25 November 2009

Informed by Informing Information

Listen, I really don't get any joy when I come across indications that to be "American" is to be blatantly uninformed and reactionary, but I come across them all too often of late. No, I get it, all media has its slant and a line of people somewhere in the US is not, in and of itself, suggesting a plague of ignorance. But, there's something else at work here; that those people interviewed in the line who claimed they couldn't think of anything off hand (but might be able to research it) really wouldn't be able to create valid arguments because they simply don't have the resources.

Take, for instance, the new breast cancer screening regulations. And consider an example of the outrage that followed. Despite the fact that Sarah Palin's death panels were non-existence, this was seen by many as an act of rationing care; that the social/commun/lenin/mao/ists are corrupting America with big government legislation which is out to kill women to save money in order to provide healthcare to the illegals. Now, I spent about 20 minutes looking through not stories on the guidelines but the published report itself. I'm not doctor, and parts of it are hard to simply skim, but its not too difficult to see that the changes aren't earth-shattering, and (if you look at the previous reports) not unprecedented. Basically, this panel concluded, in tandem with the World Health Organization and other groups, that the risks of regular mammography in women in their 40s could not be overtly justified by the committee and should be left to the individuals and doctors.

The language is hardly absolute and inflammatory, yet the reaction is visceral. I see two reasons for this, first that breast cancer is a widespread, personal and highly emotional condition/issue for people who suffer and families that lose those people. A great deal of the reporting is clouded with testimonies of those who's lives were saved by a mammogram at age 40, or a mother who could have been saved had she been to regular screenings. Surely the human interest aspects of news are important, they make us care about issues that might otherwise seem foreign, but we cannot let emotional reaction prevent us from reading reports critically. I mean, if you read a news story that says doctors are suggesting that you do the opposite of what you know saved a friends life, wouldn't you attempt to figure out exactly what it was the doctors said? I tend to investigate those things that seem illogical to me.

Compounding this is the healthcare debate. The conservative zealots and politicians in the pockets of the insurance industry would do anything and everything to prevent passing any reform. Anything that even hints at some sort of change is painted as being forced upon us and destroying the America we love. Of course this has nothing to do with the actual science, the understanding of the science, or the value of human life but of campaign donations and political ideology. The result, I think, was a discourse fed by emotion and outrage in which people didn't have time to read the actual language; most were too busy writing witty and biting remarks to those that did not find the guidelines distasteful.

More recently, science was thrust into media debate again. Apparently, emails from an institution devoted to studying climate change were stolen. And, apparently these emails suggest that we are witness to the largest scientific conspiracy in the history of the age of enlightenment. ClimateGate. Scientists are corrupt, hiding data, spinning results and "tricking" the world into believe that humans are having an impact on global ecology. As to the details of what would drive scientists to do this, I am at a loss. I have not reviewed these thousands of emails myself yet, but the snippets I have read show some geeky scientist humor and discussion of problems facing climate scientists. Either this is just science being science, or this is evidence that the existence of global warming is still up for debate. Time to freak out.

To me this shows me what I already knew about science from reading Bruno Latour's Science in Action and studying an archaeological field school. Science is not pretty, its done by people who have their own motives and friends and enemies. Quote Gavin Schmitd in the NYT,

“Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA whose e-mail exchanges with colleagues over a variety of climate studies were in the cache. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.”

Now what he may have failed to mention is that Newtown's hypothetical jackassery likely made theoretical gravity what it is. There might be a lot of evidence to support climate change, but correlations alone do not a scientific movement make. We need to find the correlations and test them and believe them and tell others in order to make them true. I have said before that I think science is misunderstood by many who simply accept its authority. If you send a bunch of white men to college for a really long time and then they write long papers with big words, you're likely to believe what they have to say, especially because their really smart friends also believe them.

But science and medicine are human constructs and human practices. As such they are imperfect, and this goes beyond the whole test, retest and suggest tests for the future thing. The idea of pure fact, of the truth about climate change, is always going to be seen through a fallible, human lens. We cannot simply observe. We can only observe through our baggage, like the scientists who discuss, within their work-related emails, skeptics and journalists that complicate their lives.

Without going into a mini-version of my thesis, my point is that the coverage of events, and misunderstanding of what science is, lead to in this case, an inability for many to figure out what the hell was going on. If I might make make the elitist assumption that not all my fellow Americans are as unoccupied, investigative, cynical and academic as I am, I think I can safely say that John and Jane Doe, watching ABCs nightly news, would not go to such lengths as I have gone here to understand the debates. We find trusted sources, take them at their words, and are provided with convenient buzz words to utilize in discussions with our friends and family.

Unfortunately, that most of the country is simply fed info by their moving picture boxes is supported by the general sitgma of intellectuals, those rich elitists stuck in their books and out of touch with people. Though I experienced it in college, I find more and more in the "real" world that independent review and learning is scoffed at and ignored in the face of more palatable perspectives (those which incite the emotions). Thinking is generally unprofitable and a waste of money-making time and a lot of people won't make time for it. Thus, we find ourselves in a time when the Palin line counts as informed decision making.

06 November 2009

A Rant of One Who Would Destroy America

No really, listen:

You know how Glenn Beck talks about liberal leftists destroying America. This is what one really sounds like. SPOILER ALERT: I am an elitist and cynical, lefty hippie.

I seems that maybe Obama charmed his way to the White House following in the steps of George W. Bush. The biggest difference? Obama was legitimately elected, and no one wanted to have a beer with him; they just hoped that he would bring some progressive action to the presidency.

Sure it's too early to judge him as a president but it's not looking good. Take something like healthcare, quality and affordable healthcare. It seems he would let his own party not only butcher the concept of a public option into some meaningless, impotent moderate compromise, but he would also watch members of his own party threaten to block the bill the even coming to a vote. If I believed in a god, I would invoke its name and beg it to make Obama take a stand. I've seen nothing but pandering and inaction. If one really wants to close a secret torture center, one simply needs to close it. Instead, Obama offers nothing but waiting. Same with waging war. He continues to support the killing of human beings and recognizes an illegitimate Afghan leader. If you hate murdering humans, then simply take a courageous step, walk away and face the shame and ridicule that we fucked up. No, really. Finally, Gay rights have taken significant blows recently and Mr. Obama, who looked to be a friend of the LGBTQ community, a president who felt the need to support democrats in local elections, said nothing of the referendums on gay marriage and civil union.

We are not on good terms, him and me. His administration has been consumed of late with a debate with the standing on cable media, laying wreaths and with pandering to the right, the very people who didn't vote for him and oppose anything with his name on it. Here's how it works. Leaders lead, which means making decisions and taking actions that will get you criticism from your foes and your sell-out party members. I believed that Obama believed in what he said he believed in. So far, it seems he's on a one way street to sell-out-ville. But I am just a disgruntled liberal.

So, what of freedom and democracy and capitalism. Lies. At least in this current country. Freedom and equality are routinely denied to some at the hands of pseudo-democracy and capitalism. Listen, capitalism ensures the success of the rich and necessitates the plight of the poor. And its no mistake that the rich are married (though philandering) white men and the poor single black women. The American Dream is a fantasy that addicts the lower classes to a definition of success that demands materialism; own more stuff, be hotter stuff. But, then the middle classes need to own more stuff to out-stuff the lower class. Finally, profit, for the rich anyway, who own all the stuffs that the stuff-wanters want. This is all inherent in a system that places import upon certain types of personal wealth. Add in a side of corporate corruption and you have an exploitative invisible hand that crushes the masses while the top one percent suckle at its teat. Hello cynicism!

