The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'irrationalism'
The Beatles may have helped bring down the USSR, but in the West, they helped usher in an age of endarkenment by making mysticism fashionable and opening the door to an assortment of crackpots and frauds, according to debunker of “alternative medicine” and miscellaneous quackery, Professor David Colquhoun:
At the same time, he hopes that the "fashion for irrationality", which he dates back to the Beatles going to India "when flower power stopped being fun and started being mystical bollocks", may be fading. His abiding hero is Bertrand Russell, and he laces his conversation with favourite quotes, including Russell's maxim that "it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true".Professor Colquhoun has a blog, DC's Improbable Science, in which he debunks things from tabloid cancer scares to alternative therapies; see, for example, his Guide to Magic Medicine, which is handed out to medical students when discussing alternative medicine.
With only days to go until the US Presidential election approaches, a poll states that 68% of registered Republican voters believe in the reality of demonic possession, compared to only 48% believing in the reality of climate change.
Meanwhile, The Baffler has a piece on the nexus between direct-mail con artists and Movement Conservatism in the US. The thesis of this essay is that the US Right today has a culture built on paranoia, a distrust of critical thought and a tolerance of lying, and that this culture is partly due to from a system of highly successful multi-level marketing cons, get-rich-quick scams and crooked fundraising operations wrapped in inflammatory calls to urgent action attached parasitically to the conservative movement for half a century. This state of affairs had modest beginnings in the 1960s, as the wake of the political autoimmune disorder that was McCarthyism was bleeding into the rise of the civil-rights movement and everything from modern art to teenage rock'n'roll were assaulting the relaxed and comfortable status quo of the extended 1950s. (The full cultural horror of the Sixeventies had yet to make an appearance, but it would, in turn, prove highly profitable.) It all started when a canny businessman acquired a list of Republican Party donors and and started using it to make money from the fearful and credulous, establishing a system of fundraising for right-wing causes which, conveniently, absorbed most of its takings in administrative expenses, leaving little for fighting imaginary Communist abortionists. This, in turn, was followed by an ecosystem of parasites, selling everything from miracle cures to investment strategies the pinko liberals don't want you to know about to the movement-conservative demographic, and reinforcing a culture of paranoia, demonisation of a nefarious Other and a convenient detachment from objectively measurable reality, culminating in the political climate today:
In 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value.Dear Friend: Do you believe that children should have the right to sue their parents for being “forced” to attend church? Should children be eligible for minimum wage if they are being asked to do household chores? Do you believe that children should have the right to choose their own family? As incredible as they might sound, these are just a few of the new “children’s rights laws” that could become a reality under a new United Nations program if fully implemented by the Carter administration. If radical anti-family forces have their way, this UN sponsored program is likely to become an all-out assault on our traditional family structure.In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin—where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches—the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.
The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agricultural scientist Nina Fedoroff, has spoken out about a rising anti-scientific mood, largely triggered by corporate-funded populist attacks against science:
As Fedoroff pointed out, university and government researchers are hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate. Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by rightwing politicians. At the last Republican party debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the "hoax" of global warming.
"Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying," said Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego.This phenomenon is not confined to the United States; Canada's stridently right-wing government has prohibited its scientists from speaking to the public without explicit government vetting. Similar things happened in Australia under the Howard government, and chances are that political censorship of research will return with a vengeance when newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott moves to repay his debts to the mining industry.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the Tea Party and similar right-wing populists are organising against environmental programmes, which they see as parts of a United Nations and/or Communist plot against the American way of life. You see, building bike lanes and high-speed railways is just a plot to coerce the free American people into giving up their SUVs, McMansions and God-given freedom and submitting to collectivisation like the wretched inhabitants of hellholes like Sweden and Switzerland. And as for smart electric meters, they're part of a plot to bring in a Communist dictatorship, just like water fluoridation, the invisible bar codes on road signs which will guide the Chinese UN troops massing south of the Mexican borders as they herd Christian patriots to the reeducation camps, and the Computer God Frankenstein Controls:
In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions. “It sounds a little on the weird side, but we’ve found we ignore it at our own peril,” said George Homewood, a vice president of the American Planning Association’s chapter in Virginia.
In June, after President Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Rural Council to “enhance federal engagement with rural communities,” Fox programs linked the order to Agenda 21. A Fox commentator, Eric Bolling, said the council sounded “eerily similar to a U.N. plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one world order.”
