More Yellowstone animals, the Webb telescope, Jeremy Lent, and comprehending the Big Lie
by Rob Tiller
For Valentine’s Day, I’m sharing a few more of the pictures I took last month at Yellowstone National Park. As I worked my way through the mass of images, I found that a lot of the ones I liked showed animals in pairs, families, and herds, finding food and friendship and otherwise getting through the harsh winter.
With a new covid variant still at large, many species endangered, democracy in peril, and so many other huge problems, it’s a big challenge to stay optimistic and hopeful. So I’m giving special emphasis in my daily reading to good news, when I can find it.
Ordinary journalism privileges disasters and conflict over successes and collaboration. This has come to seem natural in our works of history and literature. Drama is fundamentally conceived of as conflict.
We’re deeply habituated to assuming the worst, and viewing the world through a dark lens. To some extent, we’re addicted to alarming stories that get us agitated. This may well be bad for our health, and it also limits our imaginations. But we don’t have ready terminology for an alternative approach.
Anyhow, I’ve been enjoying the unfolding non-drama of NASA’s James Webb telescope, which launched on December 25, 2021, and now is fully deployed and in orbit around the sun about a million miles from us. The 18 mirrors are currently being calibrated, but so far, amazingly, everything seems to be working as designed.
The Webb project took 25 years to design and build. Its basic mission is at first glance obscure – improving our understanding of the state of the universe billions of years before the earth came into existence. But it shows one of the truly charming, quirky aspects of human nature – irrepressible curiosity. Despite the old neo-liberal assumption that big endeavors can only be justified in dollars and cents, the Webb can’t be explained in terms of a profit motive. Cutting edge science like astrophysics is at base about this kind of curiosity: the inherent satisfaction of just understanding things better. The Webb website, which has a lot of good news so far, is here.
Speaking of webs and understanding more about the universe, I finished reading Jeremy Lent’s recent book, the Web of Meaning. It’s an ambitious work that proposes to integrate recent science with earlier thought systems. I was drawn to it for its helpful introduction of Taoist, Buddhist, and neo-Confucian ideas, as well as systems drawn from pre-colonial indigenous cultures.
Lent makes a useful distinction between reductionist science, which purports to be comprehensive but isn’t, and more open scientific processes. He calls out the long history of dualist thinking in science, but points up affinities between ancient non-Western systems of thinking and modern scientific discoveries.
In Lent’s view, one of the keys to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the universe is the interconnectedness of everything. He recognizes the extreme peril facing our planet and everything in and on it, but posits that we can develop a new mindset and new sustainable systems. He could be wrong. But I found his summary of big ideas in science and philosophy readable and stimulating, and his optimism was encouraging.
Still looking on the bright side, I came across an interesting essay by Matthew Rosza in Salon with some psychological explanations for why a substantial number of people believe the Big Lie that Trump won the last presidential election. It is, of course, depressing that lots of people unite behind notions that are plainly absurd and potentially dangerous, but this real life social experiment can give us new insights into human cognition and its glitches. It might make us a little more humble, and a little more open.
Anyhow, the Rosza essay points up how even nutty ideas can start to sound normal if repeated constantly and in different contexts by someone with apparent authority. Their salience depends partly on how they feed the biases and needs of the fans, and the fans’ various desires to fit into their groups and find emotional satisfaction. For example, people who are fearful of opponents and angry at losing an election are more willing to accept a crazy narrative that makes them feel better.
In the Salon piece, Dr. Matt Blanchard had this interesting perspective:
Everything we know about the human brain suggests it is composed of numerous systems that interact, overlap, excite, inhibit, and often contradict each other, and may even hide information from consciousness. . . . So it comes as no surprise that the act of ‘believing’ is not just one thing that humans do. Instead, this one word represents a wide range of relationships that humans have with information. We don’t truly ‘believe’ things, so much as provisionally accept information we find useful.
Dr. Blanchard also noted that the strength and tenacity of beliefs varies. Some beliefs, like trust in a loved one, are high stakes, with big consequences for believing wrongly, and those are likely to be more thoroughly tested against reality. Others have little day-to- day effect on our lives, like presidential races or religious observances. Those low stakes beliefs may be more readily tried out without much reflection, just for fun.
It makes sense that the Big Lie and other bizarre beliefs have little to do with reasoning, but serve emotional needs, like providing solace and building group ties. This suggests that such beliefs can change when adherents find other solutions to their fear, anger, and other emotional problems. Maybe that’s what we should try – less fighting, and more compassion.