Monday, September 23, 2013

Why we can't have nice things

I kinda figured this out in my 30's. I remember it as the day I transitioned from young to old; when the idealistic fire of my youth was quenched by cold reality. I realized that you can't force people to be rational, you can only make irrationality expensive, but if they wanted to pay, the would.

I guess "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink," sums it up pretty well, too, but it took me a while to figure out just exactly what that meant.

Now we have scientific proof: The most depressing discovery about the brain ever. You should read the whole article, but the take-away is this:

"[People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs."

I experienced this in a most dramatic way (about a decade ago) when arguing with a coworker about homosexuality. This person was a devout Christian, but he was also a top-flight engineer with math skills I can't even describe because they were so far advanced over mine. My argument was simply to demonstrate that homosexuality can be evolutionarily adaptive. I posed the following situation: suppose you can choose between raising 2 of your own children to adulthood, or 6 of your brother's children to adulthood. Which action puts more of your DNA into the next generation?

It's a simple math problem: 2 * 50% < 6 * 25%. Whether it fully defends the idea of homosexuality as natural or not is not the issue here; the issue is that this very intelligent and morally upright engineer could not do the math.

I don't mean would not; I mean could not, as in face screwed up and counting on fingers inability to produce the correct answer. He temporarily lost the ability to multiply fractions in order to defend his position.

People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.

The simple fact is that facts don't matter. People only care about facts when they have to, and even then (as the history of martyrs and terrorists show) they don't always care.

The one good piece of news:

But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy.  If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you’re more likely to say that the number of jobs increased.

And this explains everything about American politics. Fox News has spent a generation pumping fear and shame into its audience, and they simply can't let go of it long enough to think straight. It's an old trick, of course (the Catholic Church has been doing it so long their patent rights expired 1,700 years ago), but it explains why civilization took so long to take hold. Rationality is not why we are well-fed and secure; rather, rationality is a product of being well-fed and secure.

The good news is as long as things get better, people will get smarter; the bad news is that once things start getting worse, just when we need people to be smarter, they'll get dumber.

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