E.O. Wilson on the Ephemerality of Life

In discussing the human advantage of long-term memory [in the book I’ll post notes about shortly], enabling us to plan and imagine possible futures, he reflects that, with every death, an entire library of experience is lost.

He recalls his childhood and his family in Mobile, Alabama.

They existed in what must have seemed to them to be the center of the world and the center of time. They lived as though Mobile as it was then would never change by much. Everything mattered, every detail, at least for a while. Somehow, in one form or another everything collectively remembered was important to someone. Now these people are all gone.

We will all be gone, eventually. Does it matter? What can we do to leave a legacy — or, what should we do, or not do, to promote a greater cause? Just starting the second Harari book, which raises these big issues.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on E.O. Wilson on the Ephemerality of Life

Media Bubbles and Fake News

There was a fascinating piece on NPR’s Morning Edition Tuesday morning, about an analysis of news media sites shared on Facebook and Twitter during the election campaign, aligned by allegiance to Trump or Clinton. The researchers stressed how neutral they strove to be; nevertheless, they had to conclude that visitors to right-wing sites (dominated by Breitbart) were more apt to visit only other right-wing sites, while visitors to left-wing sites (like Huffington Post) more often also visited more-or-less centrist sites like The Hill. (With CNN, NYT, and WaPo being designated slightly left.) Here’s a link to the radio piece, followed by a link to the actual analysis, with the bubble maps showing inter-relatedness and size of various shared sites.

NPR: Researchers Examine Breitbart’s Influence On Election Information

Columbia Journalism Review: Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

Here’s part of the interview, between researcher YOCHAI BENKLER and interviewer Steven Inskeep.

Benkler: There is substantial difference between the left and the right. I think–professional journalists, academics–we’re all trying to make sure we’re neutral, by trying to find similar patterns on left and right. But what we saw was quite substantial difference, and the difference has to do with who you attend to.

Inskeep: He says visitors to partisan sites on the left also commonly shared lots of traditional media stories with a more balanced view of events. Visitors to sites on the right tended to stay on the right; they were less likely to share traditional media, which many distrust. People who did check traditional media nevertheless found many stories favored by the right. Mainstream media coverage of Hillary Clinton as shared on social media tended to focus on her emails, or the Clinton Foundation. …

Key point of interest: this is evidence that the right is focused on its own narrative, and is thus susceptible to ‘fake news’, more so than the left. Why would this be?

Perhaps because, virtually by definition, conservatives (the right) are committed to maintaining established, traditional, social and political orders. Yet the world is changing, more and more every decade, as the population expands, previously isolated groups come into contact, if only by virtue of the expanding global population, and the ease of travel outside one’s own community increases.

For those committed to stability and tradition, this reality is increasingly hard to take, and so the narratives they cling to increasingly become ‘fake’ relative to objective reality.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture | Comments Off on Media Bubbles and Fake News

Winter Comes to Water As Well As Land: Gene Wolfe’s “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”

Gene Wolfe, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970) (~15 pp)

Winter comes to water as well as land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold. If you are a boy not wanted in the house you walk the beach for hours, feeling the winter that has come in the night; sand blowing across your shoes, spray wetting the legs of your corduroys. You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half buried writer in the wet sand Tackman Babcock.

In second person, the story addresses the boy Tackman, who lives in a remote seashore house with his ailing mother and her younger, Jaguar-driving boyfriend, Jason. In town Tackman wants a pulp novel from the drugstore, and Jason steals it for him. The narrative then alternates passages from the book Tackman reads, with the events going on around him in the house, events which he does not entirely understand (such as a lewd remark by Jason about how soft Tackman’s mother is).

In the storybook, a dashing Captain Philip Ransom, lost at sea, washes up on a remote island run by Doctor Death, who, in the manner of Dr. Moreau, is experimenting on turning animals into humans, the humans into…something else.

In the morning after starting the book, Tackman goes out to walk along the beach, and sees Captain Ransom on the beach (or thinks he does).

In Tackman’s world, a Dr. Black visits his mother, along with two aunts, one on his mother’s side of the family, one of the father’s. His mother has divorced recently and the father’s aunt is anxious for her to remarry. At a restaurant, Tackman stands on the balcony, leaning over the rail. Dr. Death is there.

“While you were looking down, I slipped from between the pages of the excellent novel you have in your coat pocket.”

