Sunday, August 07, 2005

Antidisestablishmentarianism In Action

What does antidisestablishmentarianism mean?  
[...] pick up the Oxford English Dictionary. Turning to page 59, we find that antidisestablishmentarianism is indeed a word. The definition is as follows: “Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of Bush England, but popularly cited as an example of a long word.” Catching the irony here? [...]
We will try to catch the irony.

If one were to read an essay (Darwin's Compost) that decried the influence of "the elite", meaning scientists and everyone else the author doesn't like, you might expect to find the essay on a site called 'Humility in Action,' or perhaps 'The Washers of the Feet.'  Instead, it appears on the pompously-named site "The American Thinker".

This story, while ludicrously biased, contains a sign of hope: it is a measure of the elite establishment’s fear that the Darwinian grip on culture is slipping. In the elite’s frantic attempt to protect their shrinking scientific turf, they must insist on a “scientific consensus” – the phrase the Washington Post earlier this summer cited to editorialize against the showing of an Intelligent Design documentary at the Smithsonian – that doesn’t exist, and they must treat any deviation from this fictional consensus as evidence of kookery. This politically correct policing of conservative dissent is getting more aggressive because that dissent is spreading rapidly, and to precincts the elite assumed they had tamed.
I won't bother to fisk the anti-anti-Intelligent Design essay itself, that task being well beneath my elitist prétentions.  Rather, I will try to explain to my humble antidisestablishmentarianist friends why scientists and other thinkers are upset by Mr. Bush's proclamation that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools.  And why it is so dangerous.

Chris, posting on his excellent blog Mixing Memory, which I found via a link on Follow Me Here, comments on the roiling of the ID controversy:
But, and that's a big but, there does seem to be something somewhat disturbing going on here, of which Bush's remarks are only a symptom.
I take a similar view: Bush's remarks are only a symptom.  However, my diagnosis is a bit different than Chris'.  He is troubled by the notion that what is taught in school could be determined by public opinion about what constitutes valid science.  Indeed, that is a problem.  Personally, though, I think the bigger problem is that Bush's statements follow a pattern.  The Republican hijackers have included support for ID as part of a strategy to pollute the American political system.

The danger comes, no so much from the specific case of ID, but from what it represents.  The notion of teaching ID in a science class, presented as a reasonable alternative to evolution, is an example of a political tactic that appears to be part of a larger strategy.  

Let me take a moment to clarify my position: I am not a believer in "the vast right-wing conspiracy."  I do think there is a right-wing conspiracy; I think the conspiracy is rather small.  I am one of those who thinks that the Republican Party has been hijacked, not by a vast conspiracy, but by a minority of people who make my elitist pretensions look like Dorothy's scarecrow.  

My elitist pretensions

To clarify further my position: I have no beef with those who choose to believe in Intelligent Design.  But I really don't want ID to be presented as an alternative to a valid scientific body of knowledge.  As  I have alluded, I think that it is dangerous to do so.  

I would like to think that I am not, like Dorothy's scarecrow, seeing danger from every little spark.  Indeed, I've been known to take a risk or two.  

Corpus Callosum astride the San Anreas f
Corpus Callosum astride the San Andreas fault

I climbed that mountain just like Tom Cruise in the second Mission Impossible...  

My mission today is to explain the what the Republican hijackers are doing.  It is subtle and clever; difficult to see clearly: it is a tactic that obscures itself.  All politicians do it, so I am not picking on Republicans here.  I think America would be a better place if everyone would stop doing it.  The Republican hijackers, though, are pushing it farther than anyone else in recent history.

To understand this tactic, we first must take a couple of little detours.  First, into the land of Psychology.  The human brain has numerous sensory inputs, all of which are active all of the time.  There is much more information that the conscious mind could ever process.  As a result, most of the information is filtered out as being irrelevant, not salient.  

My favorite example is this: in July 1990, I began working in a building in Ann Arbor, on the north side of the Broadway bridge.  I lived south of there, so I drove over the bridge often.  One day, I noticed that there was a sign there, warning that the bridge might be icy.  Naturally, I noticed it on the first cold, wet day that I drove over the bridge.  In July, I hadn't noticed it; it was irrelevant.  On the day that my brain decided it was relevant, I noticed it.  

This is the fundamental principle used by magicians, who are adept at manipulating the perception of salience.  Likewise, politicians have a similar aptitude.  

The process in the brain, of sifting through the mass of information presented by the sensory system, and picking out the bits that are important, is enormously complex.  Yet we all do it, all the time, mostly without thinking about it on a conscious level.  
Our next detour goes into the land of Information Theory.  Consider for a moment the concept of signal to noise ratio:

Ignore this

(Ignore the formula above; it is just a pretentious decoration.  I don't actually understand it, and it is irrelevant anyway.)  

In common usage, signal to noise ratio describes the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant information.  Recall that the brain is constantly flooded with information, most of which is irrelevant.  Noticing the relevant bits is challenging enough, even if all you are doing is driving over a bridge.  If you have to do something that is really complex, such as electing a President, it is likely that you will not be able to notice, assimilate, and process all of the relevant information.  And the more noise there is, compared to the amount of relevant signal, the harder it gets.  

That is not a particularly new concept.  We all get flooded by noise during any campaign, and we all get annoyed by it.  Again, all Parties do it, and again, America would be a better place if they would stop doing it.  It is part of the Republican hijacker strategy, but it is not the really devious part.  

The devious part is this: after increasing the signal to noise ratio, they subvert the filtering process.  

