I despise filling my gas tank. Yes, gasoline is expensive, but the pain I experience hits me harder than the cost hits my wallet. I struggle with the downstream political and environmental costs associated with my fossil fuel habit. Each gallon I pump will ultimately cost society much more than the $3.57 I pay at the pump. Knowing this has made it increasingly difficult for me to tolerate those suburbanites topping off their gas guzzling Hummers.
When I see a Hummer, or any super sized vehicle for that matter, I cannot help but think of the Peacock’s tail. The beautiful Peacock devotes incredible and precious resources to his ornate signaling display. Survival with such a dangerous, yet attractive, collection of feathers indicates to the Peahen that he must have good genetic stock. He who has the most attractive display wins the right to breed and submit his genes into the next generation. Its a win-win-lose proposition however, because the tail acts as much as a target for predators as it does as a sexual selection mechanism.
Proud as a Peacock By Mark Melnick
In my mind, a Hummer is analogous to the Peacock’s tail. I am certain that most Hummer owners don’t consciously use their vehicle to overtly attract mates. They would likely deny this, instead citing need, safety, or entitlement. Regardless, it is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption, and frivolous spending is sexy – isn’t it?
Conspicuous consumption as defined by Merriam-Webster is “lavish or wasteful spending thought to enhance social prestige.” Freedictionary.com defines it as “the acquisition and display of expensive items to attract attention to one’s wealth or to suggest that one is wealthy.” Obviously, driving a Hummer is not the only example of conspicuous consumption. There are a multitude of ways that people signal their success. We are neck deep in a society that has taken advantage of our inherent drive to signal our genetic prowess. And we do it, for the most part through material acquisition.
Who doesn’t enjoy a new car that garners people’s attention and admiration? Who doesn’t enjoy buying new shoes or a new outfit that draws compliments? Who isn’t flattered by gazes dripping with admiration from an attractive person or a nemesis? Most of us love new stuff and the attention, joy, and satisfaction it brings.
The key, I think, is to look at non-essential consumption for what it is. At a deep level, we have to be willing to acknowledge that perhaps our drive to buy new stuff is driven by this signaling instinct. This deep seated and fundamental drive is as basic as the Peacock’s pre-copulatory strut. Think about it! Much of what we do as we navigate our way through the day, links back to this signaling instinct. The clothes we wear, the way we style our hair, the jewelry we adorn ourselves with, the brands we buy, the size of our homes we enslave ourselves within, the gardens we grow, the magnitude of the lawn we mow, the cars we drive, the caliber of the neighborhood we live in, etc. etc., – they all signal the viability of one’s genetic material – or so we suppose. Such consumption signals your success, your capabilities, competence, and wealth. Your purchasing power serves as a proxy for your genetic rigor. Sure, some consumption is purely for the enjoyment of the experience or the item; but, I submit that this signaling drive plays a deeper role than we are willing to accept.
We could debate whether this is ingrained via nature or nurture – but it’s likely compelled by both. Regardless, it drives our ravenous appetite for novelty and as a result, our economy. This reality and society’s deified profit imperative result in a zero-sum-game of consumption, inequitable wealth distribution, and environmental degradation. We merrily cycle on through life engaging in materialistic social climbing – laughing it off as “Keeping up with the Jones.” All the while we push the true costs off onto the plate of future generations.
I have to look critically at my own contempt for this however, for I am not immune to this compulsion. We are primed and continuously programmed by society via modeling and marketing to achieve better living through consumption. As I write this, I tap away on my laptop in front of my aesthetically beautiful wood burning fireplace. I warm my feet by a fire and periodically gaze upward at a stone chimney that climbs upward to the 16 foot peak of my vaulted living room ceiling. I cannot help but taste a bitter bite of hypocrisy. I enjoy the comforts of my home that sits five miles from the nearest store and 35 miles from my place of employment. These vices constitute just some of my conspicuous consumptive behaviors. I quell my dissonance by paying $0.20 a kilowatt hour for electricity (including delivery charges) generated exclusively through renewable sources. I also borrow some comfort from the 24 photo-voltaic panels I have installed on my roof as well as by my drive to diminish my electricity bill to a credit in my favor. But, I can’t help but realize that the judgement and contempt I feel for those who strut about in their Hummers, is really on some level, contempt for my own consumption.
This has to be the starting point. Real economic and political changes must start at this level of personal awareness. Our personal dissonance when amplified by the awareness of how important our consumption is to those who accumulate wealth, will ultimately serve as the tipping point. Otherwise, we are unlikely to change our ways. Every dollar you spend makes you poorer and someone else richer. Choose carefully who you give your wealth to. And fight the urge to build your social value through consumption. Our legacy will be written by those whose world we are destroying.
