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Monday, November 12, 2018

The Skeptic Tradition

By Sam Huntington

Here we are in the 21st Century —an age so advanced in science and technology that most of us can’t get our heads around it. Add to this, again for most of us, the real problem of information overload. These days, there’s simply too much to know; the mass of information that we do have doesn’t allow much room for adding in more. As a result, we’ve become quite selective about what we want to know. The United States of America may host one of the world’s most specialized societies. I can’t say that this is either a good or bad thing ... but I can say that specialization has a fragmenting effect on society overall. Bio-specialists are not known to hang-out with welders. It is no longer adequate to consult with a lawyer; you have to consult with a lawyer that specializes in your particular problem. In the medical profession, all I can say is thank goodness for general practitioners who serve us as our conduit to specialized medicine.

I was reading a magazine the other day, an article written by one of the so-called earth scientists, who was complaining about the American skeptic. Why, he moaned, do Americans continue to question the wisdom, authority, or expertise of scientists? He wrote, “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge —from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change— faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days —in books, articles, and academic conferences— that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.”

It didn’t take long for the writer to arrive at the conclusion that the problem is really that Americans are foolishly skeptical. Yes, our lives are permeated by science and technology; American society is more complicated and unsettling. And, he continued, “We face risks that we can’t easily analyze.” Well, I think this is true. What does a welder know, or understand, or even care about bio-research (until it affects him or her personally)? It leads me to conclude that American society is far more complicated than we realize and our penchant for classifying people as either wealthy, middle class, or poor is merely a matter of convenience to journalists who actually know less than the welder does about bio-science (unless they’re specialized journalists, of course).

But why are Americans so skeptical? I think that generally, we distrust science and technology because of the way it has been used in the past to confuse us, and then to use that confusion —that lack of knowledge or understanding— to take advantage of society as a whole. I last wrote about climate science; I can use that as my leading example of society’s distrust of the scientific community. There are many other examples. Who were the nimrods in science that gave us the notion of nuclear energy without considering what ought to be done with spent fuel rods? Oh, we found a solution to this, of course, after the mother of necessity resulted in the expenditure of billions of dollars in land requisition and the creation of underground storage facilities. That story, by the way, is far from over. Here are a few more scientific blunders that cause us to question science:

In the 1950s, Brazilian geneticists cross-bred mild-mannered honeybees with their African cousins. Apparently, this is what everyone needed in 1950: very aggressive bees. The bee’s escaped their enclosure. Today, killer bees are a problem in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California: hundreds of people have been killed or seriously injured by killer bee attacks. It doesn’t help, of course, that killer bees and honey bees look identical. Thank you, science.

In 1981, Harvard researcher John Darsee faked data in heart studies. It was found that the data he used for most of his 100 published studies had been completely fabricated.

In 1985, Robert Slutsky, a noted cardiac-radiology specialist altered data and lied about the methods he used in turning out a prolific number of research articles. He was forced to resign from the University of California (San Diego) School of Medicine.

A study in 1986, conducted by two Yale sociologists and a Harvard economist warned that single women aged 35 had but a five percent chance of ever marrying, that women over 40 were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to ever find marital bliss. Pure poppycock.

On 26 April 1986, Soviet nuclear experts learned the meaning of an American expression: “Oh shit.” When these scientific engineers turned off Chernobyl’s cooling system a runaway chain reaction blew the smithereens out of the reactor. The result was the release into the atmosphere more than 100 times the radioactivity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, we know that more than 4,000 people died; 70,000 were permanently disabled. What we don’t know is the number of people who died as an indirect consequence of this catastrophe: the event affected the entire United States as the radioactive material eventually fell to earth and was consumed by dairy and beef cattle —which we promptly consumed.

In 1990, Carl Sagan’s 1983 warning about Nuclear Winter was proved to be based on incomplete data. Sagan claimed that he erred in his temperature estimates, mea culpa, but not before he’d managed to scare the bejesus out of millions of people.

In 1999, the National Geographic Society revealed that a dinosaur with bird-like plumage proved that dinosaurs didn’t actually disappear, they merely evolved in to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The entire event was a hoax and the folks in a small village in China that perpetuated the hoax were laughing for decades.

