All posts by shekenne

Reason–for Hope

After yesterday’s post went up on Facebook, a colleague sent me a link to an absolutely fascinating dialogue between the author of Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and her husband, Steven Pinker. It was originally a Ted Talk, and it has been rendered as a very clever cartoon.

I rarely watch videos that are longer than a few minutes, and this one is 15 minutes, but it is a brilliant defense of reason–something we in this unreasonable age need rather badly–and the role reason has played in civilizing and improving human society.

Watch it!

An Epiphany…

My best friend is ABD in philosophy. This means–among other things– that we have had some weird discussions along the way, especially when she was still in graduate school (How do we know that tree is really a tree?), but by and large, it has benefitted me immensely; she’s introduced me to material I  wouldn’t have read otherwise and required me to defend my more half-baked ideas.

So when she recommends a book, I buy it. Most recently, the recommendation was Plato at the Googleplex, which–after a pretty eye-glazing introduction–has proved to be a delightful modern-day take on Platonic dialogues.

The contemporary relevance of one passage in particular really struck me, because it revolved around the central question with which every society must grapple: who decides? Who gets to make the rules, and how do would-be rulers defend their right to do so?

Plato says philosophers should rule. “The one difference is that [philosophers] are able to discover, through the special talents and training that are theirs, what the facts are [about the way people should live]. So they are not imposing their personal will on others, any more than mathematicians are imposing their wills on others by informing non-mathmeticians what the mathematical truths are. They are simply sharing their knowledge with others, knowledge that others cannot access for themselves, lacking the requisite cognitive skills, a matter of both talent and training. This seems to me no more unfair than that the mathematically intelligent share their knowledge of mathematics with the mathematically unintelligent.”

I have always wondered why people–mostly but not exclusively religious people– feel entitled to tell the rest of us how to live, who to love, when and whether to procreate, and why they see themselves as victims when government won’t order us to follow their dictates. How is it they don’t recognize this as chutzpah? Why can’t they live and let live?

This passage lays bare the lack of self-awareness and immense arrogance that motivates zealots and theocrats.

That arrogance is why I’ve always preferred Aristotle–who evaluated social arrangements based upon their ability to facilitate human flourishing– to Plato.

There is something chilling about the contemporary (self-styled) philosopher-kings who are quite sure that they know what morality looks like, and how others should live their lives. These scolds aren’t just sharing insights that have had meaning for them, in hopes that others will find them persuasive. They aren’t sharing at all–they are imposing, secure in their conviction that they know, and if you disagree, you are wrong. End of discussion.

Plato got one thing very wrong. Morality isn’t like math.


Rupert Murdoch and Climate Change

One of the most thoughtful commenters to this blog recently sent me an interesting–albeit disquieting–article from Mother Jones. The subject was climate change and the curious fact that the countries with the largest numbers of skeptics were all English-speaking:  U.S., England and Australia. Canada wasn’t in the bottom cluster, but it was close.

Why would the English language correlate with climate skepticism? As the author, respected science reporter Chris Mooney, notes

There is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other skeptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

Mooney quotes political scientists for (pretty unpersuasive) theories linking neoliberalism with denialism, but then he suggests a simpler–and very troubling–explanation:

The English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.

In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers—the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph—were particular hotbeds of skepticism. “The Australian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

And then there’s the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful skeptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

I have long been a free speech purist–and I remain convinced by John Stuart Mill’s argument that only the freest expression and most robust exchange of ideas  will yield Truth (note capital T). Climate skeptics are entitled to their say, and Faux News is entitled to spew demonstrable inaccuracies and falsehoods on this and all manner of other issues, no matter how maddening some of us find that and no matter how much damage their fabrications do to our ability to produce sound public policies.

Ideally, a few wealthy individuals would not be allowed to dominate the media (the right to free expression does not include the right to crowd out dissenting opinions), but in the age of the Internet, restrictions on the number of media outlets one corporation can control are arguably unnecessary, and unlikely in any event.

We’ll just have to hope that Mill and others were right–that people will examine the information they are being fed, consider the sources of that information, and come to rational conclusions. And perhaps that’s happening; Fox News has been losing market share for the last few years.

We can hope….



Governor Pence and “Good Paying Jobs”

Indiana’s always-embarrassing Governor was thrilled that Lowe’s chose Indianapolis for its new call center. The IBJ quoted him as saying “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of 1,000 good-paying jobs coming to Central Indiana.”

What our Governor considers “good paying” (for other people–he certainly wouldn’t work for these wages) is $10-14 dollars an hour. Even assuming full-time employment (40 hours a week and two weeks paid vacation, a rarity with these sorts of positions), that’s 20,000 per year at the low end–a salary that would allow a family of four to qualify for food stamps.  Those lucky folks getting full-time employment at 14 dollars per hour would be paid 28,000. (As I read Indiana’s somewhat confusing online TANF charts, children in families of four making less than 37,024 annually are eligible for support.)

And what did Indiana taxpayers shell out for the privilege of paying people wages that will qualify at least some of them for welfare? A reported 5.5 million dollars in “incentives” plus another 100,000 for training grants.

Lowe’s spokesman said they chose Indianapolis based on Hoosiers’ “work ethic.”

Sorry to tell you this, Mr. Spokesman, but that isn’t a “work ethic.” It’s desperation for a job–even a crappy one.


A Totally Honest Political Ad

This is just too accurate not to share…..

And because it is so spot-on, it may explain this, at least partially:

The non-profit, non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University’s School of Public Affairs reported only 14.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the first 25 state primaries, down from 18.3 percent in the 2010 midterm elections.

That’s about 18.2 million ballots from a pool of some 122.8 million eligible voters.

I wonder which came first, the dysfunctional political system or the apathetic electorate?