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Live Report: Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, a Plea for Reason

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Benjamin Wolozin

February 25, 2011

Dr. Benjamin Wolozin shares his thoughts and photos from October's Washington, DC event.

John Stewart and Steven Colbert organized the Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30, 2010. The media reports of this rally largely described the rally as a light-hearted day of comedy. Having been at the rally, my sense is that the message driving the massive turnout of over 220,000 people was much more profound. It was a rallying cry for reason.

Stewart and Colbert performed for 3 hrs, criticized the irrational and the alarmist rhetoric flooding our media outlets, and appealed for “sanity”. Many, if not all, of the readers of the Skeptical Inquirer are aware of the problem. Many politicians and pundits routinely ignore scientific evidence, and the public follows their lead. Public figures seem to have perfected use of the sound bite to appear thoughtful while irrationally dismissing scientific evidence relating to subjects such as evolution, global warming or biodiversity loss. Even debates on social policy, such as health care, regularly avoid the most obvious, irrefutable truth that the increasing cost of health care is driven in large part by the aging of our population (reflecting the success of medical science), and the elderly have more health care needs, and therefore costs, than the young.

The routine is familiar. Evolution can be dismissed by reference to the bible. Global warming is dismissed with the claim that more evidence is needed. Strategies for avoiding evidence are highly effective for sound bites because they circumvent any need to describe what evidence would be considered acceptable and cogent. This journey into surrealism is particularly upsetting because it leads to bad policies that are ill equipped to cope with the very real challenges facing our society.

Listening to the news, I often get the feeling that my desire for “reason” in the public debate is limited to a tiny, isolated fraction of the population. Attending the rally, though, provided an entirely different, optimistic perspective. The crowd was immense, far larger than any of us who came expected. People streamed into the malls from all sides, filling the streets from blocks away, and packing together, shoulder to shoulder, on the mall. The atmosphere was humorous and festive, but the humor reflected a surprisingly unified message of thoughtfulness. For instance, despite being packed together, requests to pass were met almost universally with the same message as people stepped back, and comically announced, “Yes! I will let you through, because I am a very reasonable person!”

The rally was filled with thousands of homemade signs most of which addressed the theme of the day in a manner that was both poignant and really funny. Some of the signs directly addressed the need for reason in our political debates. For instance, signs proclaimed, “It’s your brain, Use it!” or “What do we want… Evidence Based Change. When do we want it… After peer review!” Other signs mocked the use of signs at rallies to convey extremist views. For instance, one sign read, “God hates signs” and another sign read, “I disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean I think you are Hitler.” And finally, some signs were just nonsensical, such as a sign that stated “Oooh...Shiny!”

John Stewart joked about the diversity of the crowd, saying facetiously that the participants were a “perfect cross-section of American society” and making up the percentages of each demographic. However, the diversity of the crowd was striking. Attendees were young and old; there were many families (including mine) and people from states all across the USA. I was also struck by the large number of women wearing headscarves, in the Islamic tradition. The intolerance that has infected our political debate particularly affects the Islamic and East Asian demographics. I imagine that for some of these attendees, the rally was about much more than light humor.

The use of humor to deliver political messages conveys a lot about how our brains work. Authors such as Antonio D’Amasio, George Lakeoff and Sam Harris have written excellent books on these subjects. Increasing evidence indicates that the beliefs that we espouse are developed through a complex interplay of knowledge, emotion and logic. Many of our conscious beliefs originate from pre-conscious, emotional areas of our brain. Our emotional brain has a surprising and critical role in allowing us to derive conclusions from knowledge that is often incomplete. This system plays a primary role helping us to rapidly evaluate potentially dangerous situations, but interfaces in almost every conclusion derived throughout our thought processes.

The ideas generated by our emotional brain are filtered through our logic centers to create the seemingly rational statements that we use in virtually every aspect of our life. More knowledge, more security, or more training in logic elicits greater reason, while ignorance, fear and appeals to “belief” elicit less reason. Our belief systems also filter acceptance of information. The emotional brain rejects facts that challenge our belief systems. One can immediately see how emotional appeals, such as those inciting fear, eliciting anger or appealing to religious beliefs, could be used to lead the population towards irrational political outcomes by activating the emotional brain to bypass more reasoned responses.

The importance of emotion in our actions, even seemingly rational ones, creates a challenge for “rational” political debate. Information that questions a belief system is difficult to incorporate because our “emotional” brain rejects such material. Knowledge, though, can filter in and impact on beliefs. Framing arguments in the context of childhood or family is a particularly effective means of conveying information, because family and children are emotionally vulnerable topics.

Humor is another effective mechanism to convey knowledge that might challenge belief systems. Knowledge or logic conveyed through humor elicits positive emotions, which makes us feel less threatened and more accepting. The power of John Stewart and Steven Colbert’s messages lies in their skillful use of humor to question the many irrational beliefs and behaviors that pervade our society today. Thus, although the Rally to Restore Sanity was humorous, for many at the rally, humor was the medium, but reason was the message.

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Benjamin Wolozin, M.D., is a professor in the departments of Pharmacology and Neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine.