On the subjectivity of truth: part 2 of 3

While religion may be the most prominent locus of shameless bullshit producton and dissemination, it’s not the only significant one. (That religious fervor has parallels in other wishful-thinking realms is instructive from the standpoint of viewing a belief in a conscious deity as nothing more than an easily rationalized outcropping of human psychology, but just try to get the afflicted to appreciate this view.)

We now live in a culture in which a mindlessly passionate subset of overweight people — whose numbers in the U.S. are swelling as quickly as bloatfolks’ individual waistlines — can, motivated by insecurity, rage and denial, sincerely dismiss the numerous well-established health risks of obesity as propaganda churned out by a murky, profiteering cabal comprising Big Pharma, the $40-billion-a-year weight-loss industry, and medical doctors themselves. Never mind that researchers were warning of the health risks of being fat long before opportunists such as Weight Watchers cropped up; set aside also the fact that, as a cardiologist friend of mine notes, “If I were really interested in just my wallet and not in my patients’ health, I’d not only tell them to get even fatter, I’d put cigarette vending machines in my waiting room.” But this kind of thinking doesn’t wash with fat activists, whose credo is all too famailiar: When a group of people is unhappy with their circumstances and cannot change either them or themselves, their best strategy is to simply shift the goalposts. Silly? Not in a culture in which it’s increasingly kosher to substitute sheer noise for knowledge.

Strident people of size do not comprehend what a colossal non sequitur it is to go from “Fat people are objects of unnecessary ridicule” to “it’s perfectly fine, health-wise, to be fat, even when the chief causes are inactivity and a junk-laden diet.” A glance at their bloggery demonstrates that they are not pro-fat so much as they are anti-everything else, including overweight people with the temerity to drop tonnage. As with ID creationism, all it takes is one or two glib spokespeople to serve as patron saints for a given cause — and obesity has a pair in author and crank extraordinaire Paul Campos, whose “debunking” of obesity’s medical implications has been rejected by scientists from coast to coast, and food-industry shill Sandy Szwarc; both know just enough to be dangerous — and that’s all those embracing a given chunk of mottled, moldering bullshit need. (Campos agitates for his cause against a pair of Harvard obesity researchers and rabble-rousing king Michael Fumento here.)

Fat people who have long struggled to lose weight and are well aware of society’s often harsh or at best bemused treatment of them are naturally going to lean toward a world view in which the problem isn’t obesity but everyone else’s rigid insistence on thinness. So the hand-wave and eye-closing techniques of dismissing evidence have become ever more popular, while angry law professors and portly shut-ins have managed, in their minds at least, to elevate their analytical acumen and medical insight to that of MDs and PhDs on the faculty of the world’s pre-eminent research universities.

The parallels here with the attacks on the work of investigators with doctorates in the biological sciences by “creation scientists” are striking and undeniable. There is nothing conventionally religious at stake here, but you’d never know it.

In a more sociologically localized vein, a great example of far-flung bullshit in distance running is the well-known “run-walk” method by which undertrained citizens strive to complete 26.2-mile marathons. There is certainly no mark in using this no-hurry strategy — most often credited to former American elite athlete Jeff Galloway — but only through egregious leaps of poor reasoning can one conclude that something sufficient to get people to the finish line in one piece is also the most efficient. Galloway, whose efforts have helped fill both marathon fields around the country and his own pockets, has at times been drawn into discussions in which he oversteps the boundaries of his so-called philosophy and finds himself unable to support his more avant-garde claims with anything culled from exercise physiology; at times, it seems he cannot even do basic math. Yet those free of other reference points who complete marathons thanks to this “method” are immediately numbered among his most ardent defenders. He does look more than a little like Jesus these days.

