“Whoa-oo-who-o-o-o-oa, Listen to the Science”

Years ago a friend told me that when you’re talking to people in a group, the majority of them may not follow your words, but they will certainly “hear your music.” By this he meant that non-verbal cues would carry even if the substance of your comments doesn’t.

This effect becomes even more pronounced when most of the people you’re talking to don’t even have the basis for following your words even if they're paying rapt attention. Imagine, for example, being an epidemiologist interviewed on network news, encouraged to go into minute detail on how a virus infects a person, or how a vaccine promotes immunity.

People in the health-care sector might hear the substance of the epidemiologist’s words and find them accurate and valid.

You and I, however, would hear a lot of technobabble we can’t follow, and fall back on trusting the speaker's “music,” which may sound anxious because epidemiologists aren’t usually brilliant public speakers — especially if they’ve been selected by the network news to explain a complex medical concept.

And of course, when the science has finished speaking, the media chimes in, in the form of the interviewer, eyes wide and haunted, playing the song of fear — even if what the science just got through saying was that there was absolutely nothing to fear, and the virus/vaccine would only cause lollipops to spontaneously appear out of thin air at the exact moment you want them to.

This affords our media friends a perfect workaround for what Michael Crichton discussed when describing his “Gell-Mann Amnesia” effect, which would otherwise have medical professionals objecting to the lies the media would be putting in science’s mouth (while of course continuing to assume they’re getting everything else right). This way the knowledgeable are appeased while the rest remain subject to media fearmongering.

Maybe critical media-consumer skills should be taught to kindergarteners, and reinforced throughout the grades, and college, and as part of any continuing education that may be required for various occupations. Just to make sure it takes.

Personal Propaganda

I write fiction too, and have even sold some. So of course I still work at it in hopes of selling some more.

In a story I’m currently writing, I needed to segue into a scene that I knew had to happen, but I was blanking on how to do it. So, I decided on some exposition — which I would ordinarily have used to illustrate the setting, or the mindset of one or more specific characters, but which this morning I decided to use instead for some philosophy. And it actually does end up leading rather smoothly into the scene:

Institutions are, by definition, corrupt – in part because they are established by mere mortals, which makes them hardly unique, but also because they are established to promote specific goals, which inevitably put them at odds with other, potentially more laudable goals. But it’s the human part that turns them inevitably toward more corruption as the institutional goals, which may one day end the need for the institution, are subverted in favor of the institution’s perpetuation.

By perpetuating the problems it was founded to solve, if necessary.

Government agencies are notorious not only for falling into this trap, but for encouraging private institutions to follow suit, including especially those institutions founded specifically to discourage this process. So naturally there have been attempts to organize society without formal government, which fell even harder. Thousands of years of civilization seem destined never to teach humanity that the fault lies not in their works, but in their selves.

Which is not to say that societies that accept corruptibility as a given and attempt to use it against itself work out any better than those that surrender to corruptibility and hope for survival of the fittest. Corruption being an absolute evil, it cannot be brought to terms – it will never negotiate in good faith, and at bad faith it always wins by experience. It is a war often lost, never won, paused unwisely only to be renewed with regret.

For all that, the fatal error of institutions is that they treat the war as a public one, when in fact it is a war that rages within each for his own soul. Were humans capable of existing in pure solitude, that war could be won, sometimes — and when not, at least the consequences of losing the war could be suffered only by the loser. But we are not, and cannot be. We are doomed ever to fight this private war in public, and to have our defeats suffered by others.

[Character Name] had often enjoyed the time to think about such weighty ideas in this job of his, but now he was confronted with the truth of his predicament, of how he was targeted to become the victim of other people’s failure to win their personal war with corruption.

Emphasis added for effect.