Masks: Neoluddism as a Response to Learned Helplessness

Politicization of that which should not be politicized—this is the defining feature of our dysfunctional political arena. Politicization seems to be a one-way process. A topology previously lit by soft even light is cast into stark chiaroscuro, forming sharp battle lines. Once those boundaries between darkness and truth are defined, the combatants from opposing tribes line up and dig in, pushing in a manic scrum that sets Twitter afire.

Yet often the boundary between shadow and light doesn’t reflect the truth—hills cast their shadow onto plains, and shadows obscure subtle variations in the terrain. Most importantly, the boundary between light and shadow, good and evil, is controlled by the interaction between the groundtruth and the brightest light in the sky. Rarely do the combatants on the ground look up and wonder about the placement of the light.

And so the political debate ignores the hills, the local optima, and engages in an incoherent battle on a worthless field. It matters not that the yard behind you is just the same as the yard ahead of you—the goal is to push the opposite tribe back. Every inch is a hill to die on. We must not lose, so we unburden ourselves from the fetters of formality, of decency, of tradition. We cannot spare a moment to look up, to look around and question why we are here. If we do this, and the enemy does not, we will lose this inch of ground.

In this political struggle, it often seems that common sense has become a casualty. Especially on “the other side”, people profess belief for unimaginably dumb ideas. How has this happened? How have things gotten so bad?

Of course, common sense is a magic word. In our political battles, common sense is my side of the line. Everything cast in darkness is obviously wrong, anybody can see that. Anything the light touches is true, that’s just common sense.

But here, I use common sense to mean conclusions that, given some priors, anybody would find reasonable. These are conclusions that don’t require unintuitive laws of science, math, or probability. The problem lies, then, in the priors.

There is little shared truth in our world. It used to be that truth was plain to see. In the 16th century, the logic of the world was evident. Things worked intuitively. Other events were completely inscrutable to the common man, like disease or weather. These were the domain of God. In general, the world fell into two categories. Things were simple and intuitive, or they were random and unknowable. A builder could hold in his mind the entirety of a construction project. A farmer understood all his tools, his crops, and his lands.

In the 500 years since, we’ve continued to lay brick upon brick in science and engineering. Revolutions have replaced the substrate of our world—first with ingenious contraptions of cogs and pulleys (like threshers), then machines driven by steam, then with electrical lights and telegraphs, then with cars, planes, spaceships, and home appliances, then with digital calculators, and finally with digital communication.

At every step, we’ve sacrificed intuitiveness for efficiency. Productivity replaced personality. And soon, no one person could comprehend all the intricacies of a construction project, and the farmer didn’t understand his tractors and combines or the genetic engineering behind his crops. Perhaps you could, with some time, figure out how an 18th century mechanical thresher works by looking at it. How about a steam engine? How about a microwave oven?

There is much we must accept at face value to even function in our modern world, much less thrive. This device requires this power cable, not that one (USB C, micro USB, thunderbolt vs lightning (?), …). This material requires that cleaning fluid, others will cause it to deteriorate (e.g. don’t use glass cleaner on touchscreens, don’t use bleach on metal surfaces, …). Even 30 years ago, you might be able to pop the hood on your car and figure out what is wrong with it. Now, in the age of computers and no-right-to-repair, you might be able to look up a Youtube tutorial in order to figure out what’s wrong—but the problems you can solve by yourself are much slimmer.

There is a phenomenon termed “learned helplessness.” In animal experiments, there is a fence. On one side, the ground is electrified. The animal jumps to the other side. If both sides are electrified, the animal learns not to jump—doing so does not help. Once the animal has learned this, even if one side is de-electrified, the animal does not jump off the electrified floor. It has learned that it cannot save itself, that it must simply endure the lot it has been given in life.

