Why Science?

After addressing the U.S. Congress recently the young, courageous Greta Thunberg who was warning us all of the dangers of global warming (which we euphemistically call “climate change”) was asked by one of our feckless leaders “why should we pay any attention to science?” Or words to that effect.

The man then almost certainly left the House, climbed into a taxi and drive to the airport where he boarded an airplane to fly home to hob-nob with his corporate sponsors. I dare to say he saw no contradiction whatever between his question and his behavior. But the fact is that science is all around us and it almost always provides us with the truth of things. Not always, but almost always. And the evidence of global warming and the role humans have played in the drama has gone beyond the level of mere conjecture and is now a virtual certainty.

So the answer to the man’s question (if it deserves an answer) is “because it is giving us a warning and whether or not we want to listen to that warning it would be prudent to do so.” Our situation is not unlike that described by Pascal when he told us that we would all be better off to believe in God than not. In both cases, the chance we might be wrong to believe in science or God results in altered behavior, simply. But if Science is right and if God does exist then we would be wise to believe and act accordingly. In the case of global warming it is a matter of life and death. It may not appear so, but it is and that fact is supported by overwhelming evidence. Evidence that only the most stupid among us can continue to ignore.

As one who taught both logic and the philosophy of science for many years, however, I am fully aware that neither tool will deliver all the goods. Life does not always (seldom?) accord with logic and science cannot tell us about things that are deeply important to us — such as how to live our lives. Or how to resolve a moral dilemma, or how to judge a work of art.

But the denial of science in an age such as ours is not borderline stupid: it crosses the border into insanity. There is a point at which the evidence is so heavy that we cannot bear it even though we must. The changes in our behavior that might make a difference in the rapidly warming globe on which we live are minimal when compared to the alterations in all our behavior that must occur when the consequences of global warming are felt by us all — when, for example, we cannot afford the cost of basic foods in our grocery stores whose shelves are nearly empty because the earth simply cannot produce enough food to support a growing human population.

The problem with blog posts such as this, of course, is that they border on preaching and the congregation listening, or reading, already knows whereof I speak and write. But that doesn’t make it any the less important to continue to shout fire in a burning building, because if things remain as they are at present the building will burn down around us and we shall perish in the aftermath. There is no Plan B.

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It’s All About Me

In 2004 I wrote a book in which I sought to discover the roots of the rampant subjectivism that permeates modern culture and indeed the modern (and post-modern) world. It was cumbersomely titled (by the publisher) The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante To Derrida and professed to be a “study in intellectual history.”  In that book I pointed to three main factors that seemed to lead human attention away from the world “out there” and to the subject himself or herself. I noted the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the philosophy of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

The Protestant Reformation undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and with it the certainty in the minds of most of those in the Western World that there is an absolute right and wrong, there is Truth, and the soul is immortal. This uncertainty, not to say anxiety, coupled with the Cartesian doubt with which Descartes started his system, resulted in growing uncertainty not only about the authority of the Church but also about the veracity of human faith and the certainties upon which were based the confidence of earlier generations. The invention of Galileo’s telescope exacerbated the situation as it called into question the confidence humans had in their own sense experience: seeing was no longer believing. Jupiter had moons that had never before been seen and this called into question the entire edifice of Ptolemaic astronomy that had been the framework of “science” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, the Ptolemaic view had the support of the Catholic Church which found Galileo’s discoveries deeply disturbing because they supported the Copernican theory that called into question the certainties on which the Church had rested its guidance of human activities for centuries.

If we ignore the corruption within the Catholic Church itself, including the “grand schism,”  the Protestant Reformation was the final straw in bringing down the tower of certainty that was the medieval church — as I have noted in previous posts. Especially in the writings of John Calvin, the accumulation of great personal wealth was no longer seen as an evil but was welcomed as a sign of God’s favor. And this gave license to human greed which found its home in the economic system of capitalism as put forward in the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith capitalism promised humankind a new world of peace and prosperity; but more than that it encouraged human beings to pay close attention to themselves and to their own well-being. In the end an “invisible hand” would guarantee  benefits to all based on the success of the few.

All of these factors, it seemed to me brought about what I called the “inversion of consciousness,” the turning away from the world to a preoccupation with the self and to personal pleasure and self-indulgence. There can be no question but that modern science and capitalism have brought about many benefits to humankind. Modern medicine and the possibility of financial gains promised by these two factors alone prolonged human life and raised humankind to new heights of ease and comfort. But it was bought at a price and there is a serious question whether or not that price was worth paying.

