Republican Congressman, Lamar Smith is not an idiot, though he often appears to be. Convinced that climate change is a fraud, Rep. Smith has used his position as Chairman of the House Science Committee to wage a campaign of harassment against scientists involved in climate research.
Our political system is premised on rationality – the notion that each of us is individually capable of establishing reality on our own. A sudden flood of data has washed away that idea, drowning Enlightenment Era assumptions in a tide of fake news. We think of “science deniers” like Rep. Smith as anomalies, dim-witted or ill-uneducated figures who somehow slipped through the filters of our system into positions of power. That is false. Lamar Smith is an unusually bright guy. He received his primary education at an elite Episcopal boarding school, earned an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from Southern Methodist University. Smith may be many things, but he’s no yokel.
Rep. Smith is not an anomaly, but rather a window into a post-Enlightenment future. Unfiltered raw data has overwhelmed our cognitive capabilities, leaving us vulnerable to a degree of confusion, deception and “fake news” unlike anything in our evolutionary progress. In a race to adapt, certain cultures have already evolved remarkable advantages. Recognizing those successful strategies can help us brace our democracy against the dangers of the fake news era.
Monoculture vs. Metaculture
Why would a clever, capable, educated man like Rep. Smith devote his career to an idea so provably and catastrophically false? Start by turning the question around. Why do I accept a scientific position I do not fully understand? The self-congratulating answer that immediately springs to mind is probably false. Our opinions on issues like climate change are dictated more by our cultural orientation than by any other factor.
Rep. Smith’s position on climate change was forged through the same process that leads others to the opposite conclusion. Culture is far more powerful than intellect or reason in shaping our vision of reality. Our current political crisis is not a story about smart people trying to reason with dumb people. It is not a story about good people trying to overcome bad people. These are false narratives that lead us into unproductive outcomes. We face a conflict between people living in homogenous, closed cultures, and others who live in less cohesive, more diverse cultures. Put another way, ours is a conflict between “monocultures” and “metacultures.”
Those with a tight connection to a singular, universal culture that defines their identity, a “monoculture,” will be less open to contradictory data than those who feel looser attachments to many cultures. That helps explain why fake news is a unique disease of the political right. We all share the same individual vulnerability to motivated reasoning. Liberals are no smarter than conservatives. However, those who live their lives within the most closed, isolated cultures have the least opportunity to “peer over the wall,” experiencing the cognitive dissonance of other viewpoints. Those who have little contact with others who possess a different model of reality tend to have less openness to information ambiguity. Culture tends to trump reason.
Building Our Personal Reality
To grasp the impact of fake news and denialism we first need to dispel a misunderstanding about how human beings – all of us – perceive reality. Our Enlightenment Era vision of the rational individual who constructs their reality through a critical assessment of available facts was always more flawed that most of us realized. We do not independently, individually, vet incoming data in real time to decide what’s real. Even in a much simpler environment, human beings have always lacked that cognitive power.
Instead, we live in shorthand. Most of what we know about the world is stored in convenient assumptions. Absent that stored reality to lighten our data processing burden, we would face a maddening data overload.
Across our evolution, most of that short-hand reality has been stored not in our individual minds, but in our cultures. We evolved a hierarchy of methods for understanding reality, starting with tools embedded in our genetic code and extending up through culture and reason.
That hierarchy looks something like this:
DNA – We are born loaded with data. Smiles are friendly. Scowls are dangerous. We know where to look for our first meal. Our minds are programmed to respond in set ways to certain flavors, odors, sounds, shapes and colors.
Sensory experience – Things we sense from the world around us are paired with innate, DNA-level programming. This object is too hot to safely hold. The sky is bright, it must be daytime. Sweet things are good to eat, avoid bitter things. Our senses tell us great deal, though not everything, about the shape of our reality.
Culture – Like our DNA, our culture stores data and is constantly evolving. Language, mythology, folk-knowledge, behavioral norms, family traditions, even cuisine, all contain data essential for our survival. Culture tells us what to eat and what not to eat. Culture tells us how to choose a mate. Culture stores information about how to make tools or hunt. Culture is transmitted by trusted authorities, story-tellers, clan leaders, artists, kings, priests, pastors, musicians and movie-stars. Over long enough time periods, knowledge refined through culture probably also gets written into our DNA. Across a hundred thousand years of evolution, loyalty to tribe was a far more adaptive than independent thinking. Our place among our peers kept us physically safe while providing access to a powerful cultural database. Loyalty and compliance were more adaptive than independence and critical thought.
