Saturday, March 11, 2017

Scientism Has Reached The EPA

This does not surprise me at all, and in fact it is quite appropriate.  We now have someone running the EPA (one of the departments of the US government that is and should be most reliant on science) who believes in scientism: Scott Pruitt.  This is not surprising considering how widespread scientism is in general. 

What is scientism?  It is typically defined as the belief that scientific methods, logic, reasoning and/or standards can (or in fact must) be applied to all human pursuits, especially those related to truth.  It often denies that there are even differences in the methods, logic and standards in the different fields of science.  As a result it thinks that everything should be held to scientific standards: literature, philosophy, art, etc.  If a topic of field of study isn’t or can’t be then it is of little or no use except as entertainment. 

This often manifests itself in the belief that scientific truths are unchanging and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  In reality, scientific truths can always change and proof in science consists of convincing the large majority of the experts in a field to agree upon something.  It does not deal with eternal truths nor is anything in science indisputable.  Truths are based on physical evidence which can always change.  They are also open to debate, but inside the field and among the experts who are qualified to engage in the debate.  And even when something is under debate, science is conservative in the fact that it doesn’t throw out the old truth or theory until there is consensus on a new one. 

In short, scientism is fundamentalist science.  Fundamentalist Catholics might believe that whatever the Pope says is true absolutely.  This is far from the truth and ignores the complexity of the Church: the theology, tradition, laws and hierarchy.  A different kind of fundamentalist Christian may believe that anything the Bible says is absolutely true.  This ignores the fact that the Bible sometimes contradicts itself.  It also ignores the fact that it was written by humans who were living in a certain time and space and limited by their language and worldview.  God may have inspired them, but humans had to understand that inspiration and put it into words.  That makes the Bible a human document that is not infallible and absolute. 

I make the examples about religion because I think they are easy to understand, and they are related to my educational background.  However, there are fundamentalist economists (on both sides: free market and socialist), fundamentalist democrats (who believe in the absolute applicability of democracy) and so on. 

Getting back to the EPA: Pruitt is not denying facts necessarily; he is just asking for a level of proof that is unrealistic.  In fact, I would say it is actually unscientific.  He can likely do this with a clear conscience because he misunderstands what science is.  (He misunderstands what truth and facts are in general it seems.)  This is not something that is unique to him, and in fact it is a widespread understanding of what science is, or is supposed to be.  For all too many people, science is made up of definite undeniable facts and truths that are proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

The other side of the coin with scientism is what we see often portrayed in the media, especially when it comes to medical research.  People take the latest study to be the definitive word on the subject.  If a new study goes against the accepted theory, the average person (spurred on by the media) take that to mean that everything must change.  This misunderstands science because in real science no one study or set of data can change what is considered accepted scientific truth, or fact.  It takes multiple studies and years at least.  In the end it takes a change in consensus among the large majority of experts in the field. 

What I think makes it easier to be a scientist today can be roughly explained with two factors:

The first is that people these days distrust authority and experts.  (This is true not just in science but in many other areas as well.)  They want to trust just the facts and data, and they want to believe that the data will tell them exactly what is to be trusted and believed.  They don’t trust the experts in science or their consensus.  The experts should not be necessary because the data and facts should speak for themselves. 

The second is that people can find all sorts of ‘information’ in the internet and in doing so are often (without knowing it) only ‘finding’ only the information that supports what they already believe. 

Much more should be said about these two points, but I will leave it at that for now.

I think the important thing now is to realize that it is not just stubbornness, idiocy or deceit that is causing people like Scott Pruitt to do and say what he is. To take that approach is to set him up as a strawman and not take him seriously. (And I believe that has been done for far too long and has led to him now being the head of the EPA.) Also, he is not alone in what he thinks. At the root of this is a misunderstanding of what science is. What is at the root is scientism, a fundamentalist view of science, and it seems to be widespread. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

There Are No Facts... The Dangers and Responsibility

"There are no facts, only interpretations."-- Nietzsche

This quote needs to go with something like this one from Heidegger to fill out its meaning:

"We never really first perceive a throng of sensations... Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves.  We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds."

