Unreasonable Doubt

I recall reading years ago about the results of a study that showed beyond doubt that the self-esteem movement was based on a faulty assumption. Telling kids they were great because they breathed in and out on a fairly regular basis did not, in fact, breed self-confidence. In California, where the self-esteem movement was started, the study was denied by at least one city councilman who said: “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In fact, the study showed that the kids who were told they were great knew damned well they were not and what was bred was not self-confidence but contempt for their elders. I worked with kids for years and, believe me, they know when they are being duped. They sense falsehood the way a dog senses fresh meat on the floor. They may not be able to articulate it, but they sense falsehood and pretense.

In any event, the doubting of science is not new and it seems to have been given new life in recent years as people who should know better insist that scientific evidence about climate change is bogus and science, in general, ought to be dismissed out of hand as an attempt to alarm and upset the rest of us. The people who make these outrageous claims are obviously in denial (or the pockets of Big Oil) as they proceed to make their coffee in electric coffee-makers, make office calls to their local physician when in pain, drive their automobiles, fly around the world in airplanes — all activities involving faith in scientific ingenuity. In a word, we have here a case of denial in the form of selective beliefs. We reject those beliefs we find uncomfortable and we adopt as certain those that make us feel good.

This would not be a serious problem, of course, if we weren’t talking about the survival of the human species and possibly even the planet itself. Selective belief has been around, I dare say, since the dawn of time. For all we know the saber-tooth tiger fell victim to it! But we are now living in an age in which the rejection of science borders on the insane. Science is not THE answer to all our problems. Heaven knows, Horatio, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in science. But, at the same time, science can provide us with a fairly certain guide to human conduct that will not only fly us anywhere we want to go, but also help us avoid the deep pitfalls that await those who insist upon walking around with blindfolds across their eyes.orwell-1

I am a firm believer in testing all claims to truth. Critical thinking is essential if we are to survive as individuals and as a species. But it is not critical thinking that insists upon the rejection of scientific truth; it is sheer stupidity, if not duplicity. There are certain things that are beyond doubt: the probability is so high as to approach certainty. When 97% of the scientific community agrees about the dangers of continued abuse of the planet, we can be fairly confident that this is true — even if we can’t follow their arguments and decipher their complicated data.

It pays us to be cautious when the stakes are as high as they are. And it pays to check for hidden agendas among those who deny climate change as well as those who insist it is a fact. The deniers have a great deal at stake, to wit, their increasing profits in the sort term. The affirmers are scientists who are simply concerned about the future of this planet and who have no hidden agendas — despite all the false charges laid at their feet. It might be the better part of wisdom to pay attention to those who are shouting alarms in increasingly louder voices and ignore those who insist on looking the other way. It just makes sense.

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Water Rights

An interesting Yahoo News article recounts the attempts by California to learn from Australia how to handle the drought that has brought that state to near crisis status. It is interesting in light of the fact that fracking is still legal in California despite the fact that it takes millions of gallons of the precious liquid from the earth and ruins it for human or animal use forever. In any event, the article focuses on one major difference between California and Australia which may make the lesson very hard to learn from California’s perspective: Californians, like most Americans; have no practice in sacrificing for the “common good. The Australians are quite good at it apparently. As the article points out, in part:

But Californians may find Australia’s medicine tough to swallow. Australians are accustomed to living in a dry land, expect government intervention in a crisis and largely support making sacrifices for the common good. For much of their history, many Californians have enjoyed abundant water, or were able to divert enough of it to turn deserts green, and highly paid lawyers ensure that property rights remain paramount.

The original Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, defended “life, liberty and property,” borrowing from the English tradition and, specifically, Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government. The term “property” was later replaced by “pursuit of happiness.” but the focus on property is apparent in so much of our common law. And as the article suggests, property rights are fiercely defended by highly paid lawyers who must be confronted by the state in the event of an emergency. The notion that folks should be willing to make sacrifices for “the common good” is alien to the American way of doing things — and has been so almost from the beginning. The trend has grown worse, as we can see if we stop to consider the sitting Congress that has no concern whatever with the common good and focuses its attention exclusively on the demands of their political party. But, truth be told, we all seem to be focused in our own “rights” and tend to ignore the rights of others.

