Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The unknown unknowns of the monoculture

Some people suffering of the "neglect syndrome" just can't see half of the world. For them, it is an unknown unknown. It seems that our society, that some have correctly defined as a "monoculture", is suffering of a cultural neglect syndrome facing such things as climate change and resource depletion. (Image from: "Spatial hemineglect in humans", Georg Kerkhoff , Progress in Neurobiology Volume 63, Issue 1, 1 January 2001, Pages 1–27.)

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that every month (or even more frequently) I discover something that completely changes my views of the world. Epiphanic changes; one after the other.

A recent epiphany I had came from reading the thesis in neuroscience that my daughter wrote this year. She has been studying something called "lateral neglect syndrome" which results from brain damage. It is a section of the general problem called "anosognosia" or "anosognosis." People suffering from this kind of cognitive impairment don't realize that they have a problem.

It is an impressive story to tell: a patient suffering of lateral neglect won't "see" one side of the world, won't draw it, and won't touch it. When asked why, the patient will answer that it was not important or that there was no reason to consider it; never that he or she couldn't perceive it. Anosognosia is what inspired Dunning and Kruger for the effect that takes their name: the "Dunning-Kruger Syndrome". It affects people who grossly overestimate their abilities or their knowledge. But Dunning and Kruger have been often misinterpreted by defining their effect as "stupid people don't realize that they are stupid". No, it is a much wider effect and it hits intelligent people in particular. It is typical of very intelligent people to be unable to realize their limits.

This kind of anosognosia is especially bad with science, in particular climate science. The Web is infested with people who suffer of a form of climate science neglect syndrome. They are not stupid;  on the contrary, some of them they can display considerable creativity and inventive to support the idea that climate is not changing, or that change is not caused by human activity, or that everything is an evil plot to enslave humankind. Their problem is that they completely fail to perceive the complexity of the subject. They can't see that climate science is not about whether grapes were cultivated in England during the Middle Ages or about the letters that some scientists wrote to each other more than 10 years ago. You just can't convince them that their vision of the world is limited. The same is true with a variety of conspiracy theories based on failing to understand the complexity of the subject: chemtrails, cold fusion, abiotic oil, and many more.

Anosognosia is easily recognizable in such extreme forms. But, in milder forms, it affects all of us. It is such an easy mistake to believe that we know something well enough to act on it and then suddenly discovering that we don't. I have my horror stories about myself to tell you on this point; I am sure you have yours. And those are cases where we understood that we were making a mistake. What's scary about anosognosia is when you don't even realize that there is a problem. Think that, most likely, there is something out there, something we can't even imagine, that's going to affect us deeply. But what? How can we perceive something that we cannot perceive? How do we manage "unknown unknowns"?

Still, as long as our brain is not physically damaged, we have at least a fighting chance to understand our mistakes and to be prepared for the unexpected that may crash upon us all of a sudden. But there is a much larger problem that has to do with society as a whole: it seems to be suffering of a bad case of cognitive neglect syndrome. Read "Monoculture" by F. S. Michaels and you'll see what I mean.

More and more, our culture seems to confine itself within narrow limits that don't include entities such as climate change, peak oil, ecosystem collapse, and much more. All that is relegated to the category of unknown unknowns, totally outside the bounds of perception; even outside the bounds of the imaginable. As it is not perceived, it is not understood, it is not discussed, it is not acted upon. And, whatever is going to crash on us all of a sudden, we are totally unprepared for it.

Unfortunately, one of the things I learned from my daughter is that there is no cure for this syndrome.


h/t to my daughter Donata and to Karl Wagner for telling me about the "Monoculture" book by F. S. Michaels 


  1. Hi Ugo,
    This is a very interesting topic - contemplation of this topic has, over the last few years, greatly changed the way I think of the world.

    A very good book on the subject is "The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Taleb.

    As you say, there is a strong tendancy in people to assume that there is less uncertainty in the world than there actualy is (ie, the world is a much more complex place than we realize). This has important consequences in risk evaluation.

