Tuesday, April 17, 2018

If you can't see it, it can kill you. Propaganda, for instance.

If you never took this test before, spend two minutes on it before reading the text below. 

The "selective attention" test you see above was developed in 1999 by Christopher Chablis and Daniel Simons.  It shows how people have difficulties in perceiving the most obvious things when they are focused on something that engages their attention. Often, it has been seen as just a sort of psychological parlor game, but it has a deep significance.

This selective attention phenomenon may well describe the current world's situation. Our aging leaders seem to be so fixated on their manhood - and unsure about it - that they try to reassure themselves by firing missiles around. And, in doing that, they neglect everything else. But it is not just a question of aging leaders, the whole Western world shows evident signs of senility at the societal level. Most of us in our daily life are fixated on details of no relevance and miss the important issues that threaten our very existence. 

So, we are missing the gorilla which is climate change, as well as other gorillas which go under different names: ecosystem collapse, resource depletion, overpopulation, widespread pollution, and more. Some of these gorillas are recognized and described by the scientific community, but the public and the leaders alike fail to hear the advice they receive. 

Even more worrisome is the possibility that there exist gorillas which not even scientists can detect. As an example, we are daily being exposed to a cocktail or toxic metals resulting from industrial activity. We know that each single metal, alone, doesn't (normally) reach concentrations in our bodies so high to be deemed as dangerous. But we don't really know what happens when people have several low concentration metals inside their body - which is the case for most of us. 

Or, as another example, consider CO2 atmospheric concentration. Today, all of us are exposed to an atmospheric concentration of more than 400 parts per million, considerably larger than anything our species has been breathing over the past million years, at least (ca. 280 ppm before the industrial age). As things stand, it is likely that we will reach at least 500 ppm - nearly double the values that our ancestors experienced. Now, apart from climate change and its related disasters, are these CO2 concentrations bad for our health? If so, how bad? How can we know? When we will discover that, it may well be too late. 

But these are cases in which we may at least suspect the presence of a gorilla somewhere, of some kind. There may be others so well hidden that we don't even imagine they could exist. Think of the ancient Romans. They never could understand what was hitting them: they completely lacked the intellectual tools that would have allowed them to understand the concept of "societal collapse." That gorilla was completely invisible to them. Not surprisingly, whatever they did to try to improve their situation (defensive walls, stronger armies, MRGA, and more) didn't help or backfired on them. Our situation is not so different - even though we have tools that the Romans couldn't even imagine, we are not doing any better. It doesn't help if a minuscule minority of enlightened people correctly see the problem: until the leaders don't get it, the gorilla will remain invisible.

So, how can we see the gorilla? What I can say from my personal experience, is that when I show the clip above to people (my students, for instance) they have more difficulties in seeing the gorilla the more I can push them to focus on the ball. Conversely, if people are more relaxed they can easily see the gorilla.

So, you need to be relaxed to see what you would otherwise miss. This is the trick they use against us. They inundate us with details, they keep our minds busy, new things arriving, one after the other... No wonder that we miss the overall picture - it is one of the many tricks of propaganda. And propaganda may well kill us all, including those who are using it against us.


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)