A pop quiz for anyone concerned with bank loans, educating children or fast food. Which covers most of us.
This article examines our impulse to ‘do the right thing’. It looks at what stops us from doing it, and the impact this may have on the most important question our species has ever faced.
It starts and ends with a quiz: Questions at the top, Answers at the bottom.
You need money to stay in business, so you ask your bank for a loan. They demand proof you can repay it. You tell them you’re godfather to a newborn baby, who you reckon will make a lot of money, especially towards the end of his life, which you’ll inherit on his death.
Does the bank lend you money?
Your child plays fantasy football with friends on their game consoles. They discuss ‘their’ team, ‘their’ fantasy league ranking, ‘their’ players’ value, and ‘their’ profit/loss made trading football avatars with each other. They’re dimly aware of real-world football leagues, transactions and results, but are convinced their fantasy game is ‘real’ too.
What do you tell your child?
You’re hungry. On the way to a fast-food place, you pass an unfamiliar restaurant, enter and sit. A friendly-looking chef approaches your table, and you ask what’s on the menu. The chef describes the most delicious, healthy and nutritious looking menu you can imagine.
What do you do next?
(To skip to the answers, go to the end of this article. But they may make more sense if you keep reading the bit in between).
Doing The Right Thing
Listen to any politician, businessperson or even media influencer, and it’s usually not long before they justify some decision they’re taken as ‘The right thing to do’.
Sometimes this follows a detailed, complex philosophical, religious or moral argument. More often not. Sceptical listeners might imagine more ‘truthful’ answers to be:
- ‘Because I can‘
- ‘Because it benefits me and my family’
- ‘Because I’m more powerful than my opponents and there’s nothing they can do to prevent me’
Why is it so important for decision-makers to declare they’re ‘doing the right thing’? And if it’s a sin, are we all innocent of doing the same thing in our daily lives?
We might be used to accusing our political leaders of being insincere,sanctimonious, and self-serving. But do we too not sometimes claim the moral high ground without being particularly clear where it is, or how we got there?
Whether it’s Us or Them who says we’re Doing the Right Thing, we may say it as much to convince ourselves as our audience.
How to tell the Right Thing from the Wrong Thing
Whichever side of whatever argument, anywhere in the world at any point in history, humans sincerely believe what they’re doing is justified. Every psychopath thinks they’re acting reasonably. Every dictator dictates for the good of others. Every villain believes they’re an altruist.
History judges the victors, but until the results are out, we have to pick a horse and hope or trust it turns out to be the Right Thing. Breaking the cross-Atlantic record on a maiden voyage only becomes the Wrong Thing if you hit an iceberg. Invading your neighbouring county, even distant ones, only becomes evidently Wrong when you lose. Timing is everything.
What stops us knowing the Right Thing?
We wouldn’t have to explain ourselves unless we all sincerely wanted to Do The Right Thing. Yet among humanity’s more charming characteristics is our ability to consider ourselves to be ‘above average’ when it comes to Right Things like good driving, common sense, political or moral judgement. Instinctively Right, but statistically impossible.
Intelligence of all kinds, education, critical thinking, life experience and healthy scepticism are all buttresses against self-delusion, but are no guarantee you’re Right.
Statistician Hans Rosling elegantly demonstrated how the more educated you are, the more confident you’re likely to be that you know answers about United Nations Development Programme statistics in rich and poor countries. And the more likely you’ll be Wrong. Not just Wrong, but outscored in multiple-choice questionnaires by dart-throwing chimpanzees.
Much of this is down to unconscious bias, but how can we be conscious of unconscious bias?
The answer lies in the question, but doesn’t make it any easier to address. We’re victims of our evolutionary success – too clever for our own good.
We can’t know what ‘the right thing’ is until we understand what’s actually going on, and one of the cleverest things we’ve invented so far is The Internet.
The Internet hasn’t helped much
The Internet was supposed to make things better by democratising access to Facts and Knowledge, but so far seems to have made things worse.
