In a recent show Bill Maher hit the nail on the head. While railing about how difficult it’s become for the man on the street to separate facts from beliefs, he brought up his favorite global impasse again: climate change. Despite scientific evidence that stacks higher than the Egyptian pyramids, Maher lamented that there are still Americans walking around who “don’t think the sun is hot.”
But why do Maher and his panelists look perplexed?
This pattern of behavior has haunted human societies since Paleolithic times. When the complexity of the problems humans must solve exceeds the capability of our brains, we turn to beliefs. Think of it this way. We only have two options: proven facts or unproven beliefs. Pretty obvious, yes? Then again, maybe that’s not so obvious after all. For example, while scientists call unproven beliefs “hypotheses,” the man on the street refers to beliefs as assumptions, creative thinking, and faith. These are all the same. Let’s face it, we have all kinds of beliefs. When our children leave for school in the morning we believe they will come home. When terrorists fly planes into skyscrapers we believe they are lunatics. When we deposit our money in the bank, we believe it will be there when we want to take it out. And when neighbors claim they don’t think the sun is hot, we believe they’re uneducated buffoons who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a voting booth.
Suddenly we’re overrun by fear-mongers from every side who rush to craft plausible stories instead of dig into the facts for answers.
In program after program, Maher asks why facts are becoming marginalized. The answer is right under his nose. When Darwin discovered the slow pace of evolutionary change (millions of years), he also explained what happens to us when the complexity of our problems exceeds the capabilities our brains have evolved to this point. It’s simple: when facts become incomprehensible, we switch to beliefs. In other words, all societies eventually become irrational when confronted with problems that are too complex, too large, too messy to solve.
Is climate change real? Are vaccines harmful to children? Is the recession over? Is America safer from terrorists? Are eggs safe to eat? Suddenly we’re overrun by fear-mongers from every side who rush to craft plausible stories instead of dig into the facts for answers. But hey, this isn’t anything new. (Think tea partiers, move-on.org, Bernie Madoff and Dick Cheney). These same phenomena happened to the Mayans and Romans, the Khmer, Egyptians and the Ming Dynasty —and every other great and not-so-great civilization—and we all know how they turned out.
But I’m not saying we’re all doomed. Thankfully, we have two weapons earlier civilizations didn’t have: models for high failure rates and neuroscience. Take the venture capital model for example. No matter how much due diligence venture capitalists perform, they can’t pick a winner from a loser more than 20 percent of the time. But the enormous success of those winners overshadows the failures, so venture capitalists are successful in spite of themselves. The same model applies to our toughest global problems; when there are many more wrong solutions than right ones (the definition of complexity), we have no alternative but to go after everything we believe will work. We have to accept the fact that the vast majority of our tactics will produce little or no result (as an example, take the concrete box that failed to plug the oil drill hole in the Gulf). But no matter. The few that succeed will stop a catastrophic problem dead in its tracks.
Secondly, we can turn to neuroscience. Until recently we haven’t been able to look under the skull and see what the brain does when a problem is highly complex. The good news? The brain has a secret weapon against complexity, a process neuroscientists are now calling “insight.” We are learning more everyday about insight’s ability to catch the brain up to complexity—the real antidote to reverting to beliefs as a default.
Is the sun really hot? Are our brains falling behind?
Call me Bill. We’ve got some New Tools to go with the New Rules.
Rebecca Costa is a sociobiologist and evocative speaker whose unique expertise is to spot and explain emerging trends in relationship to human evolution, global markets, and new technologies. She lives on the central coast of California. Please see www.rebeccacosta.com.