Beware the Orwellian Trap

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When you find yourself in an Orwellian world, where up is down and freedom is slavery, it’s almost impossible to escape. When an entire body politic finds itself in such a pass we become like a coyote with its paw in a trap. It might seem to the frightened animal that the only path to escape is to chew its own leg off. That would be a mistake. The coyote would die of a lingering infection. So, how to avoid the trap in the first place, and how to escape from it whole once caught?

We live in a time when most scientists believe that humans have accelerated the otherwise stately progression of climate change, yet the full body politic seems unsure whether it believes this to be true. Those who think this situation will cease when a few of our current leaders fade from the scene are mistaken. Once a significant fraction of the population begins to believe a separate set of theories about reality, to tell a different and internally self-consistent set of stories, it becomes very difficult to come back together. That will take hard work, open hearts and minds, and a dose of humility all around.

If to be part of a culture includes sharing intuitions about how the world works, then most of us are sleepwalking through modernity because even now, or perhaps especially now, in this age of only partially digested wonders, we are not really a single technocratic culture but a disordered collection of interpenetrating subcultures, each with somewhat different intuitions and beliefs. Those who believe in ghosts or aliens, and those who believe it’s all poppycock. Those who find comfort in the belief that we have an immortal soul that lives on after death, and those who do not. These interior lives are very different from one another, and it’s as if we inhabit different countries of the mind. But, it was always this way. What’s changed lately?

The public square intrudes into our private spaces through our screens, and so in our waking days we are pummeled by a host of obfuscations, misrepresentations, elisions, bullshit, gaslighting, and outright lies. What’s new is the high volume of these lies, their often visual character, delivered with an electric shock of emotional salience, tailored for us through our click histories. Soon after the web slipped from the narrow confines of scientific collaboration and enabled a global public sphere for the first time, the most popular sites contained porn, religion, and conspiracies. By now our personal hopes, fears, and secret desires have long been commodified and monetized. Those aren’t Orwellian Traps, though they can make the setting of traps much easier by breeding a culture of distrust and cynicism, by atomizing us from one another, and subverting any hope there might also be nobility or honor in our public sphere.

While lying is corrosive to trust, in politics it’s easy to understand the motivation to lie. Some people are willing to put personal gain over the public good, while for others it’s a power move, an assertion that they ‘create’ the reality the rest of us have to live within. These are not errors in reasoning but defects in character. The viral particles of distrust these lies have set in circulation is making the body politic sick at heart, and the only long-term cure is stronger antibodies against liars. 

But instead of lies, what I want to focus on here are not alternate facts, fake news, or propaganda, but alternate theories that carry their own explanatory power, conspiracy theories that are believed sincerely by people trying to puzzle out a complex and dangerous world. The conspiracy style of theorizing can be more dangerous than lies, because evolution has gifted us with an inborn aversion to liars, a mental gag reflex. But we have no crowd immunity to paranoia. In an anxious world, instead of lies the preferred bait for Orwellian traps is the sweet seduction of certitude. This is why the most dangerous conspiracy theories of all are the ones that can’t be proven wrong.

In a sense, we are all living in a dream, including those of us who believe science is our most reliable guide to finding out how the world works. Dreaming is part of the human condition. We can’t escape the fact that we are all embodied minds, and we don’t have direct access to the reality we believe lies around us. Instead, our brains use the noisy and faulty data of our senses and our memories to construct a rough theory of that reality from moment to moment. Most of this goes on below the level of conscious awareness so in a sense we are all sleepwalking. Only by adopting a shared language, and a commitment to truth-telling, can objective knowledge of the world emerge through hard effort.

Yet, once a conspiratorial mind-set is adopted, the usual rules of evidence needed to construct that objective understanding are abandoned even if the outward forms of rational reasoning are retained. Reasoning becomes a kind of performance without real meaning, because the openness to surprise and a willingness to admit we might be wrong has been frozen out. 

I teach my students that there is always an infinite number of theories consistent with any given set of data. How then, can we ever use observations to improve our understanding? Philosophers call this the problem of induction, and it’s what prevents our theories of the physical world from ever being as certain as the truths of mathematics. We build theories of the external world using evidence of the senses, and yet those senses are faulty. So we have to proceed with caution, and with a heaping dose of epistemological humility.