Tackman is worried that Captain Ransom is here and will kill him. Dr. Death replies,

“Hardly. You see, Tackman, Ransom and I are a bit like wrestlers; under various guises we put on our show again and again—but only under the spotlight.”

Further passages from the storybook alternate with activities at the house, as preparations are made for a costume party, one which we see involves drugs and open sex. [There’s a sniff of disapproval of ‘60s culture here, by the straight-laced, Catholic Wolfe.]

But during the party Dr. Death — or whoever is there whom Tackman identifies with him — takes Tackman to his mother’s room, where Dr. Black is injecting her… with something. Alarmed, Tackman races outside to the next house and has the police called.

Later, authorities try to explain what was going on (something about amphetamines). Tackman only partially understands. Dr. Death asks what’s wrong. Tackman doesn’t want the book to end. Dr. Death replies,

“But if you start the book again we’ll all be back. Even Golo and the bull-man.”


“Certainly.” He stands up and tousels your hair. “It’s the same with you, Tackie. You’re too young to realize it yet, but it’s the same with you”.

The end.

I thought of this story again recently – a story I’ve reread a handful of times over the years since it was first published – as being a story about stories. The commentary in James Gunn’s 4th Road to Science Fiction anthology characterizes it as about “the joys of escape reading”, but I think it’s a bit more complex than that. Tackman doesn’t just read his storybook to ‘escape’ things he doesn’t understand — he incorporates characters from the storybook into situations in finds himself in in the real world.

All fiction, whether we think of it as ‘escape reading’ or not, is to some extent a simplification into human terms situations among humans, or between humans and the universe, which typically are more complex than any story. That’s why, for instance, filmmakers are so eager to dramatize real events, such as in Flight 93, and last year’s Sully, and a forthcoming TV production about the recent Oakland warehouse fire. We understand the events from news reports, but we don’t fully absorb them until they are retold with the proper dramatic flourishes that emphasize the ‘meaning’ of what might otherwise seem merely random and inexplicable.

Wolfe’s story isn’t exactly science fiction or fantasy at all – it’s a psychological story about how a young boy interprets the world, in which the interpretation happens to come from a pulp science fiction story.

And as the final lines suggest, this kind of thing will inevitably happen again and again. Not only is all fiction escapist in a way, so are the narratives we tell ourselves about the meaning of our society or tribe or individual role in life. It’s in human nature to constantly cast every aspect of the universe into terms that make sense as interactions among humans.

Not only is science fiction not necessarily ‘escapist’ in the crude sense of that charge, on the contrary the best of it suggests that the familiar ordinary ways we humans understand the world around us are not the only ways, and may not apply at all. Just as science does.


I should mention that this story is infamous for being the victim of a famous awards mix-up comparable to the mis-announcement of the Best Picture Oscar a couple weeks ago. (Maybe that’s why the story occurred to me again.) For some reason the members of the SFWA, voting in the annual Nebula Awards, selected (through the ranked voting process the awards use) “No Award” over any of the seven nominated stories. (Perhaps because of the unusual number of nominated stories.) But the presenter — none other than Isaac Asimov — handed a list of all the nominees in order of finish, mistakenly announced that Wolfe’s story had won. And then embarrassedly retracted the announcement after an SFWA officer hurriedly pointed out his mistake.

sfadb.com: 1971 Nebula Awards

The story is available in:

Gene Wolfe’s collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories

James Gunn’s anthology The Road to Science Fiction #4

Posted in Narrative, science fiction, Short Fiction | Comments Off on Winter Comes to Water As Well As Land: Gene Wolfe’s “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”

Stuart Brand Quote: The Only News

A thought against the daily onslaught of political news (never mind the weather, local crime, and traffic accidents that comprise the everyday local TV news) — in the big picture of human history (and progress), almost none of that matters; and in the little picture of your life, very little of it matters. You can step away from it for days or weeks at a time, and live your life, and it will go on, without being affected in any way by that ‘news’. It’s not that the ‘media’ is biased or has some agenda; it’s that the media’s job is to attract viewers, and thus to alert you about what’s unusual, what’s different, whether or not it has any true relevance to the big, or little, picture.

In that John Brockman book I mentioned several posts ago, I came across this quote, from Stuart Brand (famously editor of the Whole Earth Catalog):

Science is the only news. When you scan a news portal or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same cyclical dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness; even the technology is predictable if you know the science behind it. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.

