The Devil in a Barcode

Shortly after the 2016 Election I was approached by an editor who encouraged me to submit a book proposal. He didn’t like it, but the process helped crystalize my own thoughts about the political challenges we face. In our discussions in the comments section I often find myself referencing ideas from this proposal, forgetting that I’d never posted it. It’s got issues, and it’s very long, but there’s a lot more biographical information in here than I usually discuss. It might provide some insights for those of you who are curious. Perhaps save it for a slow vacation day at the lake. Here’s the proposed first chapter of that book.

PART 00000001: The Devil in a Barcode

 “Where there is no vision, the people perish”

Proverbs 19:18

Our last election opened divisions among family and friends deeper and angrier than I had ever thought possible. Our differences were passionate, yet the precise outlines of our disagreements were elusive, founded more in identity more than ideas. This was America’s first fake news election, a campaign season dominated not by arguments over policy but by competing interpretations of reality. Part of me is grateful that my memories of my grandmother are set in amber by her loss, untouched by this event. Though she rarely spoke of politics, I have a strong sense of where her sympathies might have led.

I often think of the arc of her life as a unique turning point in our national story. Grandma’s life did not intersect with history in any obvious way. She didn’t fight in a war. She never held public office. She didn’t live in an “important” place. She was raised in rural Arkansas and spent most of her adulthood in the Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo. Yet I see our contemporary condition most clearly through the lens of her experience. Her lifetime, which spanned almost the entire 20th century, sat on the leading edge of a great acceleration, an era in which our pace of technical and social innovation skyrocketed to a head-spinning blur.

As a child visiting my grandparents, I’d settle for breakfast at Grandma’s kitchen table, where she would hand me a cup of sugary thin coffee. On that linoleum tabletop sat a transistor radio with a broken handle. It nestled there next to the other essentials, shakers of salt and pepper, sugar for tea, a nozzle-topped bottle of ‘sport peppers.’

Sometimes that radio played old time gospel music. Grandma taught me harmony as we sang along, careful to remain quiet enough not to wake the younger cousins. Other times we listened to the rolling cadence of radio preachers. Their voices started low, reading a scripture verse or hailing the Savior’s redeeming mercies. Tension would build as they walked through a gothic shopping list of increasingly exotic sins, marching toward the reliable payoff, voice rising to a shout, as they touted the titillating terrors of the apocalypse. The second horse or the fourth seal or the umpteenth crown. No matter where in the Bible these guys started their show, they always seemed to land at the End Of The World by the top of the hour. Grandma helped to shape the way I see the world, the colors, smells, flavors and stories that move me. I still find her experience a helpful reference point for plotting the future.

Three powerful trends were at work in the 2016 election that have changed the landscape of our politics. Each of them come more clearly into focus through the lens of my grandparents’ and parents’ experiences. We are being flooded by data. For the first time in human history we have more expert, scientifically-derived information instantaneously available to us than anyone can hope to process. Along with this vast pool of available data we find ourselves with greater individual power than our ancestors could have imagined. Just as all this new information and power pours in our direction, we are experiencing a collapse in the local community networks of trust and information sharing that once made our society function. We have been inundated with data we are poorly adapted to comprehend, granted power to use that data in spectacular, unprecedented ways, and all this at a time when the networks that helped us organize our public life in the have lost much of their potency. We live in interesting times.

So, what do we do now?

Any journey to the future starts by understanding the past. For me, that journey starts at Grandma’s kitchen table.

Turpentine

Grandma began her life in a world barely touched by the wave of technical advance that was building beyond her horizon. Apart from the sight of automobiles on the country roads and mechanized tractors in a few of the fields, almost every detail of her day-to-day existence as a young adult in the 1920’s would have been familiar to her own grandmother in Civil War-era North Carolina.

My grandmother was a wife and mother before she lived in a home with electricity, indoor toilets, refrigeration or a telephone. This wasn’t unusual. As late as the 1940’s, fewer than 10% of Arkansas homes had access to electric power, and almost all of those homes were in the state’s few cities. She was a grandmother before she lived in a home with central heat or air.

Technology available in my grandparents’ early adulthood could be understood by taking it apart and observing its mechanisms; it could be understood kinetically, mechanically. Their machines were certainly more complicated than what human beings had used five hundred or a thousand years before, but with few exceptions they could be understood through the same process of unschooled reason and observation by which our ancestors learned to produce flint tools.

Like her grandmother, and the two hundred or more grandmothers that preceded her into the dimmest twilight of civilization, Grandma reached adulthood in an environment where almost all information came from two sources: common-sense reasoning and folklore. Whatever you needed to know in life could be obtained from basic observation or by asking a trusted, known authority.

As a child, the only book my grandmother had was the Bible. Expertise came from the elderly and from pastors. When should you plant? What food or herb would best treat an ailment? How many seasons are left in this mule? What is the morally acceptable way to resolve a dispute over a horse purchase? Advice came from people you trusted on a personal level, people whose character and experience you understood. Reliable knowledge on complex matters came from your local tribe, the people around you who shared your identity, your faith, and your assumptions about reality. Tribal ties were based on close, daily interactions. They were nurtured through a common language, not just words and phrases, but shared metaphors, symbols and stories, a shorthand for communication and understanding. Community ties were more than a social link, they were a source of information and expertise. In the near-absence of any knowledge based on testing, literary learning, or science, these trusted local experts could successfully inform their choices. Knowledge was communal, tribal. They depended on those community ties for survival.

My grandfather never stopped treating injuries with turpentine. When my young mother broke her arm in the 1950’s, the pain was aggravated by the sharp, piney tang of Grandpa’s only approved remedy. After a few grueling days of my mother’s tears, my grandmother challenged authority by taking my mother to a doctor. He properly set the arm and placed it in a cast. In defiance of doctor’s orders, Grandpa continued to apply his flammable, smelly remedy beneath the plaster. Folk wisdom would not readily yield to ‘book learning.’

Grandpa and Grandma were intelligent, quick-witted people. Something powerful played out in the story of their efforts to adapt to a changing world; something that sheds light on our contemporary cultural earthquakes. Grandpa remained faithful to logical tools he had been trained to understand and trust. His adherence to folk remedies was less a question of ignorance than of loyalty. Living in a world of data and commerce, we seek to evaluate inputs based on their tested, empirical value. Far more often than we would like to admit, data is merely a decoration for decisions premised on the same reasoning that drove Grandpa to smear turpentine on mom’s broken arm. We are still wired to evaluate information based on its source rather than its tested merits. At a deep, biological level, we remain drawn to social reasoning.

Changes in the world began to accelerate as my grandparents aged. New ways of measuring and determining reality were making tools available that they were not well-equipped by habit or education to use. Grandpa was always deeply skeptical of doctors. That skepticism was entirely rational, a necessary adaptation that protected him and his family from abuse.

Just because someone possesses superior education or intellect does not mean they have our best interests at heart. Even the best, kindest doctors make mistakes. A medical degree is not an ironclad guarantee of goodwill. It is true that some doctors are incompetent. It is also true that many cures recommended by doctors, particularly half a century ago or more, failed to be any more effective than Grandpa’s turpentine salve. Before you scoff, put yourself in my grandfathers’ shoes after he left rural Arkansas to make his way in the big city of Amarillo. Back in Faulkner County, only a fool would accept expert advice from someone they did not know personally. How could you evaluate advice without knowing whether your advisor was a good person? Is this person trusted by the people you trust?

Do not make the mistake of dismissing this style of decision-making. Before purchasing this book, you may have flipped to the back of the dust jacket to learn something about the writer. What credentials or experience does this person possess? What people whose views I trust can vouch for him? By reference to a wider network of trust placed in prominent people, prestigious publishers, or advanced degrees you may fill in some of the gaps in trust left by the fact that you do not know the writer personally. We like to think we live in a world removed from Grandpa’s folk reasoning, but with a universe of data available on our cell phones, we still lean on many of his favorite logical tools.

Grandpa retained one additional criteria for trust, one that made it difficult for him to rely on an unknown doctor or lawyer, but helped him judge an expert in ways we have largely forgotten, to our detriment. By retaining a suspicion of so-called experts who operated outside of his close tribal network, Grandpa was prioritizing a very important value – communal accountability. Through these local networks we could establish a basis for trust, but those networks also set up a boundary. Beyond the tribe, anyone was subject to suspicion.

Distrusting a doctor, a banker, or some other credentialed expert from outside his social circle – his knowledge network – was a sound survival strategy. My grandfather had not adapted any criteria by which to assess the credibility of these professionals and he never would. One quality was critical for Grandpa before he would trust a supposed expert. He wanted to know that he, through the community around him, could hold this person accountable for their actions or advice. For someone he didn’t know and whose advice he did not understand, tribal accountability was the key to trust. Until his community-based network came to include others who could vouch for the credibility of an expert like a doctor, he was right, by that logic, to remain cautious. In time, he would come to personally know, and thus minimally rely on, a few doctors.

Experts are not merely imperfect; some have interests directly opposed to our own. My grandfather’s instincts were right in this important sense – the fact that someone possesses a superior knowledge set does not necessarily mean that they are right or good. All my grandfather could learn definitively by knowing of someone’s expertise is that they were operating on a different logical plane from his own. In many ways, that simply made them dangerous and he was right to be wary. Understood in this context his behavior was rational.

