Forward, Backward, and In Between

Hello, and Happy Halloween. Today you get two columns for the price of one.

I didn’t plan it that way. The original plan was to title this column “What’s Wrong With Science?” But as I was going back through my notes and earlier columns to see what I had already written on the subject, I kept coming across recurring themes and dire warnings that seem to have held up and, I think, deserve a second look. So this seems as good a time as any to begin to reprise some previous observations and reassess or update them in the light of what has transpired in our great nation in the past three years.

But first, a look ahead. Thus far I have barely scratched the surface of what I intend to say about science versus its poorly informed, unscrupulous opposition in the modern world, chiefly the political and cultural assassins known as right-wing Americans. I will pick up on that subject in future columns; for now, here’s the spoiler.

The answer to “What’s wrong with science?” depends on whether we’re talking about ideal science or science as now practiced in the early Twenty-First Century. I see very little wrong with ideal science – scientific best practice – which keeps improving, keeps expanding our knowledge and understanding and growing more refined and effective. But I do see a great deal that is wrong with everyday science as it is now conducted and as it reaches us through the distorted lens of an incompetent, negligent, and corrupt media (a recurring theme of mine).

Many or even most of the problems of contemporary science are caused by one underlying weakness: human nature. Despite its great power and unlimited promise, science is a human activity that is carried out in a human cultural and political context. Anywhere and any time humans are involved – and especially when the stakes are high – the manifold flaws of human nature assert themselves and are quite likely to royally screw up the process. As in U.S. politics, or medicine, or business, or virtually any other institution.

Bring on the Libertarians

Still, despite our well-documented and persistent proclivity for screwing up everything, there are those who call for an even longer leash, less regulation – or, in the case of wacko libertarians, no leash at all. These ideologues claim the answer to our problems is to implement their grandiose thought experiment and allow human nature to run amok in an unregulated environment where everyone does pretty much as he or she pleases. That deranged philosophy allows for such abominations as denying service in restaurants to members of minority groups the owners don’t like. That’s right, that’s what they say they want – impunity for racists and bigots who inflict the vilest forms of discrimination on fellow citizens. I’m not surprised to hear such retrograde callousness from a group of ideologues who pride themselves on their doctrinaire consistency. As Lewis J. Perelman wrote, "Dogma is the sacrifice of wisdom to consistency."

But as libertarians become less marginalized and inch ever closer to being widely electable, they may back off that stance, a la Republicans like McCain, Romney, Perry, et al. Amazing how readily the prospect of getting elected turns latent into blatant hypocrisy in political types such as the erstwhile “maverick” (more on that guy shortly). To quote Thomas Jefferson, “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”

As for the libertarian wet dream in which everyone is gloriously free to succeed or fail beyond their wildest imaginings, I say bring it on (okay, not really, that’s rhetorical mockery). Oh the brave new world that awaits us once Ron and Rand and their right-wing allies take over and complete the destruction of our badly frayed safety net. Assassins on steroids. In the meantime, which is fast running out, it’s hard to miss the irony of libertarians like Rand Paul joining forces with the socially regressive/repressive Republicans. Evidently, the right of an adult to control her own body will not be included among those precious personal freedoms supported by one of Ayn Rand’s best-known disciples – he’s named after her! Just let a teenage girl make a mistake, or get raped, and she’ll pay for it for years to come, maybe for the rest of her life (serves the slut right). I wonder if anti-choice libertarians really get all misty-eyed over those precious, single-digit clumps of cells with their darling little cherubic souls implanted by God at the moment of conception? Or does it have more to do with being electable? Never mind that their great hero, the sophomoric philosopher and dreadful novelist Ayn Rand, was an atheist who detested Christianity. She would surely have contemptuously dismissed the religious-righteous meme, “ensoulment occurs at conception.” But not her namesake, Senator Rand Paul. Of course Ayn Rand never ran for public office. Even if she had, I don’t think she would have stooped so low as to feign concern for the souls of zygotes. Not that I think Rand Paul is lying about his position on abortion. I can’t read the man’s mind, but it does seems like a strange position for a libertarian who admires one of the previous century’s most outspoken atheists.

