Group political behavior and common Epistemic terrain

The  “epistemic terrain” that the insurgent dissenter moves in is different than the dominant one from which we derive our sense of social connectedness.  When we agree on common landmarks and other emotional and conceptual points of reference, we further acknowledge this geographical metaphor with such expressions as knowing the other is coming from the same place.  Of course it is not simply a dead topology.  “Terrain” is an imperfect term if we think of it as consisting of inert geographical features, rather than one heavily populated with entities with intentions. If we think about it, the critical features of this “terrain” is that it has intentionality.  During the lead up to the Iraq war, the neocon terrain painted for us was populated by nefarious cruel leaders from the Middle East who would make surprising devastating attacks on America if nothing was done. How did this empiric terrain become so widely shared?  We know from cognitive behavior that unexpected severe events cause us to consider alternate terrains in order to find a better predictive models. This is as fundamental to animal learning behavior as it is to our political behavior. With 9-11 attacks from the air, the fear of a nuclear mushroom cloud over an American city… such images rivet our attention and can cause us to suspend disbelief long enough to step from one epistemic terrain or “framework” into another.

The Iraq War provides a rich example of the dyanamic of such frames giving way to counter frames as the war progressed. The frames can be resilient. Even as late as 2006, a Harris poll reported that 38 percent of Americans still believed that the US had located WMDs in Iraq. 62 percent believed that Iraq gave substantial support to al Qaeda. Manuel Castells provides an summary of how the epistemic terrain was strategically modeled and adjusted as the war progressed, making reference to several published studies on the subject in his book “Communication Power” (see kindle location 3153, for the chapter “Conquering the minds, Conquering Iraq, Conquering Washington: From Misinformation to Mystification” ).

Our 18th century model of politics assumes that the forces of intellect will win the day over such distortions- that if our population had empirical minds considering just the facts and resolutely adhering to rules of logical analysis, then the errors of such “epistemic terrains” would be quickly detected, and political consensus would be swiftly arrived at.

The problem is that belief and faith form the bedrock of our framing. The framing is inferred from facts, but it is the projective power of the known into the unknown that constitutes the value of the frame for the organism’s survival. As we get older, we fit alternate frames to the world and begin to settle on those that have the best predictive power for the results we value. Switching frames comes at a cost, and as we get older we become more and more resistant to switching them. Substantial failures of the frame to predict and minimize the negative effects of unforeseen events provide opportunities to switch frames.

I’d like people to consider the cognitive basis of this, but before going there, it is worthwhile noting this has practical and widespread political impact. 9-11 provided neocons the opportunity to switch the national mindset from the dominant frame of multilateral cooperation and adherence to rule of international law. The Wall Street meltdown provided the Obama administration an opportunity to switch the national mindset from the dominant economic frame but so far has not managed to project a coherent alternative epistemic terrain as the Neocons did.

So, consider the foundations. At 12 months of age, infants will watch a movie showing a small gray ball moving towards a wall, jumping over it and coming to rest near a larger black ball. In this cognitive science experiment, researcher György Gergely showed that infants infer that the gray ball jumps the wall to get to the black ball. When subsequent clips are played with the barrier is removed, the infants expect the gray ball to move directly to the black ball rather than carrying on jumping. (source) Infants are uninterested in the clip with the ball moving directly to the black ball, because this behavior fits the learned framed of the intentionality of the gray ball. It is when the unexpected happens- when the gray ball leaps even though the barrier is not there- that the infants become fascinated with the movement.

This experimental result demonstrating the role in learning of intentionality in a narrative frame  illustrates what I meant when I wrote that it is the “projective power of the known into the unknown that constitutes the value of the frame for the organism’s survival”.   Believing what the gray ball “wants” to do allows one to predict what it will do in new situations. Similar learned frames of an impala’s intensions gives the lion a belief of what it will do- which direction it will jump when it is flushed. Unexpected results produce a modified frame until the experienced hunter will be more resistant to abandoning a reliable frame despite occasional failures. It is not so much our faith in a leader that causes us to resolutely march into Pete Seeager’s “Big Muddy” despite evidence of a looming fiasco. Even though the terrain around us has many non living entities, animals with evolved brains model the changes in the environment around them as entities with intentions. This pre-rational behavior is fundamental to how our minds work. We don’t “Know” from a kind of 18th century model of empirical fact and logic how they prey will move. It is an unknowable. It is a matter of intuitive projection, or “belief” based on the outcomes our minds measure as most probable given the interaction between the believed intentions of the multiple entities involved. The analog of these models in computers use networks of probabilities called a belief network. Both the biological and silicon versions though powerfully predictive are imperfect, but not because they do not rely on explicit use of first order logic and direct extrapolation from facts. Even when the models are on the opposite end of the spectrum of analysis and attention to factual data from the Neocon model of Iraq, they are have inherent blind spots. The failure of wall street risk models was predicted as an inevitable “Black Swan event” by one expert quantitative analyst.