You can imagine what my grandparents would have thought about climate change.

Metcalfe’s Law

Human beings adapt to changes in their environment by evolving along three intersecting planes, our biology, our culture, and our technology. Our biology changes very slowly, requiring many generations to incorporate beneficial genetic traits. For example, it took humans about 20,000 years to develop the capacity for adults to digest milk, and even that adaptation is still not universal. By contrast, it took us a decade or two to develop drugs that provide that same capability. Technology and culture are both faster than biology, but not by much – at least until very recently.

Cultural adaptations like democracy, rule of law and capitalism have sparked an explosion of technical adaptation. It took us roughly 10,000 years to get from the invention of agriculture to the invention of the iron plow. Within about 100 years we had developed the tractor. A century later we have farm equipment guided by satellite navigation. A decade later we are seeing the first fully automated farms.

Two hundred years ago, the mere capacity to read and write was a still limited to elites. Barely one in ten human beings were literate in 1820. Today that proportion has almost entirely reversed.

Over centuries, gradual expansions of literacy, education and the spread of printed books created a positive feedback loop. More people exchanging ideas led to a steady refinement of knowledge. Until very recently the pace of that growth was incremental. However, social and technological adaptations in the late 20th century, especially the fall of Communism and the invention of the internet, created an expansion in communications. Growth in data, science and ideas has accelerated from incremental to exponential.

Robert Metcalfe, one of the early pioneers of computer networking, explained the growth of data and knowledge with a model we now call Metcalfe’s Law. His law states that the value of a network is based on the number of available connections. That number of connections increases at a spectacular rate with the addition of each new node. A single node is useless. Two nodes can make one connection. Five can make ten, and twelve can make 66, and so on. As a metaphor, Metcalfe’s Law helps illustrate how the collapse of physical and geographical barriers to trade, communication, and the flow of ideas over the past few decades fed an explosion of innovation.

Illustration of Metcalfe’s Law

Computers that controlled the Apollo 11 spacecraft had less computational power than my household appliances. Today, a phone included for free with a cellular plan is equipped with millions of times more processing power than NASA could muster from its entire computing environment fifty years ago. That’s just processing power, the growth in the volume of data has been even more staggering. IBM estimates that 90% of all the data human beings have ever created, across hundreds of thousands of years of thought and development, was generated in the past two years. As the growth of non-human processing power and data generation continues to accelerate, that date is edging ever forward, inching toward a singularity.

By contrast, how much capacity for data has the average human brain added since Apollo 11? Basically, none. Our pace of biological evolution is dictated mostly by cycles of reproduction and mutation. It can take many generations for the simplest genetic adaptations to emerge, and sometimes dozens to hundreds or more for those mutations to become stable and propagate widely. We may adapt our habits, culture, and even our technology to cushion the impact of external conditions, but unaided biology remains slow. Burdened by the pace of biology, and without appropriate social adaptations, technology can turn us into the equivalent of monkeys with machine guns, wielding far more technological power than we can safely exercise. The pace of disruptive technological change that my grandmother experienced across her lifetime was far faster than human beings had ever before seen. That pace is still accelerating. Technological replacement has sped past our ability to keep pace through cultural adaptions like politics and social change. Our old social institutions are fraying faster than new ones can form. Pressure from these advances on our biology is relentless, driving mental strain and drug abuse.

We are not merely facing more information and more change than in the past, we are being asked to wrestle with a type of data that was rarely seen by ordinary people when my Grandmother was a girl. Information derived from scientific processes presents a unique challenge, particularly when we are asked to use that data to form social or political decisions. Galileo, with his experiment at the Tower of Pisa, was charting a course toward a new kind of information – scientific data. Scientific data does not come from the simple sensory observation of the world around us. Scientific data is generated through a process. Some scientific data can be easily verified by a layman, like Galileo’s challenge to Aristotle from the Tower of Pisa. Anyone can climb onto their own roof (carefully) with a bowling ball and a penny and experience for themselves what Galileo’s experiment revealed. Likewise, a scientific process produces the current outdoor temperature. I may or may not understand how that number is derived, but by stepping out onto my porch I can test and understand its relative accuracy.

As science has advanced, it has become far less accessible to laymen. Our most critically valuable discoveries are mostly incomprehensible without specialized knowledge. Scientists test and retest data. What they share with us is metadata, information that describes their underlying findings. Are physicists correct to assume that deviations detected in the decays of B mesons indicate a new particle might exist on the high-energy spectrum? It would take a lifetime of dedicated study and a uniquely capable mind to offer the first insight on that question. In a culture that depends on democratic processes for its survival, this sudden, explosion in the reach and importance of elite information poses problems. We struggle to assign appropriate degrees of trust or skepticism to expert insights emerging from beyond our tribal networks.

Our earliest examples were felt in medicine, where we introduced regulations in the early 20th century to curb fraud and improve professional discipline. Early progressives built powerful political campaigns to limit abuse by ‘patent medicine’ vendors and create state boards to vet doctors. Sometimes scientific processes which cannot be easily explained to laymen have serious public policy implications. By the middle of the 20th century we began to wrestle with the impact of environmental pollution and nuclear weapons. Over the past few decades we seem to be overwhelmed with new public policy issues informed by complex science, from genetically modified organisms to climate change.

Born in 1902 and 1904, respectively, Grandpa and Grandma were already elderly when I was born in 1970. A world that was just slipping into hyperdrive was accelerating beyond their reach. I was about ten when my parents bought them a television that featured a remote control. For a long time, Grandpa still insisted on getting out of his chair to change the channel. One day I walked into the living room to find him pointing the remote control to his forehead. I watched silently while he tested the device. He was trying to understand how it worked, pointing it up, backward, against objects in the room and yes, against his forehead. He was using familiar tools to understand an elusive reality. It wasn’t working out.

When he spotted me, he set the remote down and left the room. Later he would accidentally destroy the remote control by opening it up to see what was inside. A reality built on common sense and folklore was, by that time, beginning to fail my grandparents in ways that had material consequences. Tools and techniques for understanding the world that worked in one environment were less helpful as that environment changed.

Our political process is premised on the notion that everyone is equal and therefore everyone’s perception of reality deserves a roughly equal weight. Apply this logic to questions of scientific expertise and the results are either comedy or tragedy, sometimes both. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, humans possessed no knowledge that our founders could not hope to grasp and even personally test given a bit of effort and study. When my grandmother was young public policy still had no need to depend on knowledge and engineering inaccessible to a well-read layman. Now, our survival as a species increasingly depends on our capacity to translate elite scientific expertise into public policy. We have not developed mechanisms capable of incorporating this expertise into policy without surrendering a disturbing degree of our democratic oversight. Our inefficiency in translating science into policy is becoming an existential threat.

The Devil in a Barcode

In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard professor Robert Putnam described the decline of what he called “social capital,” local networks of voluntary social engagement. By the second half of the 20th century a culture once thick with local civic institutions, parent-teacher organizations, service clubs, political parties, churches and other activities, was experiencing decline in participation and influence. Fraying of these community ties had material consequences. Late in life as their social networks grew thinner, my grandparents knew fewer of the kind of experts they needed. Grandpa’s resistance to doctors without ties to his community made it difficult to get treatment for his heart problems. Each new medical condition grew far more serious than necessary before forcing him to seek treatment.

As tribal networks weakened, those who would exploit them found new opportunities. Parasites in their environment were evolving new techniques, leveraging media technologies to capitalize on holes in their worldview. Grandma’s mountainous donations to TV preachers like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart came to my mother’s attention when we started receiving kitschy “ministry gifts,” like anointed prayer cloths with healing powers, or trinkets supposedly from “The Holy Land.”

Grandma did not know Jim Bakker on a personal level, but on the other hand she had great reverence for preachers. Bakker and others like him used language and folklore Grandma trusted. New mass media technologies were overcoming my grandparents’ bias for local, tribal networks. While the rest of the world felt like it was spinning out of control, these figures told them they were right to remain behind. Not just right, but righteous. Leveraging a new, more advanced toolbox Bakker could short-circuit one of the mechanisms my grandparents devised to protect themselves, allowing him to simulate the trusted role of a pastor while remaining free from any of the ties of local accountability that make a pastor trustworthy. Adapting mass media technologies and exploiting weakened social institutions, TV pastors manipulated Grandma and others like her for enormous, tax exempt profit.

My grandparents lived on Grandpa’s pension from his career as a fireman. A $500 donation to a corrupt so-called “ministry” was damaging. Fortunately, Bakker went off to prison before he could completely drain my grandparents. Unfortunately, the great grift would not end with my grandmother. In my parents’ era, political entertainers have adapted the techniques of earlier generations of TV preachers, turning a new social virus loose on a weakened host. Where faith healers once lifted money from Grandma’s thin wallet, these new parasites take more than just money, subverting my parents’ limited political power to their own purposes. An entire propaganda industry has developed to exploit them.

In retrospect, we were conditioned to be vulnerable to fake news. We heard plenty of false information in church and elsewhere when I was a child, but its impact was somehow less damaging. It is always difficult to call up specific examples of something that in memory was as common as sand on the shore, but one early example of fake news still lingers with me.

