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Irrational Apes

The writing of last week’s blog proved to be a satisfying experience in ticking a few more ideas off my list of unfinished business and moving towards a welcome point of closure.  For not dissimilar reasons, I have created a file on my computer called ‘Unused Material’, which I plan to work through in the next few weeks so that I can get to the Christmas break with a relatively clean slate – with the added benefit of being able to revisit ideas that I found interesting enough to write down in the first place.

It was a couple of years ago that I read ‘The Irrational Ape’ by David Robert Grimes.  It would probably be something that I might avoid nowadays, on the previously stated grounds that such books all tend to be much of a muchness.  That said, it is hard to disagree with many of the author’s conclusions, not least in the light of the ongoing failure of our species to think rationally about many of the challenges it is facing – from climate change to pandemic to war.

Grimes highlights a particular failure from the last century when he references the staggering loss of life during the Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1961, in which between 15 and 45 million people died.  He labels this a stark illustration of the failure of thought, a testament to what can happen when actions are pursued without reflection for what the consequences may be, as Mao Zedong and his contemporaries were taken in by the politician’s syllogism, ‘Something must be done; this is something; therefore, this must be done.’ 

However, simply taking action for its own sake is no guarantee that the action will be beneficial.  As the adage warns, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Poorly considered actions can lead to unintended, dreadful results.  The Chinese Communist Party’s overwhelming desire for modernisation had blinded them to the dangers and rendered them deaf to the concerns of the scientists who had urged caution, and the Great Famine is therefore a dreadful example of what can transpire when critical thought becomes afterthought.

Hans Rosling, author of ‘Factfulness’, a book I have recommended before, repeatedly found that, no matter our level of intelligence or education, we are resoundingly uninformed about the world.  We harbour impressions totally incompatible with the data, and these impressions are frequently far more pessimistic than the evidence implies.  In Rosling’s view, this is due to our tendency to rely on media accounts to form impressions, remarking that ‘forming your world-view by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot’.

The sheer volume of information we are subjected to makes it incredibly difficult to distinguish the genuine from the devious.  How we discern the two is not immediately obvious but, in an age of perpetual information bombardment, sifting the real from the illusory has never been more vital.  To do this, it is hard to disagree with Grimes when he says that we need, more than anything, to hone scepticism and analytical thinking.  These are the most powerful tools we have to uncover the truth of claims we are accosted with.  It does not matter whether these claims are scientific, political or otherwise, the same methods can sift the signal from the noise.  Scepticism is simply invaluable if we are not to be manipulated or misled.

The crux of the problem, he asserts, is that unwillingness to yield to facts condemns us to terrible paths.  Twisting reality to amplify one’s convictions only serves to kill off any possibility of rational discussion, leaving us more divided and less informed.  We cannot find pragmatic solutions to our problems if we refuse to be guided by the light of evidence.  Ideology, like faith, has a nasty habit of recasting inflexibility as a virtue, dismissing anything not perfectly aligned with the tenets of that ideology. 

Voltaire’s maxim that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ (well, that’s nearly what he wrote, which is somewhat ironic in a piece about facts) reflects the reality that there are often no ideal solutions and nor does sound reasoning always underpin ideological impasses.  An inability to compromise or adapt often leads to poor outcomes.  How, Grimes asks, can we confront existential challenges such as climate change if a still-substantial number of us deny its very existence while others undermine potential solutions?  He likens it to living in a burning building where many of the residents refuse to accept there is a fire while others exert a dogmatic veto on calling the fire brigade.

If we are to survive and thrive, he not unreasonably tells us, our opinions and beliefs must evolve with the facts.  We can discuss and disagree on what the optimal solutions to our problems might be and how to achieve them, but we cannot get to that point if we insist on ignoring reality and substituting our own delusions instead.  We are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  It would be bad enough if it were only issues of science and health where we are misled. 

It is hard to disagree with his analysis that even those of us with just a reasonable grasp of reality surely know that dubious claims also pollute political discourse.  Many of us dwell within the comfort of our echo chambers, seeking out sources that confirm rather than challenge our prejudices.  As we become more starkly polarised than ever, distinguishing fact from fiction is no easy undertaking.  It is enough to drive anyone to apathy and cynicism, but apathy is the enemy – under its spell, we are dangerously pliable.  Changing minds is vital, but hearts matter every bit as much.  We are not intellectual automatons, but emotional creatures who feel first and think later.  All the facts, argument and logic in the world are for nothing if we cannot connect on an emotional level.

For all the sophistication of our minds, Grimes says, we are but reflective animals.  We are the irrational apes of his book’s title, deeply wedded to questionable conclusions, prone to thoughtless reaction.  We have constructed tools of unimaginable destruction and placed them at the whim of volatile tempers.  He quotes the biologist E.O. Wilson, who suggested that humanity’s real problem is that ‘We have palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology.’

The challenges we face are truly daunting.  To meet them and endure, Grimes concludes, we need to think like scientists, reflecting before we react, guided by evidence over emotion, and always self-correcting.  Striving towards a better future for all of us requires bravery and compassion as much as intellect.  Although we might start from a low base, we are endowed with the ability to be so much more.  We must be unafraid to let go of poor ideas and embrace new ones.  We must be forgiving not only of the errors of others, but also of our own.  Ultimately, whether we prosper or perish comes down to whether we choose to learn from our mistakes or succumb to them.  I hope we will be able to this, but much of the available evidence suggests it will not be easy.

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