So it turns out that studies have proven that when people feel powerless and stressed they tend to believe more in conspiracy theories and myths. When you think about it that makes sense – you feel powerless so you impose order and pattern on the World by attributing events to unseen forces. That in turn creates an illusion of some control. Think of the roaring trade in saints’ body parts when the Black Death swept through Europe. The corollary of that thinking is a mass tendency to allow belief to overcome rational analysis. And you couldn’t ask for a more stark demonstration of that in action than the Brexit vote with it’s explicit rejection of ‘expert’ opinions.
I don’t care about the Brexit vote (well I do, but it’s not what this is about) but it is an excellent indicator of a problem we’re facing in our modern society when harsh reality doesn’t match up with the warm, fuzzy simplicity of fairy-tale belief. And we’re seeing more and more of this. Mass shootings in the United States have nothing to do with guns. Global warming is not happening. Donald Trump is offering viable policy solutions. Stopping the boats is about saving lives. Our education problems can be solved with more tests and castigating teachers. Complex problems are devolved into comfortingly simplistic catch-phrases and rhetoric.
Until this week I was kidding myself that when push-comes-to-shove the grown-ups come out and sensible decisions gets made (at least outside the USA). It may take longer than we like, but we get to the right place. Brexit highlights for me that I too was allowing my heart to over-rule rational analysis: It is possible for a country to make shatteringly important decisions in willful ignorance. An increasingly disenfranchised and powerless part of society is willing to believe, and act upon, myths and conspiracies; and to explicitly reject the facts presented by scientists and other experts.
That we are all so willing to believe in simple solutions such as putting our faith in one good-looking politician, or believing that ‘it will all turn out all right’, or that it’s all the fault of ‘the migrants’, is just a sign of how powerless and frightened our complex modern World is making us.
We face a global threat in climate change. We face an uncertain economic climate. We face rising radicalism and terrorism. We face a myriad of lower-level, but still significant, local problems in an ever-more complex world. It is terrifying that in this climate that we’re not making informed decisions, that we’re not willing or able to confront complexity, that we’re not listening to the experts who’ve devoted years of their lives to actually understanding what’s going on.
Listening doesn’t mean blindly following. It does mean thinking about and testing positions against the facts. It means engaging with complexity even when that’s unpleasant. It does mean rejecting comforting, simplistic answers.
There’s really only one thing that changes all this: Education. It becomes ever more crucial that we educate people and provide tools for critical thinking. Education leads to empowerment and that leads to the rejection of myths, conspiracies, and simplistic answers.