Ignorance Rampant

September 17, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

The following is a quote lifted from Charlie Stross’s blog and is pretty much In Full.

We. Are. Not. Going. To. Die. On. Wednesday.

The maximum energy the particles generated by the LHC (7TeV) get up to is many orders of magnitude below the maximum energy of cosmic rays that hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere from space every fricking day. None of them have created black holes and gobbled up the planet, or turned us all into strange matter. Nor have they done ditto to any cosmic bodies we can see, such as planets or stars. Therefore the world isn’t going end when they switch on the LHC on Wednesday. QED.

Joking is all very well, but please, can we not be spreading the FUD and scaring people needlessly? The current climate of superstitious dread with respect to the sciences is bad enough as it is …

As everyone knows we have a presidential election coming up. The two combatants are flinging accusations at one another as to why the other guy isn’t fit to lead. According to McCain, Obama is not only another tax-and-spend Liberal but one with no real experience. McCain is claiming to be an agent of change, despite a record that really doesn’t reflect that. To be fair, he’s been on board with a few bits of legislation that took on some of the more egregious problems in our country, but by and large he’s pretty much just another tax-and-spend Conservative, but one with a lot of experience.

I quoted Charlie’s post for a specific reason. You can search the blogosphere and find many of these sorts of posts, all done in the face of a minor upswelling of panic among those who don’t know any better claiming that the LHC would cause a major event precipitating the End of the World.

My question, simply, is this: why would anyone believe this?

This bears directly on the election. We have many organizations—like FactCheck.com— that take on the rather onerous and often thankless job of vetting statements made by political candidates. Anyone can go look to see which statements are true, false, or exaggerations. There are other sites, like Project For the Old American Century, which have a tally of the abuses of the Bush Administration, with links to sources. The record is there for anyone to go look for themselves and see.

But people don’t. Well, some people do. But I suspect a lot of people rely on the ads and the occasional televised interview to develop their information about the candidates, which is a pretty useless way to do it.

I know a woman in her 40s who does not know that women in this country did not always have the right to vote. When I pointed it out that women didn’t get it till 1920, she was incredulous. She didn’t believe me. I pulled out some history books to show her. Her eyes glazed over.

Next time I spoke to her about it, she had defaulted back to believing that we were the only democracy to guarantee women’s rights from our inception.

The obstinacy of false beliefs baffles me unlike anything else. I recall some friends who supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, said laudatory things about him, but when I bring it up now they look at me as if I’d sprouted a second head. They have rewritten their own history to disclude this embarrassing bit and will not cop to it.

Charlie’s post about the idiocy of people’s fears is very political. Remember the Alar issue over apples? The panic that this substance was on all our apples and that it would kill us spread so fast that and regardless of efforts to provide the truth, there were orchards and packing plants that went out of business because of the resulting boycott of apples that would not have hurt anyone because the substance washed off easily.

People do not understand basic science. Beyond that, there is a lack of understanding of basic logic. Why? Well, for one, it has always been assumed that Common Sense was a natural attribute—and in some small way, a particularly natural attribute of Americans (!) —and needed no assistance from the educational system, when nothing could be further from the truth.

In the introduction to his study of the history of rational thought, Uncommon Knowledge, Alan Cromer states: “I believe that rational civilization, with its science, arts, and human rights, is humankind’s greatest hope for nobility. But like Jericho, it’s but an oasis in the midst of a vast desert of human confusion and irrationality.”

Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrologer and often took the predictions offered as grounds for forcing changes of itinerary for her husband while in office. Who knows what else might have been effected as a result?

People like easy answers and quick fixes. The present financial crisis we see engulfing Wall Street is not mysterious. It could be seen coming years ago. Loaning money to people who cannot pay it back obviously will lead to illiquidity of the lender if indulged at too great a level, and that is what has happened. To be fair, many borrowers were openly lied to, the mortgages in question misrepresented. The only thing that might have halted the bleeding would have been if the borrowers, en masse, had had the intellectual tools to see bull shit for what it is. Many did not. Many others did not possess the capacity to differentiate between Need and Want. Of course, that obfuscation is a desired quality in business—many industries make their living on the inability of people to make disciplined distinctions. They would hate it if basic economics were taught in grade school on.

But everyone is acting surprised—and panicked. We are in bail-out mode because big houses, like AIG, are about to go under, and the truth is such institutions, that have been allowed to have tentacles into many areas of the financial garden, are so intertwined with our basic economies that we see it as to our benefit to keep them afloat.

And we do not understand how we got here.

Why not? Do we not understand that all the pseudo-Libertarian talk about Free Markets is nonsense?

No, apparently not.

On the reverse side, people are being driven by panic. The Stock Market lost 500 points. Omigod, that’s a disaster!

500 points out eleven thousand. We have lost our sense of proportion. That is less than five percent of total volume. By contrast, the Crash of 1929 saw the Stock Market lose almost 40% of its value in two months.

