Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Euthanasia of Reason

Goya etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Goya created the famous etching with the even more famous caption "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters." While he may perhaps have sought to convey sleep as unleashing creativity, the caption as well as the imagery of foolish owls and ignorant bats is now used mostly as metaphor for the disasters that result from a lack of critical thinking.

It is a sleeping sickness for it renders its victims at length incapable of exercising their faculties' full function. The sickness is virulent, as it is readily contagious to those with a mental immune system weakened by atrophy. Even the somewhat more hale of mind are also susceptible to those evangelizing the joys of dimwittery who are as vectors for the pathology of embraced ignorance.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you think I wax over-much and with an excess of alarm? Sadly, no. These monsters of unreason have been so widely loosed that the resulting grotesqueries are everywhere visible. For example, behold the rich vein of raw unreason displayed in this recent piece: "Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets." (The reporter, Leslie Kaufman, does not much heap irrationality on the idiocies of those quoted, but is, alas, guilty of journalistic stenography: can not the most absurd and ridiculous of statements be tagged for the utter nonsense that it is?)

How deep is our sleep? Let's bestir ourselves and see...

Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.
Wingnuts unite! Apparently idiocy, not just misery, loves company. Now, I agree "dissenting views" on "scientific" subjects should be introduced in the instruction of science, but only where such dissenting views are themselves scientific. Do we indulge in the criticisms of grammarians to attack economics? Is it useful to marshal artists to impugn studies of zoology? Can chemists contribute meaningfully to the study of music? Each field has its own foundations, norms, corpus and methods of inquiry and adjudication. Teaching "dissenting views" that spring from the sleep of intellect merely muddies the field of inquiry and dumbs down the discourse.
In Kentucky, a bill recently introduced in the Legislature would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”
What is the value of discussing “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories?” And why would such a discussion matter in the context of science? One scientific theory holds that obesity causes an increased likelihood of such unhealthy outcomes as diabetes, hypertension and coronary disease. This is quite disadvantageous, but so what? Pretending that such a well-supported scientific theory is disadvantageous is specious at best. Theories are not supported or disproved by how convenient they are.
“Our kids are being presented theories as though they are facts,” said State Representative Tim Moore of Kentucky.
This is anti-science propaganda masquerading as a reasonable and common-sense distinction, debasing all of common-sense, science and reason. I am tempted to don my philosopher's hat and challenge Moore to define his terms. What's a theory? What's a fact? Moore and many like him don't use these terms as science uses them; in his epistemology what he believes is a fact, while what I believe (and he doesn't) he terms a theory. In science, belief plays no role. Facts are repeatable observations. Hypotheses are explanations for facts that both predict future observations and are disprovable if those observations are different from what the hypothesis predicts. Theories are coherent and organized frameworks of hypotheses. Moore and others who speak of climate change or evolution dismissively as theories need to learn more about the scientific method. Yes, they are theories, as are gravity, nuclear fission, and the earth orbiting the sun.
The bill, which has yet to be voted on, is patterned on even more aggressive efforts in other states to fuse such issues. In Louisiana, a law passed in 2008 says the state board of education may assist teachers in promoting “critical thinking” on all of those subjects.
Teaching and encouraging critical thinking should be what all teachers do, at every level and in every subject, especially the sciences. How should a board of education "assist?" Promoting the exercise of reason "to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner" is good; micro-managing and mandating the content of instruction is not. On the literal level language like that of this law really says rather little and should be unnecessary; it is there more as a dog-whistle to those who actually advocate religious and anti-science views.
Last year, the Texas Board of Education adopted language requiring that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming.
To paraphrase many others, you are entitled to your own theories, but not your own facts. There are no "sides" to evidence. Evidence is what we repeatedly observe, record and document. Theories are how you explain the observation and provide a framework for predicting future observation. It is fair, indeed necessary, to present competing theories, providing they are truly theories constructed by the scientific method and tested (and testable) against the evidence. What the reactionary and vigorously regressive Texas Board of Education really wants of course is to gin up a "debate" on these subjects despite the absence of a scientific basis, evidence or viable competing theories for doing so. Such an agenda undermines both science and students' ability to learn it. By making scientific instruction subservient to a political and religious agenda, the Board not just shirks its duty but condemns its students to scientific illiteracy. Is it any wonder that US students are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage in the global competition for higher education and scientific and technological leadership? The next time you hear someone fulminate about our education system's deficiency, consider this. Our students' peers in other countries are not hamstrung by such unscientific pap.
Oklahoma introduced a bill with similar goals in 2009, although it was not enacted.

