Sunday, October 16, 2005

Is THIS the real reason for LANL's seven years of trouble?

This is a story, sent to me by an anonymous contributor, of the people who fill the hallowed Halls of Congress, deciding the fate of the Lab, but elected by our fellow Americans. Scientists should read on, regardless of the pain this may cause. -BLH

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A friend of mine sent along a copy of "Greetings from Idiot America," by Charles P. Pierce (sorry, but it's behind a firewall, and you have to pay $2.95 to see it) from the latest Esquire. I don't think I've ever read this magazine before--it's one of those things with half-naked young ladies draped over the cover, which, strangely enough, isn't something that usually entices me to pick up a copy, but this one article has all the vigor and passion that most of our media have wrung out of their press, replacing it with tepid timidity and vacuous boosterism for whatever the polls say is most popular today.

It begins with a description of a tour of Ken Ham's new creation science museum in Kentucky, with its dinosaurs wearing saddles and its bland Adam, which we learn is naked but sculpted without a penis, and the train of well-fed Middle American boobs lining up with great earnestness to parade through the patently bogus exhibits.

-Anonymous Contributor

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WHAT IS IDIOT AMERICA?

The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It's not too much antimodernism, or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power, the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who know best what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage.

And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president's former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is “faith-based.”

It's a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, “faith-based," a cheap huckster's phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It's a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith, but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.

While I think faith is insubstantial, I'll grant the writer license--its proponents believe it is substantial, which makes their thin gruel of “faith-based” this and that, particularly unpalatable. The main point is something that has long bothered me--we've replaced the esteem for real knowledge and skill with vague notions of “faith.”

Intelligent Design--creationism--is such a good example of that phenomenon.

On August 21, a newspaper account of the “intelligent design” movement contained this remarkable sentence: “They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive.”

A “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is as self-evidently ridiculous as an agriculturally savvy challenge to Euclidean geometry would be. It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn't matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly, none of them can. It doesn't matter how many votes your candidate got, he's not going to turn lead into gold. This sentence is so arrogantly foolish that the only real news is where it appeared.

---On the front page.

---Of the New York Times.

Within three days, there was a panel on the subject on Larry King Live, in which Larry asked the following question: “All right, hold on. Dr. Forest, your concept of __ how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”

And why do so many of them host television programs, Larry?

The article in question is by the vacuous Jodi Wilgoren. Nobody at the New York Times seem to get it: they are one of the mothers of Idiot America, nursing the country on a strange ideal of balance, where every example of expertise is precisely neutralized with a dollop of inanity, which is treated as if it is as equally valuable as the actual facts. It's sad to see how far we've fallen.

The country was founded by people who were fundamentally curious; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to name only the most obvious examples, were inveterate tinkerers. [Note: A REPUBLICAN President, Theodore Roosevelt, belongs in this list of highly educated, scientifically credible politicians, two of whom--Jefferson and Roosevelt--are among the four enshrined on Mount Rushmore. -BLH.] (Before dispatching Lewis and Clark into the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson insisted that the pair categorize as many new plant and animal species as they found. Considering they were also mapping everything from Missouri to Oregon, this must have been a considerable pain in the canoe.) Further, they assumed that their posterity would feel much the same as they did; in 1815, appealing to Congress to fund the building of a national university, James Madison called for the development of “a nursery of enlightened preceptors.”

It is a long way from that to the moment on February 18, 2004, when sixty two scientists, including a clutch of Nobel laureates, released a report accusing the incumbent administration of manipulating science for political ends. It is a long way from Jefferson's observatory and Franklin's kite [and REPUBLICAN Roosevelt's treatises on natural history] to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design ought to be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation's science classes. “Both sides ought to be properly taught,” said the president, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

That's a contrast that hurts: we've gone from Enlightenment America, which strangely enough all the idiots still revere, to George W. Bush's Idiot America. Can we please bring it back?

Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of decisions made and not made. It's the development of a collective Gut at the expense of a collective mind. It's what results when politicians make ridiculous statements, and not merely do we abandon the right to punish them for it at the polls, but we also become too timid to punish them with ridicule on a daily basis, because the polls say they're too popular anyway. It's what happens when leaders are not held to account for mistakes that end up killing people.

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Postscript:

You would be surprised at how much email is sent to me telling me to stop being so derisive, that harsh language and ridicule turn people off and repel the very ones we're trying to persuade. My reply is like the one above; by refusing to ridicule the ridiculous, by watering down every criticism into a mannered circumlocution, we have created an environment where idiots thrive unchallenged. We have a twit for a president because so many people made apologies for his ludicrous lack of qualifications. We need more people unabashedly pointing out fools.

I'm doing my part to fight Idiot America. I hope more people join me.

