Over-Simulated

Staying human in a post-human world

How the stupidity of crowds helps kill a planet

How the stupidity of crowds helps kill a planet

Driving drunk. Sharing needles with strangers. 

Some behaviors are so obviously and destructively a mistake that even the most empathic, non-judgemental psychotherapist would have a hard time not thinking to her or himself, "gosh, that's a stupid thing to do."

So too with some political decisions; collective action does not carry "stupidity insurance."

Passing climate-change legislation, which the US Senate has recently failed to do, should have been a no-brainer. If our broken political system blocked a carbon-tax (even something as sensible as a carbon tax made revenue-neutral by tax swapping with something like reduced payroll taxes) then a market-based cap-and-trade system should have been a near unanimous choice. The science and economics are that clear.

Imagine what might have happened: conservative and progressive standing together and cheering; Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid joining hands surrounded by all the Senate grandchildren saying thank you. What a photo-op that would have been! America at it's best.

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Instead, we learned last week there won't be any climate-change legislation getting through the Senate. Instead, we are going to continue slow-cooking the planet while falling further behind other nations who are moving towards sustainable energy futures.

This is an American failure so astoundingly stupid that it rendered the usually loquacious and sustainably optimistic Thomas Friedman speechless; he interrupted his own column titled "We're going to be sorry" that had been bemoaning our inaction to say "I don’t have anything else to say."

With a collective national failure as large and consequential as this we need to ask what the hell happened.

"So it wasn’t the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it? The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice."

via Op-Ed Columnist - Who Cooked the Planet? - NYTimes.com.

True. Even forget the lunacy of climate-change deniers, perhaps the most pernicious example of greed and cowardice is the ridiculous conservative notion that global warming is good because it will lower GDP marginally less than will a conversion to a sustainable energy economy.

But there is more to the story. In addition to greed and cowardice, planetary post-mortems can also find blame in the psychology of how our increasingly networked world can makes us, well, stupid.

Networks magnify regardless of truth. Republican nay-sayers and their supporters are not all greedy cowards, many—perhaps most— are well-intentioned misguided victims. The unfortunate fact is that both the wisdom and the stupidity of crowds gets support from the content-apathy of networks: crap flows as freely as gold.

Every technology has unintended, and negative, consequences. Name a technology—internal combustion engines? nuclear power? genetic engineering? pharmacology?—and there are realized and potential downsides commensurate with the power to do good. No technology serves a free lunch. And magnified stupidity is a downside of a networked world.

For example, social network researchers like Christakis and Fowler have shown that networks are as good transmitting obesity, depression, and divorce as they are at distributing generosity, achievement, and empathy. Or consider last week's story about Shirley Sherrod and Fox "News" racism. Content—crap or gold—doesn't matter that much.

There are two main ways climate-crap has been made to flow through our information systems—including our connected brains. The first is to pump a ton of crap into the network, and the oil companies have been pumping lots of it into our information systems. They pump crap as well as the oil we so greedily drink.

"...look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades."

via Op-Ed Columnist Paul Krugman - Who Cooked the Planet? - NYTimes.com.

Have you read about so-called "global cooling?" Or been made to question the scientific integrity of climate-change scientists but then not been given equal access to the eventual reports clearing them of any substantive wrong doing other than bad email manners? If yes, then you too are a victim of big energy companies spamming our networks.

The second way climate-crap efficiently enters our information systems is by exploiting so-called "super-connected" network nodes. A feature of a robust network is having some nodes with vastly more connections than average. These "super-connectors" are able to distribute information quickly and widely. Can you say Ashton Kushner? Regardless of quality, if you get yourself connected to a super-connector then regardless of what you have to say your voice will be heard. For good or bad.

Consider the way conservative idealogues are able to exploit super-connected NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, someone already exposed as shamelessly trafficking in pseudo-science when it supports his conservative agenda. He again cherry-picks questionable data to conclude that the best course of action when it comes to global warming is to "wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through."

The fact he's spouting ideological nonsense will not diminish his super-connected influence. And nonsense is what he's spouting. The idea that doing what we've always been doing is the same as wisely doing nothing is just stupid. Similarly, the Amercian conservative solution he trumpets is basically a decision to enslave millions of third-world workers living in climates that no longer support life as we know it so we can continue to live in excessively air-conditioned desert homes next to lavishly irrigated golf courses. Way to go American conservatives, you've helped kill the planet that nurtured civilization.

Maybe it's time for an Iced Tea Party, or a Green Tea Party? We could have a very simple platform: no support for any candidate who doesn't enthusiastically support simple, unadorned climate-change legislation. It's past time we took back not just our country but our planet and our future from the stupidity of crowds.

Todd Essig, Ph.D., is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute with a clinical practice treating individuals and couples.

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