May 15, 2007

Alternative realities

One of the things that I have noticed in recent years is the proliferation of what I call 'alternative realities'.

In classical learning theory, it is believed that when someone confronts evidence that runs counter to that person's prior knowledge, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs in the mind of the learner which only goes away when the learner's knowledge structures have been adjusted to accommodate the new information.

This model of learning underlies what are known as 'inquiry' methods of teaching science where the teacher, having an understanding of what her students are likely to erroneously believe about some phenomena (such as electricity), deliberately sets up experiments for them to do whose results will directly confront their misconceptions, thus forcing the student into the difficult process of re-evaluation of what they already believe. By repeatedly going through this process at different levels of sophistication and context, the hoped for transformation is that the student develops an experiential understanding of the 'true' theory that the teacher is trying to teach.

One attractive feature of this mode of science instruction is that it models and parallels the scientific process, where the predictions of theories or paradigm are repeatedly being confronted with actual data. Seemingly discrepant data creates a kind of 'cognitive dissonance' in the scientific community as a whole which is usually resolved in one of several ways: by the data being shown to be incorrect or irreproducible, or by the theory being modified and extended to enable the incorporation of the data, or (more rarely) the overthrow of the existing paradigm to be replaced by a new one for which the discrepant data is no longer a problem. This process of resolution can take quite a long time (in some famous cases over a hundred years) and during that time the unresolved discrepant data occupies a kind of limbo. Its existence is recognized and acknowledged but other work proceeds unaffected.

What does not happen is the peremptory rejection of the data for no reason other than the fact that it disagrees with the existing theory, and to construct an alternative theory simply for the sake of excluding the troublesome data.

But what is happening in some areas now is the adoption of precisely the last option. Evidence and data is being rejected if they contradict existing beliefs. And in order to prevent that rejection causing any cognitive dissonance, alternative realities are being constructed that seem to describe a parallel universe where reality does not intrude.

In politics, for example, the idea that you can control the nature of reality rather than respond to it was expressed in the famous article published by Ron Suskind in which he said how startled he was when a high Bush administration official told him in 2002 that: "guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'" This kind of administration hubris over their ability or control or create reality explains a lot how the debacle in Iraq occurred.

But this idea that one can either ignore reality or even create your own alternate one is becoming even more widespread. For example, practically everybody has by now heard of Wikipedia, the online open-source encyclopedia that has rapidly become a valuable resource for people to get information on a wide range of things. People have criticized it for the anonymity of the writers and the fact that some of the articles may be less than accurate and that it can sometimes be vulnerable (at least briefly) to the pranks of mischievous elements. All these shortcomings are being dealt with by the site's creators and despite them, Wikipedia has achieved an enviable level of usage.

One criticism that I had not heard was that Wikipedia had an anti-Christian and anti-American agenda. But apparently this is believed by some quarters and they have constructed a conservative alternative called Conservapedia. It says of its goals: "Conservapedia is a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American. . . . Conservapedia is an online resource and meeting place where we favor Christianity and America."

When I first heard of this, I thought it was an Onion-like spoof but this is not the case. The site is truly something to behold and can be a source of endless amusement for those in the reality-based world. For example, it says that "nothing useful has even been built on the theory of relativity" and that "This theory rejects Isaac Newton's God-given theory of gravitation and replaces it with a concept that there is a continuum of space and time, and that large masses (like the sun) bend space in a manner similar to how a finger can depress an area of a balloon."

It praises the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial for saving the state of Tennessee from 75 years of teaching of the "oppressive evolution theory."

Or about kangaroos: "Like all modern animals, modern kangaroos originated in the Middle East and are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood." For more hilarious Conservapedia nuttiness that "shows" that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans and how they could have fitted into the Ark, see here.

If you want to keep living in an alternative reality, then another source is QubeTV which bills itself as the "conservative version of YouTube." Again, I had not been aware that YouTube had been the spearhead of a secret liberal agenda, but this is apparently what some people believe.

Or there is Chatting with Charley, Charley being someone who tries to cherry-pick bits of science to support his contention that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

And there is the rise of creationist 'museums' (like the one in Petersburg, KY organized by the group Answers in Genesis) that seek to convince visitors that the information given in regular museums are wrong because they do not conform to the what is found on the Bible.

So what is behind this rise of alternative sites like these? I think the problem is that these religious fundamentalist people who want young people to continue to believe in these ideas like a young Earth and Noah's ark are worried that exposure to popular sites like YouTube and Wikipedia will result in them having cognitive dissonances when they realize that normal people don't believe any of the stuff that they believe. The story of the ark and Noah's great flood is an event of major importance to creationists and forms the basis for their entire 'science'. If young people find no references to it at all when they look up things in Wikipedia, one can see why they might start wondering why, and some may begin to question their beliefs.

So the creators of these sites are trying to create a whole 'alternative reality' that true believers need never leave and thus never have to confront reality. What is interesting about these kinds of religious ventures is that they take almost all of science for granted and then find one seemingly discrepant event (which can usually be explained but they ignore this) and then build an elaborate alternate reality on this slender reed.

It will be an interesting exercise to see how far they can take this. As science and other forms of knowledge expand, the alternate worlds will have to get more and more elaborate and contrived to counter the information generated by them. This has to be an unstable situation.

After all, as Stephen Colbert said, reality has a well-known liberal bias.


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But to use their logic, if Kangaroos had originated in the Middle East, there would surely be evidence of that in the fossil record, wouldn't there? I suppose we're supposed to blame the flood for washing all such evidence away. (Kangaroo bones scattered under the world's oceans?)

It seems to me that it would be a greater testament of faith if children were exposed to the ideas of science and religion and still took the latter's position in the end.

To instead "protect" young minds from scientific theory seems like the cheaters way of keeping them in the fold.

Conservatism sure has evolved into a rather incongruous set of ideas. Barry Goldwater would be dumbfounded.

Posted by Heidi Cool on May 15, 2007 01:30 PM

To understand how the human mind works, I recommend the book, "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins and Stefan Rudnicki. This is the first book I have read that presents a good theory of the workings of the mind.

Posted by on May 21, 2007 08:36 AM