As promised, The Internet has indeed placed encyclopaedias at the fingertips of anyone with a smartphone. But it’s also created a firehose of disinformation, quicksands of Fake News quicksands and rabbit holes for conspiracy theorists.
If there’s one thing people of both sides of any polarised debate can agree on, it’s that the current system is not working.
The issue of online moderation, who’s to blame for increased division in the virtual and real worlds, and what to do about it, itself occupies a large part of our incessant online shouting match. Politicians debate it, call-in shows argue about it, academics respectfully challenge each others’ positions on it.
There are real-world examples of governments that have largely cracked this problem, without cracking down. You wouldn’t know about it from most international news coverage, but there’s a tea-drinking island nation with a very short history of democracy, that’s now showing the way.
If you’ve not yet heard about it, you’re more likely to hear about another country’s efforts to return this Internet genie back into the bottle. We need to talk, briefly, about Section 230.
Section 230 – the root of all online evil?
A quarter of a century ago, when our Silicon Valley Overlords were just Silicon Valley Underlings, they managed to sneak Section 230 past politicians who didn’t understand its implications. Section 230 of the 1995 Communications Decency Act is essentially the get-out clause that permits Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. to claim they’re just platforms, not publishers. This has enabled them to generate huge profits from encouraging polarised public ‘debate’, while remaining legally unaccountable for facilitating it.
This polarisation is a major reason why US politics has become so divided, yet one of the few bipartisan bills currently making any progress through the US House of Congress.
Technically, Bill S.2972, proposed by a Republican and supported by Democrats, is ‘a bill to repeal section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934. This suggests these problems are far from new, and that our politicians have a lot of catching up to do.
The Internet may be revolutionary, but we’re all still human. Digital technology is just the latest tool we’re using to express our humanity, for good and bad.
Social Media, and now AI, may be amplifying homo sapiens’ inherent irrationality, but they’re not, by and large, causing it.
For most people with the luxury of not worrying where their next meal is coming from, The Internet has just created a new and different problem.
To Do The Right Thing we don’t just need access to information. We need to know who to trust.
Here are three defences against the Internet making you Do The Wrong Thing.
1st Line of Defence Against Internet Dark Arts – fact-checking
Whatever our stance on whatever issue, most of us are now alert for Fake News, i.e. deliberate lies planted by the Other Side to fool Other Idiots.
Even so, identifying a specific lie is far from easy.
The first line of Defence Against Internet Dark Arts is to do the legwork and check a ‘fact’ that smells a bit whiffy to you. This might involve such things as:
- comparing different news sources with conflicting positions
- tracking down academic papers to read their abstracts, data or even footnotes
- verifying quotes via multiple sources
We might understand the importance of checking every fact and chasing every source, but most people, even if they feel the need to know what’s really going on in the world, are too busy to do this routinely. The only people who seem to have the time to fact-check are journalists, professional researchers and conspiracy theorists.
Which means to Do The Right Thing, we need something less time-consuming – a second line of defence…
2nd Line of Defence Against Internet Dark Arts – source-checking
For most of us, our only practical solution is to outsource fact-checking to a trusted brand – a newspaper, broadcaster, website or blogger.
Any sceptic should also question their own choice of trusted source.
A reasonable test is to find an article that your candidate trusted source has written for a general audience, but on a subject on which you consider yourself to know more than the average reader. If what a particular news source publishes on this topic rings true to you, it’s reasonable to trust them on other topics you know less about.
This strategy has its logic, but comes with obvious risks, such as:
- You may not be as well informed about the topic as you thought you were
- The article on which you based your judgement may not have been typical of that news source’s general level of expertise
- We naturally prefer content that confirms, rather than challenges, our opinions
The more we learn about human psychology, the greater these risks start to look. We all like to think of ourselves as rational, and anyone who disagrees with us as irrational. Our reasoning is buttressed by Passion. Their delusions are swayed by Emotion.
