Some time ago, I read a book titled The Watchman’s Rattle, Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, written by Rebecca D. Costa. The book examines the effect of ever increasing complexity in our society and the preponderance of over-specialization and silo-thinking we now face. At the time, I wasn’t overly fond of the book, I thought Costa’s conclusions were based on authority arguments rather than facts, but over time I’ve come to appreciate the insight she shared and am seeing signs of the extinction she spoke of already taking place.
Early on Costa discusses the demise of both the Mayan Empire and the Khmer Empire of ancient Cambodia (the builders of Angkor Wat). Both societies, Costa argues, were dependent on the flow and availability of water, and in their prime both societies were the pinnacle of technological advancement in that regard, building hugely complex irrigation systems and aqueducts. So successful were they that both empires grew to populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, bringing demand for access to water and for the removal of waste, and for the protection of homes and villages from flood waters to an all time high.
Costa argues that an imbalance between beliefs and knowledge began to arise. With the increase in complexity came a decrease in understanding among the masses. She claims that spiritual or superstitious beliefs began to overtake technical knowledge and even the pursuit for that knowledge, and ultimately the people began looking for supernatural means to solve their technological problems. She claims that this dichotomy was the impetus for ritual animal and human sacrifice, seeking action from gods for protection from floods and for blessings in the growing season. Ultimately, according to Costa, this resulted in the eventual collapse of the entire society.
Costa talks about the availability of facts as a measure for how complex a society has become, and points out that where facts are unavailable, we tend to make up our own facts or explanations. The more difficult it becomes to differentiate between facts and pseudo-facts; the more prone we are to accept the more readily available answer. Accessibility becomes the deciding factor between belief and knowledge, and it is the separation between belief and knowledge that threatens our own society today.
Recently there has been a virtual battle raging between facts and pseudo-facts in our culture.
For decades the medical community has been vigorously searching for a cure for what is arguably the single greatest killer of our modern society, cancer. And while progress has been made with the treatment of symptoms and with the techniques used to remove cancerous cells from the body, the medical community at large tells us that a cure is still far away. Millions, even billions of dollars have been spent on medical research and millions if not billions more will be spent in the future.
If you take a look on the internet, you’ll probably find a good number of so-called cancer cures, from faith healing to shark cartilage, all of which are most certainly quackery. You’ll also probably come across at least one website claiming that the powers-that-be have already come up with a cure and are keeping it under wraps for financial or political gain.
This, it seems to me, highlights the divide between facts and pseudo-facts, between belief and knowledge. There are two teams in this battle, on one side the medical community and on the other the masses looking for the easiest answer. Again, as Costa suggests, the accessibility of facts is the determining factor in the victory of this battle. One side here, and I’ll let you guess which one, is based on knowledge, or facts, and the other is based on belief, or pseudo-facts.
So why do so many people choose to put their faith in pseudo-facts?
In all areas of modern life we are faced with this dilemma, our lives require that we seek out knowledge. We need facts in order to live our daily lives, and while every fact requires a certain level of faith or belief, the sources of those facts are not all created equal. In the case of the cancer cure, is it simple mistrust of the medical community that drives the quackery? I don’t think so. While mistrust may play a role, I think it’s the availability of the facts at hand that impedes our knowledge. A deep and successful understanding of the complex facts offered by the medical community requires a good deal of effort. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to go online and latch onto the first plausible, or seemingly plausible answer instead.
The same is true for so many different subjects and at the heart of this argument may seem to be a theological conflict, disparaging religion in favour of science, and I offer no denial that those two institutions are in conflict with one another, but I truly feel the issue is really one of knowledge vs. belief. With greater knowledge, belief holds less sway over our lives.
Unfortunately, as attractive as pseudo-facts may be in the moment, they offer no real solutions and ultimately put us at the top of a slippery slope, one that starts with unsupported answers and ends with full blown spiritual superstition and maybe animal sacrifice. There is a difference between belief and knowledge, and it’s dismaying to see so many people putting value on the former in spite of the latter.
And I think that difference is nicely caricatured by the following quote found on RationalWiki.org:
“Because cancer and other forms of deformities are the results of the curse of sin, I believe that scientists are probably wasting their time in trying find cures. In the end, their efforts will either amount to nothing or they will invoke God’s wrath.” —Rapture Ready, “Does God approve of cloning and genetic research?”
This is not a question of whether God exists, it’s a question of where do we put our faith? In the supernatural, hoping for the right answer delivered by means of magic, or in the empirical, knowing the answer is right because it’s been tested and verified?
The internet is a powerful tool, you have a world of information at your fingertips, just remember that the facts you come by the easiest, may not be the right facts.
 This is supported archaeologically; Dr. Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney and co-director of the Greater Angkor Project has detailed this version of events for the demise of the Khmer Empire, beginning with a failed attempt to dam the Siem Reap River which ultimately lead to the collapse of the entire network of canals, moats, ponds and reservoirs.