What is the meaning of these two quotes?  It is that what we take as facts are already interpretations because the physical things in themselves (the nomena as Kant calls it) are meaningless in and of themselves.  Things are ideas and not the bare sensations we have or the physical objects in the world; ideas shape the sensations (our experience of the physical objects) into what we commonly call 'things.'  The bare physical has qualities like weigh, size, hardness, etc.  And those qualities have an impact on us, but what that impact means (especially when it comes to how we act or think) is not in the physical object; it is in the idea, in the thing.

We interpret every experience and object to make sense of it, and facts already make some sort of sense. So facts are not pure experience or data, they are already interpreted.  As a result, there really are no objective facts because they are already always interpretations in so far as the have meaning, or are an idea and not just a sensation. 

Pointing this out is especially important because things (including facts) come prepackaged these days.  We encounter very little without mediation or packaging.  A big part of that packaging is interpretation. 

This is not meant to be a defense of 'alternative facts.'  It is legitimate to question methods, definitions and context to try and uncover the assumptions and influences that shaped the facts and things being discusses or dealt with.  This is important to do when you think there is a problem or even a disagreement in how different people experience and understand things.  But it is naive to simply deny facts and offer alternatives without digging deeper.

It must always be kept in mind that reinterpreting any of these things or facts changes more than just that one thing.  When you question at a fundamental level, anything that you change there has the potential to affect everything else in that network of meaning, all the other things and facts that are connected to it.  Interpretation and questioning things and facts is not something to be taken lightly.

Yet, because so many intelligent people deny the fundamental role that interpretation plays in our understanding and insist that facts are self-evident, it leaves the door open to people who want to take the Nietzsche quote and use it in a superficial way simply to twist any situation to their advantage.  Taking interpretation seriously and examining interpretations in a serious way (not brushing them aside as nonsense if we don't agree or understand right away) will take the power of this quote from those that simply want to find advantage by using it. 

There are no facts, only interpretations...  This revelation of Nietzsche's brings with it potential dangers and serious responsibility.  It does not at all mean that anything goes, and we need to resist that naïve interpretation of it.  It means that serious thought and attention needs to be paid to interpretation.  It means that when genuine disagreement arises, facts cannot be taken as self-evident and used to quickly shut down debate.  It means that differences in interpretation and perspective need to be taken seriously: discussed and explored in a genuine and intelligent way. It means the world is a more complex place than we often want to admit, and that we need to take up the responsibility that comes with that if we want to keep others from taking advantage of that.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

1984 in 2017?

Reading 1984 in 2017, really?  I can’t think of a more trite idea.

Granted, doublespeak and groupthink are pretty big these days.  Doublespeak has been big in politics at least as long as I have been eligible to vote.  It is common in business and management.  It is everywhere really, and we have to learn to see past it and get on with our lives in an intelligent way.  To think that anything unique with doublespeak is going on right now is to show an ignorance to what has been going on for a long time already. 

Groupthink has a strong history in the US in recent decades too: the run-up to the Iraq War; the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis; the US involvement in the Arab Spring.  Neo-liberal or Neo-conservative, it doesn’t matter; these camps are filled with groupthink that doesn’t want to recognize the real and sometimes drastic differences in ideals, values, cultures and people around the world.  Politicians are blinded by ideology and business as usual from the everyday reality, concerns and experience of everyday people, and then they are surprised when backlash occurs.  Their solutions seem to be to double down on their ideology and current path.  I think that qualifies as groupthink. 

Reading 1984 now is like waking up the day after the election and watching the debates as if they are the most important thing on YouTube. 

What do I think is worth reading now?  I think Camus’ The Plague is a very timely book.  Most people take it as a work talking about the struggle against Fascism, but Camus was far more deep and philosophical than that.  The plague that people struggle against in the book is not a human nor a government.  It is something bigger than that: a force of ‘nature,’ a part of reality that is bigger than humanity. 