I recently finished a book by Hannah Arendt that was published almost 50 years before my book. It is titled The Human Condition, and I had not read it when I wrote mine, but I found a great many areas of agreement between the two books, which is most encouraging — surprising even. Arendt characterizes our age as one in which “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism” are prevalent, an age in which the only value is life itself — not the quality of life, but simply life itself. She points to the same three factors as I do in attempting to discover modern man’s preoccupation with himself. But she places a great deal more stress on the doubt of René Descartes than I did. She thinks Descartes’ doubt, with which he begins his systematic journey to rational certainty, places the subject firmly within himself as the final authority about not only right and wrong but, more importantly, about truth. Cartesian doubt even undermines religious faith. The truth is no longer about the world; in the modern world it is about one’s perception of the world.  And thinking is turned away from the world to the subject himself who is thinking about the world. And it is thought, after all, that provides Descartes with the springboard that established the certainty of his own existence and, ultimately, about the world. “I think, therefore I am.”

In the modern world, then, it is all about me. Knowledge is determined by how we reason about what is going on about us and right and wrong collapse — as does virtue — into mere opinion about what might lead to greater personal benefits  in the short term. And while much of this seems remote and of interest only to philosophers and scientists we must note that those ideas have slowly permeated our culture and deeply affected the way we think about our world and about ourselves. All of us. And if we add to the mix the recent explosion of interest in electronic toys that fix the attention to the gadget in hand, it becomes obvious how the world outside the self has simply disappeared. The self is all and the objective world has become lost in the inversion of consciousness.

Great Men Can Be Foolish

Can we call great men truly great if they have said things we now know are not only false but even offensive? For example, Aristotle thought that some men are “naturally slaves,” and that women should be subjects to men. Heidegger was a Nazi supporter, Plato supported a closed society in which the few ruled with little or no restraint, Ptolemy thought the earth was at the center of a finite universe. And so on. Are these men still “great”? This is an interesting question and it was raised in a comic I read on a daily basis, believe it or not.

But the issue fails to focus on one central point: we need not worry about who said what; we need to focus on what was said. I realize that Curtler’s Second Law states that we should consider the source of comments in weighing their worth — in the case of complex national issues involving, say, the future of the planet where special interests are involved. But in general, we are prone to the ad hominem fallacy in our culture, where we reject an argument because of who put it forward. “Oh, that can’t be true, the man’s a liberal.” Or, “that is absurd; after all she is known to be a loose woman.” Or whatever. We forget that liberals (and even conservatives) and loose women can put forward excellent arguments. In the vast majority of cases the arguments stand or fall on their own feet. It matters not who put them forward.

Aristotle said many foolish things. And he was certainly wrong to ignore what his predecessor Plato said about women: they can also be rulers of his Republic. But Aristotle also invented logic and was the first empirical scientist who was interested in all things living and dead. He invented the complicated system of taxonomy which is still used in the biological sciences.  One could say he is the father of modern science. He also observed that cities whose leaders become motivated by self-interest rather than the common good degenerate into base forms of political systems — democracies, for example, degenerate into oligarchies (as we are finding out to our chagrin). And Heidegger was a brilliant man who made important contributions to philosophy. The same could be said of Plato who wrote the book to which, according to John Dewey, the history of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes. In order to evaluate the greatness of a mind, no matter whose mind is in question, we need to read and consider carefully what that person said.

It has been said that because Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate children with Sally, one of his slaves, we should reject all he wrote and said. This is part of the P.C. movement that is sweeping the academies of “higher learning” as well as the country itself. Now, whether or not this is true, it is irrelevant. We need to separate the man from what the man said or wrote. He was a genius and his contributions not only to political philosophy but even to things as remote as agriculture and architecture are of seminal importance. Again, we need to be wary of the ad hominem argument. Aristotle, Heidegger, Plato, and Jefferson were extraordinary men and their contributions have made us all better informed and a bit wiser. But we need to work our way through their claims carefully.

Ideas stand or fall on the basis of the evidence and support that is offered in their behalf. Why did Aristotle think some men were naturally slaves, for example? It is not an absurd argument, after all, simply because it will offend some people. He looked around and saw a great many people who simply went along with the crowd, who seemed to lack autonomy, the power to think for themselves and take control of situations much less direct the actions of others. Other men, meanwhile, had those qualities and he concluded that some men were natural slaves while others were natural leaders. We blanch at the word “slave,” and well we should. But the fact that Aristotle points to is undeniable: some people would rather follow than to lead. We even find this in considering the corporate ladder where we discover men and women who are perfectly content to remain on the lower rungs rather than to step higher and take on more responsibility. It’s not a foolish thought or a weak argument. It is simply that we are today hypersensitive to certain words — like “slave” or “Nazi” or “closed society” to carefully consider the argument itself.

Real thought moves past the question of who put what argument forward and regards critically the argument itself. Ptolemy was wrong, but we do not dismiss him as a fool. We simply realize that we now know a great deal more than he knew and we realize the mistakes he made. Science, and knowledge generally, moves progressively forward by fits and starts. Trial and error. But the worst thing we can do is ignore the evidence and the argument altogether simply because we don’t like the person putting it forward. I will allow that in complex arguments where we cannot possibly follow the reasoning process we are warranted in rejecting the claims of those with vested interests in the outcomes. But, in general, critical thought demands that we focus on the ideas themselves regardless of who out them forward.

The Virtue of Stupidity

Temperatures around the country have recently been plunging and the nay-sayers once again point to the thermometer and tell us why they deny that the globe is warming. They ignore the fact that South Africa is experiencing the hottest summer on record and that what happens in Alabama or Alaska (or South Africa) is beside the point. Global Warming is a fact and it is not to be identified with passing weather events in particular parts of the world. Confusing the two and ignoring hard science are marks of the “virtue of stupidity” among those who remain with their heads in the sand — or somewhere equally dark. (This is a repost, which I have updated.)

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-four 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.

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, as you would if your son who attended a posh private school in, say, Kentucky were to attend an anti-abortion rally in Washington and testify to the truly ugly racism in this country by appearing in a MAGA cap staring down a dignified elderly Native American, you might hire a PR team. In this case 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 a chronic 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.

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.

 

 

Is That Funny?

For many years I have wondered what makes the comical funny. The best analysis I have ever read is found in the book The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler. In that book, the author suggests that the comical is essentially like the act of creation in the sciences or in art: it is a bisociation between two “matrices” that suddenly intersect in the surprising “eureka” moment. The musicologist Leonard Meyer suggested that this bisociation, this element of surprise, is what makes great music great and separates it from the ordinary. In any event, regarding the “eureka” moment, as Wikipedia tells us:

“While taking a bath, [Archimedes] noticed that the level of the water in the tub rose as he got in, and realized that this effect could be used to determine the  volume of the crown [he was asked to value]. For practical purposes water is incompressible, so the submerged crown would displace an amount of water equal to its own volume. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained. This density would be lower than that of gold if cheaper and less dense metals had been added. Archimedes then took to the streets naked, so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress, crying “Eureka!”

Got that? In any event, Koestler insists that, like discoveries in art and science, comedy involves two different matrices that surprisingly meet in the”punch line” or the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events or actions and emotion is released as laughter.  As he put it in his somewhat technical language:

“The humorist [solves] a problem by joining two incompatible matrices together in a paradoxical synthesis. . . . instead of a fusion, there is a collision; and in the mental disarray which ensues, emotion, deserted by reason, is flushed out in laughter.”

We call this “getting the joke.” Freud insisted this release of emotion was in fact a release of the sadistic impulses that society demands we repress until an “acceptable” way of releasing them is found — in comedy, for example. We also release the same impulses by witnessing  a violent act that we feel sure involves no real pain — such as a football game or a prize-fight (though the latter raises some interesting tangential questions). When we realize there is pain sympathy interrupts the flush of repressed emotion that would otherwise be released as laughter. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, between laughter and tears, though they both involve the release of some sort of emotion.

I recently came across an example of this in one of my favorite sit-coms in which the main character demands that his roommate wear a wool sweater (with no shirt underneath) until he is able to rectify a situation he brought about seven years before. He had forgotten to return a DVD to the video store and his roommate demands that until he returns the DVD he must wear the sweater. It takes many days of visible suffering on the part of the roommate before he admits that he cannot find the owner of the store that rented the DVD — or any of the man’s descendants. The main character than reveals that he knew about the failure to return the DVD seven years before and had paid for the DVD at the time. He was using the sweater as a “teaching moment” to teach his roommate how much he himself suffered when things do not go as he had planned.

Some may have found the suffering of the young man funny, but I did not. It crossed the line between humor and outright sadism, I thought, a clear example of the close proximity between humor and those sadistic impulses Freud talks about. Instead of releasing those emotions, however, it fostered them.  There was no bisociation of which Koestler speaks and no subsequent flush of  pent-up emotion. Just anger at the main character for the way he was treating his roommate and presumed best friend. To be sure, there is a subjective element in humor, and in this case I simply found it unfunny.

It seems to me that the comic genius of someone like, say, Jerry Seinfeld, arises from the fact that he sees in the ordinary certain features that when brought together in a sudden “fusion” releases emotion in the form of laughter in the majority of his audience. His genius also resides in the fact that he knows just where to draw the line so that the emotion will be somehow “appropriate” in releasing our baser impulses. The humorist must be careful not to allow his comedy to become mean or nasty. The clown knows that if he throws a pie in the face of an innocent victim we will laugh — unless we suddenly become aware that the man was actually hurt. We don’t laugh at another’s pain — unless we are outright sadists — but only if we are sure that real pain is not involved. If the chair is removed from under a person about to sit down we laugh only if we are sure the person was not hurt. This is the civilizing effect that demands that we repress the sadistic emotions and release them only if we are assured that no real pain is involved. But those impulses are there beneath the surface and if we were uncivilized we would doubtless express them by inflicting real pain on one another.

