Cognitive Dissonance:
It is not uncommon for people to believe two things at once when they cannot both be true.  Formally in science the theory of relativity and quantum theory are such a pair.  They really can’t both be true.  But both are very good at predicting things.  I should say incredibly good.  But the theory of relativity dictates that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light.  Quantum theory dictates that certain things, such as a single photon, exist only as a probability distribution until they react with something.  Then all the information is suddenly in the same place.  The probability field collapses into a single absolute outcome.  The photon only arrives at one place even though an instant before, and indeed if it is coming from a star then for many years, it has existed in an enormous space.  Baffling?  Of course it is.  Oh, and by the way, neither theory is consistent with our common sense of things.  I mean not exactly consistent. 

This is cognitive dissonance.  Both theories appear to be true, but they can’t be.  There is a sweet little episode in “The Watchmen,” a highly acclaimed graphic novel.  Most of the story is pretty grim, but on this occasion the troubled Rorschach is buying his favorite newspaper at a newsstand.  The owner asks Rorschach about the end of the world.  The reply is that the world will probably end that afternoon.  As he turns to go, Rorschach asks the owner to keep a copy of the newspaper for him the next day, which he cheerfully promises. 

The experience of cognitive dissonance is supposed to be unpleasant, so people will change their minds in order to reduce it.  That has not been my experience. 

I suppose an excess of cognitive dissonance could drive one mad.  Of course scientists don’t go mad, I mean nuclear physicists, because their conflicts are formalized.  Wait a minute.  Wasn’t that the people who decided it would be a jolly good thing to make a bomb that would blow a city to smithereens?  Hurm.  Let’s not go there.

The place I find this phenomenon most frustrating is in conversations about fertility and kinship.

I get in conversations like this.

ME: Well, we are certainly stirring up the gene pool.

Cognitive Dissonant: That’s good.  Genetic diversity is good. It makes people healthier.  It increases fertility.

ME: Actually fertility is higher with less genetic diversity.

CD: Well there are too many babies in the world anyway. 

You see what I mean. 

Or perhaps I remark: I notice that homosexual marriages are legal or not depending on where you are, and it changes back and forth.

CD: You have to support those marriages because anybody can marry anybody.  Nobody can say anything about it.   It’s their life to lead any way they want to and anybody else just has to shut up.

ME: What if I were to marry a cousin?

CD:  Ugh.  Yuk.  That’s so icky. 

Maybe it just drives people around you mad.

Of course I am not in the business of telling people whom they should or should not marry.  But I do think it’s very important for people to know what the results of their decisions are likely to be.  And I don’t even know that.  I do know that a population of randomly mating people will have higher or lower fertility depending on how big that population is.  But I don’t know just how big a population can be without having serious trouble.  It is probably in the low hundreds to the low thousands with my feeling being low hundreds is the better bet, something on the lines of the size of a small subsistence farming community or a band of hunter gatherers.  They say that two hundred is the number of people you can know.  That would include children and elders.  It would not be surprising if we are fine tuned to have an emotional horizon that is coterminous with our biological horizon.

Another extremely important fact is whether ones choice of mate influences the number of children one will have.  It clearly influences the number of grandchildren, which is the important number.  It might be that if you want to have a lot of children you need to marry third of fourth cousin.  Or it might be that your fertility is fixed at birth.  In that case, you could marry that cousin or an equally fertile person from the far side of the world and it would have no effect on the number of children you had.  It makes an enormous difference.  If the day ever comes when people decide that extinction is a bad idea and we need to make rational mating choices, then it matters when the point of no return is reached.  We may have reached it already or we may have another generation in which to dither around. 

So I don’t know what I want people to know.  The information exists, of course.  It is right there in the Icelandic genealogy.  But I do not have access to the information or the skill to extract the information or the skill to recruit anybody who could give it a try.

And a major impediment is that cognitive dissonance again.  Just because you tell somebody the truth, even if that person believes it, does not mean that the person stops believing things that could not possibly be true at the same time.

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