Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cognitive Cleansing

I've been reading The Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner, in which he does a masterful job deconstructing so many of the popular hysterias we've all been so used to hearing about in the media - drugs, crime, youth culture, etc..  Written in 1999, it has a somewhat dated feel, in that the cataloguing mainly covers the eighties and nineties.  Yet at the same time, this allows the modern reader a sophisticated perspective on current events; things have hardly changed. 

What's maybe the most interesting theme of the book, is Glassner's hypothesis that hysterias are fundamentally rooted in cognitive error.  Society is complex, sometimes uncomfortable and confusing, and very often brutal.  When faced with cognitive limitations in our understanding of why things are the way they are - so often painfully so - we have a habit of looking for real, understandable explanations to ease the sense of unease that arises from feeling as if we are at the mercy of things we don't understand.

So, for instance, the perennial fear of the aged, youth rebellion, attaches to whatever the latest youth craze is - no matter how limited in scope or consequence - and decries it as evidence that civilization is going to hell.  Of course, this has been the refrain for decades, even millennium. 

But other, very real fears, such as income inequality and the dangers of poverty and all that comes with it, find their focus not on larger, complicated political and economic questions about how to organize society, but rather in simplistic, iconic issues.  These issues gain salience as emblems for the larger, inchoate anxiety about things more nebulous such as government, corporations, scientists, politicians, or - so often unfortunately - minority groups.  Thus, relatively isolated dangers can come to take on over-sized import in the public imagination.  Frequently, the dangers aren't even real to begin with.  Based on flawed science or sloppy reporting, the actual truth is less important than the story that is being told in which the larger anxiety is given a seemingly real and substantive causation. 

A perfect example of this is Glassner's discussion of the hysteria surrounding breast implants.  Maybe the most profound example of sexist, decadent patriarchal values, cosmetic breast augmentation is a moral horror to many.  And so when reports that implants were causing pain, disease and even cancer in women, the story was perfect.  See, one might say, this despicable cultural phenomenon now has physical consequences.  As satisfying as the notion might have been, it wasn't true, study after study showed.

Of course, as we also witness again and again, facts have a hard time standing up to cognitive bias, when the story feels as though it is being threatened.  Even though whether or not breast implants are safe says nothing about the objectification of women and patriarchal values, once one has become sufficiently invested in the notion that they are bad because they are dangerous, it becomes difficult to persuade them otherwise.

Another fascinating chapter of the book deals with vaccines, the perennial go-to source of anxieties about "big government" and "big science".  Written before the Wakefield scandal, in which a deeply flawed study was published in reputable medical journal purporting to show a link between a frightening rise in autism and vaccines, Glassner recounts how vaccine fears in the early eighties about a completely different vaccine, and completely different diseases, caused a major stir even though in the end there was no evidence of any problem whatsoever, and children were in fact much better off getting their shots.

Confirmation bias is all over us.  It is unavoidable as as necessarily cognitively limited members of a complex society.  Yet Glassner's book implies some genuinely good advice.  Society is prone to hysteria.  Media accounts are often based on sloppy reporting.  Scientific studies take time, yet are ultimately our best chance at objectivity, as peer review and institutional reputation provide checks on bias. 

Yet as consumers of information, we must be vigilant.  If you have a position on something that someone might disagree with, try and examine it as if you were them.  It is enormously difficult to do so.   Can you examine your assumptions objectively?   What are the benefits of reaching your conclusion?  Is there a larger story you are trying to tell that the particular explanation satisfies?

Society is far from perfect.  Yet how much of its imperfection actually results from people who are wrong, who have accepted untruths, who are not thinking clearly, whose feelings about issues are misguided?  A good deal, no doubt.  In Glassner's book, while he certainly has a liberal bent, he spares no particular ideology.  He is genuinely after what is true.  If we imagine ourselves similarly, we would all do well to follow his lead.

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