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End Notes

with 5 comments

So–the book is finished, and went off, via e-mail, yesterday.  You have no idea how much I love the fact that I no longer have to send hard copies.  Printing a book out always seemed to me like a gigantic, counterproductive pain in the butt.  And doing revisions on a hard copy was worse.

But it’s gone, and that means I’m slightly less crazed, if only slightly.

And I’ve been reading while I’ve been working, with two nonfiction books (both short) eating up the last days, so…

I have something to say.

Well, of course I do.

First, the books.

One was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  The other was Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America:  How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

Okay, not exactly heavy–or intellectually respectable–reading, I’ll agree, but I like this sort of thing sometimes.  And I like it on all ends of the political spectrum.

Wendy Kaminer, one of my favorite political writers ever, wrote a book a few years ago called I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, which took the therapeutic culture about at the joints in about two hundred pages.  Ehrenreich herself wrote a book a few years ago, called Bait and Switch, that, although I had issues with some of its content, contained some absolutely hilarious reporting on corporate pep-rally, attitude-training techniques.

There are lots of people out there with ideas on how we should have been able to see this latest financial crisis coming, but for me, the absolute base line, the place where we all should have gotten it, was when we found out that enormous, multinational corporations thought putting their midlevel employees through three days of “training” in “visualizing success” was going to help their bottom lines.

We should have especially known this when we found out what this kind of thing costs.

That having been said, of the two books I mentioned all the way up above, the Ehrenreich was definitely better, if only because it was substationally less clueless.

So, as I said, a few points:

1) Both Ehrenreich and Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the same mistake a lot of other writers on the dumbing down of America make–they talk about Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as if it were a book about how Americans hate smart people.

I wish it were a book about how Americans hate smart people–I’d read that book; someday I may write that book–but it isn’t. 

What it is is a book about American resistance to taking the advice of experts, and especially of accepting that advice as the basis for law. 

That is, obviously, a very different question, and one which requires a much more complicated answer than “well, they must hate smart people.  Americans worship dumbness.”

That said, it’s too bad that Mooney and Kirshenbaum got it wrong.  Their book is indeed a fretting about people who won’t take the advice of experts as a basis for social policy.

2) Mooney and Kirshenbaum do that thing with the surveys about Creationism.  That is, it’s documented that if you asked people if they agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” about 40% of them will say yes.

This finding is fairly consistant over time, and it’s used by just about everybody to “prove” that Americans are a bunch of Creationist nutcases who don’t know anything about science and who cling to primitive forms of religious superstition like pre-Scientific Revolution savages.

The problem with it is that it doesn’t bother to take into account something else we know.

If Americans are given that statement–“God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” and also a bunch of other statements, and then are allowed to pick more than one, they tend to also pick “human beings and other primates evolved from a common ancestor over hundreds of thousands of years,” or other statements to that effect.

When writers like Mooney and Kirshenbaum stumbled over this piece of evidence, they tend to produce long fulminations about how Americans “hold contradictory ideas.”

But I don’t think that’s the case.  I think that where the sociologists designing such a survey, and the mostly secular people who interpret it, see one question, many people answering it see two. 

There’s nothing inherently contractory about believing that human beings evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in their physical form, while God created the soul (and therefore made the beings “truly human”) much later than that.  There is nothing inherently contradictory in believing that our physical form evolved while our intellectual, ethical and spiritual form was somehow infused into that physical form at a later date in a single (and complete) act of God or something or somebody else.

It might be wrong, mind you, but it is not contradictory. 

And it makes me think that your ordinary American willing to put up with surveys like this is a lot more intellectually complex than the people who devise the surveys. 

3) Ehrenreich nearly bowled me over by declaring, about two thirds of the way through her book, that the 2007  financial meltdown “proved” once and for all that the market doesn’t correct itself.

Will somebody please tell this woman that the 2007 financial meltdown was the market correcting itself?

Saying that the market will correct itself is not the same thing as saying that the market will always be stable and nice and present no risk to anybody.

Quite the contrary.  Market corrections can be large or small, and if there’s a big distortion in the market they can be very large indeed. 

