Quotes on American Anti-Intellectualism

Isaac Asimov, 1980:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

This theme was famously expounded in Richard Hofstadter’s 1966 books Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

This Wikiquote page includes the Asimov quote and couple by Hofstadter — and also, surprisingly, one from Gene Wolfe (who’s a devout Catholic, not there’s anything wrong with that) which I will also reproduce here.

This, then, is the new illiteracy, the illiteracy of those who can read but don’t. […] This new illiteracy is more pernicious than the old, because unlike the old illiteracy it does not debar its victims from power and influence, although like the old illiteracy it disqualifies them for it. Those long-dead men and women who learned to read so that they might read the Bible and John Bunyan would tell us that pride is the greatest of all sins, the father of sin. And the victims of the new illiteracy are proud of it. If you don’t believe me, talk to them and see with what pride they trumpet their utter ignorance of any book you care to name.

From a 1987 short story, “From a House on the Borderland” [which I don’t recall having ever read].

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Two Big Science Stories

Two big science stories this week.

Highlighted in New York Times weekly Science section on Tuesday, this piece by Dennis Overbye: Cosmos Controversy: The Universe Is Expanding, but How Fast?.

It’s about some discrepancies in data that should align and that don’t, about the Hubble constant, a factor that describes the rate of the expansion of the universe.

I won’t pretend to be conversant with the details of the issue, though I do understand that the broad program of science moves forward through thousands of scientists around the world working multiple strands of evidence and expanding them bit by bit, seeing virtually all of them converge and support a bigger story. And when something like this — a 9% discrepancy! — shows up, it’s very serious business. Is there an error somewhere, in some very long chain of evidence? Or is it a sign of new, as-yet-not-understood, physics?

They calculated that the odds of this mismatch being a statistical fluke were less than one part in a hundred — which might sound good in poker but not in physics, which requires odds of less than one in a million to cement a claim of a discovery.

The latter possibility is especially intriguing. Every scientist would love to be the one to confirm something truly new. It would cement their reputation forever, never mind incidentals like Nobel Prizes. And it undermines the right-wing myth that scientists (for example, climate scientists) are somehow in cahoots to cook the data or sustain a crisis that would guarantee them employment. That’s not how science works at all.

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In fact, just this past week, some incidental interoffice dispute about data interpretation was blown up, in the right-wing media, into an attack on the entire enterprise. The more level-headed investigated and described it thus–

New York Times: How an Interoffice Spat Erupted Into a Climate-Change Furor

But in what seems like a remarkable example of office politics gone horribly wrong, within days the accusations were amplified and sensationalized — in the pages of the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday — inciting a global furor among climate-change deniers.

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And the news, everywhere today, even on TV-!, about no fewer than seven planets detected around a small star 40 light years away.

Space.com: Exoplanet Tour: Meet the 7 Earth-Size Planets of TRAPPIST-1

New York Times: 7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and European Astronomers Say

Planet detection around distant stars has been going on for a couple decades or so, with the ‘holy grail’ goal of finding Earth-like planets in so-called ‘Goldilocks’ zones around their suns, i.e. not too close and not too far, at a distance that might support liquid water and the potential for carbon-based life as we know it.

What’s fascinating is to see the struggle, especially on TV, of what this means in any kind of perspective. “Only” 40 light years — close by galactic or universal scales, but still so immensely far from us that we have no conception of a method to reach such distances in any meaningful frame of time.

Science fiction, it must be said, has not done a very good job about clarifying this vast scale — certainly not popular, media SF. Wars and Trek whip around the galaxy, from one star system to another, in however long it takes the plot to take them there — a few hours at most. Yet much science fiction literature also presumes a kind of hyperlight drive (warp drive in Trek) which has scant support in even the most speculative current physics. The more mature, realistic SF, a very few writers — Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds come to mind — have written novels in which, in Reynolds’ case, human populations in other solar systems manage to interact in relativistic time-frames, but only because in his far future, they live so long. This will be a key theme in my book… if I survive to write it.