The Nobel Prize for Economics used to be handed to ‘scientists’ who demonstrated how our economic decisions are driven by rational self-interest. For years now, they’ve gone to behavioural psychologists who point out that while we like to think we act rationally, we actually respond emotionally.
Cross that with advances in neuroimaging, resulting in a deeper understanding of the mechanics of brain function and neuroplasticity, and you get a whole new field called ‘neuroeconomics’. The more we know, the more we realise how little we know.
All of which suggests a more effective challenge to Fake News will have to address a much deeper issue. What we face is a problem that goes well beyond bipartisan politics, Global North v Global South, the new Cold War, or the short-term quarterly results driving our Silicon Valley Overlords. It’s how we humans have evolved to think.
3rd Line of Defence Against Internet Dark Arts – psychology-checking
Fact-checking for specific objective truths is relatively easy. Shared general delusions are much harder to spot, and even harder to address.
It’s tricky when everyone agrees on something, but is wrong. Ironically, this is what AI robots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT-3 are good at, and part of why everyone’s so worried about this emerging technology. If a plausible robot can spit out opinions that sound credible because almost everyone on the Internet (which trained the robot) thinks it’s true, things have just got eve worse.
What if ‘received wisdom’ is more wishful thinking than reflection of reality?
Quantum theory and multiverses aside, we all live in the same objective reality. Quite literally, on the same planet. This planet obeys certain physical laws that wishful thinking can’t repeal. Among these laws are the laws of atmospheric physics.
We’ve understood the principles of the Greenhouse Effect for more than a century, its reality for half a century, and have started to directly experience the results in the past decade.
There are three big problems with our addiction to fossil fuels:
- Its effects are distant in both time and space, so hard for any individual to correlate.
- The tribe-based tools we’ve evolved to spot and resolve challenges do not equip us well for such a scenario, and may even be handicaps.
- The science is really complicated, requiring high levels of abstract thinking and projection to grasp
Humans have evolved the capacity for abstract thinking – it’s one of the few things we’ve yet to demonstrate separate us from ‘animals’ (i.e. ‘other animals’). We’ve also demonstrated ourselves to be exceptionally adaptable to different environments. When faced with avoidable challenges, we’ve proven ourselves capable of sudden behavioural change.
Take lemmings, the Arctic rodent unfairly famous for their inclination to mass suicide. Lemmings can’t help running off island cliffs, but it’s a successful evolutionary trait, not a mark of stupidity. When their numbers exceed their local food resources, evolution has ‘programmed’ them to do so to ensure the long-term survival of their species. A few of them might make the swim to a new island with fresh resources, and start breeding.
Humans, we like to believe, are blessed with ‘smarter’ brains. Individually and collectively – up to a Point – we can adapt to changing circumstances: go against the flow, swim to find other food sources, eat new things, develop technology to access new foods.
But this Point, it seems, has now been reached. There’s no Planet B. This is it. We’ve reached the limits of our strategy. We’re heading for our own cliff, about to chop down the last tree on Easter Island.
When it comes to the inconvenient truth of global heating, it seems the strengths that have made us the dominant species in the world for, at most, 300,000 years, are about to fail us.
Human history may be a geological blink of an eye, but group thinking, fear of the new and aversion to change have been pretty effective, so far.
Like the man who’s just jumped off the top of a skyscraper said when asked how it’s going, as he whistles past the 20th floor, ‘So far, so good!’.
We can understand this delusion when presented to us in the form of an old joke. How can we detect it when the delusion is embedded in almost everything we see, hear and read, transmitted by sincere people who believe they’re Doing The Right Thing?
Covid – the good news or the bad news first?
All is not lost – Covid just provided us with a great wake-up call.
The good news is that the threat of mass death prompted overnight, comprehensive, unprecedented, radical behavioural change.
The bad news is that we still responded on a tribal (national) basis, rather than a species basis. This leaves us just as vulnerable to the next pathogen, just as likely to repeat the same avoidable mistakes.
