Dumb and Dumber

22 07 2010

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Please check out this blistering video by George Carlin, who was almost always funny, and ALWAYS thought for himself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q

Then read this blistering comment by Timothy Egan on one of our worst Senators:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/21/weather-bane/

and, finally, this blistering explanation of why the standard stratagems of that wretched Senator and his ilk always work:

http://community.nytimes.com/comments/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/21/weather-bane/?permid=5#comment5

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Overstated? Sure! To a degree.

But lurking in all three of the above comments from smart, thoughtful people is  the sadness of a common disillusionment. The Official Political Faith of America is representative democracy. Most pointy-headed intellectuals subscribe to this faith just as much everyone else here does, including the self-described Palinesque “real people”.

That’s why we American brainiacs are necessarily condemned to lead lives of serial disillusionment. Over and over again, from the Willie Horton lie against Michael Dukakis in 1988, through the Swift Boat lie about John Kerry, to the “death panel” lie last summer against health care reform, we have had to watch millions of voters jump on absurd lie after lie and make it their own, without investigation or even the application of minimal common sense about what’s likely — and what’s not likely — to be true.

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Now lots of The Folks here in the USA are swallowing the lie that human-caused global warming is a lie. The vast majority of climate scientists tell us that global warming is happening.  A few outlier scientists say it may or may not be happening.  Right now, most of the Folks believe the tiny minority, and even blowhard opportunists like Senator Inhofe who say it’s definitely not happening, over the majority of scientists.

“Why oh why does this always happen?!” we propeller-heads cry, aghast.

The reasons are not hard to find:

1.) One half of all people have an IQ of less than 100*;

2.) The United States has the best public relations people (i.e., liars for hire) on earth; and

3.) The United States has the most militantly self-righteous rich people on earth, and they have lots to lose** if the global warming problem is acted upon, plus virtually endless supplies of money to pay to the  2)  folks to lie to the  1)  folks.

See, no mystery at all!

But for many of us the sadness remains. And so does a great fear. The People really do rule the USA to a degree, and if they are really this easily led by lies, then it’s only a matter of time until the USA does something terminally stupid.

And then the rest of us who live here will have to take the consequences right along with all the the inattentive folks and dingbats who were lied into bringing those consequences about.

I fear that. And I think that global warming is the thing we’re in the process of making our terminal mistake about now.

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*      Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IQ Tests –  (median = 100)

Granted, most people who fall below 100 I. Q. fall within 15 points of the 100 norm. Other factors unique to the USA, however (e.g., ever-increasing work hours, the innate sensationalism and superficiality of our for-profit TV news, etc.), make REAL FACTS hard for all of us to come by. See the first and second urls above for the most important of the impediments in our society to understanding how it really works.

** from drilling for, refining, shipping, and selling oil, natural gas, and coal; and
from selling all kinds of fun products that run on those energy sources.

But there’s another, more subtle, way that the USA’s current energy-use binge especially benefits our better-off citizens. The USA is a society that puts business at the pinnacle of social activities. And it accordingly makes money the usual measure of our citizens’ worth as human beings. The more money you can make, the more you will be honored. There is no competing substantial, society-wide road to high status (such as, for example, being born into an aristocracy that confers distinction even in the absence of wealth).

So any policy concern that might require a degree of retrenchment of economic activity in the USA to solve is widely denied.  Any kind of economic retrenchment here strikes at the heart of the American version of one of the most fundamental wellsprings of action for all humans and creatures like us.  To rise as high as possible in, or to keep one’s already-high place in, the applicable pecking order is a top priority for every social animal from chickens to humans. Here in the USA, centuries of prosperity arising from having had a whole new continent to exploit have accustomed the folks who possess unusually intense desires of this sort to always “expect the best”.

Our hotdog non-team players, in short, do not want to be made to strut their stuff on a smaller stage.

Here’s a response to Mr. Egan’s commentary that I think illustrates this. It expresses the fury of “Capitalist Prof”, who has accrued a lot of status and status markers that he sees those creepy environmentalists as threatening to take away or devalue: http://community.nytimes.com/comments/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/21/weather-bane/?permid=194#comment194

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THE VERY ANGRY TEA PARTY!

