The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Secret of Propaganda: Teaching Obedience

A classic example of modern propaganda. It dates from the 1940s and it shamelessly exploits the principle of authority. Note that there is no proof or evidence that a majority of doctors smoked Camels more than any other cigarettes. And there is no proof or evidence that, even if the claim were true, the doctors would be right. But the principle of authority works independently from data and truth and the campaign was a huge success. It is the great power of obedience.

Just a few days ago, I was a guest on a TV discussion on the usual subject* (practically, the only one being discussed nowadays).  At some moment, the discussion veered on propaganda, and the host** said something like, "but isn't it strange that Germany fell so easily for the Nazi propaganda despite the fact that it was the most cultured society in Europe at that time?" And it dawned on me:

It was not despite. It was because.

Exactly that. Propaganda and education go hand in hand: they are one the consequence of the other. In an instant, my whole career as a teacher flashed in my mind. What are we teaching to our students? Plenty of things, of course, but mostly it is about trusting the authority. Obedience, in one word. 

I experimented at times with the opposite approach, pushing my chemistry students to criticize their textbooks. Many of my students are smart fellows, some of them appreciated the idea, and sometimes they found errors that I hadn't noticed myself. But most of them found the exercise an annoying interlude in their studies. They were not stupid, either. They perfectly understood that learning how to criticize the authority gave them no useful "career points." They just wanted to go through their classes as fast as they could, hoping that the ordeal would soon be over. 

The problem is not just with chemistry. In all fields, students and teachers play a game together, as Simon Sheridan well described in a recent post. It is a game that aims at creating "the archetypal orphan," that is a person completely subjugated to a dominating figure that Sheridan identifies as "the devouring mother." You might also say "the dominating father," but it is a role that university professors assume by default. The technical details of what our students learn are obsolete or soon will be, but one thing of their training will remain for a long time: believing what they are told. Soon, the role of authority will not be fulfilled by their teachers anymore, they will be replaced by opinion leaders, politicians, and other figures. 

Look at how, in the 1940s, the tobacco industry had a huge success with a campaign aiming at convincing people that smoking Camels was a good idea because most doctors (a typical authoritative figure) smoked Camels. Look at how, nowadays, our governments used the same typical authoritative figures, doctors, to convince us to do things that might turn out to be more harmful for our health than cigarette smoking. 

Marty's Mac (see below) notes how (boldface mine)
.... it is remarkably easy to convince the educated classes of something. One only has to get the information printed in the right places. The educated can be made to believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, or that cigarettes and canola oil are healthy (a typical claim in the midcentury), or that the high numbers of breakthrough COVID cases in countries with 90% vaccination rates are caused by the 10% of unvaccinated people. They can be made to believe anything, really.  
So, the more educated you are, the more sensible to propaganda you are. No wonder that many of the people most affected by propaganda are well learned ones, especially people who have comfortable government jobs. Among scientists, belief in the current propaganda campaign is especially visible with climate scientists, whose beliefs depend on an authority called "climate models." (I have no statistics to cite on this point, but I know the people who work in the field) Conversely, blue-collar people engaged with real-world problems are more cautious in believing what they are told by the government, as noted by Scott Latham

So no surprise that the highly cultured Germans of the 1930s fell in the hands of the rabid Nazi madness (in the hands of the God Wotan, as Jung noted). And the most likely ones to fall for the Nazi ideas were among the most educated. For instance, physicians joined the Nazi party in droves (nearly 50% by 1945), a much higher fraction than for any other profession. Then, no surprise that our highly educated society fell so easily into the current propaganda trap that makes us believe that our governments are doing what they are doing only in order to protect us from a terrible danger. 

But propaganda is not necessarily a bug, it is a feature of the system. There is nothing wrong with the principle of authority, as long as you see it in terms of trust in people who know more than you. In the complex society in which we live it is impossible to question every facet of reality and, without this kind of trust, it would be impossible to keep it working. The problem with trust is that when it becomes an automated reflex it can be easily hijacked by people who use it to their own advantage. Then, trust becomes obedience and propaganda becomes the truth. (***)

If there will be some good consequences of the disaster that befell us during the past two years, it will be to understand the dangers of propaganda. And maybe to remember how right Ivan Illich was about the need of "deschooling society.