Now – finally! – back to science and human nature. I have made the point more than once that there is a potential cure for the default tendency to go with the flow of our human nature. Instead of allowing our thoughts, preferences and actions to be driven by the short-term dictates of “selfish replicators” – our genes and cultural memes – we can choose our goals by learning and implementing a process of rational self-examination. It comes down to teaching young people critical thinking skills modeled on scientific method. It also comes down to more science: These are exciting times in the realm of the cognitive sciences, and we are finally beginning to get a firm handle on some of the key facets of human nature. I have already discussed a few of these findings, and there will be many more to come in future columns. But the take-home message is this:

We are evolved creatures, fashioned by the gradual process of evolution through natural selection to cope with the demands of a primitive, natural environment. Technology and science played no role in the evolution of our biological and emotional characteristics; nor did logic, mathematics, philosophy, or science. We became what we are before we knew anything about ourselves – indeed, before we understood anything.

Following our natural impulses – the dictates of our genes – enabled us to survive in the ancient environment of evolutionary adaptation; but continuing along that course now is a prescription for disaster. It bears repeating to point out that it is in our nature to focus on short-term, first-order, gene-driven gratifications at the expense of enlightened self-interest, or our long-term welfare, which now includes our very survival.

Both individually and collectively we can and must overcome our tribal prejudices and wanton traits and begin to lead examined lives, basing our choices and decisions on the knowledge, understanding, and tools of critical thinking that have been bequeathed to us by science and reason.

To the extent that I have begun to do it justice, all of the above is explained in compelling detail by the cognitive psychologist, Keith Stanovich (here and here) in his profound and challenging 2007 book, The Robot’s Rebellion. You can listen to an audio discussion between Prof. Stanovich and D.J. Groethe at the Point of Inquiry website (just click on “Download MP3”). This is my favorite book of the past decade.


Speaking of Tribal Prejudices, How About Those Republicans?

My first TPJmagazine column appeared in September, 2008, under a former pseudonym, “Reluctant Junkie.” The title of that column – Did He Just Say “The fundamentals of Our Economy are Strong?” – was a direct quote from the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who made that egregiously ridiculous assertion in the face of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Phil Graham, the McCain campaign’s “chief financial advisor,” received a ton of richly deserved media opprobrium when he doubled down with this typical Republican reaction: “You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession. . . . We have sort of become a nation of whiners.”

Sheesh, that was really harsh and sounded more like an effort to deflect responsibility than a reasoned assessment of a devastating crisis. So after consulting my economic advisor, Paul Krugman, via his column in the New York Times, I was moved to write about “the spiraling financial crisis and the misery it will inevitably inflict on so many of us.” And I had this to say about Graham’s cavalier indifference:

A callous statement like that by now has a familiar ring – it sounds so . . . Republican. And Republicans, long bereft of good ideas, will continue to do what they do, cater to the special interests and pretend to have solutions to problems they caused – either deliberately or through incompetence – or else don't really care about. It's no surprise that people who hate government are so stunningly inept at governing. The criminal cabal of political, corporate, and religious ideologues who dominate the Republican Party have long since forfeited their right to the trust and confidence of the American people. Yet despite their horrendous record, two of the least qualified of that ilk may win this election.

Mercifully, they did not win; but now they’re back, weirder and nastier than ever, all worked up for another shot at the ultimate prize. And you know what? Far too often I feel as if we didn’t even win the last time.

Anyway, in that same initial column I went on to excoriate McCain for his vice-presidential selection:

By the way, is there anyone else out there who thinks that McCain's selection of Palin may very well be the single most irresponsible act ever by a major presidential candidate? Last night, on Real Time With Bill Maher, I heard conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan say just that; then he added that with that cynical decision McCain had disqualified himself. Andrew was definitely in a state. And why not? We're talking about handing over management of the Executive Branch and giving the nuclear-arsenal code to a person who knows nothing and believes the rapture is imminent.

The selection of Sarah Palin was one of the major low points in McCain’s up and down political career – another cynical capitulation to the Republican base, just like his earlier, craven flip-flops regarding prominent leaders of the odious religious right. Remember how he did the voter-math and recanted his earlier depiction of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance”? Or how he rejected the endorsement of weird John Hagee after the evangelical, Christian Zionist leader’s anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and other bigoted statements were made public? Hagee’s the asshole who said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the level of sin in New Orleans. I read that McCain worked for a year to secure his endorsement.

Now we are dealing with a new generation of Republicans-cum-Tea Partiers that our esteemed editor, Steve Jonas, is fond of calling the GOTP. I like that. What I don’t like is President Obama’s stubborn, irrational persistence in pursuing the chimera of bipartisanship – a fool’s errand if there ever was one. It should have been clear to Obama long before he took office that those people on the right don’t cooperate or compromise. They see themselves as a lockstep political army determined to destroy the opposition – that would be us – and to secure power through any and all means, regardless of the damage to the country and its people. That’s who they are; and, to our everlasting disgrace, they have a good shot at winning it all this time around.