Frosty’s Brain on Ice
"Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore." So said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven children, one of whom recently was threatened with exposure to An Inconvenient Truth, in her suburban Seattle science class. Frosty also stated, for the record, ""The information that’s being presented [in the movie] is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. … The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn’t in the DVD." The world, according to Frosty, is about 14,000 years old. Maybe it’s been around long enough?
Frosty was quoted in papers and blogs across North America. He even made The New Scientist, a British weekly, and The Daily Show. The thinly veiled implication, with the quotes themselves as stand-alone evidence, was that Frosty is a fool. If boldly proclaiming falsehoods makes one a fool, so be it. But Frosty is not alone in his foolishness.
The media would have missed out on Frosty’s comments altogether if it weren’t for one simple fact: Ed Barney, school board president, and David Larson, attorney, thought his complaint had merit. They put a moratorium on showings of the movie, calling it controversial despite the fact that it has been authorized as nation-wide curriculum in two Scandinavian countries and Scotland.
Frosty, Ed, and David pitted themselves against the virtually unanimous agreement of the scientific community that global warming is real, people are causing it, and if we care about the consequences we need to take action quickly. They pitted themselves against the evidence after Exxon had given up the fight and started investing in solutions. They held out even after the Bush administration conceded.
Frosty’s brain–along, I would suspect, with Ed’s and David’s–is on ice. Do I mean these men are stupid? No. Not in any ordinary sense of the word. Ed graduated from a good Mormon university. David has a law degree from a respected Catholic school. And based on the technical know-how reflected in his website, Frosty would appear to have a pretty normal human brain, probably better than most in some regards.
What I mean is that Frosty’s mind is in a cryogenic state of developmental arrest. Just like the frozen blastocytes that Mr. Bush and his publicity team call snowflakes, Frosty’s mind is a living organism that cannot grow. It has been zapped by what cognitive scientists call a "limiting belief."
A limiting belief allows no challenge. In the mind where it has taken root, it functions as a given. It becomes as unassailable as the force of gravity or the life sustaining effects of breathing oxygen. Inside the bounds set by such a belief (and there may be many), the rules of evidence and logic apply. But the limiting belief itself is not subject to these rules. It is exempt. Any evidence or reasoning that appears to contradict the limiting belief must be explained within the confines set by the belief itself. This can lead to some extraordinary mental contortionism, but it is what a limiting belief demands.
In the case of Frosty, the relevant belief is that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God, the direct and definitive revelation of a human-like Creator to us, His creation. By implication, it is the final word on all matters of ultimate importance.
What does this have to do with global warming? Frosty, as we have seen, tries to make the connection through rational argumentation, something along these lines: The Bible is the final word on everything that matters. The end of the world matters. The apocalyptic visions of John the Apostle emphasize fire over ice. Voila, global warming – not human-caused, but as a part of God’s master plan, a sign of promised glories to come.
Don’t get drawn in to critiquing Frosty’s reasoning. There’s a catch. Frosty’s refusal to consider the evidence about global warming, has nothing to do with reasoning. It can be understood only if we step back and look at it from the viewpoints of cognitive and social psychology. His public statements simply display what is left of his ability to reason and seek evidence within the confines imposed by his limiting beliefs.
The same, I might propose, can be said about the vast bulk of theological argumentation. The arguments may be spurious. But the psychology, as we are just beginning to understand it, is fascinating and has implications for us all.
People who think that fundamentalists are stupid underestimate the power of belief. So do fundamentalists themselves.
As cognitive science is discovering, beliefs have a life of their own. A belief can come in as an invited guest, tentative and hypothetical, and end up taking over, dictating which values, open questions and behavioral options get to linger and which must go. This is because any belief has a vast web of corollaries and implications. Once embraced, it essentially reconfigures a piece of the mind, usually in a small peripheral way, but sometimes in a radical transformation that feels like being born again. A belief can do all of this independent of whether it is good or bad, healthy or destructive, true or false.
Some cognitive scientists study self-replicating beliefs that they call memes. These are notions that get transmitted from one person to another in much the way that chain letters or computer viruses get passed along. Some memes are beneficial. We email each other (and teach our children) comforting stories, handy tips, and bits of senseless beauty. But other memes are destructive. We also pass along ugly gossip, tasteless trends, and bits of senseless paranoia. Whether a meme is an effective self-replicator is a different question from whether it has merit.
In fact, some beliefs that are very good at getting passed along may be thought of as parasitic, meaning that they actually do harm to their human host. Daniel Dennett draws a compelling analogy in the opening words of his book, Breaking the Spell.
You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. . . .It’s brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into a position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. . . .
Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains.
Does it really make sense to talk about ideas as parasites? Possibly. Don’t we entertain them of our own choice, embracing those that make sense and discarding the rest? Not as much as we might like to think. Don’t they get their very existence from us? A parasite always does.
The notion that the Bible is divinely inspired, has a long history of transmission from one person to another, though not exactly in its present form. Each human writer of the fragments we now call scripture found his received tradition inadequate and labored to articulate a better understanding of God and goodness. So did the Catholic council of Hippo Regis that decided some books were holier than others, giving an official canonical seal of approval to the most holy. So did Protestant reformers who publicly questioned those Catholic decisions. But by the time a Bible got handed down to Frosty, it had evolved into God’s Perfect Word.
