Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Epistemic Closure and Me

In his article, "Revenge of the Reality-Based Community", conservative Bruce Bartlett describes his fall from favour with America's Republican Party.  In it, he uses the term "epistemic closure".  In his context, he uses the term to describe a state of affairs where forms of cognitive dissonance can be comfortably ignored within a bubble of like-minded friends and Fox News.  Basically, he argues that conservatives have created a system where they can ignore not just contradictory viewpoints, but evidence, science and yea, reality itself.  This is not just an issue for Bruce Bartlett and conservatives.  It's everywhere. 

One of the things I try not to take for granted is the stunning rise, during the youth of my generation, of the internet.  As a shy high school student, I called the internet for the first time in a computer lab in my high school.  The computer went shhhhh boing eeeboing-boing.  It was all text-based.  Now the internet is an essential service.  It's the flagship invention of our Information Age.  As a writer I can research any topic without leaving my home.  As a consumer, I could watch movies on Netflix all day and never see them all.  And as a Man I can... do other stuff.

The Truth, as based on evidence and scientific findings, has never been more available.  Yet people seem more confused than ever.  For my lifetime has also seen the rise of something sinister: extremist politics.  Since that day in the early 90's when the school's computer went boing-boing, the world seems to have filled with evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, radical free-marketeers, paranoid left-wingers and conspiracy theorists.  These groups were around when I was a kid.  However, what makes them more powerful today is that they can pick up a keyboard and find hundreds of people to agree with them.  They can live their lives avoiding cognitive dissonance and differing viewpoints, digging themselves deeper in layer-upon-layer of justifications, gradually believing stranger and more incorrect things.  I know how easy it is to get caught in this world, because ten years ago I was One Of Them.

It all starts with not wanting to be wrong.  In 2001, the world's political landscape changed suddenly when The World Trade Center in New York was destroyed.  Sitting American President George W. Bush experienced a huge upswing in popularity.  I hated that.  His presidency was already infamous for its stupidity and dishonesty, so when he said that a cell of fanatic Muslims was responsible for the attacks, I doubted him.  I wondered if, because he benefited from the attacks, he might be responsible.  I turned to the internet to satisfy my doubt and found thousands of viewpoints that reinforced what I already wanted to believe: "I am not wrong in doubting".

This was my gateway into the world of epistemic closure that is far-left conspiracy theory.  Every conspiracy theory needs three things: an antagonist, followers who feel victimized, and a will to believe.  For small-c right-wingers, the antagonist is a vast organization that includes corrupt politicians, communists, media outlets and hordes of deluded thralls.  Small-c left-wingers blame different organizations.  Fanatic Christians and Muslims believe the Devil is at the centre of the conspiracy.  Others think it's freemasons, extra-terrestrial intelligences, or a race of reptile men.

I was in the small-c left wing camp.   I felt I was the victim of a group of shadowy rich men who continuously tread on my rights as a human, elect and bribe politicians, control dishonest media outlets and make a mockery of democracy.  As I write this, this theory doesn't sound so crazy.  That's how a conspiracy gets you: it starts somewhere real.  William Randolph Hearst was a rich man who influenced politics with money, owned yellow media outlets and drove America to war.  Rupert Murdoch, with his ownership of Fox News, is Hearst's modern counterpart.  The world is full of rich men who love to wield their power.  

I lived in this world for several years.  Every day I would log on to and check out the array of news sources which spanned mainstream outlets, to hazy sites like and, to sketchy publications like Pravda and the official media outlet of Saddam Hussein's government, to the lowest level of left-wing newsmaking: angry bloggers sitting in their basements making stuff up.  I was angry, too.  Who wouldn't be angry in a world where 9-11 was an inside-job by the American government?  Or Al-qaeda is an invention of Israel's Mossad?  Or hundreds of American soldiers die daily in Iraq and are not reported? 

I wanted this world to be true.  It wasn't just about being right or not being wrong.  Believing in a story like this added meaning to my life: I felt like I was doing something important in opposing the conspiracy.  And believing in the conspiracy made me feel smarter than everybody else. 

Then, suddenly, I stopped.  I was tired of being angry and powerless.  I was reading something claiming that yet another group was responsible for 9-11.  At this point, I had heard that 9-11 had been engineered by Al-qaeda, the CIA, the NSA, NORAD, the Bush White House, the Mossad, the Israeli Army, Cubans or the Rothschilds.  "So which group is it?!" I exclaimed.  And I had no answer.  For you see, I didn't know.  I wasn't there and I didn't see.  I would never really know, it was beyond my power to know, and it was not my responsibility to know.

That was step one of my recovery and it felt great.  My anger dropped away so suddenly that I sighed.  I stepped out of my house into the sunlight, breathed warm autumn air and felt great. 

Step two of my recovery was a little more difficult.  At this stage I looked at my past beliefs and realized that not only did I not know what happened, but my past claims were most likely wrong.  It hurt to admit.  In trying to add significance and importance to my life, I engaged in insignificant and unimportant activity.  In trying to be smarter than everybody else, I became ignorant.  In trying so hard to be right, I was wrong.  

Step three was a little easier.  I realized that there are people in the world who knew what happened.  These are people who are trained to know.  There are intelligence experts all over the world who agreed Al-qaeda is responsible.  There was also Al-qaeda itself, that claimed responsibility for orchestrating the attacks and training the pilots.  The simplest explanation was that these people were right. 

It's easy to fall into the trap of epistemic closure.  I feel embarrassed about the things I thought and said, but I have to remind myself how easy it is to believe incorrect information in the age of the internet.  It's even easier now.  On Facebook, an article with a crazy title goes viral quickly and people will share it without checking sources. 

Let's take a look at this shitty internet situation.  I just Googled the word "reptoid".  Here are the first ten results.

