Ostrich-Like

I went all the way back to my first year of blogging for this one (November 2011). Sad to say, the problem remains and we continue to pretend that it will simply go away — like the Carona virus. More of us need to be aware and involved — though, while the government ignores the big problems that surround us, there are many who do care and who have done remarkable things even in the time since this post was first written. With an election coming up perhaps we can depose some of those in Congress who are the most purblind?

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, recently spoke to a crowd of 600 people at Oregon State University on the topic of global warming. From the story in the local newspaper covering McKibben’s lecture, we read: “McKibben discussed the history of 350.org, the worldwide organizing movement he helped found in 2008. The group’s name stems from research that claims anything more than 350 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unsafe and will disastrously impact the environment. Scientists estimate the environment currently contains 390 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide.” He is a self-styled “bummer-outer” and yet he continues to draw crowds and sell books while dealing with a very disturbing issue. His message is bleak “It’s the worst thing to happen in the history of our Earth — at least since we’ve been on it.” But the crowds he draws are encouraging  (600 people in attendance at a lecture of this type is quite a remarkable thing!) and he hopes that social networking will help address the problem.

The interesting question here is why we continue to ignore this problem — much as we continue to ignore the problem of overpopulation? The answer, I suspect, is the size of the problem and our reluctance to think about unpleasant, indeed deeply troubling, issues. Further, we tend to ignore problems if they are not in our own back yard. The disturbing thought here is that this problem is in our back yard, whether or not we want to admit it. But we prefer, ostrich-like, to keep our heads buried in the sand of our own ignorance and pretend that things will turn out OK. This is what Jacques Ellul once told us was our response to “the technological imperative,” which focuses on means rather than ends.  We think there is no problem that we cannot fix: someone will come along with a gadget and fix it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no gadget that will fix this problem. And it isn’t simply going to disappear. It is real and it requires, at the outset, that we avoid denial. — which is understandable, but inexcusable.  There are still many people who insist that global warming is a myth. They look at the thermometer, see the low temps and draw the unwarranted conclusion that the globe is not warming. But we must keep in mind the modifier, “global.” In 2010, for example, nineteen nations around the world recorded record high temperatures. And regardless of whether my thermometer reads low temps today, the average here and everywhere else is going up. It is a global issue.

Once we have advanced beyond denial, there are some things we can do to help matters — from the small things like turning down our thermostats and driving more fuel-efficient cars to the larger things like writing our congressmen, supporting companies that are known to be environment friendly, and boycotting those we know to be ignoring their global responsibilities. For example, McKibben’s efforts recently resulted in enough pressure on the President to send the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project back to the State Department for thorough review, effectively killing the project. There is hope and political activism and citizen petitions can be effective even against the giant corporations that would pollute the earth in the name of higher profits for a few. McKibben’s web site expands on these themes. But it all starts by pulling our heads out of the sand and admitting that there is a problem and it is one we need to address. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to our children’s children.

“The Big Bang,” Science, and Ethics

I have blogged before about our need to make distinctions to be clear about what we say and there is a key distinction that we frequently fail to make. That’s where I am going now with the help of a popular sit-com.

Science is not technology. Sheldon Cooper — of “The Big Bang Theory” — is a theoretical physicist. He is a pure scientist (or the character is). Like Einstein, he doesn’t care a whit for applied science (note in the show Sheldon’s low opinion of Leonard because the latter is an experimental physicist. The suggestion that he needs to conduct experiments to prove his theories makes Sheldon laugh….or snicker.) As a general rule, however, scientists do not eschew experimentation. Indeed, there is an episode of “Big Bang” where Sheldon and Leonard collaborate and are asked to deliver a paper together. In any event, experiments are routinely conducted to verify theories in science, though at the highest levels of theoretical physics mathematics sometimes can suffice. Einstein didn’t need to conduct experiments to establish his theory of relativity, for example.

But there are other sciences, of course, both exact (like physics and chemistry) and inexact (like geology and biology) which rely on mathematics to a greater or lesser degree. And there are social sciences that mimic the exact sciences by using mathematics in the form of statistics — though their experiments and even their calculations are notoriously inexact, dealing in probabilities rather than certainties. But all of these sciences, exact or not, rely on the empirical method — looking and recording — and some sort of calculation. And all are desirous of knowing why things happen as they do. Why do objects tend toward the center of the earth?  Why do blond parents have red-headed children? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? Scientists want to know. That’s what they do: they look and they record, and they draw tentative conclusions that lead to theories that are in turn verified — or falsified — by experiments or new empirical data.

Technology, on the  other hand, is not science for a number of reasons. Technology is all about “How?” and not “Why?” On “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard Wolowitz is the designated technologist. Because Howard has “only” a Master’s Degree from M.I.T. in engineering — which involves considerable math and physics — he is relegated on this show to designing toilets and telescopes for NASA –merely technical tasks. In a word, he figures out how to do things and he does them without asking why. In the case of toilets for the space station, the “why” is fairly obvious, but what about the “why” question as it regards the entire NASA endeavor? Few of us question that at all. In any event, the difference between science and technology was made clear in an episode of “Big Bang” when Penny’s car engine failed but the scientists could not fix it even though they knew all about how internal combustion engines work — in theory.

