Thursday, December 17, 2009

Weathering a storm of stupidity

Children try to catch fish at a partially dried-up pond in Yingtan, Jiangxi province August 13, 2009.

The spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. --P.B. Medawar

So what's next? A series of essays by Sarah Palin about the Large Hadron Collider and the mysteries of dark matter? An MIT lecture series by Rush Limbaugh regarding the thermodynamics of black holes? A Festschrift of Sean Hannity's scholarly articles on plate tectonics and volcano formation? Glenn Beck performing live heart-lung transplants on Fox News?

Everybody understands that these things couldn't happen. That when it comes to serious scientific endeavor, years of study and professional apprenticeship are required. In a word, expertise.

Ex-beauty contestants, drive-time DJs, TV sports announcers, hairstylists, newspaper columnists -- basically anybody whose math skills topped out in the 10th grade -- rarely have anything substantive to add to the sum of technical and scientific knowledge. That's what they most resent about it.

It's not impossible that such persons could educate themselves sufficiently to have an informed opinion, but it's rare. Most of us, most of the time, are like historian and blogger Josh Marshall: "The fact that the vast majority of people with specialized knowledge in the field think there's a problem is good enough for me," he wrote. "I can't be knowledgeable about everything. And I'm comfortable with the modern system in which the opinions of really knowledgeable people with expertise counts more in cases like this than people who know nothing at all."

Unless and until, that is, scientific endeavor impinges upon either A) religious belief, or B) the ability of tycoons to keep making money in precisely the way they or their ancestors have always made their money. Then it's every man and woman a climatologist, and every genuine expert an "elitist" enemy of God and the American way -- creationism with a thermometer.

(As a born-again Christian I see a need for religion and science. Each has it's place. What is troubling, terrifying to me, and many others who respect the scientific method, is the willingness of so many otherwise thoughtful, rational, logical people to "look away" and grasp at straws, rather than confronting what the evidence and science is telling us. Turning this into a political litmus test, a test of one's conservatism or liberalism, totally misses the point. The climate is changing, morphing. Some of this may be "natural", yes, but I don't find it far-fetched that a 38% increase in greenhouse gases correlates well with the 10 warmest years on record, all observed since 1998. The rest of the article is here).

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