Sometimes the brain makes connections between things that are seemingly unconnected or only distantly or abstractly related. Recently, a series of oddly related events came together for me in a way that I wanted to share.
First, I came across a comment in another forum last week that mentioned a model known as Morton’s Demon. I hadn’t heard of this before, but it is apparently a metaphorical representation of how people maintain beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. The Demon sits at the gateway of the mind and allows only that data to pass that supports currently held beliefs and values, while barring any information that conflicts. I suppose to some degree anyone is susceptible, but, I think it’s fair to say, some more than others.
Next, a few days ago, I called someone I know, but the call was intercepted by a third party, and a conversation began. During this conversation, the topic of Arctic oil drilling was briefly broached. Just to note, I did not raise the issue, and I’m extremely ill informed on the topic. However, the “logic” presented by this person was, let’s say, unusual, and went something like this: The oil platforms in the Gulf withstood Katrina, therefore it is unreasonable to worry about potential problems drilling in the Arctic.
Without thinking, my first response was, “Have you ever seen an oil spill?” The answer was, “Yes, from a ship, but not from a platform.” My next natural question was, “How are they planning to move this oil?” Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if the intent is to use pipelines or ships, I was simply asking, aloud, the first questions that came to mind. The topic switched quickly, and I didn’t pursue it.
Finally, also a few days ago, I was excited to see not one, but two small owls hanging around in my backyard. Being ignorant regarding owls, I decided to research online to determine the species. I was having no luck, when someone suggested I check the Audubon Web site.
At the site, there was a link to an article about the potential impact of oil excavation in the Arctic . At any other time, I might have skipped right over it, but after my recent phone conversation, I decided to give it a read. My reaction to the article was that although its claims seemed reasonable, I would have liked to have seen some references and citations to support the claims and statistics put forward.
The article basically claims that there are engineering challenges that are presented by this region that are not presented in other regions we have so far excavated for oil. I would say that the Arctic presents a very different environment, in many regards, than, for example, the Gulf area; and it seems at least reasonable to accept that materials and processes could react differently in that far colder climate. The article also claimed that seismic exploration would be used, and that this could have a negative impact on species of whales known to use local waterways. That whales are using the area appears to be causing the local Indians some concern, because they still hunt some whale species to survive—again, according to the article. And finally, as this location becomes commercial, the article notes that increased shipping traffic can be anticipated; which is also a concern—and that makes sense to me, because I’ve seen the impact of recreational boating and commercial shipping on waterways, having lived in Florida, Pittsburgh, and Austin.
So, deciding that the article was rational, if not supported by citations, I forwarded the link to my pal and asked in my subject line, “I wonder what Audubon has to gain from lying like this?” I added no further content. I received a short reply later that same day, presented here in its brief entirety:
“I don’t know why they do stuff like this. Look around you and you will see oil rigs pumping all over the place and cattle grazing right next to them. Also the area is not as big as PA. It is really a small area and it so happens in that particular area there are very few Polar Bears. I hesitate to get into this because the media is so liberal and it seems to me the Democrats of which I use to be one, want to ruin our country stopping us from doing anything and everything that would make things better and easier for us all. No matter how good of an idea someone comes up with, if it didn’t come from an Democrat they will vote against it.”
When I examined this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It appeared that he was initially reasoning that since cattle exist well enough in prairie oil fields, that I should extrapolate Arctic wildlife would fare just as well (since domestic cattle and wild whales are nearly equivalent?)—and that, somehow, I should consider the two ecosystems are comparable, when clearly they are not when I “look around.”
The next assumption is that size dictates importance. True, when I “look around,” I sometimes see that small things are unimportant, but sometimes I see that they can be very important. There are some substances required by the human body, for example, without which it will cease to function normally (or at all)—even though they may be required in very small amounts. It is never safe to assume without knowledge that in any interdependent system, the mere size of a component dictates the overall importance of the component to the smooth operation of the system as a whole.
As far as polar bears being few in the region, again, I’m ignorant. But, if the animal is already struggling as a species, then “few” may be significant. I have no knowledge of how populous polar bears are in the areas considered for drilling, but one thought that pops into my head goes something like, “Why would the Audubon Society knowingly inflate polar bear population figures? How would they benefit by a public disinformation campaign?” Honestly, I don’t mean to imply there’s no one at Audubon who might benefit. But I can’t really miss the clear, immediate benefit to oil companies, and politicians supported by them, to be able to drill in previously restricted areas. I am, then, fully aware of a clear bias on one side of this issue, while I remain ignorant, but open to hearing more about what potential bias the other side might harbor.