What we are struggling against right now is not other humans.  We are struggling against ideas and realities (different interpretations of the world we live in) that are bigger than any person or group of people.  When we blame those things on people or groups (and demonize or make heroes of them), we are taking the stupid way out.  Stupid because it really doesn't get us out; it just draws us deeper in.  We divide ourselves, alienate ourselves from the experience and concerns of others, and all of this leads us to be more deeply entrenched and blinded by the assumptions of our interpretation of the world.  This is a recipe for disaster for a democracy, and I think it is the situation in many failed states. 

Big Brother is not our enemy.  Our enemy is a world that we are ignoring more and more as we retreat further and further into ideology and the virtual.  We make this worse by using others as a scapegoat, blaming them instead of seeing that we are all at fault. 

So please, spare me anymore talk of 1984. It is a great book, and if you haven't read it, you should.  But stop the hysteria because it is no more timely now than it was ten years ago.  (I also think Brave New World is a better dystonia novel, philosophy wise. Yet, it is no more timely now than it was 10 years ago.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Trans-valuation of Values

We need a trans-valuation of values.  Our ideals, values, categories and words need to be examined and refashioned. 

This is a re-drawing of the lines that define things and a re-configuration of the categories we organize things into, especially good and evil, right and wrong.  The world has changed-- both the physical world and the world of thought-- and our way of thinking and speaking of it needs to be re-calibrated. 

Right now it is easy to demonize corporations and profit, and there are a lot of good reasons to question and criticize.  However, these things are necessary for society to be anything like it currently is.  When we demonize them, we are setting them up as a straw-man to be burned. This doesn't really solve any real problems in a way that most people would find desirable.

It is easy to demonize universities and intellectuals, especially those with liberal political agendas.  But again, they are necessary. Without the universities and intellectuals, we are not only ignorant but we are less and less likely to have goals and the ability to think critically no matter how much or little information we have.

These are just two examples.

In addition to that, we have an environment where not supporting something is seen as hating it.  This is the old "if you are not with us you are against us" adage taken to a logically and practically absurd extreme.  If you don't support unrestricted gun ownership, you want to take all of our guns away.  If you don't support some specific push for human rights for some certain group, you hate them.  This is the way that too many people talk and, it seems, the way they think.  It is absurd, but that is hard to see when you are inside of it.  When you are in over your head with those values and categories, it is hard to see things any other way. 

We need to stop entrenching ourselves in our separate camps and demonizing others.  Criticism and debate are good, but there is little of that now because our public discourse is filled with false dichotomies, hyperbole and lack of trust.  What we need is to re-define the words we use and ideals we hold. Lines need to be re-drawn and categories re-configured.  Otherwise we are stuck preaching to the choir on one hand or talking past each other on the other, or worse yet constantly attacking each other.   

This sort of thing is the job of philosophers, theologians and artists.  Yet, these people are not taken seriously these days because science rules.  Science however is (mostly) descriptive, and this task is (largely) prescriptive.  What is worse is that entertainers (some of whom can actually claim the title of artist) are not doing this job even though they think they are.  What they are doing for the most part is simply reaffirming and strengthening the values and ideals that they hold.  They are not refashioning; they are simply reusing, not even recycling them.  And when they are in decline or being questioned (which they proclaim to be attacks and hate) the artists exaggerate and radicalize them to try to prop them up.  That is nothing more than a downward spiral. 

To everyone: Your ideals, values, categories and words do not come from the world. They come from humanity: our minds traditions and habits.

The the political and intellectual elite, and the media: Your ideals, values categories and words correspond less and less with the reality the rest of us live in.

To the artists, especially writers: It is high time to forge new ideals, values, categories and words.  Not to defend the old or completely reject them, but to refashion them into something that can unite and inspire. A trans-valuation of not just values but of reality is needed. Who is up to the task?

(Yes, I am channeling Nietzsche here more than a bit here, but his thoughts in this area are quite timely.)

