The Denial of Objective Reality

January 31, 2006

The last thing most people want to do these days is to recognize reality.

The attempts to justify alternate “ways of knowing,” the politicization of science research and education, the preponderance of overemotional and manipulative rhetoric, the perversion of journalistic integrity and standards, the rise of religious fundamentalism over common sense—these are all expressions of the same impulse towards denying the existence and significance of an objective reality. Escapism isn’t a phenomenon unique to the 21st century, or even to the modern era, though the advent of truly global warfare and modern weapons technologies had a profound effect on the modern consciousness. Certainly scientific inquiry has always been a thing to fear for some, especially when it reaches unpleasant conclusions, conclusions that challenge the status quo and force us to adopt new ways of thinking about the world. Likewise, people have always felt the need to deal with the realities with which they’re confronted, to find some way to make fact compatible with mythology, prejudice, and preconception. So when I mention this impulse towards denying reality, I don’t mean to suggest that it is unique to 2006—I realize it has a longer history than that.

Nevertheless, it seems to have become increasingly widespread and increasingly relevant in recent years. Even as science and technology experience exponential levels of growth and development, even as we learn more and more about the world around us, most people maintain a belief that facts are to some degree malleable. Reality, within this mindset, is secondary to belief and emotion. The core of the fallacy here is that reality (by definition) actually exists independent of belief and emotion; denying reality doesn’t make it any less real, nor does it keep reality from affecting us. There is an objective, empirically knowable world out there, and while we can certainly entertain some interesting philosophical scenarios about our senses being deceived, we all rely on our senses to give us an experience of the world, and those who retreat to faux nihilism in order to justify ignoring specific parts (the objectionable ones) of the empirical world are being intellectually dishonest.

This tendency is a result of a number of things, but mostly it’s a result of dogma. Religious dogma, political dogma, cultural dogma—the common denominator is the steadfast reliance on ideas that don’t respond or correspond to reality. Most of it, I suppose, tends to be tied to religious/theistic dogma, given that speculation about metaphysics (not to mention many religions’ teachings that the material/corporeal world is not something to worry about and is only a means to an end) is likely to lead to a disdain for the material world, and therefore a disdain for empirical fact. Intelligent Design/creationism proponents tout their beliefs as science because they don’t like the implications of the available data and of the accepted scientific theories; politicians and corporations work to distort science to their own ends, filtering out the research that doesn’t support the “conclusions” that have been pre-chosen according to self-interest; blowhard pundits spout shameless nonsense day after day for the purpose of manipulating public opinion, since the facts are either too much of a hassle to analyze rationally or else not supportive of the pundits’ views; journalists and newscasters twist stories to meet their own largely commercial ends, now that “news” has bled into “entertainment.” In nearly every significant area of life, there is a central drive toward ignoring or outright rejecting facts that happen to be inconvenient. If this isn’t chronic denial in the psychological sense, I don’t know what is.

The bottom line is this: the world doesn’t go away when we close our eyes. It is something that needs to be viewed, studied, analyzed, and dealt with, regardless of how much easier it may be to cover our eyes at the parts that challenge us. Truth seems to have fallen by the wayside as something to strive for, as a noble and important value to hold up beside beauty, freedom, and love (although I suppose at least two of those three are also disintegrating as ideals). This is not as it should be. The limitations of what we know about the world are significant enough without people deliberately ignoring the things we do know for the sake of expediency. Without a steadfast pursuit of truth, those other cherished ideals—especially freedom—start to become trivial.

We should be dealing with the world, and with the social and political and scientific realities of that world. Choosing to arbitrarily ignore these things should be unthinkable. Life doesn’t stop being complicated because we pretend it’s simple. Anyone who advocates this “facts don’t matter” attitude should be openly and publicly criticized–the facts do matter. They always have, and they always will, no matter how many people choose to indulge their ridiculous preconceptions at the cost of things like truth, honesty, and accuracy.


