Monday, November 14, 2005

How many fingers can you see?

Just recently some people in Russia celebrated the anniversary of the October 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power (according to one site, 200,000 people in all). Some of those people are still willing to walk out in public holding up placards of Stalin among whose many achievements were:

The Great Purge



So, when I hear about people who still support Bush I have to think about the amazing ability humans have to persist with utterly preposterous beliefs in the face of crushing counterevidence. As Bob Harris explains, managing to insert a cricket reference, the thing is all about “the sheer damn power of cognitive dissonance, the human mind's incredible inability to see anything other than what it expects.”

There is a famous experiment where people are shown playing cards and told to quickly say what colour and suit the cards are. The people say things like ‘ace of spades, black’. The trick, however, is that the cards they are shown have been doctored so that some non-standard are included. In fact, the card they had been shown was a black ace of hearts and, somehow, they added the missing leaf stem to make it a spade, with numerous other such possibilities of fitting what is shown to what is expected being possible. To a degree such post hoc modification of the information provided by the senses is a good idea. The senses, just as any other source of information, are error-prone and it is possible to avoid a lot of errors by carefully auditing what they tell us. However, it does open the avenue for us to make our preconceptions evidence-proof – the price being that the more our beliefs become disconnected from reality the more likely it is that we, or others, will suffer for it. This, of course, is the fundamental weakness of any dictatorship. As every dictatorship makes an enemy of the truth it becomes less and less capable of dealing with reality and, finally, collapses under the accumulated weight of the lies it needed to justify its existence.

Sooner or later, Bush’s supporters will become as relevant to the progress of this world as the tired old men who walked the Moscow streets on the 6th of November. Until that day comes, Bush’s lies will be a great threat to us all.


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