Growing up, our family attended a small charismatic church in Beaumont, Texas. I can still conjure the scent of lacquer and resin from the wooden pews, the smell of church. Mom always had gum or mints, something to keep us going through the interminable sermons. For Pastor Gall, filling those hard pews week after week meant keeping this blue-collar, Southeast Texas crowd engaged. Keeping us engaged meant telling stories. Truth existed on a plane beyond the reach of mere facts. Some of Pastor Gall’s best stories were howlingly false, but no one ever checked or cared.

A detail from one of these sermons stands out in memory. One Sunday Pastor Gall shared news that our corrupt media had failed to report. In faraway Brussels, capital of the dreaded European Common Market, scientists had built a computer which would be key to the Antichrist’s reign. This computer would read barcodes tattooed on every human being. We would all be catalogued, our loyalty to the Antichrist made a condition of legitimate commerce. And what were the first three numbers, the standardized prefix of that code that would soon be stamped on every human being?

Every barcode number would begin with the prefix, 666.

Even as a child soaking up the show, that claim struck me as odd. Beyond the exciting horror of the thing loomed a logistical challenge even a 5th grader could appreciate. We had only just gotten barcode scanners down at the fancy Safeway and they didn’t work very well. If there was a massive computer whirring away under gray Belgian skies prepared to mediate all global economic activity, who could keep that a secret? And if it was a secret, how did Pastor Gall know about it? Where was he getting this information?

No one questioned Pastor Gall’s bizarre assertion that day, or any of his other claims in other sermons. No one ever asked him for an explanation. None was necessary. That’s not how this works.

There is a stark difference between objective, verifiable facts and common-sense “truth.” Facts are established through a process. That process is often complex, requiring specialized knowledge and equipment. Truth, as the currency of pastors and grandmothers and bar-stool prognosticators, rises from common sense. It is folklore, accessible to anyone, attainable by anyone, readily understood and appreciated.

It is a fact that human activity has triggered a greenhouse effect that is heating our planet. Very few human beings possess the training and specialized knowledge required to understand why this is happening and judge the veracity of that factual claim by reviewing the source data. Being smart or educated does not, by itself, prepare one to evaluate climate research. The rest of us are left to make judgments based on the credentials and arguments of credible professionals who have evaluated the data.

Meanwhile, anyone can grasp the claim that climate change is a hoax ginned up by the Chinese to hobble the American economy. Even our new President is smart enough to grasp that “truth.” No lengthy experiments or computer programs are necessary to detect the supposed hoax. There is no math required. It is folklore., commonsense All one needs to grasp and evaluate folklore is a mind shaped by millions of years of evolution.

Facts are elite. Facts are established through techniques which are often very complex, understood sometimes only by a handful of specially trained individuals. A species roughly 200,000 years old has had access to the scientific process for about .4% of its existence. Even now, only a small percentage of human beings understand or use the scientific method. That doesn’t provide much time, or much of the necessary adaptive pressure for our biology to adapt.

By contrast, folklore is available to everyone; free, independent of so-called experts, and easy to grasp. We evolved to judge reality through stories, not reason. Facts are a recent evolutionary adaptation, disruptive, suspect and socially destabilizing.

The best fake news includes a tinge of truth. Perhaps not facts, but something Stephen Colbert once defined as “Truthiness.” It is entirely unnatural for us to subject “truthy” stories to any test of factual accuracy. Throughout most of our evolutionary history we lacked any means by which to perform any “fact-checking” apart from simple observation. Stories were true or untrue based on the advice of tribal leaders and their emotional resonance.

Pastor Gall’s claim about shadowy Belgians rose from our efforts to make narrative sense of real events around us. Absolutely no one in our community understood how the new barcode scanners at the grocery store functioned. We never would. Little stickers with prices written on them make sense. Bar codes and lasers and computers make no intuitive sense whatsoever. They do not fit into folklore until we place them into the context of a story. The devil lurks in the unknown, in the language, stories and tools of those beyond the trusted boundaries of the tribe.

Certain biological traits limit our ability to process scientific information. Think of the example from Galileo dropping his two objects from the tower, or the modern example of climate researchers modelling carbon pollution. Both produced data in conflict with common sense and perceptions. When data conflicts with accepted stories, we generally resist it until we can place the new information into an updated story. We experience weather. We do not experience climate. We experience our work, our earnings, and our day-to-day purchases. We do not experience an economy. We experience interactions with family, friends, and local authority figures. We do not experience a political system. We remember family stories and myths. We have no innate consciousness of history. Concepts like climate, economics, a provable, documented history may be logically persuasive, but until we attach them to stories and symbols our ability to use them is very limited.

In a sense my pastor was relating a narrative truth while describing a factual falsehood. He had crafted a legend to fit this new technology into our worldview. The folklore truth in this case was that our everyday lives, down to the smallest details of a visit to the grocery store, were being transformed by technological advances with implications we could not see or evaluate. No one would have understood or expressed their concerns in such clear terms, and yet our pastor encapsulated them successfully in a narrative, a story. That story, while entirely false in empirical terms, was also eerily real. Technological advances beyond our comprehension spread unease, even fear.

No one at the time had ever heard of a credit score. None of us had used a computer and few had even seen one. No one I knew owned a credit card. Credit in our world was premised on relationships, and those relationships were cemented by our character and our standing in the community. This new technology would introduce a novel new standard of commerce, mediated by faceless powers every bit as foreign to us as a Belgian bureaucrat.

Pastor Gall’s stories about the Antichrist never quite panned out. His stories were not factual, but they were true in a way we did not entirely foresee. Our world was experiencing an apocalypse. Whoever failed to get on board with this emerging new reality would fail in spectacular fashion. Leaving behind our folkloric faith with its demons and angels and spiritual healing and speaking in tongues would in fact be a condition for successful commerce in this new world. We would adopt a new way of defining what was real, an understanding of reality that would undermine our faith as we had lived it, or we would suffer a dimmed future.

Science and technology were conquering faith to an extent never previously seen. Only by gaining specialized knowledge, available exclusively through an advanced education, could anyone hope to participate gainfully in the economic system being born around us. And that advanced education would expose impressionable youngsters to The Beast: doubt, questioning, and fact-based investigation. A mental shift away from our folklore traditions was a precondition for success in an emerging order.

Though grifters find ample opportunity in fake news, dismissing the genre as mere deception is mistake. Beyond the emerging opportunities for profit, there is a philosophy of fake news, a populist ethic of folklore versus facts. That ethic doesn’t legitimize fake news, but it provides an explanation for its reach and its persistent appeal, even when readers are exposed to its failures. Fake news is never defeated by fact-checkers. You overcome the power of fake news by delivering a better story.

Factual inaccuracies in Pastor Gall’s sermons had limited impact on our lives. No one tore the barcode scanners out of our local grocery store. No one pressured our local political figures to stop their spread. Strangely, no one in our church ever pointed out the oddity of our compliance with that supposedly dark technology. We carried a kind of double-consciousness, in which we absorbed these factually dubious stories, soaking in their meaning, without necessarily granting them the same weight we would give to more provable realities. And in time, this suspect new technology won us over. Suddenly we had accurate receipts and faster check-out. Those bar scanners delivered results.

Eventually bar scanners were quietly written out of the common folklore of the Apocalypse. That older form of fake news, slow, delivered in person, lacking third-party reinforcement, and tempered by a certain trust in our community, did not produce the kind of political madness we see now.

It Takes Two to Lie

As my parents reached their older years, the power of local institutions was in steeper decline. Churches, once semi-mandatory and deeply entrenched in their local communities, had begun to evolve into consumer-oriented ventures that sold religious entertainment. Younger people into whom the town had poured educational resources relocated to larger cities at higher and higher rates to pursue the substantial rewards of a bright new economy. They took with them trusted expertise and insights that might have formed a local, community-based hedge against exploitation. My sisters and I participated in this exodus from our hometown. My parents, like my grandparents before them, found themselves increasingly isolated as trusted community institutions were quietly converted to profit-centers. For my parents, fake news took the place that faith healers and televangelists held for my grandparents.

We learned that my grandmother was being exploited when the religious trinkets started arriving in our mailbox. I was warned, in turn, that my mother was being exploited when I started receiving books ordered from the Glenn Beck website, or the ghostwritten volumes from Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series. By the time she died, my mother, whose intellect I failed to inherit and deeply covet, had grown to believe that President Obama was somehow both a Communist and an Islamist terrorist. She was on the fence as to whether Obama was the Antichrist.

Speaking the age-old American dialect language of religion and race, these new charlatans thrive in an environment of declining social capital. Moving beyond pandering for money to pandering for both money and political power, they have insinuated themselves into my parents’ tribe, slipping past any form of logical or intellectual screen to assume unquestioned, cult-like acceptance. Trained to assign trust socially, my parents and their peers refuse to apply any test of credibility to these figures once they’ve been established by the tribe as legitimate authorities. Over the years as I occasionally expressed my feelings about these sources, the distance between us grew. My mother ended her years convinced that all her worst fears about Barack Obama were true.

Election 2016 marked a fake news reckoning. Increasingly strange beliefs I had heard my father express over the years rose into a wave of hysteria that seemed to threaten the country’s survival. No amount of fact-checking, no appeals to reason held any power. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote a line that resonates uncomfortably now, “One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.” There were no facts available in the 2016 Election cycle, only motives. Sources that reinforced my father’s beliefs were legitimate and trustworthy no matter how outrageous their lies. Sources that questioned those beliefs, including me, were inherently suspect, compromised, reduced to either enemies or dupes.