A Rational Morality

January 29, 2006

I’ve found on a number of occasions that people who conceive of morality as something handed down from on high don’t understand how there could be any alternative to that view. “If you don’t get your morals from [deity of choice], where do you get them?” The frequency with which this line of questioning appears demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what sort of a concept morality is and how we can coherently define it. The assumption at the heart of the misunderstanding is that morals must be things in the world—not necessarily that they must be tangible, but that they have an existence independent of the human mind. For a person holding this view, morals are fixed, constant, and external.

(Continued below the fold.)

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The, er, Ninth Step

January 26, 2006

Better late than never, I suppose: I am author number four.
By way of introduction, I list my interests, a turn-off, and beliefs.

  1. My primary interest is in how things work. In the past few months, this has led me to study, among other things, sociology, religion, productivity, physics, the brain, and nutrition. Mostly, I have a short attention span.
  2. I will listen to anything but memorized responses. I hate memorized responses.
  3. I believe in three things only: human agency, discourse, and chocolate.

And that’s that.


On John Stossel’s “Are American Kids Stupid?”

January 17, 2006

In a special report, John Stossel points out the disparities between American students’ scores and those of foreign students, stating that the difference lies in the fundamental structure of public education in the countries in question. Stossel basically says that in this country, where public schools are a government monopoly, and officials are bound by union rules, the lack of competition and excessive bureaucracy don’t reward achievement, and cannot punish incompetence, and this leads to the poor state of public schools. I saw him on The Colbert Report promoting the book, and that’s essentially what he said.

Now, John Stossel is libertarian, so he’s naturally opposed to government-run schools, believing them to be inherently less efficient than a private equivalent. He’s entitled to this opinion, and he may indeed be right (more like ‘far to the right’! zing!). I am certainly willing to examine the strengths of encouraging competition. My complaint is that this seems somewhat fallacious in making the correlation/causation jump a little too easily. The specific cases that were mentioned were certainly appalling, but they may not be a direct cause of the poor test scores.

TV “journalism” will probably always make emotional appeals and display logical gaps, but in a way, this is still a step in the right direction. We should be asking ourselves if a radical restructuring of this country’s education system is the right thing to do. This is at the core of improving public education in this country; things like private school vouchers are simply a band-aid at best. I really hope the media and the general public starts to take more of an interest in economic affairs besides knee-jerk responses and talking points about a strong/weak dollar, outsourcing, and so forth.


MLK Followup

January 17, 2006

It’s a little too close to bedtime for an in-depth discussion of the wiretapping issue, as much as I’m itching to get to that, but I wanted to post this tonight, and it didn’t quite fit anywhere in the previous post. Matt Welch of and Ed Brayton weigh in briefly on J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping of MLK, by way of an LA Times op-ed this morning. The most infuriating bit is the recounting of the FBI’s antagonism towards Dr. King (emphasis mine):

The FBI recorded tapes of King conducting extramarital affairs — and later had the tapes mailed to King anonymously, in one case actually encouraging him to commit suicide. Tapes were played for journalists, and the FBI sought to discredit King with foreign leaders, religious leaders, White House personnel and members of Congress. The bureau tried to kill a favorable magazine profile and encouraged one university to withhold an honorary degree.

The lesson to be taken from this is not just that MLK’s ideas were as unpopular with Hoover as they were with southern segregationists. Progress is a difficult thing to come by. It requires immense dedication and persistence, it requires forceful ideas and passionate rhetoric, and most of the time it requires many years to really take hold. Ignorance is not the only obstacle—unchecked political power of the sort that is currently being pursued so recklessly is just as much of a problem. But above all, this: the ideas are greater than the man, as great as the man may be, for the man can be intimidated or blackmailed or imprisoned or assassinated, but the ideology of progress is not so easily confined. Something to remember.


