How you and I are responsible for Flat Earthers, Anti-Vaxxers, and Fake News
There is a concept in biology known as Heterozygote Advantage. If you’re already familiar with this concept, feel free to skip to section II.
As one may know, sexually reproducing organisms inherit two copies of each gene: one from the mother, one from the father. Sometimes having two identical copies doesn’t mean much. Sometimes it means a lot. Having one recessive allele (gene variant) and one dominant allele usually means that the recessive one can be passed on along with the dominant one, but the dominant one is the one that is presented in the organism. For example, if a child inherits one blue-eyed allele and one brown-eyed allele, the dominant brown-eyed allele is the one that drives (so to speak) the phenotype (the way the organism biologically presents its genes) while the recessive blue-eyed allele rides shotgun, serving no function in the organisms per se but maintaining the possibility of being the one that is passed on to this organism’s offspring when it’s time to send one of the two genes into the next generation’s car, to continue the metaphor.
Say hypothetically that there’s a recessive gene that allows people to heal really quickly. If you inherit only one copy of this gene, since it’s recessive, the dominant “normal healing” gene is the one that is presented in the organism, and there’s no biological difference from someone not having the “quick healing” gene. If, however, an organism has two parents who have this recessive “quick healing” gene, and happens to inherit both copies, then this child would have the Quick Healing trait. This child could get in deadly car crashes and be more likely to survive, be shot on a battlefield and be able to heal before bleeding out, etc. Even if this child never got an adamantium skeleton and never gained the ability to eject and retract blades from his hands, this child would be more fit — more likely to survive into adulthood and pass on genes — than one who did not have this genetic combination (ceteris paribus). This would be, for most intents and purposes, a good genetic combination to have (leaving aside the fact that in many organisms in nature, quick healing attributes are correlated with higher propensity for cancer). We would say in this situation that this organism has a Homozygote Advantage. This means, there is an advantage to having both copies of a gene where there is not an advantage to having only one.
Then we have the opposite concept: a heterozygote advantage. As one may be able to infer from the above idea, a heterozygote advantage is one in which it’s more beneficial to have only one copy of an allele than two. The classic example of this is Sickle Cells: one copy of the gene that produces sickle-shaped blood cells makes red blood cells less susceptible to attack by the parasitic plasmodium that causes malaria, conferring an advantage in fitness. Having two copies of this same gene, however, makes too many blood cells two misshapen; the circulatory system struggles to deal with this complication, and Sickle Cell Anemia results, usually ending in premature death. This is a homozygote disadvantage, or a heterozygote advantage.
The term “meme” has in recent years taken on a very different meaning than that which it originally had. Professor Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 to refer to the cultural analogue of a gene. In the same way that “genes” were the discrete units of genetic information that were passed on and selected for and allowed a population to achieve continuity and evolve, likewise “memes” were the discrete units of ideas and cultures that were passed on and selected for and allowed sociocultural populations to achieve continuity and evolve.
In the past decade or two, this term was somewhat misappropriated (though somewhat accurately applied) from its original usage in cultural studies and information theory and used to describe elements of Internet Culture — image macros, witty comment chains on reddit, propensity for voting to name things “Harambe” or “Xy McXface”, or the trope of misdirecting people via links to 80s British Pop music videos. Perhaps because internet culture was create ex nihilo so recently, participants were eager to identify elements of commonality and give them the name “meme”, hence the prominence of this term in reference to internet culture viz. every other area of culture.
Nevertheless, the original definition of a meme — any transmittable element of culture — remains valid. How broadly or narrowly one should define memes in this sense is open to debate — people’s idea of the proper length of a Toga can be a meme as much as the concept of the Mandate of Heaven or the consensus about the right age for a boy to begin his manhood quest — these are all culturally specific ideas that are transmitted vertically (communicated between generations) and horizontally (communicated verbally, textually, etc. among contemporaneous members of a group), and are subject to inception, evolution, and oblivion.
I would like to focus on one particular meme: skepticism. I will define this simply as “the notion that propositions should be doubted”. This is a meme, an idea-gene, if you will, that not everyone has. In some cultures great efforts are made to minimize the prevalence of this meme, namely in rampant authoritarian or theocratic societies in which doubt of the Supreme Leader or The Party or The Faith are seen as ills to be purged; critical thinking is not prized or cultivated. When the skepticism gene is manifest in a skeptical culturotype (the ideological analog to phenotypes) they are pruned from the flock.
Thus, like any genes or memes, the meme of skepticism is not an unalloyed good. In environs and situations in which survival is precarious and military-esque deference to authority is necessary to stay alive, having a sudden increase in skepticism and doubt of the hierarchy could lead to the death of the society and the individuals that it comprises. But at other times, the meme of skepticism presents great advantages: being creative, willing to go one’s own way, follow one’s inclinations and not blindly stumble after the herd can yield enormous benefits when it comes to science, business, art, politics, or personal interactions. I would posit that there is a strong correlation between the prevalence of the skepticism meme and the level of creativity, dynamism, and liberty of a society.