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Krugman and Republican Tax Policy

Paul Krugman is one of my go-to pundits, relentlessly pointing out the evidence of history as undermining conservative goals, even though his scope, politics focusing on economics issues, results in his rehashing certain themes over and over.

Here’s one: On Economic Arrogance, from last Monday’s paper.

The essay is in reference to Trump’s budget projections as forecasting rapid economic growth. And how Republican administrations always think this, despite the evidence, and always think cutting taxes for the wealthy will result in ‘trickle-down’ benefits, which they never do. For conservatives, it’s been my impression, ideology always trumps (er) facts and evidence.

As I said, belief that tax cuts and deregulation will reliably produce awesome growth isn’t unique to the Trump-Putin administration. We heard the same thing from Jeb Bush (who?); we hear it from congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan. The question is why. After all, there is nothing — nothing at all — in the historical record to justify this arrogance.

Meanwhile, the growing polarization of American politics has given us what amount to economic policy experiments at the state level. Kansas, dominated by conservative true believers, implemented sharp tax cuts with the promise that these cuts would jump-start rapid growth; they didn’t, and caused a budget crisis instead. Last week Kansas legislators threw in the towel and passed a big tax hike.

At the same time Kansas was turning hard right, California’s newly dominant Democratic majority raised taxes. Conservatives declared it “economic suicide” — but the state is in fact doing fine.

The evidence, then, is totally at odds with claims that tax-cutting and deregulation are economic wonder drugs. So why does a whole political party continue to insist that they are the answer to all problems?

The answer…

It would be nice to pretend that we’re still having a serious, honest discussion here, but we aren’t. At this point we have to get real and talk about whose interests are being served.

Never mind whether slashing taxes on billionaires while giving scammers and polluters the freedom to scam and pollute is good for the economy as a whole; it’s clearly good for billionaires, scammers, and polluters. Campaign finance being what it is, this creates a clear incentive for politicians to keep espousing a failed doctrine, for think tanks to keep inventing new excuses for that doctrine, and more.

Which is to say, as I’ve noticed for decades: for Republicans, the answer, no matter what the state of the economy, is always to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. It comes across as a popular issue–who doesn’t want lower taxes?–no matter how irresponsible it would be for keeping the government running, and all that it does. The rationale is, if the economy is doing well, the people need to keep more of their money. If the economy is doing poorly, it needs to be stimulated by cutting taxes for the wealthy, so they’ll hire more people and grow the economy. Except the evidence doesn’t show that that ever works. What is working, is that the wealthy support the Republican party, who supports cutting *their* taxes at every opportunity. So they can buy another yacht.

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Anthropocene and Harari

From last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Is the ‘Anthropocene’ Epoch a Condemnation of Human Interference — or a Call for More?, by Wesley Yang.

Noticed firstly as continued evidence of the currency of the term ‘anthropocene’ to refer to the influence of humanity on the planet as defining a new geological era. The essay speaks to the human tendency to dismiss evidence of any trends that don’t affect day to day life, or at worst the lives of the next generation or so.

Our inability to connect the day’s ephemera with the geological time scale has summoned a striking neologism: the Anthropocene — the “Age of Man.” Its meteoric rise is a case study in the stubbornness of the problem that the word was designed to master. Coined by the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen around the year 2000, the word expressed his intuition that humanity had become tantamount to the great forces of nature and that our activities now shaped the state of the systems that regulate the conditions of life. Human-induced impact on the world had become so great, he believed, that we had pushed the planet into a whole new stage of the geological time scale, leaving behind the Holocene epoch, which began 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

With reference to a Diane Ackerman book I haven’t yet read, and the new Yuri Noah Harari book, Homo Deus, which I just got delivered from Amazon; a sequel to his bestselling Sapiens, which I’ve read and still need to post comments about.

The essayist here as read the new Harari and describes it thusly:

Harari’s book is the closest thing we have to a single-volume account of the techno-futurist vision favored by our Silicon Valley elites — his work has been cited by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — and it is as uneasily poised at the conjuncture of standard history and science fiction, of sober analysis and mad prophecy, of nightmare and utopia, as we ourselves have come to be.

