Tag Archives: ignorance

This is the Result of Pretending to be Stupid

This NYT opinion piece has nailed it on the head. Pretending to be “stupid” to appeal to the “anti-elite” common man may well have been a good electoral strategy for Republican candidates over the last 50-60 years. Just cast your mind back to Sarah Palin as potential VP in 2008 and you’ll get my drift.

But now in 2016 we’ve entered uncharted territory: the country is on the verge of electing a shamefully ignorant man-child and he also happens to be a narcissistic psychopath with a wide range of extremely dangerous character flaws — and that’s putting it mildly.

Unfortunately for the US — and the world — the Republican nominee’s contempt for truth and reason, disdain for intellectual inquiry, and complete and utter ignorance is not an act. Though he does claim, “I know words. I have the best words. But there is no better word than stupid.

But perhaps all is not lost: he does seem to have a sound grasp of how to acquire top-notch military and geopolitical insights — in his own (best) words, “I watch the shows.

Welcome to the apocalypse my friends.

From the NYT:

It’s hard to know exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the “stupid party.”

Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The John F. Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America.

Rather than run away from the anti-intellectual label, Republicans embraced it for their own political purposes. In his “time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan said that the issue in the 1964 election was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Richard M. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and the “hard hats,” while his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, issued slashing attacks on an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

Many Democrats took all this at face value and congratulated themselves for being smarter than the benighted Republicans. Here’s the thing, though: The Republican embrace of anti-intellectualism was, to a large extent, a put-on. At least until now.

Eisenhower may have played the part of an amiable duffer, but he may have been the best prepared president we have ever had — a five-star general with an unparalleled knowledge of national security affairs. When he resorted to gobbledygook in public, it was in order to preserve his political room to maneuver. Reagan may have come across as a dumb thespian, but he spent decades honing his views on public policy and writing his own speeches. Nixon may have burned with resentment of “Harvard men,” but he turned over foreign policy and domestic policy to two Harvard professors, Henry A. Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while his own knowledge of foreign affairs was second only to Ike’s.

There is no evidence that Republican leaders have been demonstrably dumber than their Democratic counterparts. During the Reagan years, the G.O.P. briefly became known as the “party of ideas,” because it harvested so effectively the intellectual labor of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary. Scholarly policy makers like George P. Shultz, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett held prominent posts in the Reagan administration, a tradition that continued into the George W. Bush administration — amply stocked with the likes of Paul D. Wolfowitz, John J. Dilulio Jr. and Condoleezza Rice.

The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.

Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He uses the vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”

Mr. Trump even appears proud of his lack of learning. He told The Washington Post that he reached decisions “with very little knowledge,” but on the strength of his “common sense” and his “business ability.” Reading long documents is a waste of time because of his rapid ability to get to the gist of an issue, he said: “I’m a very efficient guy.” What little Mr. Trump does know seems to come from television: Asked where he got military advice, he replied, “I watch the shows.”

Read the entire op/ed here.

Belief and the Falling Light


Many of us now accept that lights falling from the sky are rocky interlopers from the asteroid clouds within our solar system, rather than visiting angels or signs from an angry (or mysteriously benevolent) God. New analysis of the meteor that overflew Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013 suggests that one of the key founders of Christianity may have witnessed a similar natural phenomenon around two thousand years ago. However, at the time, Saul (later to become Paul the evangelist) interpreted the dazzling light on the road to Damascus — Acts of the Apostles, New Testament — as a message from a Christian God. The rest, as they say, is history. Luckily, recent scientific progress now means that most of us no longer establish new religious movements based on fireballs in the sky. But, we are awed nonetheless.

From the New Scientist:

Nearly two thousand years ago, a man named Saul had an experience that changed his life, and possibly yours as well. According to Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the biblical New Testament, Saul was on the road to Damascus, Syria, when he saw a bright light in the sky, was blinded and heard the voice of Jesus. Changing his name to Paul, he became a major figure in the spread of Christianity.

