Following the Science in Leaps and Bounds

When people don’t fully understand a particular branch of science or scientific inquiry (which we imagine must be most non-scientists), “following the science” comes down to making an informed leap of faith. There is nothing wrong with that. Leaps of faith are necessary on a daily basis in every part of life. Without them, we would be unable to function as individuals or as a society. However, we want our leaps to be as short, unstressful, and error-free as possible. We might speak about life as a series of cautious assumptions and educated guesses because it is impossible to know very much with absolute certainty.

For example, I will take NASA at its word when it tells me something about Mars. And I will believe my lawyer when he tells me my best chance is to settle out of court. This is because I have more confidence in NASA when it comes to space and in my lawyer when it comes to lawsuits than I do in myself (or in other non-experts) regarding those areas. The leap of faith I have to make seems small and therefore less subject to error because I know NASA is an expert space organization and my lawyer has a professional license to practice law. I could persuasively cite NASA in a paper on space and my lawyer in a paper on litigation.

Conversely, I will not reference NASA on settling a lawsuit or my lawyer on exploring Mars. They might have opinions about those things, but because they have no authority to speak professionally about them, my leap of faith in the credibility of their claims would be too great, stressful, and subject to error. I might enjoy their opinions, but I wouldn’t cite them as documentation or support in a paper.

Opinions outside one’s field of expertise carry far less weight. When I taught college-level rhetoric, I’d talk to students about the true purposes of legitimate sourcing and documentation in their essays—not primarily to provide additional reading or resources, but to establish credibility and authority on the part of the writer and, by extension, within his or her claim structure.

You can claim anything in a paper, but you will only be persuasive if you can support those claims with authoritative references (where the leap of faith you’re asking the reader to make is small and easy). If I want to say something about Mars, I will show you how NASA agrees with me. If I want to make a point about an aspect of law, I will show you how my lawyer wrote an article on it in The American Lawyer. Their expertise, authority, and credibility will give my argument an aura of expertise, authority, and credibility. This is a powerful aspect of persuasive rhetoric. We encounter it all the time, formally and informally.

Unfortunately, when it comes to “following the science” about Covid, the authority of scientists and national health experts has been eroded by a range of political and social counter-arguments, usually employing what we call the fallacy of “Faulty Comparison.” Faulty Comparison is bad logic that draws an equals sign between things that should not be presented as equal.

Using the above example, if I wrote, “NASA says that Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but my lawyer says they aren’t. Now it is unclear who to believe,” it wouldn’t be hard to see the bad logic. I’m making a Faulty Comparison between what NASA thinks about space and what my lawyer thinks about space. Then on the basis of that faulty comparison, I’m claiming it is impossible to tell who is more credible. One opinion is clearly credible (that of NASA) and has persuasive weight. The other (that of my lawyer) does not. They should not be presented as persuasively equal. And there should be no confusion about where the shorter, less stressful, and less error-prone leap of faith can be made.

But if I use a politician or faith leader to attack the expertise of NASA, it’s a bit harder to spot the fallacy: “NASA says Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but the President and Reverend Osteen both disagree. What, then, can we safely believe?” That’s still bad rhetoric, but it widens the necessary leap of faith and generates stress in the audience, especially if the audience strongly supports the President and Reverend Osteen. The politician’s and minister’s expertise are being presented as carrying equal weight about Mars as that of NASA on the subject. It’s an example of Faulty Comparison, but it’s slightly hidden.

Trump and his staff made a lot of Faulty Comparisons during his Administration, claiming “fake news” and “alternate facts” as a way of neutralizing negative press and keeping their political base activated and incensed. They tried to make necessary and appropriate leaps of faith as difficult and stressful as possible by politicizing Covid data and playing on the already existing suspicions that academics and experts are inherent leftists or even crypto-Marxists (which isn’t always false but isn’t as uniformly true as many on the right seem to believe) acting in bad faith.

Asking Trump or Kellyanne Conway or Biden or Pelosi about the nature or behavior of Covid is like asking your lawyer about Mars. Their political and bureaucratic authority does not translate into scientific authority. Putting faith in their pronouncements about the virus is not the same as putting your faith in the Center for Disease Control on the subject. This also includes questions of mask protocol and vaccines.

Rhetorically, the leap of faith is much smaller when you do “follow the science,” even if it’s still an act of faith, an assumption that someone knows more or is better than you when it comes to a subject in which you are ignorant. By sourcing the most credible authorities, you are, in effect, asking NASA about Mars and your lawyer about law. You are making the most reasonable assumption, the most educated guess about a subject you do not understand.

Ok Boomer

Consider this hypothetical.  You’re standing in your kitchen, cutting slices of cheese with a razor-sharp carving knife.  You realize there are such things as cheese knives, but you don’t have one.  For those readers currently languishing in suburban opulence, who can’t imagine someone not owning a cheese knife, I’m here to tell you such people exist, and they are probably more numerous than you have imagined.

Anyway, you’re cutting some cheese.  It’s not difficult because the knife is a diamond-sharp Japanese “Zebra” blade, perfectly weighted for carving your burned pot roast, which is otherwise as uncuttable as second base.  Now let’s say you drop that knife in a moment of privileged carelessness and it goes point-down through the top of your foot.  Stop screaming.  You’re not going to die.  But there is quite a bit of blood welling up in your slipper.  Better attend to that.  You limp to the bathroom, whimpering and cussing, and start looking for the antiseptic.

