• Dr Hugh Willbourn

#27 Humanity is greatly confused


It is overwhelmingly difficult to write reasonably about the proliferation of delusions around the globe. There is so much that is so deeply wrong. Millions of good people stare at it, as I do, almost paralysed with despair, weariness and incredulity. There is no way out of this without some proper hard thinking, and that is not only arduous but extremely unfashionable.


Consider the covid debacle, which is just one of many, many fields of deranged thinking. Unlike data-obsessed sceptics mainstream conformists seem to say to themselves, and others,

“The experts know their job and the science they show us is clear. I do not need to investigate matters in depth to confirm what they tell us.”

However the difference between conformists and sceptics is not simply a disagreement about facts, interpretation or policy. It is deeper and more difficult than that.

Hence I believe Toby Young’s recent claim in the Spectator that lockdown sceptics lost the argument is not accurate. There was no argument. Mainstream opinion leaders were unwilling to substantively address any arguments. They see themselves as self-evidently right, just as their forebears could see quite clearly that the sun orbits the earth.


Mainstream conformists and sceptics see the same facts and the same world entirely differently. Conformists have a number of assumptions baked-in to their world view. In most cases they do not explicitly articulate these assumptions. Rather the assumptions pre-consciously shape their understanding in the same way that gravity shapes our understanding of the physical world. We do not constantly think about gravity, nor make complex calculations. We simply take it for granted.

Let us call these mainstream assumptions “quasi-sensible assumptions” or QSAs. Here are some commonplace QSAs:

  1. I am adequately informed

  2. The Government works for the benefit of citizens

  3. Authorised experts are, on the whole, trustworthy

  4. Science, high-level abstractions and statistics tell us important truths about the world and when properly used are more important than the personal experience of any single individual or the aggregated experience of many individuals

  5. Governments should have a policy to deal with every high-profile problem

  6. Central control via policies and protocols is a better way to organise society in general, and health care in particular, than delegation to local, frontline workers or clinicians

  7. Good people understand all of the above and agree with me.

Just after I wrote out these QSAs I found that research on behalf of UK Government explicitly confirms that many of them are widespread.

QSAs are not deliberately developed beliefs nor logical arguments. They are assumptions which pre-structure discourse in politics, medicine, climate change, education and elsewhere. QSAs are rarely challenged because they are rarely stated explicitly. For each individual their own QSAs are not overt assumptions - they are just the way the world is.

QSAs are not logical claims, so people easily admit contradictory exceptions whilst maintaining them. For example they can believe, “We can usually trust authorities” whilst knowing that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was wrong about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.


Hypnosis

QSAs are generalizations and, for the most part, abstractions. Hence they reinforce a meta-assumption that abstract notions are often the best guide to action. But an abstract notion, however true, necessarily omits complex, contextual and confounding factors. Some might say it allows us to see what is most essential. Others could reply it offers a diminished understanding.

In their pre-conscious structure, their influence, their abstract nature and their invisibility to those affected, QSAs asserting abstract claims can be understood as hypnotic phenomena, as I explained in an earlier post and named ‘cognitive capture’. Please follow this link to read the full explanation.

It is important to note that the hypnosis is specific to the topic. A man or woman can be extremely insightful and compassionate in one area and yet delusional and aggressive in another.


Existential Philosophy

If hypnosis is a bit too woo-woo for you, the same phenomenon was described in rigorous philosophical terms by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger pointed out that although we are all capable of making decisions on the basis of our own unique situation and understanding, most of the time we don’t. We just do what ‘one’ does. We get up, we wash, we have breakfast, we go to work and usually we do so without any thoughtful decision-making. We just do what people do.

This general, everyday ‘being human’ is the ground out of which our unique possibilities arise. Consider, for example, language. As children we assimilate our language from those around us. Later, when we have understood how to use words as others do, we can use them to formulate our own unique thoughts.

Heidegger observed however that, for the most part, we do not formulate our own unique thoughts. We rarely build our understanding of an issue from primary observation and insightful scrutiny of all relevant arguments and underlying axioms. Most of us, most of the time, take on the insights or opinions of others we trust and we ‘think’ them as we repeat them to ourselves or others.

It follows from this observation, Heidegger claimed, that we do not see things as they are. Rather we take over a common notion about what is going on. He calls these common opinions in which we are immersed ‘idle talk’. Idle talk, in its familiarity and assumption of understanding, obscures from us the reality of things which, seen clearly, is wondrous, mysterious and partially understood.


QSAs are built in to our world view by idle talk and they are inevitable. We cannot be human without taking on some assumptions about each other. This thinking that is passed on to me in everyday conversation is not alien to me. It really is my thinking, but it belongs to me in as ‘one of us’ rather than me as ‘taking up my ownmost possibilities’.

