In two days, Colombians will go to the urns to vote, in the first of two rounds of this year’s presidential election. Last night I watched two of the recent debates between the candidates (here and here). It brought to my mind one of Shakespeare's famous quotes: "When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools". Indeed. The same feeling invaded me in 2012's US presidential elections. Democracy does not feel right. I confess, however, that I don't see anything better. Having a scientific training, it is hard for me not to try to understand what is happening in my country from a scientific point of view.
The first thing to my mind that must be taken into consideration is how our minds work when we listen to candidates speak and defend their proposals. I am not an expert in cognitive science, but there are some facts about our minds that everyone should know.
First thing we must remember is that we have big brains not because we are very smart and rational animals, but because we are very social animals. When we look and listen to someone, our mental energy goes mostly to (unconsciously) trying to figure out whether we like or not the person we are paying attention to. Therefore, we stop paying attention to the logic of the arguments, and we instead incur in all types of biases to pick up only what we want to hear, what makes sense to us, and what confirms our previous beliefs. Our brains are super-machines of empathy. And we cannot help it. It is exactly analogous to trying not to be fooled by a visual illusion. It is impossible.
And second, our brains evolved to understand small scale social phenomena. And by "small" I mean small groups of people, perhaps on the order of a hundred persons. Not groups with millions of people. Moreover, they did not evolve to understand problems of statistics, economics, climate change, ecology, and in general, problems of complexity. We are very good at understanding the hates and loves that happen inside our families (again, read Shakespeare), but we are terrible at understanding a financial market. Some of the great minds in human history have devoted their entire lives to understand small and specific problems about those complex systems. And those great minds are the first to recognize how much we still don't know. Nobel prizes are awarded to those who can shed the dimmest light to how economies work, and how we can improve them. So why do candidates fool themselves (and fool us), acting as if they knew how to solve all the problems of a country? They don't know, they can't know, and they won't solve them. If there are historical cases when things went right, it was not because a single person knew how to do things. I am not being pessimistic or cynical. I am just trying to be realistic.
These two facts make a presidential debate completely valueless. Not only candidates do not know what they're talking about, we are not even listening to what they're talking about. What could be a solution to this? I am very open to hear proposals.
I will start this with one of my favorite stories by Augusto Monterroso. The title is El dinosaurio. Here it is:
Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
[When (he/she/it) awoke, the dinosaur was still there.]
It is a fantastic story, inviting the reader to use his or her imagination. Enjoy.
From philosophy of science to the science of cities, and the messiness of existence.