In spite of what you plan on telling your spouse (My hand was wet.  It just slipped.), you really have no idea why or how this could have happened.  All you know is that it hurts.  Did you deserve it?  Think about this.  Did you deserve to have a skewered foot?

One argument says, yes, if you hadn’t been worrying about your Bitcoin investments at that moment and whether the new walnut end tables really express your essential joie de vivre, you might have paid closer attention to what you were doing.  You might have taken better care.  Now small ripples of dread and frustration will radiate through your life for the next few weeks the same way pain radiates through your foot. 

Your mindset will be affected.  Your spouse’s mindset will be affected.  Maybe your acuity at your job will temporarily decrease.  Your irritation levels with Ralph, your neighbor, when he decides to fire up the lawn mower at 5:40 AM next Sunday, may run considerably higher.  You might even speak harshly to the cat—a small thing, like the cat himself, but surely not something he, as a fellow living being, deserves.  You’re the one who dropped the knife, you careless dolt.  There are consequences for everything.  Close your mouth and own up to them.  Be an adult for a change.

But another argument says, no, accidents will happen.  No one wants to injure themselves and no one ever truly asks to be hurt.  There are so many opportunities in modern life to harm yourself or others that it’s likely to happen, now and then, even if you aren’t naturally accident prone. 

No matter how much care you take, there are acts of god; there are times you break your foot stepping off the train, even if you’re minding the gap; a tree hits your bedroom wall; a texting teenager rear-ends you 45 feet into an intersection and you almost get hit and have to wear a neck brace for a month; you drop your phone in the airport toilet; you forget your wallet at the register. 

These sorts of things happen whether or not you look both ways, don’t inhale, read Consumer Reports, wear three condoms, and keep your windows triple-locked.  Feeling ashamed and responsible for unforeseeable disasters is just adding insult to undeserved injury.  Sit down.  That’s right.  Have a cookie.  And tell me where it hurts.

Two good arguments: one about responsibility, the other about compassion.  One is not better than the other, but here we stand on the diamond edge of that Zebra knife between them.  Which one seems more persuasive on its face?  Well, that depends on our emotions, doesn’t it?  The argument that resonates more powerfully depends on who we are as emotional beings.  The one we choose says volumes about us and very little about the event itself.

Hold that thought.  Before we decide which argument style we prefer, let’s talk about how this distinction applies and let’s take it even further, foregrounding the discussion by characterizing the “baby boomers.”  Because the boomers have been the deciders, standing on that diamond edge since 1946.  And much of what terrifies us today was authored expressly and overtly by them choosing a flimsy kind of emotional “responsibility for the responsible” instead of the more compassionate feels—which tells us a lot about them, if not everything we need to know.  

The boomers spent the precious freedoms their parents bought for them as traumatized adults in WWII and before that as traumatized children of the misunderstood, alcoholic, Silent Generation—and the boomers act like they earned it all themselves through true grit and moxie. 

Actually, the boomers are the ones who economically fucked over Generation X.  The boomers built the nuclear stockpiles, created the student debt crisis, lusted after Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand, and are the ones who currently despise millennials more than any others.  Well, we all despise the millennials.  But still.  We know who the boomers are.  We’re still dealing with their fuckery.

There’s an internet catchphrase going around these days, “Ok Boomer,” which the dictionary tells us is used “often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.”  Ah.  That sounds about right for the generation that established our current ruinous, self-serving climate politics. 

As Sorya Roberts puts it (quoting Michael Parenti) in “Happily Never After,” as the environment collapses, elite panic in “strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse.”  Isn’t that a lovely vision of the future?  Most of the boomers won’t be around to see it.  They’re going to die on the golf course well before that.  But the rest of us might live to enjoy it.  That is, if we’re the lucky ones.

In the art world, particularly in creative academia, worsening since about 1975, boomer narcissism has taken this form: there is always room for talented people.  Oh, there are no jobs for you?  You must not be one of the talented few (like me).  Too bad.  Even though, in the boomer generation, you could get a tenured position with an unpublished manuscript and no teaching experience.    

“Always room for good people” is a veritable baby boomer mantra, the meritocratic fever dream of those steeped in imperial luxury, who turn beet-red when someone points out that the they got where they are because they were born into a fortunate time and place between global catastrophes; that the emperor is not a god; that the empire is not eternal; and that its luxuries were founded on a pylon of human skulls.  Boomers comprise a large part of Donald Trump’s “base,” the leering retirees in the MAGA hats.  And though academics generally despise 45, they conveniently overlook that he has more in common with them than any other generation.

So you’re a millennial or, hell forbid, a gen-Xer in your 40s and the socio-political-economic Zebra blade has now gone straight through your foot.  Are you trying to stay interested in the impeachment?  Are you crying “Why me?” when you realize that halving global greenhouse emissions by 2030 is neigh impossible at this point?  Have you been taking solace in Oprah’s self-care philosophies and burning Gwyneth Paltrow’s special candle?  Are you ready for what comes next?  Are you one of the anointed few like dad was?

You’re not.  You can’t be.  But why not just pretend you are, just for a bit, after the Bactine and the Band-Aids, while the Parthenon burns?

Tiredness, Truth, and Mockery: the American Way

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Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption.  This is good.  But, man, I’m beat.

The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.

If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.

The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.

In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.

To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.

I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.

“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah