Monday, October 08, 2012

The future of disbelief

In a world crippled by religion, superstition and ignorance, belief is still a crutch for many. The importance of objective evidence, gleaned from multiple repeatable observations, is still rejected by many in favor of primitive cognitive behaviors that had already served their purpose when we believed the world was flat and the centre of the Universe. It isn't going to get any better anytime soon.
As I drove around town on my weekly quest for groceries, I caught the tail end of an interview on CBC.
Brent Banbury was talking with a software developer named Dan Schultz about software that rates the claims of politicians and is able to calculate their position on a scale of how close they came to meeting their promises, measured on a scale that ran from ‘Kept the promise’ to ‘Pants on fire’.
 The uses of this kind of software are limitless. It can tell you which political party is honest, or, if you prefer, which is the most dishonest. It can tell you who is telling the truth about climate change, whether a policy espoused by a politician will have the results he claims, which brand of household cleaner to buy, which religious followers actually practice what they preach and which preach what their holy books actually say, which educational program will best prepare your child for the ardors of life three decades hence, etc. Every step in life can be guided by computer generated information based on objective analysis of the facts.
This sounds great. Joe Public is now to be presented with computer generated information on the trustworthiness of everything from his favorite politician to his favorite heath supplement. There’s just one problem. No one is going to believe it. Recommend the toothpaste that is best for your teeth. Nope, I always use brand X and I’m staying with it. Recommend a Korean Hatchback. Nope, I always buy Detroit Iron. Expose a candidate as dishonest. Nope, he supports my kneejerk issue (gun control, gay rights, immigration, whatever). The advice will be ignored for a whole range of reasons or, more accurately, excuses.
Already, people ignore the evidence for evolution or climate change in favor of what they believe, as if prefacing a sentence with “I believe…” gives their statement credibility that it wouldn’t otherwise have. If people don’t believe scientists and experts, statistics and other objectively derived information produced by their fellow human beings, can we expect them to believe computers?
The story line of course is a ‘rebel against the machine, exterminate the scientists kind of thing, either dystopian if it ends badly for the scientists, or utopian if the disbelievers get their come-uppance (because they don’t use the computers for some reason) and/or the scientists are vindicated by events.

Another possibility is end of the world, computer models predict the eventual triumph of global warming, but politicians don’t want to believe it because their constituents don’t believe it. The computers warn us but we ignore them.

Perhaps also our reaction to this computer generated advice may determine whether we are visited by advanced aliens. If they look at us and see we keep ignoring good advice, even when the outcome of ignoring it hurts us, they’re going to think us a bunch of morons and go on to the next planet.

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