Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Trying to get a rise out of downtrodden 'Merikuns

It's freaking February and it was -12°F (-24°C) this morning.  It's been a long nasty winter and anyone who isn't clinically depressed by now was probably insane to begin with.  Unfortunately, my winter blues have been compounded this year by real-life events.

The events in Egypt have been especially depressing for me because even though it is exciting to watch brave people standing up to an ugly police state, the fact that hundreds of those brave people have already been killed and hundreds more have disappeared into the torture chambers for which Egypt is so famous puts a damper on the excitement very quickly.

And then there is the coverage by Aljaazera.  I have been complaining for years about how disgustingly moronic USA "journalism" is but watching real journalism in action has picked at the ugly scab covering most of my complaints.  It doesn't much matter whether USA "journalism" is deliberately designed to produce a pathetically uninformed public or this is just a happy side effect of turning news into infotainment, the result is the same--folks who are Michelle-Bachman goofy in the highest reaches of our government.

But there was one recent event that caused an explosion of hopelessness in my already depressed world-view.  Two weeks ago in my own kitchen a dear friend who has the most elite and expensive education of anyone I know launched into an unprovoked rant about the evils of warming food in a microwave oven.  Before long he was anthropomorphizing the water molecule claiming that its life-giving properties would be damaged by microwave heating.  I listened with growing frustration to this absurd nonsense before letting fly with my ultimate insult "The Enlightenment was wasted on you."

Stephen Colbert, the brilliant satirist from Comedy Central coined a word a few years back that has worked its way into general usage--truthiness.  It is a word he uses to describe something that sounds factual but is in fact pure BS.  I believe it is time to add the word "scienciness" to describe the scientific-sounding BS that so many would rather believe than real science.  Scienciness would describe such things as coffee enemas to cure cancer, climate change denial based on the fact that AlGore is fat, creationism, parapsychology, neo-alchemy, and other New Age garbage, etc. etc.

I guess I shouldn't be so surprised when scienciness proves more popular than actual science.  After all, I know dozens of people who would MUCH rather read science fiction than science fact.  Worse, they seem to think storytelling is an acceptable substitute for science.
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It wouldn't be so bad that otherwise intelligent people confuse "scienciness" with science except for the fact that many of the most important problems facing the human race including peak oil, climate change, and MOST pollution cannot be addressed without a serious and profound understanding of science--the real thing.

Commentary: The dumbing down of America
By Leonard Pitts Jr. | The Miami Herald
ITEM: Only 28 percent of high school science teachers consistently follow National Research Council guidelines encouraging them to present students with evidence of evolution. Thirteen percent "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design."
These are among the findings of Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer after examining data from a representative survey of 926 high school biology teachers. Writing in the Jan. 28 issue of Science magazine, they report that most science teachers -- 60 percent -- cheat controversy by such stratagems as telling students it does not matter if they "believe" in evolution, so long as they understand enough to pass a test. Or they teach evolution on a par with creationism and encourage students to make up their own minds.
* * *
Once upon a time, there lived a stupid giant.
The giant had not always been stupid. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say the giant had once revered intelligence, reason and the byproducts thereof. Indeed, the giant was renowned for an ingenuity and standard of living that made it the envy of the world.
But much of the world did more than envy the giant. Much of the world admired and respected it. Its basic decency, along with its strength and intelligence, set it apart.
There came a time, however, when, though the giant retained its strength and arguably even its decency, it lost its intelligence.
No one can say exactly how and when the loss occurred. There was no great blast of thunder and lightning to herald it, no sudden instant when the giant's intelligence plummeted dramatically from the instant before.
No, stupidity crept over the giant with the stealth of twilight, a product less of one abrupt moment than of a thousand moments of complacency, of resting on laurels, of allowing curiosity to be teased and bullied out of bright children, of dumbing down textbooks so kids could get better grades with less work, of using "elite" like a curse word. And, of behaving as if knowing things, and being able to extrapolate from and otherwise make critical use of, the things one knows, was a betrayal of some fundamental human authenticity -- some need to keep it real.
Stupidity stole over the giant until it could no longer tell science from faith, or conventional wisdom from actual wisdom and in any event, valued ideological purity above them all. Stupidity snaked over the giant until science teachers shrank from teaching science, history books contained history that wasn't history, late-night comics got easy laughs from people on the street who could not say when the War of 1812 was fought, political leaders told outright lies with blithe smiles and no fear of being caught and you would not have been surprised to hear that someone had fixed mathematics, so that 2+2 could now equal 17, thus preserving the all-important self esteem of second-grade kids. more
There are revolutionary (or pre-revolutionary) movements in almost every corner of the world save good old USA.  There are precious few reasons for why this is so and the only one with any validity is that 'Merikuns' have such a pinched worldview and have so much trouble distinguishing between science and scienciness, they literally cannot describe why their own social order has entered a death spiral.  No, the revolutions seem to be confined to places where it is still possible to get a real education.
Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere
Paul Mason | 19:07 UK time, Saturday, 5 February 2011
We've had revolution in Tunisia, Egypt's Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Ireland young techno-savvy professionals are agitating for a "Second Republic"; in France the youth from banlieues battled police on the streets to defend the retirement rights of 60-year olds; in Greece striking and rioting have become a national pastime. And in Britain we've had riots and student occupations that changed the political mood.
What's going on? What's the wider social dynamic?
My editors yesterday asked me put some bullet points down for a discussion on the programme that then didn't happen but I am throwing them into the mix here, on the basis of various conversations with academics who study this and also the participants themselves.
At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media - as the mainstream media has now woken up to - but this obsession with reporting "they use twitter" is missing the point of what they use it for. 
In so far as there are common threads to be found in these different situation, here's 20 things I have spotted:
1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future
2. ...with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.
3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.
4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc... in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected. more