-Anonymous Contributor

Comments:
The "average level of intelligence, as measured by IQ is 100, by definition. Check out these stats from

http://www.audiblox.com/iq_scores.htm:

Note, the article doesn't address which category "faith-based" people fall into, but I have my suspicions.

--Doug

______________________________________


Descriptive Classifications of Intelligence Quotients

IQ Description % of Population
130+ Very superior 2.2%
120-129 Superior 6.7%
110-119 High average 16.1%
90-109 Average 50%
80-89 Low average 16.1%
70-79 Borderline 6.7%
Below 70 Extremely low 2.2%

Apparently, the IQ gives a good indication of the occupational group that a person will end up in, though not of course the specific occupation. In their book, Know Your Child’s IQ, Glen Wilson and Diana Grylls outline occupations typical of various IQ levels:

140 Top Civil Servants; Professors and Research Scientists.
130 Physicians and Surgeons; Lawyers; Engineers (Civil and Mechanical)
120 School Teachers; Pharmacists; Accountants; Nurses; Stenographers; Managers.
110 Foremen; Clerks; Telephone Operators; Salesmen; Policemen; Electricians.
100+ Machine Operators; Shopkeepers; Butchers; Welders; Sheet Metal Workers.
100- Warehousemen; Carpenters; Cooks and Bakers; Small Farmers; Truck and Van Drivers.
90 Laborers; Gardeners; Upholsterers; Farmhands; Miners; Factory Packers and Sorters.

 
There's something ironic in a complaint about the decline of rigorous thinking consisting of a crude ad hominem. There was a time when earning respect as an expert required proving your thesis. Now it seems that mockery and liberal use of the word "idiot" (applied to those who don't passively accept one's claims) is all that is needed. I've always thought that a person who becomes confrontational when challenged to validate his position is still trying to convince himself of its truth, and needs the social support of others to feel secure.

The author's distrust of "common sense" is one of those great anachronisms from an age when we were promised eugenically perfect children, power too cheap to meter, and an endless supply of disposable tableware to eliminate kitchen chores. This worldview took a long time to fall, but it fell hard. People saw the "expert-based" world the Former Soviet Union tried to create ("families are inefficient, let's eliminate them"), and didn't think it was a place they would like to live. The backlash from 1930s scientism gave us eccentricities such as "organic" foods, apocalyptic global warming fantasies, and a tragic pride at rejecting rational thought. Hopefully, the passage of time will dampen the swings from the extremes of scientific provincialism to irrationalism and back, and we'll land somewhere in the middle: a world that plays by rules yet still recognizes their anthropomorphic basis.

A scientist who is not willing to examine his materialist assumptions is someone who is not very curious about the world around him. He already has his answer, and he is simply looking to validate his existing beliefs to spare himself the trouble and uncertainty of reflection. It's so much easier to deny that there is any possible answer other than the one he already has, but ultimately, it is not very satisfying.

Let Mr. Pierce continue to wonder why unquestioning respect for "experts" declined. People of common sense have already figured it out.
 
I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The New Age, New Wave, crystals-and-horoscope crowd has little advantage over the "Intelligent" Design, creationist, save-the-stem-cell crowd when it comes to scientific capacity. But the Lefties aren't running the country or the global corporate world. The heavy-set enemy of science in Washington, DC, has come down hard on the "campus atmosphere," academic-freedom-loving national labs, dictating that one or the other of the 800-lb. gorillas of the military-industrial complex should rule over them.

I've heard that many X-Division people are at a conference at Livermore this week, probing their Livermite colleagues about possible job opportunities there. But, trouble is, St. "Just-Get-Over-It" Pete has zeroed out NIF, thus shutting down a possible escape hatch for LANL weapons scientists, since Livermore people are rightly concerned about their own immediate futures.

Malice aforethought, or just a "happy" consequence of some other DC power play by the Senate and House?
 
"Is THIS the real reason for LANL's seven years of trouble?"

I would say "No." Look for complicated conspiracy theories if you prefer, but the real cause for our problems at LANL lies with us, our management, and with the complete disengagement of the University of California. LLNL and LANL have needed strategic planning for a long time. UC provided none. Our lab has repeatedly needed tactical planning and damage control. We received none from UC, and we provided none for ourselves.

UC lost the contract for LANL because it deserved to. It really is that simple. It is past due time for a change.

Oh, and that Cheryl Rofer person ("WhirledView" blog author of the commentary piece that precedes this article) did get one thing right in pointing out that many LANL staff are voicing "an almost religious hope that Lockheed will make everything okay when they win the contract." But, since she clearly has never been to LANL and seen the deplorable state of management here, she has no way of knowing that things will only improve when Lockheed takes over. She could do a better job of sounding less ignorant when pontificating about conditions at LANL.
 
finknottle: Chery Rofer worked at LANL for approximately 20 years.

