Paradigm Traps Are Disastrous But Fixable

As I have previously noted– attrition, not optimization, drive evolution and progress. That does however involve defeating, destroying or annihilating once dominant individuals, ideas and paradigms.

When people, institutions and societies are based on ideologies with little basis in objectively quantifiable reality, they fall into a ‘paradigm trap’ which actively prevents them from finding better solutions to their problems. Since few people voluntarily rock the proverbial boat or dare suggest that the emperor is naked, much unnecessary misery is caused and perpetuated by such ‘paradigm traps’.

Let me start with two easy to understand, and historic, examples of how beliefs in old paradigms destroyed the lives of countless people.

Example 1: Scurvy is caused by the deficiency of dietary Vitamin C. Today, it is rare- even in poorer countries. However that was not always the case.

For centuries people who lived on non-fresh food, be they North Europeans during winters or globe-trotting sailors during the age of discovery suffered and died from scurvy on a scale that is mind-boggling to moderns. The bizarre part is that many edible plants with similar or higher levels of Vitamin C than citrus fruits such as tomatoes, green peppers, grapefruit, black currants, rosehip, parsley, Indian gooseberry and a few herbs were known and often used to treat scurvy type symptoms in folk medicine. However such treatment was frowned upon by university educated doctors of those eras because it was against their beliefs and ideas.

Since scurvy was common, known to be completely reversible and a major drain on European navies during the 15th-18th century- you would be tempted to think that some smart people would have got their shit together and found a solution, even if meant swallowing their pride. Yet it took almost 300 years of suffering for the first definitive official clinical trial to occur. However even that clinical trial and the effects of applying its recommendation in the British navy did not convince many doctors who still insisted that scurvy was caused by things such as sodomy, drinking, lack of discipline, food spoilage etc. So why did it take till 1932 (isolation of ascorbic acid) for everyone to accept that scurvy was the result of a dietary deficiency?

While many of you might invoke all sorts of logical sounding reasons, the reality was- few wanted to abandon their theories irrespective of the consequences. Sounding right was obviously far more important than doing the right thing.

Example 2: The germ theory of infectious illness, especially for tuberculosis, took decades to be accepted as fact even after people could demonstrate that microbes could be isolated, grown and used to reinfect healthy animals.

Remember that was the state of affairs at the end of the 19th century, over 60 years after Ignaz Semmelweis showed that empirically and over 20 years after modern microbiology was born. Remember that most doctors until the 1890s did not believe that microbes caused diseases- even after new vaccines such as Pasteur’s anthrax and rabies vaccines were developed and evaluated. They did not believe it even after numerous epidemiological and microbiological studies showed the infectious nature of water-borne illnesses. They did not believe it even after diptheria anti-toxin and anti-plague serum started saving peoples lives. They refused to believe that malaria was a protozoal infection transmitted by mosquitoes.

It was only after the older generation of doctors started dying out and were replaced by the newer generation who believed in these “non-traditional” ideas that real change started to occur. Between 1895 and 1905- ideas which were considered to be less than respectable became the new normal.

So what was behind the older generations unwillingness to change even after objectively reproducible evidence was available? Once again, appearing right and authoritative was far more important than being so.

It comes down to the unwillingness to believe that currently popular mental models of the world might be incomplete or wrong.People who strongly believe in ideas do not care about objective reality, the validity of other views or the possibility that they may be wrong. The mental investment in their cherished world view trumps anything and everything that might suggest the contrary.

To put it another way, you cannot reason with them because they are intellectually dishonest and delusional to their very core.

No amount of data or independent observations can convince them otherwise. Do you really think that Japan would have ever moved on without somebody forcing them to? The same can be said of India, China and many other Asian countries. Would the European mental model of the world have changed without WW1 and WW2?

Would those who make a living by promoting the idea of man-made global warming ever care about anything which contradicts it? Would most doctors who promoted the ‘fat is bad’ hysteria ever willingly accept defeat? Would those who promote the ‘war on drugs’ ever care about anything that suggest that their whole enterprise is a self-serving scam?

