Generalising from personal experience

17 Mar

In a footnote to yesterday’s post, Yanis Varoufakis on China-US tensions, I wrote:

My approval of Yanis is guarded and circumscribed but I was still dismayed to see him play to the gallery at Canberra with allusions – as if to a truth beyond dispute and not industrial strength stenography for an empire whose weaponising of jihad goes beyond the middle east to take in Chechnya and Xinjiang – to a debunked ‘Uighur genocide‘. To those who say they get their negative views of China’s treatment of the Uighurs not from our systemically corrupt media but personal encounters I ask – as I do those who claim similar in respect of Tibet, Syria or Cuba – “how many have you met, and on what basis do you say they are representative of the millions you generalise about?”

More than two years earlier I opened a more personal post, My date with Sister Scope, with this:

Stats nerds and propellor-heads aside, humans are crap at probability.  It’s not that we can’t do sums. Weaving the lanes of a crowded M1 at 70mph, cutting a zig-zag across a busy junction on foot or leaping for a cricket ball, we effortlessly make complex appraisals of speed, vector and angle. And we do so intuitively, seldom erring.

That’s likely because we’ve been making those calculations for 100,000 years or so, hurling flint spears at woolly mammoths and legging it from sabre toothed tigers. With all that evolutionary wind in our sails, we’re pretty good at this kind of thing.

But only in recent decades have we been called upon to make assessments of probability which draw on large and by that fact abstract data sets. Our ineptitude here is telling. As is the flaky reasoning we come out with if we aren’t expensively educated; push down to netherworlds of the brain stem if we are.

Everybody knows a bloke down the pub who knows a bloke down some other pub whose Uncle Sid smoked eighty a day and died aged ninety-eight while shagging Auntie Ethel, or whose fifth cousin thrice removed’s hairdresser was the sole survivor of a motorway collision – not despite but because  she hadn’t  been wearing a seat belt.

I’d hate to be unduly reductive. When these and other such tales are being traded and trumped, there’s usually more than one engine doing the pushing and pulling:

    • we’re gonna smoke anyway, or make that two minute drive to the offie without the faff of fastening in, but feel obliged to put up a show of intellectual justification;
    • we love counterintuitives; a gleeful fuck you  to the tyranny of accepted wisdom;
    • AND we’re crap at probability.

Both exemplify traits and instincts which on balance – and notwithstanding the occasionally catastrophic outcome – have served our species well for tens of millennia. One concerns the weight we attach to personal testimony. Sure, it can lead to horribly wrong outcomes, as when jurors in capital trials are unduly swayed by eye-witness accounts in principle unreliable even where subjective sincerity is not in doubt. But every advertiser from here to Madison Avenue knows their cleverest propaganda can’t compete with the solid gold of word-of-mouth product endorsement. The source needn’t even be well known to us. A casual conversation in the bar with “a chap who seemed to have his head screwed on” is more likely than a dozen reviews in the papers to persuade us to see a new movie.

You see where this is going. When we make acquaintance with a Syrian refugee in Sheffield, or a Tibetan at a Buddhist Centre in North London, their takes on their respective countries have unduly powerful influence on our perceptions of those countries. Here too a number of factors are likely to be in play:

  • The Western ‘woke’ gain kudos for knowing such people, so hold them in inordinately high esteem;
  • their tales of exodus chime with overarching narratives, promoted 24/7 by the aforesaid systemically corrupt media, which serve the agendas of power,
  • and the psychological momentum of tens of millennia of human existence, most of it in small bands of hunter-gatherers, makes us highly attuned to personal experience, but ill-equipped to make reliable generalisations from small samples to large populations.

That last – IMHO and insofar as the two can even be separated – is more an emotional than intellectual inability. My final years in academia coincided with one of those cyclical pedagogic trends, in this case a putative need to ‘teach critical thinking skills’. I’d recently emerged from a cult – so much for my own critical thinking! – but one of the many valuable habits acquired was that of self observation, both in countless hours of meditation and in group contemplation.

What I observed in my own motivation, and inferred from the behaviour of fellow academics, is that critical thinking flies out the window the moment we have skin in the game – a personal stake, emotional or material, in a particular way of seeing things. Ergo it’s highly misleading – but in the prevailing climate was highly politic – to speak of a need  to teach the skills  of critical thinking.

This was brought home to me in the weeks prior to Russia’s SMO of February 2022. A fellow I know and respect – not because he has a doctorate in and is a teacher of sociology, though as we’ll see these are relevant here, but because he has integrity where it most counts – declared on Facebook his opposition to war (good) while relaying tired tropes (not so good) of Vladimir Putin as gangster and tyrant.

My FB presence was dwindling but not yet dead. I put to him that his opinions showed a striking alignment with those manufactured by media which without exception deliver heavily curated and absurdly truncated access – that’s before we even get to the cartoonish editorial overlays – to the views and deeds of the most demonised man on the planet.

No, he shot back. They come from personal acquaintance with Russians and Ukrainians.

Interesting. The RF President’s domestic approval ratings have risen even in Western polls since the war began, and from a 2021 base far higher than that of leaders in the West. Which led me to say that, were a student to propose research based on so small and necessarily skewed a sample, he’d send them away to think again – and not come back till they had a proposal which cut the methodological mustard.

His response? The educated man’s equivalent of “am I bovvered?”

Don’t blame him. You’d do the same and so would I. In the face of the rising cobra of a ruffled ego, we revert instantly, for all our sophistication and powers of reason, to the behaviour of an enraged chimpanzee. (No disrespect to snakes or apes: none were harmed in the making of this post.) One reason I left the cult was that I saw no sign that thousands of hours of meditation, group immersion and amazing teachings on the nature of ego made a ha’porth of difference in the actuality of ego aroused. It may take different forms, some along gender lines, some more specific, but is never more than a heartbeat away.

So what’s the point of all this, if we can’t transcend what’s written into our DNA? Just this. Class society is at most 14,000 years old while homo sapiens sapiens has walked the earth for at least ten times that period.  Homo sapiens sapiens means doubly wise. We don’t merely know. We know that we know.  

The form of class society we inhabit is capitalism in its latest and deadliest mutation. I speak of hyper-financialisation, one of whose consequences is to concentrate wealth and with it power in ever fewer hands. This tiny elite buys governments, ‘democratic’ or not, and controls – with light touch or heavy as circumstances require – the manufacture of opinion by both traditional and emerging media, as well as the more diffuse channels of art, entertainment and education. This is what Marx meant by the ruling ideas of any age being those of its ruling class. Some call it ideology. But when the imperatives of that ruling class lead us to Armageddon, catastrophic climate change and extreme levels of economic dysfunctionality – grossly or subtly abetted by the means of opinion manufacture just listed – it really is time to wake up.

One aspect of that is to open our eyes to the extent to which narrative management, in the first instance through news media, deceives us. Another, and the point of this post, is to dust off and make use of our powers of self awareness. We know that we know, and as the Buddhists tell us, awareness is revolutionary.

I don’t know whether predispositions which once served us well, but now leave us exposed to arch manipulation, really are “in our DNA”. It’s not my gig and in any case those predispositions are so deep engrained within our species as to make no practical difference. I do know they are ruthlessly exploited to our great cost and peril. We may be stuck with them but our birthright is that uniquely human capacity to observe their movement within us.

So next time we find personal experience so uncannily in line with the agendas of power, let’s stop and ask ourselves, shall we, just why that might be?

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