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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Three pounds of well organized Jello.


Our wondrous brains, actually the brains of any vertebrate, have evolved to pull information out of a chaotic background, detect patterns, and make decisions based on those patterns . The human brain processes information better than any other on the planet. Dolphins and squids are nice, and can do some fantastic things like communicating with chromatopores and detecting the electrical nerve signature of animals buried in the sand. Still we aren't getting any Shakespeare or Honda Civics out of those brains.

There is a real problem with the wonder of our unequaled ability to identify patterns. Minor defects in structure of our brains can cause major behavioral problems and altered capacity for reason. Those effects are tragic for individuals and their families, but don't generally have overarching social impacts. When our brains are ticking over at their most efficient is when we get in trouble. Signals pop out of the noise. Signals that aren't there. Like seeing figures in clouds, or Clintons murdering dozens of their associates. When we start with a conclusion we wish to reach, then try to find reasons to support that conclusion we are abusing our ability to identify patterns.

There is a group of educated Americans who, amplified with the internet's echo chamber, are convinced that any flag with gold fringe trim on three sides places the area in its vicinity in some sort of legal no man's land. I dare you. Google "Flag, admiralty, gold, fringe, law" and you will get 92,700 hits for sites each stranger and more paranoid than the last. That gold fringe is some powerful stuff.

How could this "fringe" urban legend get started? It obviously has its roots in the far right nativist movement, sometimes called the "militia" or "patriot" movement. Soaked in a conspiracy of the Others, these folks buy into a cultural phenomenon that forms the core of a social belief system. Factoids plucked out of here and there are knit together into a fabric of a legend. In the case of the gold fringe, we have combined the idea that military flags have gold fringe, and the military is part of The Conspiracy. Flags with fringe put the area under military control, and all the constitution is suspended. If you let this scenario stew for a few decades you get newly elected county commissioners going into courtrooms and tearing the flags off the walls. No mind that the courtroom is under the control of the presiding judge, and in many cases the flag is his personal property.

It doesn't take that long to cook up evidence that points to your pre determined conclusion. There are millions of people that think the attacks of 9/11 are some sort of conspiracy of, take your pick, the Jews, Bush, The Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, etc. Name your enemy, and you can find the proof that they did the crime.

These brain mistakes are errors of scenario design. Nobody was looking for a workable hypothesis. They just want to prove the Jews were poisoning the well. Yes the well is poisoned, but the livestock and outhouses nearby was doing the poisoning. Germ theory was hundreds of years away. The villagers figured out that the well was making them sick. Cholera and diphtheria? What are those?

It's a fantastic stroke of luck that our brains work as well as they do. Recent research shows we stitch our perception of reality out of tiny micro snippets of sensory input and memory. Persistence of vision is a well recognized effect that forms the technical basis of our modern entertainment industry. Watching a good street magician or sleight of hand artist should convince you that your bits of sensory input are easily manipulated. If we really were perceptive as we think we do, magic acts would never make a dime.

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