Science is news because it changes humanity’s perception of itself and of the universe it resides within. This is why the daily news includes what amounts to political and religious figures trying to deny this changing perception, in order to maintain their political and social advantage. Obvious examples are left as an exercise for the reader.

Posted in Politics, Science | Comments Off on Stuart Brand Quote: The Only News

Science News

Jerry Coyne comments on an article about where to find the best science reporting, with a nice graphic aligning evidence-based vs. ideologically driven, and compelling reads vs not so much.

Where do you find the best science reporting?

I’m a bit surprised to see that this graphic — which Coyne objects to on a couple grounds — charges NY Times and Scientific American with having mixed records. Read his comments. (Coyne has criticized NYT’s weekly science section of focusing almost exclusively on stories that affect humans, rather than about discoveries or developments in ‘pure’ academic science.) OTOH, my take on Nature and Science is that they are high quality but very technical — the premiere places to publish scientific papers of any kind. Coyne says their summaries are aimed toward the public and worth reading. Maybe I’ll check them out.

Posted in Science | Comments Off on Science News

Links and Comments: Distrust of Science; Trump’s conviction; Global society; a Two State solution

This subject is everywhere — the rejection of reality by the current administration — and I don’t collect very many of these links, but here are a few more.

Tom Nichols at Scientific American, via Salon: Don’t go with your gut: How does the public’s view of science go so wrong?

Of course, Americans don’t really hate science: They rely on it every day in ways they don’t even notice. From tens of thousands of safe and effective over-the-counter drugs to the directions on a car’s GPS system, Americans trust the work of experts on a daily basis. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the American public distrusts scientists, rather than science itself. Scientists, however, should be consoled by the fact that they are disdained not for their work, but for being part of an undifferentiated mass of “experts” whom a fair number of Americans now view as, at best, a suspect political class, and, at worst, as an enemy.

Also in Salon, by the great Amanda Marcotte: Here’s the key to Trump’s outrageous lies: He sells them with conviction.

Subtitle: Research suggests people are more easily persuaded by apparent sincerity and wishful thinking than by actual facts

How can Trump’s supporters be so blind to the president’s measurable aversion to facts?

Part of the problem, as psychologist Bill von Hippel explained in a phone interview, is that Trump supporters “feel that what he’s saying he genuinely believes.” This sense that Trump believes in himself may matter more than the actual facts.

With a description of a psychological experiment to back up the claim.

More about that book, The Knowledge Illusion. Sean Illing at Vox, Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist; an interview with one of the co-authors.

On a much broader issue, there’s this in Washington Post, from March 3rd:

Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump or ‘fake news.’

The leaders of once-powerful institutions are desperate to resurrect the faith of the people they serve. They act like they have misplaced a credit card and must find the number so that a replacement can be ordered and then FedEx-ed, if possible overnight.

But that delivery truck is never coming. The decline in trust isn’t because of what the press (or politicians or scientists) did or didn’t do. Americans didn’t lose their trust because of some particular event or scandal. And trust can’t be regained with a new app or even an outbreak of competence. To believe so is to misunderstand what was lost.

This is about the fallout of the Enlightenment…

Rising incomes and the welfare state brought Enlightenment individuality to the people. Political scientist Ron Inglehart proposed in the 1970s that as societies grow wealthier and less concerned about basic survival, we should expect a shift from communal to individual values: People express themselves more and trust authorities less.

Everything about modern life works against community and trust. Globalization and urbanization put people in touch with the different and the novel. Our economy rewards initiative over conformity, so that the weight of convention and tradition doesn’t squelch the latest gizmo from coming to the attention of the next Bill Gates. Whereas parents in the 1920s said it was most important for their children to be obedient, that quality has declined in importance, replaced by a desire for independence and autonomy. Widespread education gives people the tools to make up their own minds. And technology offers everyone the chance to be one’s own reporter, broadcaster and commentator.

Long essay, with graphs.

This goes to the core of our growing planetary civilization, which grates our inherited predispositions to align with our tribes and mistrust all other tribes — and tribes, throughout most of the history of our race, were hunter-gatherer groups of 30 or 100 individuals, in which everyone knew everybody else.

There’s no easy solution to this quandary. I’d like to think it’s just growing pains, and humanity, as we fill up the planet, inevitably must learn to deal with other societies, other groups, other tribes.

