Wednesday 25 November 2020

Constellations, conspiracy, and coalescing.


Prime among the party slogans in Orwell's 1984 was the chilling IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Like all the best lies this slogan is build around a core of truth. Ignorance often conveys a false sense of competence and ability. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a more formal encapsulation of this truism. I can't count the number of times people have felt confident arguing with me on topics where my knowledge vastly outweighs theirs - technical topics on which over the course of my Ph.D and decades as a research scientist I have spent more than the 10,000 hours that pop culture says will make you an expert. And yet, on the basis of skimming a few new articles, or watching a youtube video, a still profound ignorance gives these folk the self-belief to consider their own arguments more compelling than mine - whereas someone who had spent months (but not decades) studying these topics would be far less quick to say their understanding was equal/superior to mine.

There's a name for the phenomenon because it's human nature. I have to battle the same instinct in areas where it's me that has the passing interest and the expertise lies on the other side of the conversation.

Moving on: We as a species have a talent for pattern recognition. We have it because it's a great survival tool and so evolution has embedded it in us as deeply as it will go. In fact we have an overdeveloped instinct for pattern recognition as it turns out to be more advantageous for our survival if we see patterns where there really are none and miss fewer patterns that actually are there. Our dial has been turned to 11. This is why we see faces in the bark of trees or the random swirl of wallpaper etc.

Constellations and conspiracy theory share roots. Do your own research - join the dots. Wow, there really is a great big bear in the sky. The gods must have positioned the stars themselves to draw it for us. What's the message behind that?

In truth, the universe is a chaotic place, humans do not have an instinct for understanding probability, and you can draw what you want to draw in the sky by joining the dots you select.

In antiquity ignorance made us think the stars lay spread upon some surface for our inspection. In truth, even these strained associations we manufacture for our constellations only hold together for our own narrow perspective. Like those alarming hole-in-the-road drawings, they fall apart when viewed from another angle.

Here's Orion. And then again seen from a different angle.

The world is chaotic and largely ungoverned. Ignorance allows us with confidence to join random dots until we've drawn a monster that we can blame for it.

Let me finish with a word about writing, since I'm a writer.

I'm often praised for the meticulous planning that must go into my books. People are amazed how the many disparate elements of a plot come together over the course of three books. Particularly in the Impossible Times trilogy they congratulate me for the intricate relationships between elements of the story that finally come to fruition at the end of the last book. Readers say the foresight astounds them.

The truth is that I'm a gardener, not an architect. I scattered ideas and events across the pages without consideration to any grand design. And when I have populated the heavens of my fictional world, when I have strewn the darkness with a sufficient number of stars ... I start to join the dots and see what I can draw. I think of this as a coalescing phase. A coming together. A time when structure starts to crystalize out of the solution, the brew into which I have dissolved so many raw ingredients. But it wasn't planned any more than the stars were planned so that you could see a great bear and I could see a saucepan. And yet the impression that such planning took place is compelling.

It's comforting to think that good thing happened because some good person secretly designed it to be so. It's comforting to think that when something you consider bad has happened that there is a person or people behind it and your cleverness has identified them. You can fight against these people. You can - potentially - make things right again. If it were just part of the random currents of the world - if it were just 'how things were' - how much more powerless would you feel? How much more scared?

In conclusion: I'm not trying to be holier than thou. I am not without prejudice. I am not objective. I am blinded to many things by my own ignorance. All I'm suggesting is that we all try to take off our tinfoil hats together and check out the view from another angle.

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Friday 13 November 2020