Would Anything Change Your BS (Belief System)?

London —

“The world’s oceans are degenerating far faster than predicted and marine life is facing extinction due to a range of human impacts – from overfishing to climate change – a report compiled by international scientists warned Tuesday.

“The cumulative impact of ‘severe individual stresses,’ ranging from climate warming and sea-water acidification to widespread chemical pollution and overfishing, would threaten the marine environment with a catastrophe “unprecedented in human history.”…

“The report warned that damage to marine life would harm its ability to support humans, and that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation.”

(Full article at SFGate.)

On Wednesday, June 22, I woke up to this report and I let it ruin my morning.

I know. It’s not the first panicky report from scientists about the ocean’s demise and the apocalyptic scenarios arising therefrom. And I know that the more scientifically sophisticated members of the H+ community has dealt with and — in some sense — discarded this issue, either by leaning on alternative findings that the situation is not that bad and/or by proposing a technological fix or, finally, by accepting that the goals of the extended and expanded human may take place amidst massive species disasters and die offs, possibly including our own.

My purpose in this article is not to try to surmise who — or what — is correct about this particular scenario or about any of the dozens of other disaster scenarios that seem to confront us. My purpose is to examine how people deal with the intrusion of “scientific” information that may not only disrupt their models of reality but their projects-already-in-progress.

To wit: What if you were, say, on a book tour or promoting a movie or organizing a conference dedicated to the proposition that we were looking forward to a (relatively) glorious transhuman (or singularitarian) future; and on the flight from Chicago to London you read a scientific paper that would convince all but the most well defended psyches that we were pretty much totally hosed? Would you accept the conclusions? And if you did, would you change your plans? Would it depend on how much you were being paid or how much you really need that book to sell lots of copies?

The life altering info drop, of course, generally only happens in movies. No matter how compelling the evidence for a disaster or its opposite (say, inevitable hyperlongevity) presented, it usually takes repeated findings and lots of argumentation to bring about a shift in someone’s point of view, if ever. This is partly because “scientific” forecasting can never be scientific, in the sense that an actual scientific fact can be verified by the scientific method. Predictions, ultimately, can only be proved by being lived, which always leaves some wiggle room for dispute.

These thoughts were shifting around in my head as I prepared my daily task of finding juicy transhumanist links and amusing oddities for my new website, Acceler8or, and reading a book about techno-optimism in preparation for interviewing the author. Fortunately for me, I don’t feel compelled to advocate consistently for pessimism or optimism, but merely to sift through the detritus of our info soaked world for possibly useful or amusing temporary gestalts.

Still, it raised for me this interesting corollary to one of my favorite observations. In his mindbending book, Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson wrote, “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves.” My corollary observation is that the deeper the thinker’s practical commitment is to what (s)he thinks, the less available (s)he is for having his/her mind changed. If, somewhere deep in the night, John Stossel learns about something that can only be resolved by strong state intervention, by morning he will begin constructing an alternative narrative in which the problem can only be resolved by deregulation. If, deep in the night, Keith Olbermann becomes convinced that social spending by the federal government is counterproductive, by morning he will be disproving — to his own satisfaction — that which he thought he realized the night before.

Among science enthusiasts (and particularly among futurists) this tendency to build a memeplex and then to defend it — with the weapons of statistics and argumentation — as one would defend a fortress takes a wide variety of forms.

At the start of this article, I indicated one form — the optimist defending against the inconvenient intervention of evidence for environmental disaster extreme enough to change the course of human progress. The big ongoing debate or area of conflicts in this context is, of course, around the issue of climate change or global warming. With the exception of a few scientists studying in fields related to the issue, the first people who believed that warming was real and caused largely by human activities were environmentalists. As a cohort group, you would find among them many people who believed that western industrial capitalist societies were a bad thing; and many would be broadly hostile to human behaviors that they would perceive as being greedy or insensitive or “consumerist.” After a time, as evidence accumulated to the satisfaction of most scientists who worked in related field in favor of human-caused climate change — and as those scientists made statements and released unanimous reports — most educated people shifted towards the belief that climate change was real, largely human caused, and a major crisis. By far, most of the remaining members of the educated public who remained skeptical of these claims were people who believed that western industrial capitalist societies were so unqualifiedly good that they should repeal all restrictions on gainful activity and/or those who were extremely optimistic about the awesomeness of the oncoming future.

On the other hand (or on another wing, perhaps), there is a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are not harmful, but there is a broad public consensus in much of Europe that they are. And so we have gazed upon comfortable white European hippies stomping on evil food. And then, of course, Republican candidates for president of the US have to renounce evolution. Among those who sneer at the crazies who renounce evolution are many who will hold their breath until they turn blue if it is suggested that — just like the other biological species — human behaviors and social structures might be very influenced by evolutionary principles. Ad infinitum.