The Peacock does not choose his display – but he does understand that it is the key to his future. Eventually he himself will pay a substantial price for his outrageous display. Regardless, the offspring of his species will reap the benefits of his genetic fitness. On the other hand, the human practitioner of conspicuous consumption pays only the current market price for his excesses. Rarely will he ever pay the true ultimate costs. His children will! This is the incredible irony here. Who is the intelligent one?
Peacock Image: Proud as a Peacock by Mark Melnik available at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/proud-as-a-peacock-mark-melnick.html
Science has a PR problem. Perhaps it is because science is responsible for some technological developments that have outpaced our moral capacity. Or perhaps it is because the knowledge bestowed upon us through the scientific process increasingly pushes God out of the gaps. But some are irritated by “scientists” who arrogantly assert absolute truths about the universe when in actuality, underneath their assertions, there are only probabilities with error bars.
I believe that one of the most fundamental problems with science is that we cannot see it. The vastness of time and space and the minuteness of science’s edge, right now, defy the senses. We do not have the capacity to imagine the scope and breadth of time involved in the formation of the universe or even the time scale of the evolution of complex life. It is beyond our capacity to imagine how incredibly insignificant our place is in the cosmos. Likewise, the realities of life at the cellular level and the complexity of interactions at the subatomic level, escape logic and defy the rules by which we live our lives.
Science is a juggernaut of increasingly and unapproachable complexity. No longer are great discoveries made with home-made telescopes or in monastery greenhouses. Science has become so specialized and at its focus, so minute, or so vast, that it is beyond the human experience. The technical and mathematical skills required, and the sophistication of the instruments employed, all take us deeper and deeper, and further and further beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.
These realities literally bring science to the level of science fiction. I once read a bumper sticker that said “I don’t have enough faith to believe in science.” Although that sticker was posted by a Christian troubled about science’s role in the diminishment of God, it strikes me, that it may, on another level, represent the level of detachment science has accomplished through its very own progress. If one does not truly understand the scientific process and the absolute intellectual scrutiny of the process itself, it is easy to assume that faith is necessary to believe in science. To the average person, buying what science tells us does require a leap of faith.
Yet, there is a fundamental difference between science and faith. I once heard Donald Johanson talk about Lucy, his famous find. In 1973 Johanson found a fossil that dramatically changed the way we conceptualized hominid evolution. Lucy was a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil that provided evidence that hominids walked upright before the brain got bigger. It had been believed up until then, that in hominids, a bigger brain evolved first, giving our ancestral kin the smarts needed to survive a ground based and bipedal existence. The paradigm shifted based on this new evidence. Such is the way of science. In his talk, Dr. Johanson clearly and simply differentiated science and faith. What he said was:
Science is evidence without certainty while Faith is certainty without evidence
I guess it boils down to what degree one values evidence.
A related issue pertains to the fact that sometimes the results of science are portrayed with too much certainty. And sometimes writers overreach with their interpretation of findings. This is a legitimate concern. The greater scrutiny I give science, the more I see that this problem generally emanates from science writers (journalists) rather than from the scientific community. Humility and the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s findings (i.e., error bars), are the hallmarks of good science. This becomes increasingly important as we investigate deeply remote phenomena, be it the quantum realm, the formation of the universe, or even the geological evolution of our planet. Science attempts to form a clear picture when only intermittent pixels are accessible.
A wonderful example of such humility is evidenced in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Some people use his own skeptical analysis as a refutation of his own theory. Reading the book negates such an argument. Every paper published in a reputable peer reviewed journal includes a Discussion section where the authors detail the potential flaws and confounds, as well as suggested areas of improvement for future research. If one accesses the actual science itself, this humility is evident. But in the media, over reaching is commonplace, and it warrants reasonable suspicion.
There are however, areas of science where the evidence is so broad and so complete that certainty is absolutely asserted. Evolution by means of natural selection is one of those areas. Yet evolution and the dating of the planet for example run into controversy as they intersect with the beliefs of those who sustain a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is where two world-views diverge, or more aptly, collide.
Long ago, when we lacked an understanding of geology, meteorology, the germ theory of disease, and neurology, people tried to make sense of random events like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, plagues, seizures, depression, mania, and dementia. We did this because we struggled to make sense of substantial, catastrophic, and seemingly random events. When such events occur, it is our nature to seek out patterns that help us make sense of it all. Vengeful deities were historically the agents of such destructive forces. Just as we are universally driven to explain our origins, as evidenced by a plethora of diverse creation stories, we are compelled to make sense of our destruction. As we have come to develop a better understanding of the world around us, little by little, God as a creative and destructive force has been displaced.
This increased material understanding of our world poses a serious threat to literal religion. Although, for most scientists, the target is not the destruction of God. On the contrary, knowledge is the goal. Unfortunately, because of this looming and powerful threat, science and knowledge have become targets for some religious people. The problem with science is that it threatens deeply held ideological belief systems that, at their core, value faith over evidence.
It comes back to that Evidence question again. As humans we are more compelled by stories that provide comfort and give significance to our existence, than by the data that asserts and demands humility. This is not a problem with science, it is a problem with the human brain.
