"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Monday, November 22, 2004

Keeping It Real 

This morning, my Lovely Bride took mild umbrage when I responded unenthusiastically to her suggestion that I employ a dubious "cure" for a mild medical condition from which I suffer. She had read some article somewhere that the suggested treatment was effective against the condition, and she could not understand why I resisted the idea. My response - that I would prefer to rely on treatments which had some scientifically established benefit, thank you very much - struck her, I think, as pig-headed and narrow-minded.

Now, it is undeniably true that I am pig-headed, and maybe even narrow-minded. And, for the record, I must note that my Lovely Bride is an extraordinarily intelligent, educated woman. Not to mention beautiful (her beauty is - of course - irrelevant to this conversation, but I need to earn some credit here, lest I sleep on the couch for the rest of my natural life). Other than the inexplicable lapse in judgment which led to her agreeing to marry me, she appears to all disinterested observers to be a rational creature. And yet, if pressed, she will admit to being open minded (if not completely convinced) about the idea of astrology, while at the same time being skeptical (if not entirely hostile) about the idea of evolution. And she's one of the smart ones!

My father is a smart person, too. In fact, when it comes to matters of common sense, he's one of the smartest people I know. And yet, he, too, is skeptical about the idea of evolution. In fact, he's pretty sure that it's all bunk.

My father and my Lovely Bride are not alone. According to Gallup (and thanks to Political Wire for the link):
Only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence. The rest say they don't know enough to say. Forty-five percent of Americans also believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago. A third of Americans are biblical literalists who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.

Meanwhile, as recently as a year ago - long after there was any excuse for such a thing - nearly 7 out of 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein probably had some direct connection to 911.

How does this happen?

There are by my count three industries in America today which set out, as their main function, to influence the way people think: The education industry, the advertising industry, and the media industry. I arrive at this number (i.e., three - please pay attention!) by means of an arbitrary calculus, and I am not married to any particular number; I simply find this scheme of classification more or less useful. For example, I distinguish advertising from media - while others reasonably may not - because I see advertising as being independent from media the same way that the lamprey is independent from the shark. I lump the news media and the entertainment media together, because it seems clear to me that the distinction between them, where a distinction is drawn at all, is illusory at best. I exclude government from this list, not because I think government is uninterested in shaping the public consciousness, but because it does its shaping mostly by way of education, advertising, and media. I exclude religion only because I hesitate to classify religion as an "industry" (hey, we've all got our irrational blind spots). No matter. Use another model, if it works better for you; I will stick to my own model, for the time being.

Of these three industries, one of them - advertising - owes no loyalty to reality. To the contrary, advertising is almost entirely dedicated to the subversion of reality. You don't need a moss-covered, three-handled, family gredunza, of course - you've done perfectly well without one so far - but the advertiser's job is to convince you that if you do not get yourself a moss-covered, three-handled, family gredunza right now your family will leave you, your boss will fire you, and you'll never get laid again. Also, you'll smell bad. You had better buy four of them while they're on sale, and if you do we'll throw in a Popeil Pocket Fisherman to show our appreciation. That's advertising.

The role of media is more problematic. Much of it, including most of what we call entertainment and some of what we call journalism, is basically harmless. It may be biased - little, if any, human communication can ever be unbiased - but bias alone is no great defect. The Federalist Papers were biased, but brilliant. Michael Moore is baised, and so is Ann Coulter - and in each case, the bias is clearly expressed. The listener/reader/viewer is empowered to evaluate the information provided in light of the disclosed bias, and draw whatever conclusions he or she chooses. In a perfect world, this would be a good thing. The problem arises when bias is hidden or denied, and a particular message is presented as "the truth" when in fact it is merely a version of the truth. The damage done by this sort of intellectual dishonesty extends well beyond the offending content itself, because it colors our interpretation of other facts and other opinions - how can we take seriously the views expressed by those who question the value of so-called "tort reform," to take one example, when it conflicts with the alleged "facts" we have learned from the execrable John Stossel in his "objective, unbiased" reporting? The well has been poisoned, and truth is the victim.

But, worst of all, is the failure of our education industry. Mark Twain once said something to the effect of "never let school get in the way of your education" (Twain scholars are encouraged to leave the exact quote, with citation, in the comments; I promise I'll get around to reading it some day). In fact, America has allowed school to utterly derail education - assuming, as I do, that the purpose of education is to prepare students for a lifetime of learning and critical thought. This unfortunate result is apparent in a number of respects, two of which I want to highlight here.

First, Americans are completely clueless about science. Consider, for example, the confusion surrounding the word "theory." To most Americans, "theory" means something just a bit more certain than "guess." In Georgia, fundamentalist nutbars are demanding that science texts be defaced with a sticker claiming that evolution is "a theory, not a fact." That is very much like arguing that a particular product is a dessert topping, not a floor wax. "Theory" and "fact" are not opposites. A theory is defined as "a model or framework for understanding." Facts are observable truths which tend to support theories (or not, as the case may be). To say that evolution, or global warming, are "mere" theories entirely misses the point. We speak of the the theory of relativity, or of gravity, or the germ theory of disease, but in no case does this usage imply any real disagreement among educated people whether time and space behave in a relativistic manner, or whether solid objects are likely to fly off the face of the Earth, or whether you should wash your hands after taking a dump.

I have had conversations with well educated, entirely reasonable people about whether there is any rational reason to accept the implications of astrology. One friend of mine, who is not stupid, suggested that the gravitational effects of the stars and planets might well influence the course of a newborn child's life. This otherwise sensible person was obviously unaware that his theory was demonstrably absurd in light of provable facts - the delivery room nurse, relatively lacking in mass but much nearer in space, clearly exerted more gravitational influence over my friend's children at birth than a relatively massive but far, far more distant celestial body. The worst part of this exchange was that this particular individual has little trouble understanding the inverse-square rule when applied to the placement of his stereo speakers, but cannot understand how it might apply to his novel ideas about gravity. He has a theory, you see.

The second great shortcoming of the educational system - and the one that troubles me most - regards the widespread lack of understanding of our constitutional scheme of government. This is the failure which leads to complaints about "activist judges," and confusion about the value of a Senate filibuster. To many Americans, the tripartite system of government is like antilock brakes - we presume that it will work as designed when we need it, but we have no idea how it works. This is dangerous. If you wonder why it is dangerous, I refer you to the election just past.

It has become a fair question whether the Enlightenment had any meaningful, long-term effect. We have entered a period of American history in which faith-based models of reality are competing with reality-based models, and often are winning. This development has profound effects, big and small, on subjects ranging from our attitudes about global warming, affirmative action, and the war in Iraq, to our attitudes about the products we buy - is anyone else frightened and offended by the pseudo-scientific claptrap used to sell shampoo and room deodorizers? The reality-based community is in decline, and those who worry about such developments are increasingly dismissed as Chicken Littles (and no, the irony of that analogy has not escaped me). Science is just mumbo-jumbo, while a literal reading of Genesis is intellectually defensible.

As they say, may God have mercy on our souls.

 

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