William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, has a different explanation for what happened to Paul. He says the biblical descriptions of Paul’s experience closely match accounts of the fireball meteor seen above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Hartmann has detailed his argument in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science (doi.org/3vn). He analyses three accounts of Paul’s journey, thought to have taken place around AD 35. The first is a third-person description of the event, thought to be the work of one of Jesus’s disciples, Luke. The other two quote what Paul is said to have subsequently told others.

“Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball,” Hartmann says. “If that first-century document had been anything other than part of the Bible, that would have been a straightforward story.”

But the Bible is not just any ancient text. Paul’s Damascene conversion and subsequent missionary journeys around the Mediterranean helped build Christianity into the religion it is today. If his conversion was indeed as Hartmann explains it, then a random space rock has played a major role in determining the course of history (see “Christianity minus Paul”).

That’s not as strange as it sounds. A large asteroid impact helped kill off the dinosaurs, paving the way for mammals to dominate the Earth. So why couldn’t a meteor influence the evolution of our beliefs?

“It’s well recorded that extraterrestrial impacts have helped to shape the evolution of life on this planet,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “If it was a Chelyabinsk fireball that was responsible for Paul’s conversion, then obviously that had a great impact on the growth of Christianity.”

Hartmann’s argument is possible now because of the quality of observations of the Chelyabinsk incident. The 2013 meteor is the most well-documented example of larger impacts that occur perhaps only once in 100 years. Before 2013, the 1908 blast in Tunguska, also in Russia, was the best example, but it left just a scattering of seismic data, millions of flattened trees and some eyewitness accounts. With Chelyabinsk, there is a clear scientific argument to be made, says Hartmann. “We have observational data that match what we see in this first-century account.”

Read the entire article here.

Video: Meteor above Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. Courtesy of Tuvix72.

Heads in the Rising Tide


Officials from the state of Florida seem to have their heads in the sand (and other places); sand that is likely to be swept from their very own Florida shores as sea levels rise. However, surely climate change could be an eventual positive for Florida: think warmer climate and huge urban swathes underwater — a great new Floridian theme park! But, remember, don’t talk about it. I suppose officials will soon be looking for a contemporary version of King Canute to help them out of this watery pickle.

From Wired:

The oceans are slowly overtaking Florida. Ancient reefs of mollusk and coral off the present-day coasts are dying. Annual extremes in hot and cold, wet and dry, are becoming more pronounced. Women and men of science have investigated, and a great majority agree upon a culprit. In the outside world, this culprit has a name, but within the borders of Florida, it does not. According to a  Miami Herald investigation, the state Department of Environmental Protection has since 2010 had an unwritten policy prohibiting the use of some well-understood phrases for the meteorological phenomena slowly drowning America’s weirdest-shaped state. It’s … that thing where burning too much fossil fuel puts certain molecules into a certain atmosphere, disrupting a certain planetary ecosystem. You know what we’re talking about. We know you know. They know we know you know. But are we allowed to talk about … you know? No. Not in Florida. It must not be spoken of. Ever.

Unless … you could, maybe, type around it? It’s worth a shot.

The cyclone slowdown

It has been nine years since Florida was hit by a proper hurricane. Could that be a coincidence? Sure. Or it could be because of … something. A nameless, voiceless something. A feeling, like a pricking-of-thumbs, this confluence-of-chemistry-and-atmospheric-energy-over-time. If so, this anonymous dreadfulness would, scientists say, lead to a drier middle layer of atmosphere over the ocean. Because water vapor stores energy, this dry air will suffocate all but the most energetic baby storms. “So the general thinking, is that that as [redacted] levels increase, it ultimately won’t have an effect on the number of storms,” says Jim Kossin, a scientist who studies, oh, how about “things-that-happen-in-the-atmosphere-over-long-time-periods” at the National Centers for Environmental Information. “However, there is a lot of evidence that if a storm does form, it has a chance of getting very strong.”