I will read it in due time and comment.

I note the new book has a blurb about Sapiens from President Barack Obama, a reader. Can you imagine… never mind.

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Also, Time Magazine published a last-page interview with Harari a week or two ago: How Humankind Could Become Totally Useless.

You write that humanity, after eradicating plague, war and famine, will use technology to seek bliss, immortality and divinity. What goal would you add to that list?

I would add truth, and in particular understanding ourselves, our minds. …

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Links and Comments: Reason; Christian victimhood; dead progressives; dystopias; Republican blondes; the fight for reason; fake history

From an Elizabeth Kolbert essay in next weekend’s New York Times Magazine: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds, subtitled “New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.”

One way to look at science is as a system that corrects for people’s natural inclinations. In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.

A familiar point, but one worth repeating.

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Sean McElwee at Salon: Trump’s supporters believe a false narrative of white victimhood — and the data proves it

Subtitled: “Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes”

To paraphrase a popular idiom, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like discrimination. These data suggest that this feeling of loss and victimization, and the need for racial solidarity to protect what remains, is core to understanding Trump’s appeal. As I’ve noted before, beliefs in the importance of white racial solidarity are powerful predictors of Trump support. Whites who believe their race is “very important” to their identity had warmer feelings toward Trump. Trump’s rhetoric reflects this reality: He has described a world in which his white supporters are the victims of bad trade deals, elites and rampant crime. They feel they are living through rapid demographic change that will leave them as a minority of the population — and they know how minorities have been treated for so long in American populations.

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And Amanda Marcotte: Conservatives sure love progressives and radicals — at least after they’re dead

Subtitled: “The right loves to lay claim to legends like Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony. Historians beg to differ”

Call it the “dead progressive” problem. Conservatives love a dead progressive hero because they can claim that person as one of their own without having any bother that the person will fight back. In some cases, the right has tried to weaponize these dead progressives, claiming that they would simply be appalled at how far the still-breathing have supposedly gone off the rails and become too radical. Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta are just two prominent victims of this rhetorical gambit.

I’m thinking this is also revealing of the human tendency to revere ancestors as having more wisdom than anyone alive can possibly provide.

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Guardian: Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US, by Alex Hearn.

via a Fb post by Dale Bailey, who commented,

A little Yeats seems appropriate to the day and hour: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

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Alternet, via The Guardian: Why Do All the Women on Fox News Look and Dress Alike? Republicans Prefer Blondes, by Hadley Freeman.

Why do so many rightwing American women have bottle-blond hair, often worn girlishly long? I’m thinking of Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter and almost any woman on Fox News.

The uniformity of this style suggests a political statement which, indeed, it is. Theirs is a look that defiantly embraces the most conservative notions of femininity and firmly rejects any idea of modernity, let alone feminism. The idea of dressing for themselves – to have fun, to experiment with different styles – is as anathema to them as questioning the political, social and moral beliefs they have absorbed since they were 14 years old.

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Alternet, via BillMoyers.com: Neal Gabler: With Trump, We Are in a Fight for Reason Itself

Subtitled: “We are now engaged not only in a political war, but also in a battle over the very concepts of reason and fact that the Enlightenment brought forth.”

The Enlightenment of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is one of the great intellectual and cultural transformations of humankind. The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, emphasized reason over faith, science over superstition, methodology over received wisdom, individualism over the mass, the secular over the religious, psychology over original sin and, in politics, a social contract among citizens over a social order supposedly laid down by God. In Trumpian terms, you might say that it challenged “alternative facts” with verifiable facts, subjectivity with objectivity, authoritarianism with democracy.

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Salon: Paul Rosenberg: Bigger than fake news: Trump’s rise was fueled by a deeper narrative of fake history

And, Heather Digby Parton: Building the realm of alternative facts: Trump’s lies are enabled by years of right-wing media.