As Jacques Ellul said many years ago, ours is a technological age: we tend to denigrate theory. We laugh at Sheldon, not just because Jim Parsons is a superb comic actor and the writers have given him some juicy lines, but because he is a theoretician in a world in which, strange to say, Howard Wolowitz is much more at home, much more like the rest of us. Like Howard, we don’t seem to care about why things happen as they do, we just keep doing what we are doing and worry about the consequences later on when they become another problem to be solved. And we are convinced someone can solve it regardless of how complicated it might be — a dangerous assumption indeed.

Interestingly, what neither the scientist nor the technologist ventures into are the ethical implications of what they do. Thus, we have theoretical physicists who work together to develop the Atom bomb. Or we have medical technologists who conduct experiments to determine whether certain cosmetics will blind rabbits without asking whether or not this is the right thing to do. We have medical researchers who give placebos to cancer patients as part of an experiment. There’s a wonderful scene in one of the “Big Bang” episodes where Penny asks the guys why they rigged their computer so it could turn on the light by sending signals around the world; they respond in unison: “because we can.” Note that even Sheldon chimes in. Indeed. That is our society’s answer, and we are content with it — until a crisis arises that we simply cannot fix because we failed to look deep enough or far enough — or ask “why?” As Ellul suggests, it is precisely the failure to inquire into the moral and theoretical implications of what we do that gets us in trouble. And some of it is deep trouble indeed.

Another College Scandal?

U.S. News and World Report has been ranking colleges and universities for 30 years now. These rankings are dismissed by a number of prestigious colleges as somewhat bogus, but the contest among the vast majority of colleges to improve their rankings has become hot and heavy — and led to improprieties that stink of yet another scandal. In a recent story about the budding scandal (this one not connected with athletics) it was reported that

 “. . .students and families still buy the guide and its less famous competitors by the hundreds of thousands, and still care about a college’s reputation. But it isn’t students who obsess over every incremental shift on the rankings scoreboard, and who regularly embarrass themselves in the process. It’s colleges.

It’s colleges that have spent billions on financial aid for high-scoring students who don’t actually need the money, motivated at least partly by the quest for rankings glory.”

The rankings are based on quantifiable criteria, such as percentage of students who graduate, average ACT scores of incoming Freshmen, and so forth. And since this material is provided by the schools themselves, a number of the schools have been caught cheating: submitting false information in order to get a higher rating. The assumption the colleges make is that a higher rating by the magazine will translate into more students attending the school. And this despite the fact that U.S. News and World Report tells the students not to rely solely on their ratings in making their decision which college to attend. And they don’t. Apparently, prospective students don’t pay much attention to where the school they choose ranks with the magazine, according to a recent study. But this fact is blurred by the related fact that students do admit that the “academic reputation” of the college is a primary factor in their decision. One would think that the college’s rating in U.S. News and World Report and its academic reputation are closely related. So the social scientists who do these surveys need to do some more work to clear this up. But it seems apparent, in any case, that prospective students pay less attention to the ratings than the colleges themselves do — which is why some (many?) colleges have cheated in providing the magazine with skewed data and have given scholarship money to students who don’t need it in order to keep them in school. Tsk. Tsk.

The notion that one can reduce academic reputation to quantifiable data is somewhat problematic in itself. But that’s one thing we do love to do in our society. If we can’t attach a number to it, it isn’t “scientific” enough for us. This is called “scientism,” and has little to do with real science. It is a commitment to the notion that if it looks like science (that is, we can quantify it) it must be science. But we all know that data can be very unreliable; anyone who plays with data at all knows how misleading they can be. Further, not all things can be quantified. How, for example, do we determine that the brightest students are applying to Local College ? Because they have higher scores? But what correlation does intelligence, and especially the potential to do well in college, have to do with a number on a test? Or how do we suppose that intelligence can be measured by an I.Q. rating? How do we rate motivation, for example? Or maturity? There are so many factors that enter into college success that reducing probable success or academic reputation to a number is positively silly. But we do it.

And we do it to such an extent that the colleges are lying about the numbers to get better rankings in order to attract and keep better students — who apparently don’t pay any attention to the rankings in choosing their college. How ironic!  — and fitting somehow, as these schools should know in the first place that such rankings are bogus and their reputation should not in any way be tied up with such silliness.

Instead, the colleges should concentrate their efforts on cleaning up their collective houses and making sure their academic program is solid and challenging to their students. That’s where the reputation of the college ultimately lies. So that’s where the emphasis should be placed. But it isn’t, as recent studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have shown. The colleges are weakening their core academic programs rather than strengthening them. And this is where the heart of the scandal lies. It would appear that those who decide what is important in our colleges are focused on athletics and national “academic” rankings in such magazines as U.S. News and World Report instead of creating challenging academic programs designed to turn out the brightest alumni who will be successful citizens of a changing world.

In the end, it is our fascination with numbers and conviction that numbers make things more “scientific” and therefore more reliable that leads us astray — taken together with our thirst for competition, to come out on top  (or at least in the top ten). It is a large part of what Jacques Ellul called long ago “the technological imperative,”  which focuses on means rather than ends and on tangential considerations rather than central ones. It is a formula designed to lead to scandal at the very least.