The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.
This has nothing to do with academic freedom; to the contrary, the partisans of climate change and evolution denial seek to discredit and repress science. The vilification of climate scientists is designed to intimidate and silence; it aims to destroy academic freedom, not champion it. The tactics are unrelated to the normal conduct of academic inquiry or scientific method. Insisting on "balance" in the classroom by presenting both peer-reviewed science and a priori religious views does a disservice to both. Pretending that the motivation is a high-minded exercise independent of partisan objective is not credible. The abuse of the court system to interfere with scientific inquiry, the freedom to pursue it and its dispassionate dissemination would be a worthy target of tort reform.
Yet they are also capitalizing on rising public resistance in some quarters to accepting the science of global warming, particularly among political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.
One hand washes the other. This rising resistance corresponds to the growth of the disinformation campaign that suggests the appropriate arbiters of the merits of scientific theories are political fashions and individual prejudices. That many political conservatives are hostile to the science of climate change is really rather puzzling, and begs the question: what does it mean to be a conservative? Edmund Burke famously cautioned against mob rule, so why selectively subject some science to a plebiscite of public opinion? The unseemly and seismic lust towards power for its own sake has separated conservatism from its ideological foundations.
In South Dakota, a resolution calling for the “balanced teaching of global warming in public schools” passed the Legislature this week. “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant,” the resolution said, “but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.”
I'll wait while you go read the resolution itself; it's only one page. OK, how unhinged is that? They recycle the canard of global cooling, lie about atmospheric warming and urge instruction on the "astrological dynamics" on weather! If carbon dioxide is the "gas of life" let them try breathing the stuff and we'll see how lively that makes them. Remember that these are politicians using their positions as law-makers to both trample science and pronounce what shall be taught as science. The legislators who authored this gibberish may find carbon dioxide beneficial (perhaps because their mental functioning is nearly vegetative?) but those of us who are not plants, including our conservative Supreme Court, find it both polluting and dangerous.
The measure made no mention of evolution, but opponents of efforts to dilute the teaching of evolution noted that the language was similar to that of bills in other states that had included both. The vote split almost entirely along partisan lines in both houses, with Republican voting for it and Democrats voting against.
One party has embraced messy pragmatism and lives in the reality-based community. The other... not so much.
For mainstream scientists, there is no credible challenge to evolutionary theory. They oppose the teaching of alternative views like intelligent design, the proposition that life is so complex that it must be the design of an intelligent being. And there is wide agreement among scientists that global warming is occurring and that human activities are probably driving it. Yet many conservative evangelical Christians assert that both are examples of scientists’ overstepping their bounds.
The critical term here is "alternative views." Intelligent design is not an alternative theory, i.e. a competing scientific explanation, because it offers no capability to predict future phenomena. And because it makes no predictions, it cannot be falsified by observation, i.e. it cannot be refuted by science. Thus, it is dogma, not science--Creationism without the Creator. (As an aside, the deduction is faulty since it has a ready counter-example: our global financial system. It is forbiddingly complex beyond the comprehension of any one individual, yet it was created not by an intelligent being--insert banker-bashing joke here--but by an uncounted multitude of individual, self-interested actors. Does then its existence imply a sole creator, or rather its, er, evolution over time? Or should we deduce instead that intelligent design suggests not a Creator but instead pantheism?) Attempts to link climate change skepticism to attacks on evolution do not aid those attacks, but instead reek of desperation and highlight the flaccid reasoning of the skeptics. "Conservative evangelical Christians" should first get out of their glass houses before accusing scientists of "overstepping their bounds." And what bounds are those anyway?
John G. West, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a group that advocates intelligent design and has led the campaign for teaching critiques of evolution in the schools, said that the institute was not specifically promoting opposition to accepted science on climate change. Still, Mr. West said, he is sympathetic to that cause.

“There is a lot of similar dogmatism on this issue,” he said, “with scientists being persecuted for findings that are not in keeping with the orthodoxy. We think analyzing and evaluating scientific evidence is a good thing, whether that is about global warming or evolution.”
There's persecution of scientists going on, but it is directed at those patiently and methodically advancing understanding of the natural world through patient observation and peer review. The orthodoxy that engenders the persecution arises from fundamentalism (evolution) and an unwavering defense of entrenched energy interests (climate change), not from some supposed cabal of scientific correctness. The dogmatism West decries best characterizes intelligent design and climate change skepticism, two "alternative views" that are noteworthy for the lack of scientific rigor in their construction. Science is not magic. Those from the Discovery Institute and its brethren who would analyze and evaluate evidence could usefully start doing so with their own "theories."
Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and has spoken against efforts to water down the teaching of evolution to school boards in Texas and Ohio, described the move toward climate-change skepticism as a predictable offshoot of creationism.

