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Shifting baselines: A dangerous illusion

Published on 28 October 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

We know what we experience – we see, smell, hear and handle – and store in the brain’s synapses.[1] Experience is the “baseline” for discussing reality. The problem is: the baseline is subjective. Here, a classic example of what it means to catch a “trophy fish:”



262b 2009


The baseline has shifted, as the collective memory of what catching a “trophy fish” meant faded. I doubt that Hemingway would feel comfortable writing The old man and the sea nowadays.

This is particularly patent in oceanography. Professor Robert Callum writes:

“In my work as a scientist, I find that few people really appreciate how far the oceans have been altered from their pre-exploitation state, even among professionals like fishery biologists or conservationists. A collective amnesia surrounds changes that happened more than a few decades ago, as hardly anyone reads old books or reports. People also place most trust in what they have seen for themselves, which often leads them to dismiss as far-fetched tales of giant fish or seas bursting with life from the distant, or even the recent past. The worst part of these ‘shifting environmental baselines’ is that we come to accept the degraded condition of the sea as normal.”[2] (Pg. xiv– xv)

As time passes and memories die, old baselines are forgotten, and the current ones become the norm. This is unfortunate enough. We are hardly aware of the fact that shifting baselines is pervasive of one’s sense of reality.

The unconscious brain is forever shifting baselines or inventing them. Memories are not stored for objective truth, but for intended usefulness. Memories are highly selective as well as biased (for self-affirmation). The unconscious brain is not the only part of the self, which is trafficking memory. Each person also does it consciously. We are forever “boiling down” experience better to remember it. Peripheral elements of the context are elided altogether, despite context having no borders. The retained experience is turned into an abstraction. We make generalizations. Multitudinous human practices become “humanity” – as if such a thing existed. Reality is infinite, and the price for grasping it, is imprecision: “good enough” to survive is all that matters.

Describing a scientific discovery is a perfect example of shifting baselines. The path to discovery is full of false starts and detours, errors, illusions, emotions – whatever. This is the scientist’s lived baseline. Once the goal has been achieved, the news needs spreading. The scientist painstakingly gathers from the world of his experience the least information necessary for communicating the result. Experience has shown that rational language is best. The practice of science is not rational: science only communicates the results in that language. Rationality is lingua franca. This was not always so. Before the emergence of writing, mnemonic devices had to be woven into the communication so as to sustain it across people and time. It made for beauty and long nights, but also loss of non-essential content.[3]

Humans communicate through symbols – words, signs, and songs. The symbol used for communication signifies the speaker’s baseline. The receiver, however, substitutes his own for the original (this makes for a host of cultural misunderstandings). As the symbol spreads “Chine whispers” ensue. Over time, symbols are whittled down to mere words. The meme[4] has become empty. Consequently, I do not give much for the “history of ideas” – as if an idea could be passed on intact from person to person (I use the term begat as in the Bible), or generation to generation of philosophers, political scientists and, God forbid, politicians (scavengers on intellectual middens)! What we have is a tradition of exceedingly uncertain content. In fact, the memes are empty vessels in which each of us pours new wine.

Unless it is shared from the outset, the baseline of experience is most difficult to convey properly from one person to the next. Admittedly, parents convey experience to the child through emotional language. Inborn predisposition for mimicry facilitates transmission. The social context reinforces the transmission subliminally, or alters it drastically, so by peer pressure. Puberty is the moment when the person asserts the primacy of individual experience.

Shifting baseline is worrying me in the context of conflicts. We have probably come to the end of the line with regard to massive destruction akin to that of WWII[5] (and its sequels) wrought on the civilian population (except the US, which may explain in part its bellicosity). In the West, however, the baseline of destruction is shifting fast toward unfamiliarity as the number of people remembering the horror of warfare is dwindling. Conflicts, if they take place, are not on one’s own soil, so we lack immediate experience. Reporting from distant battlefronts sanitizes violence. Images of conflict, horrifying as they may appear on the TV screen, do not convey the utter destructiveness of war. In fact, they are more akin to video-games.

Violence is a tough cookie. It is rapidly changing its spots – it is becoming “smart”. High tech weapons operating with “surgical precision” unerringly separate the “bad” from the “good” from a distance, and without collateral damage (or at least this is the message that visuals convey). Internet is replete with videos of soldiers on both physical and technological steroids. Video games celebrate smart violence, and so do action movies. The imagery of the Wall Street trading room (where fortunes are being made – never lost) is remarkably close to that of the military command room (where hits are being inflicted, never received). The message is clear: if one goes high tech enough, the world will be his for the bullying. Are we entering the Age of Bullying?

[1] See e.g. Joseph LeDOUX (2002): Synaptic self. How our brains become what we are. Penguin, London.

[2] Robert CALLUM (2007):The unnatural history of the sea: the past and future of humanity and fishing. Gaia Books, London (pg. xiv – xv)

[3] See e.g.: Elisabeth WAYLAND BERBER – Paul T. BARBER (2004): When they severed earth from sky. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[4] See Richard DAWKINS (2006): The selfish gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[5] See e.g.: Richard BESSEL (2009): Germany 1945. From war to peace. Harper & Row, New York.. John DOWER (1999): Embracing defeat. Japan in the aftermath of Worl War II. Penguin, London.

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