(*) Apologies for not writing explicitly the term for what we are discussing. I already lost a blog to censorship and I am sure that you understand anyway. 

(**) h/t Domenico Guarino
(***) after having published this post, I found a quote by Hannah Arendt that I think is in line with my considerations and those of Marty's Mac. 

“The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Below, I report in full the recent post by "Marty's Mac." I already cited him or her extensively in a post on religion and literacy. One of the smartest commenters I know, at present

How do you know… ?

by Marty's Mac -- Jan 10 2022

How do you know a variety of facts about the world? For instance, how do you know that matter is made up of atoms and electrons?

Presumably you learned about this in school. A teacher gave you a textbook that explained the experiments that established atomic theory. We knew already, before any electronic scanning microscope, that matter came in discrete units because the result of chemical reactions always yields perfect whole-number ratios. Subatomic particles were discovered with the cathode tube, Rutherford discovered the nucleus by shooting radiation at gold, Millikan discovered the charge of an electron with his famous oil drop experiment… the list of experiments in an introductory text goes on. An educated person who is not working in the hard sciences has, likely, already forgotten most of these. But they were in all likelihod presented to him, back in high school.

But none of these answers, even if you remember them, actually explain how you know about the atom. Unless you are in a very rarified group of chemistry and physics enthusiasts, you have not performed any of these experiments. So how do you actually know about atoms?

What happened, really, was that an authority figure gave you certain information, a significant amount of which you also read (in a text that is culturally authoritative), and you believed it. You believe stories like these because you have been raised to believe them and have not decided to radically doubt the authorities who passed this information on to you. Things like atomic theory seem to be widely believed, and people say it’s important for all sorts of technical applications, and these technologies seem to work very well. You believe about atoms, almost certainly, second-hand.

But it is not just atoms. How about the existence of Kazakhstan? It is on maps, people in the news talk about it as if it is real (and currently undergoing serious civil unrest), there are images of people in a place that is called Kazakhstan, and so on. This is also how you have any understanding of health and the body, the workings of your government, and so on. The educated mind has acquired most of its understanding through appeals to authority. The critical thinking that is so vaunted in education is mostly about judging whether or a certain authority is good (or, ultimately, approved), and in some cases whether it has internal inconsistencies that might discredit it.

I am saying this not to knock education as useless and only for the sheeple. There is not an alternative to appeals to authority. In any sufficiently complex technological or scientific society, the accumulated knowledge is too vast for an individual to replicate his ancestors’ discoveries for himself. This is already true in fairly technologically primitive societies: Which plant fibers are good for clothing and textiles, and which are useless? Which mushrooms are edible? What domesticated or semi-domesticated crops have been handed down to you? How does one hunt or make weapons for hunting? All of these are inherited knowledge or technology, and we are miles away from atomic theory. But the dependence on authority becomes much more acute for more highly technologically developed societies like our own. There is no viable alternative to an education in which appeals from authority are prominent. The only real alternative, completely erasing authority from the equation, is to drop back to some level below hunter-gatherer and hope to acquire enough knowledge over a single lifetime to manage bare subsistence.

Continuing Education

Education is, as they like to say now, a lifelong process. For the highly educated, all of whom adopt this model of trusting certain authorities for information about how the world works, and especially for those embedded in the “knowledge economy”, this kind of learning does not end (or does not largely end) with formal schooling about atoms and molecules. It continues into adult life. The teachers and textbooks are replaced by culturally authoritative figures like the newsman or public intellectuals (often academics or businessmen) and sources like The New York Times. And in the contemporary marketplace, if you don’t like these, other authorities are on offer.

The continuing education of the educated (most typically this education focuses on current affairs) has two consequences. The first is that it is remarkably easy to convince the educated classes of something. One only has to get the information printed in the right places. The educated can be made to believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, or that cigarettes and canola oil are healthy (a typical claim in the midcentury), or that the high numbers of breakthrough COVID cases in countries with 90% vaccination rates are caused by the 10% of unvaccinated people. They can be made to believe anything, really. The same way the teacher explains about the electrons and the textbook backs her up, the newsman can go on Fox or print in Vox some story, and the educated and informed person will summarily believe it. Fairly recently the elites in America have suddenly noticed that this may not always work to their advantage, and Hillary Clinton coined the term “fake news” to explain her defeat (a term that was immediately taken up by Donald Trump and, like almost all of Hillary Clinton’s political moves, backfired spectacularly). However, this gullibility is not confined to conservatives (nor to liberals). It is a simple result of a large percentage of the population becoming lifelong learners.