Which brings us back to my previous post.

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Freedom of Media and Partisan Divide

From the opening essay in the March issue of Harper’s, Tyranny of the Minority by Rebecca Solnit. It’s about Repubican efforts to disenfranchise people unlikely to vote Republican, with this interesting aside:

In 1987, for example, Republican appointees eliminated the rule that required radio and TV stations to air a range of political views. The move helped make possible the rise of right-wing talk radio and of Fox News, which for twenty years has effectively served the Republican Party as a powerful propaganda arm.

Yes, I remember that now. One can see how such a rule would seem to violate free speech; who is the government to ‘enforce’ a range of political views? At the same time, the consequences have been dire. Nor was the web imagined in that earlier rule. Not just partisan websites, but the way in which Facebook and other filtering sites limit viewers to seeing only things that confirm their predispositions.

Can’t help but quote the following paragraphs also, which speak to conservative animus toward social programs that support civic good for the entire population (i.e. the larger ‘tribe’ beyond the immediate ‘tribe’ of one’s compatriots).

Democracy thrives best in a society whose water is drinkable, whose schools impart a decent education, whose denizens have adequate incomes and hope for the future. People have less time, less energy, and fewer resources to participate in civic life when they lack reliable access to food and shelter, when they are overworked and scrambling to stay afloat, when they have been burdened with immense debt by the cost of an education or housing or health care, when they have been criminalized, marginalized, terrorized.

You and I are equal in theory to people like Thiel and Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and G.O.P. supporter, but not in practice. Their wealth buys them influence, and lately that influence has only increased, as Republicans have pushed to open the floodgates for money in politics. They are creating economic inequality — which inevitably results in social and political inequality.

This speaks toward the liberal priority for equality and social good, and the conservative priority for freedom and individuality. Cf., again, Haidt.

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Science v Religion: New v Old

Here’s another way in which religion and science are unalike. (Aside from one being a deference to the supposed wisdom of the ancients and to primitive myths about the nature of the universe and the centrality of humanity within it; and the other being, virtually by definition and practice, the best, ongoing, possible attempt by humanity to represent and understand reality as it is.)

It’s this: for religion, the oldest, earliest books are taken as authoritative, and nothing, to the fundamentalist faithful, can trump or supplement them. Whereas science does not venerate old books of any sort, except for historical interest (prime example: Darwin’s books); rather, the best thinking about any topic is likely to be found only in very recent books. That’s because the sum of understanding of scientific topics keeps expanding, and occasionally earlier ideas get revised, so that older books become superseded.

Thus, for example, Edward O. Wilson’s 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth, which I’m reading now, both summarizes and supersedes several of his earlier books, including the Pulitzer Prize winner On Human Nature (1978). And Daniel C. Dennett’s just-published From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds represents decades of work on the topic, as captured in previous volumes like Consciousness Explained; but it’s not necessary to read those earlier books in order to understand the best current thinking on the topic.

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Zuckerberg and Harari

Mark Zuckerberg’s new Facebook manifesto has been much in the news lately; Vox’s Ezra Klein characterizes it as Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of human history.

“History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers,” Zuckerberg writes, “from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

Klein notes,

The theory reads as heavily informed by the book Sapiens, which Zuckerberg has recommended on, well, Facebook.

Which caught my eye since I just read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens last month — a book about the history of the human race, a perhaps unlikely topic for a title that’s been on bestseller lists for two years since first published in the US two years ago.

Next in my book notes queue is that one. But I’ll quote a bit more Klein, who summarizes Harari’s theses:

Sapiens, which is written by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari, is a mind-bending look at why and how homo sapiens took over the earth. It begins by establishing our species’ lowly beginnings. “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish,” Harari writes.