Hint: They will never do so. At best they will pretend to acknowledge the other side and go back to their scam.

The reality is that ideologues of all stripes- from tea partiers, deficit hawks, CONservatives, LIEbertarians to vegetarians, feminists and environmentalists will continue to peddle their scams as long as they are alive.

It is simply not possible to have a real discussion with a true believer in any ideology. You might have more success reasoning with a dog to not lick its balls. Change requires the demise of true believers in any that particular ideology.

There is no nice way to change the status quo and you have to destroy infected hosts to kill defunct ideologies and belief system. You could of course choose to do nothing, and let their madness destroy many other innocent lives. Remember this every time you proclaim your desire for “real” change.

I will end this post with a bit of dialogue from “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Batman: [slams Joker into mirror] Where are they?
The Joker: Killing is making a choice.
Batman: [punches Joker] Where are they?
The Joker: Choose between one life or the other. Your friend, the district attorney or his blushing bride-to-be…[punches Joker]
The Joker: [laughs] You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.[grabs Joker]
The Joker: Don’t worry, I’m gonna tell you where they are, both of them and that’s the point. You’ll have to choose. He’s at 250 52ND Street and she’s at Avenue X at Cicero.


  1. Joe
    October 5, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Human society as a whole, at least as it exists today, is based on a number of Big Lies. The paradigm traps as you call them aren’t isolated, but systemic. The nature of the fractional reserve monetary system, the idea of a “free media”, representative government, an intellectually honest academic/scientific establishment regarding certain areas, organized religion etc. They are all scams. What’s remarkable is that technological progress is advancing at an exponential rate. All of these issues will be revealed to be BS, not because people are more open minded or intellectually honest, but because advancements in AI, nanotech, robotics, genetic engineering will FORCE people to see them for what they are. The new environment simply won’t allow the mental gymnastics, denial, cognitive dissonance, herd groupthink so common among people today.

    Who gets access to radical life extension, genetic enhancement and cyber augments?

    What happens when advances in narrow AI, robotics and software algorithms eliminate upwards of 50% of human labor?

    What happens if research in 3d printing leads to full scale molecular nanotechnology, effectively lowering the price of goods to the cost of raw materials?

    Ray Kurzweil has drawn much attention to these possibilities. He is very much an optimist though. I see how far we’ve come in the past ten years alone in the biotech and nanotech fields, and then I read the paper and see all the suffering and criminality in the world. For example, human organs are now being grown in labs using stem cells. Google it. By 2020, anyone with the money may be able to have the heart and lungs of a 25 year old. It would act as a crude form of life extension for wealthy individuals. Will insurance companies pay for these operations for average people? Can you spell trouble. Looking 4-5 decades down the line, there’s a high probability of systemic breakdown of our society as we enter the mid century. So many paradigms breaking down that people not just believed to be true, but actually took them on as part of their identity, gone forever. I don’t believe many human beings possess the mental strength to process this in a non violent constructive manner.

    We may see an Artilect War as theorized by Hugo De Garis. Not necessarily involving warfare over the prospect of human equivalent machines, but over the fallout over so much pervasive fraud and criminality revealed as the cornerstone of human society. We’ll be forced to take a long good look at ourselves, collectively as a species. What we see won’t be pretty.

  2. October 5, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    “The bizarre part is that many edible plants with similar or higher levels of Vitamin C than citrus fruits such as tomatoes, green peppers, grapefruit, black currants, rosehip, parsley, Indian gooseberry and a few herbs were known and often used to treat scurvy type symptoms in folk medicine. ”

    wait, uh, weren’t you the guy who said that eating vegetables wasn’t important and to focus on meat? Something paleo or some other dinosaur sounding word…. But then again, your the same guy who said you like hurting people….

  3. Commander Shepard
    October 6, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Excellent piece and I really liked the part at the end with the dialog. It emphasized the point well.