Your statement that "she clearly has never been to LANL" demonstrates taht you are full of shit!
 
Dear Tom:

Want to meet at Cheek's tonight?

Yours,

Finknottle

PS: It's spelled "that", not "taht", as in

"Your statement that "she clearly has never been to LANL" demonstrates that you are full of shit!"
 
Finknottle:

Leave poor Tom alone. He still has bruises, psychical and physical. Taht's clear to anywon.

Meet him at Canyon Bar; it's a nicer place, I hear.

-Brad
 
Sorry, I should have said in the last post, "...it's a nicer place, I HERE."
 
This particular post and some comments aren't worth much since it resorts to name calling ("twits") and innuendo (implied poor IQ of faith-based folks) rather than reason and facts. Unfortunately, this post is symptomatic of this "idiot America" view, using poor reasoning to argue against supposed "idiots". It is indicative a certain arrogance that is prevalent in part of our population and highly reinforced by the media. It is this type of assertions and inane responses (finknottle, in particular) that keep me from paying much attention to this blog lately.
 
If there is a breakdown in the idea that the pursuit of knowledge is good, I would lay that at the feet of those educating youth in this country. The education system is in shambles, under the control of a powerful union, with no apparent ability to break away from it. When choice is regarded as good in one arena, it is regarded as bad in another. When diversity is regarded as good in one arena, it is regarded as bad in another. When freedom of speech is regarded as good in one arena, it is regarded as bad in another. As long as we continue to fail to educate our youth, there isn't much hope in improving things. As long as parents don't control and watch over the education of their children, our nation will continue in a downward spiral. This has nothing to do with party politics other than the failure to recognize that education isn't the government's job. Where is the Dept of Education mentioned in our Constitution? What good has the Dept of Education actually done? The more money we spend, the poorer the education that results. Until we wake up, we will continue to live in "dark ages". The ultimate demise will not be Los Alamos and facilities like it, but the nation itself. This has nothing to do with evolution or stem cells or "bright" presidents, but everything to do with recovering the original meaning and purpose of the great universities in this country so that the imparting of knowledge can actually occur.
 
On this topic I recommend to you “In Defense of Elitism”. By William A. Henry III, 1994, ISBN 0-385-46899-7. Henry's thesis is that since World War II, most domestic issues have been fought around the balance of egalitarianism and elitism, and that the balance has swung too far towards egalitarianism. In our concern to "make people feel better about themselves" by "dumbing down" everything from school textbooks to the nightly news, Henry argues, we are in danger of shortchanging our best and brightest, and thereby endangering our entire society. Multiculturalism and affirmative action are discussed at length in this context. Note that Henry is not a right-winger (for those who suspect a neocon plot here), but rather a staunch liberal Democrat and card-carrying member of the ACLU.

And then, it is important to remember that clear, rational thinking, unswayed by ego or emotion or cultural bias, is a difficult process for humans. Even among the intellectual elites it is achieved only sporadically, as postings to this blog demonstrate. The history of science is filled with examples of great minds who could be brilliantly rational in one field, yet simultaneously believe the most outrageous nonrational things in other fields. Humans are simply like that. However, this is unlikely to be the ultimate cause of America’s downfall, because the people in the rest of the world suffer the same limitation.
 
Bill,
Thanks for the book reference. I also recommend "Illiberal Education" by Dinesh D'Souza as well as a few other books of his. People may not agree with him, but I believe he has well reasoned arguments and hard facts to support his view. The book is almost 15 years old, but is still fresh in its insight. It helps explain a lot of the failure of modern universities.
As for the US's downfall, the failure of our educational system has the potential of destroying the nation's advantage over other countries, which certainly is a form of downfall. I think it is a little naive to think of the problem as a battle between elitism and egalitarianism. The issue is much deeper than that.
 
I agree that the failure of our educational system has the potential to eliminate our competitive advantage in the world. But I would hardly argue that the whole issue is one of egalitarianism vs elitism. As always, reality is much, much more complex than that. In this regard, Jared Diamond’s recent book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” is interesting.

But what is true is that human progress is, and always has been, a messy, disorganized process (probably chaotic in the formal sense) with great setbacks, long periods of stagnation, and only occasional leaps forward. Its not so amazing that human civilizations are frequently in trouble; it’s more amazing that they usually manage to muddle through for very long periods despite their problems, and that now and then they even manage to pull off something really good. And much the same can be said about governments and organizations (such as LANL).
 
Finknottle: Just because I cannot spell does not change the fact that you are totally wrong about Rofer's employment at LANL!
 
True Tommy, you can't spell. And, I was wrong about Cheryl Rofer.

There, feel better now? I know I do!

Gussie
 
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