Again, my purpose here is not to advocate for one or another view about the weather or food etc., but to examine how and why people react — or don’t react — to informational or quasi-informational interventions.

Actual data about weather patterns is the same whether you’re a member of Earth First or the Ron Paul campaign. And the weather doesn’t care about which political and economic systems you hold to be true and good in your mind… or even if you pray to it in a peyote ritual. And human behavioral tendencies will be what they are regardless of what you think. It is what it is… as the popular saying goes. And most arguments about what it is are probably pointless. I suggest remembering that “the prover proves what the thinker thinks” and its corollary, “Don’t interrupt me while I’m thinking!” whenever you allow yourself to become irate over such discussions.

As for me, I’ll continue to operate according to my belief that I shouldn’t believe anything absolutely, but given the contingencies, changing the human situation and, ultimately the human itself through technology is probably the best of a lot of bad bets. But I will also allow myself to be interrupted by news that indicates otherwise; and I’ve made a promise to myself that I won’t immediately go running to internet search for a counterargument for every presentation that makes me uncomfortable.

Unless I’m on a book tour.

R.U. Sirius is currently editor of Acceler8or at http://www.Acceler8or.com

14 Responses

  1. Nikki Olson says:

    Really enjoyed this article.

  2. filou says:

    fuck ça manque fb ; hey l’UMP serait jamais assez débile pour s’appeler le parti nazi vous croyez pas ? déjà cosmist c’est chaud alors t’imagine

  3. Chris Case says:

    Glad to hear you’re still open-minded. I’ve been wondering how you’d react to Adam Curtis’ recent trilogy, which seems to call into question many of the cherished tenets of cyber-utopianism…

  4. I’ve been working my way through How to Actually Change Your Mind for the last couple weeks.

    Simply knowing about our biases is often insufficient to overcoming them. I liken it to persistence of vision in a movie theater. I may intellectually understand that I’m sitting in the dark staring at a dark screen more than half of the time I watch a movie, but that knowledge isn’t sufficient to perceive the darkness that the mind knows is there no matter how closely I watch. It’s a chemical reaction that is out of my control.

  5. rd hanson says:

    a singularity is preceded by an event horizon where no information escapes. each second in the future is such an event horizon. no information escapes to the past. since we do not have a clear understanding of metphysics we do not know the present or reality.

    since we did not understand metaphysics in the past we do not understand the past.

    it seems clear to me we dont know much and to place too much stock in it is not wise. otoh consciousnes is about predicting and that predicting ability has made humans what they are. it is a paradox.

    it seems we should predict what we can about the reality we can measure and do the best with what we have to work with.

    if you think anything more than that i wonder ………..

  6. Brennan says:

    This post exhibits truly amazing synchronicity with a post I’m writing on my own tumblr/journal (completely private thus far).

    I would say your post is very wise… but I recognize my own arrogance when I see it complementing itself in a different form.

    RAW was an amazing being who, while missed, is STILL blowing minds and remains my favorite thinker/philosopher/being.

    Great post.

  7. wouter says:

    I think we are all vulnerable to self-confirmation. Due to the human mind not being evolved to see the truth but for winning arguments.
    1 exception I know of: Charles Darwin. ‘The origin’ is one long rebuttal of arguments against his own theory, sort of a struggle for the fittest, which makes it a very interesting read in this context.

  8. Razorcam says:

    Most scientists use peer-reviewed papers when they want to learn about something. They are many reasons for using peer-review, and one of them is that when you don’t know all the facts of a particular scientific field, you can’t properly judge a paper of that field.
    That’s why most scientists use the IPCC reports when they learn about climate change.

    The main brake is political: most reports of the IPCC have been compatible with the urgent development of renewable energies for decades but the IPCC doesn’t make binding decisions. I like to work on the teaching of the scientific method and I hope that it will be one of the first things we teach in school. Then international scientific decisions will become more binding.

  9. I base my beliefs on evidence. I look at and analyze things for myself, and when I come across data which leads me one way or another, I don’t just look at the subset which reinforces my beliefs. When I see evidence of a strong enough nature I am willing to change my beliefs. This has put in the position of “former believer” in several “mainstream” theories and beliefs.

    This is a very unpopular stance to take, because most people can’t stand to have a belief challenged.

    I also don’t simply look at “accepted” or “consensus” as meaningful terms. “Accepted” theory held that the world was flat for centuries after the greeks proved it was round. “Consensus” confirmed that epicycles were how the planets and sun moved around the earth for centuries as well.

    I’ve studied the data. I don’t see man as the CAUSE of warming because we were ALREADY warming prior to the industrial revolution, and haven’t even returned to the temperatures that were normal 1000 years ago before the little ice age. He’s a factor to be sure, but not the ONLY one.

