Not My Problem!

At a time when the grand old dame of the Supreme Court recently died and the Congress lines up to make sure that this president gets to name a new Justice, I divert my attention away from the recently unpleasant and return to another example of the gross stupidity and the sad way that politics have of dictating this country’s course. I refer, of course to our collective tendency to abandon our critical faculties and look everywhere but where we should be looking. I have updated this post.

In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 [over twenty-five years ago!] there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of the next century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their disappearing homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.

And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress, not to mention our president — still doubts that climate change is a reality and/or that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful.

How can they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have once had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media, 91 % of which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress, funded and elected by those very corporations.

According to Pierce, it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:

‘Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert “not proven,” smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.'”

In a word, they would cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact it is precisely the strategy the vested interests have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002

“a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context. ‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'”

In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure that lackeys remain in political office and that corporate profits continue to rise.

What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used-car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust. Yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not have to bother about such disturbing truths. In fact, what many of us do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any fixed meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling or the word of an inveterate liar.

Because of this, I have devised a new law. “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest  whatever in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.

Hedonism

At the very end of her brilliant novel Romola — to which I have referred previously — George Eliot shares the following insight:

“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painfiul.”

There is much food for thought here (as there is in all of Eliot’s novels) and I do wonder in this age in which pleasure sits on a throne  worshipped by so many of us how much we have lost by ignoring those things that once were thought to build character, those things that give us “strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Eliot was writing toward the end of the nineteenth century when capitalism and the industrial revolution that gave it birth were making it possible for all men and women to pursue those things that made life easier — or at the very least to dream about such things as real possibilities in the not-so-distant future. Surely, humans have always sought pleasure. Some would argue that we all do all the time (more about that later). But there were times when a great many people worried about things that pleasure cannot assure us, such things as what used to be called “the good life,” or the pursuit of “virtue.”

Eliot sees human life as a struggle between pleasure, on the one hand, and our duties to one another, on the other hand. I wrote about this previously because I do think it is true, though I doubted at the time (as I do now) that very many of us worry much about our duties to other humans and to the world at large. In any event, it is worth pondering why it is that we have simply bought into the notion that what we want is invariably what we need, that the purpose of a human life is to pursue pleasure. As the bumper-sticker says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Indeed, it is all about toys for so many of us. And this at a time when there are “so many things wrong and difficult in the world.”

Those who insist that all human motivation is about pleasure and talk about duty is bogus are referred to as “hedonists.” And there is considerable evidence that we all do, to a degree, pursue pleasure, and seek at all costs to avoid pain. But I do wonder if that’s the end of things when it comes to the question human motivation.

Of all the things I have thought about over the years, the question of what is is that motivates each of us has caused me the most difficulty. To be sure, most of our motivation can be seen to be an attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But what about the starving mother clutching her starving and crying baby who finds a crust of bread and gives it to her baby rather than eat it herself? Is she motivated by pleasure, or is it more accurate to say that giving her baby the bread gives her pleasure but it was not the reason why she gave the bread to the baby? She gave the bread because it was her maternal duty to do so — and probably because of what we are told is the maternal “instinct.” But the motivation is not about pleasure or the reduction of pain. It is more complicated than that: it is about doing the right thing, even if little thought is involved in the decision.

There are other examples one might point to that raise the question of whether the hedonist is correct in her thinking. But we need only read novels by great writers such as George Eliot — who are in many cases great psychologists — to make us think again. As I say, human motivation is terribly complicated. How many of us know why we do what we do most of the time, much less all of the time? But, in then end, I conclude that possible to do a thing because it is the right thing to do — even if it causes us pain to do it.

I think Eliot is on to something.

Thinking Critically

As a trained philosopher I have always thought critical thinking essential to any well thought-out educational system. It’s what I pursued in all of my classes when I taught so many years ago. Unfortunately, the term has been used and misused so often of late that it seems to be empty of meaning. Early in these blogs I sought to clarify the term somewhat and I repost that piece here. With an election coming up this post seems particularly timely. This post has been somewhat updated.

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” And then there are, of course, the innumerable false claims of our sitting president. We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or false  accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our”belief-set” as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy skepticism. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution of species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. Does the speaker or writer have a hidden agenda? They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That skepticism is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool, once again, as our president.

Principles

I am sure you have heard it many times: “It’s a matter of principle.” It’s what we say to justify a course of action that may run counter to the courses others would have us run. Often (very often?) it’s a phrase that thinly disguises the rationalization we make to support a position we take simply because we want to take it.

Consider the following:

You are the coach of a NCAA Division I football team and your conference has decided to postpone the football season because of the Carona Virus out of a concern for the players’ health. You are a coach and you make a living coaching collegiate (semi-professional) football players — many of whom want to make the pros at some point. So you tell the press that you have met with the president of the university and you and your players feel “it is a matter of principle” that your team be allowed to play the games. What you really mean is that you and your players want to play the games. But you say it is a matter of principle because it sounds more impressive. Or something.

A principle is a moral precept that we evoke to help us support difficult decisions that we are called upon to make from time to time. For example, the principle may be something like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “harming another living being is wrong.”  These can be said to be out duties, morally speaking. Usually, but not always, the word “wrong” or “right” appears in the principle somewhere. If, for example, I insist that I tell the secret police that the supposed criminal is hiding in my closet because “it is wrong to lie” I am evoking a moral precept. In this case it may conflict with another precept, “it is wrong to harm another person” — given that we know the secret police will not treat the supposed criminal kindly.  But there is a principle (often more than one) involved. In fact, conflicting principles are what make ethics such a confounding arena of thought.

In the case of the football team there is no moral precept whatever. Unless we maintain that is is wrong to deny the players an opportunity to play football — which is doubtful since they are presumably students at a university where education is what matters most (right!).  Thus when the coach says it is a matter or principle that the players be allowed to play he is fabricating things. What he means, of course, is that he and his players want to play and they are being denied that opportunity by the conference they play in.

Rationalization is commonplace. We conjure up a bogus argument — or a “moral precept” which we may even make up — and use that to shore up a weak argument to persuade others that what we want to do is the right thing to do.

But, as George Eliot has reminded us, duties are not chosen. They choose us. And the right thing to do is almost always a matter of duty and as such frequently (always?) conflicts with what we want to do — unless we are saints. So, in this case, the supposed moral precept that it is wrong to deny football players the opportunity to play the game they love is a weak attempt to persuade others (and ourselves, perhaps?) that what we want to do is the right thing to do. It is our duty.

Fiddlesticks! It is simply what we want to do and that’s the end to it. It is certainly not a matter or principle.