The second consequence is that the cultural norms of society can change rapidly and over much less than a single lifetime. There have been a bevy of cultural norms that have been repealed or replaced over any adult person’s lifetime. The most obvious in the current moment is extreme fear of sickness, adoption of universal masking, and acceptance of ever-increasing government authority in the name of health. However, many other changes have occurred within a single lifetime: The widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians (currently this is happening with trans people at an even more breakneck pace), the non-acceptance of overt displays of (certain kinds of) racism, ignoring one’s dinner partner in favor of reading (once considered horribly rude with a book, now commonplace with a phone), ordering food instead of cooking, and if we go further back, the acceptance of left-handedness as a manner of writing (as late as the early sixties, this was disallowed in American schools). These are all changes that were normalized in less than the time it takes for an infant to become a legal adult. Despite this speed, they are often not noticed (many boomers lived through the acceptance of left-handedness and barely think about it), or thought of as so backwards that no one could possibly disagree (this was the case two years after the repeal of sodomy laws). A whole population can be freshly educated in the right way, whatever that right way happens to be today (and quite independent of whether it is good or bad for society), and tomorrow behave as though they grew up believing these things their whole life long.

This peculiarly modern form of changeability and indeed gullibility is not present in older, less literate societies. This is not to say illiterate or less literate societies don’t believe crazy things. Of course they do. But these crazy things are generally learned in childhood: how shamanistic magic can cure or curse, the presence of spirits all around us, the importance of smoking bodies before burial to reach the afterlife, and so on. The feudal serf may harbor a host of wacky superstitions, but they were acquired in his early education (not in a school so much as around the village) and became more or less fixed for his entire adulthood. Literacy and lifelong learning create opportunities for people to acquire new fundamental beliefs their whole life long. The gullibility of childhood can become permanent.

The sorts of rapid changes we have all experienced in the past two years in relation to COVID would not have been possible without a highly literate society. At the beginning of the pandemic, when news was first coming out of China, it was racist to be at all concerned about the virus. Then it became irresponsible and scientifically invalid to wear a mask. Then it became scientifically necessary to wear a mask (perhaps even two or three, simultaneously) and maintain social distancing. Then the science said it was okay to not practice social distancing if one attended the right kind of protests. Then it was necessary to get two vaccines, and that would end the pandemic. Then there was a booster one would get once a year, now down to every four months. At each stage, people have wholly bought into the new belief system which may have contradicted the belief system of last month or last week. Science changes, or rather the story that the cultural authority is telling changes, and so people’s fundamental beliefs can be updated more or less live. This is not because the whole population has actually properly learned something. They have just been informed of a change of plan.

Life in the age of propaganda

As I stated before, there is no solution that will keep us from having to learn by appealing to authority, because there is too much to know for any person to build up everything from scratch. Everyone has a matrix of beliefs which they have built up partially from direct experience (the minority) and partially from authorities they trust (the majority). But in an age of constant learning, it is much easier for baseless beliefs to infiltrate a belief matrix over time. When people worry about propaganda, I think this largely what they mean: That the set of new information being acquired will contain beliefs that, if one were to build them up from scratch (which most people cannot do, and no one can do with all the new information), would not hold up to scrutiny. This has been, for all of human history, an ever-present possibility in childhood, but children don’t have the mental capacity to worry about this.

This is not a place to “solve” the problem of propaganda. Such a solution (if it were possible) would be worthy of a lengthy book on epistemic philosophy or sociology. All I want to point out here is that propaganda, and easily-propagandized populations, are a result of education and cannot be fixed by simply educating people better. The very instruments for increasing knowledge in fact introduce the greatest possibility for the rapid adoption of false beliefs. If we want to live with the benefits of literacy (and we have no choice, this is the world as it is, unless we suffer a severe dark age), we must learn to live with and, if we are very lucky and work very hard to change society, mitigate the dark side of that social technology.