15 06 2010

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that, really, no kidding, “The pen IS mightier than the sword.”

That is, ideas exercise immense power over people and societies. And, arguably, the less “intellectual” a person or a society is, the more powerful will be his or its controlling ideas about the world, because those ideas are absorbed as one grows up and then held, UNEXAMINED, for a lifetime. Such unexamined ideas come to seem fully as real as one’s own body.

But most of them are not real at all, or they become unreal as society changes (which it does very fast these days!). They were never anything more than stories we tell ourselves and each other to make the world understandable and coherent. Here are some examples of once-absolutely-unquestioned ideas that have now been abandoned:

1. The divine right of kings (Inheritors of thrones demonstrate by ascending to power that they have been chosen by God to rule. Henceforth they are entitled do anything they want to the rest of us.)

2. The earth is the center of the universe.

3. The heavens are a set of crystal spheres to which planets are affixed, and which rotate around the earth and in so doing cause the planets’ movements. They are all SPHERES because the sphere is a perfect form, and the heavens are perfect, since they are in God’s domain.

4. Virtuous women usually don’t enjoy sex: They only do it out of duty to their husbands. Only sluts enjoy sex.

5. The free market, after a recession, always returns to equilibrium  later at full production and employment.  (Say’s Theorem, refuted by the Great Depression, which lasted essentially from 1930 to 1942, and was only ended by the vast economic stimulus of WWII) http://books.google.com/books?id=mJ4TfKL4wcAC&pg=PA86&lpg=PA86&dq=%22Say%27s+theorem%22&source=bl&ots=qty9oKDsSa&sig=Z0Qh3x-stBAuxifV1FkmPM9yGVY&hl=en&ei=D_0XTJnNJcT7lwe-_9DnCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22Say%27s%20theorem%22&f=false

6. Smoking is at worst a bad habit. It is health-neutral.

7. Japanese manufactured goods are junk compared to our own (Virtually everyone believed this when I was young back in the 1960s.)

8. Any introduction of socialism into a society, including any substantial level of social benefits for poor and working people, leads inevitably directly to Communist dictatorship (refuted by a bunch of European democracies that have subsisted quite nicely as democracies since WWII, thank you).

9. And, finally, in the article cited below, a pretty smart guy identifies a fundamental idea held by many Americans which is now gradually becoming untenable, fueling incredible rage in some circles, most notably that of the “Tea Party” movement.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/the-very-angry-tea-party/?src=me&ref=homepage

Check it out. It may clarify a lot for you. It did for me.

Hint: No class of ideas is harder to give up than ideas about yourself that make you look good to yourself.  I know. I’ve had the experience. About 20 years ago I had to give up the idea that I was born to be one of the Masters of the Universe.





KNOWLEDGE v. NO-NOTHINGISM

12 08 2009

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People on the Right have been known to scare us into doing dumb things (Think Iraq war!). A sad current  example of that practice is discussed in the article referenced below. The article explodes the myth that some on the Right have recently created about this one doctor and the larger issues he has taken positions on. The article also explains succinctly why scaring folks works so well so often.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20090812/us_time/08599191583500

And, no, the “Frightening” that the Right has used in the health care debate and elsewhere is NOT paralleled on the Left by warnings about global warming. The difference is that our warnings of global warming are based on the work of LOTS of reputable scientists, while, at least in the case of the doctor discussed above, the Frightening practiced by the Right has generally been accomplished by distorting the facts.

For an authoritative look at the science behind global warming, visit the site of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

http://www.ipcc.ch/

I always give scientists at least the benefit of the doubt, and I usually believe them when their pronouncements make sense in light of the moderate-to-good scientific knowledge I have.

I grew up in a world where extreme moralists were incessantly claiming to speak authoritatively about every aspect of life–from what happens to people after death to whether dancing should be prohibited.

