04 March, 2015

Blind Spots

What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”
--Robert Heinlein

It is often said by people of a leftist persuasion that the other side are dogmatic, unthinking idiots who believe on faith and refuse to accept science, reason, logic, Oxford commas or reality.

Strangely enough, it is said at least as often by those of a rightist persuasion that we left-wingers are dogmatic unthinking idiots who believe on faith and refuse to accept science, reason, logic,  Oxford commas or reality.

Both persuasions are...persuasive. We just seem to pick different causes in which to place our firm non-belief despite the weight of science, reason, logic, and reality. (I believe in the Oxford comma, myself.)

Most of us have one cause or another for which all the scientific evidence in the world means precisely squat in the face of an emotional tide. I've covered a few of them lately. Most of us think sexual education is a good thing, and the science backs us up...if you want your teen pregnant or afflicted with a sexually transmitted infection, best keep her ignorant. A minority dismisses the statistics and calls sex ed a perverted liberal plot....I've actually read about a dozen times lately that liberals want to make pedophilia legal(!)

You don't hear too much about gay marriage anymore (thank goodness), but there are still some vocul people out there who are positive it's disintegrating the very fabric of society. Only they can never tell you exactly how.

Crime, whether against an individual or a society, is another conservative shibboleth. Crimes against individuals have been plummeting for decades, yet the Harper-government-that-used-to-be-called-the-Canadian-Government has an unrelenting focus on it. Crimes against society, called "terrorism", have killed two Canadians on Canadian soil in the past twenty years. Yet that same government--which I'm glad isn't called the Canadian government any more because it doesn't speak for this Canadian--is trying its damnedest to pass a bill lickety-split to give unprecedented new police powers to combat this horrific scourge. And its definition of terrorism is so vague and broad that most of us could be considered terrorists. Have you ever spoken out against the government or its policies, foreign or domestic? You can be labelled a terrorist under this legislation. And because the government has marketed it as a safety measure, it's popular. Hey! Who doesn't want to feel safe?
And with crime goes punishment, and punishment is important. Certainly much more important than rehabilitation, and never mind that un-rehabilitated criminals are still criminals, by definition.

It's crazy, but what do you expect from those conservative idiots who have collectively taken leave of their senses?

That's what we on the left think, smug as a bug in a rug, sleeping the sleep of the just-so. Gotta get up early in the morning for the anti-GMO protest, after all!


There is nothing inherently wrong with genetically modified organisms. A host of hosts of studies have been done, and not one person has died due to ingesting something that has been genetically modified. And we liberals accept what science has to say, don't we?

No, it turns out we just say Monsanto and Cargill sponsored all the studies. Categorically false, but it feels good.

Speaking of Monsanto and the like...there's no denying some of the things done with GMOs are nefarious. Start with manufacturing the most prevalent pesticide on the planet...and a variety of strains of a variety of foodstuffs genetically engineered to be resistant to that pesticide. That's ingeniously evil: it means you effectively own the food chain...but it's the fault of a broken patent system, not of gene splicing or gene splicers. That's a nuance lost on many people on the Left. Me included, for quite a while.

We tell ourselves we avoid the corporatist media, because it's infested with self-serving corporatist lies such as "GMOs are perfectly safe". Instead we visit sites like this proclaiming THE TRUTH. That TRUTH is always and without fail full of hysterical, unsourced assertions, causality errors, and just plain leaps of logic, but it confirms what we want to believe, and so none of that matters.

I think my favourite screaming denunciation in that whole steaming mess is "GMOs are NOT NATURAL!" As if the mere occurrence of something in Nature--capitalization definitely intentional--is proof of its innate goodness. Tell you what, folks. Nature brings you arsenic and humanity brought you insulin. Yes, we as a species are not exactly easy on the planet, but just because something is "natural" doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot.

Or take anti-vaxxers. They're more prevalent on the left than the right (although there's a libertarian strain that believes in the choice to spread debilitating preventable diseases hither and yon, with emphasis on choice rather than diseases). Mississippi, that bastion of conservative values, has a higher vaccination rate than any other state...and you just know there are polio cases in waiting in California and Oregon jeering at that fact as proof of Mississippi's  quintessential stupidity.

The same sites that extol the evils of GMOs also let you know that vaccines are the devil. (Not "the Devil"--that's religious and thus stupid.) Just the devil. They cause autism. (No they don't: defects in over a hundred genes have been implicated.) They contain toxins. (No. they don't.) They kill people. Yes, occasionally they do, by means of allergic reactions and medical error; they save many, many more, but people not dying never seem to make the news, for some reason.

