Knowledge - Dogma

Taking your dogma for a walk

Dogma: A belief or set of beliefs held by a group or organisation, which others are expected to accept without argument.”

The Oxford Dictionary

Dogma is a word we use most often about religion, but it’s much broader than that. Totalitarian regimes apply it all the time, vigorously enforcing a particular view of the world, and severely punishing anyone who contradicts it. But you can see it in some form or another in pretty much any group you care to observe, even amongst the scientific community, the one place you’d least expect it to thrive.

The fact that it does exist in the scientific community, in places at least, tells us two key things. One, it’s a very human thing to create dogma, and two, it’s very hard not to succumb to it.

It helps to consider how dogma comes about. Religious and political dogma is imposed primarily from above, and it’s there specifically to control. Nothing hard to understand about that!

However, it’s then heavily reinforced by the other members of that community, in a “do this, believe this, and you’re truly one of us.’ tribal sort of way. And if you don’t go along with it, they themselves will punish you for it. The hierarchy often don’t have to do a thing.

Those are the obvious ones, but I think there’s a third source of dogma that we don’t often consider, because it’s more an individual thing, rather than an obviously group thing. It’s a sort of short cut way of thinking that helps us process information faster than having to think about everything in detail.

Imagine you’re an early hominid wandering the savannah, hunting an antelope. You see a group of big cats off to your left, and as you look, three of the females get to their feet and start to slink off into the long grass ahead of you. You’ve got a number of small cats back at the village to keep the rats and mice under control, but you’ve never seen pussy cats this size. The rats around here must be massive! A few minutes later, one of your hunting mates is messily and uncomfortably finding out what a lioness looks like from the inside.

The next time you see a pride of lions, you’re a little more cautious, and you tell the rest of the tribe “Look, those big cats we keep seeing, they’re tricky beggars. If you’re not careful, they eat you!” By the time a few more of the tribe have been taken, the message morphs into “Big cats bad!! and even the sight of one sleeping in the sun is enough to send chills of fear down your spine.

That’s a useful ability, to be able to learn about things you need to instinctively react to. It means you react faster, without having to have a meaningful discussion with your neighbour about the appropriate course of action. It means you’re less likely to become something’s lunch.

Which is great, but once you’ve set your mind on something, a strange thing happens to the way you process new information related to that. Paul Simon puts it beautifully in his song “The Boxer”.

“… all lies and jest

Still a man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest…”

That wonderful ability to respond instantly to something that warns you about danger, also has the power to lock you in a box.

Imagine a child called Thistledown, who believes that everything good that happens to her is caused by faeries, and everything bad is done by goblins. Let’s further imagine that faeries and goblins do in fact exist, but they’re not the good and bad creatures that Thistledown thinks they are.

Sparkletoes the faerie, and Footfungus the goblin, are Thistledown’s own personal sprites. They spend most of the day playing cards, but every once in a while they get hungry, and that’s when the good and bad things happen to Thistledown. That’s because both faerie and goblin feed off Thistledown’s emotions. Different emotions taste of different things, so whether something good or bad happens to Thistledown, depends on what Sparkletoes and Footfungus want to eat at the time, not on which of them does it. They can both be good or bad.

Let’s also say that Sparkletoes and Footfungus are getting careless, and Thistledown sometimes gets to see them in action. Whenever she sees Sparkletoes and something good happens, it just reinforces what she believes, as does seeing Footfungus at a bad time.

So what if she sees Sparkletoes when something bad happens? How does she handle that? Easy. She just tells herself that Sparkletoes was trying to save her, but wasn’t able to. And if she sees Footfungus when something good happens, it just means that Sparkletoes was smarter than he was. She sees what she wants to see, and disregards the rest… Thistledown has locked herself into her own belief system, and even the evidence of her own senses will never let her change her mind.

That little story was about superstition or religion, but the model works for politics, relationships, playing golf, applying for jobs, diagnosing a patient, doing scientific research, and pretty much everything else you can think of.

We’re all vulnerable to Thistledown syndrome. Anytime we just accept something without thinking about it, we’re vulnerable, and then we miss stuff, stuff that might be really important. Think you’re immune? Sure about that?