But that does not mean that this correlation is purely linear. That does not mean that forever increasing the prevalence of the skepticism gene results in ever more creative, dynamic, and liberated societies; or perhaps it does, but that manifests in ways we don’t like. Because when the low-hanging, transparent falsehoods of life are stripped away, when the lies of the authorities are exposed, how does skepticism know where to stop? How does the skepticism know if it has penetrated the facades and is gnawing through the pillars of the firmament?
When we picture the embodiment of skepticism, we may picture someone like Galileo, or Descartes, or Martin Luther. In the minds of many, skepticism is associated with things that we generally prize in humans: with discovery, with challenging oppressive institutions, with exploration, with innovation, and perhaps with a scientific mindset. We normally wouldn’t associate it with people we despise, with people we think are delusional, with people we might think are in the grip of dogmatic and destructive ways of thinking. We don’t think of Flat Earthers, Anti-Vaxxers, Global Warming Deniers. We don’t think of 9/11 Truthers. We don’t think of Pizzagaters.
But these groups are in many ways extremely skeptical. In fact, they are far, far more skeptical than the rest of us. They’re homozygous skeptics. They’ve inherited a double-serving of the “skepticism” meme. And in the same way that inheriting a single copy of the sickle-cell gene produces positive outcomes whereas a double-inheritance is self-destructive, these groups have stumbled into black whole of skepticism that paralyzes them into uselessness. They doubt not only the facts, but the authorities that produce those facts, the institutions that those authorities serve, and even go so far as to doubt the foundational ideologies that give rise to those institutions and authorities. A natural reaction of most normal people is to say that people like Flat Earthers are crazy and deluded. But they are saying “using only empirical observation, the world looks flat. You and I have never gone into space, never built a GPS system, never had to calculate and experience parabolic trajectories that take into account the supposed curvature of the Earth. You are taking it on faith from books and authorities that the Earth is round, whereas there have been plenty of societies that just took it from faith and books and authorities that the earth was flat. How are you any better than that?”
Antivaxxers, dangerous though they are, are equally skeptical of authority and “established” truths. An Anti-vaxxer points to thalidomide, to the vacillating warnings on fat and cholesterol and sugar, to the financial links between pharmaceutical companies and regulators, an Antivaxxer points to Tuskegee and says “how can you trust that?”
Global Warming Deniers and 9/11 Truthers similarly point to the credibility of the authorities that interpret evidence at us. In an interview on the Ezra Klein Show, journalist danah boyd [sic] makes the argument that Pizzagaters were doing their own form of investigative journalism, truly feeling that they were seeing through secret codes and webs of lies and deceipt to expose a dark Washington DC underground. [source]
These groups of hyperskeptics are not un-explainable deviants, nor could they not have been predicted. Rather, we created them, you and I and our school systems and our cultural tropes. They are the natural predictable end state of western society: when we encourage everyone to think for themselves, question everything, and doubt authorities, why shouldn’t we doubt all the things we can’t directly observe? Why do we still have any trust in any authorities? Who are we to say “whoa, wait a minute, I didn’t mean question that!”? When the selective pressure of western society encourages the proliferation of the “skepticism” meme, how are we surprised when people begin to inherit it homozygously?
How does the skepticism know if it has penetrated the facades and is gnawing through the pillars of the firmament?
The above skepticism is corrosive in itself, and the game of undermining scientific and medical knowledge presents obvious dangers. But in recent years these tendencies have reached a fever pitch, and become tinged with cynicism. If skepticism is the notion that propositions should be doubted, then its cousin, cynicism, is the notion that motives should be doubted. Cynicism would tell us that people who promise great things, who ask for your trust and loyalty in order to change your life or the world for the better, are usually looking for a way to take advantage of your trust and use you for their own ends.
This brings us to the crux of this argument, and the fulcrum of Western society: what happens when this skepticism and cynicism is turned on our social and political institutions? What happens when homozygous skepticism is swapped out for cynicism, or occurs alongside it? The fact is that this process is happening now, throughout the West. From Trump to Brexit to Hungary and everywhere in between, the meme of “agenda-calling” is infiltrating social and political discourse. Anyone who wants anything has “an agenda”. The media has a liberal agenda. The EU has an agenda to subdue British power, or to erase Hungarian culture. Scientists have an agenda to destroy the oil industry and American jobs. And of course, their expressed motives — of providing information, of delivering on the promises of liberalism, of securing the peace and health of the world — are just facades to hide their secret abuse, pilfering, and power-grabbing.
Be skeptical of them. Doubt the institutions. Doubt the motives.