Nothing forces me to recognise or modify my QSAs, however if I do not sooner or later their fixed and acontextual nature will lead me astray - although they may be sustained by intermittent reinforcement for a long time after they become counter-productive.

It takes a specific effort to rise above idle talk. The challenge of living up to our own unique possibilities entails raising our own QSAs to conscious awareness and if necessary modifying or discarding them. Some of us, some of the time, do this. Others do not.


Heidegger also observes that we always make sense of ourselves and of the world, not as two separate things but as we are always already in the world. Hence whatever sense I have of myself it cannot help but be enmeshed in my sense of the world. For Heidegger my sense of self is inextricable from my world view (although Heidegger would not have approved at all of me using those terms). I make sense of myself within the world, hence my sense of myself entails my world and vice versa. It follows that QSAs can be built-in to my sense of self.

What start as useful heuristics end up as cognitive limitations embedded in the sense of self. Hence when such QSAs are challenged many people become aggressively defensive because they are not discussing opinions or arguments, they feel their identity is being attacked.

This is why there is almost no real debate between mainstreamers and sceptics. Sceptics, like Galileo, find themselves facing opponents who are prevented by their own sense of self from reaching a better understanding.


Politicians, civil servants and management consultants are particularly prone to the delusions of mainstream QSAs. Going along with them is part of their job. Of course they do not see their situation thus. For such people QSAs are the natural world view on the basis of which they build metrics and analyses which cut through distracting irrelevance to the essential truth.

In many cases these QSAs cause these functionaries to fail to see reality clearly and to become obsessed by problems which are largely illusory. The UK’s £37 billion “Test and Trace” programme is a perfect example of this.


I have focussed on the covid issue because it is such a clear example of this phenomenon, but the same structural issues underly the ideologies and misunderstandings infesting discussions about race, climate, gender and politics.

Those who work closely with Government but are not suborned by it know that the QSA "the Government works for the benefit of citizens" is mostly false, even on those occasions when some Government members are trying to do their best. For decades top-down Government initiatives in health, social care and education have failed and failed again, and each failure has left behind another layer of bureaucrats, paperwork, measurement, dogma, and dispiriting distrust. From the EU to the NHS and the UN to the CDC all over the world we have too many institutions that have become too big to succeed.

There is no perfect policy, no prime protocol, no universal best practice, no defensible ideology. Policies, protocols and best practices – even ideological thinking – can make a contribution to decision-making, but ultimately the wisest decision is that which is most fitting to the unique context in which it is made. That requires overcoming embedded QSAs and looking dispassionately at the complexity of real situations.


Positive inklings and negative forebodings

For those who wish to question their own situation a small start could be to note how some people are disabused of fallacious QSAs.


The first, and most common way to become conscious of your QSAs is to have long experience in a practical field wherein you personally benefit from, or suffer, significant consequences of your actions – personally, financially or through some personal relationship with people impacted by your decision. Compare for example the soul-searching of the wise Henry Marsh (Do No Harm, Orion, London 2014) with the self-serving non-apology of the midwit Matt Hancock.


A second route is to traverse enough different fields of intervention and process to discover that inadequate QSAs usually lie beneath institutionalised misunderstanding. As a market researcher in a wide variety of fields, I saw over and over again that policies and protocols built on abstractions and QSAs emanating from centralised organisations or Governmental departments are far more likely to be dysfunctional than useful. The problem is not that they pursue the wrong policy, but rather that policies and protocols are frequently the wrong way to solve problems. Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help (Virago, London, 2018) is a beautiful, inspiring documentation of how respectful engagement with context and people leads to far better outcomes than the application of protocols and policy in the field of social care.


Few people volunteer to question their foundational assumptions or QSAs. To question them is to question your self. Some who are personally suffering from self-misunderstanding bravely go to see a therapist or join a 12-step programme. If they are fortunate they emerge with a more authentic and trustworthy sense of self and a functional humility.

Perhaps you will find yourself talking to someone who sees the world in an entirely deluded way. What can you do? One option is to ask them to explain how they know they have made the right choices. You may get them to reflect on whom they trust and why, and that may just let in a moment of awareness their assumptions.

We can pray that helps, but we can fear that the people whom we most need to challenge their own assumptions believe that they already know better than the rest of us, so it is unlikely that matters will improve before we suffer serious destruction and disorder.


Much of Hilary Cottam’s work was in due course undermined by the politicians and technocrats whose interests are reliant on the status quo. Functional, intelligent solutions do not necessarily triumph over the forces of greed and self-interest. I greatly fear that only when disabilities, death and disasters are so excessive as to be undeniable will the mass of conformist people change themselves and their attitudes. By then it will be too late for many, and the wrath of the survivors could easily be as destructive as their former compliance.



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