Storms darken the sky

Hurricanes are powered by energy in the sea. And as cold and warm currents thread around the globe, storms go through natural, decades-long cycles of high-to-low intensity. “There is a natural 40-to-60-year oscillation in what sea surface temperatures are doing, and this is driven by ocean-wide currents that move on very slow time scales,” says Kossin, who has authored reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on, well, let’s just call it Chemical-and-Thermodynamic-Alterations-to-Long-Term-Atmospheric-Conditions. But in recent years, storms have become stronger than that natural cycle would otherwise predict. Kossin says that many in his field agree that while the natural churning of the ocean is behind this increasing intensity, other forces are at work. Darker, more sinister forces, like thermodynamics. Possibly even chemistry. No one knows for sure. Anyway, storms are getting less frequent, but stronger. It’s an eldritch tale of unspeakable horror, maybe.

 Read the entire article here.

Image: King Knut (or Cnut or Canute) the Great, illustrated in a medieval manuscript. Courtesy of Der Spiegel Geschichte.

Pluralistic Ignorance

Why study the science of climate change when you can study the complexities of climate change deniers themselves? That was the question that led several groups of independent researchers to study why some groups of people cling to mistaken beliefs and hold inaccurate views of the public consensus.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

By just about every measure, the vast majority of scientists in general—and climate scientists in particular—have been convinced by the evidence that human activities are altering the climate. However, in several countries, a significant portion of the public has concluded that this consensus doesn’t exist. That has prompted a variety of studies aimed at understanding the large disconnect between scientists and the public, with results pointing the finger at everything from the economy to the weather. Other studies have noted societal influences on acceptance, including ideology and cultural identity.

Those studies have generally focused on the US population, but the public acceptance of climate change is fairly similar in Australia. There, a new study has looked at how societal tendencies can play a role in maintaining mistaken beliefs. The authors of the study have found evidence that two well-known behaviors—the “false consensus” and “pluralistic ignorance”—are helping to shape public opinion in Australia.

False consensus is the tendency of people to think that everyone else shares their opinions. This can arise from the fact that we tend to socialize with people who share our opinions, but the authors note that the effect is even stronger “when we hold opinions or beliefs that are unpopular, unpalatable, or that we are uncertain about.” In other words, our social habits tend to reinforce the belief that we’re part of a majority, and we have a tendency to cling to the sense that we’re not alone in our beliefs.

Pluralistic ignorance is similar, but it’s not focused on our own beliefs. Instead, sometimes the majority of people come to believe that most people think a certain way, even though the majority opinion actually resides elsewhere.

As it turns out, the authors found evidence of both these effects. They performed two identical surveys of over 5,000 Australians, done a year apart; about 1,350 people took the survey both times, which let the researchers track how opinions evolve. Participants were asked to describe their own opinion on climate change, with categories including “don’t know,” “not happening,” “a natural occurrence,” and “human-induced.” After voicing their own opinion, people were asked to estimate what percentage of the population would fall into each of these categories.

In aggregate, over 90 percent of those surveyed accepted that climate change was occurring (a rate much higher than we see in the US), with just over half accepting that humans were driving the change. Only about five percent felt it wasn’t happening, and even fewer said they didn’t know. The numbers changed only slightly between the two polls.

The false consensus effect became obvious when the researchers looked at what these people thought that everyone else believed. Here, the false consensus effect was obvious: every single group believed that their opinion represented the plurality view of the population. This was most dramatic among those who don’t think that the climate is changing; even though they represent far less than 10 percent of the population, they believed that over 40 percent of Australians shared their views. Those who profess ignorance also believed they had lots of company, estimating that their view was shared by a quarter of the populace.

Among those who took the survey twice, the effect became even more pronounced. In the year between the surveys, they respondents went from estimating that 30 percent of the population agreed with them to thinking that 45 percent did. And, in general, this group was the least likely to change its opinion between the two surveys.

