(Some) Implications

Beliefs are sometimes changed from right to wrong, but the net tendency across a set of corrections is for alpha reality to pull beta reality toward it. As a result, within an information community, there is a general tendency for beliefs to gravitate nonmonotonically toward their objectively true values over time, as Figure 3 shows for historical estimates of the speed of light.

Figure 3.  Historical Estimates of the Speed of Light

Figure 3. Historical Estimates of the Speed of Light

A historical progression of maps of the world provides another example, as the shapes of the continents and details in their coastlines gradually converge and stabilize across cartographers over time. The continuous refinement of geographical knowledge over the centuries owes largely to two causes: improvements in measurement accuracy through advancements in technology, and regression toward the mean as samples increase. The fact that changes are nonmonotonic means we sometimes take a step backward before taking two steps forward, and there is no guarantee a regressive stage will be short (e.g., the Dark Ages). However, the net movement of beliefs across communities over time is toward correspondence with alpha reality, leading to one controversial thesis that humanity has already solved the main puzzles of science, and that no more revolutionary scientific discoveries likely await us.

OD differentiates objective and subjective reality by describing the conditions that make the latter possible and by identifying the factors that determine the degree of alignment between them. It demonstrates that the saying “the truth will out” is false – there is no imperative for an alpha fact to eventually burst into beta reality and countermand a false belief; only a set of conditions by which correction is more or less likely. Those conditions led to the disclosure that the voices on Milli Vanilli’s debut album are not those of the group’s two principals, which resulted in the revoking of their Grammy award, and the insufficient combined force of the same correction factors is no doubt currently preventing the public revelation of countless other similar deceptions and mistaken popular beliefs we know must exist.

But the same border that limits the power of alpha reality to affect us also defines the boundary of beta reality. Emboldened by what they see as the power of individual and collective belief to construct virtually any reality, many subjectivists see beta reality as infinitely malleable. It is not. The four correction factors enclose its domain and limit its influence. We are free to construct beta realities – i.e., hold and successfully spread beliefs and enjoy or suffer the consequences that flow from them – only within that boundary.

It is important to note that the character of subjective reality for homo sapiens is shaped by the nature of our information processing system, particularly by its specific capacity limitations and biases. If we imagine an alien species for whom the number of units that can be held in short term memory is nine plus or minus one, instead of our five plus or minus two, or who, instead of our availability heuristic, mere exposure effect and fundamental attribution error, possess other cognitive biases of which we might conceive, we would expect the quality of beta reality for them, as well as the location of the boundary between it and alpha reality, to be quite different.

One very large implication follows from the ease with which truth claims are accepted and passed along, per William James’ observation, “Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system.  Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass,’ so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.”  Skeptics and high screeners, those who are careful not to advance a claim before carefully scrutinizing and validating it, concede an advantage in the construction of beta reality to those willing to step forward and assert truth claims with little or no validation. Simply stating a claim is often all that is needed for it to be accepted, and for the rewards and sanctions it implies to flow from it.

Further, knowing alpha reality and constructing beta reality are two different skill sets. A person who got good grades in high school but was not socially popular might attend his or her twentieth year reunion looking forward to a comeuppance: surely mastery of knowledge would be better rewarded by the business world than peer popularity. The reunion attendee might well be surprised to find many of the social butterflies pulling down large salaries in positions of leadership and influence. Knowing what is objectively true, and being able to convince people what is true and what should be done, are two different things. People who are good at knowledge about the objective world tend to be drawn to occupations strongly grounded in alpha reality like scientist, farmer, or computer programmer. Those possessing good social skills and persuasive abilities gravitate toward careers in which beta reality figures larger, like sales, coaching, or politics. The cleverest at manipulating belief seek out spin zones in which the chances of correction are minimized, leaving them free to construct powerful (and often lucrative) beta realities without having to worry much about being debunked – motivational speakers, bottled water marketers, and team building consultants come to mind.

The four correction factors provide a checklist for the analysis of ideas that have gained traction in beta reality in spite of their tenuous correspondence with alpha reality, to account for their persistence. For example, one of the most successful segments of the publishing industry is self-help books, which account for over $2 billion in annual sales. Yet a review of popular titles reveals an array of contradictory advice that collectively cancels itself out. Depending which expert you choose, you might be counseled to avoid conflict or to confront it, to be more assertive or to listen more, to pay better attention to detail or to not sweat the small stuff.

The most obvious reason for the field’s popularity is its high utility. On the consumer side, what’s more valuable than a promise to learn how we can conquer our faults, create good relationships, enjoy successful careers, and live happy lives? On the merchant side, opportunities for profit extend beyond the books themselves to speaking engagements and franchised workshops, audiotapes, DVDs, etc. What protects self-help books from correction most is their lack of falsifiability. Our life outcomes can be complex and often have multiple causes. Effective advice is therefore highly context-specific – one strategy might work well in one situation and the opposite tack in another. Self-help books typically strip out one or more layers of relevant context and oversimplify strategies into general principles. (Not coincidentally, this also explains the popularity and persistence of proverbs, even those that contradict each other, like “Silence is golden” and “The squeaking wheel gets the grease.”) It is always possible to cite instances where a particular strategy is effective. This, plus the willingness of motivated readers to believe in magic bullets, is all the self-help gurus need to build profitable fan communities.

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