    It's as though we are all passengers on a ship that is navigating through a very thick fog, and the people in charge of piloting the ship assume they know where they are going because they have a map.
    Their map gives them so much confidence that they accelerate the ship to dangerous speeds - but what about other ships, icebergs and other transient hazards that do not appear on maps?

    1. I'd also like to say that it is precisely this flaw in human understanding of the universe around us that makes me highly skeptical of any "plan" for the future that doesn't emphasize maximum resilience.

    2. You're right of course, but even resilience is a gamble, like any insurance policy. For example, farmers could plant polycultures for resilience against pests, diseases and climate change, but it's probably more effort, more complicated and less profitable than to plant a monoculture. Most of the time they'll probably get away with it. It's a bit like people living on the flanks of active volcanoes - the soil is good so the crops benefit, and they might go their whole lives without incident, but you know that one day, people are going to lose that gamble.

    3. Icarus62,
      I agree with you that even a culture of resilience doesn't offer any garauntees and that it goes "against the grain" of popular economic wisdom.

      I also think you're right that in a simpler world it is easier to get away with behaviour that doesn't take into account the "incomplete" part of "the picture".

      But there is an important difference between people who know that the mountain they live on is a volcano, and those who do not know that the mountain is a volcano. In the latter case, people grow their crops in fertile soil without knowing that they run the risk of destruction from volcanic eruption - it is impossible to make an appropriate risk evaluation without knowing this "hidden" information. I think our present day civilization is much more like this latter group - ignorant of the "real" risks associated with our behaviours until they become obvious in hindsight.

      It seems like the human experience is booby trapped and the only thing we can really do to avoid "springing the trap", so to speak, is to foster a culture of resilience - ie to acknowledge the limits of what we think we know, understand that "unkown unknowns" will always have an impact on our reality, and take a far more conservative approach to risk taking...

  2. Luckily the soft-wired version is extremely easy to diagnose in others, especially when it comes to things like climate change. People who suffer from it use words like "is", "will", and "must". Those who are clear use words like "may", "could", and "probably".

    This is why I am highly in favor of schemes which lock up carbon dioxide loosely in biomass and vehemently opposed to ones which sequester it tightly deep underground. Should we be wrong about global warming, a large reservoir of readily accessible biomass would be extremely useful, while deeply sequestered carbon could be a disaster that takes hundreds of millions of years to overcome.

  3. I can recall leaving university many decades ago thinking: that's it, I've done my education, and I can now get on with my life!

    You would be correct in thinking I was to receive a very salutary lesson in double quick time. Since then, I have realised that the more I learn, the more I find that there is to learn. Life is but a journey of acquaintance with one's own ignorance.

    A very humbling experience and I can see where the phrase 'blissful ignorance' comes from.

    If we are to have any chance of success in mitigating the consequences of 'business as usual', we need to offer a compelling narrative for hope and action.

  4. The Swiss have fallout shelters for 114% of their population. Swedes, 81%; Finns, 70%.

    Moscow arms against nuclear attack: Nearly 5,000 new emergency bomb shelters will be built in Moscow by 2012
    Russia Today, 12 July, 2010

    SENSE OF CONGRESS ON NEED FOR RUSSIAN OPENNESS ON THE YAMANTAU MOUNTAIN PROJECT, House of Representatives – June 19, 1997 Congressional Record

    “The only potential use for this site is post-nuclear war.”
    ~Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, June 2000

    But you don't have a fallout shelter.

    Anosognosia? Not you!

  5. Most people just want to get on with their lives and not have to think about something as substantial as a massive change of climate, or for that matter a massive change in the way civilisation is run. Most of us live in countries with tens or hundreds of millions of people, so even an ordinary domestic issue is something that we're very unlikely to have any influence over, as individuals. When it's a *global* problem, it's even more remote from our individual sphere of influence. Millions of people could go completely carbon neutral and it wouldn't make the slightest detectable difference to global warming. I think that individual powerlessness explains a lot of the - shall we say - non-engagement with such big issues as climate change, peak oil etc.