I was troubled by all this hectoring, because I was serious about being a responsible guy, and I wanted to know who to believe. Then I learned about the scientific method and I realized that scientist don’t just make up their pronouncements or take them from ancient books. Instead, scientists actually TEST their hypotheses with real-world experiments, and change their ideas when experimental results require.

And then there is the fact that the child of science, technology, routinely produces new, wonderful things that we can each test for ourselves, and in the process  see the device’s underlying scientific theory  actually working, often spectacularly,  in the real world.

Since its inception around four hundred years ago, experimental science has increasingly routed the practitioners of the traditional “our ancestors believed it so it must be true” school of analysis.

What a relief for any thinking person!





BUSH = PALIN

7 07 2009

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I know I’m a liberal, and hence biased, but for a while back there I really tried to understand why anyone would have voted for Sarah Palin for anything. Today I got the crucial insight from a comment a reader made to Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times about Ms Palin’s recent resignation as Governor of Alaska:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/04/opinion/04collins.html

In her column Ms Collins guessed that in part Palin had probably resigned as the first step in a long slog to collect the money and bona fides she will need to run for President in 2012. A commentor to that column then added this explanation of why that plan just might work, even though Palin is—well, the kind of thinker and speaker we all know her to be:

“July 4th, 2009
6:37 am
Palin’s incoherence and lack of concentration are her political strengths. The segment of the electorate to which she appeals does not value intellect or eloquence. In fact, these qualities are feared because they imply a lack of faith. A person who is well educated, thoughtful, and can answer questions directly, in complete sentences, is exactly what Palin’s supporters do not want.”
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I had this insight earlier about George W. Bush’s inexplicable election victory. If you are not well educated or well spoken you are likely to prefer to hear from people who have the same deficits as you do.
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It’s just human nature.
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Elsewhere, human nature might be tempered by culturally-ingrained respect for education and the educated. Not here. The USA is well known for having a strain of anti-intellectualism of mammoth proportions.
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I don’t know why I keep forgetting these simple facts. After all, largely because of them, lightening struck twice for George W. Mushmouth.
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And, except for the difference in sex, Sarah Palin is just George W.’s doppleganger.
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WISHFUL THINKING ABOUT AUTISM

4 06 2009

Here’s an interesting discussion of the current anti-vaccine brouhaha:

http://www.medhelp.org/user_journals/show/93488

A comment made by one of the participants in that discussion reveals what I consider to be one of the two foundations of the anti-vaccine animus:

“Ever heard about Monsanto ? Go search Youtube. How about all the banned pesticides of the past ? They are still in our environment.  Too late to turn back the clock now. Where were you and when we needed someone to fight the toxic Big-Agri and Big-Pharma.

This isn’t crazy talk…  These are concerned parents.  Unlike Doctors, they can’t be bought and sold by Drug company sales representatives.”

I think the above is hopelessly muddled, for the following reasons.

First,  it seems reasonable to listen to scientists with at least a degree of respect when they talk about their areas of expertise. One need only look around our world and think about how people lived before the scientific method began to be routinely used in order to see that science WORKS.  So when scientist in a field unite in stating scientific fact Y, I think it is only rational to accord a strong presumption of correctness to what they say.

Unfortunately, in some contexts in this century there have been such scary cases of APPLICATIONS of science going wrong that now lots of people are suspicious of anything scientific.

But look at the differences between pesticides, the great recent American example of science doing harm, and vaccinations:

1. It’s extremely likely that there is and was hugely more money to be made from pesticides than there is from vaccinations, so there was more incentive to lie or engage in wishful thinking about them when initial decisions were being made as to whether to deploy them.

2. Pesticides and their use were exclusively mediated by business. That is, pesticides came into use in a big way back in the 1950s when there was no EPA to question their safety. Everyone who made the initial decisions about pesticides and where and how to use them had the prospect of certain or possible profit from their use, so of course they had a big incentive to ignore dangers and evidence of dangers. In short, they went for the pesticides full tilt, with eyes firmly closed. We see this phenomenon of profit-induced blindness routinely in all kinds of business everywhere.