So what changed? Humans learned how to cooperate, and nothing else did. But cooperation, Harari emphasizes, is no easy task. The basic way humans form and sustain groups is by using language to tell common stories about their community — gossip, in other words. But he cites research suggesting that “the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals.” Harari continues:

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

The key word there is “common.” For the purpose of human cooperation, the issue isn’t whether people believe true things, or good things, but whether enough of them believe the same things. Human beings — through stories, through religion, and eventually through governments, laws, and political ideologies — create common understandings of reality that provide the basis for massive, evolutionarily unprecedented levels of cooperation. And that’s why humans dominate the earth.

Harari’s book is terrific, an expansive view of the human race that supersedes the details of mere ‘history’ — kings and battles and conquests — much in the way Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel did. Harari can seem glib at times, but his central thesis is striking: that humanity learned to cooperate, and come to overpower the globe, through the invention of three great ‘fictions’: religion, nations, and money.

But more about that when I finish writing up my notes on it.

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Max Tegmark: Our Universe Has Finally Awoken

Every year the editor and agent John Brockman, who specializes in works by scientists, hosts an annual question at Edge.org, soliciting hundreds of brief essay responses, and then publishing them in a book. The responses are also posted on the site, but the books are great browsing material, terrific ways to sample many different brilliant thinkers, far far away from the mire of political fake news.

The latest book is Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, which Amazon.com suggested to me a few days ago and which I bought, for browsing.

One of the first essays that caught my eye is this one by MIT physicist Max Tegmark, The Wisdom Race Is Heating Up, which is generally about the ever-expanding scope of technological progress (c.f.), but with this central perspective:

From my perspective as a cosmologist, something remarkable has just happened: after 13.8 billion years, our universe has finally awoken, with small parts of it becoming self-aware, marveling at the beauty around them, and beginning to decipher how their universe works. We, these self-aware life forms, are using our new-found knowledge to build technology and modify our universe on ever grander scales.

This is one of those stories where we get to pick our own ending, and there are two obvious ones for humanity to choose between: either win the wisdom race and enable life to flourish for billions of years, or lose the race and go extinct. To me, the most important scientific news is that after 13.8 billion years, we finally get to decide—probably within centuries or even decades.

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Links and Comments: Trump’s Lies; Right Wing Media; Christian Education Agenda; Blowfish Fallacy

Slate’s Will Oremus compiled The Lies, Exaggerations, and Obfuscations That Came Out of Trump’s Mouth While He Called the Media “Dishonest”. Bottom line:

When Trump or his advisers say things that aren’t true, it’s not their fault; the real villains are the media who report on it.

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Different audiences hear very different versions of the same event. The Atlantic: One Press Conference, Two Audiences, subtitled, “Viewers who watched it themselves saw a rambling, misleading performance. But those who relied on conservative cable newscasts or talk radio hosts got a very different impression.”

With examples from the press conference, Rush Limbaugh’s version, Matt Drudge’s version, and so on. The article ends,

The American right complains about the media as much as any ideological movement ever has, even as it wallows in a right-of-center media ecosystem far more dishonest and less rigorous than The New York Times on its worst day. Some of its most popular figures pander and mislead and constantly vilify the other side. Insofar as that other side writes off their entire audiences, the populist right-wing will keep winning. Its Achilles’ heel is that it relies on blatant misinformation to win. Can conservatives or libertarians or liberals pierce the bubble? Are they even trying?

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Among many other notices of this (e.g. Washington Post), here is Jerry Coyne: A theocracy in America? Influential conservative group calls for injecting God into American public schools. Coyne displays images of their “four assumptions and one pledge” and Phase II plans, which include posting the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the 10 Commandments in K-12 public schools (*public* schools) and implementing select Bible classes.

I’m trying to imagine how proponents of this plan imagine they will explain the First Amendment to the Constitution to their students on their way to Bible class.

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Another article on a commonly identified logical fallacies: What do gorilla suits and blowfish fallacies have to do with climate change?, including how these are used deliberately to detract from the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change, such as the “blowfish fallacy”, how pointing out some minor inconsistency supposedly invalidates the whole enterprise:

“…it’s not much more substantial than claiming the Apollo 11 astronauts failed to file some paperwork and pretending this casts doubt on the veracity of the Moon landing.”

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