    But it doesn’t matter how many facts you can point to, because it flies in the face of the belief system of AGW that MAN AND MAN ALONE IS RESPONSIBLE. You can agree with 90% of the goals of the AGW movement, for elimination of pollution, ending fossil fuel dependancy, etc, but if you do not agree that man is the sole factor, it doesn’t matter, you are a superstitious idiot right wing fossil fuel loving in the pocket of big oil need to be burned at the stake heretic.

    It’s sad that so few people can get beyond the mindset of “us and them, and we are right and they are wrong and they need to be burned at the stake asap.” We need to move beyond the age of blind faith.

    • Ouroboros says:

      I’m not sure I understood what you were saying. So you think that global warming is real, and that it is only partially man-made? (How much are we talking here? ~90% man-made or ~40%?)

      What’s your position on the course we ought to take?

      My position is simple: I’m with the majority of the eggheads on the simple basis that they ought to know what they’re talking about. Even if the scientific consensus isn’t perfectly right and the predictions of their models vary a bit, they’re still the ones to place your trust in, because everyone else hasn’t even got the shadow of a clue in comparison.

      And I’m afraid to say that I suspect that may include you. “I’ve studied the data.” has the same ring to my ears as the ubiquitous “I’ve investigated this matter” you usually hear from conspiracy theorists. I can’t know whether or not your knowledge of statistics and data-analysis are up to the task of interpreting the data, but even if they are – I highly doubt your conclusions carry any weight whatsoever if compared to those of a reputable scientist who has actually spent a whole career investigating this matter.

      I don’t try to be condescending here, however I’m pretty aware of the lack of a certain kind of… how should I put it: “intellectual humility” when it comes to matters like global warming. I don’t buy that anyone who’s not primarily and daily concerned with the scientific study of climate change can somehow have an “educated opinion”. I think people desperately need to say “you know what, I don’t have an opinion on this because I’m not qualified to make such a judgement – but here are people who by all standards of rationality should be trusted over everyone else, so I’ll side their position”.

      I don’t buy that anyone can be considered informed about climate change just by spending a few afternoons reading up on it – even if this reading is non-biased (a standard rarely achieved) – what does such a person know in comparison with someone actually working in this field? The answer is nothing.

      • So, like most others, I can agree with 90% of all “needed steps” including ending pollution, cleaning up the environment, ending the use of fossil fuels, etc, but because I claim that after examining a few hundred different reports on all sides and have come to the conclusion that Man is not the ONLY FACTOR, I “haven’t got the shadow of a clue in comparison.” in your opinion.

        Thank you for proving the point about “You can agree with 90% of the goals of the AGW movement, for elimination of pollution, ending fossil fuel dependancy, etc, but if you do not agree that man is the sole factor, it doesn’t matter, you are a superstitious idiot right wing fossil fuel loving in the pocket of big oil need to be burned at the stake heretic.”

        • Ouroboros says:

          You have examined a few hundred different reports on climate change? If true, that is quite an impressive effort I must say – if you also have the statistical skills interpret the data for yourself your opinion could almost be worth something.

          But it is still one semi-qualified data-point in a sea of expert analysis and it should be treated that way. The point of my comment was that I’m sick and tired of people who pretend to know something about climate change when by all standards of rationality their opinion is worthless in comparison with that of an expert.

          I’m not ideologically invested in climate change or politics, so I don’t know how the man-made vs. natural factors of climate change measure up against each other. I absolutely don’t care in fact, because in any case I’d like to avoid the apparently catastrophic results of a runaway greenhouse effect. To which extent climate change is man-made is completely irrelevant, it only matters insofar as knowing more about the relationships empowers us to avoid it – which we should whether or not it is natural or man-made.

  10. Telarus, KSC says:

    Great article. Here’s a link to a selection from Prometheus Rising via RAW’s website for those who haven’t had a chance to read it:


    And a link to further RAW on the “Thinker thinks…” quote:

  11. You were here in Seattle on a book tour when I met you at the University Book Store (my Alma Dayjob) back in the 1990’s. I was over-awed to meet the editor of Mondo 2000. Anyway, your excellent article here, “Would Anything Change Your BS Belief System?” touches upon something that I encountered yesterday in my AI Mind programming — aspects of the “Belief System” in an artificial Mind. Recently I have been implementing the ability of the AI Mind to retroactively adjust its knowledge base (KB) upon receipt of terse “Yes” or “No” answers from human users. Each time an inquiry is answered in the negative by a human user, the AI records one node of negation on the diachronic concept-fiber of the verb in the idea, such as, “Robots do _not_ need food.” I was thinking, perhaps the “Belief System” of the robot AI Mind is the summary average of whether more positive nodes preponderate over negational nodes on the knowledge-base record of any given idea. Being in doubt within an AI “Belief System” might be a state of having an idea encumbered with a fifty-fifty split between positive asseverations of the idea, and negational denials of the idea. So thank you, R. U., for bringing up here this important idea of Belief Systems.

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