A leviathan of profit-driven propaganda managed to earn my father’s unquestioned support. Religion has played a vital role in this machine. As a consumer ethic seeps through every institution in our culture, a strange thing has happened to church. Churches were community institutions, powerful nodes in a dense network of social ties. As “mainline” religion fades, churches are evolving into a lucrative entertainment business, driven by the same consumer ethics and profit pressures as any other commercial enterprise.

Preachers play a crucial role in this new political/religious propaganda network. Where churches once developed organically around a community nucleus, often now they are founded and led by venture-pastors, setting up their own “ministries” absent any accountability or preparation. In my father’s community, pastors often have as much qualification, vetting and accountability as your local palm reader. Indistinguishable from cult leaders, they have built a business model on alienation, a machine built to exploit the decline of community.

Local characters who ‘hear the voice of God’ one day and decide to set themselves up with a congregation play a very special role in spreading and reinforcing propaganda. Aspiring venture pastors hold “healing services.” Right next to the testimonies of healing on their Facebook page you’ll find advertisements for their mortgage relief. The same self-anointed evangelists touting their ability to conjure miracles from the throne of God are simultaneously selling products to their flocks. If it isn’t mortgages, it’s debt relief or weight loss pills or vitamins. The preacher sells congregants the idea that evolution and climate change are liberal hoaxes. Meanwhile his wife sells them unregulated nutritional supplements and “scientific” weight loss cures.

If credible figures in the community felt some urge to curb the extremes they could. Using their power to tamp down the paranoia would require some courage, integrity and compassion. Instead, community and political leaders, such as they are, have learned to grease the grift. What happened when the Jade Helm hysteria went viral? When talk radio and fake news sites told my father that the US Army was coming to Texas under the guise of military exercises, to steal his guns, morally compromised leadership capitalized on the lie rather than resisting. My father’s Governor, US Senator, and Lt. Governor all stepped up to ride the unmarked helicopters of paranoia. Whether they did it from opportunism or their own delusion, only God can say.

To be clear, my father has made his own choices. As Homer Simpson once explained, it takes two to lie: one to lie and the other to listen. In theory, he could have tapped into a very different collection of alignments, but that would be rare. We are not wired to vet and verify every incoming data point before accepting it as reliable. A human brain lacks the computing power to perform this task all day long and still keep the lights on behind our eyes. We perform a very small portion of our reasoning individually. We reason socially. A very large portion of what we think we know about reality is transmitted to us through trusted external sources, through our community, our tribe.

Human beings evolved in an environment in which social cohesion was far more important to survival than independent thought. In fact, independent reasoning was almost entirely maladaptive. Regardless of whether you might be right, disagreeing with members of your tribe could get you killed. Just ask Galileo. Primitive humans depended on social ties for survival. There was no data available from the scientific process, data which might be more accurate than the wisdom of the clan’s elder. Motivated reasoning, a mental process by which we embrace evidence consistent with a desired outcome and dismiss any information that would place us in conflict with peers, is a successful evolutionary strategy. Motivated reasoning helped us stay aligned with our social group. Dissent in a tribal context can be dangerous. If you only have one tribe, and you come to suspect that its prevailing views are off in some material way, you will likely keep quiet and work to keep your own opinions in line with your peers. This cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, is just one of the many ways in which a sudden acceleration of our technical and social evolution is sparking friction as it confronts our much slower social and biological adaptation.

Across 10,000 generations, nearly all of our information came from shared, local, group sources. Within that circle of reasoning, limited testing, and advice, everyone who might have related information was also accountable at a personal level. Trust and social alignment made sense because it was bounded by direct accountability. We have removed that accountability by introducing sources of information from around the globe, from unknown sources. Meanwhile our biologically-driven bias for motivated reasoning remains, but it is distorted into a liability, a weakness. A clannish insistence on social alignment opens up opportunities for charlatans. The more isolated and embattled the tribe, the more fiercely they cling their motivated reasoning. Protecting an authority figure becomes critical. Weakness makes them more entrenched. My father’s preference for loyalty over evidence provides an opening for hucksters. A shrinking, increasingly defensive local tribe converts religion into cult. Shelter becomes trap.

What were the odds that my father, increasingly isolated in our old hometown after the kids had all moved on, would ever successfully escape the cultural tractor beam created by these professional propagandists? Those odds were low enough that thousands of people could build careers on them, stripping my father and millions of other people of their political power just as blatantly as if they had robbed them on the street. Forces that exploited my grandparents for modest gain have grown in their reach and sophistication. The impact of TV preachers on my grandparents could be contained. Forty years ago, they still lived in an environment in which information flowed relatively slowly. TV and mail order were slower than the internet and cell phone transactions. My father had little chance against this far more powerful machine. As the great acceleration progresses, predators are exploiting newly exposed bugs in our biological software.

A Tribe of Tribes

Glancing around the room as I write, I see a landscape that would have fascinated and perhaps frightened my grandfather. A laptop and a flat-screen monitor. A calculator and a cell phone. A laser printer. An LED lamp. Gathering dust in a corner are a thumb-drive and an external storage device, neither more than five years old and already obsolete. Almost nothing on my desk can be understood in the way Grandpa insisted on learning new technology. I live surrounded by and dependent on tools that I will never fully comprehend. I understand a far smaller percentage of the technology around me than Grandpa did in his lifetime. Call it the “digital age” if you will, but in narrative terms I have simply learned to live in a world of sophisticated, mostly-domesticated magic.

It is tempting to confuse technical sophistication with some form of personal superiority. That’s a mistake that has implications for contemporary politics, inviting us to misunderstand those who approach the world with a toolset different from our own, shutting down engagement. The world is big and complicated. There are many ways to live successfully in it, and success is highly relative.

Grandpa was a clever man with few refinements. He had very limited schooling. He was probably literate, but I never saw him read or write anything other than his name. Armed with endless curiosity and guarded by caution, he leveraged his tools into the best possible life for himself and his family. I am standing on my parents’ and grandparents’ sturdy shoulders, smartphone in hand, looking toward a bright future they helped construct for me.

Complex skills my grandparents perfected I have lost. Grandma’s handwriting was distinctive and clear. I can barely scratch out a sentence in legible cursive. I can’t hoe a straight row. I don’t know how to set a trot line. I don’t know how to safely pickle my own vegetables. I don’t know how to kill and pluck a chicken. I can’t repair my lawnmower. It isn’t clear to me which wild plants at the verge of my garden are useful or which insects are beneficial. I can’t repair an outboard Evinrude while stranded on a lake, using only the tools I keep on the boat. I can’t predict the weather by smelling the air and looking at the clouds. Grandpa might struggle to cope with the wonders in my world. I might die in his.

Do those lost skills reflect my incompetence? I don’t think so, though sometimes I can hear Grandma’s voice in my head, grumbling her disapproval. My kids will eat fish tonight despite my failure to set a trotline. Our lawn remains tidy even though I can’t repair the mower. I know whether it will rain tomorrow, despite my inability to read the clouds. New environment, new demands, new skills. If I’m not an idiot for failing to master the demands of their world, then my parents aren’t idiots for failing to master the demands of this one. Our national dilemma is not a question of smart people losing patience with dumb people. Something else is at work here, something we would all do well to understand. What happens when a new environment demands adaptations that we find uncomfortable? What happens when fresh demands arrive at such an accelerating pace that we never have time to establish a new sense of normality before the next disruption? Whatever other tools we might develop to master our environment, we cannot settle into any form of mental comfort or peace until we incorporate these new developments into meaning, into stories.

If the motivated reasoning deployed by my parents and grandparents can be explained as a universal artifact of our social and biological evolution, then what explains my dissent from their views? Why do I recognize that climate change is real while my father insists on denial? It isn’t because I’m clever. I’ve never examined an ice core. I don’t know the proper concentration of CO2 in the ocean. I personally possess no more comprehension of the science of climatology than my grandparents did. It’s all gibberish to me. Scientific consensus and the general plausibility of the case for climate change account for only part of my opinion. My beliefs are still influenced by the same biological impulses that drove my parents’ reasoning. Tribal reasoning remains a force in my life, but with a vital twist.

Thanks to changes in the way the world works, I carry ties to many tribes, many social networks. None of them dominate my worldview. None of them are irreplaceable. Some of the same forces contributing to the breakdown of traditional social capital have also set me and rest of my generation free from the stifling influence of a narrow local community. We continue to reason socially, but access to a wider world has given us a chance to diversify. Freed from dependence on a single, geographically local social network, I have far more freedom than my parents or grandparents to choose which allegiances will carry the most weight in each scenario.

In a pattern common to my generation, after growing up in a small community, I went off to college, travelled extensively, moved away from my hometown and built a series of careers in many different jobs. At each stage of this process I built new ties to additional social groups. Thanks to radical advances in communication technology, I remain as close to certain former colleagues living a thousand miles away as I am to people I see in person every day. With far less at stake emotionally and materially in remaining aligned with my local tribe, the innate urge toward motivated reasoning is marginally weaker. That urge hasn’t disappeared. It still shows up in some amusing logical distortions, but it is more easily punctured by dissonant information.