Result 1: Wikipedia.  Anybody can edit Wikipedia.  Because of this, it has a reputation for inaccuracy.  Unfortunately, it's the only search result that is critical of the idea that reptoids control the world.

Results 2, 3, 5 and 6: Conspiracy websites Reptoid Research Center, the Reptoid Wiki and the Alien Research Wiki.  These sites will tell you that a conspiracy of anthropomorphic, maneating reptiles are masquerading as humans and ruling the world.

Results 7 and 8: YouTube videos of reptoids Johnny Depp and Alex Jones supposedly shapeshifting.  (The Alex Jones shapeshifting video is especially silly: yet another example of conspiracy theorists claiming other conspiracy theorists are part of the conspiracy)

Results 4 and 9: results unrelated to the reptoid conspiracy.  A guy nicknamed reptoid has weird photos and a Swedish magazine is named "Reptoid". 

Result 10: Urban Dictionary.  Absolutely useless for anything.  It's uninformative, not funny and fuck fuck fuck I hate Urban Dictionary. 

Here is the point I'm trying to illustrate.  If somebody tells you that Queen Elizabeth II is a shapeshifting flesh-eating reptile, it's difficult to find proof on Google that she's not.  The only sane site on the first page is the perpetually-scorned Wikipedia.  To search further, you will have to wade through scores of unsourced frightmongering conspiracy sites, irrelevant links, broken links, advertisements, mirror sites and porn to find something useful.

It's the Information Age, people.  Why is it so hard to find sourced evidence that reptoids don't exist?  It should be front-row, centre.  Instead, Google has provided me with a series of results that will support an unhealthy belief-system, hedged by random crap.  The Information Age was supposed to disseminate knowledge.  Instead we have a multimedia minefield where banner ads decorate the desperate squeals of mentally-ill persons trying to be correct. 

There has to be a better way.  How about this, Google?  How about letting media outlets, universities and research companies register as "scientific" or "sourced", and if you search with a specific Google setting, these results will come up first?  If Google can SafeSearch porn, it can help the world filter its bullshit, ads and inane yammering.  

In honour of this occasion, I am going back over my posts on this blog and deleting one that was poorly-sourced and spreading misinformation.  I won't tell you which one, though.  It's still hard to admit that I've been wrong.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Book Review of "Sacred Origins of Profound Things" by Charles Panati

Charles Panati is a renaissance man.  He's published books on history, the supernatural, science, word origins, and my favourite: his tome about endings, which covers sundry topics ranging from death to disease to extinction.  This book, Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions, is about the divine. 

Though this book is about world religions, Panati's interest seems to be attracted by the Roman Catholic Church and Judaism.  By comparison, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and the Protestant and Orthodox Christians are given only passing mention.  Even so, the scope of this book is massive, covering how humans understood the gods, The God, Satan, the afterlife, religious garments and dogma for thousands of years. 

Panati's tone attempts to be impartial, but it's difficult.  Some of the rationalizations, bizarre interpretations, circular thinking, and blunders made by religions in the past are simply difficult for a modern reader to take seriously.  Also, Panati cannot resist a good digression and will often interrupt his narrative to tell a funny story.

I started reading this book in January of 2012.  Eleven months later, I'm finally finished.  At 500+ big pages, this book is a massive commitment.  It wasn't always an interesting journey, particularly the chapter about Catholic vestments, but I have returned much wiser.  I was unaware, for instance, of the amount of non-biblical story that generations of Catholic thinkers have heaped upon the Biblical Mary, mother of God.

The Bible says a teenager named Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph, though she did not "know him".  An angel named Michael appears and tells her she is/will be with God's child.  She then gives birth to Jesus.  Jesus is raised by his mother, amongst brothers and sisters, until he gets killed by Romans.  Mary sees him briefly after he returns to life, and then she vanishes from the pages of the Bible.  Let's assume that "not knowing" Joseph is a correct linguistic interpretation.  She is the Virgin Mary, after all, and it would be cruel to dissect her greatest miracle, carrying the Son of God without having sex

At some point in the early Christian church's history, it started to get more prudish than its Jewish fathers.  Then it got a little more prudish, then ridiculously prudish.  Sex, female anatomy, burst hymen, and birth became abhorrent to Christian thinkers.  They blamed femalekind for original sin, which bore as its wicked fruit, sex.  From this viewpoint, 2000 years-worth of story was interpreted or invented onto the Bible's original text.  Some of this tale is dogma, some of it merely widely believed by those in the know:

Mary's parents didn't enjoy having sex, so therefore Mary was born into the world without original sin.  Jesus didn't have a vaginal birth, rather, he was magically C-sectioned in a ray of light out of her womb, keeping her hymen intact.  Her maidenhead remained intact after Jesus' birth as well, as it turns out all those brothers and sisters were Joseph's from a previous marriage.  When she died, her body laid in the ground for a couple days without decomposing, because bacteria and graveworms don't eat virtuous people.  Then she crawled out of her tomb and ascended.  These days, she ventures out of heaven to tell children to build shrines and convert Russia to Catholicism.

That's interesting.  I did not know that.  If this sort of thing appeals to you, you'll love this book.  Without a doubt, many readers may experience cognitive dissonance, particularly Catholics who may be surprised at the things they are REQUIRED to believe.  As I mentioned before, the book is very long and has boring bits.  Luckily, it's written to easily choose which chapters to read, and you can put it down for long periods if you so wish.  Therefore I rate this book, speaking Infallibly of course:
4 self-inflicted stigmata out of 5

In other news, I put the finishing touches on my fourth screenplay, "The Rising".  Also, Rosie's Knife was finally published in the final issue of Dark Recesses Magazine.  Read it here:  It's been a good month!