A Life of Reason

July 12, 2012

If you’ve read this blog for long, you know I have issues with conservatism. Many of these issues come from an utter unwillingness to be reasonable. Mountains of evidence that evolution is real? They counter with some nonsense about the world being 6,000 years old. Enough evidence to cover the Himalayas that global warming is here and scary? They want to show you a study funded by an oil company. It’s ridiculous.

But, I also frequently opine that the liberal version of this kind of nonsense is not hard to find. You just have to look for phrases like “wisdom of the ancients” or “natural remedy.” It comes with a healthy fear and paranoia regrading some amorphous entity known as “the establishment.” The thing about liberal cranks that really bothers me is how bad they make the rest of us look.

But both the liberal and conservative strains of quackery come from the same source: feelings. Each of us has an idea of how the world “really” is. The problem comes when we try too hard to make the real world fit with our perception of it. This is where cognitive dissonance comes in. That is, you believe, for instance, that vaccinating your kids is bad, but there is a wealth of data saying vaccinations are good for children and society as a whole and that they are very low risk. But they don’t feel low risk because you know someone whose kid had bad reaction or you heard about something like that and hey, who gets polio anymore anyway, right?

So what do you do? You have two choices. One is that you realize that mountains of scientific evidence outweigh your unusual (or media-scaremonger driven) and anecdotal experience and vaccinate your kids. This way they don’t get whooping cough or polio and neither does the kid who can’t get vaccinated because they really do have a bad reaction or they have leukemia or something similarly horrible. The second choice is that you ignore the data and go with your gut feeling. In this circumstance, you eliminate the infinitesimal chance that one of your kid has a bad reaction to the shot, but you expose them to risk from all kinds of diseases they wouldn’t have gotten before. This is what is known as an irrational choice.

Irrational choices are fine in a rational world because they don’t disturb the system as a whole, but if too many people start making irrational choices like not vaccinating, then the world becomes irrational and all of a sudden you have babies dying because they didn’t get the vaccine for whooping cough or, even worse, the planet turns into an oven and sea levels rise. Fortunately, we live in a rational world, so this is really just a fun thought experiment.

Wait, what?

Well, shit.

And now we come to my point which is that, when there is data, I try very hard to do what the data says. Why? Because I trust science. Science does not have an agenda. Companies have agendas. Individuals (even individual scientists) have agendas. Religions often have a agendas. But science does not have an agenda. Or, if it does, that agenda is to know everything about everything, which is only going to help the decision-making process.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a conservative or a liberal, if you are actively denying science (and I don’t mean some cutting edge theory, I mean stuff for which there is a nearly total consensus and an overwhelming volume of data), then you are behaving irrationally. That means you are behaving not only counter to your best interests, but often to the best interests of those around you. You are making the world worse.

And I don’t understand why people do this. I’ve never understood. There are, of course, some decisions we have to make by gut. Who do I marry? Do I like this painting? Which guitar do I like better? How do I feel about this tie? These are emotional decisions. They have to be because we don’t have data for them.

But to deny data simply because it doesn’t mesh with your worldview is the worst kind of navel-gazing. Facts, despite the current perception, are not the same as opinions. We can argue about books or music or art or whether wood floors are better than carpet, but we cannot argue about vaccines or global warming anymore than we can argue that 2+2=4. I’ve run into too many people who do this kind of thing and it drives me nuts. They can never cite solid sources. Maybe they’ll send you to some obviously crackpot web page, but they’ll probably try to change the topic or ignore your request for facts to back up their claims. Why? Because they don’t have facts. Just feelings.

If you are one of these people, please, get on the reason train. The view is nice. The weather is cool. And we don’t have polio.

One of the central tenants of my life is that I want to get as much rigorous mental activity as I can. I came to this organically the summer before I got my first teaching job. I had just finished graduate school and was living off what remained of my student loans. I had a lot of time on my hands and I started reading like I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate (I am fond of quoting the following numbers: during my last semester at Washington University, I averaged about 1000 pages of reading and 10 pages of writing per week). In the evenings, I was working on the first draft of what would eventually become Lonely Human Atoms.

As the summer passed, I started to notice something. Nights I spent watching TV or sloughing around on the computer, I felt lethargic. When I spent my time reading and writing, I had energy. I was much happier. Slowly, TV subsided from my life. Aside from baseball, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey, I don’t watch TV at all. Instead, I read and I write.

This post is mostly about what I read. As you know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, I don’t read crap. I read mostly literary fiction, some fairly weighty nonfiction, and a smattering of poetry, plays, memoir, etc. In fact, I disdain that which does not aspire to be literary in some sense because I don’t believe there is much use in things that do not challenge us.

More and more I am being proven right. For sometime, there have been studies showing that reading fiction teaches a person empathy, but they include all fiction. Twilight gets lumped in with Great Expectations. That never felt right to me.

Recently, there has been new research showing that reading about something is not – as far as your brain is concerned – appreciably different from experiencing it. This is where the literary triumphs. Literary writing is that which is most vivid, which most pulls at our intellect and our emotions. It is that which provides us with the most memorable experience.

And more people need to get on board.

There are people – my mom, sadly is one of them – who do not like to think. Or who insist that they think plenty during the day. (“I don’t want to think after work,” was always my mom’s answer when dad and I tried to get her to not watch mindless TV in the evenings.) I think there is something wrong with this.

I can, perhaps speak with more authority now that I am a teacher. Not because I have special knowledge of learning, but because I have a job that taxes me mentally all day. There is no down time (or very little) and when I get home, I still push myself. I still read good books. I still try to write good posts and beautiful fiction. I do not let myself checkout. I keep my brain on.

