Sunday, July 29, 2018

Incurious America

In his unfortunately-titled 2009 book Idiot America, Boston sports writer Charles P. Pierce describes the growing aversion in his country -- and mine -- for public policies that are grounded in facts. I consider the title unfortunate because it is guaranteed to raise hackles more than it will invite readers, and in the process a very well-reasoned and researched book is not well known.

Writing a few years before the web of deception strategies was condensed to just two words -- fake news -- Pierce identified three great premises of idiot America:
  • Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
  • Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it
  • Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
I would use the term "incurious America" instead and might add a corollary:
  • My opinion is as good as your expertise
For it is the continued assault on the value of inquiry, research, and knowledge itself that relate most directly to my work and identity as a scholar and educator. 

Pierce begins building his case with charlatans who were manipulating public discourse in the United States as early as 1787, citing example after example of one or more of his three premises, culminating in the first century of this decade, when several completely optional wars were sold to an uncritical public on a series of unsubstantiated claims. Of course, we remain mired in those wars, and will never be done paying for them.

An important stage in the progression of mendacity in America is, of course, that species known as the tobacco lawyer. They succeeded for decades -- killing my grandfather, aunt, uncle, and many others in the process -- by manipulating the notion of "doubt" in scientific discourse.

What is a repudiated trickster to do once the tobacco industry is (somewhat) cowed? Climate denial, that's what! He introduces the story of climate denial with an undeniable example in Alaska that is connected to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where I spend much of my time. In fact, I started my day in New Bedford aboard a replica Beetle boat, the whale-hunting boats that were invented in New Bedford and carried to all the world's oceans on this city's whaleships.

In his chapter "How We Look at the Sea," Pierce tells the story of 33 whaleships -- mostly from New Bedford -- that were trapped and ultimately crushed by the 1871 winter ice pack that was forming near Point Belcher in the Chukchi Sea. All of the ships were lost, though all 1200 crew (and, oddly, family) members were saved. In a story depicted and often told in the New Bedford Whaling Museum (of which I am a proud member), we learn that $1,600,000 worth of oil, bone, and baleen of bowhead whales was left behind. It was salvaged by Iñupiaq, many of whom live on the nearby island of Shishmaref.

What does this have to do with climate change? Two things: first, the crush of winter ice ice took place in August. Ice is no longer a threat at that time of year. Second, the island of Shishmaref is now endangered by rising waters and rising temperatures. Significant shoreline had been lost at the time of Pierce's writing, and it has only gotten worse. People who relied on annual rhythms of ice and a year-round presence of permafrost for thousands of years are front-line witnesses to phenomena that can only be denied from the comfort of office space on K Street.

In my courses on climate change, I used to begin -- as I might in some other subjects -- by asking students to write down what they already know about the topic. My intention was to figure out how much basic physics I would need to introduce early in the class. I have learned two things: first, I need to introduce all of the relevant physics. Second, students think they know something about competing theories that would explain away climate change, but they do not.

Lagniappe

The full title of Pierce's book includes a colon, which is how we know it is scholarly! The subtitle is How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, which points to an increasingly common peeve of mine. In the name of "patriotism" many edicts made and even some laws passed that unduly restrict freedom and exhibit cowardice. Particularly bitter is the irony surrounding such restrictions being placed around the singing of -- and genuflecting toward -- our national anthem, as if its last line had no meaning whatever. 

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