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My lab:
People in the US have pretty much agreed that 43,000 deaths annually is an ok price to pay as long as the survivors get to drive their cars. One may think that safety-minded Europeans would never allow such a toll on their streets. Alas, they live happily with three times as many fatalities, or about 127,000 people dead in traffic accidents every year. Yet, nobody seriously questions the usefulness of individual transportation. These sound like a lot of people and it is, but at the same time it's only about 0.03% of the population (US and Europe combined), a tiny fraction by any standard.

Every new technology comes with dangers and the potential for injuries and fatalities. The internet is no exception, even though it may seem so blissfully trivial with Amazon, Apple and Ebay. The nefarious sides of social web technology are only now, slowly getting clearer. Examples of information perpetuated by social web technology directly or indirectly threatening human lives seem to accumulate at an increasing rate, the two most prominent at the moment being the anti-vaccine movement and climate denialism. In the end, these movements, if they continue to gain momentum, will cause deaths, the anti-vaccine movement has already caused deaths. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt, that the benefits of social web technology by far outweigh these costs. So far.

The psychology behind these phenomena is highly interesting. What they have in common is that their main statements contradict the available evidence. Besides the above two, there is a lot more of such baseless nonsense floating around: rapture in 2009 (now updated to April 2010), creationism, Geocentrism, 9/11 trutherism, birthers, flat earthers, holocaust denialism, etc. I'm sure you can find many more examples of such weird and often quite silly beliefs. Of course, each one claims that they're the only sane ones among this list. Why do people believe in such weird things? Obviously, such weird ideas have been floating around since the dawn of mankind. What, if anything, does social web technology have to do with it? With currently just under two billion internet users, even the most crazy and outlandish idea is bound to gather hundreds if not thousands of followers. For instance, 0.003% of internet users (so only 10% of the traffic death rate) is still 60,000 people. Following the 90-9-1 principle, this would mean that you have a group of 600 hard-core believers actively contributing to an idea in which only 0.003% of people believe, with about 60,000 users visiting the site. This sort of site, while in objective terms on the very fringe of today's culture, would be one of the more visible and prominent sites currently using social media. Of course, everybody participating in that site would have, quite correctly, the impression that there are hundreds if not thousands of like-minded people around. They can't all be wrong, can they? Of course they can! But that is hard to accept with hundreds and thousands of people constantly confirming each other's far-out opinions. Sometimes these fringes get picked up by the general media, whose employees are - not surspisingly - impressed that thousands of people are discussing such weird ideas. "There's got to be something to it, I smell a story". If politics are involved, money soon follows the media (or even the other way around). The rest, as they say, is history. That's for instance, how the US tea-bag movement started. A bunch of whackos with 18th century fantasies, a hearty dose of superstition, religion and consipracy theories together with a lack of knowledge about history and some of the most basic facts, pimped up by the rich playing the undereducated for their own power games. There is no doubt that this movement also belongs in the category in which traffic accidents belong: dangerous and sometimes lethal consequences of an otherwise useful and beneficial technology.

Social media are a great technology and we haven't even scratched the surface of its potential, yet. Given the pernicious side of the human psyche and its propensity to fulfill Murphy's Law, we better come up with a working solution to curb the influence of obvious kooks and nutcases on the overwhelming majority. Because if money starts flowing, the danger of information cannot be overestimated. I'm not sure what kind of technology could be developed to cushion against such phenomena. Where's the speed-limit, the seat-belt, the helmet and the air-bag of social web technology? Unfortunately, as of yet, this technology does not exist. However, given that these ideas are in many respects similar to organized religion, a letter to the journal Science contains some helpful insights on more traditional remedies:
The News Focus story "On the origin of religion" (E. Culotta, 6 November 2009, p. 784) did not incorporate the growing body of psychosociological research that is revealing the crucial role of socioeconomics in the origin and popularity of religion, as well as in creationism (16). Some hunter-gatherers have minimal religion (7), and those who do not believe in the gods and an afterlife have spontaneously expanded in prosperous democracies until they are the majority in some nations, such as France, Sweden, and Denmark (1, 3, 4). Because religion is not universal, as implied in the News Focus article, serious religiosity cannot be the strongly genetically programmed result of major selective evolutionary pressures such as social cohesion (8).
In modern nations, nonreligion and the acceptance of evolution become popular when the middle class majority feels sufficiently secure and safe, thanks to low income inequality, universal health care, job and retirement security, and low rates of lethal crime; this has occurred to greater and lesser degrees in most first-world countries, from Japan to Scandinavia (16). Religion thrives when the majority seek the aid and protection of supernatural powers because they are impoverished, as in the third- and second-world countries or, in the case of the United States (the most religious and creationist first-world country), because the majority of Americans fear losing their middle-class status as a result of limited government support, high levels of social pathology, and intense economic competition and income disparity (16). Prosperous modernity is proving to be the nemesis of religion.

Gregory S. Paul
3109 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.

  • 1. G. Paul, Evol. Psychol. 7, 398 (2009);
  • 2. T. Rees, J. Relig. Soc. 11 (2009);
  • 3. P. Zuckerman, Soc. Compass 3, 949 (2009). [CrossRef]
  • 4. P. Norris, R. Inghelart, Sacred and Secular (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2004).
  • 5. A. Gill, E. Lundsgaarde, Rational. Soc. 16, 399 (2004). [CrossRef]
  • 6. S. Verweii, P. Ester, R. Naata, J. Sci. Study Relig. 36, 309 (1997). [CrossRef] [Web of Science]
  • 7. F. Marlowe, in Ethnicity, Hunter-Gatherers, and the "Other," S. Kent , Ed. (Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, DC, 2002), pp. 247–281.
  • 8. C. N. Wade, The Faith Instinct (Penguin, New York, 2009).

Posted on Monday 08 February 2010 - 15:36:58 comment: 0

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