  4. October 6, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Traditional cultures in temperate zones preserve fresh fruits and vegetables for the winter using lactic(pickling) or alcoholic fermentation.
    In Korea, one sees Kim Chi. On the other side of the world one finds Sauerkraut, a parallel invention that serves much the same function.
    Cabbage, as it happens, contains vitamin C.
    I have to suppose scurvy was relatively unique to the navies of the time or otherwise in famine conditions.

    If one’s survival and reproductive interests are tied up in a particular form of the orthodoxy, it is quite logical for them to stubbornly resist change. If you are a coach manufacturer it is in your direct personal interest to delay the dominance of automobiles as long as possible. If you consider the evolutionary reasons behind people’s kneejerk emotional reactions, there is no insanity to be seen. It more or less makes sense.
    The coach manufacturer has no reason to care about the general ‘progress of humanity’ if he loses not only the ability to feed his family, but the social status that will gain his children access to mates.
    If we understand how new ideas threaten people’s very existence in the human gene pool, we can understand just why conservative reactions are so stubborn and violent.

    Instead of purging the population or declaring an all out war of attrition, maybe some sort of social safety net for those who are invested in the old ideas might magically help calm their objections and more quickly allow in innovations that will reduce human suffering.

    Whatever the solution, the best idea is likely something other than brute force, especially since the champions of orthodoxy typically have the upper hand, holding the opposition in thrall until their power finally collapses in the face of inevitable change decades or centuries later.

    • joesantus
      February 17, 2015 at 12:23 pm

      “If you consider the evolutionary reasons behind people’s kneejerk emotional reactions, there is no insanity to be seen. It more or less makes sense.”

      …or, that while it might be validly judged as insane, the insanity is evolutionarily explicable.

      Evolution isn’t the idyllic “always-progressing-toward-better” process as it seems to be popularly believed.

      Rather, evolution is a “this-change-worked-adequately,-although-barely,-enough-to-keep-this-species-reproducing-and-surviving, so-even-though-far-from-optimal-and-even-though-conflictive-with-other-traits-in-this-species,-it-can-stay”. There’s no significant evidence of anything except randomness and “trial-and-error” underlying evolution.

      Evolution doesn’t “care” whether a change is objectively “insane” or not — if the change duct-tapes something “good enough” to serve at least short-term survivability of a species, that’s fine by evolution.

      Meaning, that while kneejerk emotional reactions do seem to serve as a survival mechanism, that doesn’t make them, from any objective and rational assessment, the best “choice” to serve the species. Nor does it exclude kneejerk reaction from being paradoxically as destructive as it can be constructive.

      Another piece of our Duct-Taped evolved DNA that might also be involved is the human tendency toward stasis. An organism generally resists change to conserve energy. Change of any kind, including a paradigm shift, stresses a human, involving not only the efforts of considering the change but also the energy necessary to adapt to the different, unfamiliar environment caused by a change. Humans’ tendency to habits that simplify their lives apparently roots in that. So, a biological pressure for stasis may be another of the unconscious motivations for conscious resistance to new ideas and paradigm shifts.

      • March 3, 2015 at 9:53 pm

        Yes, it’s such a haphazard sloppy process yet over many iterations evolution seems to approach the optimal model for any given environment.
        It even accounts for environments that change, often radically, through diversity.

        The human ability to walk and run bipedally for instance allows little margin for error. Balance must be perfect, yet we’re relentlessly selected to do it effortlessly.

        Given enough time, the crudest solutions are refined into wonders of precision with the inherited tools it has to work with.

        Yes, evolution always tries to get away with the laziest solution it possibly can. Birds, for example become flightless where there’s no selective pressure for flight. Those flight muscles consume lots of energy and impose severe structural limitations on a bird’s body.
        However, nature seems not to allow living things to become complacent outside of extreme isolation.