  1. Ugo, a quick correction. Doctors are an "authoritative" figure, not "authoritarian".

    1. Right... thanks! I was carried away by my own momentum!

    2. Can't help but notice that one doctor can be both.
      And at the same time. Frequently

  2. Thank you for all the insightful posts over the years. I am halfway through Jacque Ellul's "Propaganda - The Formation of Men's Attitudes" It has been excellent so far and reaches the same conclusion that the educated are very susceptible to propaganda.

  3. In Syria, Iraq and alike - there is no need for using 'doctors' and complex Propaganda campaigns to teach the masses Obedience - slaughtering a number of civilians in a neighbourhood - makes all others flee with no more than the clothes on their bodies

    Hasaka, Syria - since last Friday.

    When the armament involved looks hugely expensive and up to date, but the fleeing civilians look so poor - one understands that there is something much more than what the media says.

    Hasaka is oil and natural gas producing area in Syria, reported to be known for smuggling unknown volumes of oil into the international Energy black market, daily.

    This tragic choreography is not something new in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and others - this far, some thought of compensating the civilians victimised in the process by means of exotic financial instruments, proportionate with similar campaigns of Recycling People:

    War Crimes Compensation-Backed Securities (WCCBS)


  4. Hello Ugo,
    "Learning" should maybe be read as "text-learning" in this text. There are many kinds of knowledge and many kinds of learning.
    I like very much what Matthew B Crawford has written about skilled crafts vs. office jobs. (see e.g. his book "Shop class as soul craft") In an office/text environment, truth is what authority says. In a skilled craft, there is much more of a shared reality. The electric installation works, or it doesn't. The wall is plumb, the floor is level, the corner is square - the boss and the worker can agree to the observable reality.

    Office/text reality is much more fluid. I suspect that physicians are most susceptible to authoritarianism, since they often have to play an authoritative role at work. They often pretend that they know "the truth". Second worst are Managers. (Manfred Kets-de Vries book "the Dysfunctional Manager" explains it well...)

    When I was at University, there was very little room for critical thinking, but a lot of attention to learning to reproduce complicated calculation recipes. The sharpest guy in my year group said something like: "We spent five years suppressing our intuition about what problems we should work on and which questions to ask - we only worked on solving other peoples problems, "problems" which all had solutions. Nothing like the real world."

    A major problem in most countries is that the "news" sources are owned by a small handful of billionaires, who implicitly decide what will be promoted in different media channels. We are back at 1850 when it comes to media ownership concentration. At that time, "local labour press" started to bring news from a people's perspective instead of the owner classes. Do you see any outlets like that in your locality?

    And back to "higher education" - I think it is becoming more and more a loyalty-obedience training and a sorting sieve to select who is allowed at the buffet of the Middle Class. With an academic diploma, you are allowed more benefits and you are expected to be more docile and obedient.
    When I ran a product development team a few years back, the engineers showed an inverse correlation between academic degree and useful output. Have you also seen this pattern?

    Thanks again for an insightful commentary!


  5. How are we supposed to deal with the paradox presented by this article? If we assume that you are an expert about propaganda, an authority, then this post must be pure propaganda. If not, must we disregard it because of your lack of expertise on the subject?

    I have a more serious quibble with Marty's Mac's implication that official Covid pronouncements were propaganda. The continual changes in advice and emphasis is exactly the opposite of propaganda. Propaganda remains remarkably consistent because it need not have any relation to truth. Propaganda is information of a "biased or misleading nature".It need not be swayed or changed by new evidence or require any evidence at all.

    The sometimes conflicting advice offered during the pandemic was a clear indication of ignorance, of not really knowing exactly what the right thing to do might be. It was actually reassuring to see public health officials fumble around a bit, exactly what we should expect with a novel, fast moving and dangerous situation. It was perfectly reasonable to have official precautions change as evidence accumulated.

    1. If you allow me, Joe, I would challenge your statement that "propaganda needs not have any relation to truth." It is the opposite. Propaganda pivots on truth, although it is a complex relationship of reciprocal feedback: truth shapes propaganda and propaganda shapes truth. Social truths are never absolute. They are the result of social interactions.