All sensory input is suspect; that is, we know, right from the start, that some of it is false.  In order to filter out the false stuff, we use the concept of reasonable doubt.  As the bits of information come in, they are organized into packets: "that's a chair," "that's a ham sandwich," etc.  The packets then are examined for reliability.  You can't filter out all the packets for which there is any doubt about their reliability, because that would filter out everything.*  Instead, you have to let packets through the filter if the doubt about their reliability is not reasonable.  

Each person has her or his own way of determining the reasonableness of a doubt.  Each person's threshold for reasonableness is susceptible to manipulation.  The Bush administration is doing exactly that.  They do so by giving credence to individuals and small groups that promote administration-friendly positions despite have either little or no solid evidence.  

The fact that the current administration does this extensively and methodically has been well documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists (1 2 3) and by US Rep. Henry Waxman (1 2).  Also see my prior posts (1 2 3).

Back to the point.  This is the main point of the entire post:  When the President portrays ID as having some scientific validity, and when he gives equal credit to the few scientists who disagree with the notion of global warming, he manipulates people's threshold for reasonable doubt.  Suddenly, all scientific findings are open to doubt.  

The fact is, all areas of science, and all areas of human endeavor, have at least some controversy.  If we all were to adopt Bush's proposed threshold for reasonable doubt, nothing would ever get done; no conclusions ever would be drawn.  If any decisions were made, they would be made solely on the basis of charisma and persuasion.  Facts would become irrelevant.  This, I believe, is was Ron Suskind was getting at when he wrote, in his notorious essay:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
This is the way the Administration wants the world to work.  The facts you believe are chosen for you by those to whom you have political allegiance.  Whoever is better at posturing and sleight-of-hand gets to declare the truth.  A case in point: Congresspersons who do not support an investigation (HR 375, Rep. Barbara Lee) into the Downing Street Memo do not see a need for an investigation.  The Big Brass Alliance is wasting their time and bandwidth.  After all, the People already know what they believe.  A few annoying facts won't change anything, so why bother looking for the facts?

Who cares if there is evidence that Bush had already planned, by February 2001, to invade Iraq?  Who cares if the Administration had, in March 2001, drawn up a list of "Foreign Suitors of Iraqi Oilfield Contracts"?  Who cares if plans were in place by February 2003 to make use of Iraqi oil?  Do we really need to know when all the plotting started:
From the exclusive Harper's report by Greg Palast:

Within weeks of the first inaugural, prominent Iraqi expatriates -- many with ties to U.S. industry -- were invited to secret discussions directed by Pamela Quanrud, National Security Council, now at the State Department. "It quickly became an oil group," one participant, Falah Aljibury. Aljibury is an advisor to Amerada Hess' oil trading arm and Goldman Sachs.
Who care what the "mobile labs" really were?  Who cares what the aluminum tubes were for?  Who cares if Iraq really tried to buy uranium from Niger?  Who cares if the President deliberately lied about the uranium in his State of the Union Address?  No need to investigate the Valerie Plame matter.  We already know what to believe.

Who cares if the "facts" we present look like a pleasant California valley from above, but really collide like the San Andreas fault when you look under the surface.  Logical inconsistencies are not really dangerous, not really a sign of trouble up ahead.  

So, the uproar about Bush's promotion of Intelligent Design Theory is just the tip of the iceberg.  What is upsetting to scientists is the broad disregard, not just for science, but for facts.  It is not merely the rejection of one body of knowledge (evolution), rather, it is the rejection of the empirical method.  The implications go beyond the realm of science; domestic and foreign policy are affected just as badly.

*People smarter than me have pointed out that when you make the leap from pure logic to mathematics, you have to make at least one assumption.

Categories: science, politics
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(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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I find it interesting that Eliot filtered the 'Mixing Memory' blog and I happened to pay attention to it when I found it on his blog too.

When reasonable doubt is overshadowed by the allure of empire and our presidential filters aren't credible yet still happen to control the noise, I'd say exposing a bit of scarecrow straw is probably prudent.

I think discussion of ID and Bush's approval of it also needs to include
discussion again of the Grand Canyon creationism literature. And no, I'm not at all advocating that this discussion take place in schools, but rather needs to take place before it is implemented in any school as an indication of the door ID will open. Perhaps it should be discussed in a government class, but it almost slipped by me that government classes are no longer required under 'no child left behind'. ..sigh..

I think all schools need to send all kids on a geological field trip to the Grand Canyon and then to White Sands for a study of animal adaptation/evolution. Seeing a white lizards says far more than any word.
Yeah, the Grand Canyon creationism literature is wierd, and I was appalled to hear that our government was selling it.

It would be great to have all kids do field work on geology and evolution, although, on a practical note, I'd hate to see that many people trampling White Sands. Fortunately, there are natural wonders everywhere.
I think you bring up legitimate concerns about the possible underlying political and social agendas which may be motivating to some degree the "ID Movement."

The Chrisitian Right views Darwinian Evolution as a key ideological underpinning of a philosophy that has "corrupted" our culture with abortion,condoms,contraceptives,pornography,secular humanism, etc.

Certainly, no one who respects the scientific method wants to see supernatural creation taught as a viable scientific alternative to terrestrial geological and biological evolution.

However, that being said, theoretical models in quantum cosmology,quantum computation, and the Anthropic Cosmological Principal, for example, imply an a priori and special role of the intelligent observer. In this sense, human intelligence is far more "special" than implied by the traditional interpretation of Darwinian evolution.

If "ID" has an inclusive and broad interpretation, specifically relating to the evolution of "intelligent" life snd cosmological evolution, then there is considerable debate on the matter that extends beyond the consensus of biologists, geologists, and anthropologists, for example.

However, I'm not sure if this type of debate should extend down to the secondary and middle school levels because of it's complexity and the likelihood of corruption by local school board politics.
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