I do not wish to enter the argument of whether, or to what extent, Russia is actively interfering in Western politics, but I wish to submit that this ideology of cynicism and skepticism intertwined and directed at politicians has long been a core of Russian political psychology, and that it is the idea now infiltrating western political discourse. “I think what the Russian discourse is [is] that it’s, in fact, very difficult to cleave perfectly to [a set of morals],” Nikitin said. “And anyone that claims to the contrary can be unmasked as, in fact, being just as flawed as anyone else is” [source].
This strategy is commonly called “whataboutism”, but that term misses the mark. “Whataboutism” is, literally, a usage of “what about…” also known as the “tu quoque” (you as well) fallacy. When someone criticizes you, you can respond with an accusation that the other person). Rather, this tactic of agenda-calling, unmasking, and dragging of idols through the mud perhaps deserves terms like weaponized cynicism, weaponized skepticism, or weaponized postmodernism. The idea that all ideologies — democracy, liberalism, good governance, freedom of the press, etc — are merely lofty promises that abusive politicians make to empty your pockets when you’re not looking — is a defense mechanism used by autocrats to make their critics out to be doe-eyed naifs.
But to return to the Russia question, the fact is that it doesn’t really matter whether this is Russian meddling — because either way, we set ourselves up for it. We encouraged the skepticism. We filled the ideological meme pool with the skeptical meme. We must contend with the results. And we must find new pillars to hold up new firmaments.
There is a way out.
Skepticism in moderation is good. It is good to doubt, and wonder if commonly held beliefs are dogmatic indoctrinations. But we have to be sure that we are not doubting to the point of incapacitating ourselves and doing harm to our ability to productively function in the world. However, there is only one thing separating us from complete incapacitating solipsism (solipsism being the so-called “brain in the vat” argument, e.g. how can we trust anything beyond our own minds): trust in the authority of something. We trust in the authority of our senses to be able to make out words and text and deliver information into our minds. We trust in the authority of our minds to be able to make sense of information. It’s fine to doubt those authorities — brilliant philosophers throughout the ages have done just that. But it’s incapacitating. We can refuse to eat and drink and breath, because how do we really trust “the authorities” who tell us that these things nourish us? Maybe we should eat glass and inhale water, and they just don’t want us to!
It’s fine to doubt the authority of governments, of morals, of science. But in all of these cases, we have to ask ourselves, do these authorities do useful things? Does doubting them do useful things? In both cases, of course. But it’s a matter of extent. Some doubt of government ensures liberty — too much doubt of government produces chaos. Some doubt of morality allows evolving social norms; too much doubt produces harmful or egoistic behavior. Some doubt of scientific “truth” allows scientific progress and the questioning of old authorities like Aristotle, but too much doubt of science leads us to doubting anything beyond what our eyes can immediately see or what our ears can immediately hear.
We can doubt, but we ultimately accept alongside the doubt. And as we see that time and time again something works and produces useful results, we can alter the weights we put on that skepticism and belief, “proportioning our belief to the evidence”. Many brilliant thinkers throughout history have doubted the roundness of the earth, but alongside that doubt they created calculations and models just supposing that the earth was round. It was not dogmatic; it was just a supposition. And as the models and calculations proved themselves accurate, producing shipping routes, ballistic trajectories, or GPS systems, the doubt can be allowed to shrink until the acceptance is the main sentiment.
If you want to make the case for a flat earth, do it. Create models and equations and predictions based upon that supposition. Test their accuracy compared to the predictions based on a round earth assumption. See which is most useful to you, which makes your life better. Hold the two suppositions side by side and compare them.
An obvious criticism to this description is that there’s no need to resort to genetics and heterozygote advantages to explain this; this is a simple question of extremism. There’s a moderate, healthy amount of skepticism, and then there’s extreme, nigh-solipsistic skepticism. What we need to do is to encourage the healthy amount and discourage the extreme nigh-solipsistic kind.
But I’m not sure that quite captures the way this works. First of all, it seems hard to pinpoint that a person picked and chose their level of skepticism and thought “hm, I really like being an extremist”; rather, these seem to be a priori propensities to doubt everything or not. In that way, they perhaps operate more like genes than political ideologies, which are at least in part a collection of individual policy and candidate preferences.
Second, I’m not sure it’s one-dimensional; I think it’s possible that there are two slightly different domains of skepticism that someone can have individually, and only when they inherit the skepticism gene in both domains do they get these dysfunctional outcomes like flat-eartherism. Perhaps these domains are along the lines of “institutional skepticism” — skepticism of the authority of impersonal bodies; “societal skepticism” — skepticism of the veracity of lay common sense; or “empirical skepticism” — skepticism of the authority of senses to deliver veritable outcomes; “scientific skepticism” — skepticism of the truth-finding ability of scientific processes and community. I’m sure we can all think of people who have a few of these attributes, but do we know anyone who is skeptical in all of these domains?
Can we agree that these are, to a large extent, uncorrelated dimensions — one could be maximally skeptical of science while having no skepticism for societal lay common sense, or vice versa — ?
To that extent, I do think these operate as discrete attributes rather than a general “skeptical” spectrum.