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Intentional Ignorance

November 6, 2012

I wrote this essay to offer some essential information about our world and the future of our species, adding my voice to the many cries of alarm over the environmental crisis (lately reaching criticality). [More…]

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When Scientists Speak, Who Listens?

It’s one thing to say you believe generally in science, at least well-established principles and findings thereof. But how many people really take the trouble to listen when reputable scientists speak or write about fully developed and validated findings?

Something remarkable happened this year. Three thousand scientists and experts, including a number of Nobel Laureates, joined together last March and issued a warning  about the planet and possible “catastrophic consequences” for global civilization. Their “State of the Planet Declaration” is not long, is readily available, and should be read by everyone who cares about the future of humans.

Robert Walker, President of the Population Institute has addressed this issue in an article on the subject for Huffington Post. It comes in the form of an Op-Ed on the subject from the Population Institute and the Population Media Center. In his Op-Ed, Walker writes of the derision and rhetorical attacks on the Royal Society, which sponsored the report.

Here’s an excerpt from Walker’s comments:

Scientists get no respect these days. When they speak, no one listens. It doesn’t matter how many scientists are speaking, what they are saying, or what their qualifications are, they get a fraction of the media attention lavished on a reality TV star or an American Idol contestant. Three thousand scientists and experts, including a number of Nobel Laureates, joined together and issued a warning several weeks ago about the planet and possible “catastrophic consequences” for global civilization, but Kim Kardashian and her alleged marriage woes stole the headlines. The Royal Society, the world’s oldest and most distinguished academy of science, late last month issued a report on how increasing population and rising consumption are imperiling the planet. Sir John Sulston, the Nobel Prize Laureate who chaired the working group, cautioned about a possible “downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills,” but his warning got less press attention in the U.S. than Mitt Romney’s dog.

If scientists get any media attention it’s only because the science-deniers are ridiculing them. When the Royal Society produced its “Population and the Planet,” report, the ink was not even dry before the critics were slashing away at it. A writer for The Economist declared, “On the whole it stinks.” A self-described “global expert on the metal scandium,” asserts in Forbes and The Telegraph, that it is “an appallingly bad report” and “a dismal failure.” Really? Did anyone actually read the report, or look at the credentials of those who wrote it? Doubtful.

We live in the Era of Willful Ignorance. It is not only acceptable; it is fashionable to throw scientific caution to the wind. The Euro has more ‘currency’ than scientific warnings about climate change, food security, the oceans, or biodiversity loss. Any scientist venturing into the public realm, no matter how respected by his or her peers, is treated like an intellectual varmint by politicians, special interests, and arm-chair critics, who immediately open up with a volley of prefabricated rebuttals and personal attacks.

[At the launch of this new blog, in November of this year, I wrote about this “willful ignorance.” I called it “Intentional Ignorance.” If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so, and to read Robert Walker’s OpEd on the HuffPost web site. The reason why these generally well educated political leaders ignore such inconvenient truths, using Al Gore’s phrase, is, according to Walker, that these leaders “shy away from embracing scientific conclusions for fear that they will alienate uninformed voters, who easily make up a majority of the electorate. You can count on one hand the number of politicians taking a leadership role on climate change or any of the other environmental challenges facing the world. And God forbid that any elected official should suggest that the planet is in peril or that the economic growth engine as we have known it over the past century is not sustainable. Issues like food security, loss of biodiversity, and resource scarcity are politically taboo. Do a search of the Congressional Record and you will find that these issues are rarely, if ever, discussed.”]

In further support of these arguments, I offer the details of the publication of two two books I think are relevant to some of the discussion, followed by a blog review of one of them by John Denker of Arizona. These two interesting books were discussed by their authors and others around the table on “Up with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC this weekend. The other book was also considered worthwhile by the panel of discussants.

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality
By Chris Mooney
Wiley Publication Date: April 3, 2012 | ISBN-10: 1118094514 | ISBN-13: 978-1118094518 | Edition: 1

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon Publication Date: March 13, 2012 ISBN-10: 0307377903 ISBN-13: 978-0307377906

Amazing Book: The Republican Brain

Book review, posted by John Denker from www.BlogforArizona.com

This is an awesome book. While reading it, I was repeatedly tempted to say to myself:

“I knew it! I knew it! Well, not ‘knew it’ in the sense of having the slightest idea, but I knew there was something I didn’t know.” — Joss Whedon

In other words, this book identifies some important questions that we should have been asking all along, and then answers them. It connects the dots. Lots of dots.