This is sad and especially disturbing when we consider, for example, that a few small sacrifices might go a long way toward dealing with, if not solving, our huge waste of precious natural resources. If we were willing to ride bicycles or walk or take mass transit, or, perhaps, purchase economical cars, or if we  reached for a sweater during cold weather rather than turn up our heating systems, we might reduce the waste of gasoline, natural gas, electricity,  and heating oil. But the sweater is inconvenient and it is so much easier to nudge up the thermostat a bit, so that’s the path we tend to choose. And the car dealers have us convinced that power is what it’s all about. These are habits. And habits are what the article mentions when it refers to California’s enjoyment “of abundant water” for years. Habits are hard to break.

As it happens, however, these habits may be changed by cruel necessity as Californians may find out when they run out of water and are forced to do “the right thing” by conserving and reducing consumption “for the common good.” It will be a new experience and it will be one that will come only after considerable noise has been made and litigation has been undertaken in the name of “property rights.” Indeed, rights have always been our concern — even though they imply responsibilities which we tend to ignore altogether. To the extent that I can claim to have a right, say, to drinking water, I also have a responsibility to recognize another’s right to that same water. There’s the rub. Rights and responsibilities are reciprocal: if we demand one we must acknowledge the other. This will indeed be a hard lesson for the folks in California to learn — as it will soon be for the rest of us.

Levelling Down

I have blogged before about the so-called “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the thinking (?) of those who run our schools. The idea is to tell everyone that they are wonderful and this is supposed to inspire them to excellence. The problem is that all the data show this is false, that kids know it’s a lie and they simply do as little as possible and wait to be told how wonderful they are. Everyone gets the trophy, not just those who actually have earned it. The woman who has studied this movement in detail and written the definitive book on the subject is Maureen Stout who has taught at all levels from kindergarten through college and while initially a supporter of the movement, came to realize the damage it was doing in the schools.

Professor Stout holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem.  One of the key chapters begins as follows:

“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”

I recall the comment of one of the legislators in California — a state where the self-esteem movement received state-wide impetus from the legislature and has become the accepted thinking of those who determine education policy in that state — who  was confronted by the hard evidence that the self-esteem movement actually thwarts development in children and said “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In a word, don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.

In any event, the latest sad chapter in this ongoing saga comes not from California, but from a Minneapolis suburb where the annual honors banquet applauding the efforts of the brightest and best students in the Senior class was cancelled because it (presumably) hurt the feelings of those kids who did not and, in some cases, simply could not, achieve those honors themselves. The plan is to give all the kids some sort of recognition for the efforts they expend in school — presumably for breathing in and breathing out, certainly not for merit. Indeed, merit has pretty much gone out the window.

This is the result of a trend that goes far back beyond the self-esteem movement, namely, the egalitarianism that has resulted from the recognition that human rights must be acknowledged in all men and women regardless of their circumstances. The notion of human rights is a vital moral precept and one of the prizes of the Enlightenment; it is precious indeed. But it has sired some peculiar off-spring — such as the notion that any attempt to point out differences among people amounts to “discrimination,” and this is a bad thing. It has also fostered the self-esteem movement in the schools, which has, in turn, given rise to the absurd notion that we dare not call attention to the achievements of the best and the brightest because someone’s feelings might be hurt.  To which I say, “tough noogies, that’s life!” Some people are deserving of praise because they excel and if we want our kids to achieve anything resembling excellence we need to point out those who stand above the rest.

In the 1960s Gabriel Marcel noted the danger of the egalitarian movement, its tendency to “level down” the population, to make mediocre the norm, to lower expectations and demands and give everyone credit whether it was deserved or not. In the schools, as Maureen Stout pointed out, it is “dangerous,” because it destroys the urge on the part of bright kids to show their stuff and it fosters the lie that everyone is excellent when, in fact, only a few are. If everyone is excellent, then no one is. The word loses meaning. We need to recognize and reward merit and excellence or they will disappear forever. That’s the danger Professor Stout is pointing to. And she’s right.