Finally, another essay that identifies the political divide as not so much Republicans v Democrats, or red states v blue states, exactly;

The Hill: Toward an American two-state solution

In their country — call it Redland — there will be no regulations. Cars won’t have seat belts or airbags and no motorcyclist has to wear a helmet. The water in Redland will be full of industrial run-off and the cities will sit under a smoggy haze. No Clean Air or Clean Water Act. White people will live in all-white communities — no immigrants or black people need apply — and everyone, child, teen, college student, adult, can own and carry guns openly.

There will be no “political correctness” in Redland. Citizens can use the N word as much as they like, can call Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians whatever name they like, and can do whatever they want with or to women—insult, demean, grope.
There will be only one TV station in Redland: Fox. And only one newspaper: Breitbart News. Right wing talk radio jocks and like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will be broadcast 24/7.

Blueland – where my friends and I will live – is diverse. Our neighborhoods and workplaces include people from countries all over the world; their kids will go to school with our kids; our communities will be multiethnic and multi-colored. We will welcome the already well-vetted immigrants and embrace LGBT folks. In Blueland, we like our press doing its job and holding leaders accountable.

And so on. Amusing.

Posted in Culture, Psychology, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Distrust of Science; Trump’s conviction; Global society; a Two State solution

Links and Comments: Radiohead; Originalism; Principia; Trump brain rot; Homeschooling; Art v Religion

Catching up on links saved over the past week or so.

Vox: Radiohead and sadness: a data analysis. Fascinating.

Vox: Judicial originalism as myth

It’s always struck me that Judicial originalism — the idea that nothing can be inferred from the Constitution than anything the founders who wrote it might have thought or imagined — is rather like Biblical literalism. It defies the idea that since then, whichever then, circumstances changed, and we’ve learned. Key passage:

What the words of the document meant to the people living at the time is just one of many different factors judges use to decide constitutional cases. So-called original meaning almost never drives the results in litigated cases but instead is used by judges to justify results they reached on other grounds.

An example of the point I made in this blog post, Science v Religion: New v Old.

Slate: Is Newton’s Principia Still Relevant?

Principia was no doubt a key work in the history of science, but there’s no reason to read it now, except as an exercise in the study of that.

It’s not that I care so much about dissing Trump — I wish he would go away — as that his presence is bringing to light all the mental biases, the cognitive dissonances, that psychologists and self-aware people have been recognizing for years.

Salon: Beware the Trump brain rot: The cognitive effects of this administration’s actions could be disastrous.

The article’s five points:

  1. An epidemic of lies
  2. An assault on logic
  3. The blustering bully
  4. The society of the spectacle
  5. The endless barrage

Each point’s discussion with many links to supporting evidence.

More evidence that home-schooling is about shielding children from the modern world. Washington Post: These activists want greater home-school monitoring. Parent groups say no way.

For decades, such concerns have led some parents to turn their homes into redoubts of Christian values, home-schooling their children not only to instill those values but to shield them from what they see as a godless, overly secular world.

Religion Dispatches: Can Art Save Us From Fundamentalism?

The beauty and awe that religion likes to claim for itself might as well be available through art [which, channeling EO Wilson, signifies a deep relationship with the natural world humans evolved within].

Enough for today. I have more for tomorrow, and drafts of longer discussions I may or may not ever post.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Music, Politics, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Radiohead; Originalism; Principia; Trump brain rot; Homeschooling; Art v Religion

Links and Comments: Political bubbles; Group knowledge; Randall reviews Rovelli

Interesting pieces from Sunday’s New York Times

Front page article: How to Escape Your Political Bubble for a Clearer View.

About how to overcome the built-in biases in Facebook and other social media to feed you only what you want to see. Browser plug-ins; a Twitter plug-in, and so on. I do see some of this; I regularly read Right Wing Watch, which, although it focuses on extreme examples (there are so many of them!) has exposed me in recent years toward radical thinking, especially from religious fundamentalists, that I previously only dimly guessed even existed. And more recently, Slate’s Today in Conservative Media feature (this is just one example).

Additional what strikes me about this article is how most of the efforts are about liberals trying to understand the people who voted for Trump. Not the other way around. Also, that Charles Murray quiz to assess how you affiliate with “mainstream American culture” — which I took only part way through — assumes that small town, rural, poor situations are that mainstream. Not the much more populous, cosmopolitan, coastal cities.

I need to check out that Zuckerberg manifesto more closely.

The weekly “Grey Matter” column in the SundayReview section has an essay, Why We Believe Obvious Untruths, by the authors of the book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, that’s been getting lots of review coverage.

