Tag Archives: anti-intellectualism

What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that isn’t so.

Misinformation, in other words, is more damaging than ignorance.

I agree–with a crucial caveat. The adage is only true when we are aware of our ignorance–when we recognize what information or skill we lack. As research continues to demonstrate, however, there’s a high correlation between ignorance of a particular subject-matter and ignorance of our own ignorance. (It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

That’s why lawmakers’ allergy to data and preference for evidence-free policy pronouncements are so maddening.

A while back, I read a column making the point that data is inevitably political. The government collects data in order to inform policy decisions, because in order to address issues, it is essential to understand the facts involved, to have a handle on what we academic types like to call “reality.”

The column that I read (and no longer remember where, or I’d link to it) considered the consequences of the Reagan Administration’s decision to stop collecting data on corporate market share. Without that information, policymakers have no idea how large the largest corporations have become. They lack evidence on the degree to which companies like Amazon, Walmart, et al can dominate a segment of the economy and effectively set the rules for that segment. It’s likely that this lack of data is a significant factor accounting for diminished anti-trust enforcement.

The problem goes well beyond economic data. For a considerable length of time, the United States has been mired in one of the nation’s periodic and damaging anti-intellectual periods, characterized by scorn for expertise and empirical evidence.  (Another troubling manifestation of that scorn is the reported evisceration of Congressional staff–the panels of employees with specialized knowledge that advise Congressional committees and individual Representatives on complicated and technical issues.)

Instead of evidence-based policy, we get faith-based lawmaking. Ideology trumps reality. (And yes, I meant that double entendre…)

Last year’s tax “reform” is a perfect example. It was patterned after Sam Brownback’s experiment in Kansas–an experiment that spectacularly crashed and burned. As NPR reported

In 2012, the Republican governor pushed reforms through the state Legislature that dramatically cut income taxes across the board. Brownback boasted the plan would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.

But the opposite happened.

Revenues shrank, and the economy grew more slowly than in neighboring states and the country as a whole. Kansas’ bond rating plummeted, and the state cut funding to education and infrastructure.

You might think that Kansas’ experience would inform a similar effort at the federal level, that it would at least be taken into account even if it wasn’t considered dispositive, but clearly that didn’t happen.

It’s that same dismissive attitude about “facts” and “evidence” and “data”–not to mention science–that is the largest single impediment to serious efforts to slow the rate of climate change.

Some lawmakers who deny climate change ground their beliefs in religious literalism (making them ‘literally” faith-based), but most do so on the basis of the same free-market ideology that led them to dismiss results in Kansas, and oppose even the most reasonable regulations. (There’s a highly convenient aspect to that ideology, since it keeps campaign contributions flowing…but it would be a mistake to think everyone who subscribes to it does so only as a quid pro quo.)

If the country doesn’t emerge from this “Don’t bother me with the facts” era, we’re in for a world of hurt.

And speaking of literalism, the whole world will hurt.

 

 

Balancing Act

There may not be any sport in America more popular than media-bashing, and I am a frequent participant. We do live in a confusing, changing and sometimes overwhelming media environment; it sometimes seems we are “marinating” in information. In such an environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between journalism, entertainment and propaganda– to forget what journalists are supposed to do and why it is that what they are supposed to do is so important.

The reason this country’s founders specifically protected journalism in the First Amendment is that we depend upon reporters to tell us what government is doing. If we don’t know what decisions are being made, what actions are being taken and who is taking them, we have no basis upon which to evaluate our elected officials, cast our votes or otherwise participate in self-government.

And that brings me to Fox News.

It’s bad enough that Fox is little more than a propaganda arm of the GOP, but I want to argue that slanting and misrepresenting reality isn’t the worst thing Fox has done. Fox has misrepresented the essential task of journalists. Its slogan, “Fair and Balanced” has led to a widespread understanding of journalism as stenography (he said/she said) and a belief that if a story isn’t “balanced,” it isn’t fair.

Should reporters investigate the claims of all sides of a dispute or controversy? Certainly. But they should do so in order to determine what the facts actually are, so that they can produce an accurate accounting of those facts. We count on reporters to investigate contending claims and perspectives  because we citizens have neither the time nor expertise to do so, and we rely on them to tell us whose claims are verifiable and accurate.

As British reporter Gavin Esler recently argued, how can any news organization “balance” the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion about vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield, or those who claim that climate change is “fake news”?  We don’t “balance” arguments on child protection by giving equal time and space to advocates of pedophilia.

Esler writes that we face a crisis in democracy, “because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with systematic disinformation is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.” That observation applies with equal force to the United States.

The Fox News version of balance plays to the anti-intellectualism that, as Isaac Asimov tellingly observed, has long been a part of American culture, “nourished by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As David Niose wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, anti-intellectualism is killing America.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Americans desperately need good, responsible journalism. We also need to understand that good journalism strives for accuracy rather than “balance.”

And a little respect for competence and knowledge wouldn’t hurt.

 

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..

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There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.

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I’m still hoping…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Bartlett Nails It

A number of my posts have emphasized the ways in which today’s GOP is dramatically different from the party I used to belong to. (To echo a number of other defectors, I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.)