Bad News/Good News

It’s time once again to summarize the environmental news from the past couple of months as it appears in this month’s Sierra Magazine. Let’s begin with the bad news:

In the midst of one of the more severe winters we have experienced in the Midwest and Northeast in recent years — which has convinced the no-minds that global warming is a fiction invented by tree-hugging weirdos — it is sobering to realize that 2013 was the fourth hottest year on record. It was so hot during the Australian Open Tennis Tournament (108 degrees) that plastic bottles were melting and several players suffered from sunstroke. Having played tennis in hot temperatures, I can assure you that the temperature on the tennis court was considerably hotter than the air temperature as recorded.

In the face of the drought in California, officials have announced that farmers in California’s Central Valley will receive no state or federal irrigation water this year.  Some California ranchers have been forced to give up on grass-fed beef because of the drought in that state. And while this was happening, it was discovered that eight million acres of farmland in China are too polluted to grow crops — ever again.  As populations continue to grow and the globe continues to warm it seems evident that it will become increasingly difficult to feed the world’s hungry people. And it is not a problem that will go away simply because we ignore it.

In its wisdom, Congress allowed the tax credits for wind power to expire. Those credits were instrumental in getting 60,000 megawatts of clean wind power on-line in the last two decades. Simultaneously, by arguing that solar collectors have “saturated” the grid or that they are increasing costs to those without the collectors, the nation’s investor-owned utilities  have launched a full-scale attack on solar energy, “challenging the laws, rules, and programs that have made solar a formidable clean energy contender.” The attack includes anti-solar ads produced by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers. (Can there be any debate whatever about the question of who are two of the most wicked men in the world today?)  In the meantime, one can expect the $8 billion in annual tax credits to Big Oil to continue.

But, on the other hand, the 377 megawatt Ivanpah solar electric generating station, the largest in the world, went on-line in the desert southwest of Las Vegas.  Shell Oil has cancelled plans to drill in the Arctic in 2014 and the Los Angles City Council banned fracking. The EPA (which has been targeted by the Koch brothers) proposed fuel-efficiency standards for big trucks for the first time ever. And the Obama administration finally got off its duff and blocked the construction of the Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper mine proposed for the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, site of one of the world’s richest salmon fisheries. With food shortages looming, this would appear to be a no-brainer. I can imagine the federal government getting more involved as the food crunch gets worse. That may not be a bad thing.

Truth To Tell

In an interesting half-page in the current ONEARTH magazine published by NRDC, there’s a lesson in telling it like it is. The author, John Walke, who is director of NRDC’s clean air project, corrects a number of mistaken statements in a letter written to the Washington Post by the president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Now we know by this time that “clean coal” is a misnomer: there is no such thing. There is just “cleaner coal” — which is to say, coal that is cleaner than it was a few years ago. This is thanks to the EPA which has forced the coal industry to a higher standard, though the coal industry would like us to think it was their idea.

The letter claims, for example, that the coal industry has cleaned up its act and would dearly love to take credit for pulling their hand out of the cookie jar, though we can see them hiding another cookie behind their backs!  Walke points out that the EPA has brought the cleanup about and while the coal industry claims that coal is “almost 90 percent cleaner than it was 40 years ago,” in fact it has been forced by the EPA to be 90 percent cleaner by 2015: it hasn’t reached that benchmark yet, and it is moving in that direction only because of federal legislation, not the desire to be good citizens. The coal industry also claims credit for “more than a dozen clean coal technologies” when, in fact, they have lobbied for 40 years against clean air safeguards and they are still fighting — along with Big Oil, of course. In the final paragraph of the letter, the coal industry correctly points out that energy demand will increase in coming years (duhhh) “and that demand cannot be met without coal.” Walke points out that in the U.S. “renewable energy, natural gas, and simple economics have steadily reduced demand for electricity generated by coal. California is on track to use no coal-based electricity by 2025. Clean energy technologies can produce both good jobs here and energy for export.”

The letter by the coal industry commits what logicians call the “neglected aspect” fallacy. They simply ignore alternatives to coal, especially clean energy alternatives like solar and wind, in order to scare people into thinking that they are the only alternative to an otherwise bleak future without adequate energy for teeming populations. And, of course, they ignore the alternative of population control which would go a long way toward solving not only this country’s energy problems, but the planet’s as well. But that’s another story for another day — though it is not much talked about, sad to say.

