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Friday, March 26, 2010


Well, I got carried away by the prospect of the re-emergence of the public option. That is what happens when you get up in the middle of the night to watch the U. S. Senate on a little laptop. Suffice it to say that the Reconciliation package has been passed by both Houses, and health care reform is now on the books.

I have heard from a number of you in response to my plea for enlightenment on just what is driving right wingers crazy. Your various suggestions are on the mark, and I do not really have comments on them. I think perhaps I am simply having trouble thinking my way into the minds of people who are capable of viewing the passage of this bill as Armageddon [Boehner], or fascism, or communism, or the downfall of American liberty.

A propos my difficulty plumbing the depths of the minds of some people, I have now finished reading Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. As I think I explained, this is his effort to respond, with a flood of facts, to the evolution deniers and creationists who number 40% of the American population, and smaller but still sizeable portions of European populations. In an Appendix, Dawkins reports in more detail on some polling, the results of which are really quite appalling. It seems, for example, that in a number of European countries, including Great Britain, roughly 20% of those polled think that the earth goes around the sun every month. As Dawkins says with exasperation, "What, I wonder, do they think a year is?"

This actually raises a broader and deeper question that is worth reflecting on in a systematic manner. We tend somewhat unthinkingly to suppose that because so many people use the technology of the modern age -- television, cell phones, computers, automobiles,PDAs and all the rest -- they must have some general sense of the science underlying that technology. But it seems to me much more likely that this is not at all the case. Many, many people who think of themselves as quite au courant [except that they wouldn't use that phrase] with modern technology actually have a very primitive relationship to it. They know, in a brute sort of way, that pushing this button produces that result. They know how to text, but have no idea of the electronic processes by which text messages are created and transmitted. They are, in fact, simply clueless about the world. I recall fifty-six years ago, when I was sailing on a student ship from New York to Southhampton, England, hearing two young women asking the purser where the mailbox was on the ship. They had just written home, and wanted to send their letters off right away. Very patiently [I thought], he explained to them that as they were on a ship in the middle of the ocean, the letters would not be mailed until they reached port. The women were quite put out, and not a bit embarrassed by the sheer stupidity of their question.

This pandemic of ignorance is concealed from us in part by the fact that there is also a sizeable number of people [probably a minority, I would guess] who are really quite knowledgeable about the basic facts of science. This includes not only techies and people who have chosen some branch of science as their life work, but also lots and lots of people who are simply curious about the world around them and absorb basic information as it passes before their minds. There was a time, perhaps, when the wearing of nerd packs and horn rimmed glasses identified those folks, but no longer.

It is quite possible to get through the day successfully without even the dimmest understanding of how anything actually works. Unfortunately, ignorance is a very poor foundation for the formation of judgments about matters of public policy.


Scott said...

If you read Caplan's book, you'll see just how ignorant the general population truly is with regards to public policy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. It is discouraging, especially for someone who has soent half a century in the classroom.

Unknown said...

Even political economic modelers now have a game theory application that shows how policy makers may choose NOT to expand public education in order to maintain political control, even if education improves overall economic productivity.

We are observing now widespread cuts in public education in the U.S. and control over textbook language.

The alternative is expanded educational opportunities, which the new student loan program (embedded in the health care bill) can begin to address....AND create jobs in education!

But in arguing that this is all very rational from a certain political point of view, I risk sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theorist!


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nobody ever doubted that it is easier to control people when you keep them stupid. But how do you talk to people who just do not understand the first thing about how the world works?

Unknown said...

One addresses ignorant people with prejudices, fears, superstitions, lusts, and hatreds....

What would Marcuse say? or WWMS...... :-)

Then just try to get them to vote for higher taxes to support more education!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure Marcuse could have imagined the levels of sheer ignorance that seem to be abroad in the land.

george.w said...

I had a conversation this week in which the other person felt that cell phone usage might cause cancer. I told her there was no compelling scientific basis for her concern. She replied; "Well I don't know about that, but I just feel that it might be dangerous. It just isn't natural, talking to other people at a distance like that."

I could not get her to describe the distinction between a cell phone and a land line in that respect. Of course, there is the well-known mechanism by which using a cell phone while driving can prevent cancer - just not necessarily your own.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

George, what drives me nuts is not the fact that there are many things any given person does not understand. That is natural. It is the sheer lack of curiosity about the world. As Dawkins observed, if you think the earth goes around the sun in a month, does it never occur to you to wonder why the seasons cycle annually rather than monthly?

Daniel said...

I wonder if you have read Bernard Lonergan's Insight? The first 12 chapters deal exactly with what you are talking about in this post (after that he dives off into some very Jesuit metaphysics and reboots Thomas Aquinas' argument for the existence of god). It is very difficult reading, but well worth it. And this is coming from a hardcore atheist.

Lonergan's argument basically rests on the differences between theoretical knowledge (science) and common sense. The pragmatism of common sense gives it a bias against science and, in the general population, reduces its value. It results in a lack of critical analysis/thinking. He uses it as a reason to encourage studies in the impractical (and, of course, theology).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Daniel, I do not know Lonergan's work at all, though I know his name. Do you have a reference?

Daniel said...

I don't have any references really. The only knowledge I have of his work comes from my reading of his work directly in school and at home.

The internet encyclopedia of philosophy has a very rough breakdown of him, but it includes work I haven't read.

Insight, however, is a great book on the process of cognition and gives a generalized method of how it fails us (from time to time). I've seen ideas of his pop up as new breakthroughs in psychology over the last couple years and found myself chuckling about how a philosopher in the 50s had already figured the stuff out.