    Here in the UK, I think we had a salutory lesson over the Iraq war - there were massive protests when the UK was moving towards military action, there seemed to be a majority opposed to it, but it happened anyway. The government completely ignored public opinion.

    So, problems like climate change, peak oil, ecosystem collapse etc. seem just too big to deal with. In any case, perhaps they're problems without solutions (or at least without painless solutions). We've got ourselves into a predicament of overpopulation, overconsumption, overshoot, and perhaps there's no easy way down which doesn't involve a great many people suffering an unpleasant and premature death. I don't know if there's an answer, and that's not a good feeling.

    1. Yes that's it - Blair and Bush suffer from anosognosia and maybe sufferers recognize fellow sufferers and bond together.

      Bill Maher's analysis of this is quite good http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJcka8cwMQY&feature=relmfu

  6. Ugo,

    A timely article on your part as I have just concluded a long online rift with a highly intelligent person regarding AGW. We agree on other things, but not about AGW.

    (This person is highly intelligent in science, in law and yet is a virulent and emotional climate denier who is 101% sure us greenies are out here conspiring to lie, cheat and do whatever to pull off this greatest HOAX of all times because ... well just because and also because he is not going to be fooled even 0.01% by us).

    I believe you left out the emotional aspects of climate denial.

    Deniers of a feather tend to flock together.

    There is a strong sense of community among them.

    For them it is a matter of "us" versus all the mindless "zombies" out there whose brains have been snatched by this terrible HOAX virus. We (the deniers) must do what we can, have a last grand stand and fight the good fight against this evil that is casting its growing tentacles across the home of the brave and the land once occupied by us "free" and independent fossil fuel burners. The only way you are going to get the ignition keys to my fossil fuel car is by prying them from my cold dead hands.

    The above sort of reminds me of an old Charlton Heston movie, The Omega Man (look it up on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Omega_Man ) Briefly, Heston is the last rational man standing and defending his fortress while zombies crawl in the night and take over the world. Sigh.

    1. "free"

      In one word, you've named why you are opposed; as an exceedingly famous environmentalist describes "The Dangers of Leftism", many activists are "motivated less by distress at society’s ills than by the need to satisfy his drive for power by imposing his solutions on society."

      And your implied coercion of others' behavior (you seem to want to take away peoples' car keys) goes against how humans evolved.

      Humans evolved, in popular parlance, as "individualists." In more scientific (anthropological and evolutionary biological) terms:
      "autonomous and sovereign" [Elman R. Service (1975), Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York: Norton]
      "autonomous and sovereign" [Christopher Boehm. (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press]

      Now, are you in agreement with that rational science, or are you a denier?

  7. Ivy Mike,

    Thank you for advancing this discussion (hopefully in a constructive way).

    The other day I had an epiphany regarding the Libertarian mindset and why they find the notion of government oversight reprehensible.

    The Judea-Christian Bible ascribes to the man creature a "special" place among all other living things: to have dominion over and rule over the other creatures. It is as if man is a god when it comes to the other parts of nature (aside from the part that is the domain of the big guy upstairs).

    And of course, on Mount Olympus or any other place where gods like this dwell, each god is a sovereign in his own right. He is "fee". He has inalienable and "natural" rights, among them the right to "own" lower creatures as property and do with them as he wishes and the right to be always treated as a sovereign equal among the other man-as-a-gods who dwell in this realm and are never to do "violence" to his god-like rights.

    So when a group of other equals or sub-equals (a.k.a. "leftists") gather and call themselves a "government", this is an affront to the Bible-given sovereignty of each man-as-a-god who believes he (or she) is of such a divine position.

    The question is whether this, treat-me-as-if-I were a sovereign-god model is workable on a planet filled with 7 Billion other demi-gods?

    1. I finished not.

      The internet demands bites.
      Small bites.

      The bite above is but a part of my epiphany.