In a word, we know that corporations are not beneath making public statements that not only stretch the truth and wallow in half-truths, but actually state bald-faced lies — all in order to hoodwink the public and sell their products. We must always consider the source and never forget that the name of their game is “profits,” and when they start to spout data to prove their innocence they are not above saying what they think we want to hear rather than what we ought to hear — since the latter might interfere with the bottom line. A healthy skepticism is always in order.

High In The Wilderness

A recent Yahoo News story raised a number of interesting questions. It begins as follows:

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Two teen hikers lost for days in a California forest might have to pay for part or all of the $160,000 search after a small amount of drugs was found in their car, authorities said.

Officials initially said Nicolas Cendoya, 19, and Kyndall Jack, 18, wouldn’t be responsible. But Cendoya was charged this week with drug possession because methamphetamine was allegedly found in the car the pair parked before going on a hike last month in Cleveland National Forest.

“The recent drug charge on Cendoya may change things,” said Gail Krause, a spokeswoman with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

To begin with, there’s a case to be made that anyone who wanders off into the wilderness unprepared or takes off on a ski trip in the face of avalanche warnings should have to take responsibility for the consequences, whatever they might be. In this case, Orange County, California paid $160,000 to rescue these two people who were apparently high on meth and became disoriented as a result. Now, it appears, they may have to pay all or part of the cost of the rescue — but only because drugs were involved. In other words, it’s not because these two did something incredibly stupid making it necessary for others to risk their lives coming to their rescue that they will have to pay the piper. It’s because authorities happened to find drugs in their abandoned car. In this case, the authorities got it half right. In my view, these people should have to pay for the rescue even if the drugs hadn’t been found.

I heard tell of a man who served for a number of years on a search and rescue team in Montana who finally quit because he decided that the people they were rescuing really shouldn’t  be kept in the gene pool. I love it! This is why they give out the Darwin Awards each year, because people do incredibly dumb things and somehow manage to survive — usually — while others often have to risk their lives to save them. But when people do dumb things that require that others risk their lives or spend thousands of dollars rescuing them the very least that fairness demands is that those who were rescued pay the bill.

I wrote a blog some time ago about a man who fell through the ice while fishing on thin ice after being warned not to do so. His rescue cost the country a great deal of money and it was decided that the rescued man should pay the cost. He insisted that he would not pay because it would discourage others from calling for help when in trouble. Now THERE’S a rationalization for you! Instead of accepting responsibility for his actions, he determined to make someone else pay for his blunder on rational grounds as weak as the ice he fell through — and didn’t even have the decency to thank those who pulled him from the icy waters. Ingratitude coupled with smallness of mind. In the end it is all about accepting responsibility for our actions, or, at the very least, thinking our way through the actions to imagine possible outcomes. But we as a people and a nation don’t seem to be very good at that sort of thing. And we’re getting worse as each of us is learning that we can hide, secure behind the word “victim.”

Phil Is Troubled

I was struck by the following story on Fox News about golfer Phil Mickelson’s tax problems:

For golf legend Phil Mickelson, the low 60s makes for a great score on the links — and a lousy tax rate in his home state of California.

Mickelson said “drastic changes” are ahead for him due to federal and California state tax increases that have pushed his tax rate to what he figures adds up to “62, 63 percent.” The left-hander will talk more about his plans — possibly moving out of California or even retiring altogether. . .

I must confess I didn’t read about this problem at Fox News. I don’t make a habit of watching that TV “News” program or reading their drivel. But I had heard about Phil’s problems and checked it out and was (not surprisingly) directed to the Fox News item. It is being carried there, I suspect, because it is a story about an American icon who is being burned by the terrible tax burden he is now under as a result of the recent events in both Washington and California. Fox’s readers and viewers are expected to sympathize with Phil. Phil’s taxes are going up and he is distraught. Poor Phil.

Consider the fact that Phil makes an estimated $48 million a year, $43 million in endorsements alone. This puts him in a very high tax bracket indeed, not only from the Fed but also from California which recently passed Proposition 30 that raised taxes on the wealthy — which Phil certainly is. In any event, Phil will now be left with a meager $18 million to somehow try to get along on. I must say, I think I could manage, but then I am not accustomed to living the lifestyle Phil undoubtedly lives. I suppose he may have to buy a smaller plane. But, seriously folks, doesn’t that still seem to you to be an incredibly large annual income?