Thus when folks like me worry that we seem to be becoming increasingly uncivilized, even barbaric, that our urge to live with others (which is the heart and soul of civilization) has been lost in our determination to become isolated from one another — lost in our electronic toys perhaps — there is the real danger that we will stop laughing at the staged discomfort and pain of others and openly relish it and demand the real thing.

 

 

 

 

Delivery Systems

In responding to a comment on a recent blog I noted that in teaching our kids we have become caught up in the methods of teaching and have lost sight of the all-important question of what it is that teachers ought to do — not how they might do it more effectively. I want to expand on that for a bit.

We are talking here about what have been called “delivery systems,” the how of teaching rather than the why of teaching. In my response to the comment mentioned above I referred to them as “gimmicks and tools” — mostly gimmicks that arise from the mistaken notion that teaching is a science when, in fact, it is an art. Teacher evaluations, for example, are focused on the question “how well does your teacher teach?” This reflects the larger societal preoccupation with methods rather than substance.  Science, for example, has become technology. The scientist often is so focused on the question of how to develop the theory he or she is advancing that they fail to stop and reflect on the question of why the theory was advanced in the first place. We demand better widgets forgetting to ask why we need the widgets in the first place. The study of pure science, with no monetary pay-off, is anathema today. Indeed, the study of anything for its own sake, or for the sake of the joy and/or enlightenment it might bring with it, is lost in the question: what’s in it for me? What’s the pay-off?

In teaching, methods courses are the main focus in colleges of education; the issue is how to deliver the goods. And ever since the birth of “progressive” education in this country in the late thirties of the last century the focus has been on the child who is to be taught rather than the subject matter he or she is to be taught. Curriculum development is now predicated on the question: how can we best deliver the goods to disinterested, unruly children? How can we keep their attention long enough to help them actually learn something? How can we make sure “no child is left behind”? Clearly, this is a consequence of the effects the entertainment industry’s had on this country as the teacher has for many years been measured against Mr. Rogers or Big Bird. How entertaining can you be? Can you grab and hold the child’s attention?

In any event, the central purpose of education has been lost in the shuffle. That question ought to be, at all levels, how can we help this young person expand his our her mind and become free in the process, capable of making informed, independent decisions on complex issues? This is why education has always been associated — or should have been — with the democratic system that gave birth to the notion of universal education in the first place. A democracy cannot function without a literate, informed, and thoughtful citizenry. This has been known in this country from the outset. It is why Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia. But it has been lost in the cloud of smoke that has expanded of late, the ofttimes incoherent discussion of the delivery systems. How can we do this better? But just what is the THIS? That’s the question we ought to be focused upon.

As I say, this problem is simply a part of a larger social issue where we have become lost in sometimes loud and unruly discussion of the tangential issues that surround us. We seldom ask why it is we are doing what we are doing. We simply ask how we can do it better — get better reviews, bigger pay checks, more “likes,” promotions, profits, approval, or applause.

Recent history, especially, has driven home the obvious point that our democratic system stands or falls with our educational system. To what extent can we honestly say our citizens are not well educated, perhaps, but well enough educated to be able to discriminate between the genuine article and a political fraud? The evidence suggests our political system is failing the test. It also suggests that education’s failure may well be any the center of this problem. Before we can hold on to the realistic hope of reparation of a political system that seems to be broken, we must first repair the education system that is supposed to be turning out citizens capable of choosing wisely. That should be our first priority.

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.

Submerged Concern

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

Pascal’s Wager

I am re-blogging a (slightly modified) post from over a year ago in light of the fact that our president-elect is convinced that global warming is a hoax and the Wisconsin D.N.R. has declared that global warming is merely a “subject of scientific debate.” Both of these positions are irrational and, worse yet, a gamble with the lives of countless folks who will be affected if and when the scientific community is proven to be correct. In the meantime, I argue here that we should all err on the side of caution: it is the only sane position to take in light of the probable consequences of being wrong about a situation that is so deeply serious to us all.

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming (both of which are extremely unlikely), we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. If we are unwilling to do these small things, and continue to deny the evidence that is considerable, the consequences will almost certainly be dire.

Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet and if we turn out to have been wrong (or the science was wrong) it has cost us little. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and 97% of the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which the mathematician/philosopher recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would still lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the joys of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional. . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.