Vaccines, by contrast, have been in use for 100 years, are evaluated by professional scientists, and are used in the context of the practice of medicine, where a high level of concern for patients is taught and constantly reinforced in the profession. This  is very likely to outweigh whatever small profit a doctor may make in advocating and giving vaccines.

3. Every danger has to be evaluated on its own. It’s fuzzy thinking of the worst kind to say, “Science/technology caused harm in past situation X, so from now on I will assume that it will always cause harm in every application, even when trained experts, applying the scientific method, have reached the conclusion that it won’t.”

But there is another,  more fundamental  illogic at play here on the part of at least some anti-vaccination parents. Americans are taught (in my view erroneously) that all Americans are powerful, that there is a solution to every human illness and species of misfortune, and that you and I are just as good at finding those solutions as the experts. If there ever was a recipe for WISHFUL THINKING, this is it.

Let’s say, against this background of unexamined cultural assumptions, that you are one-half of an affluent American couple, and one day you are told that your child is autistic — and you are also told that the cause of the autism is genetic and nothing can be done for your child. Are you likely to accept this truth and start learning to live with autism?

Not bloody likely! All your experience from other contexts has show that you know how to get things done in the world, have the money to get things done, and are articulate enough to convince others to join you in doing something.

You will move heaven and earth to find  a cure for the autism — and therefore to “discover” a cause for it that you and parents like you have the power to affect. Further assertions by experts  that the autism is as has been described to you will fall on deaf ears. The Great American Strain of Anti-intellectualism virtually assures that.

No-one wants to admit defeat. And here in the USA we find doing so positively un-American! The confluence of this ingrained cultural assumption with the skepticism about technology that’s grown up in recent decades is enough to explain the anti-vaccination agitation.





WHAT ARE INTELLECTUALS GOOD FOR?

30 04 2009

For a succinct answer, go here:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103567148





BUSH…THEN OBAMA, WTF?! II

14 03 2009

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Why Obama?

A Relevant Story

Eleven years ago I moved into an historic little house downtown. The area was then a middlin-high crime area, so I took occupancy with trepidation. About a year after moving in, I was going to sleep around midnight when I heard the empty cans I had in a low box outside clunking against each other. Then I heard someone turning the doorknob to my kitchen door back and forth. I realized I had a prowler!

I called the cops immediately.

By the time they got there I was hearing the slithery, then cracking, sound of someone applying a pry bar to the back door. A minute or so later the cops drove up with their lights out and sirens off, and went back into my small yard. I heard yelling, and a scuffling sound, and soon the cops emerged at the front of the house, frogmarching a young guy in handcuffs. They were rough as they stuffed him in the back seat of the police car. I enjoyed seeing that.

Both of the cops were large men, taller and in much better shape than me. They looked like recently-retired, slightly-deteriorated athletes. I am a short guy who has always been overweight, and so never played any sports when I was a child. Probably for that reason, I have always disliked, and sometimes even hated, big, athletic men. But when those two beefy guys drove up, I was never gladder to see anyone in my life. And I loved the ease with which they subdued that prowler!

Why Obama.

Again, as in 2004 when Bush was re-elected, the American people were scared during the election just past. But, unlike last time, we were scared of something almost none of us could pretend to understand. Economics has been called “the dismal science”. It is boring and very hard. It takes a very determined and smart man to understand it. And here, in Obama, was a man who was calm and resolute, and who, above all, was obviously THE smartest of all the candidates who appeared before us during the long election season.

Lots of Americans don’t normally like intellectuals — for exactly the same reason I detest athletes. I call this phenomenon “cross-bell curve resentment”. But, as my little brush with crime taught me, when you desperately need the abilities of folks on the other side of a bell curve from you, those folks suddenly become as welcome as your long-lost best friend!

And that’s why Barack Obama was elected.

Update: Every once in a while some media person who is paid big money to do what I do for free agrees with one of my points. I am of course delighted. Please see this:

http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/the-off-brand-presidency/