Thursday, September 22, 2011

Staring at the cave bear straight in the eyes. Mass movements and decision taking in modern society

Decision taking is not an easy task, unless you are forced by finding yourself staring at a cave bear in the eyes. That must be the reason why we are not eacting to major threats such as peak oil and global warming.

Years ago, when I was a student, a fire broke out in the chemistry lab. I was the first to rush to the fire extinguisher and I managed to put out the fire. I was surprised myself at what I did; normally, I am not the kind of guy who takes split-second decisions. I am more one of those people who see the menu of a Chinese restaurant as a minor drama in life. But in that occasion, when facing the fire in the lab, I didn't think, I acted. I still remember the curious sensation of watching myself as I was running at full speed toward the flames, fire extinguisher in hand, no hesitations involved.

Maybe you have had similar experiences, situations in which you don't think about what to do; you do it and, perhaps, you are surprised to be looking at yourself doing it. It must be the same mechanism that worked when our ancestors found themselves staring at a cave bear straight in the eyes. Run or fight, there would be no time to scratch one's head. There has to be something deep inside our minds that has evolved over millions of years and that makes us react fast to emergency situations.

But emergencies are not something just for individuals; there are worldwide emergencies that demand some kind of action at the societal level. Peak oil and global warming are among the most important ones. So far, however, it seems that we haven't realized that the cave bear is here. Just like single minds, society normally works as a tangle of feedbacks that work to keep things as they are. When new data challenge the prevalent world view; these mechanisms act in order to accommodate the new data without changing the existing view. That may involve downplaying the relevance of the data or ignoring them or, in extreme cases, aggressively demonizing those who propose them. It is called "blame the messenger". As long as a true emergency is not perceived, the result is inaction.

These effects have been around for a long time, but today they are greatly amplified by the Web. People tend to see the world more and more through information filters that they themselves create, seeking information from sources that confirm their ideas. And that is not just a conscious process: the search engine you use knows what are your preferences and will make sure that what you find conforms to your personal world view. These effects combined are called at times "Internet Bias." The filters that you choose (and that you do not choose) are keeping you safely embedded in your comfortable cocoon of facts and interpretations and you may not even realize that these filters exist. If you are a believer of hyper-abundant abiotic oil or if you are sure that climate change is a hoax created by evil scientists in order to stock up with fat research grants; then you can always enjoy the company of like-minded people on the web and, together, you'll keep reinforcing each other's beliefs.

One consequence is that the very concept of "debate" is disappearing. Debates are possible when the two sides debating at least agree on facts. But the Internet bias makes sure that each side has their own facts. Look at how the (so called) debate on anthropogenic global warming is conducted. The debate on peak oil is somewhat more civilized, but even there each side has their own facts. And if the debate leads to nowhere, no decision can be taken on how to solve the problems. Indeed, we are not taking any.

It is often said that a major catastrophe would stir society into action. That hasn't occurred, so far, but it may well be that in the future we'll face something so enormous and so disastrous that we won't be able to ignore it and forget it so fast. We will be staring at the cave bear into the eyes. What will we do?

It may well be that societies have mechanisms equivalent to those of a single mind to react to emergencies. One such mechanism involves the creation of what we call a "mass movement," a tool to create change by sidestepping the tangle of negative feedbacks that keep society static. It is the equivalent at the societal level of the "cave bear reaction" at the individual level.  Political mass movements have been dominating politics during the first half of the 20th century: Nazism, fascism, communism. Eric Hoffer wrote a fascinating account of how these movements work in his 1951 book "The True Believer". Hoffer argues that all mass movements share the same characteristics and arise from similar conditions, the main one is an old order that is completely discredited and that needs to be replaced. We surely are well stocked everywhere in terms of discredited old orders. So, can we expect to see mass movements rising again?

Some people advocate the idea of a Green mass movement under the name of "deep green resistance". So far, this idea doesn't seem to have been successful. In large part it has to do with some of the specific characteristics of Green ideas. As Hoffer says in his book, mass movements usually aggregate against something rather than for something. On this point, it is illuminating to read a note in Hoffer's book; when he reports how a Japanese delegation visited Germany in the 1930s to study the Nazi propaganda methods. When asked their opinion on what they saw; the Japanese answered "It is absolutely wonderful what the Germans have done; unfortunately we cannot do the same in Japan because we haven't got any Jews".  Now, think about the iconic slogan of the Greens, "Nuclear? No thanks". It was so successful because it hints at an enemy, nuclear energy. But it does so in such a gentle and polite way! Compare it with the Nazi slogans against the Jews and you'll see the difference.