I heard about Phil’s plight on the Golf Channel while I was watching “The Morning Drive.”  The talking heads on that show were disappointed that Phil would drag out his dirty laundry in public. They didn’t comment on the obscene amount of money Phil would still be left with, but they thought it would have been best if he had kept this sort of thing between himself and his wife or his accountant. Good point. I give them high marks for that — though as you can imagine I would have gone a bit further. They did point out, however, that the average bloke out there who is  having trouble putting food on the table probably doesn’t want to hear a millionaire piss and moan about the fact that he has to pay higher taxes this year. Indeed.

But the larger point here is the lack of perspective of the very wealthy — which we saw in many of Mitt Romney’s comments during the recent campaign. They just don’t get it. Most people would have no idea what to do with $18 million in a lifetime, much less in a year. And yet Mickelson is now threatening to leave California or retire from golf because he is miffed about the fact that he will have to share a great deal of his money with those less fortunate than himself. After all, that’s what taxes are about: promoting the “common good.” And it might be wise to remind ourselves (and Phil) that this country enjoyed its greatest prosperity right after the Second World War when the wealthy in this country were paying taxes at the rate of around 90%. It might also help if we all think about the fact that Norwegians are taxed at a rate of 45% of their income and according to a recent study they are the happiest people on earth. Be cool, Phil.

Corporate Takeover?

It is sad that our constitution, designed as it is to curb power by balancing the three branches of government, is helpless to curb the greatest power of all: the corporations. It’s not surprising though, given the fact that corporations were in their infancy in the eighteenth century. A century later Henry Adams was hoping that the Grant administration could reform government and modify what Adams saw as an already antiquated document. But even Adams was not fully aware of the power of the corporations and the corrosive effects they would have on the moral framework of this country. He was concerned, however.

Readers of these blogs know that I am no friend of corporations, for the reasons suggested above. But I am also a tireless defender of education and the need to correctly perceive the role education must play if this culture — and indeed civilization itself — is to survive. But we are now told that in Florida there is a movement by the corporations [“for-profit companies”] to make inroads into education in that state — after already pushing through a similar law in California. A recent blurb tells us that in Florida a proposed law

“. . . creates a ‘parent trigger’ where a majority of parents of students in a low-performing school can sign petitions forcing the local school board to implement a turnaround option, including turning the school over to a for-profit company or a charter run by an out-of-state board. Critics say that companies could employ paid petition gatherers to persuade concerned but uninformed parents to pull the trigger.”

What this means, of course, is that if this law passes these companies can take the inside track and determine future curriculum development in the schools to promote their own agenda. This is not to say this will inevitably happen, but history suggests that it is likely. And the curriculum will almost certainly be geared toward turning out young people who will be unable to do much of anything except oil the wheels of industry and commerce at the command of those above them on the corporate ladder.

This is already happening, to a degree, as our schools fall deeper and deeper into the trap of vocationalism and gear the studies of our kids toward jobs and away from heightened critical skills. If the corporations are in a position to push their own agenda, however, it could get much worse. To be sure, the temptation is great at this time of tight budgets to welcome the offer from “for-profit companies” to lend a hand. But as Chekhov warned, it is best to take a long spoon when you sup with the devil. I would advise that we refuse the invitation altogether.

This is not conspiracy theory, though one finds himself drawn in that direction more and more as he grows older. But it is a warning that large businesses are focused on one thing and one thing only: profits. People do not matter. Nor does the environment. Certainly the healthy intellectual growth of our children doesn’t matter.  What matters is “the bottom line.” And inviting companies into our schools is a blunder we must guard against — whether we suspect their motives or not. The schools at every level should be self-determined  — as we have seen in the case of Finland which has the most successful education system in the world at present. The attempt by any outside agency, whether it is certification agencies or (especially) corporations pushing for “Parent Empowerment Bills,” must be resisted by all of those who care about the education of our young.

If it’s not already too late, the survival of this Republic depends on educated citizens, not mindless company drones. Let us hope that Florida has enough sense to refuse to pass this proposed new law.