Earth endangered by sneering elitists?

Earth endangered by sneering elitists?
Posted on May 16, 2015 | James Mihaychuk | Written on May 16, 2015
Letter type:



Author's Note:

Author's Note:

My letter to Unpublished Ottawa was prompted in part by a recent Andy Borowitz satirical piece "Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-resistant Humans" for his Borowitz Report contribution to the New Yorker magazine. My response is a call for inclusion in the place of name-calling and ideological tribalism when trying to address important ecological and social problems.

I know that this is the Borowitz's style of satire coming through, but it is pointless to talk down to the "unconverted" humans on our planet, even in jest. I see a variation of this "cartoon" at least once a week. Although humorous, the kind of piece trivializes the obstacles to scientific education and social change. Elitist chuckling at the unwashed masses is counter-productive and it definitely is not new. Social media overflows with dummy-shaming these days.

Too much of the content of our opinion pages and social media continues to degenerate into judgmental carping from all sides. Much of it emanates from the so-called well-educated, progressive folks. I am honest enough to admit that many of my posts to social media do not bear the hallmark of a highly evolved, planet-sustaining version of the human species. We all get a bit too eager to be clever and provocative.

Instead of pointing fingers at the moral or intellectual failings of the "dummies", shouldn't we be bringing ordinary people together to face our shared challenges? That has never been easy. Instead of whining about the trolls and weasels of the world (again!), why not celebrate and promote all of the great knowledge and the good will that is out there?

We also benefit when we take the time to show empathy with people and meet them where they live. People can change, but it takes time, good information, influencers, role models, and some sustained support. Without giving in to misrepresentation of the facts, a good way to model the desire to learn and grow is to consciously show flexibility and openness regarding our own knowledge and opinions about contentious topics.

There are scientific reasons for the many limitations of the human mind that are now well understood. Yes, each of us has different abilities, but we generally speaking carry the same equipment inside our skulls. None of us is immune to conspicuous acts of stupidity. Check your egos at the door, folks!

In fact, I stand before the court of public opinion as living proof. I earned a Ph.D. in Physics from Canada's most boastful university (the University of Toronto) and I do all kinds of dumb things. Every day, I am amused, but hardly surprised by my ineptitude.

This is particularly obvious in the mental fog that persists until sometime after my morning coffee. Trust me, my inner mastermind, if he exists, is not in the house most mornings. It's sometimes a good time of day for creative musings, but any analytical reasoning kicks in well after breakfast.

Most of us acknowledge the physiological origin of occasional mental lapses that come with fatigue, over-work, age, and certain medications. However, few of us stop to consider the science of what our "noodle" can and cannot do.

Let me say again that each of us has a unique brain, but we all share the same basic brain structure. Part of that structure dates from earlier in our evolutionary history. It has the effect that "normal" humans routinely run a short circuit on most information. The physiology of my short-circuit brain is what keeps me from falling down the stairs and connects me with easily available food.

This short circuit also provides some unhelpful reward responses in the human brain that are the root cause of confirmation bias. Reinforced biases can produce stubborn denials even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. These effects are not anomalies, and they don't necessarily mean a person is "dumb". They are part of the biology of the brain. None of us is immune.

Advertisers and opinion makers count on exploiting these shortcomings, using constant repetition to build brands amid a cacophony of different messages. Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook throw additional fuel on the fire of our reactionary "monkey mind". When we "Follow" those that largely share our opinions, we get a shot of reward response. If we don't venture outside our comfort zone, we can find ourselves living in an online silo of groupthink where everyone in our digital tribe already agrees with us.

It is all too easy to fall into elitist finger pointing at the moral or intellectual failings of the "dummies". That shaming behaviour is also fuelled by a physiological reward response in our brain. The finger pointer gets an ego boost based on a his or her perception of higher intellectual standing in some sort of status hierarchy.

We don't need to cultivate a keen intellect or emotional intelligence to put down stubborn and/or misinformed people. The short circuit in our brain does just fine for put-downs on the net. I am as guilty of it as anyone.

I have seen a comment or two online saying that the tongue-in-cheek call to let the infestation of dummies perish has a very dark ring to it. Take a small mental step away from satire or sci-fi, and none of this is to be taken lightly. Eugenics has been one of humanity's most devastating tools to rationalize a host of atrocities including genocide. Clearly Borowitz intends nothing of that sort - his tone here is tongue-in-cheek.

Of course, truly incorrigible people who deny the facts will always be exasperating and even dangerous. However, constantly railing against the trolls means that we miss out on opportunities to work constructively with ordinary people.

Everyday we come up against the physiological limitations of the brain as it is subjected to manipulation by often cynical message makers. At the same time, I read a lot of great funny, informative and inspirational stuff on social media that is truly uplifting. Let's keep building on that sense of community and positivity instead of reflexively dumping on the "dummies".

Our challenges envelop the whole planet and involve complex, entrenched vested interests, industries, laws, and many different ways of life. Simply reinforcing a comfort zone within our particular ideological or intellectual tribe won't lead to solutions. We can't address planet-wide challenges like abrupt climate change from our conveniently snobby silos . Every person on the planet is implicated and everyone has a role to play.

To meet the challenges facing humanity, we need to leverage our diversity to build lasting progress. That means accepting the realities and richness of all the diverse intelligences, beliefs, and perceptions of "the facts" that humanity has to offer. We need to get creative and find ways to actually get people to engage and begin to truly listen to each other.

Turning away from ego and the need to be right towards openness and non-judgment will not get you a talk show where you can preach to the choir and ridicule the "dummies" every night. But I am sure that humility will garner more respect and provide more influence with real people, where it matters.

We can all still laugh at junk on Facebook, but shouldn't we go easy on the rants?

About The Author

mihaychuk's picture

I am interested in sustainability, civic engagement and democratic renewal. You might find me walking or biking on local trails.
I'm a high-tech veteran and have lived in Ottawa since 2000. Before my work in... More