Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cynic's Cure

In the entryway to my house, I have a cheap, cheesy, kitschy little ceramic sign that I love.  It says, "Be Wise.  Be Kind.  Be True."

I recently severed all ties with someone I had once considered a friend because, although he was very wise in many ways, he was neither kind nor true.  To me, or to other people, as it turns out.

I admit, it took me a while to accept this; I tend to want to err on the side of optimism.

I think of what John Mellencamp sang: "Save some time to think/ Before you speak your mind/ Many of your friends, they will not understand/ And to them, you must be kind."

I'm writing this because I'm currently reading Daniel Gardner's book, The Science of Fear.   Although it's a little discouraging to realize how easy it is for politicians, used car salespeople and pharmaceutical companies to manipulate even the best of us, Gardner offers a lot of really interesting facts about the psychology of fear.

In particular, Gardner discusses the psychological phenomenon known as "confirmation bias."  Psychologists have shown that, "Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that supports that view while ignoring, rejecting, or harshly scrutinizing information that casts doubt on it" (110).

So once I decided my friend was no friend, it was unlikely that I'd be receptive to information that might cast doubt on that conclusion (no such information was forthcoming, by the way).

I think this is also probably why, among the other epithets he hurled at me in ALL CAPS, I was suddenly called a "progressive" (even though I'm not).

According to Gardner, "Once a belief is established, our brains will seek to confirm it" (111).

More specifically, Gardner notes that "seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strange and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs.  Worse still, if we happen to stumble across evidence that runs contrary to our views, we have a strong tendency to belittle or ignore it" (112).

To me, this explains the current political climate of the United States.  The Tea Parties, Conspiracy Theorists, Right-Wing, Left-Wing, Conservatives, Progressives, Liberals, and Radicals--in short, the whole psychological smorgasbord.

What's particularly discouraging is the fact that when, in 2004, 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans were shown pictures of Bush and Kerry and had their brains scanned, the MRI's showed that "When people processed information that ran against their strongly held views--information that made their favored candidate look bad--they actually used different parts of the brain than they did when they processed neutral or positive information" (113).

What is worrisome to me, from an intellectual standpoint, is the way in which confirmation bias can quickly turn healthy skepticism into cynical mistrust.  As Gardner observes, "Where a reasonable respect for expertise is lost, people are left to search for scientific understanding on Google and in Internet chat rooms, and the sneer of the cynic may mutate into unreasoning, paralyzing fear" (107).

As an example of this, Gardner cites the experience of an expert charged with finding a location for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility:
"At the Siting Board's open houses .... people would invent scenarios and then dare Board members and staff to say they were impossible.  A person would ask, 'What would happen if a plane crashed into a concrete bunker filled with radioactive waste and exploded?'  We would explain that while the plane and its contents might explode, nothing in the disposal facility could.  And they would say, 'But what if explosives had been mistakenly disposed of, and the monitoring devices at the facility had malfunctioned so they weren't noticed?'  We would head down the road of saying that this was an extremely unlikely set of events.  And they would say, 'Well, it could happen, couldn't it?"
To me, this passage speaks to what I see as the two sides of the WikiLeaks coin.  On the one hand, I'm all in favor of governmental accountability: if people in power are up to no good, the people who entrusted them with that power have the right to know about it.

On the other hand, however, I'm not sure that what Assange and his Wiki have been Leaking is all that surprising, really.  By his own admission, Assange is a journalist who understands the need for national security and the need to protect the safety of diplomats and other government officials.

He therefore understands that governments do all kinds of Top Secret things to and for each other, and they always have.  Even those allegedly honest, upright Founding Fathers of ours did it.   Read James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy.  Ian Fleming's James Bond.  Frederick Forsythe.  That kind of thing.

What I find most troubling about the Leaks (I feel like I have to capitalize that word, but I'm not sure why) is the way in which they're being prefaced and packaged as they're being disseminated.

On the WikiLeaks website for Cablegate (hardly an innocent title), it states,
The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.
This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.
Then, under the heading, "How to Explore the Data," it states, "Search for events that you remember that happened for example in your country. You can browse by date or search for an origin near you.  Pick out interesting events and tell others about them. Use twitter, reddit, mail whatever suits your audience best."

It might as well say, "Tap into your confirmation bias.  Really.  Go nuts.  Light up your MRI like a Christmas tree."

Setting aside the fact that no American schoolchild is taught that George Washington couldn't tell a lie (we're taught that this was a story--a lie, actually--made up about Washington long after the fact), it seems to me that WikiLeaks is stacking the deck a bit here.

First you tell me what I'll find, and then you tell me to go ahead and randomly find it.

The fact of the matter is, if these cables didn't come with this kind of suggestive preamble, I don't think a single American would ever bother looking at them.  In and of themselves, they don't make for very exciting reading, unless of course, you're looking for what they "really" say because you've already been told what they "really" say.

If the documents expose corruption, so be it.  Put them up and let people draw their own conclusions.

Again, I don't object to exposure of government corruption, in America or elsewhere.  But I do question the tactics used on WikiLeaks, because I think they encourage the kind of cynicism that Gardner describes.

Skepticism fosters freedom; cynicism ultimately fosters nothing but fear and bias.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."