A profound irony

We credit human beings with the greatest magnitude and scope of cognitive abilities of any species on earth. Furthermore, to our intrinsic biological intelligence we have added numerous prosthetics and enhancements:

  • language
  • culture
  • science (scientific method)
  • numerous technologies for gathering, recording, testing, communicating, and processing information
  • neuroprosthetics

Rodin’s Thinker

But here is a staggeringly profound irony:

With all this enhanced and aggregated cognitive ability, we are still unable to collectively choose between two familiar but diametrically opposed descriptions of reality with much greater consensus than a public coin toss would produce.

Specifically, polls indicate that across a very large and relatively well-advantaged sample of our species, namely US citizens, biases are about evenly divided between a reactionaryauthoritarian (e.g. Republican Party) description of reality and a progressiveegalitarian (e.g. Democratic party) description of reality.

However, the typical political poll is not specifically designed to question the “true” (and often well-concealed) behavior of political party “machines”. At that level there may not be a hair’s breadth of difference between the two major parties. Instead, I think election-season polls tend to  reveal the belief systems, world-views, or cultural narratives that are preferred by responders if we sort them, according to best fit, into just two buckets. Party platforms and rhetoric can then serve as rough but ready proxies for two contrasting views or models of reality. Such a binary complement of proxies is a handy shortcut for getting at deep, underlying belief systems of the electorate.  Since opposing positions on issues such as trade, climate, taxes, education, gender, etc. can be framed or spun in the most innocuous terms by those on each side, conservatives can freely express their bias towards “job creators” and against “entitlements” at the same time that progressives can favor the “working poor” over the “1%” in reference to the very same groups of actual people. These disinhibiting euphemisms and epithets selectively employed by each side give them to inadvertently expose their implicit attitudes and cognitive biases with (they believe) little or no obvious stigma attached.

Now, as far as the approaching US election is concerned, voting for any presidential candidate other than Romney or Obama is practically equivalent to not casting a vote at all. Sure–many on the right dislike Romney and many on the left have problems with Obama’s record that may influence them to vote for “third party” candidates or to blow off voting altogether. I think either of those choices fails to properly compute the effect of the election on the prestige or reputation of the winning and loosing narratives or world-views, regardless of the anticipated and/or the actual post-election governing behavior of those who get elected.

The right and left have two very different public narratives about the world, despite how similarly the parties and the politicians may actually govern in office. The difference in the “spirit” of the two platforms and the associated rhetoric is really quite obvious and profound. The fact that politicians routinely get away with saying one thing and doing another doesn’t mean that narrative doesn’t count or that voting doesn’t have consequences. The fact that voting doesn’t matter as much as we wish it did doesn’t mean that voting is completely irrelevant. Non-voting and voting for unelectable candidates are inconsistent with enlightened self-interest because reinforcing the reputation of one’s preferred world-view has non-zero consequences.

On the other hand, if a third party platform or candidate represents some world view better than either major party, the marginal theoretical difference is pretty much lost right along with the election-day results. The value of  third parties is all in the campaign period (debates, etc.) prior to the election. The value of any “message” a third-party vote sends to a post-election public may be (arguably) slightly greater than zero, but seldom by much. No matter how perfect a third party may seem compared with a just plain “lesser evil” party, the bottom line in the voting booth is almost always the same: the perfect is the enemy (not the champion, savior, or super-hero) of the good. And IMHO that’s about as close to a self-evident axiom (supported by overwhelming empirical data) or pearl of wisdom as you can find anywhere.

Thus the smartest cohort of eligible US citizens will be overcoming the various barriers erected by incumbent powers and voting for one of the two major parties. How they vote will reflect their beliefs about reality. But as things stand, the electorate appears fairly evenly divided this year. So to sum up, in what is arguably an election for the most powerful public offices of Planet Earth, the collective intelligence of homo sapiens as of this great year of 2012 has evolved to an effective level of utility roughly equivalent to a coin toss.

Yet this is hardly the supreme irony of human intelligence. As we embark upon catastrophic anthropogenic climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction of living species (possibly to include our own), we may wish to reconsider our definitions of the word intelligence.

What a piece of work is man, How noble in Reason…” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1603)

Cheers,

Poor Richard

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One Response to “A profound irony”

  1. Reluctant Misanthrope | Poor Richard's Almanack 2.0 Says:

    […] A profound irony (What a piece of work is man) […]


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