Monday, March 01, 2010

Discarding Data


An article at Daily Climate discusses the hate mail that climate scientists have been getting, and the likelihood that it's part of an organized campaign of intimidation.

The e-mails come thick and fast every time NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt appears in the press.

Rude and crass e-mails. E-mails calling him a fraud, a cheat, a scumbag and much worse.

To Schmidt and other researchers purging their inboxes daily of such correspondence, the barrage is simply part of the job of being a climate scientist. But others see the messages as threats and intimidation – cyber-bullying meant to shut down debate and cow scientists into limiting their participation in the public discourse.
I can't help wondering if it's really wise to delete e-mails like these, which could possibly provide forensic evidence for orchestrated attacks and astroturfing. As I see it, someone should be gathering these e-mails from as many recipients as possible: simply deleting hate mail, while understandable in emotional terms, doesn't seem like a good idea from a scientific standpoint or a political one.

While we're on the topic of discarding useful data, get a load of this:
The nature of public discourse – be it climate change or health care – has changed; information that does not fit one's worldview is now discounted or rejected.

Increasingly," wrote Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald recently, "we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth."
This just in: Public discourse is irrational pretty much by definition, and our self-styled defenders of "objective truth" might be a little more convincing if they weren't constantly wringing their hands over the loss of some rationalist Golden Age that never fucking existed, ever.

Never mind obvious examples like the Scopes trial and the decades of witless bickering it inaugurated; even something as apparently straightforward and logical as the imposition of standard time zones, back in the 19th century, was widely seen as arrogant tinkering with God's handiwork. To the extent that Pitts has a point, it's a point about the erosion of authority, not of "critical thinking." And even then it's dubious, since scientific authority has always tended to wax and wane along with its political utility. Power is knowledge, you might say.

As for being "alienated from even objective truth," I think Plato made a somewhat similar argument. As did Francis Bacon, when he said that "the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced." As have more people than I can name, again and again, from the dawn of recorded history 'til now. If Pitts is truly unaware of these little details, I'd say he's a better example of our intellectual decline than the fact that the man in the street has insufficient respect for climate modeling.

You can't treat AGW as an appropriate matter for public debate, and demand that the debate be conducted rationally, strictly on the basis of the evidence, because that's not how the public reliably operates even when the evidence is clear and accessible. Unless we intend to dissolve the people and elect another -- or to treat dissenters as irrelevant anti-patriots, the way we do when it comes time to launch wars -- we're stuck with them. Which is to say, we're stuck with us. If we're going to treat realism as some sort of civic duty, perhaps we should start being realistic about human history and how it's made, and stop blaming its victims.

(Illustration: "Credulity, Superstition, Fanaticism" by William Hogarth, 1762.)

21 comments:

Jazzbumpa said...

You have a point, but actually, Pitts does, too. I certainly don't think he's referring to a mythical rationalist golden age.

What we see now is rampant intellectual nihilism. Sure, there is always some of that going on. the Monkey Trial, sure, and Joe McCarthyism, that fascist priest back in the 30's.
But the level and intensity are not constant over time.

Even in my adult lifetime, the "collegiality" of the senate could be mentioned without raising a chorus of guffaws. The current condition has its origins in the Gingrich Contract on America, the right-wing assault on the Clinton presidency, and the rise in popularity of of negativistic demagogues like Limaugh, Hannity and Beck, who both foment and prey on ignorance and hate.

That demagoguery, partisanship and irrationality go hand-in-hand seems perfectly plausible to me. After all, though there are things about which right-minded people might differ, there is a hell of a lot more (these days) where one side has logic and the scientific method, and the other side just makes shit up.

It infects politics, economics, ans science. I was astounded to discover that a person's approach to a variety of scientific questions can accurately be predicted by his party affiliation. But that was a while back. Now I expect it.

I'm pretty sure this was not true in the 60's, 70's, or even much of the 80's.

As conservatism had sunk deper and deeper into ethical and intellectual bankruptcy, this has been the result.

Which is part of why . . .

WASF,
JzB

Jazzbumpa said...

"Comity" is the word I meant to use.

And I also intended to say that I saw a graph a while back that showed the correlation between the degree of partisanship and economic disparity in the population.

They're both the highest now since the very late 20's.