      Apart from that, your point is not in contradiction with the point that Marty's Mac (and myself) make. Clearly, there is no "puppet master" somewhere, that directs the memetic spectacle. There are several "supernodes" in the network that affect the whole system. The interaction of these supernodes is evolutionary, so no surprise that the tune changes with time. Think of masks that were stated to be useless, discouraged, encouraged, mandatory, and finally double better than single. Clearly, the system is "learning" as a result of the memetic movement.

      The whole point, I think, is that the system goes out of control very easily. And then it can evolve into forms that are actually harmful for everyone -- they may benefit some lobbies, but not even that. There are many examples, some are truly chilling. But that would require a specific post

    2. Noam Chomsky wrote a book back in 1988 titled "Manufacturing Consent" which delves into these very issues as they play out in the media. Good read.

  6. Ugo,

    I'm curious with your chemistry students whether there was much practical work?

    It took me until after university to realise that I simply cannot learn from textbooks. Which also explains why I found school terribly boring.

    For me, the method of learning which works best is to have a problem to solve, try and solve it by myself (the hard way) and then be introduced to the optimal way to solve it (based on current best knowledge). Most education just skips to the optimal solution and presents it without any context of why it is optimal.

    I also tend towards philosophical pragmatism. Unless I know the value in a field of endeavour, I can't get interested in it. And no interest = no learning.

    1. The curriculum in chemistry is more and more theoretical. But, fortunately, they still have labs where they do things with their own hands. It helps a lot maintaining a certain connection to reality. But most classes are obsolete and useless. The student are stuffed with things that they will not ever need or understand, and that's true for their teachers as well.

  7. In my opinion, obedience that people learn in universities is one of the elements that accelerate the collapse (The Seneca Effect). Obedience prevents complex system to achieve equilibrium because it reduces feedback information. Without proper feedback information it's impossible to servo regulate the system and the system breaks in the catastrophic way.

    Without proper feedback it's possible for political managers of the society to become clueless. And where they are getting their information from? Usually it's from so-called specialists, technocrats from different fields. But those people, be it medical specialists or engineers, also have their interests and hidden agendas. They need not be interested in society well-being, they can have their own interests. They can misuse a perfectly good idea and make it exact opposite. The idea to consume less can become the idea that we should "own nothing and be happy". The original idea can be distorted in such way to become unrecognizable and to serve completely different purpose. Usually, when people "own nothing" they are extremely unhappy, unless they took a vow of voluntary poverty like monks in monasteries. I would like to know who will own everything when we all become poor like monks? There will still be many things to own, right?

    1. Excellent comment. I worked for years on coming up with a monastic-like institution where at least half of the participants would not have ownership because ownership can be stifling in many ways. However, I could not come up with a satisfactory structure because of the dilemma of who would actually have ownership. (I flew to San Francisco on September 10,2001 to pitch the idea to a couple of individuals on the following day. Needless to say, my meetings on 9/11 occurred in a distracting climate.)

  8. Ugo,
    thank you for an inspiring essay.
    About literacy and propaganda, it occurred to me that the less educated people possibly prefer direct oral conversation (facial expression, mimic, etc) whereas they tend to mistrust written stuff "without a face".

    The more educated have been trained to trust written information, and have lost some of the subconscious/instinctive skill (the "antennas") that could help them to unmask propaganda/manipulation in oral conversation.

    This could be a factor why the literate are easier victims, together with the fact that it is efficient to dish out propaganda in printed media. Talking to a small crowd in market square is not very efficient in comparison.

    Kind regards

    1. Marty's Mac has some interesting notes on the point you make. He doesn't mention face-to-face interactions, but he says that the less educated tend to acquire their views in their youth and to maintain them in adulthood.

    2. Interesting, that would explain why YouTube clips spread disinformation in groups that contain less educated people.

    3. Didn't the Jesuits say 'Give us the boy until 7 yrs of age, and we'll give you the man'? Masters of indoctrination......

  9. This is a very provovative thesis, and I will play with it and see where it leads. Much appreciation. There is no doubt in my mind that something is profoundly wrong in what "education" has turned into.

    Offhand... what might falsify it is the fact that "madness of crowds" existed in illiterate societies as well.