Regulation will not stop these corrections from happening, although they can decrease the intervals between large-scale ones if the regulations are sensible. 

What we do about such corrections is open to debate on many levels–my personal preference would be to insure the small depositors and let the big banks go bust.  I’m opposed to the entire concept of “too big to fail.”

The fear of failure–a situation where, if they screw up, they lose their money and their jobs and their institutions go out of business–is a better guarantor of prudence than any fine the government can come up with.

4) Mooney and Kirshenbaum spend parts of a couple of early chapters in their book bemoaning the effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1986 and the end of federal regulation of the broadcasting industry, which they claim has led to “lowest common denominator programming” and less “public service” broadcasting like “in depth” science news.

One of the things I’ve never understood about this kind of argument is this:  what makes these people think that even if government forced broadcasting stations to put this stuff on the air, people would watch it?

Unscientific America is a book largely disconnected from reality on almost every level, but this one occurs in other places too, and it just baffles me.

People who take this approach must believe one of two things:  either they think that people out here really want a lot of “in depth” science reporting (or hard news, or whatever) and they are being deprived of it by evil corporations who care for nothing but profit; OR they think that, deprived of celebrity news and endless reruns of Law and Order, if there was nothing else to watch on television but the programming they want, people would sit down and watch it rather than do something else.

Neither of these positions make any sense whatsoever.

If there really was a big public market for the kind of science news Mooney and Kirshenbaum want, there would be plenty of science programming out there to fill it.

I’m the first to point out that the problem with large corporations running media is that they need a higher cost-benefit ratio than most media endeavors can provide, but there’s a lot out there besides the large corporations and some of it is, indeed providing in depth science programming.

The problem is not that evil corporations are going for lowest common denominator programming and not providing American viewers and readers and Internet surfers what they want.

The problem is that not many Americans what want Mooney and Kirshenbaum want them to want. 

And they implicitly recognize this when they point out that, given the Internet, with lots of real science on it, people tend to search out only that “information” that gives them what they want to hear. 

As for watching whatever’s on–no, people really don’t do that.  If they sit down in front of the television set and can’t find anything they want to see, they put in a DVD or go out to the movies. 

You can’t force people to pay attention to what you want them to pay attention to.

5) And the final thing, the thing that keeps me rolling my eyes as I plow through Unscientific America, is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum really do not understand where the line is drawn between science and policy.

Assuming that everything we’ve been told about climate change is true, all that means is that the earth is warming up and the warming up will cause a certain set of problems.

The science does not tell us that we should have an intergovernmental regulatory office to police carbon emissions, or even that we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Those are policy issues and they are decided by more facts than the ones science can give us. 

What effect, for instance, would such an intergovernmental regulatory agency have on national sovereignty overall, and what effect would that effect have on things like the right to free expression, or freedom of religion, or even gay marriage?

If such an intergovernmental regulatory agency would result in a situation where, say, the UN’s new rule forbidding the denigration of religion were to be imposed on New York, maybe I’d like to have a different approach to dealing with climate change–finding ways to accommodate to it, for instance, in order to keep my basic individual rights from being violated.

It’s instructive that Mooney and Kirshenbaum do not seem to know that such a discussion exists. In the world as they’ve defined it, there are “global warming deniers” and “scientists,” and the “global warming deniers” are…well, maybe they’re evil corporations again, caring for nothing but short term profit. 

If Mooney and Kirshenbaum want to know why so manyAmericans resist the expertise of scientists, the first thing they need to understand is that thing up there about the difference between science and policy. 

And to do that, they need to understand that given problem A, there may be many different approaches to dealing with it, no just the one they think is so obvious that it must be self evident.

Hofstadter was right.  Americans mightily resist government by expert.

They know, although the experts don’t seem to, that different people have different priorities, and the foundation of a democratic society is the principle that every citizen is fully competent to define his own.

Tea.

Written by janeh

August 17th, 2010 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'End Notes'

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  1. “if the regulations are sensible” ought to have been in caps, or italisized. Regulations on home loans or “access to credit” helped dig our current hole, and some of the perpetrators are still digging.

