Saturday, October 29, 2011

Signs of doom

I read in Scientific American today that a poll of 1,500 American parents showed 25% of them thought vaccines could cause autism.

Think about that. One crooked doctor fakes a medical study for money, one D-list movie star gloms onto the idea to assuage her misplaced guilt, and a decade later one quarter of American parents are misinformed.

That's all it takes. Misinformation is that easy to spread in our society. The Republicans, of course, have been taking advantage of this for decades now - the latest is Paul Ryan sending out a fund-raising letter citing his concerns that "the safety net for the poor is coming apart at the seams and no one in Washington seems to care." Of course, Paul Ryan is one of the chief reasons that net is being destroyed, but it simply doesn't matter. As Mitt Romney is demonstrating, a politician can say literally opposing things on opposing days and it just doesn't matter.

Ironically, I think this weakness doesn't stem from the conservative elements of our culture. I think it is the final, potentially fatal, symptoms of New Age culture. In the New Age movement, you can say any silly thing you want, as long as you never say someone else is wrong.

Political Correctness has come to this: everyone is entitled to their opinion, which means no one is ever wrong about anything. You can make up evidence and logic for as absurd of a theory as you like; what you cannot do is present evidence, no matter how self-evident, that makes someone else wrong. You can get as high as you want, but you can't harsh anyone else's buzz.

We started this nonsense with the best of intentions: people have different religious ideas, and religious ideas are generally considered unprovable, so let's all just play nice and get along. We trained our news agents, our commentators, and our dinner parties to this standard. But then people started saying really stupid things, and when they got called on it, they claimed it was their "religion." And society allowed them to get away with - society had to allow it. Because, fundamentally, religious claims are not unprovable: even the most tenuous, vague, sophisticated theology makes at least one claim about the real world.

And having done so, immediately becomes subject to the rules of logic, reason, and science. Herein lies the rub: society was faced with the fundamental unworkability of the compromise between science and religion - has been faced with it ever since Darwin (Gould's "separate magesteria" was dead even before he named it). There were two options: 1) abandon religion to its own devices and allow rationality to box it into a corner until it died, or 2) abandon rationality and let religion off the hook. You can see which one we chose.

In no case did anyone ever say, "I want to live in an irrational society." What they said was, "I want my particular irrationality to be safe." But because we are human, we seek fairness, and the idea that other people should be allowed to have the same escape clause is hard to object to.

Now we have a society in which the gatekeepers against the spread of un-metered nonsense are religious fundamentalists; they are the only people sufficiently ballsy to say, "I want my irrationality, but I don't want you to have yours." Of course this used to be the rule; certain religions were deemed acceptable, and everything else was simply superstition. Religious tolerance degraded those invisible boundaries, and now the rest of our generally liberal society finds itself bound by politeness to let anyone spout any nonsense. And of course nonsense, once spouted, cannot be put back in the bottle. No idea, however idiotic, has ever been removed from the social consciousness, and the internet gives stupid ideas both an immortal home and a means to spread, to find each and every particular idiot dumb enough to believe that idiotic idea. The true lesson of the internet scam, of course, is that all of us are idiots about something; and now the power of the computer will relentlessly bombard us until it finds our weakness.

If we cannot find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff; if the public does not accept its civic duty to apply reason and logic to the claims of politicians, corporations, and institutions, then democracy is dead. This is not hyperbole: the Greeks understood that democracy presumes that the individual can govern himself. When our individual citizens can no longer stand up to nonsense at a dinner party, then they certainly can't do it at the ballot box, and the first charlatan with pretty hair and a convincing voice will lead us all to ruin.

Ronald Reagan was that avatar of doom. Reagan's genius was that he was a Hollywood actor; he was, at his core, a woo. He was the perfect marriage between conservatism and the New Age, and he gave his people a way to endorse woo without surrendering their conservative religious views. He made nonsense in economics respectable. And look at us now.

Reagan's followers have expanded on his gift, adding climate science and evolution (and birth certificates!) to the list of things it's socially OK to believe nonsense about.  The Tea Party embraces insensibility at its ultimate expression, simultaneously arguing for and against government intervention in society, without so much as a blink in-between (as in the immortal cry of "Keep your government hands off of my Social Security"). The Left, while subdued these days (no more Communism, at least), is still insane: Trutherism and Anti-Vaccism are generally liberal diseases.

Perhaps this explains why atheists have been writing best-selling books. Some people, at least, are beginning to see that if we can't have a tamed, controlled religious delusion, we're better off having none at all. It's not that we actively want to destroy all the joy and comfort people take from their religion; it's just that we can't afford the price. Just like drinking and driving don't mix, non-empiricism and the ballot box don't work well together.


  1. Good to see your feeling better. I wish I could be such a prolific writer.

  2. Is that a polite way of saying "tl;dr"?