We have to start by recognizing that the process of induction using observational data always requires the use of prior knowledge. New observations are always interpreted through the filter of everything we already believe to be true about the world.

To make this more concrete: suppose I have a cousin Rachel, who wins the lottery, and the chances of her winning were one in six million, so she collects a big prize. That’s great news. Now suppose I have another cousin, Vinnie, who goes to the casino and plays the dice, rolling sevens ten times in a row. This also has a likelihood of roughly one chance in six million. Will Vinnie be taking home a huge payoff? More likely he’ll be thrown out of the casino for cheating.

Why? Both outcomes carry the same odds. Why are we more willing to believe that Rachel’s win is honest, but Vinnie’s dishonest? Because we have prior knowledge that some people cheat, and cheating at dice by palming a loaded pair at the table is much easier than cheating the entire lottery system where so many people are watching. The outcomes of the two gamblers’ trials are our ‘new data’. Our instincts for how difficult cheating is are part of our ‘prior knowledge’.

‘They cheated’ or ‘they made it up’ is one of many possible theories that can explain any data set. Another one is in circulation now: ‘It’s all part of a virtual reality simulation,’ which is a modern variant of Plato’s Cave. ‘God made it that way’ is also a familiar rhetorical move, used by harried parents to shut down the questioning of curious children. Given the creative abilities of the human mind, combined with our strong desire for the world make sense, variations on these explanatory tropes are endless, and they can sometimes be quite subtle and convincing. These are theories that cannot be proven wrong through observation, because they are consistent with all possible outcomes.

A theory that cannot be proven wrong through observation, however, isn’t automatically right. Nor is it automatically wrong. Instead, the truth of the theory is empirically undecidable. To be useful beyond providing the cold comfort of certitude, there has to be a real possibility that our theory can fail.

Consider now what is called the “climate consensus,” summarized most completely in the accumulating series of UN IPCC reports. These reports are written by large committees of experts, who try to summarize the current best understanding as it appears in the scientific literature, updated every few years. As someone who once took part in a similar exercise for the US fusion program, I can attest that such documents tend to be conservative in their conclusions. Wild-eyed alarmist manifestoes are written by individuals not committees.

The skeptic’s counter-argument to the climate consensus goes like this: Science isn’t a democracy. Scientists don’t vote on the truth or falsity of scientific theories. True scientists are led to their conclusions through independent study of the evidence. So far, so good, though it’s a caricature of the complicated process by which observations and theories come to be accepted or rejected by scientific fields. But let’s go with the caricature for the moment.

While we need to recognize that “consensus isn’t science” is an oversimplification of the praxis of science, it’s also important for us to acknowledge that the history of science is full of examples where the consensus view turned out to be wrong. Some of the cases where the consensus proved wrong we now call “scientific revolutions”. The germ theory of disease, relativity, evolution, and quantum mechanics. These were all, for a time, not merely ignored or considered incorrect, but they were each considered unacceptable as theories given the then-current understanding of what a good scientific theory looked like. Therefore, let’s acknowledge that we must remain open to surprise, and sometimes those surprises overturn a reigning consensus. Fair enough. 

The social media nugget “consensus isn’t science” is a correct atom of thought. Scientists ideally let the weight of evidence drive their conclusions.  The process by which fields sort things out is not some steady upward march of progress but quite messy.  It only looks simple in the rear-view mirror, when all the road kill of now-dead theories that were once very much alive has receded into the distance. 

But taken as a nugget of a thought, “consensus isn’t science” is only an atom. To become a worthwhile guide to action, atoms of thought must form into molecules, and thereby into organic bodies of understanding if they are to guide wise action. Otherwise atoms of thought just rattle around in our brainpans like loose BBs, unattached to anything meaningful. They promote reflex responses, not considered opinion.

The notion that “consensus isn’t science” is true, but largely irrelevant to climate policy. It deflects us from the real question: among all the competing explanations and theories, which of them presents the wisest guide to action? We don’t have the luxury of hopping into a time machine to find out which of the current competing theories will turn out to be correct, and which will be road kill. We have to choose between theories right now.  