That doesn't mean that people are not trying to use the hate trick to gain followers. They are, and what we are seeing now is more like an "anti-Green" movement taking shape, focused on hating everything "ecological". It behaves very much according to what Hoffer says are the typical characteristics of these movements, for instance targeting "enemies of the people" in the form of scientists.  However, not even Anti-Green ideas seem to be able to gain the status of a full fledged mass movement.

That we are not reacting to the crisis with mass movements is a good thing. The record these movements is very poor in terms of successful carrying out their ideological goals, besides generating all sorts of nasty side effects, from mass murder to political oppression. If you think of how successful was Soviet Communism in creating a proletarian paradise on earth, you may shiver at the idea of how successful the Greens could be in creating an ecological paradise on our planet. As Hoffer discusses in his book, mass movements are impossible to control, even by those who have created them.

But, then, what do we do? Can we only wait and do nothing until some really huge catastrophe stirs us into taking some kind of action, which will probably be the wrong one? I think not; we can do better than limiting our choices to the binary couple of complacency and panic. After all, I am sure that our paleolithic ancestors had a much more nuanced way to react to the presence of cave bears than simply madly attacking and running away at full speed. The same is true for us at the societal level.

In general, the choices you have depend on what you know. And that depends on the way you obtain information. Think about that: mass movements were the logical consequence of the poor and unstructured information that was provided by the mass media of the first half of the 20th century. Often government controlled, these mass media didn't provide a range of choices; just the party line. With such limited information, it is no wonder that people aggregated in masses of individuals who saw the world in the same terms.

Now, think of the situation today. People have an enormous larger range of information. It is a trend that started with a larger availability of printed material, but the Internet has been a true information explosion. But even with so much information, there is a problem. This is information is not structured. It is an inchoate mass of data out of which every one of us is trying to make sense, mainly by using search engines. But search engines are still primitive. We tend to see Google as a great and advanced tool, but think how hard its task is: indexing the trillions of pages of the Internet. What Google does is to list first the most clicked sites, but that is far from being the way to find what you are looking for. There is no guarantee that what you find first in the list is relevant or that it has any connection with reality. With the additional feature of personalized search, the way Google indexes the Internet is guaranteed to favor the creation of impermeable bubbles of knowledge which are incompatible with each other. The result is the political sectarism that has replaced mass movements almost everywhere.

But think that Google is just a little older than 10 years. Search engines are evolving rapidly and the ways they work today will be obsolete soon. What we need is structuring the Web in such a way that searches will be more likely to return  high quality information rather than poor quality information. So far, this kind of structuring doesn't exist; just think how the best quality information we have, peer reviewed scientific journals, exist mainly behind paywalls and as a consequence are not available for decision makers (it is equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot when facing a cave bear). Right now any search that is meant to return useful and validated data is nearly impossible using conventional search engines. So, there is clearly a need to do better and it is likely that some form of hierarchical strucutration of the information available on the Web will emerge. That doesn't mean that anyone will be shut off from the Web. It is only that good work will be rewarded and sloppy work will be punished (just as the tricks called SEO - search engine optimization). With a better structuration of the Web, we have a chance to move towards a different structuration of the decision making process. That can lead us out of the present decisional impasse without the need of generating those inflexible and dangerous methods known as mass movements. It may take time, but it is probably the best hope we have.

Sometimes  when I speak in public, I ask to the audience when it was that they took a major decision in their life and how they arrived to it. I often notice that it is a soul-searching moment. Taking decisions is not easy for us at the individual level, just as it is not at the societal level. What comes out of the discussion is that decisions taken as a result of the cave bear reflex are just as bad as non-decisions, that is waiting too long before deciding. The best way to take decisions is to be informed and to have choices. Nobody can predict the future but we can always be prepared for it.

Hat tip to Arthur Berman for suggesting to me the book "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffmann


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)