In 1999, Iridium (a communications company) became one of the twenty largest bankruptcies since the invention of banks. The company promised crystal-clear cellular phone service anywhere on earth. The company launched 66 satellites at a cost of over $5 billion. So, um ... the phones were bulky, cost $3,000 each, the cost of a call was several dollars per minute, and the system wouldn’t work in-doors. Offered one critic, “Most people don’t need to call Dakar at a moment’s notice; in fact, the number of such people is probably dwarfed by the number of people who really need to talk to aliens.” An interesting event, no doubt, but who cares? Well, for one thing, money is not an unlimited resource —wasting it has implications across our entire society. Going bankrupt impacts all kinds of people who depend on technological development for their livelihoods.

In 1900, the average life span of an American male was 47-years. Because of antibiotics, the average life expectancy for an American male today is 76. The bad news is that medical science ignored the consequences of promiscuous use of antibiotics and the people for whom these medicines were prescribed were never warned about the consequences of not taking these drugs for the full course of treatment. Well, today, there are entire categories of antibiotics that no longer work because bacteria have mutated to resist these drugs. Thanks to these scientists and medical professionals, we do not have any drugs that will resist deadly bacterial diseases. No problem, though ... we’ll just spend another hundred or so million dollars to research this matter further. Meanwhile, Americans today are scratching their heads trying to understand why drugs are so expensive.

My final example is a decision taken in 1995 that students in Colorado would no longer be tested on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Kansas followed suit in 1999. Evolution isn’t taught at all in Mississippi or Tennessee. Florida and South Carolina only touch lightly upon the topic. So then, following the Scopes Trail in 1925, why are these topics suddenly off the table? The answer is because scientists have become too bizarre to take seriously. A noted Japanese paleontologist became convinced that patterns in water seepage in rocks were actually mini-fossils; he concluded that all life on earth was descended from mini-horses, mini-cows, and mini-dragons.

So, Americans are skeptical about science and technology for good reasons. Sure, people make mistakes, but mistakes in science and technology have adversely affected the lives of the American people —indeed, people all across our planet. As with the issue of global warming and climate change, I would prefer to see less rushing to judgment before we’ve had time to accumulate data and carefully analyze its implications.

Meanwhile, I remain skeptical of almost anything I read in science or medical journals. Why? Because these well-educated elitists have not proven themselves trustworthy. Besides that, I’m a traditionalist and skepticism is an American tradition.

12 comments:

  1. Thank you Sam. It's good to get away from the "stock," enemedia-generated "concerns" over which the ubiquitous opinionmakers saturate the air every day.

    This incessant assault on our collective consciousnesss virtually forces us to obsess over topics the great masterminds who control the flow of inforation and opinion choose for us.

    Most of this I am morally certain is agenda-driven meaning an honest search for objective truth never enters into the mix. Every day our worldview is being molded by unseen, unknown, unknowable forces. We have been collectively mermerized into believing our understanding of reality must rely on the published or broadcast "findings" of "experts" many of whom function, as you said, in ever narrowing chambers of specialized, often obscure, recondite knowledge that makes little or no attempt to relate the given area of spcialization to the challenges rank and file citizens must deal with in the workaday world –– OR to explore the practical ramifications common sense should tell these exalted "specialists" their "findings" are bound to have on the way the vast majority live their lives.

    The fragmentation, as you indicated, of this overspecialization has been to create myriad enclaves each of which feels increasingly alienated from, –– suspicious of, –– and too often resentful toward –– the others. And so we have became a society increasingly dominated and governed by warring splinter factions.

    Given this is it any wonder we are all at each other's throats?

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  2. I should add too that the farther away we drift from Bedrock Moral Principles –– i.e. the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, the Wisdom and Encouragement found in earnest perusal of the books of Proverbs, and Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, and particularly, the writings of St. Paul, the farther will get from any hope of achieving a society with a benevolent, unified sense of common purpose and an enlightened humane way of treating one another regardless of our individual attributes or economic and socal station in life.

