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PART IV

Truth

If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?

15

IGNORANCE

You know less than you think

The preceding chapters surveyed some of the most important problems and developments of the present era, from the overhyped threat of terrorism to the underappreciated threat of technological disruption. If you are left with the nagging feeling that this is too much, and that you cannot process it all, you are absolutely right. No person can.

In the last few centuries, liberal thought developed immense trust in the rational individual. It depicted individual humans as independent rational agents, and has made these mythical creatures the basis of modern society. Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free-market capitalism believes that the customer is always right, and liberal education teaches students to think for themselves.

It is a mistake, however, to put so much trust in the rational individual. Post-colonial and feminist thinkers have pointed out that this ‘rational individual’ may well be a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of upper-class white men. As noted earlier, behavioural economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than on rational analysis, and that while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with life in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate in the Silicon Age.

Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict, or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.1 Individual humans know embarrassingly little about the world, and as history progressed, they came to know less and less. A hunter-gatherer in the Stone Age knew how to make her own clothes, how to start a fire, how to hunt rabbits and how to escape lions. We think we know far more today, but as individuals, we actually know far less. We rely on the expertise of others for almost all our needs. In one humbling experiment, people were asked to evaluate how well they understood the workings of an ordinary zip. Most people confidently replied that they understood them very well – after all, they use zips all the time. They were then asked to describe in as much detail as possible all the steps involved in the zip’s operation. Most had no idea.2 This is what Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have termed ‘the knowledge illusion’. We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own.

This is not necessarily bad. Our reliance on groupthink has made us masters of the world, and the knowledge illusion enables us to go through life without being caught in an impossible effort to understand everything ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, trusting in the knowledge of others has worked extremely well for Homo sapiens.

Yet like many other human traits that made sense in past ages but cause trouble in the modern age, the knowledge illusion has its downside. The world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realise just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. Consequently some who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless propose policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate these countries on a map. People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.3 Providing people with more and better information is unlikely to improve matters. Scientists hope to dispel wrong views by better science education, and pundits hope to sway public opinion on issues such as Obamacare or global warming by presenting the public with accurate facts and expert reports. Such hopes are grounded in a misunderstanding of how humans actually think. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we hold on to these views out of group loyalty. Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire. Most people don’t like too many facts, and they certainly don’t like to feel stupid. Don’t be so sure that you can convince Tea Party supporters of the truth of global warming by presenting them with sheets of statistical data.4 The power of groupthink is so pervasive that it is difficult to break its hold even when its views seem to be rather arbitrary. Thus in the USA, right-wing conservatives tend to care far less about things like pollution and endangered species than left-wing progressives, which is why Louisiana has much weaker environmental regulations than Massachusetts. We are used to this situation, so we take it for granted, but it is really quite surprising. One would have thought that conservatives would care far more about the conservation of the old ecological order, and about protecting their ancestral lands, forests and rivers. In contrast, progressives could be expected to be far more open to radical changes to the countryside, especially if the aim is to speed up progress and increase the human standard of living. However, once the party line has been set on these issues by various historical quirks, it has become second nature for conservatives to dismiss concerns about polluted rivers and disappearing birds, while left-wing progressives tend to fear any disruption to the old ecological order.5 Even scientists are not immune to the power of groupthink. Thus scientists who believe that facts can change public opinion may themselves be the victims of scientific groupthink. The scientific community believes in the efficacy of facts, hence those loyal to that community continue to believe that they can win public debates by throwing the right facts around, despite much empirical evidence to the contrary.

Similarly, the liberal belief in individual rationality may itself be the product of liberal groupthink. In one of the climactic moments of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a huge crowd of starry-eyed followers mistakes Brian for the Messiah. Brian tells his disciples that ‘You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals! You’re all different!’ The enthusiastic crowd then chants in unison ‘Yes! We’re all individuals! Yes, we are all different!’ Monty Python were parodying the counterculture orthodoxy of the 1960s, but the point may be true of the belief in rational individualism in general. Modern democracies are full of crowds shouting in unison, ‘Yes, the voter knows best! Yes, the customer is always right!’ The black hole of power

The problem of groupthink and individual ignorance besets not just ordinary voters and customers, but also presidents and CEOs. They may have at their disposal plenty of advisors and vast intelligence agencies, but this does not necessarily make things better. It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world. You are just far too busy. Most political chiefs and business moguls are forever on the run. Yet if you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time – you will never find the truth.

Worse still, great power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is. When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail; and when you have great power in your hand, everything looks like an invitation to meddle. Even if you somehow overcome this urge, the people surrounding you will never forget the giant hammer you are holding. Anybody who talks with you will have a conscious or unconscious agenda, and therefore you can never have full faith in what they say. No sultan can ever trust his courtiers and underlings to tell him the truth.

Great power thus acts like a black hole that warps the very space around it. The closer you get, the more twisted everything becomes. Each word is made extra heavy upon entering your orbit, and each person you see tries to flatter you, appease you, or get something from you. They know you cannot spare them more than a minute a two, and they are fearful of saying something improper or muddled, so they end up saying either empty slogans or the greatest clichés of all.

A couple of years ago I was invited to dinner with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Friends warned me not to go, but I couldn’t resist the temptation. I thought I might finally hear some big secrets that are divulged only to important ears behind closed doors. What a disappointment it was! There were about thirty people there, and everyone tried to get the Great Man’s attention, impress him with their wit, curry favour, or get something out of him. If anyone there knew any big secrets, they did an extremely good job of keeping them to themselves. This was hardly Netanyahu’s fault, or indeed anybody’s fault. It was the fault of the gravitational pull of power.

If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power, and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the centre, because the centre is built on existing knowledge. The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach the centres of power, and they tend to filter out the carriers of disturbing unconventional ideas. Of course they filter out an incredible amount of rubbish too. Not being invited to the Davos World Economic Forum is hardly a guarantee of wisdom. That’s why you need to waste so much time on the periphery – they may contain some brilliant revolutionary insights, but they are mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas and ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they stay in the centre of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. And the problem will only get worse. In the coming decades, the world will become even more complex than it is today. Individual humans – whether pawns or kings – will consequently know even less about the technological gadgets, the economic currents, and the political dynamics that shape the world. As Socrates observed more than 2,000 years ago, the best we can do under such conditions is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.

But what then about morality and justice? If we cannot understand the world, how can we hope to tell the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice?

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