Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Illusion of Control

My father, for all intents and purposes, has always been a troubled sleeper.  When I was a very young girl, my circadian rhythm synched up with his oddball internal time-clock and I joined him in nightly wakefulness.  In an effort to cope with the tedious sameness of those early morning hours, my dad would habitually listen to talk radio - predominantly that of the AM variety.  Most often, he tuned-in to sports talk, although he appreciated other types of late-night shows, as well.

Among those programs we enjoyed in shared wakefulness was //deep breath// Art Bell's Coast to Coast AM, the mother of all conspiracy programs (originating in 1984 and still on the air today).  I recall being entertained by all sorts of wild assertions relating to remote viewing, alien abductions, metaphysics, and the like.  I accepted much of the material whole cloth, in a way that only a child could.  My best friend surely could relate some embarrassing stories from that time regarding my fanciful thought process surrounding remote viewing and the US government's "collusion" in connection with same*.

***

About a year ago, I developed something of a crush on a man with whom I had become acquainted.  He had the memory of an elephant, a maddeningly quick wit, and an enchanting love of the natural world.  We went through a brief, yet intense, getting-to-know-you phase where we heatedly discussed our respective positions regarding religion, politics, science and other "hot button" topics.  I remember friends giving us a wide berth when we became embattled because we were so fervently focused on our debates.  Oddly enough, with his views on the far right (read: libertarian) and mine on the far left (read: progressive), we often found common ground--with our respective polarities on the spectrum meeting full circle (rather than, as I see it falsely conceptualized, extending linearly into the furthest outreaches of the political nether).

Unfortunately, the prospect of anything more substantial fizzled (for me, at least) after my crush expressed his belief in Velikovsky's wacky contentions concerning the planet Venus' supposed involvement in the formation of our solar system as we know it.  Being a student of astrophysics, my interest was initially peaked (given that I had heard not a whisper of this theory over the course of my extensive home studies), but after some cursory research--which conclusively demonstrated that there was no scientific basis in the theory whatsoever--I determined that Velikovsky was nothing more than a misguided conspiracy theorist.

After my mini-investigation, I sent my crush a Scientific American article I'd happened upon explaining why people find these sorts of conspiracy theories so compelling.  I thought it might give him something to consider and that perhaps he would ultimately come around to my more scientifically-minded method of evaluating information.  Unfortunately, he completely refused to read the short article.  It was around that time that he stated to me something approximate to "I know the truth when I am confronted by it.  I feel it in my bones."  That sentiment clinched my poor opinion of his intellect and thus distanced me from him -- an otherwise perfectly attractive and kindhearted person.

You see, wary of my own susceptibility to this all-too-human manner of analysis, I'd previously resolved to battle all superstitious, emotional reasoning and other such manifestations of our "demon-haunted" society.  For example, as many of you know, I've had a certain propensity toward mysticism at points in my life.  Despite my academic and philosophical adherence to atheism and agnosticism, a younger me routinely made statements dangerously similar to what my crush had said about the nature of truth.  At this point, I'm not sure if the human perception of truthfulness is born out of energy, per se, or spirit (doubtful), or simply the very human ability to plug into the motivations of the people around us.  Regardless, I once believed that the intent to truth was readily discernible to an attentive observer.  Today, I recognize that some truths are not at all intuitive.

Frequently, truth is nearly as incredible as untruth.  Case in point, wave-particle duality.  Originally, light was conceived as particle-based (hence the name photon).  Then, Young's double slit experiment suggested that light was in fact wave-like in nature.  Scientists ultimately concluded that photons posses both wave and particle characteristics (and they still don't completely understand why).  Now, if even in the hardest of sciences (ie physics) truth is not readily discernible, how on earth could an unassisted, untrained person intuit the truth? The prospect strikes me as downright ludicrous.  Of course, there is a difference b/t understanding the truth of a physical phenomenon and evaluating truth involved in interpersonal relations.  Still, if there was some reliable and valid way to discern if a person was telling the truth, we wouldn't need courts or trials - the prosecutor could simply ask the defendant if he or she was being completely honest and then they could check their gut emotional response--if their "bones" didn't register truth, than the defendant would be found guilty.

***

Jennifer Whitson and her colleague Adam Galinsky, in their 2008 study entitled "Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception" (published in Science), defined "illusory pattern perception" as follows:
"the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli...(such as the tendency to perceive false correlations, see imaginary figures [ie: in ink-blot tests], form superstitious rituals, and embrace conspiracy beliefs, among others)."  The researchers thesis was that "when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually."  As Whitson explained the psychology, "Feelings of control are essential for our well-being -- we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control.  Lacking control is highly aversive, so we instinctively seek patterns to regain control -- even if those patterns are illusory." -Michael Shermer, Scientific American (Feb. 2010)
***

I later discovered that my crush was a fan of more troubling, modern conspiracy theorists including Alex Jones, who has been described as "your typical irascible, bombastic radio shock jock" who "replaces the ordinary vulgarities and titillations with preposterous conspiracy theories" - which I would say is a more than fair characterization.  As you can see, to the right of this post, I succinctly describe myself as being "open-minded" (among other attributes). I would like to think that the fans of Alex Jones are simply amused by him--that they are similar to the people who read horoscopes for entertainment value alone.  It may be that this interpretation is correct, but it seems that it is more likely that followers of conspiracy theorists and astrology are actually seeking control in an otherwise chaotic world.

As excerpted above, it seems that is healthy for individuals to seek control in this manner--in that it mitigates the damage that results from being helpless.  In that respect, I am hesitant to disabuse anyone of patently false notions that would otherwise help them to properly function.  Nevertheless, I also strongly feel that knowledge is power.  That knowledge is a more sustainable base of control than illusory pattern perception.  However, I am not so naive that I believe that knowledge is equally available to all.  There is a reason that it was forbidden to teach slaves to read.  Perhaps (now, I'm going to be the one reminiscent of a conspiracy theorist), those in power would rather that the masses be fed bullshit conspiracy theories (tea party, anyone?) than knowledge that would allow them to rise up against oppression and subjugation in a meaningful manner.

OM shanti.


*Interestingly enough, it turns out the the US government did spend some $20 million dollars researching psychic phenomena in the early 90's, including remote viewing, but the program was axed after it proved to be a complete failure in generating any usable intelligence