Reason –We think about stuff. Within a safe circle of trust, we express and work out dissenting opinions, feeding new insights back into an ever-evolving culture. Any newly encountered, apparently valid data which challenges our culturally mediated model of reality is initially screened as a pathogen, both at the individual and the cultural level. When we encounter challenging new data, we run it back through our hierarchy of filters; our innate genetic predilections (people who look like me are trustworthy, people who look different are dangerous), our sensory experience (how can the world be round when I observe that it is flat?), and our culture (only God can change the weather, therefore climate scientists are lying), before deciding whether to modify our individual cognitive model of reality. Our rational faculties evolved to steer our culture, not to break it. One fact that comports with my model of reality will probably be more persuasive to me than 20 others that contradict it.
Over time, human beings developed some powerful tools for determining reality and storing data outside our minds or our cultures. Writing and literacy, though powerful, had only narrow impact before the development of the scientific method and the printing press. Since about 1600 we’ve seen a steady acceleration of data technologies that has gained speed exponentially. As more and more humans gained access to another innovation – formal education, we developed an increasingly large body of knowledge based on scientific experimentation and expertise. New methods of working with information have placed strains on our older methods of establishing reality.
A Data Flood Rises
Between the Renaissance and World War II, only a small slice of humanity was exposed to any of these newer, external methods of developing and storing data. However, over the past few generations the availability of mass, external tools for storing and understanding data has accelerated and access has become nearly universal. Adapting our cultures to the availability of more primitive data tools like books, spawned earthquakes of revolution and war. New evolutionary demands keep arriving on an ever-accelerating pace. Painful challenges lie ahead.
Just in the past generation, we’ve seen the dawn of new technical tools for establishing reality which are far more powerful and potentially destructive than anything we’ve previously faced. Since World War II humans have experimented with tools of artificial cognition and calculation which can be used to develop ever more accurate models of reality from astronomically large foundations of math and data. These capabilities helped us develop previously unimaginable medicines, scientific insights, engineering achievements, along with powerful tools of entertainment, advertising, and public manipulation.
In an evolutionary context, every tool can be a weapon. These artificial capabilities, like data analytics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality have grown so powerful as to undermine many of the capabilities we evolved to test reality. We no longer carry around inside our skulls the world’s finest cognitive engine. A homogenous, localized culture can no longer adapt fast enough to keep pace with new demands. None of us are smart enough to outwit our computers.
I Do Not Understand Climate Science. Neither Do You.
You may imagine that you acknowledge the threat of climate change because you’ve independently reviewed the science behind the issue and reached a rational conclusion from the evidence. That is unlikely in the extreme. There are perhaps 15,000 living human beings with the training, intellect and experience to independently evaluate this complex subject. Recognizing the validity of climate science says nothing whatsoever about my intellect, but it tells a story about my cultural orientation. A “belief” in climate science is a consequence of “trust” in scientists. That is not as much a rational position as a cultural setting. Yes, we trust science because its wonders gave us space flight, television and polio vaccines. Our trust in scientific expertise also gave us nuclear weapons, the Tuskegee Experiments, and – let’s not forget – climate change. Trust in science is less a rational conclusion from evidence than a cultural predilection.
Those who believe in the scientific consensus around climate change are not better educated on the subject. In fact, studies have demonstrated that denialists tend on average to have a stronger grasp of the fine details of climate science than those who accept the consensus. Ability to adapt one’s reality around rapidly developing, sometimes distressing new facts has less to do with education or information than with a flexible cultural orientation.
Identity Protective Cognition
Researchers at the cultural cognition project at Yale have described what they call “identity protective cognition.”
“The basic premise of identity protective cognition is that culture is prior to fact in the apprehension of societal risks. Culture is not just normatively prior, in the sense that values guide individuals’ decisionmaking conditional on their perception of facts. It is cognitively prior, in the sense that people’s perception of what the facts are is shaped by their values.”