I’ve been exploring the subtleties of human cognition for nearly two years now. The most amazing and persistent lesson I’ve learned is that our ability to understand the world is limited by the way our brains work. All of us are constrained by fundamentally flawed cognitive processes, and the advanced studies of human cognition, perception, and neuro-anatomy all reveal this to be true. Although this lesson feels incredibly fresh to me, it is not new news to mankind. Long ago, serious thinkers understood this to be true without the aid of sensitive measurement devices (e.g., fMRI) or statistical analysis.
It pains me a bit to have been scooped by Sir Francis Bacon, who knew this well in the early 17th Century. After all, It took me two years of intensive, self-driven investigation, 18 years after getting a PhD in psychology, to come to grips with this. I have to ask “Why isn’t this common knowledge?“ and “Why wasn’t this central to my training as a psychologist?”
Bacon, an English lawyer, statesman, and thinker, who devoted his intellect to advancing the human condition, astutely identified the innate fallibility of the human brain in his book entitled New Organon published in 1620. He referred to these cognitive flaws as The Four Idols. The word idol he derived from the Greek word eidolon which when translated to English means a phantom or an apparition, that he argued, blunts or blurs logic and stands in the way of truly understanding external reality. What we know today, adds greater understanding of the mechanisms of these errors, but they stand intact.
The terms Bacon used to describe these flaws probably made more sense in his day, but they are opaque today. My preference is to use a more current vernacular to explain his thoughts and then back-fill with Bacon’s descriptors. My intention is not to provide an abstract of his thesis, but rather to drive home the notion that long ago the brain’s flaws had been identified and acknowledged as perhaps the biggest barrier to the forward progress of mankind. Much has changed since Bacon’s day, but these idols remain as true and steadfast today as they were 400 years ago. It is important to note that Bacon’s thesis was foundational in the development of the scientific process that has ultimately reshaped the human experience.
I have previously written about some of the flaws that Bacon himself detailed long ago. Bacon’s first idol can be summed up as the universal transcendent human tendencies toward Pareidolia, Confirmation Bias, and Spinoza’s Conjecture. In other words, humans instinctively: (a) make patterns out of chaos; (b) accept things as being true because they fit within their preconceived notions of the world; (c) reject things that don’t fit within their current understanding; and (d) tend to avoid the effort to skeptically scrutinize any and all information. These tendencies, Bacon described as the Idols of the Tribe. To him the tribe was us as a species. He noted that these tendencies are in fact, universal.
The second set of attributes seem more tribal to me because although the first set is universal, the second set vary by what we today more commonly refer to as tribes. Cultural biases and ideological tendencies shared within subsets of people make up this second idol – the Idols of the Cave. People with shared experiences tend to have specific perspectives and blind spots. Those within such tribal moral communities share these similarities and differentiate their worldviews from outsiders. People within these subgroups tend to close their minds off to openness and diverse input. As such, most people innately remain loyal to the sentiments and teachings of the in-group and resist questioning tradition. Cohabitants within their respective “caves” are more cohesive as a result – but more likely to be in conflict with out-groups.
The third idol is more a matter of faulty, misguided, or sloppy semantics. Examples of this include the overuse of, or misapplication of, vague terms or jargon. Even the perpetual “spin” we now hear is an example of this. In such situations, language is misused (i.e., quotes used out of context) or talking points told and retold as a means to drive a specific ideological agenda regardless of whether there is any overlap with the facts. It is important to note that this does not necessarily have to be an act of malice, it can be unintentional. Because language can be vague and specific words, depending on context, can have vastly different meanings, we are inherently vulnerable to the vagaries of language itself. These are the Idols of the Market Place where people consort, engage in discourse, and learn the news of the day. Today we would probably refer to this as the Idols of the 24 Hour News Channel or the Idols of the Blogosphere.
The final idol reflects the destructive power of ideology. At the core of ideology are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters. Deeper still, at the root of erroneous human inclinations, is this tendency that makes us vulnerable to the draw of ideologies that sustain beliefs without good reason. Such is the Idol of the Theater, where theologians, politicians, and philosophers play out their agendas to their vulnerable and inherently gullible disciples. Beliefs ultimately filter what we accept as true and false. This is how the brain works. This proclivity is so automatic and so intrinsic that in order to overcome it, we have to overtly fight it. What is most troubling is that most people don’t even know that this is occurring within them. It is this intuitive, gut-level thinking that acts as a filter and kicks out, or ignores incongruity. And our beliefs become so core to us, that when they are challenged, it is as if we ourselves have been threatened.
It takes knowledge of these idols and subsequently overt efforts, to overcome them, so that we don’t become ignorant victims of our own neurology: or worse, victims of the cynical and malicious people who do understand these things to be true. We are inherently vulnerable – be aware – be wary – and strive to strike down your brain’s false idols.