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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

When The Sane Go Marching In

Here are two examples of human social behaviour that never cease to amaze me.

First up - the impressive display of thousands of soldiers during a large-scale military parade.

If you consider people as freely independent living systems, then isn't it odd how social groups can so easily get thousands of their members to march perfectly in sync and stand stiffly together in tidy blocs for hours on end?

An awe-inspiring, fear-inducing appearance of unity and solidarity.

(But is it only an appearance?)

Second, I always find it strange how people will ask the government to intervene in their personal matters (eg. a noisy neighbour or family in-fighting), which happens fairly often in Singapore.

If you believe that people strongly value their freedom and independence, you'd have to wonder why they will so easily give that all up in order to get their way in such petty matters.

Perhaps freedom is something that only a tiny minority really care about?

Perhaps most people are far more concerned about getting what they want - whatever the cost...


In this fourth article about social systems, I am going to talk about the emergence of authority.

Complying with the authority structure comes so automatically for human beings that many people are not aware of just how bizarre it is.

There is a segment in the British science entertainment show Brainiac called "Undercover Brainiac" that illustrates how absurd this behaviour can be:

A middle-aged man is tasked to approach random strangers on the street and ask them to open their bags for him.

First, he attempts to do this while wearing casual clothing.

Not surprisingly, all of the people he approached turned him down immediately, some of them expressing disgust at his intrusive request.

Next, the Brainiac team provides him with an official-looking security guard uniform (complete with beret and walkie-talkie) with badges and insignia from a totally bogus organization.

They then set him loose on the streets again.

This time the results are, should we say... quite interesting.

Practically all the people opened their bags for him instantly. They let him poke around in their private belongings without complaint.

Nobody checked his credentials or looked suspiciously at the funny badge on his beret.

He asked; they opened.

To underscore the ridiculousness of the entire situation, the fake "security guard" even managed to snack on a few french fries from one victim's lunch bag.

At first blush, this sort of blind faith in the mere appearance of authority seems to be pure stupidity.

Here in Singapore, nary a week passes by without the news of somebody getting cheated by a Nigerian scam, "magic stone" scam, bogus kidnapping scam, fake predictions from a fortune teller... the list goes on.

Were these victims afflicted by such utter stupidity that they did not even attempt to check or seek independent verification that what the trickster claimed had any passing semblance to reality?

While I don't think that people who fall for these scams are particularly smart, I doubt that they are that stupid.

Fear or greed, coupled with the "normal" social behaviour of automatically complying to the appearance of authority made them easy pickings for fraud.

Many of these victims are senior citizens who have enough smarts for persevering through a long career and raising a whole family; clearly they are not so dumb in other aspects of their lives.

In fact, their blind faith and unquestioning trust towards others may have enabled them to form strong and loving social networks - a positive contributing factor towards their longevity.

You might ask: "But what about the critical thinking skills that would have warded them against these cheats?"

I suspect that apart from technical professionals, critical thinking skills are simply unnecessary in the everyday lives of the vast majority.

People commonly make big decisions based on personal recommendations from trusted allies alone, without due regard to independent verification.

This is especially the case for people who are struggling for power within a hierarchical social structure - there is a strong pressure to comply with in-group beliefs and dismiss out-group beliefs.

Which is a terrible, but understandable practice since people who rely on social influence to thrive will naturally be focused on social contingencies first, rather than basic physical reality.

As a hypothetical example, as a manager it's better to accept a potential lie from your superior, than to believe in the "objective" safety data from the technicians.

After all, if you express doubts and offend your superior, your career might end. On the other hand, if she was really spouting bullshit and the technicians are right, only the technicians themselves will directly suffer the consequences of your decision.

This is why many powerful people can fiercely maintain such anti-scientific beliefs - denying physical reality not only has no ill-effects on their careers, but can often enhance their social influence due to in-group dynamics.

He asked; they opened.


Nevertheless, authority structures have always been an integral aspect of human society.

As I have mentioned in my earlier post, some groups of people are suspicious of it, while others absolutely thrive in it.

But what is this "authority" actually made of?

If the people who populate an authority structure are free-living, independent organisms, how does the structure maintain unitary strength and prevent itself from falling apart?

To delve deeper into the discussion, let's examine this question:

Why is authority emergent?

Isn't authority derived from the top-down power of the leadership class?

Why is it emergent?

In Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22" set in the Second World War, bombardier Yossarian is ordered to fly an increasing number of missions, which he realized would accomplish little more than getting himself killed.

He refuses to fly any more missions and so his superior Major Major tries to persuade him to change his mind.

Major Major: "Would you like to see our country lose?"

Yossarian: "We won't lose. We've got more men, more money and more material. There are ten million men in uniform getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed."