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing — all of our world-altering innovations — were made possible by this ability.

This echoes precisely the distinctions between individual selection and group selection, and the resultant strain between ‘virtue’ and ‘sin’, in the evolution of our species, that EO Wilson’s recent books stress.

The point these authors are making is that individuals have as little individual knowledge of how the world works, as they do the skills mentioned above; in both cases individuals rely on the group, which means deferring to the status quo.

Consider some simple examples. You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion? You know that smoking causes cancer. But can you articulate what smoke does to our cells, how cancers form and why some kinds of smoke are more dangerous than others? We’re guessing no. Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

And this is why politics works the way it does.

The key point here is not that people are irrational; it’s that this irrationality comes from a very rational place. People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community. But if you are not aware that you are piggybacking on the knowledge of others, it can lead to hubris.

Finally, in the Book Review, a review of the new book by Carlo Rovelli, REALITY IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Lisa Randall (herself a first-rate science writer): A Physicist’s Crash Course in Unpeeling the Universe

Alas, sad to see that Randall finds a couple obvious errors of fact, which undermine Rovelli’s rhetoric and poetry. She tries to be kind. Last two paragraphs:

The beauty of physics lies in its precise statements, and that is what is essential to convey. Many readers won’t have the background required to distinguish fact from speculation. Words can turn equations into poetry, but elegant language shouldn’t come at the expense of understanding. Rovelli isn’t the first author guilty of such romanticizing, and I don’t want to take him alone to task. But when deceptively fluid science writing permits misleading interpretations to seep in, I fear that the floodgates open to more dangerous misinformation.

A great chef once told me that many of his most talented colleagues had at one point been smokers and, as a result, tend to use a bit too much salt. This turns out in any case to be what many palates prefer. “Reality Is Not What It Seems” is a bit oversalted in an intellectual way. It isn’t junk food. It’s more akin to P.F. Chang’s. Everything on the menu looks enticing and perhaps even a bit exotic, and the service and ambience are pretty good. But the end product, though tasty, isn’t always as nourishing and sustaining as one might have hoped.

Posted in Culture, MInd, Physics | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Political bubbles; Group knowledge; Randall reviews Rovelli

More on the Enlightenment and Its Critics

An essay by Damon Linker at The Week.

(I’ve seen Linker’s work on various website for years; he’s an interesting commentator, though one perhaps without any consistent philosophy; he seems to enjoy playing the contrarian role.)

The Enlightenment’s legacy is under siege. Defend it.

The Enlightenment legacy can be seen all around us: individualism, international commerce and trade, moral cosmopolitanism, freedom of the press and a culture of publicity, technological modernity, the valorization of expertise, and on and on.

Linker summarizes the various critics of the Enlightenment…

The first and possibly greatest of these critics was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who became notorious in the 1760s and ’70s for claiming that a highly educated, civilized, and “enlightened” world would be filled with profoundly alienated and unhappy people who felt deeply divided against themselves, longing for a lost sense of wholeness and fulfillment that remained forever beyond their grasp.

And then Johann Gottfried Herder —

Human beings are naturally social, Herder claimed, and they depend on and thrive most fully within linguistic-cultural wholes that form a unified context of meaning and purpose.

And later Nietzsche and Heidegger — who briefly supported Hitler as a solution to this existential problem.

These views were seemed outdated by the late 20th century, with (Francis Fukuyama’s) ‘end of history’ — before 9/11, ISIS, the refugee crisis, and so on. Now one of Heidegger’s admirers has links to the alt-right, namely white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Linker concludes,

The point of rehearsing this history isn’t to bring the counter-Enlightenment tradition up on the charge of thought-crime, or to engage in an act of guilt by (Nazi) association. The point is, rather, the opposite: to emphasize how vitally important it is for those who wish to defend the Enlightenment and its legacy — along with its vision of human life, both individually and collectively — to engage deeply and thoughtfully with its most challenging, resourceful, and resilient critics. The fact that these ideas have come roaring back so forcefully after so many years in eclipse is a powerful indication that they can’t be dismissed as glibly as some of the Enlightenment’s side of the debate would like.

My fascination with this is how these old ideas are being re-framed — and confirmed — by recent science. In particular, again reading E.O. Wilson, with his recent commitment to the idea of group selection v. individual selection (in the evolution of the human species), the struggle within human nature between allegiance to groups and allegiance to oneself (virtue v. sin), that implies that the idea that greater knowledge, accurate perception of the real world, is not necessary, maybe antithetical, to human happiness, which instead relies on tribal values and group thinking. What possible solution is there to this quandary? Is human understanding of reality a privileged, individual view? That should be kept private?

