The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year. A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage. The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role. Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.
Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views. I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world. Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.
One article in particular far outpaced all other posts. My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined. Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list. The other six were published in 2010. Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.
Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is. This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year. I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct. This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three. My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year. And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.
It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest. And each was posted with great personal satisfaction. This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog. There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011. These other posts include:
One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention. I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written. As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.
Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development. Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic. Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.
One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live. The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.
This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth. It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings. It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.
The bottom line:
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples. Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:
“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.
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?
We all love a good story. Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out. It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature. It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world. This latter tendency troubles me. Why? Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.
This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world. Understanding this is paramount!
I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog. I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs. And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based. I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain. This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view. I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity. But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.
I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality. Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us. Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth. Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.
Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs. We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own. I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature. But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”
We as a species are better than that. We know how to over come these inclinations. We have the technology to do so. It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively. It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature). It necessitates the scientific method. It requires open peer review and repeated analyses. It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle. It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.
I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests. Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.
My positions are not based on ideology! They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.
Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference. My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking. This is a huge and critical difference. Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one. Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality. Enough is enough!
Isn’t it interesting how hard times help us bring into focus that which is really important? I believe that this is true in our day-to-day lives as well as in the mindset of a nation. True crises sharpen our vision and help us cut through the minutia that often takes precedence in our day to day lives. Or does it?
For so long, rampant consumption, the behavior that typifies the American way of life, has been the rule. The mantras of “the bigger the better” and “he who dies with the most shit wins” capture the mindset that drives this behavior. This is particularly true this time of year. Somehow, many of us turn the Holidays into a competitive event spurred on by Martha Stewart and Madison Avenue – with massive divestitures of capital, time, sleep, energy, and ultimately health.
As Americans we make up 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 25% of the world’s resources. Our economy is perilously balanced on this mentality of consumption. No longer can we afford this – economically or environmentally. China and India, whose populations greatly exceed that of the US, have expanding economies, and when their citizens’ develop consumptive appetites like our own, we are in serious trouble.
Sustainability, both personally and environmentally, demands that we cut back – we have to shed those deeply entrenched materialistic ways of old. This is not easy given that we have been programmed to value things over people, to seek happiness through acquisition, and to enhance our status through the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.
Perhaps this sustained economic crisis will help us all refocus on what is really important. I believe that ultimately we will be better off if we share the view that enough is riches. Having enough food, shelter, water, and clothing stands one in good position relative to the vast majority of people in the world. Conspicuous consumption to keep up with the Joneses is really a zero sums game. But such a minimalist mentality wont drive our current economic scenario out of the doldrums. This is the rub.
How do we move forward as a people and a nation in a sustainable manner? Our economic needs and our planet’s needs are at odds. The solution, I am certain, is complex – yet the need has never been more clear. I believe that we can make choices to cut back in strategic ways and at the same time take steps to engage in sustainable practices.
For example, we can take real steps to reduce our consumption of, and dependence on, hydrocarbons. And we can buy our food in ways that reduce the impact and power of large unsustainable factory farms. We also can spend our money in stores that provide a living wage and health care for their workers.
How do we do this?
First, get away from the mindset that consumption and material items will raise your status. Then consider driving less and walking or biking more. Look into renewable energy sources like solar or wind generation systems. Turn off the lights, computer, and TV when they are not in use. Turn down the heat or A/C and dress to compensate. Buy based on need not want. Buy your produce from a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm and grow your own vegetables (learn how to can or freeze fresh produce from these sources). Buy your meat from local farmers who graze their livestock in pastures where they consume what they have evolved to eat. Learn that convenience comes at a cost – and that those costs, in many ways, are hidden and delayed.
Cost is the second rub. All the things that I have suggested (with the exception of the conservation efforts) cost more. And they all demand more effort. It costs more to shop at Krogers, Wegmans, or Tops than at Walmart. It costs more to buy your food at a CSA farm stand or from a local sustainable farming practitioner. It takes time and effort to grow your own food. And although the tax benefits and governmental subsidies for wind and solar power are huge, one still has to lay out some money to install such a system.
Regardless, if we are more careful and mindful about how we spend our money, I believe we can take strides to reduce the fiscal impact of sustainable buying. At the same time we can grow the economy, by rewarding sustainable and responsible practices over unsustainable and unethical practices.
For my family the motivation to take these steps has come from gaining increased insight into the hidden costs of practice as usual. The ethical, economic, social, and environmental implications of business practices like those of Walmart and huge food conglomerates like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, ADM, AgriBank, Cargill, JBS, etc. are not well known or even all that accessible. If you desire more knowledge or inspiration perhaps a good place to start is with the movie Fresh. See the trailer below.