To be fair, my friend appears to be trying to explain the Audubon Society’s bias—in an odd, convoluted way. It seems he reasons that media supports liberals, and I’m sure that he means that “Democrats” are “liberals,” but he provides no explanation about how the media actually benefits from lying. I can “look around” and see media’s advertising dollars pouring in, mainly from industries and corporations—so there’s hardly an obvious financial incentive for the media to promote articles that oppose oil drilling, while they support themselves with the money they generate annually from Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and Mobil. The “benefit,” I’m being told, is that they merely wish to be contrary to the Republicans, so much so that they would rather harm the nation (and their own revenues) than support a Republican idea that would actually benefit everyone. Why they hate Republicans and cater to Democrat liberals is sort of glossed over. But they are, according to this line of reason, willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially, and potentially harm themselves and the rest of us, purely for the sake of being disagreeable.
The Audubon Society, I take it, then, is not actually a group that supports conservation, but is, rather, a front for the liberal anti-Republican Democrat agenda. Likewise, the Inupiaq tribe actually knows the whales are in no danger. They simply like to disagree with Republicans, too. Have marine biologists, oceanographers, geologists, climatologists weighed in on this? If so, do those who land on the side of caution also wish only to destroy the planet for anti-Republican spite? What a poor, persecuted group the Republicans ar
e—according to my friend. Very much like another group I frequently hear about that suffers from similar persecution.
So, my friend appears to believe that people in all areas of conservation and research who err on the side of caution in this debate, are only claiming to be concerned with conservation, but are actually just Democrat sympathizers who care nothing for the welfare of the planet and only want to be on the opposite side of absolutely anything U.S. Republicans endorse. A global conspiracy of Republican haters.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me just reiterate that this post is not intended as an analysis of the Arctic drilling situation. I’m ignorant. I’m not taking sides. I have not even attempted to take a position on the issue. I am, however, taking a position on the soundness of one citizen’s logic and argumentation in defense of the drilling. I do not presume that his argument represents the “best” argument offered; in fact, I think it’s only fair for me to assume it could not possibly be.
I’m merely pointing out that someone is seriously asking me to accept the position that it’s more reasonable to believe (a) large numbers of diverse groups falsely claim to care about the planet while they are actually lying for spite, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment, rather than (b) large corporations and the politicians they support are lying in order to gain gobs and gobs of money, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment. When I take my friend’s advice and “look around,” I can’t deny I’ve seen some individuals and, to some degree, small groups do “a,” however, I’ve seen “b” too many times to even begin to count.
I should also give a hat tip to the line, “…of which I use to be one.” How many times have any of us heard, “I used to be a nonbeliever…”, as though that argument is any more compelling to me as it would be to them if I were to say, “I used to be a Christian…” Has that line of idiocy ever altered anyone’s opinion about god?
And this is atheist-related how, exactly? Here’s where I’m back to synchronicity and Morton’s Demon. Compartmentalization is old hat in atheist discussions—the idea that people can reason perfectly well except with regard to one or two particular emotional issues. But here, I have an example of someone using Morton’s Demon in a political context. And he is, just to note, also a Christian. And, just to stir the pot a bit, I’ll go ahead and add that I also know this person denies we walked on the Moon, thinks Evolution doesn’t happen, and has some interesting opinions about 9-11. So, I’m surprised, and even a bit amazed, that his particular Demon is able to keep up with all the information he has to work to sort and divert. If ever I felt sympathy for a metaphorical figure, it is now, when the simple thought of all that labor literally fatigues me.
Here is where I am supposed to reveal the secret of how to effectively respond to Morton’s Demon. The truth is, though, I’ve got nothing. In order to know how to effectively counter him, I’d have to have some idea why he’s considered necessary by those who employ him. Maybe it’s like someone who suspects he has cancer refusing to visit a doctor because he doesn’t want to know? Can life and reality really be just a “cancer” to so many? From what I’ve seen, willful ignorance and self-deceit create a tangled web that must be intricately woven throughout all areas of our lives and minds. In the same way harm to a tiny ecological region might cause damaging ripples throughout an entire planetary system, so willful ignorance and self-deceit can ripple through entire worldviews—poisoning the mind and producing poorly informed behaviors that impact everyone and everything within reach.
I’m beginning to question what exactly “compartmentalization” is. Might it be confined to those who don’t take their religious beliefs too seriously? Is it that some are religious by rote, so that their beliefs don’t have to integrate, because they don’t actually hold them in the forefront (or, in some cases, even the remotest corners) of their minds? Is that “compartmentalization”? I am having trouble understanding how someone could believe—consciously and thoughtfully believe—many common religious doctrines without those beliefs requiring protection in other areas—most other areas—of their worldviews and minds. Can I hold to an unreasonable belief that informs all of my most basic human values and interpretations, and not also require protection from information in nearly every other area of my life? Is that realistic? Is it even possible?
I’m not sure anymore.