However, the key ingredient of this is the relative independence of the individuals. Each individual in such a collaborative enterprise must be able to think independently of each other. However, when a large collection of individuals starts subscribing to a common ideology, be it religious, political, revolutionary, nationalism, a sports team, or faith in an individual leader, this essential ingredient is lost. Once the crowd start sharing a common faith, the crowd quickly turns into a mob. The thoughts coming out of a mob is a degenerate version of any individual thinking, and now the sum is worst than its parts. We have seen this degeneration in history during almost all revolutions, even when the intent may be noble and just, and manifests itself as extreme dogmatism, intolerance of differences, cruelty, and unwanted violence. Examples of such behavior is scattered throughout human history.
Individuals can be visualized as magnetized compass needles spread on the floor. Each needle points in any arbitrary direction as long as they are not subjected to a magnetic field. However, as soon as a strong magnet makes its appearance, the needles lose their independence, and they all point the same way. The stronger the attraction, the more aligned they are. As the magnet changes its position, every needle follows suit.
In today’s world, the wide availability of the internet, and especially the availability of social media, has made it easier for some faith to quickly reach a large audience. Take the example of the faith in Donald Trump, and how millions of people are willing to believe his claims of election fraud, and the fact that they are not swayed by any factual evidence. These are needles under the influence of a very strong magnetic force. The evidence against their ideas come as disruptive forces that tries to point the needles in a different direction, but the magnetic force is so strong that they do not budge.
Since these technologies are here to stay, is there a way out? The only antidote to faith-based polarization is scientific skepticism. Scientific thinking is not a set of theories, facts, and formulas but a way of questioning every idea and verify its validity. It is not an easy thing to do, as our evolutionary mind has evolved to take the easy way of following a leader or a group. Skeptical thinking is hard and has to be learned. This can only come from proper education. The way science is taught in most schools and colleges do not necessarily teach skeptical thinking. Therefore, a majority of people in the world never learn how to be skeptical. Practicing scientists learn it the hard way how to question everything, especially their own thinking. When they come up with an idea, they have to have the discipline to immediately take the opposite position of trying to find flaws in their own thinking. This does not come out of some trait of nobility in their character, but simply because they know their professional credibility will suffer tremendous loss if others find such flaws.
As soon as a scientific idea is presented, other scientists try very hard to prove it wrong. This starts with the peer review process even before the idea can get general distribution. If it can cross the barrier of peer review, other scientists can advance their own credibility and their career if they can demonstrate a flaw in another scientist’s work. This is an inherent part of the scientific culture, and perhaps a strong reason why modern science has progressed much faster than any other form of thought since its inception a few hundred years ago.
On the other end of the same spectrum are the artists. In the arts, there are no rules, and each individual is expected to be fiercely independent. There is no right or wrong in literature, painting, or music. This inherent independence, and almost a maniacal pursuit of it, can protect artists from falling into any mob psychosis. In such social situations they often take the opposing view because it is very hard for an artist to follow a crowd.
However, most people are not protected by scientific skepticism, or by artistic independence, and they are all vulnerable to fall into the trap of mob thinking.
Interestingly enough, a type of aberrant skepticism can lead to another type of mob thinking that is becoming increasingly common. Conspiracy theories are being generated at an alarming rate, and no matter how absurd or improbable they are, the internet and social media allows the followers to find support among like minded believers. All forms of conspiracy theory start with the belief that some authority group should not be trusted. This could be the state, or a nexus of large greedy corporations, or a group of scientists. This form of skepticism, when unsupported by proper scientific training and discipline, can easily ignore all factual evidence, and this blind skepticism can quickly amplify the errant idea and discover supporting evidence everywhere. Conspiracy theorists also look for evidence, but they are extremely selective about which evidence they would permit, and which are to be ignored. Unlike scientific skepticism, where one needs to actively try to find evidence that falsifies the idea, here the search is only for supportive evidence.
The formula to make a mob out of a crowd is to add a dose of faith into it. Faith is different from conviction as it is impervious to counter examples. Once we have faith in an idea, be it religious, political, or fandom, it cannot be swayed by reason and evidence. In many cases, as in religion, even looking for evidence is considered blasphemous, and therefore strictly disallowed. They will say that a virtuous believer is the one who accepts the faith without question.
With the popularity and reach of the internet, it is becoming easier for some charismatic people or group to spread their faith very effectively. Donald Trump could not have achieved his support base without his reach through Twitter. What is most interesting is that a vast majority of traditional media, including the most respected variety, opposed and debunked most of his views, and yet a few short sentences from Trump on Twitter could overcome all the evidence-based criticism.
So, are we doomed? That is a distinct possibility that we cannot rule out. As more people get better education, the number of people on the planet who has learned to think critically will increase. Trump, for example, gets majority of his strong support from people without college education. As the number of people with college education increases, he may lose his support base gradually. However, I am not so sure of that. Trump was one of the first version of this type of politician, who succeeded entirely by creating a mob out of a crowd using modern communication technologies. The version 2 of this breed will be more sophisticated and may find ways to infect some of the people who remain skeptical today.
So, it will be a race between an education that teaches people to think independently, and resist any kind of faith-based thinking, and the increasing sophistication of the mob-makers. It is beyond me to predict which side will ultimately win. However, I do believe that the mob-makers can only succeed in the long run if they can deliver tangible benefits to the population. If they fail to deliver, then at some point even the most enchanted of their followers will realize the hollowness of their promises. That is, ultimately people will ask for evidence. This is most apparent in sports fandom – if the club fails to provide win, they will eventually lose the fanatical support they once enjoyed.
We are all standing at the crossroads of history. All over the world we are seeing fundamentalism, fanatism, nationalism, and other faith-based ideologies on the rise. This trend coincided with the availability and popularity of social media. It allowed all of us to have a platform to talk directly to the whole world. This apparently democratizing force became available to almost everyone on the planet, but were we ready for it? Can humankind ever be ready to consume unfiltered information from everyone else? Evolutionary forces took millions of years to form a mind that was only used to tackle small groups. As our population grew, the rules of traditional media filtered all the ideas through a few channels, and each one of us still absorbed what came out of a few thought leaders. Of course, this too had its problems and limitations, giving too much power to a few entities to influence our thoughts. But it did not overwhelm our mind. That safeguard is no longer there, and we have to learn to survive in a society where infinite communication is the reality.
I am not seeing any indication that we are getting better at it. If anything, we are falling victims to more faith-based ideologies. If we cannot find an effective antidote soon, we are at a risk of losing all that we have accumulated over centuries of intellectual growth.