JzB

Jazzbumpa said...

Here it is.

JzB

Phila said...


What we see now is rampant intellectual nihilism. Sure, there is always some of that going on. the Monkey Trial, sure, and Joe McCarthyism, that fascist priest back in the 30's.
But the level and intensity are not constant over time.


The intensity, I'd agree on. The level? I'm not so sure about that.

If someone wants to argue that mainstream discourse features more aggression, less civility, and less respect for institutions that were formerly (and, often, irrationally) treated with ignorant respect rather than ignorant contempt, then I'd say that's possibly true (though it's also fair to say that someone like James O. Eastland wouldn't be tolerated nowadays, so progress has been made in some senses).

But the previous standards weren't based on logic or objectivity or anything like that, I don't think, so it's not sensible in my view to blame these problems on an increase in irrationality as opposed to, say, a lack of inhibition about reveling in it.

The other thing that bothers me about this line of reasoning is that we lived for decades -- or centuries, really -- as though the environment were of very little consequence. Now that we tend to see things differently, at long last, the persistence of what was previously a virtually universal outlook is suddenly a symptom of increasing illogic. I don't think that makes sense. As ghastly as our situation is, environmental concerns are far more widespread now than they were when I was a kid, at virtually every level of society.

I'll try to get to your other points later...got a headache right now.

Phila said...

a variety of scientific questions can accurately be predicted by his party affiliation. But that was a while back. Now I expect it.

I'm pretty sure this was not true in the 60's, 70's, or even much of the 80's.


I dunno. I think it's been true to some extent for a long time. Evolution's an obvious example, but there are others. Consider the debate over tetraethyl lead in gasoline, back in the 1920s (IIRC)...the dynamic between science and industry was pretty similar, though from what I've read it seems as though the public was actually much less involved and informed.

And of course, the Tobacco Industry's attack on science is not only similar to AGW denialism, but actually involves some of the same people.

Granted, tactics have changed or intensified, and some very extreme rhetoric has been mainstreamed. But does this mean that most people today understand less about science and logic than people did in 1950, or that a smaller group of people is feeling more threatened by what science is telling them? Mainly the latter, in my view. I tend to think that the growing respectability of environmental sciences in particular has brought our longstanding, fundamental irrationality into stronger relief.

Just my opinion, though. I may be overstating my case, or wrong altogether.

Phila said...

Heh. Mentioned this discussion to Teh Wife, who pointed out that the Intertubes should be taken into account too, since they've allowed previously isolate oddballs to band together and form pressure groups, while greatly increasing their access / vulnerability to misinformation.

I'm thinking she might just be on to something.

Rmj said...

Well, not to defend the "monkey trial," but if all you know about that is the play, you know nothing.

No offense to anyone.

The Scopes trial was staged by the business interests of the town. Just to quote briefly from Huston Smith:

Inherit the Wind portrays the Cates/Scopes character as unfairly persecuted. In reality, although the ACLU was looking for a test case with a teacher as defendant, it was a group of Dayton businessmen who persuaded Scopes to be a defendant, hoping that the publicity surrounding the trial would help put the town back on the map and revive its ailing economy. Scopes was never in the slightest danger of being jailed.

The movie was about the evils of McCarthyism, not of Xian fundamentalism and "know-nothingism."

OTOH, American public discourse has always been contentious, and seldom very "reasonable." Jules Verne inserted a bit of an exaggeration in Phileas Fogg's wanderings when Fogg encounters a riot in frontier America, which is nothing more than a campaign rally for a candidate for town dog-catcher.

Oh, as for the image we have of Bryan in the trial, that's the film, too:

Bryan was first and foremost a passionate humanitarian. He was an irrepressible evangelist for social reform, and social Darwinism (which would soon be discredited) was then in its heyday. Bryan had seen the survival-of-the-fittest theory used to defend the robber barons in America, and in Germany to justify the brutal militarism that led to World War I. This had led him to the belief that 'the Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." (Smith, 107)

We call that critique Social Darwinism now, but there's evidence Darwin himself held such views. The point being that, once again, history and our perception of history are very much at odds. The past is always a mixed bag, neither so "golden" nor so bleak, as we too often imagine.

