When we last left our long-suffering friend Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was wandering the streets of America looking for a citizen prepared to offer an opinion on the question, "What is the sum of two plus two?" The first man Winston met was was incurious on the subject, and suggested that it was impossible to know the sum of 2 + 2, as reliable sources on the subject are likely unavailable.
And so Winston met a second man:
Winston: Excuse me sir, do you have an opinion on the sum of two and two?
Man: Oh yes! I'm very interested in mathematics. As a matter of fact, a friend just sent me an email on the subject of two plus two, and I forwarded it to all my friends.
Winston: That is gratifying. What did the email say?
Man: It said that two plus two equals nine.
Winston: I see. Sir, did it occur to you to check if two plus two actually equals nine before you sent this email out to all your friends?
Man: Sorry, I don't understand your question.
Poor Winston, he just met a conservative American who receives and sends a lot of viral emails.
The viral email is the 21st century equivalent of the old chain letter. It's a message that quickly propagates from person to person in a word-of-mouth manner. Let me tell you about my recent experience with viral email.
My friend Janet recently asked me what I thought about a chain email that she had received from another friend. The email was a strident attack piece on Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. It said, among other things:
Madam speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to put a Windfall Tax on all stock market profits (including Retirement fund, 401K and Mutual Funds! Alas, it is true - all to help the 12 Million Illegal Immigrants and other unemployed Minorities!
As soon as I read the email, I thought, "Something tells me that this is a totally false accusation that right-wingers have been emailing each other for years without spending any thought as to whether it's actually true." Sure enough, it took me about 3 seconds to debunk this one. All I had to do was type "Nancy Pelosi windfall tax" into google and it took me to a complete history of these totally false claims and the equally false chain emails they have spawned. This garbage has been floating around cyberspace for years, but no matter how many times it's debunked, the people who keep sending it to each other just don't care.
I'm fascinated by the idea of people who are interested enough in politics to talk about what's going on in Washington, but who are so completely intellectually incurious (not to mention gullible) that they won't spend a few minutes looking up the facts before they send an email to their all their friends containing a bunch of stuff that is easily demonstrated to be untrue.
Obama's birth certificate has been a common theme in recent viral emails circulated by conservatives. No rational person could examine the evidence and reach a conclusion other than that the President was born in Hawai'i. Of course if you refuse to examine the evidence and, at the same time, choose to believe whatever you hear through the grapevine, then of course you might wind up sharing the opinion of the majority of Republicans, who either believe that President Obama is not a citizen, or are "not sure."
And so Winston continued down the street, and he met a third man.
Winston: Sir, have you opinion on the subject of two plus two?
Man: I'm quite passionate on the subject. Two plus two equals six and one-half. So my faith teaches me.
Winston: Sir, may I ask if you've considered taking two things, pairing them with two other things, and then counting to see how many things you have all together?
Man: Empiricism is irrelevant. Examining the natural world for the answers to life's questions is a fool's errand. Two plus two equals six and one-half. It is written.
According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans believe that man evolved from a lower order of species, while 44% believe that man appeared on Earth in his current form within the last few thousand years. And it is undoubtedly the case that virtually all of those 150 million or so Americans who believe that all those fossils are some kind of elaborate hoax do so because that's what they're taught to believe by America's evangelical Christian churches.
I've heard it said the surest sign that a civilization is in decline is that it becomes more superstitious rather than less superstitious. I don't know if America has become more superstitious in recent years, but it certainly gave that appearance when it elected George W. Bush and a lot of other politicians just like him. One thing I do know is that this particular kind of superstition leads, once again, to a lack of intellectual curiosity.
Consider the case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District in 2005. This case was the first direct challenge brought in federal court against a public school district with the object of requiring the presentation of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution. Fortunately for America's public school students, Judge John Jones ruled against the conservative school board's attempt to introduce "intelligent design" into the curriculum, writing in his decision, "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."
The Judge's decision was a scathing rebuke of the school board, who were attempting to force Dover's science instructors to read a certain statement to students. The statement read in part, "Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations."
Was the school board aware that the defining characteristic of a scientific theory is that it makes falsifiable or testable predictions, something which the Theory of Evolution does, but "intelligent design" does not? Probably they were not aware, I should think. My point here is that is seems clear that the school board actually had no idea what the definition of a scientific theory is, nor did they care to learn. They also didn't care, by the way, that they were sticking the taxpayers of Dover, PA with a bill for the millions of dollars in legal fees that it cost to stage the whole embarrassing affair.
Winston saw one more man on the street. "I'll give this one last try," he thought.
Winston: "Sir, have you anything to say on the subject of two plus two?"
Man: I'm aware that the issue has been under study for a long time. It's fascinating stuff.
Winston: Indeed. Have you personally formed an opinion on the issue?
Man: No, but I assure you, I'm very interested in the debate over this controversy.
Winston, alas, has just had the misfortune of interviewing a lobbyist for a tobacco company. It was the tobacco industry who created the template for turning widespread consensus on any given subject into a never-ending "controversy." In the early 1950's the American public began to learn that smoking carries the risk of cancer. The industry response was to set up a meeting of tobacco executives. As described by Allan Brandt in The Cigarette Century, the goal of this group 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 on 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."
This same strategy is still with us today on many different fronts. It's the means by which Republicans deny that global warming is a serious, man-made problem. It's the means by which they pay lip service to calls to halt pollution, without actually doing anything to stop polluters. As described in the excellent book The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney, the GOP started using this strategy all the time after they got control of Congress in 1995. It's easy. Just invite some scientists to testify before Congress on the dangers caused by certain forms of pollutions. Next, hear testimony from pseudo-scientist-quacks who are actually paid representatives of the polluters, and who will say the exact opposite of what the legitimate scientists just said. Then throw up your hands and say, "Well, we certainly can't regulate when there's no scientific consensus on the problem."
And so Winston Smith came to see me after he interviewed these men on the street, who would not or could not say what 2 + 2 equals. I wanted to cheer him up, so I gave him a ticket to Bill Maher's show on HBO.
And here's what Bill said in his monologue on August 7:
"Sarah Palin says she would never apologize for America. Even though a Gallup poll says 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. No, they're not stupid. They're interplanetary mavericks. A third of Republicans believe Obama is not a citizen, and a third of Democrats believe that George Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, which is an absurd sentence because it contains the words "Bush" and "knowledge."
"And if you want to call me an elitist for this, I say thank you. Yes, I want decisions made by an elite group of people who know what they're talking about. That means Obama budget director Peter Orszag, not Sarah Palin."
Winston and I capped off the day by watching President Obama's address on health care and the need for a public option on insurance. "Ah," Winston said, "There's a man who sounds like he knows that two plus two equals four."
Good night, and good luck.