I would argue that Frosty’s notion of the Bible, like the lancet fluke, is detrimental. Not that there is any public record of Frosty putting his life or health in danger in the service of this idea. All that he has endangered is his dignity. Well, that and his ability to analyze and act on some of the core moral questions of our day: population pressures in a finite world, responsible stewardship of our planetary life support system, and rational inquiry as a guide to collective action.
Where did Frosty acquire such a detrimental idea?
In part from our historic context. American fundamentalism has been growing steadily for thirty years. Some of the most important questions in life are hard to answer. The more complicated things get, the more we want answers, and the simpler we want those answers to be. In an era that both creates and resents an overwhelming flood of information, what better idol than a book–a book that, on the surface at least, offers a set of clear answers from a simpler time and place. A golden book is the new golden calf.
Child development may have played a role; Frosty may have been born into fundamentalism. Children are wired to absorb ideas from their elders, and most of these stick. Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Frustration has led one scholarly theologian to complain recently that it’s ok to have a fifth grade understanding of the Bible, if you’re a fifth grader. Another has expressed the sentiment that Christians don’t need to be born again, they need to grow up. But in the absence of support from adult authority figures, young people raised in fundamentalism may never reassess their childhood concepts of God or goodness.
Proselytizing could have played a role. We all seek explanations, and true believers are quick to offer them to vulnerable seekers. In fact the fundamentalist meme complex demands that they do. The fastest growing religions, Evangelicalism and Mormonism, for example, are those with the strongest proselytizing commands. Go into all the world, and make disciples of every creature.
Powerful emotional experiences may have played a part. Under certain conditions of sound, light, and solitude or social dynamics, the human brain triggers experiences of transcendence, otherness, and spirit beings. If Frosty had such experiences in the presence of fundamentalist memes, he may very well have interpreted his sensations through their explanatory filter.
A warm, nurturing community built around shared illusions is likely to have been a key, both to creating and maintaining Frosty’s beliefs. Fundamentalist congregations offer connection, playfulness, entertainment, guidance, meaning, and mutual support at the same time that they erect barriers against questions and answers that are off limits.
Even American culture probably played its part, encouraging Frosty’s disinterest in history, his reactive focus on what people do naked, and his entrepreneurial style of bible-based religion.
One way or another, Frosty bought in. And once he did, a vast dimension of rational inquiry was closed to him. Evidences took on different meanings. And Frosty could maneuver only within the bounds set by belief. Who knows what he might have become, unshackled.
Are you still wondering about the connection to global warming? Why, you ask, would three ordinary men elicit public humiliation by taking a public stand on an issue completely outside their arena of expertise and seemingly outside the purview of their religious dogmas?
Don’t think about the actual content of fundamentalist beliefs or climatology. Think about social dynamics, at both the group and individual level. Here are some potential factors to put in the hopper.
- Fundamentalism isn’t at odds with just climate science. It is at odds with the whole scientific endeavor. The scientific method insists that any question that can be subject to rational and empirical scrutiny should be. It insists further, that people of sound mind and intellectual integrity be bound by the results of this inquiry, whether they like those results or not. This violates the foundational authority of received truth. Even the sophisticated fundamentalists of the Discovery Institute have acknowledged that ultimately, their goal is to replace empirical inquiry about this material world with a view that embraces supernaturalism. Science is threatening.
- In fundamentalism, answers are accepted not because of the process that they emerge from but from the status given to authority figures as well as authoritative texts. Even in matters of policy and education, Frosty, Ed, and David may be bound emotionally to the inclinations of their respective authority figures, regardless of relevant expertise. In addition, it may be important at a gut level that additional status not be ceded to scientists as authorities. Scientists are suspicious figures.
- Fundamentalism is fundamentally tribal, and American religious conservatives has been successfully courted by the political right. Free marketeers have wooed and won the tribal loyalties of the Religious Right, and acknowledging the reality of climate change would violate these loyalties. Climate scientists, environmentalists, and Al Gore, in particular, belong to the wrong tribe.
- We all tend to associate with people who think like us, who affirm our core assumptions about the world, our cherished notions about what is right and what is real. Frosty, Ed, and David are probably no different in this regard. Until they saw the letters to the editor, until they read the derisive blogs, until the school system was flooded with thousands of offended emails from scientists, parents, and scholarly people of faith, they may have had little idea how far out of the mainstream they actually were. Even in the face of this onslaught, the opinions of insiders may matter more than a teeming mass of strangers, no matter how many facts they may wield.
The superficial moral of Frosty’s story may be that credible debate on global warming is over. Stand by Michael Crichton or Bruce Chapman at the risk of your own intellectual credibility. But the deeper moral is about the way in which we all are susceptible to individual and shared delusion in the service of an idea or ideology that has us in its grip.
Richard Feynman once described the scientific method as "what we know about how not to fool ourselves." Even after generations of refinement, the rigorous rules of scientific inquiry still allow foolishness to slip through on occasion. Only the critical demands of peer review and replication eventually catches these errors.
No wonder the world’s great wisdom traditions, including Christianity, universally teach the value of humility. Humility recognizes the provisional nature of our tribal dogmas and doctrines and even our carefully tested theories. It allows us, with provisional clarity, to embrace inconvenient truths as they emerge from the fog.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist, author, and ex-evangelical in Seattle, Washington. Her book, The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth can be found at www.lulu.com/tarico. www.spaces.msn.com/awaypoint.