      • joesantus
        March 5, 2015 at 7:04 pm

        “Yes, evolution always tries to get away with the laziest solution it possibly can….
        However, nature seems not to allow living things to become complacent outside of extreme isolation.”

        Agreed,in principle, as far as the dynamics of what I’ll call here “normal” evolution. Meaning, “normal” in that it is able to proceed without interference, intrusion, or redirection from external forces or variables.

        As a side issue, however, I think humans themselves exercise one such external force: humanity’s ability to “meddle” with normal evolution, as a consequence of our self-awareness and rational consciousness..

        After having evolved to possessing self-awareness and rational capability, we’ve become amazingly able to interfere with our own evolutionary process.

        For a micro instance, while lower mammals cannot prevent and will even allow the deaths of sick/weaker/inferior members of their species — a culling which over the long term generally helps to maintain and even strengthen a better-fitted-for-survival gene pool — humans will attempt to save even the most obviously-defective individuals, and, at the cost of many resources.
        Another example is that human interference and intrusion, enables and empowers inferior individuals, at least hypothetically, to reproduce and pass along inferior genes.

        I wonder, therefore, if the self-consciousness we evolved has in effect become a source of our own genetic complacency and isolation. By having severely reduced and sometimes even eliminated the “filtering” and “sifting” effects of the natural dynamics faced by all other mammals and organisms, are we “short-circuiting” our own possible evolutionary improvements.

        By the way — I’m not here implying anything about eugenics, nor whether it’s “right or wrong” for humans to save every individual; this is merely a question based on observation of the the human situation.

      • March 9, 2015 at 12:13 pm

        In reply to your last response below posted 7:04 PM:

        “Normal” evolution vs. Human evolution to me is a myth that springs from 18th century enlightenment thinking.
        Humans are selected by the same rules as any other species.
        The difference is we suppose a city is “unnatural” while the jungle is “natural.”

        But all it means is that humans are highly selected for living in societies.
        If that were unnatural, we’d also have to call beehives and ant holes unnatural.
        A termite mound, for instance, can support a multitude of specialized individuals, soldier termites, with their enlarged heads can’t even eat unless workers feed them. So the termite soldiers are of course degenerate and unfit if we judge them by the standards of animals that are largely self-reliant.

        The idea that normal selection has ended for humans is a myth. So long as some people have many successful offspring while many others have no offspring, natural selection is present in full force.
        It makes no difference to nature how a man is removed from the gene pool, whether on a muddy battlefield or by living out an affluent life distracted until death by career and entertainment.
        Our society remains nearly as harsh and unforgiving a biome as a stormy mountaintop. To this day, only the strongest survive to have grandkids.
        We may have the luxury of feeding those who haven’t the minds or bodies to be productive, but such people will still be largely unsuccessful passing on their genes.

        To nature, self-consciousness is only granted to humans in its limited measure because the smart had an advantage that allowed them to have more babies. If the smart fail to have more babies, the human ability to reflect will just as swiftly be revoked by nature and confined to the bounds that aid our immediate survival.
        We may judge this to be a degenerative process, but nature knows no ‘progress.’

      • joesantus
        March 11, 2015 at 7:49 pm

        I appreciate your points, and acknowledge the partial validity of your conclusions, but, nevertheless, and to spare myself the tediousness of yet-another discussion-thread debate (in the formal sense of calm point/counterpoint/rebuttal discussion — I much appreciate your academic, non-inflammatory attitude) I’ll agree to disagree concerning the degenerative effects of humanity’s “self-interference”.

        My wants-to-know side wishes it possible to be able to observe humanity in another 100,000 years to see what course humanity (assuming it survives until then) has experienced.

  5. doclove
    October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    This was a well written article. Giovanni Dannato made a good rebuttal, but you, Advocatus Diaboli, are mostly right. One Quibble is how you didn’t include the LIEberals with the LIEbertarians and CONservatives. Personally, I’d say the LIEberals are the worst on this issue, although I know you would disagree

  1. October 9, 2011 at 1:01 am

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