Friday, November 12, 2010

Welcome back to the Bronze Age

In a time when information is more readily available to more people than ever before, we might expect to be better informed and perhaps even smarter these days. The modern age is not having those hoped for effects. Instead the internet and news outlets are the mediums of choice for consuming super-sized helpings of misinformation, superstition, and spectacularly poor thinking for unimaginable numbers of eagerly credulous minds. Instead of experiencing the dawn of a golden age of widely disseminated facts, reason, and thoughtfulness, we are instead obstinately clinging to Bronze Age conflation of the factual and the fanciful.

What characterized the ancient Bronze Age in terms of information was that very little of it was vetted through any kind of fact checking or critical analysis. Instead truthfulness was decided based on local popularity which was in turn based on local superstition coupled to a profoundly bad understanding of the world. A charismatic storyteller could create new truth out of thin air. The strength of his conviction was the first and often only test of truthfulness, especially if the story was endorsed by whatever authority held grip over that society. Without widely practiced critical thinking, the Bronze Age can rightly be thought of as an age of credulity.

Though the average citizen of an industrialized society today has much more knowledge about the world than our ancient ancestors, this is mostly just an absorption of facts, believed but not understood. Choosing what to believe is still primarily subject to in-group popularity and source authority instead of individual analysis and understanding. For all of our technological achievement, we remain a collection of societies that is built upon bronze age foundations, in which all too few value or apply critical thinking to the “facts” they encounter.

Here are just a few examples of currently circulating beliefs, unsupported by the balance of the evidence yet persistent and often growing in popularity. Our President is a foreign born Muslim. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were actually a US government run conspiracy. There was a missile fired over southern California, probably by a hostile nation. The moon landings were faked on a soundstage somewhere. Vaccines cause autism, are a plot by the government to poison us, or are corporate profit mongering based on engineered diseases. A few thousand years ago people rode on the backs of domesticated dinosaurs. Galileo was wrong because the Earth is flat and at the center of the solar system. Modern climate science is a conspiracy to force a hoax on the world.

Ideas like those flourish not because people are stupid. Very often it takes some spectacularly creative mental gymnastics to justify those beliefs. These ideas take root because our societies not only undervalue critical thinking, we all too often scorn it as being rude, disloyal, or a dangerous threat to cherished faith. Compounding the problem is that we have turned our technological tools of mass communication into instruments of belief proclamation that do not empower people to think so much as reward them with expected bias confirmation. So, like our Bronze Age ancestors we continue to judge our beliefs based on misinformation, superstition, and spectacularly poor thinking. We just have more voices in the cacophony.