Mean World Syndrome

People alive today have access to more news and entertainment than any human being in the history of the planet. If anything major happens in the world, we are all able to find out about it almost instantly. We’ve come a long way from the days when a hurricane could hit Long Island without any advanced warning for its residents. Surely that’s to our benefit, right?

Yes and no. We also have more access to misinformation and exaggeration, and our ability to think critically does not seem to be keeping apace. That means that many of us believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. This is called mean world syndrome, and it’s a serious problem.

If you don’t believe that your attitudes are shaped by the media, then you haven’t been paying attention. Without its influence, there’s no way that someone so deranged and unqualified could be in the White House. Without it, none of us would feel the need to keep up with the Kardashians. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt that need. But then, I don’t have a TV in my house, either.)

If it’s any comfort at all, according to this Public Radio International article, the world is a much safer pace than it used to be. War deaths have dramatically decreased. We just hear about them more often. We all work fewer hours each week. There is less poverty and homicide, and more democracy than ever before.

And this article from Psychology Today also states that violence against women and children has decreased worldwide. We are more likely to die of old age than in a hail of bullets.

And, lest we forget, the average life expectancy for the residents of this planet is now up in the 70’s, as opposed to age 48 back in 1950. That’s pretty remarkable, don’t you think? So stop what you’re doing, look about you, and breathe. It’s going to be okay. Odds are pretty good that you won’t encounter any lions or tigers or bears. Oh, my.

dorothy

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The Church of the Random Word Generator

Here’s why I take exception to the implication that any multi-language translation of an ancient text is the exact and perfect word of its author: Have you ever used Google Translate? Seriously, most old texts that are still studied today have been through so many idioms that the very idea that they bear even a passing resemblance to the original intent is laughable, at best. And even if you go to the original documents, in some notable cases, they were written 40 years or more after the events in question took place. Could you accurately describe something that happened 40 years ago? I couldn’t.

In addition, ancient scripts were written in the context of the times, and now we’re attempting to interpret these messages through our modern lens. That’s like dropping a modern teenager into the year 1530 and expecting that kid to fit right in. Whatever, as they say. Good luck with that.

Now, you also have to realize that many of the texts that came down to us came without spaces between words, or even vowels and punctuation, and you can see where the finished version that we currently rely on is a little sketchy in terms of accuracy and original intent. So maybe those words were separated rather, um, randomly.

I’m not bashing your religion. I’m just saying that rigidity is not the way to go. Add common sense into the mix. Throw in a dash of critical thinking. Remember that historical context is everything. Then you can be as spiritual as you want. Amen.

But thinking about all those translations and all the loss of integrity that has crept in over the years as various people added, deleted, and changed things, has made me think of my old friend, the Random Word Generator. What if religious texts got so altered over time that the words seemed random, and we were forced to interpret that mess?

I decided to do a little thought experiment. I pulled up a fairly standard version of The Lord’s Prayer (which is the only religious thing I know by heart), and I determined that it was 71 words long. Then I asked the Random Word Generator to spit out 71 words. Whoa, Nelly. That makes for one strange religion.

For added fun, I broke up our random words as if they were the Lord’s Prayer, giving it the same word count in the stanzas, and the same punctuation as this English version, and wound up with this:

The Lord’s Prayer (as per the Random Word Generator)

Record Pause, bronze stuff pottery shoot,

route drown attitude Photocopy,

compose write hallway,

curriculum bold cultivate racism,

worm harass death rotate staff crown protest.

Ice campaign elect snack adult conservation strict.

Roll traffic self inside license,

age convince limit crosswalk

witch wrong jump master.

Charm building treat electron mirror winner,

glare recession gold competence wrestle.

Eat concentration grain hurt bang,

wing ensure miracle, pool hen train,

Museum victory carry pity. President.

If I tried hard enough, I’m sure I could find some great advice in there. It might even alter the way I live my life. There does seem to be a certain level of violence implied as well. (That’s something that most world religions can’t seem to avoid.) It also shows hints of politics, a little bit of economic socialism, and it has me thinking that maybe children shouldn’t be able to get drivers’ licenses at the tender age of sixteen.

Hmm…

Heiroglyphics

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How Easily We’re Taken In

If you’ve got a website, you must be legit, right? Hmph. Anyone can have a website. What apparently is much harder to acquire is critical thinking.

Case in point, The Shed at Dulwich. For a few weeks, it was London’s number one ranked restaurant, according to TripAdvisor. It was the place to be. Their phones were ringing off the hook, but it was a wasted effort on hungry diners’ parts, because they were so exclusive, they were booked for weeks in advance.

The food on the website looked delicious. Their meals were mood themed. My favorite one is “Comfort”. It consisted of “Yorkshire blue Macaroni and Cheese seasoned with bacon shavings and served in a 600TC Egyptian cotton bowl. Comes with a side of sourdough bread.”

And even that didn’t raise eyebrows? I guess the thread count was high enough to give it authenticity. No pilly-sheeted bowls for their patrons!