Individual reasoning tends to follow cultural bias. Those with the weakest attachment to a single culture feel the least resistance to credible new information.
Faced with an incomprehensible flood of raw data unlike anything humans have ever experienced, a new and highly successful cultural adaptation has emerged. People who have replaced traditional, local cultural ties with lighter, more virtualized connections to many cultures have the greatest ability to float on a flood of data and accept potentially dissonant information. Gaining one’s identity and information from a of culture of cultures, a metaculture, breeds tolerance for ambiguity, a less defensive posture toward new data, and grants wider access to a broader pool of information.
For those with deep, local cultural ties or a powerful attachment to a set of universal religious beliefs, education only hardens their culture-based misunderstandings of science. A climate denier with the intellect and education required to grasp the fundamentals of climate research will simply be more adept at denial. More data doesn’t solve a problem that wasn’t caused by a lack of data. Climate deniers have cultural and social reasons not to accept the scientific consensus on climate change.
Picture two 30-year old adults. One finished high school and went to college a few hundred miles from home. She traveled abroad. She took a job in a large city a few hundred miles further away, and lives now in an urban neighborhood with people from a wide variety of different ethnic and national backgrounds. Through that process, that individual acquired a foothold in multiple cultures, taking in a broad range of entertainment, news and food, perhaps also mastering another language. She is more isolated from a traditional sense of community and local interdependence, but in return she benefits from a more flexible and adaptive model of reality. She lives in a metaculture.
Her high school friend went to college in their hometown. She studied the same major, perhaps even earning higher grades. Finishing college, she took a good job in the family business in their hometown. She attends the church where she was baptized. She assumes a prominent social role in many of the same organizations her parents helped shape. Despite no meaningful difference from her friend in age, education or intellect, she is likely less open to data that would challenge her cultural assumptions. Living in a monoculture, it is marginally more likely that her need to remain loyal to this culture will likely take priority over dissonant information.
Breaking Down Monocultures
Those who cling faithfully to a form of localized community we have long held up as particularly worthy and healthy, are losing ground to those who are forming more decentralized, and in some sense less warm and secure forms of community. The stronger one’s sense of commitment to a geographically centered home, family and community, the weaker one’s capacity to adapt to the information flood. “Black sheep” with weaker ties to a home or an inherited culture find themselves far better able to vet and adapt to new information, with both material and cultural rewards.
Conservatives, by the nature of their philosophy, are far more likely to live in monocultures. It is no accident that modern conservatism is defined by its “culture war.” In the US, we have not developed a version of conservatism suitable for life in a metaculture. The right is more vulnerable to fake news because their cultural identity is so narrowly defined. Data inconsistent with cherished values is treated as a pathogen, it is “fake” and therefore dismissed. Liberals are not smarter than conservatives. They’ve simply defined their identity across a broader range of cultural influences. Those who adapt better tools win. Always. A metaculture is a more adaptive tool than a monoculture.
The question is not whether metacultures can prevail over monocultures. The question is how we smooth our transition, cushioning the disruption caused by this transformation. How do we shape both local and national institutions to spread the benefits of cultural diversity while absorbing the inevitable resistance from those who feel threatened by this transformation?
Key to the spread of metacultures is diversity. Perhaps the signal global political challenge of the 21st century is developing institutions that bridge the chasm between an older world of strong, local cultures to a new order built on more fluid, virtual, diverse ties. Nations that achieve this feat will be rewarded with accelerated technology, economic prosperity, and vast new freedom.
Rep. Smith isn’t dumb or ignorant. He is loyal. By prioritizing the safety of his cherished monoculture above the evidence of science, he’s exposing all of us to unnecessary danger. Along with figures like Smith, a growing industry of fake news has emerged like a predator to feed on those left vulnerable by their monocultures. Adapting to this evolutionary demand means embracing a world of relentless ambiguity, a fluidity of existence that many may find nauseatingly unstable. Diversity is about more than the humane tolerance of others, it is an evolutionary imperative. We will master a world of looser, more diverse cultural ties, or fall behind those who do.
From Yale Law School: The Cultural Cognition Project
Website of the MisinfoCon Project