  1. What, exactly, is the connection between reading science fiction and your chart? Most of the movies listed are not based on SF books, and those that are only tenuously so.

    Hollywood ruins every book it touches, why scapegoat SF for this? As for the SF I used to read, they don't make those books into movies very often because they were very grim novels that focused on how everything would turn to shit if we didn't 1) rein in capitalists, 2) educate religious illiterates, or 3) open-source technology.

    As for SF movies not on your list, please tell me what was wrong with:

    The Illustrated Man
    The Andromeda Strain
    A Clockwork Orange
    Soylent Green
    A Boy and His Dog
    The Man Who Fell to Earth
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    The Boys from Brazil
    Saturn 3
    Any Mad Max movie
    The Handmaid's Tale
    V for Vendetta
    or even WALL-E?

    Yes, 90% of all SF movies are crap, but 90% of ALL movies are crap. What SF does well is to examine the impact of new technologies on people. SF also explores the breakdown of culture well, as well as the evolution of culture. As a genre, it is focused on problem solving.

  2. Peter Turchin, a researcher who studies the life and death cycle(s) of agrarian empires, once noted that after the collapse of the Roman Empire, all the major successor states rose up on its periphery. The center itself remained a fragmented backwater for a very long time--pretty much up until the Renaissance, and even then the Italian peninsula remained politically fragmented and incapable of concerted political action.

    The center of the failing empire seems to lose its animating force, whereas those on the periphery, who were forced to deal with the empire and react to its incursions, are strengthened. Turchin uses the concept of "Asabiyyah" developed by Ibn Khaldun to describe this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asabiyyah

    Peter Turchin's website: http://cliodynamics.info/

    America is the center. I doubt it will play out like Rome but... what's that saying about history doesn't repeat, but it often rhymes?

  3. Yes Mark, I know you like your sci-fi. And I have NO problems with what folks do for enjoyment. After all, some world-class scientists are sci-fi fans.

    However, I DO have problems with folks who confuse the two. You know, the ones who wonder why we don't have flying cars yet.

    My question for you is, if a book contains a whole bunch of assumptions that are scientifically impossible, why do they even bother calling it "science" fiction? Why not just fiction so as not to confuse people? In fact, why not just call it theology?--after all, MOST science fiction works contain FAR more errors in science than the Bible.

  4. Could you point to a book in support of your question. I've conceded that movies are crap, but I'm asking you to walk back your assertion a bit. That the movies are crap doesn't invalidate the better books or even the better movies.

    Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer who once wrote: "Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms."

    That 90% of SF movies or books are crap is irrelevant. 90% of Swedish culture is also crap. 90% of everything is crap.

    What SF does well, as I said, is to examine the consequences of technology. What could go wrong is a valid starting point for many deep discussions, and one I would hope that our technological types engage in.

    Or do you think the military should use "Toyota" standards when programming the first mobile, self-programming death ray wielding robots? Is a one in a million chance of sudden acceleration acceptable when the device is capable of wiping out all life on this planet?

    As technology becomes more powerful, shouldn't someone be asking these questions?