Christopher Hitchens reports on Prince Charles' increasingly ominous anti-science pronouncements, and his even more sinister fellow travellers:
Discussing one of his favorite topics, the "environment," he announced that the main problem arose from a "deep, inner crisis of the soul" and that the "de-souling" of humanity probably went back as far as Galileo. In his view, materialism and consumerism represented an imbalance, "where mechanistic thinking is so predominant," and which "goes back at least to Galileo's assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion." He described the scientific worldview as an affront to all the world's "sacred traditions." Then for the climax: "As a result, Nature has been completely objectified—She has become an it—and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo's scheme."
So this is where all the vapid talk about the "soul" of the universe is actually headed. Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The "vacuum" will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now. One thinks of the painstaking, cloud-dispelling labor of British scientists from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Charles Darwin to Ernest Rutherford to Alan Turing and Francis Crick, much of it built upon the shoulders of Galileo and Copernicus, only to see it casually slandered by a moral and intellectual weakling from the usurping House of Hanover.
Some animal shelters in the US are refusing to give black cats away for adoption before Halloween, lest the hapless moggies end up abused or sacrificed in Satanic rituals. The same goes for white rabbits, it seems. (I'm guessing that goats and black cockerels aren't found often enough in animal shelters to be an issue˙)
“It’s kind of an urban legend. But in the humane industry it’s pretty typical that shelters don’t do adoptions of black cats or white bunnies because of the whole satanic sacrificial thing,” Morgan said. “If we prevent one animal from getting hurt, then it serves its purpose.”
“Black cats already suffer a stigma because of their color,” said Gail Buchwald, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter in New York City. “Why penalize them any more by limiting the times when they can be adopted?”Apparently superstitions about black cats are not uncommon in the US:
Black cats tend to be adopted less often than other felines, Buchwald said. “Behaviorally, there’s no difference from the color of the cat. It’s tied into this whole mythology about the animal — don’t let it cross your path or some foreboding or foreshadowing of evil — and that’s an outdated superstition,” she said.
John Scalzi claims that the great political divide of our time is not between liberals and conservatives, but between rationalists and irrationalists:
There's a more common name for irrationalists in politics: "wingnuts." But I think that particular word is both inaccurate and falsely comforting, since it suggests that irrationalists are marginalized on the edge of political discourse. A hint for you: When an irrational politician sleeps in the White House, irrationalism is not exactly marginalized. Irrationalists aren't wingnuts; they're not even the wings. They're the damned fuselage of political discourse at the moment, and I think that's pretty damn scary.
Bush's irrationalist tendencies have fundamentally little to do with his conservative tendencies, which is to say that the former are not spawned from the latter. God knows irrationalism lies on both sides of the conventional political spectrum; the irrationalists of the left who tried to expunge "dead white guys" from curricula back when I was still in school to my mind walk arm and arm with the irrationalists on the right who are now busily trying to expunge evolution. An irrationalist liberal in the White House would be no better than Bush, that's for sure.
Though was there ever a time when rationalism held sway over politics, as opposed to public discourse being buffeted by impulses, fashions, superstitions, waves of mass hysteria and the effects of human cognitive biases which probably made excellent sense on the hunter-gatherer savannah? This has been the case in Plato's day and Shakespeare's, and will probably be so throughout the future of humanity. When the post-singularity nanobot hives populated by the uploaded personalities of our distant descendants launch for outer space in 500 years' time, chances are their politics and public discourse will be just as dominated by prejudices, phobias, omens, superstitions and kneejerk reactions as they are now.
Nonetheless, while rationalism is, to some extent, a lost cause, it is one worth taking up. Sure, if you take up the rationalist banner, the multitudes may laugh at you, call you a crank and sometimes throw things at you, but with patience and perseverance, you can persuade a few people and make the heavily-armed madhouse that is the world slightly less psychotic. At least until the next wave of mass excitement sweeps through it, anyway.
On a tangent, Australian lefty cultural commentator Phillip Adams on politicians and other leaders embracing irrational beliefs, from Reagan's Apocalyptic Christianity and Blair's taste for new-age mumbo-jumbo to the Australian founding fathers' fondness for the Victorian spiritualist fad and Gandhi's reliance on soothsayers before nuclear tests.
It's certainly a recurring theme in politics. One wonders, though, whether it's a case of (a) everybody being a bit kooky, and the media amplifying this in public figures, (b) politicians being (for some reason) more irrational than the man on the street, or (c) successful politicians realising that it pays to pander to irrational beliefs, and that rationality is punished. (Look, for example, at Al Gore, and his image of being a heartless, calculating robot-like being. Never mind that he had embraced the whacko anti-technology mystical-primitivist side of the environmental movement some years before that; perhaps he just wasn't fluffy enough.)