“There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate government action.”
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
— Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
In decades of yore, strategic, full-scale public deception was seemingly the sole purview of politicians, outright crooks, and a comparatively small number of shady businesspeople. Today, as science inexorably pushes back the limitations of technology and the number of available cable television channels expands like Courtney Love’s rap sheet, North America has become so overrun with lies and deception that the inevitable has happened: Absolute bullshit — as long as it placates someone or makes him rich — is afforded the same treatment as plain truth in almost every sphere of existence. Penn & Teller have parlayed this stain on modernity into an amusing program on Showtime, but even exposés like theirs fail to address the implications of the bullshit epidemic in general, global terms.
Most often, this brand of dishonesty takes the form of individuals quietly fooling themselves in an effort to allay the discomfiting ache of cognitive dissonance. Such maneuvers are sufficiently commonplace to have engendered snippets of charming idiomatic bullshit, e.g., “money isn’t everything,” “true beauty is on the inside,” “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and “everything happens for a [divine] reason.” Not that all of these are entirely frivolous, but it is useful to examine the circumstances and hence the rationale of those most often heard uttering such axioms.
Then there are the lucrative enterprises that feed this tendency: purveyors of penis-enlargement pills, abdominizer machines, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and similar hokum shown on television in the wee hours or distributed in unsolicited e-mails. But a shot of spam or an infomershill is a one-sided stream of blather, and owing to the media though which these niceties propagate, even the most unsupportable claims by definition can and do gush forth unchallenged. Even if 99 out of 100 viewers immediately smell the bullshit, the one holdout, if he bites and buys, provides enough cash flow to keep the offending company in the black. In fact, bullshitters of this variety, because they are rarely pressed directly regarding the alleged merits of their products, make no overt appeals to faux honesty. That is, unlike, say, warmongering government leaders, they don’t lie about their lies and are really outside the scope of this diatribe.
More fascinating — and pertinent — are the people who, in an open dialogue, can simply flat-out ignore facts even when essentially pinned down and forced to eat them. Many arguments do in fact address complex issues and not-easily-answered questions, but in the online circles in which I travel, disputes far more often occur between emotion-fueled and shallow-minded reactionaries on the one hand and their equally strident but fact-touting counterparts on the other. This may sound arrogant, overly simplistic, or both, but it’s true. The faith-based opinion that humans were created in a flash of heavenly magic is simply not as rationally useful as the evidence for natural selection and descent with modification. The private ends achieved by those who champion the supernatural have no worldly value.
Such stubborn assaults on facts by the proud emissaries of cherished beliefs provide an archetype of the sort of excoriating set-tos that have spilled into every cranny of daily life and consume both individuals’ time and energy and public resources (e.g., taxes used to fight objectively worthless lawsuits). The evolution versus intelligent-design creationism “debate” is a glaring example of how the power of widespread, lusty and giddily blind desire coupled with political and financial motives can propel an idea with no epistemical merit conceived by and for backwater zealots fearful of science (and of an honest education in general) into the mainstream, and, if they have their way, into the science curricula of American public schools. What with the way things are going in Kitzmiller v. Dover, it’s not looking like the creationists are going to score a legal victory anytime soon. But they’ve managed in fine fashion to convince a lot of previously disengaged Americans that evolution really is fraught with controversy, deception and gross uncertainties, and that incredulity over matters of complexity which are in fact both predicted and explained by biological models is a reasonable substitute for investigation and thought. I’m not sure how many people really do believe in a young Earth or a six-day creation, or in the sort of haphazardly evil and mentally compromised deity as exists in the Christian Bible. But whatever the number, it’s too many, and it’s not just the bumpkins holed up in trailers in future sites of hurricane or tornado wreckage.
Of course, religious wars — both those involving one sect versus another and those pitting believers against “secularists” both within and outside of workaday science — have been going on for aeons, and in a world in which successive generations are successfully inoculated with God despite mounting evidence that the Bible is not only really, really wrong, but way fucking really really wrong, they’re not about to stop; despite the categorical failures of an untold number of insane prophecies to be realized, chief among them the return of Christ himself, we really can’t prove that Christians have it wrong. That’s reason enough for all but a handful of them to toss out facts that are inconvenient while inventing or modifying others to suit. No one should be surprised when scientists and scientifically erudite persons become fed up with the incessant stream of anti-intellectual garbage spewing from fundamentalist mouths and into the pages of mainstream publications, which have never met controversies — legitimate or shitimate — they couldn’t sell.