Like others who fit my demographic profile, I trust the scientific consensus on climate change for two reasons. First, because I do not perceive the idea as a material threat. Potential remedies for climate change do not threaten my livelihood or well-being. If I worked for Exxon, I might be more reticent about embracing climate science.

My acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change is further reinforced by my tribal affiliation, the information I gain from my network of trusted social contacts. Newly developed technical tools have allowed me to evolve a far larger, more diverse tribe than the one in which my grandparents belonged. A breakdown in local social capital that has been feeding many negative consequences at a community level is also a helpful adaptation. Being freed from the constraints of a dense network of local ties has allowed me, like the rest of my generation, to diversify our tribal associations. I don’t understand the science of climate change, and neither does almost any climate activist. There may be a few thousand living human beings who possess the specialized knowledge required to interpret and competently evaluate the latest available data on carbon pollution. What I know about climate change is a story, one which I find emotionally compelling. That story is reinforced by my tribal affiliations, and it does not threaten my perceived well-being.

That climate change story moves me mostly because the size, shape, and composition of my tribal relationships has changed over the course of my life. A “scientist” is not an exotic figure. I have lived with them, eaten with them, gotten drunk with them. Grandpa trusted pastors. I trust scientists, at least within their areas of expertise. Scientists are part of my tribe. I know them. A key transformation for me was education, but not just education in the sense of being presented with a bunch of data. It was college that provided an initiation into a wider definition of tribe. That initiation, less than the information I acquired, taught me new ways to establish trust and credibility. College, with its rituals, symbolism, and mythology is a particularly important social gateway to an updated, geographically dispersed, data-centric tribalism.

College delivered tools that helped me access a larger tribe with a vastly greater store of information and testing capability. To access that tribe, you need to know its rituals, its language, its values. College is designed to tear down a student’s inherited tribal associations and provide them with tools to build new tribes, with new myths and legends. Though many people acquire a college education now online or through a ‘commuter’ experience, there is something very powerful about the traditional on-campus experience.

A freshman establishes a new home, surrounded by others on a similar quest. We are removed from our inherited home, inherited authorities, and inherited experiences. Students in college are taught to question assumptions and treat doubt as a friend. These were anti-values in older tribes, but they are essential for navigating a world of constant technological dislocation. College teaches science and engineering and Shakespeare and history, but beneath the information lies an ideological grounding meant to prepare students for a lifetime of ambiguity. For all its celebration of knowledge, the most important value of the college experience is how it prepares us for a lifetime of uncertainty – a life spent never knowing the definitive answers.

Being introduced to the more fluid realities of a larger tribe tends to leave its initiates less attached to taboos and more socially tolerant. I understand that I don’t understand climate science. That doesn’t bother me, and it doesn’t leave me suspicious of experts in that field. Having been introduced to a larger tribe of scientific and academic experts, I have also defined methods for deciding who I trust and who is a charlatan, which have proven meaningfully more effective than my grandparents’ techniques. These are helpful adaptations which have allowed me function successfully in an environment of dazzling complexity. Membership in this uber-tribe, a tribe of tribes, has both freed me from the groupthink of a narrow local community and handed me tools for leveraging types of data that would otherwise been baffling. And yet, even in these diversified social groups, our biology haunts our reasoning. We have translated many of the same social glitches from my parents’ world into this new global environment under slightly updated metaphors and mythologies. From a trusted village elder who taught Grandpa to be suspicious of doctors, to the celebrity diet experts on The Dr. Oz Show, nothing about our biology has changed. Whether we are tapping out messages on a telegraph or “checking in” at a new ramen restaurant on our phones, we are still the same clever monkeys we’ve been for thousands of years.

Gluten-Free Bacon

A package of our local store-brand bacon now carries a new label, “gluten free.” It isn’t clear to me whether our pork products were always gluten free, or if this is an exciting innovation in pig processing. What is clear is that until a short time ago, no one thought it was important to point out that products like bacon, tea, coffee and other seemingly breadless items were pure from the taint of deadly gluten. It is a wonder that any of us survived.

A few years ago, our foods were plastered with assurances that they were free of “carbs.” Before that they carried prominent labels about salt or cholesterol. Food purity is an expression of religious or spiritual merit as old as organized religion, perhaps older. Ancient Egyptians carried a taboo against eating or sacrificing pigs, yet evidence seems to indicate that pigs were widely cultivated and formed a major source of food. Down through history, many cultures considered pigs spiritually impure in one manner or another. Explanations often focus on questions of sanitation or food quality while ignoring the obvious explanation. Pigs were consistently among the cheapest domesticated sources of domestic animal protein. Raising pigs for food usually meant occupying a lower stratum of a society. Food taboos have always been a way to demonstrate personal spiritual or social superiority. When organized religion loses its hold on a culture, ancient deeply-set spiritual ideas re-emerge in strange ways. Our technology may be screaming forward, but our minds haven’t changed.

Grandpa, in his backwoods ignorance, becomes an object of modern humor for smearing turpentine on wounds. Now, in a more advanced time, in a neighborhood full of science-loving college-educated sophisticates, we buy “essential oils” with powers to cure a dizzying and unlikely array of ailments. A smarter, better educated generation packs their cupboards with carefully marketed probiotics, prebiotics, antioxidants, and obscure vitamins. All of it runs counter to well-established, reliable scientific advice. At least turpentine was cheap. A 15ml bottle of lavender oil can cost $30. You can find it advertised to treat hearing loss, “dental anxiety,” skin disorders, digestive problems; basically, the same ill-defined, unprovable range of symptoms you’ll find listed for almost any folk-cure. In a single conversation at a suburban block party, the same person may express exasperation at climate-denial before pivoting to extol the miraculous cures they experienced from the cinnamon extract they purchased via a multi-level marketing scheme.

Science is clear that genetically modified foods are safe. In fact, along with renewable energy sources, genetically modified foods are likely to be critical to our survival. Science has given us no indication that organic foods offer any intrinsic health value. Even in environmental terms, the case for organic farming is ambiguous at best. When balanced against the imperative to feed a rising global population, the advantages of organic farming become very tenuous. Yet, in my neighborhood of highly educated believers in science and reason, our local Whole Foods, a temple of pseudo-science, thrives. We have not escaped from the constraints of our biology. We have traded one mythology for another.

Placed in the past tense, my grandmother’s habit of donating to hack televangelists sounds sad bewildering, and infuriating. Those who exploit our religious wiring for personal financial gain occupy a special category of noxious fraud. What was novel in my grandparents’ generation – using modern communication tools to convert a ministry into a business – is now so accepted that we hardly notice it. Living in a hyper-commercialized culture in which organized religion has essentially collapsed, we have lost any sense of a boundary between spiritual and retail experiences. We look back on seedy televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart with disgust, but we have thoroughly professionalized and corporatized their entrepreneurial experiments. Visit a suburban yoga studio to see the streamlined model of spiritual commercialism on sordid display.

Yoga is an Indian religious tradition dating back perhaps 3000 years. It was a complex and comprehensive spiritual system complete with its own mythology. Americans began to practice a version of yoga on a culturally significant scale in the 60’s, influenced by rising interest in broader spiritual practices and celebrity adherents. Once new concepts arrive on our shores, they are quickly adapted to fit our existing values, symbols and myths. An ancient, nuanced, religious tradition becomes, in a single generation, an exciting franchise opportunity.

That’s right, in America you can buy your own yoga franchise. My backwoods family used to attend healing services at church revivals. A new, more advanced generation’s religious entrepreneurs sell Eastern spiritual enlightenment as a health regimen through national yoga franchises, complete with synergized, vertically integrated product portfolios. An exhaustive search of the Upanishads will fail to uncover the spiritual value of Lululemon pants, or the matching top and jacket. The complete set could run you more than $400, a small price to pay for health and enlightenment. Purchase the wisdom of a hundred generations of yogis and look great doing it.

Primitive religious charlatans fleeced money from camp meeting crowds, a practice that appears plainly exploitative if not comic to modern eyes. We were concerned when Grandma started sending us “prayer handkerchiefs” blessed by TV preachers and purchased by mail. She was clearly being exploited for her senility and isolation. As a kid in East Texas our family attended revivals hosted by shady healing evangelists. They were great at fixing ailments that have no empirical qualities, like pains and sprains and stomach aches. Even as a child I found it strange that God’s healing power never extended to paralysis or missing limbs. Somehow, church members bound to wheelchairs or missing a finger always lacked the necessary faith to be blessed by God’s healing gift.

Modern religious charlatans sell diet advice and pure foods on their websites, in seminars, or in TV appearances. Popular diet expert and anti-vaccine advocate, David Wolfe, sells “the essentials of hormone balance” at a reasonable price. You can buy an integrated travel experience to see him speak in Peru or Iceland. With enough faith and a credit card, all the secrets of health and longevity can be yours.

Vani Hari, “The Food Babe,” has so many social media followers soaking up her hocus cures and diet advice that she can move corporate marketing practices. Panera Bread has adopted product positioning in line with Hari’s slogans for simple reasons, explained by Panera CEO Ron Shaich. In a New York Times interview he explained: “I’m not a scientist and I’m not wading into the debate over whether any of these things cause cancer or are otherwise bad for you. I just think this is where the consumer’s head is right now.”