But there was also evidence of pluralistic ignorance. Every single group grossly overestimated the number of people who were unsure about climate change or convinced it wasn’t occurring. Even those who were convinced that humans were changing the climate put 20 percent of Australians into each of these two groups.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Flood victims. Courtesy of NRDC.[end-div]

Ignorance [is] the Root and Stem of All Evil

Hailing from Classical Greece of around 2,400 years ago, Plato has given our contemporary world many important intellectual gifts. His broad interests in justice, mathematics, virtue, epistemology, rhetoric and art, laid the foundations for Western philosophy and science. Yet in his quest for deeper and broader knowledge he also had some important things to say about ignorance.

Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking gives us his take on Platonic Ignorance. His caution is appropriate: in this age of information overload and extreme politicization it is ever more important for us to realize and acknowledge our own ignorance. Spreading falsehoods and characterizing opinion as fact to others — transferred ignorance — is rightly identified by Plato as a moral failing. In his own words (of course translated), “Ignorance [is] the Root and Stem of All Evil”.

[div class=attrib]From Rationally Speaking:[end-div]

Plato famously maintained that knowledge is “justified true belief,” meaning that to claim the status of knowledge our beliefs (say, that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the other way around) have to be both true (to the extent this can actually be ascertained) and justified (i.e., we ought to be able to explain to others why we hold such beliefs, otherwise we are simply repeating the — possibly true — beliefs of someone else).

It is the “justified” part that is humbling, since a moment’s reflection will show that a large number of things we think we know we actually cannot justify, which means that we are simply trusting someone else’s authority on the matter. (Which is okay, as long as we realize and acknowledge that to be the case.)

I was recently intrigued, however, not by Plato’s well known treatment of knowledge, but by his far less discussed views on the opposite of knowledge: ignorance. The occasion for these reflections was a talk by Katja Maria Vogt of Columbia University, delivered at CUNY’s Graduate Center, where I work. Vogt began by recalling the ancient skeptics’ attitude toward ignorance, as a “conscious positive stand,” meaning that skepticism is founded on one’s realization of his own ignorance. In this sense, of course, Socrates’ contention that he knew nothing becomes neither a self-contradiction (isn’t he saying that he knows that he knows nothing, thereby acknowledging that he knows something?), nor false modesty. Socrates was simply saying that he was aware of having no expertise while at the same time devoting his life to the quest for knowledge.

Vogt was particularly interested in Plato’s concept of “transferred ignorance,” which the ancient philosopher singled out as morally problematic. Transferred ignorance is the case when someone imparts “knowledge” that he is not aware is in fact wrong. Let us say, for instance, that I tell you that vaccines cause autism, and I do so on the basis of my (alleged) knowledge of biology and other pertinent matters, while, in fact, I am no medical researcher and have only vague notions of how vaccines actually work (i.e., imagine my name is Jenny McCarthy).

The problem, for Plato, is that in a sense I would be thinking of myself as smarter than I actually am, which of course carries a feeling of power over others. I wouldn’t simply be mistaken in my beliefs, I would be mistaken in my confidence in those beliefs. It is this willful ignorance (after all, I did not make a serious attempt to learn about biology or medical research) that carries moral implications.

So for Vogt the ancient Greeks distinguished between two types of ignorance: the self-aware, Socratic one (which is actually good) and the self-oblivious one of the overconfident person (which is bad). Need I point out that far too little of the former and too much of the latter permeate current political and social discourse? Of course, I’m sure a historian could easily come up with a plethora of examples of bad ignorance throughout human history, all the way back to the beginning of recorded time, but it does strike me that the increasingly fact-free public discourse on issues varying from economic policies to scientific research has brought Platonic transferred ignorance to never before achieved peaks (or, rather, valleys).

And I suspect that this is precisely because of the lack of appreciation of the moral dimension of transferred or willful ignorance. When politicians or commentators make up “facts” — or disregard actual facts to serve their own ideological agendas — they sometimes seem genuinely convinced that they are doing something good, at the very least for their constituents, and possibly for humanity at large. But how can it be good — in the moral sense — to make false knowledge one’s own, and even to actively spread it to others?

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Socrates and Plato in a medieval picture. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]