Let me quote from the Oxford Companion to United States History:

The crash did not cause the Great Depression of the 1930s. To be sure, the losses sustained by investors and the greater diufficulty firms had in floating new issues depressed the economy. But the Federal Reserve stepped in quickly, lending freely to member banks and thereby confining the crash to the financial system. During the 1930s, congressional investigations uncovered a number of unsavory practices by the essentially private, unregulated stock exchanges. In response, Congress passed the Securities Act of 1933 and the Security and Exchange Act of 1934, inaugurating active federal regulation of the securities market.

Sound familiar? And why did we need regulation? Because stupidity combined with avarice results in collateral damage to those not involved with these matters. Officially, we had 24% unemployment during the Great Depression. It was probably, judging by how the numbers get fudged today, more like 30%. We have 6% now and we feel that we are in a major meltdown.

Granted, for those out of work or on the losing end of investments, the pain is real and not to be scoffed at, but for the rest of us, our overreactions do us little credit. Sound solutions cannot be agreed upon in an atmosphere of panic, and such an atmosphere is fomented by those who have traditionally sought to lead us by the nose for their own benefit.

The regulatory system put in place in the 30s was designed to prevent something like that from ever happening again, and it worked. Why then would we dismantle it?

Because we did. We let Reagan’s cronies undo much of the regulation that had previously protected the country as a whole. We’re paying the price now for Free Market advocates getting their wish. They have turned out to be just as irresponsible as in the 20s and 30s.

But we have been frightened by accusations that regulation somehow equates directly to Socialism, and we have been convinced that Socialism is evil. The arguments which have been used to keep us from being sane and rational about such issues are tissue paper obfuscations, easily seen through by anyone with half a brain, but we as a people buy into them every time. Either we possess profound ignorance or equally profound cupidity. Probably both.

What Reagan began, Bush has all but finished. He has mounted up a debt so high that we must look far down the road to see it reduced to manageable levels, and yet he is lauded as a Conservative by people who ought to know better by virtue of the fact that they are losing their savings and their children’s future to rising costs.

Why would they believe it? It is, simply, the same mentality that leads them to accept the Chicken Little warnings about the Large Hadron Collider without question. It is easy to go find the answers to these questions, but answers are not sought. Because it seems that as a people we are trained not to look or, worse, not to trust a rational explanation. It is easier to live in constant panic-mode and hope the next guy in office will fix it all, so we can go back to our thoughtless lives.

When I was a little kid I remember looking at the exhaust from a factory and asking my dad where all that smoke went. “It just dissipates into the atmosphere.”

“But won’t the atmosphere fill up some day?”

“No, the world is too big for that.”

I was four or five. I accepted the answer, because I trusted my dad. He was an adult, after all, and adults didn’t do stupid things like children did. Now I look on that and see that my innate curiosity and skepticism was at work even then. His answer never satisfied me, but there were other things to do, so I trusted him and let it slide.

Collectively, we tend to be that way. Occasionally we ask “What about that?” and some “adult” pats our head and tells us not to worry, everything will be fine.

I grew up expecting adults to be rational. People did stupid things in the past, but supposedly we had learned not to do those things. I was too young then to realize how stupidity clings to people.

Forgive me if I use words like Stupidity and Moron. I am 53, almost 54, and I have lost all willingness to cut people slack anymore. When I walk into a convention hall filled with dealers in books and movies and jewelry and the fake ephemera of fantasyland (I’m talking about a science fiction convention now) and I see someone purporting to take pictures of your “Aura” (as in Kirlian Aura) with a device that supposedly “spikes” the aura by electricity shunted through one’s body while seated in a chair resembling a bad device from a Frankenstein movie, I get annoyed. When I see people lining up to buy said photos, people who really, I think, ought to know better, I get angry. The charlatan makes a living, the public is gulled, and the one who points out the bull shit is reviled by all.

We have no patience, it seems, for reasoned discourse, for examination of issues, for anything that would prompt us to take responsibility for our own ignorance. I speak collectively now, for I do in fact know many people who do not see the world this way, but it seems they are always and everywhere too few.

If the LHC had been built in this country, I fear that some court injunction would have been placed to prevent it from being turned on by some group convinced that it would result in a hole right through the Earth. We are saved from such silliness because the device is in Europe, where the courts, at least, seem less willing to entertain the hysterias of ignorant people.

So it comes down to which set of lies we will believe. We always end up hoping for the best. So far, the only thing that has buffered us from any truly cataclysmic harm is the sheer size and wealth of this country. But unless we start doing a little rational thinking and start seeing things for what they are, that will not last long.

I beg your pardon for expressing such pessimism.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Economy, Education, Fraud, Good and Evil, History, ignorance, Language, Politics, Science, snake oil

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Mark. I have tried to explain to people the basic problems with an economy based on consumption, debt and unrestricted corporate profits, but I usually get blank stares and nothing more.

    The masses are brain-wash by TV media into the strange belief that spending more money that you don't have is going to stimulate the economy.This is effective in making a few people very wealthy by raping the US economy.

  2. Niklaus,

    It is perverse but true, that Economics, which is so fundamentally important to nearly everything we do, is nevertheless one of the dullest, most mind-numbing subjects I have ever encountered. To do a novel several years ago I had to pore through a few economics texts and discovered that it is a ready cure for insomnia. If you find someone who can write about it with verve and keeping it interesting and still clear, let me know.

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