How did Hari arrive at insights so powerful they are moving major corporations? What advanced degrees, cutting edge research, or experimental insights drive her work? None. Here’s how Hari describes her expertise on her website, “I didn’t go to nutrition school to learn this. I had to teach myself everything spending thousands of hours researching and talking to experts.” In other words, she used the same scientific research techniques deployed by Rep. Lamar Smith to discover that climate change is a hoax.  A new generation of religious hucksters are pitching medical advice powerful enough to impact Wall Street. They are doing it with stories, not science.

In the past, traveling preachers healed aches and pains while soliciting donations. Modern diet gurus have dropped the pretense and converted themselves into pure salesmen. In a remarkable business evolution, these new pitchmen go a bit further in their cures. Where camp preachers claimed to fix problems their customers already had, these entrepreneurs are curing ailments you don’t have. Cures bought from vendors like Hari and Wolfe can cure wheat belly, leaky gut and “cleanse” your body of “toxins.” This innovation vastly expands the addressable market for their products. You don’t need to be sick to buy their medicine.

We have internalized certain cultural assumptions about backwards, ill-educated voters mired in “science denial and bigotry” while ignoring a wider picture playing out right under our noses. Our technology has advanced, but our biology remains the same. Republican or Democrat, we still explain our reality through stories, not data. We still struggle to grasp and internalize information generated through scientific or elite processes. We remain inherently skeptical of technologies, like medicine, which we cannot fully understand through observation or commonsense reasoning. Vani Hari, with her bogus “Food Babe” empire, was a national delegate to the 2012 convention of the supposedly science-loving, reason-worshipping Democratic Party. We are all essentially the same.

From Grandpa’s Turpentine to Gwyneth Paltrow’s juice cleanse, a previous generation’s religious mythology remains intact, wired into our biology. Our technology races ahead while our minds and bodies lag behind. Thanks to communications technology, globalization, and looser social structures we have access to a broader range of influences. We also enjoy greater freedom from the stifling need to conform to a local tribe. However, we bring to this freer environment the same dependence on narrative reality that my grandparents felt. We have even retained many of the same symbols and archetypes, right down to our ancient bigotries about food purity, and the notion that virtue and status are integrally tied to health. Whole Foods sells more than food, it sells virtue and class distinction.

Key to our progress at this critical juncture is not more facts, but better stories. A culture capable of developing a sensible, clean, affordable public water system is composed of people no smarter than anyone else. A civilization of uncooperative geniuses might collapse into resource scarcity and violence while a civilization of mediocres with a strong sense of community and a capacity to collaborate may live in ease and prosperity. It is not our personal qualities, but our ability to identify and leverage our common interests which will determine our future.

Grandma’s Skillet

My grandparents weren’t wealthy, but they did leave me a remarkable inheritance—my grandmother’s iron skillet. It is difficult now to find a cast-iron skillet in the old style. Modern versions include a “pre-seasoning” surface that I dislike intensely. Grandma’s skillet isn’t suited for every purpose, but it’s the only tool I use for making a roux, preparing a steak, or blackening catfish. Nothing else gets it quite right.

My children have learned to use the skillet and picked up the complicated rituals of its maintenance. If I’m lucky, one day their kids will sit in my kitchen while I make them breakfast in their Great-great-grandmother’s skillet. They’ll hear some olde-tyme gospel music. They’ll learn harmony. And they’ll enjoy biscuits and elicit snacks while their exhausted parents sleep. There’s comfort in continuity. There is sanity, and rootedness, and humility in finding yourself as a thread in a long, multigenerational tapestry, not merely a lonely individual adrift. New isn’t always necessarily better. We are no smarter than our ancestors. We don’t have to be smarter than they were to survive and thrive. We just have do what they did – adapt. But we must do it faster.

Fortunately for us, some of the tools and techniques likely to carry us through the data revolution are thousands of years old. In a modern environment, we can still leverage our tribalism and our mythology as tools for adaptation. Our use of stories, rather than facts, to comprehend reality might seem like a glitch, but we can convert that apparent weakness to a strength. There is wisdom in our past. There is strength in our stories. Armed with tolerance, humility, and a well-framed metaphor, it may be possible once again for leaders in either party, or a new one, to build the kind of nationwide support last enjoyed by Republicans under Ronald Reagan. A sixty-percent majority is out there, waiting to be tapped, if we craft a vision that would give it life.

20 Comments

  1. Wow Chris. There’s so much to digest here that I’m worried my response is going to be as long as your original post (probably longer since I’m much wordier than you 🙂

    It seems that what you’re saying is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And that the fact that we’re not so different from your grandparents is both a good and bad thing. That the process by which they formed truth is largely the same that we use, only we have different networks of tribes.

    With all of this, I absolutely agree. People paying twice the price for food at Whole Foods are just as swindled by hucksters promising eternal life and moral virtue as any preacher your grandmother listened to.

    But what I disagree with is that our period is in any way unique. Technology has been evolving at an exponential scale since the ancient Greeks (with maybe a brief interruption during the Dark Ages), and certainly since the Renaissance in the West. And our inability to process those advancements has been just as prevalent. In the time of Galileo, all scientific knowledge was written down in Latin. At a time when most people couldn’t even read their local language, only a few elites could even read Galileo’s hypothesis. While it may seem trivial to us, the idea that acceleration is constant and everything falls at the same rate was so contrary to common sense and so revolutionary that it was the equivalent of quantum mechanics to a modern person. And his idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun was so Earth shattering that the Pope condemned him for it. To us these may seem like simple scientific truths. They were hardly that to the average European of his day.

    And similarly, yes, understanding the lifecycle of a B meson requires a multi-billion dollar collider and a PhD in high energy physics. But the consequences of climate change can be seen *today*. Every year we have more devastating hurricanes. Miami floods far more days in a year than it used to, and not just during abnormally high tides. These are predictions that climate scientists made years ago, and any person can confirm the results with their naked eye. True, they might not understand the theory that made those predictions, but an Italian villager doesn’t understand Galileo’s theory either. All he can do is confirm Galileo’s prediction about a ball and a penny dropping at the same rate, and then accept that Galileo’s theory is probably true.

    20 years ago, you had to examine Antarctic ice cores to see evidence for climate change. Now, you can walk through the streets of New Orleans (literally; they’re still digging themselves out from last weeks’ tropical storm). It’s probably easier for the average person today to see the effects of climate change with his naked eye, than for an Italian peasant to repeat Galileo’s experiment (a smoothly machined bowling ball was a very precious commodity in those days, probably limited to the military), and certainly easier than confirming the heliocentric model of the planets. So why do people reject climate science?

    Similarly, the need for stories has always been there. The invention of the printing press, and the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages (like the Geneva Bible) led directly to the Protestant Reformation. In some ways you could argue that this interplay of technology and storytelling you talk about is precisely what happened: a change in technology allowed the common person to read religious texts. This happened with the publication of the first Gutenberg Bible, and furthered by the vernacular translations like the Geneva Bible. But it took the story woven by Martin Luther about how you don’t need the Pope to mediate your relationship to God that opened the floodgates for people to actually harness that new technology and change their religious practice. And of course, there was the counter-reformation.

    The rise of newspapers, the invention of the telegraph, etc. were all stupendous technological advancements that vastly increased the rate and amount of information available to the average person.

    And for that matter, your grandparents *did* accept distant authority. They generally believed what the President told them, what their senators, governors, mayors, etc. said, even if they were in a different party. They probably saw and read less of the President’s speeches than we have access to now, and yet they didn’t question him the way your mother questioned Obama. And for all your grandfather’s skepticism of doctors, I bet he got your mother vaccinated on time, despite not knowing how vaccination works.

    I bring all of this up because I would argue that the challenges to democracy and social cohesion from the tension between elite authority and common-man wisdom has *always* been there. It’s not new. It’s not even a bigger problem now than before. While biology hasn’t evolved much in 100 years, there’s no indication that we’ve reached our brains’ limit in incorporating ever more information at ever increasing speeds. It appears that evolution over-engineered our brains quite a bit 🙂

    If democracy was able to produce functional societies for the past few hundred years in the face of similar technological advancements, including at least partial acceptance of distant authority, and including requirements like the need for stories, then there must be some other reason why democracy is breaking down (in the US at least, though I think you argue it’s a global phenomenon) now, besides just the rate of technology change.

    Perhaps one factor is that our tribes have become larger than democracy’s grasp? You could describe Western political organization as a process of bringing ever larger geographies and populations under unified government. People’s loyalties in the Middle Ages were largely to their local feudal lord, their local church, and maybe relatives in nearby towns. The machinations of distant royal courts really had no bearing on their life. These city-states gradually coalesced into larger structures and became true nation-states after the Peace of Westphalia. This centralization largely happened in line with or even ahead of the actual reach of our tribes. That is, European nation-states arose before the average person’s tribes expanded beyond local regions. This meant that political authority could encompass most people’s tribes, which meant democracy was a reasonable way of allowing all those tribes to interact with each other and still produce a unified government.

    Just 30 years ago, before the broad spread of the internet, long-distance telephones, etc., most of our tribes were still local. Even immigrants would soon lose touch with their homeland and become fully integrated with the local society.

    These days, in contrast, most of us living in the digital world have tribes that expand nationally and even internationally. Our facebook groups and blog communities host people from dozens of nations. Heck, this very site, despite focusing squarely on American politics, has valuable commentators from around the globe.