“Wherever there is a battle over evolution now,” he said, “there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science — to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism.”
Krauss fingers the the rot at the core of our brainless public discourse. Opponents of policy on climate change tirelessly promote the supposed equivalence of "alternative views" and thereby implicitly reject the very foundations of scientific knowledge and method. Whether through ignorance or outright mendacity the result is the same--the devaluation and ultimate destruction of reason as a tool for understanding and decision-making. Instead, the process of enlightened inquiry is subjugated to superstitious thinking and the politics of tribal identity. The result is a ceaseless and alienating polarization, devoid of fact and reason, disconnected from the search for truth, and resembling nothing more than playground taunting in a recess from reason without end.
Not all evangelical Christians reject the notion of climate change, of course. There is a budding green evangelical movement in the country driven partly by a belief that because God created the earth, humans are obligated to care for it.
Are you one of these people? For the love of God, will you please speak up?
Yet there is little doubt that the skepticism about global warming resonates more strongly among conservatives, and Christian conservatives in particular. A survey published in October by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that white evangelical Protestants were among those least likely to believe that there was “solid evidence” that the Earth was warming because of human activity.

Only 23 percent of those surveyed accepted that idea, compared with 36 percent of the American population as a whole.
If you are one of those "least likely to believe" the evidence that we are destroying our only home, ask yourself what the origin is for that belief. Why is the evidence less compelling than someone's unscientific say-so? Choosing the shrill opinions of bloviating gasbags on TV or those who profit from deception over decades of unglamorous but methodical research is an abdication of reason. Dormez-vous, monsieur?
The Rev. Jim Ball, senior director for climate programs at the Evangelical Environmental Network, a group with members who accept the science of global warming, said that many of the deniers feel that “it is hubris to think that human beings could disrupt something that God created.”

The deniers know none of reason, history or current events. The Rev. Ball's organization is a voice for environmental sanity, and his site notes the Biblical passage which says the Lord will destroy those who destroy the Earth (Rev 11:18) so disruption seems quite possible. Indeed, humans are constantly disrupting what God created both on a spiritual level by the evil they do, and on the physical level including through habitat destruction, the extinction of species, mass landscaping, and yes, climate change. Then there were those other historical disruptions, like Hiroshima and the Holocaust. No, it is hubris to think we are incapable of evil, destruction, or selfish behavior, including the destruction of the Earth for temporary profit.
“This group already feels like scientists are attacking their faith and calling them idiots,” he said, “so they are likely to be skeptical” about global warming.
Most scientists are far too cautious and too focused on their work to call them idiots. An idiot is a stupid or ignorant person; the inability or unwillingness of the deniers to grasp elementary principles of science and reason is, well, ignorant. Thus, they are idiots. In their case the way to shed the label is not to attack those who are not ignorant, but to become educated.

For some this may be difficult:
State Representative Tim Moore, a Republican who introduced the bill in the Kentucky Legislature, said he was motivated not by religion but by what he saw as a distortion of scientific knowledge.

“Our kids are being presented theories as though they are facts,” he said. “And with global warming especially, there has become a politically correct viewpoint among educational elites that is very different from sound science.”
Moore manipulates the words "theory" and "fact" by using the lay definitions but applying them to science. In scientific endeavor these words are not opposites, yet that is how the deniers routinely characterize them by suggesting that if something is a mere theory that it is therefore not factual. This betrays ignorance of how science works and the meaning of the tools scientists use. The rest of his idiocy cannot then be taken seriously.
The evolution curriculum has developed far more than instruction on climate change. It is almost universally required in biology classes, while the science of global warming, a newer topic, is taught more sporadically, depending on the interest of teachers and school planners.