    I have a particular loathing for persons who insist on a particular distortion of an economy, and then call it a “market failure” when reality catches up with them. Often this is done despite repeated warnings by economists. The same people have been known to insist that a war be fought in a lunatic fashion–LBJ’s “strategy” in Vietnam is the classic–overriding the entire military hierarchy, then blame “the generals” when the results are unsatisfactory.

    And they’re often the same crowd who call the general public morons for distrusting the policy prescriptions of their favorite “experts.” Of course the experts so touted would include Ehrlich of THE POPULATION BOMB–world-wide famine and food rationing by the 1980’s–the Club of Rome–“peak oil” at about the same time–and the “coming ice age” school of climatology.

    I’m afraid in certain quarters an expert is “someone with a PhD whose policy prescriptions I favor,” and the PhD is waiverable.

    I like the general notion of insuring small depositors to a certain point and letting the big fellows know they have no safety net–but then, I thought postal savings accounts weren’t our worst notion.

    robert_piepenbrink

    17 Aug 10 at 4:36 pm

  2. Did Jane really mean “Regulation will not stop these corrections from happening, although they can decrease the intervals between large-scale ones if the regulations are sensible. ” or was it a typo? I think it should be requlation can increase the interval between corrections.

    Why do pollsters keep asking about human evolution? I just can’t see why its important to anyone but professional biologists. What worries me is the ads I’m seeing for household cleaners that will “kill 99% of germs.” If true, the predicatable result will be bery resisitant germs in 20 years.

    jd

    17 Aug 10 at 6:11 pm

  3. I keep hoping that among the hundreds of new bureaucracies being created by the stimulus funds and health care spree, will be an Office of Unintended Consequences. No joy, yet. They probably wouldn’t want to create something that might ask questions that make some common sense, like does it make sense to spend $80 million to house and care for 800 veterans? Or would it be better to buy each one of them his own house and hire a fulltime caregiver?

    My husband is fond of saying that bad science makes for bad policy, but I think that confounding science and policy is much closer to the actual problem, particularly when science sinks to the level of belief without understanding. “I believe what Scientist X told me, therefore we must change our direction.”

    Everybody is moaning about climate change. Did we notice it’s not “global warming” anymore, but “climate change?” Well, if it does mean warming, doesn’t that mean vast areas in Canada are now going to be temperate enough to raise warm-weather crops? Never any positives. Always with the negative, “this is different and thus scary” and “we’ve got to try to make everything stay JUST THE SAME OR WE’LL ALL DIE!!!!”

    Poopie-heads, all of them. One reason The Population Bomb didn’t come true is that technology has made a huge difference in food production, so we’re not all starving. Why presume that technology won’t come up with coping mechanisms for whatever eventuates? Conservation of resources makes sense when resources are limited…but make no sense in hoping that conserving is somehow going to make things go back the way they used to be. Presuming that the way they used to be is of high value, of course.

    I vaguely remember the 50s. I remember the 60s and 70s just fine. I prefer now, even though my knees are shot and I got old, somehow. Screw how it used to be. Tell me something good about tomorrow!

    Oh dear. I’m rambling, totally.

    Lymaree

    17 Aug 10 at 7:14 pm

  4. yes, unintended consequences! Most people have probably never heard of that law but they have heard of expressways that caused worse traffic jams and of high rise welfare housing that became instant slums. They have good reason to distrust advise of “experts”.

    jd

    17 Aug 10 at 8:06 pm

  5. But those experts were wrong and their experts are right!

    OK, I know that leads to government by approved expert, but I do wonder if there is any other kind – even the classic strongman-type dictatorships had an expert – only one, the strongman, of course!

    I feel like I’m groping a bit at the nature of the problem. It can’t be the passionate conviction of the people citing the experts, because without passion and conviction and single-mindedness, nothing new every happens and nothing old ever changes. Maybe the key is in the kind of evidence that’s needed to convince the masses who don’t care much one way or another. If that’s the case, ‘scientists say’ has been very convincing for generations, even when the ‘scientist’ is an actor in a lab coat, reciting the results of a toothpaste study carried out by the manufacturers or the advertising agency.

    That’s not a really encouraging thought.

    Cheryl

    18 Aug 10 at 6:29 am

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