Of course, it’s not just right-wingers that close their eyes to truth if favor of the allure of queered notions of cosmic fairness. A fine example, this one also running-related, is the railing against the idea that certain East African peoples possess inborn traits that, on average, make them more talented distance runners. Beating the same equine carcasses over and over has its advantages, because I can quote myself:

…it’s helpful to keep in mind that people who refuse to acknowledge that innate differences in certain capabilities between people of different ethnicities exist harbor precisely the same intractable mindset as Bible inerrantists who refuse to acknowledge the lunacy of, among other things, embracing the fable of Noah’s Ark — to say nothing of the rest of the Book of Genesis — as an actual historical event. (Interestingly, the same people who would freely acknowledge the morphological differences between Northern Europeans, East Africans, and West Africans — after all, they really have no choice — bristle at the radical idea that some of these differences might translate into greater physical potential in certain sporting realms.) As with Bible literalists, facts do not sway practitoners of the liberal religion; if anything, their introduction into such discussions is regarded as an annoyance if not an outright attack. So it’s pointless for a realist to argue with them if the goal is to convince them of the validity of his position or the frailty of theirs; at best, the realist may amuse himself, and at worst he may grow frustrated. That is, the parallels between hardcore Christianity and the increasingly manifest liberal surrogate are nearly complete.

Finger-waggling social-science types make all sorts of noise about correlation not being causation and the unforgiviable but evils of slavery, but regardless of what we’ll one day discover about genetics and distance running vis-a-vis ethnicity, none of what they say ever applies. Like the hyper-religious, these screeching liberals are more concerned with what appears to be desirable (in thier view, that every ethnic group is on a genetic even keel in every possible way; to say otherwise opens doors to nastiness) with what is simply true.

On the subjectivity of truth: part 1 of 3

“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.

Everything but a proboscis

In case you’re wondering what’s waiting in the shadows for America’s schoolchildren should the teaching of vapid non-theories such as Intelligent Design creationism be allowed in public schools, look no further than creationevidence.org. The progressives behind this operation have set up a special section for Web-savvy kids, featuring a trio of wall-eyed young scholars and a dinosaur named Muncher.

Standard disclaimer: This is not a parody site.

Note the typical references to “evolutionists” and their wrongful ways, along with a sketch of an addled Darwin with a halo of question marks around his head. That’s right — get ’em while they’re young. Ironically, the pressures of natural selection themselves are responsible for the extreme psychological plasticity of young ‘uns, who in almost all cases stand to benefit greatly from believing exactly what their parents tell or otherwise convey to them. In many cases, their very survival depends on such trust (“Don’t eat that nightshade ‘shroom; don’t feed the lions”), but of course religion — coupling as it does fear of retribution for not believing with a perverse promise of “salvation” in return for faith — fully exploits the same quality in a most reprehensible way.

It’s no wonder Bible-boppers indoctrinated at a tender age grow up viewing scientists not only as errant but as strictly adversarial. When I was learning the basics about dinosaurs and archaeology as a five- and six-year-old, and later as a schoolkid digesting the standard tenets of the life sciences as fed to me by the Concord School District, my parents and teachers never prefaced any of their lessons with defensive-minded innuendo such as “Despite the claims of creationists…” or “Fundies in their infinite loopiness are often heard to say…” Of course, they didn’t have to, and still shouldn’t. But with an already choked court system now forced to deal with the implacable backwardness of American fundagelicals in Dover, Pa. (you can follow the goings-on in that case here), Kansas, Cobb County, Ga., Utah, and elsewhere, a certain amount of battling incendiary palaver with inflammable retorts has seemingly become necessary. Politeness and simply waiting for the “obvious” truth to prevail has never worked, and with Christian extremists ever more emboldened under a galactically benighted President, it’s even less effective today.

It’s heartening that the ID folks appear to be getting their asses handed to them in Harrisburg; they’ve simply left too obvious a trail over the years that they’re nothing more than creationists under a flimsy guise, and thanks to the 1987 SCOTUS ruling barring creationism from American schoolrooms, this will likely kill them in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case regardless of what else is presented therein. The discouraging aspect is knowing that these misguided sentinels of God’s will are never going to give up. Swatting a dozen mosquitoes to death never discouraged hordes more from piling out of the wet underbrush and onto tender skin, and these clowns, driven by even baser appetites, are scarcely different.