Forget vaccines, mRNA or otherwise. There’s one 100% guaranteed way to stop any lethal virus in its tracks. Any virologist could – and many did – describe this Plan B.
If everyone who could possibly be exposed to it isolates themselves for an hour longer than the maximum infection period, it will disappear, starved of potential hosts.
The earlier we do this, the smaller the number of people required to isolate themselves.
If this low-tech solution sounds as inconceivable and ridiculous today as it did in December 2019, why? We can now calculate the cost of the alternative in fatalities, long-term disabled, economic losses. We can make personal assessments on more subjective metrics like happiness, stress and mental health.
However you measure it, it’s hard to see how Plan B isn’t the logical, reasonable, evidence-based alternative all humans should agree to deploy Next Time. Yet it’s a ‘ridiculous’,’ absurd’, ‘unthinkable’ solution because…well, you fill in the rest.
The reason for this is our species’ Achilles heel. Except that unlike Greek myths, we can change the story any time we like, starting now. Our fates are not sealed. We’re neither ‘doomed’ nor ‘saved’.
But before we can change our behaviour, we need to face up to reality. Like any addict, we can only address our addiction by acknowledging it exists. We need to stop favouring wishful thinking over inconvenient truths. We need to remove our fingers from our ears, and start listening rather than la-la-laaing.
Our banks need to ask better questions. And we need to tell our kids the truth. And we need to eat more healthily. Which brings us back to…
Quiz Answers, current and alternative
Remember the question?
Q1: Does the bank lend you money?
Our current, Wrong, answer is:
But that doesn’t mean it’s the correct answer.
This analogy relates to ‘carbon auditing’, the means by which we calculate how much net greenhouse gas emissions we’re currently creating, whether as an individual, place, company or organisation.
‘Carbon Auditing’ is like financial auditing, except instead of financial debits and credits, on your carbon ledger you list greenhouse gas emissions (your ‘carbon footprint’) and sequestration (usually ‘carbon offsetting’).
Q1 reflects our weird current reality, where we apply wildly laxer standards to our carbon auditing – standards that we’d never permit when counting money. Unlike bank loans, when it comes to our carbon balance sheet we don’t have to list all our carbon debts, and the carbon credits we claim are not subjected to any reasonable scrutiny.
A recent Guardian investigation caused a huge stink in the carbon credit industry when it ‘Revealed more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest certifier are worthless’. There’s been a lot of what they like to call ‘pushback’ by this multi-billion-dollar industry, but most of it despairing of the impact on their business, rather than pointing out failings in the investigation’s methodology.
Carbon credits are an attractive idea. An elegant, market-based solution. But they’ve had three decades to prove themselves resistant to bad actors intent on gaming the system for profit, and as we’ve discussed elsewhere, failed.
In the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t take much digging to reveal carbon credits to be little more than an inconvenient new cost of doing business-as-usual, a new greenwash surcharge to keep the media, Greens, shareholders and regulators off your back.
Most carbon auditing systems today permit, even slyly encourage, not fessing up to our true carbon footprint. Specifically, they don’t insist on including all our Liabilities, thus allowing us to pretend our carbon footprint is much smaller than it really is. And they permit us to claim undeserved carbon credit.
That’s why we need a carbon auditing system that applies even greater rigour than banks use to make loans. One that requires you to count all carbon liabilities.
Technically speaking, this means Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3, but in everyday terms, it just means including everything. To return to our metaphor, declaring your car loan, credit card debt, mortgage payments etc, as well as your overdraft. The law requires this when you ask for money, but not when you count your carbon.
Any measurement of anyone or anything’s carbon footprint is meaningless unless you count everything. Greenwashing – i.e. claiming a smaller carbon footprint that you actually have – is as rampant as ever, and growing. It’s what allows the Qatar World Cup to get an ‘official’ carbon rating of ‘carbon neutral’, although it’s clearly nonsense. And it was given the Green light by a company owned by the same people who bid for the tournament.