And just to go on a bit longer:

I tend to think that the growing respectability of environmental sciences in particular has brought our longstanding, fundamental irrationality into stronger relief.

Well, 'everything new looks strange,' and the strange is always met with resistance. Especially when the 'strange' makes a bid for permanence.

Rmj said...

Oh, I can't resist. One last word from Smith. We see the trial as religion v. science. However:

The reporters who covered the [Scopes] trial saw things differently. They took the confrontation to be the opening skirmish in a battle between religious fundamentalism and religious modernists that would continue.

So it goes.

Octopüß said...

Phila - Mentioned this discussion to Teh Wife, who pointed out that the Intertubes should be taken into account too ...

The Internet has not fulfilled its grand utopian vision as a repository of knowledge and scholarship; it has merely accelerated the spread of ignorance through viral messages and cyber-terrorism.

When cyber-crooks try to poke holes in the dike to trap fingers and hands, that is when they steal your wallet.

Even more disturbing is this: Senator Inhofe seeks to criminalize the actions of 17 leading scientists.

Phila said...

Well, not to defend the "monkey trial," but if all you know about that is the play, you know nothing.

Not the case, I assure you. And the specific points you raise are actually part of the reason I cited the case.

As for your point about Bryan, I've made it myself many times...mainly at Eschaton. Which is a thankless task, as I'm sure you'll realize.

We call that critique Social Darwinism now, but there's evidence Darwin himself held such views. The point being that, once again, history and our perception of history are very much at odds.

You're preaching to the choir here, RMJ (albeit mellifluously). See also Why I Am Not a "Darwinist."

Phila said...

We see the trial as religion v. science. Oh, I can't resist. One last word from Smith. We see the trial as religion v. science. However:

The reporters who covered the [Scopes] trial saw things differently. They took the confrontation to be the opening skirmish in a battle between religious fundamentalism and religious modernists that would continue.


It's not either/or, of course. And there are also questions of class, cosmopolitan vs. rural culture, etc., some of which are echoed in the AGW debate.

Phila said...

The Internet has not fulfilled its grand utopian vision as a repository of knowledge and scholarship; it has merely accelerated the spread of ignorance through viral messages and cyber-terrorism.

But...but...the Singularity is near!

Rmj said...

I was harsher than I meant to be earlier. I plead lack of coffee (ran out of filters for the Chemex, broke the glass on the french press) as my excuse, and mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The Scopes trial is kind of a hot-button with me. But that makes me obnoxious on the subject, too.

I do look at it, though, and wonder at the roots of American know-nothingism. The fundamentalist v. modernist Xian battle may well have started there, but what it hath wrot! "Modernism" (not the school, but the contrast) is so beaten up it is now regularly blamed for losing the PR battle. And while I don't believe in a "golden age" of reason (even during the Renaissance or the Enlightenment), and even remind people the French Revolution and Reign of Terror were exemplars of reason in their day (or started that way), I do goggle at American culture. At the turn of the century (around the time of the Scopes trial, in fact), there was a huge business in koine Greek correspondence courses, so ordinary persons could read the NT in the original tongue. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

I even remember staunch Southern Baptists who defended a seminary education at Harvard as the sine qua non of a "man (of course!) of God." Almost equally hard to imagine.

Not sure what happened, but we have been slightly more, and slightly less, reasonable over time. And sweet reason is not always the cure for what ails society, as it is more often the agreement of those with the power (see, e.g., Revolution, French; Terror, Reign of) than it is the objective transcendent which binds all together in peace and harmony.

Considering how much as changed since 1925, or the fact that the Encyclopedia Britannica had no entry for "Scopes trial" until 1957, and then the reference was to the play, not the historical event....well.....

It's a dark picture, indeed.

Oh, just to really stretch it out, a comment on the issue from Karen Armstrong:

Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.

As you say, many factors involved; and not a straight line anywhere to be seen.

Jazzbumpa said...

Lots of interesting commentary, folks.

It's not either/or, of course.

That was kind of my point, sorta.
When Tip O'Neill was Speaker, I think he and Reagan, or at least the Minority Whip would have drinks together and hash things out. That is unthinkable today.

Whatever it is that caused the crystallization of the religious right - Scopes, and/or the formation of the Moral Majority (the greatest oxymoron in the history of either oxygen or morons) some decades later, they are a large component in the current fever pitch of anti-intellectual fervor.