Here’s the thing, though. The Shed was, literally, a shed. In someone’s back yard. No address, as it was “by appointment only”. No food to be had, unless you wanted to share the resident’s TV dinner. The food in the pictures was actually made of shaving cream and urinal cakes and even, in one case, the author’s foot. It was a huge hoax. It was all just an experiment to see if he could punk TripAdvisor, and wow, did he ever.

Before you say you’d have never fallen for it, ask yourself how many times you’ve bought something that was completely unnecessary simply because it was popular. Can you deny that you’ve ever regretted an impulse buy? Have you ever stood in line for the latest iPhone when the one you have is perfectly functional? Who among us doesn’t look at pictures of ourselves from 35 years ago and think, “What the devil was I thinking when I bought that shirt?”

Let’s admit what the advertising industry has known all along: Humans will follow trends even if it takes them over the edge of a cliff. Even the Russians know this. It’s why we have a buffoon in the White House.

This destructive tendency is even more acute now that we have the internet. Now we can have our misinformation more quickly and act upon it with even less thought. How lucky are we?

We need to teach ourselves and future generations to ask questions and check sources and listen to that little doubtful voice inside our heads. We need to value education and actually apply that learning to our daily lives. Otherwise we will plunge off that cliff to our urinal-caked doom.

Urinal Cake
Urinal Cake, anyone?

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If I Disagree with You, It’s because You’re Wrong.

When my late sister wanted to push my buttons, she would say, “You have very strong opinions.” For decades, this put me in a place where I could not win. I wanted her approval so much that I’d try not to have strong opinions. I’d try not to have any opinions at all. I’d try to figure out exactly where I was wrong, or bad or crazy. I’d try to change who I was, and I’d fail, and therefore feel even worse about myself.

Then one day in my early 40’s it occurred to me that maybe the reason she felt that my opinions were so strong was that they weren’t being changed by her often contradictory ones. I realized that everyone is entitled to an opinion. I express my opinions, yes, but I never insist that the rest of the world agree with me. In fact, I find that in general I’m not particularly persuasive. I finally said to my sister, “Yeah, but as long as I’m not forcing those opinions on you, what difference does it make?” And just like that, after decades of what felt like pure torture to me, that particular button was never pushed again.

Opinions. Everybody’s got ‘em.

Just recently, in my internet wanderings, I was introduced to a concept called confirmation bias. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

“Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about current political issues, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.”

I suppose I always knew that confirmation bias existed, but I never knew it had a name or that so many studies have been done about it. I’m willing to concede that every one of us is guilty of confirmation bias, but here’s where it gets dangerous: people in the throes of confirmation bias can make bad investments, poor choices, or break laws. Have you ever said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time…”

Economies have been destroyed and wars have been waged by people influenced by their own confirmation bias. It is why the concept of bloodletting persisted for 2,000 years, and why there are still people, even today, who think the world is flat, and that man has never walked on the moon. Confirmation bias is the bedrock of every cult and lunatic fringe militia on the face of the earth.

Unfortunately, it’s also a major factor in many forms of mental illness. Depressed? It will be so much easier to believe the negative things said about you, your circumstances, or the world in general, thanks to your old friend confirmation bias. Schizophrenic? It’s not that hard to find people who agree with the voices in your head. Hypochondriac? Someone will gladly confirm your diagnoses for a price, and since they agree with you, they must be more right than those doctors who are telling you that you’re fine. Paranoid? In this information age, when any nut case can have a platform to express his views (including me!), you’re bound to find “evidence” to support your conspiracy theories.

The good news is there are things you can do to reduce your confirmation bias.

  • Take the extra time to actually confirm facts. Two of my favorite websites for this are www.snopes.com, and www.factcheck.org.
  • Keep an open mind. Allow yourself to hear opposing opinions and ideas, and if they come with a boatload of documentation, you may want to take them seriously. This is called exploratory thought.
  • Take pride in being able to say, “I was wrong.” It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to do so.
  • Ask yourself if you are rejecting information simply because it doesn’t confirm your belief. Then ask yourself why it’s so important to you to maintain the belief you have.
  • Think critically and logically instead of emotionally and aggressively.
  • Continually ask yourself, “Is this information a fact, or is it an opinion or a rumor?”
  • Try to stay rational and remain calm. If you think there’s some evil international conspiracy at work, and you seem to be the only one privy to it, odds are you have a problem, because a) It’s nearly impossible for more than two people to keep a secret, and b) What are the odds that YOU are the one person on the entire planet to have been given this revelation? I mean, yeah, it could happen, but the odds are heavily stacked against you.
  • Apply the principle of Occam’s Razor. The simplest theory, the one that requires the least amount of assumptions, is often the correct one. For example, unless you live in Africa, if you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras.
  • Think for yourself. If the evidence before you is that the emperor has no clothes, then he’s naked, regardless of what everyone around you is saying. Be careful about this, though. Make sure you’re drawing your conclusions from facts, not simply from a strong desire to see the emperor naked.

Of course, all of this is my opinion. Feel free to decide for yourself.