Friday, November 25, 2016

Post-truth Is a Result of Both the Misunderstanding and Rejection of Post-modernism

We find ourselves in a post-truth world because of the poor way in which we have dealt with the revelations of post-modernism.

Post-modernism does indeed say that there is no truth, but that is only part of the story.  Leaving it there is like saying that there is no time because of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. What Einstein said was that time is relative to the speed an object is traveling at, not that time doesn't exist.

The post-modern revelation was that there is no universal and eternal truths because truth is always relative.  That does not mean that truth is completely arbitrary or completely non-existent.

Truth is relative to time and place, which means it is also relative to the past and the perceived or desired future.  Truth is never simple, and it is rarely easy. It is something that needs to be thought out and also believed in, and it must be believable. It needs to resonate with the people (their experience, community, history and vision of the future) and their physical surroundings.

We live in a post-truth world because some people refuse to believe that truth is relative and insist on a solid universal and/or eternal conception of truth and a storehouse of truths that fit that criteria. These people deny the complexity inherent in reality that post-modernism revealed. Others take up only a simplified and naïve version of post-modernism and insist that truth does not exist at all. 

One side insists on using only truths that deny or ignore the importance of context, truths that they know because of their privileged position and abilities. Meanwhile, the other side takes hold of any idea that is beneficial to them and promotes it as a truth.  Sooner or later, the difference between the sides collapses and they both employ each other's tactics. 

As these two sides fight against one another (and take advantage of the average person as they do so) the idea of truth is torn to shreds.  Both sides use it cynically to gain support for their own agenda. As this goes on any truths that we have and need are trivialized and made ineffective.  People, society and knowledge are left in free-fall, or left to wander in a wasteland.  As this goes on society as a whole and the average person loses. 


Friday, November 18, 2016

Appeal to Offence

I would like to propose a new logical fallacy.

Appeal to Offence

This happens when one side shows they are offended by something the opposition said or the way they said it.

This is followed by insisting that they apologize.

The apology must be complete and without qualification.  (Especially if it was unintentional.)  After all, an apology followed by a 'but' is not really an apology at all. 

Since the opponent cannot say anything else after they apologize, the offended party can then leave the debate or argument with the last word being an apology to them.  The apology can easily be construed as an admission of fault and defeat.

In this way an argument or debate can be easily shutdown and virtually won without providing any further evidence or logical backup for their side. 

(The other outcome is that the offender will refuse to apologize, or will offer an apology that is not accepted because it is followed by a 'but' or some soft of explanation or qualification. In this case the offended can accuse them of being uncivil and exit the situation while claiming the moral high ground.)

Like all fallacies, there are times when it may appear to be a fallacy but is not.  Naming this a fallacy does not mean that you cannot get offended in a debate, discussion or argument.  An appeal to a legitimate authority who knows the issue being discussed is not a fallacy of appealing to authority.  It also does not mean that you shouldn't apologize if you offend someone.  It is a fallacy if it is used as a means to settle the issue or end the debate. 

Being offended and wanting an apology (and giving an apology) is not a fallacy, not a logical problem, as long as it doesn't take precedent over the evidence and logic of the debate or argument.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Amusing Ourselves with Fear, Anger and Hate

To amuse doesn't just mean to entertain much less to do so in a pleasant way. Webster's dictionary has two obsolete definitions that we need to keep in mind when thinking about Neil Postman's critique of modern society: that we are amusing ourselves to death.

We can very easily amuse ourselves into ignoring all sorts of things by escaping into the pleasant and enjoyable. This is what most people will think when they hear the phrase 'amusing ourselves to death'. This is indeed one path, but it is the obvious one and not the one we are on.

Postman is quick to point out that the most obvious and popularly suspected path to a dystopia is usually not the one that will be followed. We are too smart and alert for that.