Anyway,
WASF,
JzB

Phila said...

I was harsher than I meant to be earlier. I plead lack of coffee (ran out of filters for the Chemex, broke the glass on the french press) as my excuse, and mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

No worries. Coffee woes aside, I know very well that you come by your touchiness on this subject honestly.

I do goggle at American culture. At the turn of the century (around the time of the Scopes trial, in fact), there was a huge business in koine Greek correspondence courses, so ordinary persons could read the NT in the original tongue. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

I'm always happy to defend earlier generations against charges of being "stupid" compared to us. I don't believe that at all. Hell, I tend to get wistful about certain aspects of Puritan culture.

But as to the specific claim that we're becoming more "illogical," or have lost some fundamental understanding of science...I'm not so sure about that.

And as to environmental issues -- which are, after all, what this article was about -- I don't think one can really say we're devolving, any more than one could say we're losing ground on LGBT rights because of the current unhinged rhetoric about same-sex marriage. In both cases, the fact that there's actually space for a debate is much more historically and culturally significant than any specific debating tactic, IMO.

And sweet reason is not always the cure for what ails society, as it is more often the agreement of those with the power (see, e.g., Revolution, French; Terror, Reign of) than it is the objective transcendent which binds all together in peace and harmony.

Well said, and I agree completely. Which is why I tried to suggest that this is a problem relating more to authority and legitimation than to knowledge.

After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.

Sounds about right to me.

Rmj said...

I don't mean to come across as argumentative (at least not when caffeine-deprived), so let me affirm your last comment, and note my whole-hearted agreement.

Illogic is no more rampant than it was in Socrates' day, when women and children were specifically denied any ability to reason (or hold power. The ghost of Foucault haunts my dreams.) That said, you are right, we are certainly more aware of humanity's effect on the environment than we have been before. Perhaps not since the natives who were here when the Europeans started coming has a society on these shores cared so much about the planet we live on.

Still more to do, of course. More reason to be reasonable than pessimistic, eh?

And alright, I've been challenged, I should refer to the original post. I think this is right:

The nature of public discourse – be it climate change or health care – has changed; information that does not fit one's worldview is now discounted or rejected.

And so the question is: what's the cause to this effect? Hmmmm...deep waters, indeed. Perhaps something connected with Armstrong's observation on the shift of Xian fundies; or Martin Marty's observations on what led to fundamentalism in the first place (reaction to "modernity" as exemplified by German Biblical Scholarship, for the most part). Too much change much too fast; although there is a second factor of the immigrant culture of America clinging to an ideal of the "motherland" that no longer exists (and never did. Did all Germans really where lederhosen all the time, and drink beer and laugh?). That kind of nostalgia certainly marks American cultural history more than it does European cultural history.

What of the day when information did fit a common worldview? Well, I think that "day" was more like Attic Greece than democratic America. The common worldview was that of the White Men in Charge. They Settled The West, and Built This Country (no slave labor acknowledged!) and...well, you know.

I suspect that common worldview wasn't even common until WWII united the country as nothing else had. My own theory is that America was far more a confederation of states than it was one nation indivisible, before Pearl Harbor (and even after the War of Northern Aggression). FDR's New Deal alone didn't change our attitudes, but the fight against the common enemy did.

And we've been fighting a "common enemy" ever since. When we can't, we can't seem to find a common worldview.

I wonder if I'm on to something here....?

Rmj said...

btw, let me just say: damn, you are a pleasure to talk to.

And a more congenial spot for truly interesting conversation I have not found on the blogosphere.

Phila said...

RMJ, that's just about the nicest thing anyone's said to me, and it's especially gratifying coming from you.

Jeez. Maybe I better quit while I'm ahead.

Seriously, I'm amazed and humbled. Thanks.

Vicki said...

Wow. I really enjoyed reading this exchange. Both of you kind gentlemen are impressive.

Rmj said...

Wow. I really enjoyed reading this exchange. Both of you kind gentlemen are impressive.

This doesn't mean we have to hug, or something...does it?

Phila said...

This doesn't mean we have to hug, or something...does it?

Given that it's Vicki talking, I'm guessing it's gonna be "or something."