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Pathfinders

Brain Strain

Just recently a song by a 13 year old singer has been ‘trending on Twitter’ and ‘going viral’ with 16 million views on YouTube. Not the latest offering from Justin Bieber to his adoring teeny tribe of ‘Beliebers’, but something truly and insanely bad. So bad that many are calling it the worst song ever. Being so devoid of any merit has guaranteed the song’s runaway success.

So what’s the point of watching something when you already know it’s dire and you’re not going to like it one bit? Logically there shouldn’t be any reason. But people find bad performances hilarious. We often do the opposite of reason. We’re not predictably rational beings.

There’s quite a lot of interest in ‘irrationality’ these days, with analysis from FMRI scans to show that our supposed act of free choice has already taken place down in the brain’s scullery, moments before milord ‘consciousness’ rings the bell from the upstairs library.

This is very worrying for those who like to feel in control and who obsess about the notion of ‘free will’. If all our frontal lobe clever-clogness is really being primed and directed from below stairs by the witless emotions of the limbic system and the savage lusts and dreads of the amygdala, where does that leave the notion that humans are rational creatures?

Such an idea lies behind various theories to the effect that investors think they’re being rational when in fact they’re really responding to a herd instinct, or to emotional triggers. Economic trends and crises come about, it is argued, precisely because people do not always pursue their immediate self interests as they ought to, and this wild and woolly behaviour is what makes outcomes unpredictable and therefore financial disasters unforeseeable.

Here is classical determinism in disguise, the idea that the world is fundamentally mechanical and manageable, if only we could understand our own thought processes.

But financial crises are unforeseeable in any case, or they wouldn’t be crises. As socialists are obliged to point out, capitalism would always be an unstable and unpredictable system even if the investors were androids with telephone number IQs.

But there is something to the idea that we’re not as rational as we think we are, though it doesn’t take scans with giant magnets to show it. Let’s not forget that we’re animals, after all, and rationality is something of a new invention for us.

An interesting bit of research on climate change attitudes shows that different socio-political groups tend to believe evidence put forward by scientists who appear to be most like themselves, whereas they will reject the same arguments if made by someone they identify less with (New Scientist, 19 March).

This will be no great news to people in marketing, of course, who know that the customer buys the salesman first and the product second, but it is of some concern to scientists hoping to communicate scientific ideas to the general public and in so doing to influence public policy. It is also of some concern to socialists hoping to achieve a similar level of communication. It is not just about the argument, it’s how you dress it up and deliver it.

But are we talking about ‘irrationality’ or merely redefining the term ‘rationality’ with a little more finesse? Two plus two is always going to equal four, whatever your amygdala says about it. The fact that our thought processes may begin with primitive urges doesn’t mean that they are enslaved by them, and that we simply can’t make rational choices about our existence. The bigger problem facing socialists as well as scientists is not how we process information but how and from where we get it in the first place.

The process of rationality may be more complicated than used to be thought, but it still relies heavily on the information available to it, and most decisions made by people today are likely to be poorly informed rather than fundamentally illogical. And being poorly informed is not the same as being stupid.

A recent survey from the Birmingham Science City suggests that 30 percent of the UK population, based on a sample of 3,000 respondents, believe that time travel is possible. 50 percent believe that memory-erasing technology exists, around 25 percent believe in teleportation and light sabres, while 18 percent apparently think they can ‘see’ gravity
(www.birminghamsciencecity.co.uk/news/time-to-turn-on-the-tardis).

It would be interesting to see the wording of this survey however, and it is not at all clear that the short quiz on the website bears any relation to the survey.

Did the survey ask if humans could be teleported, which is impossible, or subatomic particles, which is debatable? Were the ones who believed in light sabres the youth end of the statistical distribution, who had all got broken ones in their toy cupboards, or perhaps adults who had heard all about military laser cannons?

Did the question about time travel include a picture of a Tardis, which is fictional, or a wormhole, which is a hypothetical point in spacetime which might function as a shortcut for high energy particles? Were the ones who believed in mind-wiping reading too much Philip K Dick, or were they maybe recalling 20th century lobotomy techniques?

In short, were the respondents really as thick as planks, or were they being ambushed? One question in the quiz runs thus: Can stars sing? The correct answer to this, apparently, is ‘yes’. The explanation given is that stars oscillate, and that these oscillations when converted into sound waves can give an idea of the size and age of the star.

A better response to the Birmingham quizmasters would be ‘No, you dorks, because sound doesn’t travel through space’.

People make bad investment decisions, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t understand markets and they take bad advice from people who pretend to be experts but in reality are often crooks. People invest in capitalism too, even though it is fundamentally against their best interest. But that doesn’t make them either irrational or stupid. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s my brain wot done it’ is just an excuse for not taking responsibility.

There are always organisations and groups out there keen to show that workers are dumb brutes who need strong leaders to tell them what to do. When the cognitive sciences play into their hands, socialists need to cry foul.