He points out that the Orwellian dystopia of 1984 is indeed possible but not as likely as the less known and feared dystopia of Huxley's Brave New World. Orwell talks of a totalitarian society that rules over its people with fear and pain, where information is restricted and tightly controlled. Huxley's version has people going along with the totalitarian regime because they are trained to do so and are rewarded (or distracted from anything else) with pleasure. Information does not need to be hidden or restricted because people are out of the habit of looking for it and are too busy indulging in pleasure to bother.

Postman thinks what we are actually heading for is something much more akin to Huxley's vision. We will not want to read or think or question because we will be busy entertaining ourselves (and consuming). We will be indulging in escapism and be confident that we can do so indefinitely with no real consequences. What is worse is that when we do come back from our escape, we are not capable of thinking or communicating in deep, meaningful and constructive ways because we have lost the ability to: amusement and escapism cause our thinking and communication skills to atrophy.

What is really dangerous about this is that there is no organized conspiracy that is doing this to us. The forces that are degrading us through amusement are fragmented and unorganized. They are all just out for their own profit and not colluding to control society. While that means that there is no puppet master pulling the strings and controlling us all, it also means there is no one or no force keeping society together and keeping us from slowing destroying the modern world and society that has been built up over the past two centuries or more.

In short, the main difference between Huxley's dystopia and our modern reality is that A Brave New World had puppet masters behind the scenes making sure it all runs smoothly and is sustainable, while our reality is one that tends more and more towards being unsustainable the more we amuse ourselves.

This is not a dystopia where a group of people's idea of a perfect world or society (a utopia) goes wrong and becomes more horrible and repressive than wonderful and liberating. This is a decent into chaos and disorder and has every potential to be more horrible and repressive than a dystopia.

But back to the word amuse: Are we really amusing ourselves into a downward spiral? The hate and fear that has gripped a large portion of the US and most of its media is not pleasant escapism. The news and politics are not pleasant and entertaining; they are often frightening and angry, and they inspire anger and hate.

The two obsolete definitions of amuse shed light on this: 1) to occupy the attention of, absorb

2) distract, bewilder. These do not necessarily have anything to do with pleasure. They do however have a lot to do with escapism and keeping our attention.

The media and internet distract and bewilder us with mountains of information, misinformation, trivia and data that keep us from paying attention to what is really around us (people, events, problems) and keep us from making decisions or taking action in regards to them even when we do see them. We are first distanced from everything and then paralyzed by the sheer amount of stuff coming at us.

After a while of course, we become numb to the flood that we find ourselves constantly immersed in. At that point you might think that we would find a shore, any shore, to crawl on to and dry out. If we did, we would likely be overwhelmed by the reality and problems we had been distracted from. We may choose to dive back into the flood and stay. But the media cannot allow us to even have that reprieve or the ability to make that choice. They also cannot allow us to remain numb and passive because their business model is based on keeping us actively tuned in.

As a result, they find ways to keep us engaged. After we have taken on all of the mindless pleasing entertainment we can handle and feel a need to do something, feel something, we become restless. In that restlessness we become susceptible to fear, anger and hate. 

It is no longer easy or even possible to lead us into an escape from all reality and problems, so the media leads us back into caricatures of selected realities and problems that are constructed in such a way that we cannot sit back and be passive in the face of them. (Part of the reason we fall for this is that our thinking and communication skill have atrophied.) These grotesque representations of reality are so inflammatory, divisive and seemingly urgent that we must have an opinion and a strong one at that. In this way, the media keeps us insulated from the real problems, the real world, and at the same time keeps us engaged, keeps us from feeling detached and numb.

I am not saying that this is done intentionally, far from it. I doubt that anyone laid this out as a plan and is trying to get something out of it, like political or economic control. It is merely what is happening as people and the media try to make money, keep informed and feel relevant. And, that is the biggest problem: no one is in control. Through this amusement that is more and more filled with fear, anger and hate, we are throwing ourselves down the spiral towards chaos. We are not in or heading into a dystopia where some evil elite or force is in control; we are heading into chaos, and as we go we are destroying our personal abilities and the societal structures necessary to combat that chaos.  It isn’t a path filled with pleasure, but it is a road of amusement that can lead to the death of modern society.