Major Major: "But suppose everybody on our side felt that way."

Yossarian: "Then I'd certainly be a damn fool to feel any other way. Wouldn't I?"

"Authority" structures can only have authority if enough people are willing to follow the orders that the leadership issues out.

Following Yossarian's train of thought, let's imagine a situation where millions of young soldiers from both sides of a conflict suddenly decided to disobey orders, drop their weapons and stop fighting.

Then, the war would instantly stop. Millions of lives would have been saved. No country would execute an entire army for insubordination, and besides, all of the potential executioners have also quit their guns!

Happily ever after, right?

But this has never happened in the history of humanity.

There are two strong reasons why - critical mass and organization.

If only a minority of the soldiers are willing to risk death to stop fighting, then the immense momentum of the authority structure will simply snub them out.

Only when there is enough people who are so tired of war that they'd rather die than fight, will there be a critical mass to make a difference.

Unfortunately, even if this critical mass is achieved, you still need to organize them in such a way that the authority structure cannot simply suppress them using the "divide and conquer" strategy. They have to all drop their weapons at the same time - if there are too many loyalists and fence-sitters then fighting will resume and their efforts will be in vain.

These obstacles are so hard to surmount that till date no military organization has quit fighting en masse no matter how battle-weary their soldiers have become.

Indeed, critical mass and organization are also crucial elements to the integrity of a military organization.

Although it is made up of previously free-living, independent people, an effective army has constrained the autonomy of its components via a rigid authority structure, resulting in a unitary force that the leadership can rely on.

I again emphasize that the source of this authority is emergent from the people themselves, in a similar way that the value of fiat currency is emergent from the people themselves. Top leaders can issue orders, but they cannot compel everyone to fight or assign real value to printed paper, unless enough people are willing to participate and help perpetuate these orders. As discussed in an earlier article, if the people are all cold and socially indifferent then an authority structure cannot even form!

Thus, social consensus has created concrete forces "out of thin air". However, there is nothing abstract about these forces - units continue to fight to the last man despite losing contact with the high command, and merchants continue to assign stable value to a piece of paper issued by an extinct government - these are real human lives and real physical goods that we are talking about.

Also, social consensus has created stability and permanence out of unstable, independent components.

For example, in the picture at the top, who knows what each individual soldier in the military parade is thinking. Someone may truly love the authority structure; someone else could be planning to defect to South Korea that very weekend.

Yet they all stand together in perfect coordination. Components may come and go, but the entire army as a whole is highly stable and can be considered as one functional unit.

In everyday language, we often make this over-simplification by personifying large authority structures as if they were some kind of super-sized individual human being.

"Our country is strong and prepared..."

"Our community is friendly and warm..."

"Our company prides itself on innovation..."

This feeds into a common misconception that since individual people can be unreliable and capricious, human organizations that are composed of people must necessarily be unreliable and capricious - formally known as a fallacy of composition.

Thus, some people yearn for a supernatural authority that would transcend such human weaknesses.

In fact, we have seen that opposite is often true - organizations can have such a rigid and unitary behaviour that top leaders can borrow the power structure for their personal ambition, and other component members of the group would simply go along, more like cogwheels in a machine than capricious, free-living individuals.

The stability of a social system is due to a combination of factors such as critical mass and organization. However, due to the fallacy of composition, there are people who attribute socio-emergent traits such as stability, authority and morality to supernatural sources. This is completely unnecessary as these traits already have fully naturalistic explanations.

Moreover, even social groups that purport to hold supernatural beliefs always use material means, primarily social means to achieve their goals.

Direct supernatural authority has never been observed - it is always mediated through people.

In addition, the power of a social group has always been in proportion to its number of adherents and total material assets. If any group really has access to supernatural authority, then a small number of members should be able to command essentially infinite direct power (eg. to stop diseases, stop wars en masse, roll back flood waters, regrow amputated limbs... so on).

In reality, social groups with poor membership and empty coffers are also those that command the least influence.

Nevertheless, numerous people still cling on to a belief in supernatural authority because it brings them comfort in times of distress and uncertainty.

Does believing in a supernatural being really bring you comfort?

In my next article, I will focus on this issue by examining the strengths and weakness of centralized rule vs rule-by-committee, and discuss the importance of redundancy.


Jason said...


I like your website. It’s very helpful. I was wondering if we could exchange links. If yes, you can find my information below. Be sure to send me your information so we can properly exchange links. Thank you and Happy Holidays!

Paranormal Knowledge


Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Jason,

Welcome to Fresh Brainz!

Currently I am only exchanging links with science and rationality blogs, but thanks for the offer.

Have a great New Year ahead!