The “epistemic terrain” can refer to a narrow frame as in the case of Iraq described by Castells, where Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden’s intentions against America are believed to be sufficiently strong to unite them in a WMD attack on the US using bin Laden as a proxy. In the 60s the same narrative of a WMD attack on the US by the Soviet Union through Cuba as a proxy was used.

Why did America fall for it? Where did our Enlightened 18th century defenses of rationality go? Did we all descend into collective insanity? Perhaps the populace do not have sufficiently well trained critical minds capable of questioning the powerful, but what about the multitude of journalists that had all the tools necessary to offer convincing alternative counterframes?

We return full circle to the introductory sentence. A common epistemic terrain binds social groups, and to challenge the common reality is to risk immediate and severe ostracism, the “necklacing with a burning tire” that Dan Rather feared- that every US journalist feared- of being accused of lack of patriotism after 9-11. (BBC interview). It is the same fear experienced when a Penn State player views a completely unpredictable event that undermined the common epistemic ground he shared with Penn state enthusiasts. His coach was raping a boy in the showers- and his “mind would be gone. (to quote Jon Ritchie interview by ESPN see 8:45). For several years this went on, with multiple witnesses, multiple reports, and an inability for large numbers of highly “rational” participants to revolt against the frame that imprisoned their thinking.

Perhaps our willingness to adopt the neocon epistemic terrain was due to the failure of Americans to learn the lessons of Vietnam.  But many in powerful media positions knew that lesson well.   Dan Rather for example was correspondent there and experienced it firsthand. This did not give him immunity. Nor have we been suffering from a lack of necessary innovation in media technology, nor a lack of critical analysis, logic, empiricism or other tools of linear thinking. What we lack is a sophisticated cognitive style with frames.  Some attributes of such sophistication include:

  • a sense of identity that allows fluidity in shifting between frames,
  • willingness to fully immerse oneself in an alternate from, engaging it within its own terms
  • lack of a need to shelter oneself from the emotional dissonance caused from honestly considering the world from the standpoint of an alternative frame no matter how wildly divergent from one’s own.

Can there be harmony of social collaboration in a multipolar world where players assume divergent epistemic terrains? Plato pointed out that the tyrants attempt a false harmony- they seek to escape the constraints of power sharing balances between dissonant perspectives. Like Bush, Malaki in Iraq seeks to establish harmony through unitary exercise of power, sweeping aside established laws that obstruct the unilateral imposition of a singular order. It was an order that US power failed to impose on Iraq, and that the Shiites will fail to impose on the Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis. The real revolution in the middle east was not unitary, but a multipolar leaderless swarm rising against the unitary leaders in power prior to the Arab Spring.

If anyone gives too great a power to anything, too large a sail to a vessel, too much food to the body, too much authority to the mind, and does not observe the mean, everything is overthrown, and in the wantonness of excess, runs in the one case to disorders, and in the other to injustice, which is the child of excess. (Laws, book III)

This mean requires multiple poles. It is an equilibrium that can only be achieved if fair weight is given to all perceptual vantage points. Equilibrium cannot be arrived at on the cheap- by merely selecting the position of mediocrity between extremes on a single axis stretching between the extremes of opposing views on an issue. Some cynical analysts leverage this fallacy when they use extremist expressions to manipulate the position of the Overton window.

The alternative cognitive style can be described with some elementary terms from geometry. Instead each pole is a vector in its own dimension, and the mean between two perspectives is the resulting vector product in an additional third dimension. Viewed this way, the intensity of the non dominant view is not attenuated in the least. The dissenting view of Brooksley Born warned of a looming crisis in credit default swaps in 1997. Viewed in a single dimension, the conventional “fair and balanced” mean would be that the truth was somewhere between the perspective of Greenspan and Rubin vs that of Born. This is nonsense. The true mean does not imply centrism or succumbing to the golden mean fallacy, it implies thinking as in the case of a vector product.   Former UN weapons inspectors warned that the claims of the Bush administration were false. The information was there, but without willingness to visualize the true mean in the added dimension of the inspectors, their perceptual vector becomes flattened into opacity or invisibility. This is analogous to the case of a vector in a third dimension being invisible or seemingly insignificant in a 2 dimensional visualization when the vector in the 3rd dimension runs directly away from the viewer. This cognitive distortion is proportionate to the degree the alternate view is perpendicular to the dimensionality of the dominant frames.

This cognitive phenomenon predates human thought, occurring everyday due to our inflexibility with alternate frames; our desperation for certainty; our flight from emotional dissonance; our fear of alienation that punishes any expression of a dissonant frame; and our hunger for the familiarity of common epistemic ground as we wrap our mind in whatever framework our loved ones share.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-12-28, in cognitive dissonance, collective consciousness, Iraq War, language, logos, narratives, phenomenology, reality bending. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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