Bruce Bartlett is one of the more prominent of those defectors. He was a domestic policy advisor to Ronald Reagan, and a Treasury official during the tenure of George H.W. Bush– in other words, a professional Republican. In recent years, he has consistently pointed to the radicalization of the party he served for so many years, and recently, he wrote a scathing article on that subject for Politico.

Bartlett began by admitting that–even though he’d chronicled the rightward lurch of the party–he was astounded and disheartened when Trump won, and even more appalled since.

Trump has turned out to be far, far worse than I imagined. He has instituted policies so right wing they make Ronald Reagan, for whom I worked, look like a liberal Democrat. He has appointed staff people far to the right of the Republican mainstream in many positions, and they are instituting policies that are frighteningly extreme. Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Scott Pruitt proudly denies the existence of climate change, and is doing his best to implement every item Big Oil has had on its wish list since the agency was established by Richard Nixon. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is actively hostile to the very concept of public education and is doing her best to abolish it. Every day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions institutes some new policy to take incarceration and law enforcement back to the Dark Ages. Trump’s proposed budget would eviscerate the social safety net for the sole purpose of giving huge tax cuts to the ultrawealthy.

Bartlett points to additional positions Trump has taken that should be anathema to genuine conservatives, and then underlines a point that so many ex-Republicans have made:

And yet as surprising as this all has been, it’s also the natural outgrowth of 30 years of Republican pandering to the lowest common denominator in American politics. Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas, demonizes intellectuals, degrades politics and simply pursues power for the sake of power.

Bartlett’s article–which I encourage you to read in its entirety–then goes on to catalogue the party history to which he alludes, from Goldwater through Reagan.

When I became active in the Republican Party in the mid-1970s, it was the party of thoughtful men and women who were transforming America’s domestic policies while strengthening its moral leadership on the global stage. As Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a July 1980 New York Times article, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

And then, everything began to change.

Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 after nationalizing the election into broad themes and catchphrases. Newt Gingrich, the marshal of these efforts, even released a list of words Republican candidates should use to glorify themselves (common sense, prosperity, empower) and hammer their opponents (liberal, pathetic, traitors); soon, every Republican in Congress spoke the same language, using words carefully run through focus groups by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Budgets for House committees were cut, bleeding away policy experts, and GOP committee chairs were selected based on loyalty to the party and how much money they could raise. Gone were the days when members were incentivized to speak with nuance, or hone a policy expertise (especially as committee chairs could now serve for only six years). In power, Republicans decided they didn’t need any more research or analysis; they had their agenda, and just needed to get it enacted. ..

In the 14 years since then, I have watched from the sidelines as Republican policy analysis and research have virtually disappeared altogether, replaced with sound bites and talking points.

Bartlett concludes that America needs a responsible, adult GOP, and that won’t happen without what he calls a “crushing Republican defeat—Goldwater plus Watergate rolled into one. A defeat so massive there can be no doubt about the message it sends.”

What Bartlett and others have described is the devolution of a once-respectable political party into a cult built on seething anti-intellectualism and racial resentment. The loss of one of America’s two major political parties has had grave consequences for the nation–and those consequences go well beyond the election of a dangerous and totally unfit President.

These are perilous times.

 

Oh Wisconsin….

And the hits keep coming…

It’s bad enough that every day brings a new outrage from those a reader of this blog aptly dubbed “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” –Trump, Pence, McConnell and Ryan. What is even more depressing at a time when our hopes for sanity lie with local resistance to the anti-intellectualism, self-dealing and demagoguery in Washington is news of similarly destructive behavior by state-level fools and toadies.

Remember Wisconsin’s Scott Walker? A perfect contemporary Republican–a corrupt lackey of big money, antagonistic to education, dismissive of science? Of course you do.

When I read a friend’s post to the effect that Wisconsin’s DNR webpage had been scrubbed clean of all uses of the word “climate”–and altered to imply a lack of scientific consensus about anthropogenic global warming–I checked with Snopes.

Turned out to be true.

In a 26 December 2016 op-ed published by the digital newspaper Urban Milwaukee, environmental writer James Rowen reported that a section of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) web site, originally titled “Climate Change and Wisconsin’s Great Lake,” had been substantially altered:

Gone are references to known “human activities” contributing to a warming planet, warming’s contributions to changes in rainfall and snowfall patterns, extreme weather events, drought, species and economic losses are among other truths whitewashed off this official, taxpayer-financed website.

Snopes reproduced the former text, which had accurately reported the relevant science, and that which replaced it; the new language says that reasons for changing conditions “are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Responding to our request for comment, Wisconsin DNR Communications Director James F Dick stated that their office’s official position is that the science is not settled and that the page was updated to reflect this view.

Of course, the science is settled. As Snopes concludes,

The overwhelming scientific consensus from the climatological community is that the climate is indeed warming and that human activity is contributing to that process.

Here’s what mystifies me: if the settled science is right, and we do not act, we will face massive planetary devastation. If the settled science is wrong, and we do act, the worst thing that will happen is we’ll get cleaner air and water, and cheaper and more renewable energy.

This doesn’t seem like a difficult choice.

Oh yes– fossil fuel companies will make less money. But I’m sure that has nothing to do with climate change denial….

When the history of this era is written–assuming there are survivors left to write that history–it will undoubtedly be called “the age of insanity.”