and agree with the crowd.
you almost have to see this run for real to believe it. we did this freshman year in a dev psych class. i thought "this will never work on ivy league students." wrong.
it worked nearly completely. being "smart" is no protection against this. not even a little.
so you have all this pressure to conform and fear of attack from high status/high profile people if you speak out. this is a huge hurdle to overcome.
but there remains yet another that's perhaps just as potent:
the cost/benefit sucks.
we've seen some of the costs, but there are more. if you speak out against the sacrifice & manage to stop it, then you own the outcome.
every bad thing, every missing goat, miscarriage, failed crop, injured child, or torrential rain will be pinned on you for angering the gods. even if you do not manage to stop it, these things will be blamed on you. the gods are angry because of heretics in our midst and will not restore their favor until they repent.
the social pressure and price on this can get extreme
ask the mask zealots.
meanwhile, any good outcome will be attributed to wise propitiation and policy from the elders.
you'll get credit for none of it. ask andy cuomo. he's the master of this. he's a conquering hero with epic polling despite presiding over one of the worst covid responses on earth.
this is the problem with suiting up against the high status high profile folks. they get to spin narrative in a manner you cannot. the media aid them and gaslight you. all their awful policy and choices are swept under the rug. all beneficence is attributed to them.
and all bad outcomes are piled onto you.
so, there is no win for you as the little guy. you're just screaming into the void drowned out by superstition and power grabbing.
then you get blamed.
is it any wonder most people stay quiet?
now, theoretically, an honest and open media asking the hard questions and seeking true assessment of policy and of expert opinion would be a bulwark against this.
of course, theoretically, if fish rode bicycles, every river would be the tour de france...
so this is hard for the little guys. even high profile individuals like @MLevitt_NP2013 & ioannidas struggle & come under constant attack risking grants, speaking engagements, reputation, and sanity.
the mob is ruthless when it comes for you, especially if you happen to be right. the only way out of this onslaught of cancel culture and social and intellectual censorship is getting organized, and that takes time.
despite its myriad flaws, social media is a godsend in this regard. it allows cats and bears and pundits and congressmen to find one another.
it allows scientists to collaborate and share ideas and courage. it becomes an agora for the ideas that the elders would suppress and even when jack and the gang seek to suppress it, it springs up like grass through a sidewalk ever more determined.
this is how little becomes big.
this is how the trunk of the tree breaks apart the asphalt that was placed over it and reaches for daylight.
it's been an amazing thing to watch and to play some small part in.
and it HAS made a difference. never doubt that.
how much of this data would never have been public?
how many people would have thought they were alone and presumed that the silence of others meant agreement with narrative?
how much more history could be re-written because no one had seen the other side of the debate?
this is why they hurl words like "denier" at those that speak against orthodoxy. it's a liar's word.
skepticism IS science. it forms its very integument.
anyone claiming otherwise is a fool or a dissembler.
stay strong. stay brave. stay free.
the side of reason is the side that questions, not the side the silences discussion and dissent.
gaslighting works by alienating the victim and isolating them from perspective.
it cannot work on those who stand together.
proud to stand with you on #RationalGround.