In human life, we quickly learn that we are not in control of our environment. We are surrounded by black boxes that operate by certain rules. Outside of those rules, there is little that intuition can do to save us. Our education is partially to blame for this. The world is so complex that it is difficult to explain why a particular counterintuitive fact is true, without first learning the principles behind it. But truly learning the principles that govern the natural world is difficult—it is much easier to memorize them, applying the same strategy you apply to the other seemingly-arbitrary facts of life.

Ironically, though we understand much more as a civilization than we did in the 16th century, the average person understands even less of their environment. The domain of “simple and intuitive” has shrunk while the domain of “random and unknowable” has grown. The only difference is that appeal to authority has replaced prayer to God.

While religious scripture at least remains constant, scientific authority is not so kind. The problem is two-fold. First, scientific consensus changes. This is an unavoidable consequence of progress—our best guess at the truth changes.  Second, the Word of Science is filtered through the priests of the media. Unfortunately, journalists are not very good augurs.

One day, we learn that plastic is causing our cancer epidemic. The next day, we learn that it is actually cell phones causing the epidemic. The next, we learn that in fact there is no cancer epidemic at all.

So it is no wonder that neoluddism is appealing. It is a rope dangled in front of us, a way off our electrified floor. Reject the scientist, reject the technologist, the technocrat, the subject-matter expert. The neoluddist is tired of the epistemic rug from being pulled out from under them, so they reject climate science, vaccines, counterintuitive fiscal policies, and the 5G rollout. They are suspicious of new policy and logic being pushed by ivory tower experts, policy that cannot be truly comprehended by the average citizen. No longer will people lord over us with appeals to authority masquerading as logic and reason.

A striking example of this is the “debate” over facemasks. The science is relatively unambiguous. Though there are points of disagreement in the scientific world, they aren’t captured by, or particularly relevant to, the public discourse. The use of masks could have been framed as a straightforward, common-sense protection against a virulent respiratory disease. But someone cast a spotlight on the issue, and so both the Red tribe and the Blue tribe dutifully hustled over and formed battle lines. The Blue tribe would cheer for masks, and the Red tribe would cheer against masks.

And so in Blue California, you can sit and watch as joggers hustle by wearing masks, despite the evidence being excruciatingly clear that transmission likelihood is mainly a function of room size and duration of contact. Briefly passing by someone outside is not a vector for transmission. Nevertheless, people don their masks before stepping outside of their door, like astronauts donning a helmet before stepping onto a hostile planet.

Meanwhile, in Red Indiana, people invent creative ways to flout mask regulations, such as open mesh masks intended to provide as little protection as possible against transmission:

Tweet: "While there are Counties requiring masks in public; NO law requires a specific type or particulate rating of mask. The general public are making their own masks including open mesh. No fines have been issued while wearing them in public. This is about compliance, not safety."

This is all, of course, madness. Masks are a tool to prevent transmission of respiratory disease, and should not be some icon of tribal identification.

Who is to blame? If you are in the Blue tribe, you may blame the Red tribe. After all, your only goal is to increase public safety and prevent a pandemic from ravaging our economy and population. The Red tribe decided to politicize the issue, casting it as an imposition on personal freedom by the dirty Blues.

But consider that initially, authorities (such as the WHO and CDC) said that masks did not work to protect against this respiratory disease. This was, of course, a political move. The scientific consensus has not changed—masks decrease transmission of communicable respiratory diseases. This is not the only time a political position has been pushed under the guise of scientific reason, it is simply the most recent and blatant.

When the battle line deviates from reality, using reason becomes impossible. The only tactics that remain are appeals to authority and incoherent ad-hominem polemic. But as the battle moves forward or backward, we must appeal to a new authoritative truth. Regardless of your tribe, the average person has no control or understanding over the processes that generate scientific consensus. It comes down as immutable and inscrutable as the word of God, where it is weaponized in political debate. And if appeal to authority is a political weapon, then the defense is to disregard that authority.