    If our endeavors are not predicated ona devoted adherence to PRINCIPLE in an honest pursuit of TRUTH, we are DOOMED to live in an increasingly intense nightmare of rabid hostility generated by inappropriately by self-righteous bigots, arrogant knowitalls, and wily, short-sighted, self-serving interests who've divorced themselves from real concern for the Common Good.

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  3. One last thought in reference to the virtue of skepticism:

    Einstein told us

    "QUESTION EVERYTHING."

    Walt Whitman advised:

    "Be CURIOUS, not JUDGMENTAL."

    Saint Paul wrote:

    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

    ~ St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 4:8 (KJV)




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  4. The only Americans these days, who remain skeptical....are the intellectually curious. That is an endangered species. The demographic is further thinned when the erstwhile skeptic come up against their own 'politically correct' sacred cows.

    What should be a national pastime [skepticism], is now but a quaint notion....

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    1. There's an imortant difference between healthy SKEPTICISM –– which I see as another word for CURIOSITY –– and the withering, cripplngs effects of sneerng CYNICISM.

      It's wrong to conflate the two, despite their having certain superficial characerisics in common.

      I would agree that the smug, smothering self-righteousness and willful blindiness of PHILISTINISM may be the worst of the three.

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  5. How can we NOT be specialists? The division of labour DEMANDS it.

    And how can there be truth when there is no longer a king to tell you what truth is. The University discourse has become the Master's discourse. And who is the Master in a democracy? Why, its the prevailing opinion of 51%.

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  6. TODAY is VETERANS DAY or ARMISTICE DAY, so once again I post the poem written just yesterday to note the occasion. Make of it what you will, f course, but I hope someone discovers themerit and relevance in it.

    ___ A VETERAN’S DAY LAMENT ___

    The thought arises once again:
    That our brave men have died in vain
    If in our now-degraded state
    We see no more why they were great,––
    And rattle on belligerently ––
    Rejecting Thought that made us free ––
    Embracing now with loud insistence ––
    Malice threatening our existence ––
    Tearing at each other's throats ––
    While a leering Satan gloats ––
    A sorry spectacle that wrenches
    My heart thinking of the trenches
    Filled with anguish, fear and dread
    As bullets whizzed above each head,
    And buried in the mud the mines
    Lurked to shatter limbs and spines,
    While in the distance cannons boomed
    Inspiring fear that all were doomed.
    Then to see a body shattered ––
    One a buddy –– now "parts" scattered ––
    In the mud with corpses strewn ––
    Gruesome lit by sun or moon ––
    More pitiful the wounded lie
    In agony praying to die.
    And all around the smell of blood
    Vomit, –– urine, –– faces, –– crud
    Defined the hellish atmosphere
    But few if any shed a tear.
    They knew they had a job to do ––
    Protecting our land –– and you ––
    From Tyranny, –– Brutality ––
    Poverty –– and Slavery ––
    Their Sacrifice –– Our Legacy –
    Now relegated to the Fire ––
    Ever the Enemy’s Desire ––
    Because their precious Victory
    Was neutralized by Sophistry
    That promised Peace eternally
    By ceding our Sovereignty
    As a dumb ovine assembly
    Always led too easily
    To the abattoir where brutally
    They end up slaughtered ruthlessly.
    And so the Enemy has won ––
    Not by bayonet, bomb, or gun ––
    But by an ideology
    Seductive, to those lazily
    Imagining there’s an Easy Way
    To stop becoming Satan’s Prey.
    Thus lulled into a stupor we
    Now feel a false Security.
    Forgetting the we owe a debt
    To those brave men who fought to get
    Continued Opportunity
    To cherish their fine legacy.
    Because the Left runs Education
    We’ve lost our great Emancipation ––
    Betrayed great men through dissipation
    Made worse by fruitless argumentation.


    ~ FreeThinke (11/11/18)

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  8. On the right, there's always been a fine line between skepticism and stupidity. Write a letter to your descendants about your climate change views. I'm betting you will be thought of as the family fool within a few generations.

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  10. "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine."

    ~ Solomon -KJV

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