In terms of structure, it manages to put together a lot of things that aren’t usually seen together:

It is quick and easy to read … yet highly informative and thought-provoking.
It appeals to a general audience … yet upholds the highest standards of scientific scholarship.
It tackles a controversial, emotion-laden subject … yet is remarkably calm, even-handed, logical, and non-polemical. (The title is somewhat provocative, but the rest of the book isn’t.)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” Let’s be clear: Republicans have stood that idea on its head. They make a habit of using utterly false “facts” to support whatever argument they feel like making.

This leaves us with a huge question: How can they possibly get away with this? Normally, you would think that people who habitually believe things that aren’t true would be at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. If you’re playing poker against somebody who thinks you’re always bluffing, just wait until you have a strong hand and then take all his money.

Mooney has a partial answer: It turns out that the traits that lead to closed-mindedness, hatred, and wanton disregard for the truth are only a half-step removed from the traits that lead to discipline and effective teamwork.

We are talking about multiple traits, not just one, and everybody posesses these traits to one degree or another.

Liberals need to learn a few things from conservatives, such as how to be more effective team players. Supporting a good but imperfect leader and winning is better than bickering and dithering and letting the selfish crazy creeps win.

Liberals also need to learn that a scientific, logical argument is great for persuading scientists, but not good for persuading the other 98% of the population. An argument needs to be emotionally satisfying, not just logically rigorous. Good guys are allowed to use persuasion in support of the true facts, especially when the bad guys are using persuation in support of bogus facts.

Liberals need to learn to call the conservatives’ bluff.

Of course, conservatives need to learn a few things, too. It’s one thing to respect authority … but when you choose to rally around Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, that’s just nuts.

There’s a lot more I could say about this, but I’ll stop here.

Bottom line: This book is really, really worth reading.

Finally, here’s more of Robert Walker’s OpEd on Huffington Post, mentioned above:

We live in the Era of Willful Ignorance. It is not only acceptable; it is fashionable to throw scientific caution to the wind. The Euro has more ‘currency’ than scientific warnings about climate change, food security, the oceans, or biodiversity loss. Any scientist venturing into the public realm, no matter how respected by his or her peers, is treated like an intellectual varmint by politicians, special interests, and arm-chair critics, who immediately open up with a volley of prefabricated rebuttals and personal attacks.

Because these rhetorical assaults are so successful, political leaders shy away from embracing scientific conclusions for fear that they will alienate uninformed voters, who easily make up a majority of the electorate. You can count on one hand the number of politicians taking a leadership role on climate change or any of the other environmental challenges facing the world. And God forbid that any elected official should suggest that the planet is in peril or that the economic growth engine as we have known it over the past century is not sustainable. Issues like food security, loss of biodiversity, and resource scarcity are politically taboo. Do a search of the Congressional Record and you will find that these issues are rarely, if ever, discussed.

History will not be kind to today’s leaders. Decades from now, posterity will look back at what passes today for political discourse in this country and they will ask, “What planet were they living on?” They will marvel at how politicians could be so heedless of science and so neglectful of posterity.

The fault, of course, is not with our leaders, but with us. In a representative democracy we get the government we deserve. If we are more concerned about Kim Kardashian’s marriage or Mitt Romney’s dog than we are about the future of humanity, we can hardly blame our elected representatives for their lack of courage and foresight. As England’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said more than a century ago, “There go the people, and I must follow, for I am their leader.”

I don’t know how we translate scientific warnings into actionable awareness, but the key, I suspect, is making people understand that the future is now. A year ago, Jeremy Grantham, the co-founder of GMO, one of the largest investment management firms in the world, caused a stir in the financial community when he wrote a newsletter titled, “Time to wake up: Days of abundant resources and falling prices are over forever.” Grantham’s analysis suggests that the world is already experiencing the effects of resource scarcity, and that climate change and other factors could make life more difficult for current generations, not just posterity.