    1. To follow up. I am thinking... there were disastrous episodes of gullibility among nearly illiterate peoples. The Ghost Dancers, believing that bullets won't touch them. There was a large tribe in Africa, where a religious hysteria seized them, where some prophet told them to slaughter all their cattle to fix the disruption of their culture. Well, they died en masse of starvation.

      Then our own hysteria against heretics and witches... in a society somewhat literate, but not heavily so.

      I am inclined to conclude that nazi Germany was a spectacular fail of the hypothesis that education & culture will protect people from these memetic epidemics; that gullibility is the mark of the uneducated and uncultured.


    2. Good point about the ghost dancers and the like. I am writing something about them right now. But I think it is a different story. Ghost dancing was a desperate attempt of a whole society to resist being destroyed. It was a bottom-up idea that spread among those who could still fight. It was not "propaganda" in the sense that it was imposed from above. The Native Americans could not have propaganda, their society was not structured in a way that could create it. The story of the Xhosas who slaughtered their cattle had a similar purpose -- it was the same idea of "burning the bridges" behind the army. Then, soldiers have no choice but to fight to death.

    3. Yes, I was thinking more of what makes people gullible in the face of destructive ideas floating about.

      The late medieval and renaissance witch hunts were fed by propaganda from above. Another interesting tidbit re Germany -- I heard that while the working classes went crazy for Hitler, the farmers did not. Maybe deracination has something to do with being vulnerable to BS?

    4. Not sure that the Witch hunts were caused by propaganda from above. Within some limits, they were spontaneous. But it is a long story, part of the book I am writing right now!

    5. Remember that famous painting where a naked woman "witch" is being tortured and two inquisitors are lost in heavy tomes? I think the fact that the witch hunts raged in the otherwise somewhat more educated and book learned renaissance is not an accident... and the very educated Jesuits being so heavily involved... yeah, a mix... but who mostly benefited from the property confiscation were the wealthier and more powerful strata. All the more reason to fan the flames...


  10. using the nazis as bad guys or as a people deluded by propaganda is very congruent with the "mainstream matrix" of belief...

  11. How does your thesis explain that the main adherents of current baseless propaganda are not the educated? Is it that they simply attended public school, where “do as you are told,” and “think what we tell you” are rules number one and number two (along with “to question is to disobey” and “you are only as good as we say you are”)?

    1. Sorry, Peter, your question is not clear. Could you rephrase it? Anyway, you may be interested in this post by Scott Latham about how the working class sees the situation.

    2. In my experience, the working class has not bought into the Covid hysteria nearly as much as the middle class...One reason is a distrust for the government..

    3. Same impression here. But I couldn't find data proving this idea.

    4. My only source of information is eating almost every day in a cafe catering to working class and lower middle class customers, including military..masks were extremely rare even when mandated, and the servers I've questioned had no interest in getting jabbed...

  12. Ugo – your point re the educated class in Nazi Germany is well made. But I wonder if a need for, or attachment to, status is a significant factor, regardless of what actual beliefs a person may reveal if asked in an unguarded moment? When having to deal w/ doctors treating me condescendingly in high-stakes situations, I discovered that one way to level the playing field is to talk like a lawyer – the doctors soon ceded ground. I won’t cite any learned studies in support of my thoughts here. But I was for a time employed on a low wage in a job that involved training med students, & I found many lacking in aptitude for their chosen career. In fact, it seemed pretty clear that, for some, parental expectation had determined their path. Due to cultural mores or temperament, they were conformists. Also, med training entails a lot of rote learning, which of itself has a numbing effect, while the gruelling schedule tends to desensitise. At the same time as students train for a role that accords them superior status, they undergo a process of learning to submit. And if, later on, they lose their hard-earned status through deregistration or whatever, the pay cut is a hard pill to swallow.

    Doctors’ susceptibility to incentives from pharmaceutical companies isn’t due to their educational level. Illiterate people accept bribes just as readily.

    Completely agree w/ your thoughts on propaganda, which I think can be defined as such by intent rather than content. It’s a process; the word means propagation.

    1. My experience with doctors is awful. I could tell you stories, but in my life, the only people who ever serious tried to kill me were doctors.