What else do people get wrong? A surprising number of things. This poll is British, but its results generally hold true for Canada and the United States as well:

  • TEENAGE PREGNANCY RATES are 25 TIMES LOWER than the average estimate
  • A majority of people believe CRIME RATES are not falling, even though statistics across three countries show they have fallen dramatically in the past three decades
  • More than a quarter of people surveyed  believe FOREIGN AID is one of the top two expenditures of the British government. In reality it's a scant 1.1%
  • The respondents overestimated WELFARE FRAUD by an average of 3400% (!!!)
Some misconceptions arise because people are taught information in school that is later deemed incorrect. Many of us were taught, for example, that we have five senses, when -- depending on how you define the word -- we actually have somewhere between nine and 21. There's a remarkably persistent myth that we use ten percent of our brains--we use it all. Go ahead and jump in a lake as you swallow your last bit of supper: despite what Mommy told you, there is no need whatsoever to wait 30 or 60 minutes. Likewise from the Mommy-bin, chewing gum does not take seven years to digest.
Now, these are all trivial myth-conceptions...the only consequence to stating them as facts is looking ignorant to people who know better. But if you read these statements and reject them, because you (or your teacher, or your Mommy, or God forbid some random Internet scribbler like me) obviously knew better, then you're setting up an anti-intellectual paradigm in your head that will have dangerous consequences indeed.

This is not to suggest we should put blind faith in science. I just gave a number of trivial examples where science has gotten it wrong, and there are much, much larger items once commonly held as scientific truths that have been overturned, with more to come. For instance: it may be that the Big Bang Theory is completely incorrect

(Aside: I wish I had the math to study quantum mechanics in detail. I think that within quantum theory is the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything; the fusion of science and spirituality, and the key to performing what would now be termed miracles. But those are just my thoughts, and investigating their validity would entail a full tear-down and re-build of my life, starting in diapers. I'm probably better just sticking with the words I know,  rather than trying to get into numbers that mystify me.)

The nice thing about science, though, and what makes it humanity's crowning achievement in intellectual thought, is that it questions itself by its very nature. Things like gravity, evolution, and the Big Bang are all called "theories" in science, not because they represent somebody's best guess, but because they have been shown to best fit the facts we have. Every now and again something does come along that might throw the entire theory into question--that may be happening, with the Big Bang linked above. But most commonly each new piece of evidence is examined and leads to a deeper understanding of existing theories.

There is, of course, danger here as well for the supposedly impartial scientist, especially when his funding is at stake. There certainly is a problem with vested interests funding scientific endeavours, and the the temptation to make the data fit "the way it's supposed to" can be overwhelming.

My biggest personal bugaboo here is climate change. People have been caught several times now falsifying data. and I find it annoying how climate change has an explanation for every single weather event--it's like astrology that way: if you don't fit the standard for your birth sign, there's ALWAYS a reason...if it's too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, or completely normal,  there's a reason for that too, and it's always, surprise! climate change.
All that said, we can observe climate change in the Far North: the ice cover might be spreading, but it's much much thinner than it was even thirty years ago. We can observe that numerous animal species' habitats have been migrating northward. We can recognize, for example, that even though  we here in southern Ontario, Canada have been shivering through two ridiculously cold winters in a row, the overall global temperature has been rising.
Even if we can't predict with accuracy, we can note these data points and suggest the theory of climate change needs tweaking, not chucking. And then we can get on with the business of living more lightly on the planet, which will correct or at least ameliorate many pending environmental calamities, some of them even more serious than climate change.

In the meantime, we shouldn't put blind faith in anything. Certainly don't take my word for anything: I'm a 43-year-old unemployed university dropout.  I know a little about a lot, and I like to think I know a lot about love, but what I mostly know is that I don't know much. That's why I look to the people who do...and I question how they came to  know what they know.

By all means, once you are old enough question, question, question the "facts" you are given. Politely, of course; being rash might get you killed, and will only put the fact-giver's back up in any case.

How old is old enough? Most teenagers think their parents are crazy; few ever imagine their parents were once teenagers themselves, and fewer still actually take years of life experience into account when assessing their parents on anything. Do so. Realize that even when parents or teachers are talking out of their nether regions (and they all do it on occasion), they usually do so with what they perceive to be your best interest at heart. Once you get a job, that changes: bosses usually have their own, or at least their company's, best interest top of mind at all times. Your own self-interest will often be in agreement. But not always.

Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How’s that again? I missed something.Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let’s play that over again, too. Who decides?
--Robert Heinlein, "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long"

Perhaps the biggest misconception to clear up in your own head is that people who believe differently from you are not necessarily stupid and they certainly aren't evil. They may have different blind spots--or perhaps you do. It's worth listening to everyone...especially the people you disagree with. Both of you might actually learn something.

Imagine that.

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