      It sees a spectrum of possible world views.

      In one corner is the we-are-all sovereign demi-gods view.
      It says that we sapien creatures each have property rights over all other creatures --we are "free" to do with them as we please because the Big Guy upstairs gave us "dominion" over all of the less clever others of His creation.

      In another corner is the we are-all-subservient sheeple view.
      None of us is sovereign.
      None of us is "free" to do whatever we please.

      In the middle of this spread spectrum epiphany are all manner of hierarchical distributions of "freedom" and non-freedom.

      One example of such a hierarchy places the Big Guy Upstairs at the top of a pyramid.

      Next below Him are the "Kings", those among us who have been divinely appointed by "Him" to rule over all other men and rule over all other, yet lower creatures.

      Then come the the Noblemen, and the lower elites and finally the serfs and other sheeple who are here to service them above. In other words, Feudalism.

      In short, this spectrum grants at one of its corners, total "sovereign" freedom to each of us and at another of its extremes, no "freedom" whatsoever.

      The Libertarians among us fear the no-freedoms scenario and therefore demand the all-freedoms option as an antidote to the scary other.

    2. "...sovereign-god...libertarian..."

      Neither Elman Service nor Christopher Boehm are magical thinkers pushing a libertarian, biblical, or other philosophical agenda, as you suggest in your reply. They are scientists whose work is based on empirical data, with both scientists using the exact same phrase--"autonomous and sovereign"--to describe "primitive" sociopolitical typology.

      Also, realize that in the paleolithic Original Affluent Society (Sahlins, 1974), there was no need of either abstract property rights or domestication ("rights over all other creatures"), which you conflate with a "autonomous and sovereign" sociopolitical typology.

      Abstract property rights, monotheism, hierarchy, and domestication are all concepts associated with agricultural civilization, which necessarily subjects or destroys primitive "autonomous and sovereign" societies.

      "Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home." ~Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, p. 1, first sentence of the book

  8. So where do "Peak Oil", "Limits to Growth" and other constrained views of the Universe fit within this spectrum of possible world views?

    Well, for those among us who believe we are all sovereign and dominion-exerting demi-gods, the answer is simple. It cannot be. There can be no limits placed on a demi-god. Each of us is "free" to do as our "ingenuity" (and sapience) allows, including grabbing all the oil we can and burning as much of it as we, in our God-given positions, please to do. Denial is the only option. There can be no other.

    1. You're right, and people say quite explicitly that bad consequences "cannot be", as you put it - the response to projected climate chaos is "God wouldn't allow that to happen".

    2. It isn't primitive sociopolitical typology--whose people lived "autonomous and sovereign" lifeways (Service 1975, Boehm 1999)--who believed in "God-given" monotheism, as you falsely suggest, or who were "grabbing all the oil."

      Seems denial of scientific anthropological empirical data is your only option, if I can retort in your own words.

  9. Deniers of scientific empirical data, whether they are deniers of climate science or anthropological science, both use the same tactic: they disparage the science in the worst pejorative terms they can conjure.

    * Deniers of climate science may use words like communist, socialist, etc., because those are nasty words to them.

    * Deniers of anthropological science may use words like Bible-given, God, etc., because those are nasty words to them.

    It seems everybody, no matter how academic, rational, or they purport themselves to be, use the same playbook to evade empirical evidence they find difficulty accepting. Q.E.D.

    Acknowledging this human foible helps us understand the climate deniers; they're just like you.

    1. Ivy Mike,

      I was not familiar with that musical piece.

      However I very much agree with YOU that at our core we are ALL foible, we are ALL just like each other even if at times it appears that we are on opposite ends of a spectrum.

      The human brain has evolved to be a highly social, processing unit and thus many of our characterizations of the world revolve around characterizing others as being an X or a Y or a Z
      (where X= "communist, socialist, etc." and Y= "Bible-thumping, etc." and Z= some other pejorative characterization)

      Well said.

  10. This is an awe inspiring article. Thanks.