Sunday, December 2, 2012

The unknown unknowns of the monoculture

Some people suffering of the "neglect syndrome" just can't see half of the world. For them, it is an unknown unknown. It seems that our society, that some have correctly defined as a "monoculture", is suffering of a cultural neglect syndrome facing such things as climate change and resource depletion. (Image from: "Spatial hemineglect in humans", Georg Kerkhoff , Progress in Neurobiology Volume 63, Issue 1, 1 January 2001, Pages 1–27.)

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that every month (or even more frequently) I discover something that completely changes my views of the world. Epiphanic changes; one after the other.

A recent epiphany I had came from reading the thesis in neuroscience that my daughter wrote this year. She has been studying something called "lateral neglect syndrome" which results from brain damage. It is a section of the general problem called "anosognosia" or "anosognosis." People suffering from this kind of cognitive impairment don't realize that they have a problem.

It is an impressive story to tell: a patient suffering of lateral neglect won't "see" one side of the world, won't draw it, and won't touch it. When asked why, the patient will answer that it was not important or that there was no reason to consider it; never that he or she couldn't perceive it. Anosognosia is what inspired Dunning and Kruger for the effect that takes their name: the "Dunning-Kruger Syndrome". It affects people who grossly overestimate their abilities or their knowledge. But Dunning and Kruger have been often misinterpreted by defining their effect as "stupid people don't realize that they are stupid". No, it is a much wider effect and it hits intelligent people in particular. It is typical of very intelligent people to be unable to realize their limits.

This kind of anosognosia is especially bad with science, in particular climate science. The Web is infested with people who suffer of a form of climate science neglect syndrome. They are not stupid;  on the contrary, some of them they can display considerable creativity and inventive to support the idea that climate is not changing, or that change is not caused by human activity, or that everything is an evil plot to enslave humankind. Their problem is that they completely fail to perceive the complexity of the subject. They can't see that climate science is not about whether grapes were cultivated in England during the Middle Ages or about the letters that some scientists wrote to each other more than 10 years ago. You just can't convince them that their vision of the world is limited. The same is true with a variety of conspiracy theories based on failing to understand the complexity of the subject: chemtrails, cold fusion, abiotic oil, and many more.

Anosognosia is easily recognizable in such extreme forms. But, in milder forms, it affects all of us. It is such an easy mistake to believe that we know something well enough to act on it and then suddenly discovering that we don't. I have my horror stories about myself to tell you on this point; I am sure you have yours. And those are cases where we understood that we were making a mistake. What's scary about anosognosia is when you don't even realize that there is a problem. Think that, most likely, there is something out there, something we can't even imagine, that's going to affect us deeply. But what? How can we perceive something that we cannot perceive? How do we manage "unknown unknowns"?

Still, as long as our brain is not physically damaged, we have at least a fighting chance to understand our mistakes and to be prepared for the unexpected that may crash upon us all of a sudden. But there is a much larger problem that has to do with society as a whole: it seems to be suffering of a bad case of cognitive neglect syndrome. Read "Monoculture" by F. S. Michaels and you'll see what I mean.

More and more, our culture seems to confine itself within narrow limits that don't include entities such as climate change, peak oil, ecosystem collapse, and much more. All that is relegated to the category of unknown unknowns, totally outside the bounds of perception; even outside the bounds of the imaginable. As it is not perceived, it is not understood, it is not discussed, it is not acted upon. And, whatever is going to crash on us all of a sudden, we are totally unprepared for it.

Unfortunately, one of the things I learned from my daughter is that there is no cure for this syndrome.


h/t to my daughter Donata and to Karl Wagner for telling me about the "Monoculture" book by F. S. Michaels 


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)