Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Idiot Wind II: The Future Belongs to the Curious

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.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Idiot Wind, Part I: Winston Smith Meets the Man on the Street

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

So wrote Winston Smith in his diary in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character of Winston Smith lived in a totalitarian state that not only told him that 2+2 =5, it brainwashed him until he himself believed it. If Winston were magically transported to 21st century America, he would undoubtedly be relieved to find that our government would allow him to believe that 2+2 equals whatever he thinks it equals.

But beyond that, I think that Winston would quickly become very disillusioned. Why? Because Winston assumed that granted freedom of inquiry, people would actually be inclined to ask, "What does 2 + 2 equal?" And, being inclined to ask that question, that they would further believe that it's actually possible to determine an answer based on reliable media sources, the opinion of experts and/or empirical evidence.

Suppose Winston met four people on an American street, and to each one he asked, "Does 2 + 2 equal 4?" I think the first man might answer, "Who knows? There are no trustworthy sources on the issue."

I've been reading a newly published book from journalist Charles B. Pierce entitled, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Pierce has looked at recent events in America, such as the Terri Schiavo debacle, the opening of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, and most of the work of the George W. Bush administration, and determined that that in the U.S., "fact" is merely what enough people believe, and "truth" lies only in how fervently they believe it. According to Pierce,

"The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites...although both of these things are part of it. The rise of idiot America reflects -for profit, mainly, but also, more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power- the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

This is how idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of the Church of Christ's Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an "expert" and, therefore, an "elitist."

I thought the phenomenon that Pierce is talking about was neatly demonstrated this week in the Time Magazine cover article on Glenn Beck, a man who is himself a fountain of anti-intellectualism, and who leads an army of like-(empty)minded persons.

Regarding the September 12th rally that Beck organized on the mall in Washington D.C., Time says, "If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic. Either way, you may not be inclined to believe what we say about numbers, according to a recent poll that found record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media."

The author of this article could, of course, have added the following: "The ACTUAL number of attendees at the rally, according to the estimate of the DC police department, was 60,000 to 75,000." But that, of course, would constitute real journalism on the part of Time Magazine, as well as acknowledgement that it is literally possible to determine how many people attended the rally.

It's not that Time is being lazy. It doesn't take a lot of effort to do what I did and look on abcnews.com or politifact.com to get the DC police estimate. Time Magazine has always been a fundamentally conservative publication, and it surely recognizes that people who are picking up their Glenn Beck issue are conservative as well, not to mention willfully ignorant. So why should they not shrug their shoulders and say, "Yeah, sure, there's no way to know how many were there. Could have been a million."

In the second part of Idiot Wind, I'll be discussing the three other Americans Winston Smith meets in his man-on-the-street interviews on the subject of the sum of two and two. Things are going to get worse for Winston before they get better.