    Once our tribes transcend the boundaries of our government, it’s of course inevitable that our government can no longer control them (for better or for worse). So perhaps the problem with our democracy is simply that it isn’t global? For some reason, the centralization of government stopped with the nation-state. We made some tentative steps to supra-national organizations after WWII, when the Cold War forced countries to take sides, and regional bodies like NATO and the European Union were born. But now, with the Cold War gone, we seem to be receding back to nation states.

    You’ve written extensively about how large transnational corporations are the new drivers of our political futures. But could that merely be because corporations have spread their reach as fast as we have spread our tribes, whereas governments haven’t?

    I would also say that your analysis discounts another primal need we have: to have an enemy. Part of how we define our tribe is by defining who’s *not* in our tribe. For all its warts (little things like the threat of global annihilation 🙂 the Cold War made it clear who our enemy was, which fostered our tribe’s cohesiveness. With the absence of a clear “Other”, is it any wonder that our tribes are fracturing, calcifying, and going to war with each other?

    The only reason your mother could believe Obama is a communist is because she’d forgotten what a real communist is. The memories of Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung must have faded quite a bit if she thought Obama was closer to them than to her.

    And finally, I think you need to explain a massive chink in your thesis: frequently the biggest true believers in all that bunk (whether Guns, Gods & Gays on the right, or GMO, anti-vax & healing chakras on the left) are the *most* educated of the bunch. Ted Cruz is a Harvard man, Ben Carson is a (gulp) neurosurgeon, and Vani Hari has a degree in computer science. They’re not even that old (Hari is 40). While I agree that college can free you from the tribes you were born with, not everyone seeks out tribes that are much better. This is not simply a matter of poor, uneducated people from a previous era falling victim to hucksters because they lack the tools to cope in today’s information age. This is also the matter of plenty of people who have the skills, resources, and training to not just survive, but thrive in that setting, who choose instead to regress. And many of these people (like Hari) are true believers, not [just] profit-seeking shysters. What led them so astray?

    And why does this seem to be a unique problem in Western democracies? Indian democracy is actually becoming somewhat more effective, as people become more educated and gain the power to do something about corrupt politicians and hidebound systems. In the last election, Rahul Gandhi, the latest in the line of near-monarchical rulers stretching from his great-grandfather Nehru, lost his family’s traditional ancestral seat, Amethi, a humiliating defeat, as people decided that mere lineage isn’t enough to get their vote any longer. And the Chinese seem to have no problem letting their elites run large portions of their country (and they’re doing a pretty good job of it). All of these countries have faced the same level of technology progress, usually with far less educated citizenry, and seem to be making their political systems work.

    This is where I’ll trot out my theory again about freedom-with-training-wheels. Maybe it’s my old philosophy training coming back, but I’d argue that most people don’t want real freedom or power, since that comes along with moral responsibility, and can carry consequences like dying from making the wrong decision. Instead, they want a simulacrum of freedom and power, one in which they can convince themselves they’re free and powerful, while knowing deep down that “someone” (govt, God, the scientific elite, whatever) is watching over them and making sure they don’t blow themselves up.

    So the problem with our modern democracy isn’t that it gives the common person too much power vis-à-vis the elites. It’s that we’ve removed the consequences of exercising it. If anything, the elites have become too powerful and we’re fine with that; they’re doing a decent job, and we know they won’t let us do anything that would cause lasting damage. We don’t even keep our prized pictures and documents on our own hard drives anymore. We trust Apple and dropbox to hold onto them, even though we have no clue how “the cloud” works. AOC and Alex Jones have diametrically opposed tribal affiliations, yet I bet they both have Gmail accounts.

    Back when we knew that the President’s hand was on the red button, and that one false move against the Russians could mean every living thing on Earth would be incinerated in a hail of nuclear bombs, we tried to elect relatively sane people for President. With that threat removed, we’ve exercised our freedom to elect a buffoon, someone likely under direct Russian control, because… why not? We’re not *really* at stake of dying for this mistake. So why not stick it to all the experts telling us Hillary is the better candidate as if that’s a fact? And besides, the military elite will make sure he doesn’t actually press that red button, right?

    That sounds ridiculous but so far, that thinking has been correct: despite Trump, most of us still have a job and health insurance, the Wi-Fi is fast, a new phone still comes out every year, and Netflix still puts out good shows. The Middle East still grinds away, no different really than the last 18 (and counting) years, and there have been no mushroom clouds on the horizon yet. Yes, we’ll pay the piper in the near future, but exactly what direct harm has Trump caused you or me in the present? Thanks to our expert and elite systems in place (though rapidly eroding), we’re still fine.

    Anyway, my point in bringing these examples up is that perhaps the problem is the opposite. We’ve happily ceded large chunks of our lives to elites, to such an extent that there’s very little we can do that harms us. No more existential threats like the Cold War, no more health threats, nothing. Heck, kids can’t even skin their knee at the local playground what with all that fancy soft flooring they use instead of the asphalt of our youth 🙂 And in the absence of real threats to focus our minds and remind us of the consequences of being wrong, we’re all going slightly crazy…

    1. “the biggest true believers in all that bunk are the *most* educated of the bunch. Ted Cruz is a Harvard man, Ben Carson is a (gulp) neurosurgeon, and Vani Hari has a degree in computer science.”

      There is a question of whether these people are true believers or opportunists, but Ben Carson reminds me of a comment an old boss made about a colleague: “He has a lot of intelligence, but it’s all one kind.”

  2. The Empty Cradle was written in 2004 (15 years out of date).

    Here is an NPR discussion on the book…
    https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1918221

    You claim you are a natural skeptic and aren’t disparaging scientist yet you declare many of their ideas as “proven nonsense” using Non Sequitur claims.

    You provide no evidence or reference to any scientific statements much less showing any were “nonsense”.

    World population has significantly grown over the last 60 years and is still growing. There is a possibility that the population may stabilize in the near future. It will probably will depending on the amount of access to birth control there is.

    You seem to agree that Continental Drift happened and is still happening. However, you make a big sidestep into it’s possible role in the origin of species. I would be more than happy and capable of debating this topic. A significant part of the origin of species occurred in the seas before and during the Cambrian Period. Look up Fuxianhuia protensa. It was one of the earliest animals. Do you consider this all “nonsense” too?

    You may “not yet know our rear end from a hole in the ground about this” but are you willing to investigate rather than simply attempt to ignore and dismiss?

    I do not understand why you blame scientists for an obesity crisis. Again you provide no references to scientific work as evidence of “nonsense” being perpetrated. A quick review of old scientific papers show plenty of warnings about the effects of children drinking sugary drinks and sitting in front of the TV instead of going outside.

    It is one thing to skeptically question things. However, you made declarative statements that scientists promoted “nonsense”. Where is your evidence of that?

    1. EJ

      As a (recently ex-) scientist, I can confirm that we were to blame for the obesity crisis. It turns out that if you use larger telescopes then all the starlight you collect ends up making children fat. We were so busy chasing knowledge about stars that we just didn’t consider the side effects.

  3. I’ll read this all later, but

    Just cuz one editor didn’t like the proposal doesn’t mean other editors will reject it, and I don’t know if this is all you have written on it but where you have the time you should probably keep on writing it anyway.

    It helps that you have another book published, a documentable “reach,” and other media and interviews like that one podcast you shared once.

  4. Chris,

    As usual, I found your post very interesting and well written. However, I take issue with the part leading up to the statement “Key to our progress at this critical juncture is not more facts, but better stories.”.

    For my background, there was a lot of family pressure/expectation that I would be intelligent. I came from a very successful family. Not overly wealthy, but very accomplished and smart.

    There were many situations where being astute was a curse. For example, we were on a sixth grade field trip to a rubber factory where they handed out eraser-sized rubber samples to all the kids.

    For some stupid reason, when we got back to the classroom, the teacher left us alone for a period of time. The rubber samples were useless (they didn’t work as erasers). So, they instantly became flying projectiles.

    At the time, I blamed the adults for not anticipating the obvious. I was the only boy who did not participate. The more mature 6th grade girls, of course, didn’t either. All the boys, except me, got paddled.

    Please excuse this personal story, but the point was I was dealing with the confusion as to why others couldn’t see what I saw as obvious. I didn’t (and don’t) have the desire go along to get along.

    When confronted with the mystery of barcodes, I was compelled to understand them. Therefore, I reversed engineered the code. Understanding barcode scanners wasn’t that hard.

    An example of another mystery solved was when I built homemade radio receiver.

    In high school and first year of collage I was on debate teams. This was before the internet so research meant hours and hours spent in the library. You probably haven’t had the pleasure of searching through a paper version of the congressional record.

    If I didn’t know something, I researched it. The internet makes that a lot easier.

    I got interested in the creationism rebranding called “Intelligent Design” (see 2005 – Kitzmiller v. Dover). I provided me the opportunity to thoroughly debate the topic backed by volumes of scientific papers.

    I have also done a deep dive into the potential of climate change years ago. This isn’t something I took at face value from Al Gore.

    I love reading actual court arguments/decisions. Did you happen to read the Bush v Gore decision?

    I pride myself in testing my assumptions and beliefs. I love debating.