But interest in making climate change a standard part of school curriculum is growing. Under President Obama, for example, the Climate Education Interagency Working Group, which represents more than a dozen federal agencies, is making a strong push toward “climate literacy” for teachers and students.
Here is the real and disheartening thrust of climate denial in education. These legal and educational initiatives are deliberately designed to attack science outside of its rules. It is nothing short of an attack on knowledge itself, and is designed to advance a self-serving and partisan agenda on the strength of ignorance. By keeping the mob stupid, they remain more readily swayed by fear-mongering, exactly the danger identified by that previously mentioned paragon of conservatism, Edmund Burke.
State Representative Don Kopp, a Republican who was the main sponsor of the South Dakota resolution, said he acted in part because “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary film on global warming starring Al Gore, was being shown in some public schools without a counterweight.
Any time you hear any opponent of science and reason mention Al Gore you know that tribal identity politics are at work. If a classroom were shown materials about Copernicus and his (ahem!) theory of heliocentricity, would that also demand a "counterweight?" Should we not give Ptolemy equal time? This should not be about Al Gore or his film, but about teaching critical thinking. Presenting a "he said, she said" dichotomy without comment, fact-checking or analysis, and expecting students to sort it all out on their own does not work; all it does is encourage the taking of sides based on such ephemera as cosmetic appeal, reputation or name familiarity. Our media is besotted with this kind of stenography and the faux controversy it concocts. What Kopp, Moore and others want to create is the same unrefereed "debate" that elevates belief and opinion to the same respectability as fact-supported scientific theory. Such an approach does not elucidate; it obscures. It does not teach; it confuses.
The legal incentive to pair global warming with evolution in curriculum battles stems in part from a 2005 ruling by a United States District Court judge in Atlanta that the Cobb County Board of Education, which had placed stickers on certain textbooks encouraging students to view evolution as only a theory, had violated First Amendment strictures on the separation of church and state. Although the sticker was not overtly religious, the judge said, its use was unconstitutional because evolution alone was the target, which indicated that it was a religious issue.
Regrettably, despite the religious motive for the sticker, its content was in fact correct--evolution is a theory. That both sides would, in essence, agree that deeming it a "theory" would imply it was counterfactual is a sad testament to the degradation of scientific understanding in both our schools and our civic discourse.
After that, said Joshua Rosenau, a project director for the National Center for Science Education, he began noticing that attacks on climate change science were being packaged with criticism of evolution in curriculum initiatives.

He fears that even a few state-level victories could have an effect on what gets taught across the nation.
The teaching of science must include explication of what terms like "theory" actually mean. The controversy around stickers and textbooks would be rendered largely moot if there were a real effort to teach not just the facts and theories of science, but more importantly, how the process of science works, and the importance of the scientific method and the use of critical thinking. Students (and adults) increasingly expect to be told what is true, and accept it uncritically--to believe it, without ever learning how to challenge assumptions and the importance of doing so. No education or curriculum reform will make any difference to the decline of our intellectual capital until we change this.
James D. Marston, director of the Texas regional office of the Environmental Defense Fund, said he worried that, given Texas’ size and centralized approval process, its decision on textbooks could have an outsize influence on how publishers prepare science content for the national market.
“If a textbook does not give enough deference to critics of climate change — or does not say that there is real scientific debate, when in fact there is little to none — they will have a basis for turning it down,” Mr. Marston said of the Texas board. “And that is scary for what our children will learn everywhere.”

Very true. The role of Texas is absurd and the politicization of the process that produces the nation's textbooks leads to an inferior result destructive of our educational system. It is depressing that armies of parents turn out, zombie-like, to demand their prejudices and superstitions be enshrined as knowledge. It is even more depressing that the Texas Board is overweighted with aggressive partisans who use those parents as justification for the shameless implementation of their own narrow and parochial agenda on the rest of the country. And finally, it is dispiriting that the fight, while worth waging, over the content of these textbooks so dominates that we miss the real horror--a nation that is losing the ability to sort the important from the trivial, to separate science from belief, to think critically about its future and the problems growing both in number and seriousness that confront us.

A mass delusion is growing as tens of millions in the United States and many more around the world nurture a stunted and distorted view of science. Over the past 300 years this jewel of human intellectual accomplishment has accelerated our standard of living to previously unimaginable heights. Science, and in its application, technology, have created the very tools so-called conservatives employ to denigrate its value. With a relentless hostility to results they find inconvenient, they ignore the palpable hypocrisy of agreeing with science only when it suits their beliefs or mercenary ends.

The sleep of reason produces monsters, but in the decline of our discourse they are spawned not from creativity but delusion. Unable or unwilling to grasp the meaning and methods of science, politicians and pundits nonetheless pass judgment on its fruits, criticize ignorantly what they don't understand, and pervert the public discourse to their own advantage. Legions of the credulous and gullible accept their manipulations uncritically.

Worse, we no longer wait metaphorically for Morpheus to take us unbidden; we choose the sleep of reason, consuming spectacles and circuses to provoke and entertain, eschewing the effort to analyze and understand. As an addict hooked on escape to a concocted reality so we have become overly enamored of a political discourse where reason rarely awakes. The accelerating fragmentation of media channels and their relentless specialization encourages the unchecked indulgence of confirmation bias.

Our capacity for critical thinking is both atrophying from disuse and is being destroyed by the relentless message that we no longer need it. Our crepuscular consciousness can spawn phantasms that both delight and terrify, but most terrible are those we mistake for reality, or are encouraged to believe are a better and more accurate reality. Simply being faithful to one's tribal leaders is enough; no thinking required.

The foot soldiers of unreasoned skepticism are the shock troops in this new age of know-nothingness. They seek nothing less than to lobotomize us down to our lizard brains. By reducing the edifice of science to a popularity contest they invite the abandonment of critical thinking and seek to kill it as the method of deciding our future. By failing to resist its murder we become accomplices to the euthanasia of reason.
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