I’ve seen other examples of how pre-Enlightenment writers, in particular Montaigne (who lived in the 16th century), perceived elements of human nature that are only recently being objectively catalogued. I read several of Montaigne’s essays last year, and have meant to compile my thoughts of them.

And, with respect to science fiction, there has been a tradition of utopian thinking, by authors like Arthur C. Clarke and media like Star Trek: the Next Generation, that must be reconsidered in light of more recent understanding of human nature — how could their visions possibly exist?

Posted in Philosophy, Science, science fiction | Comments Off on More on the Enlightenment and Its Critics

Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Fundamentalist Christianity

Some ten weeks ago, and about a month after the election, I made the observation (in this post) that many, perhaps most people live in a kind of “post-fact” or “alternative fact” (that term came later) reality, by virtue of their belief in religious myths that have no basis in objective reality — even despite evidence of objective reality that contradicts those myths.

Here at Religion Dispatches (a site about religion, politics, and culture, associated with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) is an expansion of the idea that religious faith, in particular fundamentalist Christianity, is connected to the acceptance of fake news: The Religious Origins of Fake News and “Alternative Facts”, by Christopher Douglas.

The essay recalls Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness” that he applied to statements from the George W. Bush administration, and discusses how evidence shows that conservatives are more prone to accepting fake news than liberals, by a two to one margin. The answer involves the Republican party’s roots in the Christian Right. But it’s not simply about religious faith, it’s about a particular religious faith.

Instead, susceptibility to fake news has its particular historical origin in Christian fundamentalism’s rejection of expert elites.

To see this connection, it bears recalling what it meant to be a Christian “fundamentalist” in the early 20th century. Christian fundamentalism was characterized in particular by its rejection of two theologically disturbing bodies of knowledge that emerged from the 19th century: the theory of evolution, and the historical-critical method of Bible scholarship. While mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches have had considerable success in coming to terms with these expert knowledge consensuses, Christian fundamentalism is defined primarily by its rejection of them.

I’m immediately struck by the mention of the second item here — I did not know that Christian fundamentalists were aware of Biblical scholarship (as I’ve been commenting on in my own Bible reading, e.g. here) to the point of consciously rejecting it. I just assumed they ignored it. Here’s what the essay says:

The historical-critical method of Bible scholarship meanwhile threatened the idea of scripture as the inerrant, uniform word of God. There were multiple authors and editors of scripture, scholars began to demonstrate, sometimes with incompatible stories and contradictory theologies. The New Testament’s gospels, this scholarship showed, were not composed shortly after Jesus’ death by his eyewitness disciples like Matthew and John. Rather, they were written accounts based on oral traditions and other now-lost writings, composed decades after Jesus’s death—with all the attendant problems of memory and record-keeping that entails.

Fundamentalist Christians rejected these accounts. But more importantly, fundamentalists critiqued the methods, assumptions, and institutions of the expert elites.

Thus these Christians created a set of institutions — “Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums and campus ministries” — to provide “alternative knowledge”, especially creationism and an alternative Bible scholarship.

The consequence is that theologically fundamentalist Christians have for years explained to themselves that what seems to be worldly wisdom and conclusions are really the results of conspiracies, biases, and misplaced human pride in academic, scientific, and journalist communities. This cognitive training to reject expert knowledge and to seek alternative, more amenable explanations has helped disarm the capacity for critical thinking and analysis.

Thus rejection of climate change, abstinence-only sex education, suspicion that vaccines cause autism, and more. The author acknowledges confirmation bias, that we are all subject to it. But,

It is conservative voters who are measurably more credulous to fake news sites.

And thus the “asymmetrical polarization and extremism in America’s current political climate”.

…Christian fundamentalism has stood athwart modern knowledge and yelled NO. In cultivating alternative sources and alternative ideas, Christian fundamentalists laid the ground for the fake news to come.

(My second observation in that post 10 weeks ago was that belief in such “alternative facts” doesn’t matter, in most cases. Increasingly, though, the consequences of reality-denial, such as denial of human-caused climate change and of the efficacy of vaccines, will have real world, long-term, consequences.)

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Politics | Comments Off on Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Fundamentalist Christianity