Monday, 23 March 2015

Burying surprises


If we pursue the path of fewest surprises, and according to Karl Friston we do, then it explains why we put such a vast amount of effort into burying them before they have a chance to surprise us.

Surprises in this sense are confounding evidence or experiences – those which offer a serious challenge to a narrative, doctrine or other preconception. For most of us, such surprises are upsetting experiences. They suggest that the world is not as we supposed. So we bury them before they occur. 

Usually the path of fewest surprises is an all-encompassing narrative, set of doctrines or merely an attitude within which surprises are virtually impossible. That’s the main function of many types of belief – to bury surprises before they upset us.

Take life after death as an extreme example. For those who believe they will somehow live on after death, failing to do so would be an extremely unpleasant surprise. Yet by a stroke of ancient ingenuity, this surprise remains forever buried beyond the grave. Surprise is impossible, worthwhile argument equally impossible. Where would one find a surprising argument against life after death?

It is much the same with a vast array of other beliefs, from organised religion to politics to economics to climate change. Surprises are buried before they occur by narrative flexibility and the endless resources of hindsight.

For the political left, surprises such as the success of free enterprise are buried in advance by a vast and complex burial narrative. The successes of free enterprise may even be admitted, but so loaded with caveats that burial is a foregone conclusion.

For the political right, surprises such as the success of government regulation are buried in advance by a similarly vast and complex burial narrative. Again the successes of government regulation may even be admitted, but so loaded with caveats that burial is a foregone conclusion.

The climate catastrophist may be up to the ears in snow, but sees is as yet more evidence of global warming. Climate change is an interesting example, because potential surprises were initially buried in the future. A tactical error as we are now passing through some of those future scenarios.

"Our projection of 2013 for the removal of [Arctic] ice in summer is not accounting for the last two minima, in 2005 and 2007," the researcher from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, explained to the BBC. "So given that fact, you can argue that may be our projection of 2013 is already too conservative."

Oh dear - stupidity comes in many guises. Nothing that can't be buried though.

Climate surprises have been much more effectively buried by including any and all environmental phenomena in the official narrative. From snow-clogged roads to heat waves, from floods to droughts it’s all grist to the burial game. There Shall Be No Climate Surprise.

In all these cases, the possibility of error and therefore surprise is buried in advance by a narrative’s limitless flexibility. That’s what narratives are for, to bury surprises in advance, or in the worst cases by the revisionist resources of hindsight.

Yet with huge irony, the only effective way to minimise surprises is blanket scepticism. Believe nothing.


Demetrius said...

Poem, "The burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna" by Charles Wolfe. A forebear, same name as myself stopped a musket ball at Corunna, got out with a nice pension and ran a pub. This information was long buried as well as Sir John. I think we bury a lot more than we keep. Which might explain why so much goes wrong.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes, we seem to lose sight of our history in a number of ways.

Sometimes we simply cannot revisit the past. What was it actually like to stop a musket ball at Corunna and survive? We'll never know.