MLK Day, Commemoration, and Progress

January 17, 2006

As expected, there was a lot of blogging about Dr. King today, the best of which (at least of what I’ve read) was probably Josh Rosenau’s commentary about the continued importance of certain of Dr. King’s ideals. The most relevant bit is this:

What I want to remember on this anniversary of his birth is that Dr. King can’t be reduced to a sound bite and a now obvious call to end Jim Crow.

The importance of this can’t be overstated, I don’t think. The ideals of racial equality and nonviolent protest are generally offered up as a sort of distillation of Dr. King, a bullet point summary of what he was about and why he was important and, above all, why he’s commemorated by a federal holiday. Not to suggest that these aren’t hugely important things, because they most certainly are, but they’re not the whole story. We do Dr. King’s memory a disservice by a) ignoring the rest of his ideas in favor of the sexier and less controversial ones, and b) mistaking commemoration of the man for sincere consideration and contemplation of his ideas.

On the first count, as Rosenau points out, achieving equality is a lot more complex than replacing Jim Crow with affirmative action. Most anyone with a pulse can recognize that there is a race problem in this country, but far too often we seem to think that the job ended with desegregation. Racial equality, gender equality, social equality, religious equality, economic equality—none of these are problems with simple bandaid solutions. Disparity between groups of people is a result of more than just overt discrimination and prejudice, and it would behoove us to think a little bit more about the underlying systemic concerns, rather than patting ourselves on the collective back and saying “job well done.”

On the second count, I generally have problems with the canonization of historical/political figures (most notably the Founding Fathers, who I’ll probably get to in a future post). There is an American tendency—probably not exclusively an American one, but I can’t speak authoritatively about other cultures—to raise such figures to a monolithic status, in such a way that they become more myth than man, because we have such an instinct for hero worship and for reducing things to extremes of good and evil. This is not to say that these people haven’t done and said great and significant things, or that they don’t deserve to be seen as heroes. I get chills reading the “I Have a Dream” speech, and not just because I enjoy good oratory.

The problem is that this canonization has a distinct tendency to obscure the ideas and the reality of the person, to the point that we think we’re honoring the ideas by honoring the person. In some sense we are, but in granting the ‘hero’ label to a historical figure, what we usually end up saying in effect is that we’ve recognized that person’s accomplishment, and now we can forget about it and about the implications of it. I don’t mean to imply a sinister intent where there likely is none, but we do have a tendency to try to cast things in exceedingly simplistic terms, and this has significant negative effects. When we elevate a person to hero status, the person often begins to outshine the deeds and the words and the ideas that made him or her heroic. Inevitably, various things resurface to remind us that our heroes were flawed (Jefferson’s reproductive indiscretions, say), but rather than taking from this the message that people are heroic because they do and say heroic things and not because they’re ubermensch demigods, we start to doubt the merits of our own heroes and of the things we’ve previously recognized as heroic.

I guess the meat of what I’m saying is this: it’s not enough to declare a holiday. It’s not enough to spend one day a year extolling the virtues of a person. It’s not enough to reduce complicated people and complicated ideas to placeholders. It’s wonderful that we make a habit of remembering certain people (though there are quite a few others we’ve arbitrarily chosen not to remember) and certain events, that we maintain some sort of connection to our history, that we make an effort to pass these things along through the generations. It’s wonderful that we’ve made the progress we have, and that we make an effort to remember it. There are great men and women in our midst, and we should certainly celebrate them, but not to the exclusion of listening to what they have to say. Progress doesn’t rest on its laurels, and sometimes I worry that maybe we’re all missing the point.


Why Reason?

January 16, 2006

I’ve been debating with myself the last few days about what my first substantive post here should be. I’ve got no lack of things to write about, certainly—the post ideas have been accumulating for a while, to the point where I have an extensive (and slightly intimidating) list of ideas for the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to writing each one of these posts, and I’m not really one to complain about having an overabundance of ideas, but it does make it a bit tougher to figure out exactly where to start. It makes sense to me, though, to start at the source, to talk a little more about the frame in which I’m likely to do most of my writing.

Continued below the fold.
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