When we resort to appeals to authority for even the most basic things, we expand the territory of “random and unknowable” and we further shrink the territory of “simple and intuitive”. In doing so, we make neoluddism seem like a better and better option. Each new reversal in the apparent messaging from authority (e.g. “actually, masks do decrease your chance of getting COVID-19!“) is an electric shock. Given the chance, wouldn’t you want to escape otherwise inevitable electrocution?

Common sense is the opposite of appeal to authority. Common sense is navigation of the simple and intuitive, while appeal to authority is navigation of the random and unknowable. If we are to enable common sense to triumph over senseless political struggle, we must expand the boundary of universally agreed-upon priors.

In the analogy of the political arena as shadows on the landscape of reality, science has a pretty good map of the terrain. Logic and reason is our compass. We need to make sure that everybody has a copy of the map, has a compass, and has a flashlight to guide their step even if they tread in darkness—for the darkness is merely the machination of a higher power, an elite force that wishes to create a political divide in an otherwise unremarkable field. 

We need to train the common person to use these implements. But most importantly, we need to stop the scrum. There is no use for navigational implements when the only direction that matters is simply forwards or backwards. One person cannot stand up and walk forwards into the darkness, for they will be attacked, and they cannot retreat to a sensible hilltop behind them, for they will be called a coward and a defector by their own tribe.

As individuals in this society, what we can do is reject appeals to authority. Regardless of whether the appeal is in favor of your tribe or not, you must cultivate a kneejerk reaction against it. If you cannot derive from your own priors the “truth” being handed down to you, and if you cannot explain that derivation to someone outside of your infosphere, then you must shield your mind from the information. You must build a wall around that fact and investigate it thoroughly, or at least stay dutifully dubious.

This may seem wrong-headed. It may seem indistinguishable from neoluddism, in fact. “Reject scientific truth? But that’s what the other side does!”

But if you do not seek your own truth, then you have no truth at all. Although we all operate in an uncertain informatic landscape and accept statements without the time or means to totally verify them, we should be mindful of which statements we have accepted without sufficient evidence. Do I believe this thing because somebody told me that a scientist believes it? Or do I believe it because I’ve dug down and understood the arguments for and against the truth of the thing, and judged it for myself?

We cannot verify or falsify all our beliefs. There is not enough time in the day. But we can cultivate a kneejerk reaction against authoritative new statements. Seek out arguments against that which you believe. Stay dubious. Cautiously consider new beliefs, and stay especially cautious if the belief is particularly dominant in the zeitgeist. Make note of your axioms, of the epistemic hills you are willing to die on, and do not shy away from evidence that may explode those hills—if a cherished belief is false, then it is better to abandon it rather than demand that it remain true.

This is where truth-seeking differs from neoluddism. Neoluddism exists because shifting “truth” is forced upon us, and some people—denied the tools to effect their own navigation through the evidence—cry “enough!” and reject this authoritative “truth” in order to regain control over their own lives. In rejecting blind faith in one authority, however, they are still controlled by it. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Neoluddites see the herd corralled down one path, and head in the opposite direction. Truth-seekers, in contrast, ignore the herd and the neoluddites, and simply consider the paths in front of them, picking their own way forward.

The answer to the divide in our society’s discourse is not to push harder. Pushing harder—be it on masks, climate change, vaccine safety, evolution, 5G safety, or any other needlessly politicized arena—is simply putting your head down and contributing to the scrum. This inch is not the hill you should die on. It’s ok to lose ground, because disentangling from the scrum is the only way to cause others to disentangle from the scrum.

There is no victory to be gained in the struggle. If your argument against giving up political ground is that it will let the other side win… well, you’ve made my point.

Neoluddites don’t hate truth. They are rebelling against the learned helplessness of modern scientific society. They are seeking the real truth of common sense, rather than submitting to the shifting, inscrutable truth of modern scientific authority. Admittedly, their search for truth isn’t very effective. But take a moment to introspect: do you actually love and seek truth? Or do you love winning?

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