Democracy would suggest that these masses might have some leverage. Nope. Politicians are in the pocket of the one percent, if they themselves aren't in the one percent. Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or Olympia Snowe might have had meager, down-home beginnings but they've arisen to such a class and success that they have no personal stake in what the public wants. The public, the masses, support a public option. Yet, at the hands of insurance lobbyists, many politicians will press the congress to produce a bill that has exactly the opposite. But surely the masses could simply vote out these corrupt leaders. Except the masses mostly believe they have to choose between the lesser of two evils and not someone who represents their interests. Independent and progressive candidates are painted as left or right wing wackos who speak their minds, express exactly what they mean and make no concessions (for shame!). This has gone on for so long that the public does not take advantage of its right to elect leaders. For once, the decisions of the public matter, their apathy declares that contemporary politics and American democracy is dying.

And now I'd like to take a moment and criticize my favorite target: the media. That mostly electronic outlet that offers only lies, sensationalism and advertising under the guise of some perverted form of journalism. All the fair and balanced television media offer nothing of value except opinion, which the majority of people take as news. And yes, I am playing the elitism card, if that card is recognizing that those with independent, critical minds are portrayed as out of touch, ivory towerists. I'm not suggesting that I have a better perspective, but simply utilizing what my perspective gives me, an ability to recognize other perspectives.

Furthermore the media dupes us with stories of celebrity drama, "reality" shows, and a fetishism of death. Routinely, stories of import to the state of American life, stories that reveal the lies of politicians and stories that give indication to the worrisome and problematic state of the world are ignored for sensationalist reporting, empty accusations and "human interest" reporting which gives us a nice fluffy feeling in our hearts. In short, we are trained to ignore politics, realist perspectives and sad stories with bad endings and trained to consume and discuss sad stories with happy endings. The substance is left, then, to comedy shows which satirize the media and offer the only sane reaction to the state of things, laughter.

Also, people in the United States are routinely denied civil and human rights by a largely Christian, exclusionary paradigm. Gays cannot marry, gays are considered inherently sinful and shameful and somehow not normal, women are paid less, women are denied agency over their own bodies, immigrants are described as insidious invaders, Muslims are labeled as terrorists, blacks, by no coincidence, wind up most hampered by the capitalist system, state legislators routinely participate in state sanctioned murder, millions are denied rights to basic healthcare and I once got a parking ticket for parking in front of my own house. It's all fucked up.

And what is the solution? The collapse of capitalism followed by a humanist overthrow of the Christian, oppressive US government by the people. Realistically, I believe this would result in the dissolution of the United States and the establishment of new territories. Now, being the ardent and hopeless pacifist that I am and do not see violence as a necessary. I believe that the disenchantment of the people and a natural collapse of capitalism will throw these United States into such an identity crises that the current form of government and economic will be unable to stand. I believe it's happening now. Increasingly the wackos on all ends of the political spectrums are the only one's making sense. Even if their values conflict with my own, I find sanity in their ferocity to accomplish something in the face of the establishment.

Now I cannot predict the result. But I do believe that the America as we know it will fall and be remade. I believe that this will come down to a clash between secularism and religiosity. But, I hope, and here comes the utopia, that a state arises that promotes (in deliberate rejection of freedom and liberty and justice) tolerance and peace and humanism for all. This final thought, the naive utopia, is the only thing that gives me much hope these days as I become increasingly maddened and anxious and cynical at the hand of my overwhelming disillusionment.

03 November 2009

Scientific Poetry

"I began with physical anthropology. I was taught how to measure the size of the brain of a human being who had been dead a long time, who was all dried out. I bored a hole in his skull, and I filled with grains of polished rice. Then I emptied the rice into a graduated cylinder. I found this tedious.
"I switched to archaeology, and I learned something I already knew: that man had been a maker and smasher of crockery since the dawn of time. And I went to my faculty advisor, and I confessed that science did not charm me, that I longed for poetry instead. I was depressed. I knew my wife and father would want to kill me if I went into poetry.
"My advisor smiled. 'How would you like to study poetry which pretends to be scientific?' he asked me.
"'Is such a thing possible?' I said.
"He shook my hand. 'Welcome to the field of social anthropology,' he said. He told me that Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead were already in it- and some sensitive gentlemen as well."

Kurt Vonnegut recounting anthropology at the University of Chicago
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons