Let’s Make America SMART Again

The author, preparing for the March for Science in San Luis Obispo, California.
“Science is basically an inoculation against charlatans.”
–Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

The climate is changing.

This past Saturday I joined an estimated 1,200 other people in the March for Science in San Luis Obispo, California. Our march was one of more than 500 such marches that took place around the world on Earth Day, April 22, 2017, likely involving more than a hundred thousand people world-wide.

Father, son, and “alternative cat” participating at March for Science, San Luis Obispo. Photo by Cliff Kurtzman.

It was a day for celebration. Celebration of the benefits that science and technology have brought to each of us to improve our quality of life and our ability to understand the universe in which we live.

But as much as it was a day for celebration, it was also a day for finding a new voice — a voice that says: “Never confuse a right to your opinion with an entitlement to foolishness or ignorance.” — “We will not remain silent in the face of ignorance and ‘alternative facts.'” — “We will fight to help make America smart again.”

We marched to call attention to the role that science must play in helping a democratic society make informed decisions, whether about climate change, clean air and water, disease control and prevention, or even space exploration. We marched to advocate that science, and not pseudo-science, should be taught in our school curriculums. We marched to create awareness of how to recognize logical fallacies and disinformation. And we marched to inspire our children to have a passion for learning and an understanding of the benefits of taking a science-based worldview.

Planetary Science basics explained at March for Science, San Luis Obispo. Photo by Cliff Kurtzman.

As Jonathan Foley recently noted in his article The war on science is war on America’s future in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Our future depends on science. While science isn’t perfect, it can help lift us, improve the human condition and build a better world. And science serves all Americans, not just Democrats or just Republicans.

Let me be clear: This isn’t a partisan issue. Scientists aren’t — and shouldn’t be — worried about which political party is in power. It rarely has mattered: There is a long tradition of bipartisan support for science and a fact-based world view. Until now.”

Yes, times have indeed changed. As Neil deGrasse Tyson states so eloquently in this brief video:

“When you have people who don’t know much about science, standing in denial of it, and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”

 

The Limitations of Science

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
–Isaac Asimov

 

It is important to clarify what science can and cannot do in a political context. Science tells us quite clearly, for example, that issues such as climate change are real. Science can make predictive models that tell us what will happen, with a reasonable degree of likelihood, if we do nothing about the climate change situation or if we take various courses of action to change our behavior in terms of CO2 emissions. While there are uncertainties and disagreements as to the details of such models and there is room to improve their precision, there is no doubt that science offers us a far greater ability to have insight into the consequences of our actions or inactions than do other approaches, such as denying reality, relying upon wishful thinking, or engaging in random acts of inspiration or stupidity.

At the same time, science tells us nothing about whether or not it is the government’s role and responsibility to take any specific actions or to take no action at all. It tells us nothing about whether it is our personal responsibility to take any action at all. Science makes no decision as to whether it is a greater priority for resources to be focused on global warming issues versus disease control issues or the exploration of the solar system or thousands of other topics for which our efforts, and our tax dollars, could be credibly focused. All of these decisions are political and personal decisions, not scientific ones.

When we say that we will not remain silent in the face of ignorance, particularly with regards to our politicians, it means holding them responsible to be scientifically literate. It means realizing the importance of calling them out when they act out of scientific ignorance.

The consequences of our failing to do so go much deeper than the setting of policy with regards to science-related issues. Those who choose to reject taking an evidence-based worldview with regards to scientific issues are also quite prone to reject taking an evidence-based worldview with regards to non-scientific issues. Such individuals are also less likely to be able to understand how specific actions lead to specific consequences in the real world. Such individuals may, for example, clearly contradict empirical facts regarding the size of crowds, electoral victories, and voter fraud. It is up to each of us to decide if individuals who are so deeply disassociated with reality and who are so deeply unable to comprehend the consequences of their actions should be entrusted with matters such as control of our military and our discussions with foreign governments.

March for Science cartoon from The New Yorker. My caption:
Despite being clearly outnumbered by the Alternative Facts marchers… they persisted! 

 

America’s Dysfunctional Educational System

“In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.”
–Mike Lofgren in The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge

 

The segment of America’s population possessing a means and desire for quality education in the arts and sciences is steadily diminishing. And that is most unfortunate indeed, because America’s growth since 1960 has been driven by it’s leadership in science and technology.

Just how bad is our educational system? It is pretty damn bad (See: U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries).  It speaks volumes for just how scientifically uneducated much of America is when people (in either political party) espousing the kind of ignorance and anti-reality nonsense illustrated in the video and tweets below can ever be elected to public office:

So far, American technology remains far better than our educational system, but how long that will remain true is problematic. We rely more and more over time on importing technical genius from other countries. Current policies advocated by the present administration egregiously harm American productivity growth in at least three major ways: 1) They emphasize an impossible resurgence in essentially dying industries like steel manufacturing and coal mining rather than focus resources on growth sectors like technology; 2) They seek to cut off our ability to import the technical talent we need to maintain technical preeminence; and 3) They seek to substantially further cripple and weaken our ability to educate in America.

It is no coincidence that those who seek to replace our current educational system with a voucher system are the very same individuals who fundamentally deny science and use of the scientific method, and who believe that religious dogma should be taught in the science classroom. While it is very true that our current educational system is badly broken, it is also clear that current proposals to change it are motivated by a desire for an agenda of teaching “alternative facts” to create an increasingly ignorant populace while shifting educational resources further away from those least able to afford educational opportunities.

Once a leader in science and technology, America’s failure to embrace science and a fact-based worldview is turning the country into a laughingstock on the stage of world affairs.

Three Common Reality Distortion Strategies 

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.”
–attributed to Ayn Rand

 

Those who promote “alternative facts” use a wide variety of distortion techniques to attempt to convince others of things which are untrue. Sometimes they use these logical fallacies for personal gain, while other times they are simply acting out of sheer ignorance and stupidity. I’ll briefly touch on three of the more commonly used distortion techniques here: 1) creating doubt and confusion; 2) turning lies into half-truths; and 3) using fear to motivate irrational actions:

March for Science, San Luis Obispo. Photo by Cliff Kurtzman

Creating doubt and confusion

As was noted in The war on science is war on America’s future:

“A disturbing pattern has emerged in Washington: Facts and the pursuit of facts don’t matter.

Actually, it’s worse: Facts and science are being attacked because they matter a lot. And this attack is using a well-honed strategy.

First, the White House follows the “Merchants of Doubt” playbook to discredit well-established scientific findings. When you can’t win a debate with facts, it’s easier to cast doubt and interject confusion into the conversation, as was done [in the past] to mislead the public about the dangers of tobacco smoke and acid rain. So it’s not surprising that President Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt frequently use words to suggest that climate change might not be real, routinely saying “we’re not sure,” despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. The goal here isn’t to discover the truth, but to muddy the waters, and delay action as long as possible.”

 

Turning lies into half-truths

This video from Robert Reich explains the process of turning lies into half-truths quite eloquently:

 

Using fear to motivate irrational actions

One of the most common (and successful) tactics used in today’s political climate involves attempting to motivate individuals to support irrational actions by inspiring fear and doubt. In such scenarios, those in authority will point out a negative fact that most people would agree is actually true, and then imply that the stated truth provides cause to take an action that is likely to make the situation worse rather than better. A true premise is used to falsely imply the truth of the stated consequence using fear as a motivator.

Examples:

  • Obamacare is flawed and broken (true). Therefore let’s use that reality to justify replacing it with something far worse (false).
  • The political situation with regards to such-and-such country (North Korea, Syria, Russia, China, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) isn’t what we’d like it to be, and past administrations have failed to find adequate solutions (true). Therefore let’s use that reality to justify taking actions that make our world even worse and less safe (false).
  • We don’t understand everything related to global warming in the minutest detail (true). Therefore we should do nothing until we do (false).
  • Our educational system is badly broken (true). Therefore we should throw the system away and replace it with something for which there is no empirical evidence suggesting that the new system will be an improvement, and for which there are strong reasons to believe that the new system will be far worse (false).
  • Our streets are less safe than we would like them to be (true). Therefore we can increase our personal safety by carrying guns around with us (false in most cases, statistically extremely false for the population at large).
  • There are risks and negative consequences to having illegal immigrants in our country (true). Therefore spending billions of dollars to build a wall around our borders will improve the situation (false).
  • There are people around the world who seek to do harm to America and its citizens (true). Therefore we can improve the situation by closing our borders to immigrants and those of a specific religion or ethnicity (false) while failing to address the threats from those who have historically caused us the most harm on our home soil (false).
  • Our government’s motivation should primarily focus on improving the lives and liberties of those living in America (true). Therefore what happens in other places around the world is of little consequence to the safety, wealth and productivity of those in America (false).

In each case, it is important to understand that the truth or falsehood of each statement above isn’t determined by the way someone wishes the world to be or by their political beliefs… our reality can actually be assessed and evaluated by evidence-based empirical methods. In an intelligent and productive society, we don’t support those who seek to randomly trash current systems and rely on “wishful thinking” to replace them with unknown, or, even worse, known alternatives that have been shown through testing and experience to be even poorer than current systems.

Difficult issues demand well-thought out and often complex solutions. Doing nothing at all is better than taking the wrong actions for the wrong reasons. We should never support those in our government who demand an expedient and irrational response that only makes a situation worse. In the past, by default I usually assumed that those in the government, regardless of political party, had more information and experience related to most issues than I did. In such circumstances, I relied upon them to use that information and experience to make a good faith effort to find rational solutions that would have been outside of my grasp. But in the current political climate, trusting the administration to act in good faith would be contrary to experiential evidence.

When those in power continually deny the very foundations of our reality, and make decisions based on ignorance, alternative facts, wishful thinking, and a seeming desire for personal enrichment of themselves and their families, one cannot have any degree of confidence that such actions will produce positive outcomes. In fact, one can reasonably fear that the consequences of such misguided actions will lead to wars costing many millions of lives.

What Can We Each Do?

“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
–typically attributed to Edmund Burke, but source unknown

 

As noted in my previous column, Are You Complicit?being silent about something that you know is wrongful can make you complicit in letting it continue. A close friend of mine recently told me how he feels he has to be careful about what he “likes” or “shares” on Facebook because he doesn’t want to offend his friends and perhaps even his customers who might have different viewpoints. I can appreciate his concerns, while also realizing that there are some things in life that transcend politics and the risk of hurting the feelings of our friends. One of the factors that allowed the populist trend in Germany during the 1930s to evolve into the Nazi regime was the silence and cowardice of German intellectuals to speak out. If America does not wish to follow in Germany’s footsteps, it is incumbent on America’s educated populace to speak out vocally for science and evidence-based policies, and against the promulgation of alternative facts, and to only elect representatives who recognize and respect the difference.

As hard as it may be to accept the necessity to do so in this crazy world of ours, it is incumbent upon each of us to find our voice, to applaud those who value education, to stand up for science, and to stand up for reality. It is also incumbent upon each of us to speak out when we witness science-related foolishness and ignorance, especially when coming from our public officials, and even when coming from our friends and business colleagues.

In that spirit, if you find this article of value, please share it on Facebook and/or Twitter.

And, finally,  it is incumbent upon each of us to never forget…

The climate is changing.

“You will die of old age. I may die from climate change.” March for Science, San Luis Obispo. Photo by Brittany App.

Additional Reading:

Tens of thousands marched for science. Now what?

America’s Cult of Ignorance—And the Death of Expertise

Trump and The Problem of Militant Ignorance

The Hubris of Ignorance

Neil deGrasse Tyson Challenges Trump To ‘Make America Smart Again’

Donald Trump’s Fictional America

Trump and the Pathology of Narcissism

After The March For Science, It’s Time To Get Political

Scientists Brace for a Lost Generation in American Research

Professor Smith Goes to Washington

U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries

Merchants of Doubt

The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge

List of Fallacies

The war on science is war on America’s future

There’s scientific consensus on guns — and the NRA won’t like it

The Science of Guns Proves Arming Untrained Citizens Is a Bad Idea

EPA chief Scott Pruitt says carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to global warming

We Just Breached the 410 PPM Threshold for CO2

Republican climate change deniers condemned as ‘woefully ignorant’ by scientists

Wealthy L.A. Schools’ Vaccination Rates Are as Low as South Sudan’s

Donald Trump Has Long Linked Autism to Vaccines. He Isn’t Stopping Now That He’s President.

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Cliff Kurtzman

Described as "pragmatically reckless with a high tolerance for ambiguity," Dr. Cliff Kurtzman is the founder of The Domino Principle. He is also an award winning entrepreneur, speaker, trend forecaster, and M.I.T.-trained rocket-scientist. Over the past 25 years, Cliff has launched several highly successful ventures by seeing technology trends in the world before they became widely realized, figuring out how they would impact our lives and then creating businesses that leveraged those trends ahead of many others. His bio is at http://www.kurtzman.biz.
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