    Unfortunately, most people aren’t interesting in making the effort. Often, because they WANT to believe what they want to believe. Especially when their personal prosperity depends in them not understanding certain facts.

    Are you suggesting we back off presenting, and defending, facts as facts?

    1. I have actually read the paper versions of the Congressional Record, though it was back when that was the only available version. And having been through law school, I’ve read more Supreme Court decisions than I care to. Thing is, that’s entirely atypical.

      The kind of “reasoning from first principles” approach to knowledge that you describe isn’t only unusual, it also doesn’t scale well. And as we begin to examine the biases that get transferred into our AI systems, we’re starting to understand that even at our most seemingly “logical” levels of functioning, our brains still operate in the realm of stories.

      I love that rubber stamp story, by the way. The fact that they were rubber stamps is such a perfect metaphor. Could have been a Pink Floyd song.

      1. Your “…it also doesn’t scale well” was well put.

        Did you happen to see the last episode of The Game of Thrones? It had a scene in it where they discussed letting everyone vote. The response was to ask should they should let the animals vote too.

        Do you remember the 1976 movie Network?
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kkLLnsqezA

        To me, relying on the “strength in our stories” is equivalent to telling the masses what they want to hear. Which is not much different than leading cows to be butchered by ringing the dinner bell.

        Granted, I am far from being a good people person. I tend to expect too much from my employees. Fortunately, most rise to the challenges and are better for it.

        It may not be very effective to encourage people to wake up, to think, to question, etc.

        However, I am morally compelled to at least try.

    2. I’ve been reading Chris’s work for a number of years and a common theme emerges. He keeps scratching at how to insert new ideas where there is resistance to new (or at least, different). Rather than projecting his own penchant for digging for facts upon his fellow humans, he is seeking the action that will help people escape the grasp of the grifters so we can return to solving our species’ multiple challenges.

      The key is the story. Certainly defend facts, but recognize that defense is usually dismissed. I don’t have the story, but am looking for it. What I have seen so far is that the only places I’ve been able to sow doubt is where there is a personal relationship involved. Without that relationship I am outside of their tribe and disregarded. The current battle is hand to hand combat, individual by individual. This is too important to be left to what passes for our “leadership” to sort out.

      Thank you, Chris. Your articles are delivered with a compassionate engagement. Good read, keen perspective.

    3. dfcord-
      I’ll second Chris’s assertion that your approach doesn’t scale. Law is unique in that it’s not really a “science”. It starts with a series of first principles, and you just keep building on that. Which means it’s possible to reason backwards. For example, you could, theoretically, work every single court decision in the U.S. back to the Constitution.

      Science has no first principles. There are layers upon layers of observations, and layers upon layers of theories that attempt to explain those observations. It’s more of a complex web. Watson and Crick’s structure of DNA is independent of Mendel’s gene theory of transmission, which is independent of evolution, which is independent of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If Mendel’s gene theory is disproved, that doesn’t disprove Darwin, it just means we need to find some other place for mutations and natural selection to occur. Similarly, if Darwin is proven wrong, it doesn’t disprove Mendel; it just means genes don’t ever mutate and change.

      Also, you’re pretty unique in not needing stories, and I’d also argue you’re underestimating your own need. Most people need to place new information within the context of their own world view. We’re just not wired to take in random facts in isolation. Not even babies. Stories are what do that.

      Even the greatest scientists aren’t immune to that human need. Copernicus, the father of the heliocentric theory of the planets, never got his model to work any better than the Ptolemaic geocentric theory, because he was wedded to the idea that the universe had to be beautiful and therefore, the orbits must be perfect concentric circles, with the Sun in the absolute center. Of course, they’re not.

      It took Johannes Kepler to realize that the planets move in ellipses and that the Sun wasn’t at the center. But even he wouldn’t accept that idea despite the evidence staring him in the face, until he realized that the Sun was at one of the focal points of the ellipse, and that the planets’ velocity would also vary such that the amount of area swept over in a given period of time would always be equal. It was only when he replaced one concept of beauty (concentric circles) with another (equal area per unit of time) in his mind, that he could make sense of the evidence before him.

      Perhaps we’d do better if we were like computers, able to store and accept random facts without context (I’d actually argue not; which is why we’re still better than computers 🙂 ) but we’re just not wired that way.

      1. WX,

        One of the fundamental differences I have seen between conservatives and liberals, like my self, is that conservatives tend to have a compelling need to feel they are thinking and doing the “right” things. I offer that, by definition, conservatives tend to avoid trying out, and accepting, new points of views.

        Long ago the Oracle of Delphi declared no one was wiser than Socrates.

        From his Apology…

        “I went to one of those reputed to be wise, on the ground that there, if anywhere, I would refute the divination and show the oracle, “This man is wiser than I, but you declared that I was wisest.” So I considered him thoroughly—I need not speak of him by name, but he was one of the politicians—and when I considered him and conversed with him, men of Athens, I was affected something like this: it seemed to me that this man seemed to be
        wise, both to many other human beings and most of all to himself, but that he was not. And then I tried to show him that he supposed he was wise, but was not. So from this I became hateful both to him and to many of those present.

        For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.”

        Granted, telling stories scales well. It gives the audience a false sense of actually knowing something. It also helps in rallying followers.

        Telling people they should follow me because “I know that I don’t know” isn’t very compelling.

        I enjoy getting my biases challenged. That is why I like hanging out in blogs populated by people who think differently than I do.

        If you are interested in a modern scientific puzzle, check out…
        Greenberger–Horne–Zeilinger (GHZ) quantum states

        To me, it suggests the possibility there is no such thing as random events.

  5. Chris, this is moving, funny and helpful. Have you read Ken Wilber’s Trump in a Post-truth World? I think you are a lovely shade of Turquoise. Keep up the great work, you are not a voice crying in the wilderness. I would buy your book too. I would probably even vote for you, should you run for office, but you reach more of us by your writing. Thanks.

  6. Good read . But you need to be sceptical of even scientist. They often get it wrong. Even be bias and will cook the data to support their bias. Many ideas of scientists common in my youth have proven nonsense. Population growth is one. Another is an ice age is coming. Well not right now. Continental drift not accepted until recently. The diet recommended by doctors and dietitians starting in the seventies has resulted in a massive epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
    To name a few.

    I can do most of the things your grandparents could and am one of the few who understand the scientific method and used it in my career. No human can learn more than two or at most three specialties in one life time. We have to depend on each other. If you are not knowledgable about a field a BS artist can fool you even if the expert gives good information. That is something we better fix.
    If you publish your book I will buy it.

    1. Stephen,

      You made some sweeping accusations in an obvious attempt to disparage “scientists” in general. “Nonsense” is a pretty strong word to dismiss the fact the world’s population has tripled since I was born.

      https://socratic.org/questions/how-long-did-it-take-the-human-race-to-double-its-population-from-1-billion-to-2

      Your reference to continental drift doesn’t make sense to me (“nonsense”?).

      If you provide some references your arguments might be more persuasive.

      1. Read the Empty Cradle by Phillip Longman. It pretty much shows what is going on with the population in the world. I do not know your age but I am in my sixties. The big bugaboo in my youth was runaway population and starvation coming. Absolute 180 degrees wrong. The growth is slowing. Has in many countries mostly in the advance countries but in many third world countries. As a whole in the near future maybe sooner but by mid century the world wide population will reach peak and then start to as a whole decline. And hunger is a problem because food is not distributed to those in need because they are poor and have no money. We have enough food and then some. Hunger is a problem of the human spirit. Not giving a fig about your brother in need.

        This link goes into the history of Continental drift. An old idea. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_drift
        It has only been recently accepted.

        The idea was in my youth that small separate populations happen in our past (species) allowing rapid evolution. Well genetics has turned that around 180 degrees. Seems populations found each other all the time and mixed their genes regularly. Now the speculation is genes are turned on and off by the environment and the right one came along to turn on genes that gave us the ability for our culture and technology. My opinion for what it is worth is we do not yet know our rear end from a hole in the ground about this.

        In nutrition we are currently having a revolution. Because of cooked data of studies done in the 20th century the recommendation was low fat , high carbohydrates and moderate protein. Seems our ancestors ate low amounts of carbs but high fat in their diets. Most of us do not tolerate carbs well. The government diet recommendations of the seventies has lead to high obesity rates, high diabetes rates and high hypertension rates. And the fat and high cholesterol do not lead to higher cardiovascular disease. Low fat and low cholesterol in the blood do lead to higher cancer rates.

        Scientist are not God. They are humans who are bias as every human being. They are often wrong. I worked in an industrial lab. Their were elaborate safeguards in place to prevent this bias creep from coming in. I used statistics to verify how precise and accurate my data was . To have a high confidence level that the results were close to the real value. All instruments and methods have error in them. Sometimes millions of dollars or and human health were riding on my test which were used to control complex processed . While I did not have the title of scientist a good part of my job involved the scientific method to solve problems. I did things like discover what test were accurate and reliable in different chemical and biological matrices. Or find our why a process was not giving the predicted results. Then devising a way to fix it.

        I am not disparaging scientists at all. But they are like any profession. You got good ones and bad ones. You always will find people fighting change because they are invested in an old idea or method . Because their status or money depends on keeping the old paradigm.

        I am a natural sceptic and question everything. I hope this clears up what I was trying to say.

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