The strange behaviour of the sub-atomic world caused a few physicists to worry that we might be able to invent a particle collider powerful enough to generate a black hole of sufficient mass that it would drag our entire Earth over its “event horizon”, causing our planet to disappear. But calculations in 1999 deemed this impossible. In 2001, other calculations indicate the possibility. In 2003, the threat was once more dismissed because new calculations suggested any black hole we created would immediately vanish. But in 2008, during the construction of the incredibly powerful Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, a few physicists continued to warn of the possible danger. By 2010, the LHC was functioning near full power and, fortunately, our planet has not yet disappeared into a black hole.
One of the interesting discoveries resulting from this black hole issue – aside from not disappearing into one – was that we learned more about the psychological and sociological mechanisms of our decision making. This non-event created enough worry among a few physicists that social scientists were inspired to examine more carefully how we make decisions and how we may be deceived by a flawed thinking process which we believe to be logical and measured.
The subject also gains relevance every time the world is predicted to end, a non-event that happens frequently. The latest, scheduled by a fundamentalist Christian group in America, was for Saturday, May 21, 2011. If anyone missed it, the next end is due in 2012 when the Mayan calendar reaches its last recordable date. If end-of-the-world events have been not-occurring with historical regularity, why have the predictions been so inaccurate?
Social scientists have identified a number of misleading thought processes “that can skew attempts to reach objective assessments of risk,” notes an article in the New Scientist (May 20/10). “Cognitive dissonance”, for example, “describes the tendency of people to seek information that is consistent with their beliefs and to avoid information that is inconsistent.” “Groupthink”, a second process, describes how intelligent individuals, working in a group, can reach conclusions that are not justified by the facts. And “confirmation bias”, a third process, is our inclination to be optimistic, to select only the information that confirms the conclusions we want.
When these three processes are applied to the environmental risks surrounding us, we get some illuminating insights. Consider, for example, the variety of insidious toxins now infiltrating our land, water and air. These pollutants are created by the same admirable ingenuity that makes miracle products, generates vast wealth, and defines our technological civilization. If this technology is the culmination of who we are, but it is also poisoning us and our planet’s biological systems, the result for us is “cognitive dissonance”, a collision between the technology that defines us and the ecology essential to our existence. Since our image of ingenuity is difficult to abandon, our first impulse is to reduce the tension by denying the seriousness of the pollution.
“Groupthink” is a similarly dangerous process. If a group of like-minded people can be bonded together – think of tobacco corporations rallying pro-smokers to deny the unhealthy effects of cigarette use – then this group can be manipulated to blindly support an idea contrary to scientific evidence. The same dynamic of “groupthink” operates in “brand” marketing where emotional loyalty is cultivated and nourished by advertising. The fan base of professional sports teams is engineered by “groupthink” – the root of “fan”, incidentally, is an abbreviation of “fanatic”. And, arguably, our entire consumer culture functions as a giant “groupthink”, an unquestioning belief that our fulfilment is based on buying and owning – “I shop, therefore, I am.” Even though the evidence is that we don’t get any happier with ever-ascending levels of material possession, and that the ecology of our planet cannot continue to absorb the environmental impacts, we still embrace consumerism – willingly abetted by the corporate advertising that feeds “groupthink”.
The risks associated with “confirmation bias” express themselves in numerous ways. We want oil, so we believe that we can drill safely in ocean bottoms kilometres below the surface. We want jobs, so we believe that a new mine can operate without environmental damage. We want leisure, so we believe exotic vacations are mandatory. Corporations are particularly inclined to the error of “confirmation bias” primarily because their first objective is to convince both investors and the public of the profit and social merits of their projects. Note Enbridge and its pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat, Compliance Energy and its proposal for coal mining in the Comox Valley, or Quinsam Coal and its desire to expand existing operations in a watershed already being compromised by its toxic run-off. Salmon farming uses the same strategy of touting its benefits while minimizing its ecological damage. Conflict invariably results when the “confirmation bias” employed by proponents to under estimate risks collides with those who want a realistic assessment.
And what is the end result of these misleading thought processes? We don’t know – yet. We haven’t reached the end of history. While the present rewards have been incredible technological, material and economic benefits, the optimism that we humans are actually making wise decisions is being shaken as we take stock of the global environmental costs.
The mounting impacts are ominous. And now, as we start the introspective process of examining the wisdom of our collective decisions, we are beginning to realize that the black hole that undoes us, instead of being subatomically small, may be as big as the way we think.