    2. Same here. I am thinking, maybe the whole covid debacle will have one positive consequence: people will once again turn to self-care, personal responsibility for health choices, herbs and alternative remedies, and generally stay clear of the medical complex as much as possible. I think it would do the medical complex good to slim down, and focus on acute care which is what they do best.


  13. Ugo, you and your readers might enjoy a great essay by redoutable satirist C. J. Hopkins on the use and effectiveness of even riduculous propaganda, in which Hopkins argues that the humiliation that comes from spouting nonsensical narratives actually reinforces allegiance to the ruling classes that maintain those narratives:

    The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an "official narrative" that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between "the truth" as defined by the ruling classes and any other "truth" that contradicts their narrative . . . Conforming to the consensus "reality" generated by these official narratives is price of admission to the inner sanctum, where the jobs, money, professional prestige, and the other rewards of Capitalism are. Conforming does not require belief. It requires allegiance and rote obedience. What one actually believes is completely irrelevant, as long as one parrots the official narrative . . . [I]t is often most effective when those who are forced to robotically repeat it know that it is utter nonsense, as the humiliation of having to do so cements their allegiance to the ruling classes . . . [I]t is intended to be accepted and repeated, more or less like religious dogma . . . What matters is that the ruling classes have issued a new official narrative and are demanding that every "normal" American stand up and swear allegiance to it . . .

  14. I'd like to know how the author knows there isn't spirit all around us...In my opinion, there is, and I'm one of the most highly educated people on the planet, Harvard and a top law school...

  15. Interesting theory, but honestly I struggle to find it really persuasive. Surely, being educated does not shield one from falling prey to propaganda. But does it make one more prone to it? I just don't see the evidence for that. Actually, there appears to be a lot of counter evidence, judging by how many fail to grasp the fundamental difference between knowledge acquired through real studies and "knowledge" stemming from little more than hearsay on social media.

  16. I am old now, but I studied medicine in the Sixties of last century and stumbled on relevant cultural differences:

    In the German tradition the professor of medicine was an omnipotent god-like figure. Truth was exclusively secreted from his mouth and he set his own standards:
    August Bier (1861-1949) developed spinal anesthesia testing the effects on his collaborators buttocks with a burning cigar. August Förster (1873-1941) determined the innervation zones of the spinal nerves by unnecesseraly cutting individual nerves in patients undergoing operation and observing the numb zones afterward. Sauerbruch was famous and dangerous by dissecting interesting patients on the operation table far beyond surgical need. This invasive tradition found its culmination in the medical experiments performed in the concentration camps.

    If the professor is the only source of truth, the others have no reason to think or to ask questions, they have to keep quiet and listen. The Germans have this capability - as Churchill said "The hun - you have him either at your feet or at your throat". The psychoanalyst Horst-Eberhard Richter in his book "Der Gotteskomplex" thinks that this behaviour arises if the archetypic psychic entity "God" is swallowed by the "Ego" which from there on identifies itself with God.

    The English are proud of their own studies about the innervation zones of the spinal nerves by Henry Head (1861-1940): He did this not by cutting nerves but by exact observation of patients with Herpes zoster. His results were similar to Försters.

    In 1965 as a student I came to the UK into a provincial hospital famous for its teaching: The leading physicians did never do any actual teaching but used exclusively the Socratic method, asking questions all day, or by presiding presentations and journal clubs of junior doctors. Thinking, individual opinion and independence was not only encouraged but imperatively asked for. One had to be able to give a reason for any action proposed of performed. If a junior physician had a very strong feeling about a decision he was often allowed to follow it (as long as this was a valid alternative), even if the consultant disagreed, the reason given that the doctor nearest to the patient might know best. The consultants demanded that the leading journals were read and that physicians had a throughout knowledge of the situation and disease of his patient from the third day after entry, this was when the questioning started.

    At the time in the UK a brilliant student could start medical school at 17, finish it with 21 and be a responsible physician at the bedside at this age. I was a 25 years old inept Swiss student at the time and saw physicians 22 years of age manage tricky emergencies during nighttime with competence and without asking anybody. I was ashamed and envious. It was for me a profound cultural shock.

    After this experience I think that teaching independent thinking is possible. I followed this model whenever possible.

    1. Sorry, I have to correct myself, the given name of Förster was Otfrid and not August.