While we conjure up imaginary carbon balance sheets, in the real world the immutable laws of atmospheric physics take action. Carbon molecules are indifferent to who released them, when, where, why, how, on whose balance sheet they were recorded, or if they were recorded at all.
The net result of these different standards for financial and carbon auditing – business as usual. We behave as if making money were more important than reducing carbon, though common sense tells us the opposite.
A world without money is imaginable – indeed humans have managed without it for all but the last 5,000 or so years.
A world where we’ve dug up and burned all oil and gas in the ground is…unimaginable. Or if not unimaginable, considerably less attractive than turning the clock back 5,000 years.
So our suggested alternative Right answer is:
A1b: ‘No. The bank insists you draw up a balance sheet that reflects reality, that you can demonstrate your future debts will diminish and future assets increase, before it will even consider your application’.
This was the question about your child believing their fantasy football game.
Q2: What do you tell your child?
And the current, but Wrong, answer is:
Q2a: ‘Great job, honey, you go for it’.
The fantasy football analogy explains why we’re so reluctant to answer A1b.
Current carbon auditing practice described in Q1, with our acceptance of greenwash of all kinds, is only the surface issue. The deeper problem is why we allow ourselves to be fooled, and why we indulge in the very self-delusion we usually tell our children to avoid.
How long should we indulge our children and their fantasy football-playing friends, before we think they’re grown up enough to realise that the ‘real world’ football league is what really matters. While they’re trading pretend numbers and results, the actual Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventas, Raith Rovers and Reims are playing real matches, with real players, scoring real goals, with real balance sheets, and being ranked in real leagues.
So why do we, as adults, prefer the Fantasy Football of current carbon auditing? Why do we prefer to create imaginative ‘financial solutions, buying and selling carbon offsetting credits, knowing them to be fantasies, making up imaginary Assets, paying others for bits of paper that permit us to carry on Business As Usual, when we dismiss such behaviour as ‘childish’ to our children?
We read them The Emperor’s New Clothes to make this very point to them. We can all understand why it’s foolish to prefer wishful thinking over inconvenient truths. That’s why we tell children, at some point, that it’s you and not Santa Claus who delivers their Christmas presents, or that fairies don’t really exist, or maybe a few years later, that they need to ‘grow up and face reality’.
Our suggested Right answer:
A2b: ‘Honey, what you’re playing is just a game. It’s fun because it’s not real. At some point when you grow up, you’ll understand why it’s important to tell what’s real from what’s fantasy, but you’re still a child so it doesn’t matter yet. Leave the real world to the grown-ups’.
The one about the new restaurant en route to the fast food joint.
Q3: What do you do next?
Our current, Wrong, answer.
A3a: ‘Without asking the price, say you’re too busy and too hungry, walk out the door and head straight for the fast food joint you were on your way to’.
We know the Right Thing is to eat healthily, that freshly-prepared meals made from sustainably-grown local ingredients are good for our bodies, our community, our environment, our economy, and have to be part of any long-term survival plan for our species.
The problem is that we’re currently addicted to fast food. We know it’s bad for our bodies, our community, our environment, our economy, and can play no part in any long-term survival plan for our species. But it tastes good, we know where the fast food place is, and…well, you can fill the rest in yourselves.
We must all be able to explain this strange phenomenon, as so many of us do it. When a solution appears in our peripheral vision that we fear might require us to change our habits, we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking it in the eye.
The most remarkable thing is that we leave the restaurant without even asking the price of this delicious, local, sustainable, healthy meal. If we don’t even want to know the question, what chance do we have of Doing the Right Thing?
Our suggested Right answer:
A3a: ‘By all means ask the price, but so long as you can afford it, order what you fancy and enjoy your meal. Keep going back there, tell your friend all about it, and encourage the chef to open more restaurants as fast as he can’.
In short, Do The Right Thing.