We always have to make choices based on uncertain knowledge. This, too, is also part of the human condition. The late Cambridge physicist David JC McKay, in his masterful book Sustainability Without the Hot Air, wrote that the best metaphor for the situation is the following: imagine driving with friends on a dark and foggy night and you become lost. The only person in the car with a map says they think there is a bridge out up ahead. What should the driver do? Step on the gas? Keep going at full speed? Or slow down?

In conversations I’ve had with skeptics about climate change, sometimes, at a critical point in the argument, a subtle shift occurs. Instead of saying that we should always keep in mind that the consensus might be wrong, the argument becomes: we can be assured the consensus is wrong precisely because it’s a consensus. Something odd is going on here. An equivalent argument would be the following: Suppose you are in a room with no windows, and you wonder if it’s raining outside. You ask a hundred people who have recently been outside and 97 out of a hundred tell you it’s raining. Why would that be taken as convincing evidence that the sun is shining? After all, in science there is a much higher than 97% consensus that atoms exist, that the speed of light is a fundamental constant, and that the Moon is not made of cheese.

Stripped of its political salience, the error in reasoning against the consensus is obvious. Why, then, do so many climate skeptics fall into this trap? I am thinking here only of those who are sincere in their skepticism, and not those who invoke “consensus isn’t science” as a sterile rhetorical move. The heart of the matter lies in what other theories are consistent with the data, and what’s at stake in our politics.

What might those other theories be that lead one to reject a scientific consensus regarding climate change? There are several. One is that climate scientists are all radical anti-capitalists. But, if we buy into this theory, we’d also have to include the editorial teams at the flagship newspapers of capitalism: The Financial Times, Bloomberg, and The Economist. All have come out strongly in support of science-based policymaking that would guide us in the transition to a carbon-neutral world. Are all of them part of the conspiracy to bring down capitalism? That’s a whopping big fish to swallow. Not a guppy, but a whale. An entire pod of whales.

Another theory is that climate scientists are lemmings who simply follow the senior leadership in their fields, even when they are being taken off a political cliff. A different theory is that climate scientists have somehow self-hypnotized as a community. They are entrapped in a group delusion, a massive form of Orwellian groupthink, massaging their data so it supports prior conclusions.

Sadly, the history of science shows that all of these scenarios have occurred in the past in one field or another, at one time or another, at one lab or university or another, and they cannot be assigned a zero probability in the current case. Every human system is flawed in design and botched in execution. Again, this is part of the human condition. But the question is always: How flawed? How botched? And, where should the wise place some measure of confidence? If you are forced to bet your family’s future, how should you bet?

The evidence given in support of the counter-theories to explain away the scientific climate consensus by skeptics is, frankly, not at all convincing to me. It doesn’t match my thirty-year experience as a working scientist, and the mode of reasoning that skeptics adopt is, at times, alarming because if you adopt one of those conspiracy theories described above, then higher levels of consensus among climate scientists simply strengthens the conviction that it’s all just a hoax. 

Any theory like this should be avoided at all costs because the Orwellian trap has been sprung. New evidence that — on the surface — seems to argue against the conspiracy theory can be flipped in its favor by appeal to the conspiracy itself. The accumulating data which contradicts the theory is taken as evidence that the conspiracy goes deeper than first imagined. The adoption of such a theory creates an information filter that drives you in one direction: toward the world of paranoia.

How can you ever get out of such an Orwellian trap once it’s sprung?

Gnawing a leg off to escape the trap, if we stick with the body politic as metaphor, would entail abandoning a group of our fellow citizens. But that cannot be the right answer, though it might seem expedient, because for some of them it is exactly the fear of being cut off, left behind, and abandoned in an ever more dangerous world that may have sprung the trap for them in the first place. Two thousand years ago, during troubled times, Cicero wrote that he studied philosophy “… so that I might learn to die.” The humane pursuit of knowledge, seen to be used for the benefit of all, can be a means for overcoming fear. In the long run, the only way to get out of the Orwellian trap, while keeping the body politic whole, is to use our whole being, our minds, our hearts, and our coyote wiles, to figure out a way to un-spring the trap and overcome our fears, while helping others do the same. But how? We need to keep talking, and listening, while also moving forward at speed, reminding ourselves that the best strategy for winning another’s trust is to first be worthy of it.

Image: Bear trap. Minnesota Historical Society [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D.

The text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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