I force this rigor on myself because I know that I am better for it. I am happier. I am more thoughtful. I am, frankly, smarter when I spend my free time challenging myself instead of checking out.

But there is another level. You might even call it a moral level. Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” Learning is a form of action. Reading – and gaining experience through reading – is a form of action. One of the primary problems in American society is the uneducated electorate. Certainly, many people have never been given the chance at a decent education, but many more have simply chosen to check out when they get home from work. Why? Because it is easy. Because it takes effort to get going on a book when you spent all day doing whatever it is you happen to do all day.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take mental time off. Everyone needs that. I’m saying it is a mistake to have your extracurricular life be about nothing other than leisure. Leisure is great, but it doesn’t fulfill you. I’ve known several people who spent their lives doing not-very-much engaging outside of work and then retired to find themselves with nothing to do and no outlet for mental stimulation.

An article in The Atlantic recently has caused a bit of a stir. The writer asserts that everyone needs to start reading literary fiction at least 30 minutes a day because it will make you a better person. She’s right. It will. Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

2011 Reading Year in Review

January 1, 2012

Time for my annual favorite books of the year ramble. This year, I thought it would be fun to start with some trivial numbers from the year (I mean fun for me, you might find it mildly amusing, though).

Books Read: 75
Pages Read: 21,454
Average Pages per Book: 286
Average Pages per Day: 59

Biggest Reading Month: October (8 books, 2141 pages)
Smallest Reading Month: May (5 books, 1169 pages)

Five Longest Books Read:

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 959 pages
  2. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – 883 pages
  3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – 856 pages
  4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – 512 pages
  5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – 471 pages

Five Shortest Books

  1. Native Guard by Natasha Tetheway – 50 pages
  2. The Simple Truth by Philip Levine – 66 pages
  3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – 70 pages
  4. The Art of War by Sun Tzu – 70 pages
  5. Now and Then by Robert Penn Warren– 75 pages

There. That was fun, wasn’t it? Now, if I haven’t scared you away yet, let’s look at the highlights a lowlights of my reading year (rereads are excluded from consideration):

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

(Note this is not the worst book I read this year, that would be The Hunger Games, which was required for my job. You can find my contemptuous screed on that book here.)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides. A lot of people are putting this on best-of lists, but I just don’t see it. I loved Middlesex, but this book has so many issues and is so rife with misogyny (most notably, a female character whose greatest sexual pleasure comes when her boyfriend rapes her), that I could never get into it. There are some wonderful passages and plenty of good moments, but the book, as a whole, doesn’t work.

Enjoyable Nonfiction:

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene. A couple of very different titles. Notes might be Bryson’s best-known work and is a delightfully funny read. The Hidden Reality is Brian Greene’s third pop-science book and a great explanation of the various kinds of multi-verse we might live in. I highly recommend both.

Favorite Books of the Year:

Honorable Mentions – Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (her best, I think), Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (a wonderful modern fairy tale), Dancer by Colum McCann, The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, The Tent by Margaret Atwood, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

5. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – Unlike the Eugenides, I agree with everyone listing this as one of the best books of the year. It’s fantastic. I noted when I first read it that a some pop-culture references might cause it to feel dated in a few decades, thus preventing it from being an enduring masterpiece, but overall this is a fantastic book. I was very excited to read it and it absolutely did not let me down. A great exploration of all the different kinds of love that drive us.

4. Zoli by Colum McCann – I love Colum McCann. I gather he considers this book to be a bit of a failure. Oh, that I should fail so. This is such a wonderful and rarely told story. It follows a Roma (Gypsy) poet/singer through post WWII Eastern Europe. The main character is just so real and fascinating. I can’t find anything bad to say about it. If you haven’t been reading Colum McCann, you are doing yourself a disservice.

3. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – In some ways, this is the most remarkable book on this list. Not because it is an unexpected story, but because it is such a common story. Rich people. Banana republic. Hostage crisis. Kind of writes a terrible book on its own, doesn’t it? But this is beautiful. Patchett goes so many places with this, exploring the constraints of class and language and how they might be overcome through art. Lovely.

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee – Lee’s newest book, The Surrendered, was up for a number of awards and I’m excited to read it this spring, but I can’t imagine it could be any better than A Gesture Life. This book explores one man’s experiences with comfort women while in the Japanese army in WWII and his later struggles to repair his severely broken relationship with his adopted daughter. What really sets this book apart, though, is the beautiful descriptions Lee gives of even the most everyday things.

1. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – One of the longest books I read this year, and instantly one of my favorite books ever. This is a complete masterpiece. Byatt takes hundreds of pages to lovingly explore the lives of many beautifully flawed characters. In addition, you get fairy tales, early 20th century England, free-love, socialism, war, and the consequences that spring from all of that. I was hooked on this book from the very first page and spent all my time reading it dumfounded that anyone could ever produce something like this. Unbelievably wonderful. This spring, I plan to start slowly working my way through everything she’s written. I suggest you do the same, and start with this.

October Book Log

October 30, 2011

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (5/5) – This book has gotten a lot of press, and it deserves it. It’s a little bit about baseball, but mostly about different kinds of love. All of the characters are wonderfully complex and human. Likable at times and ridiculous at other times. The last 250 pages are utterly timeless. Harbach deals carefully and beautifully with so many aspects of humanity that it’s impossible not to be awed by the beauty of this book. Sadly, the first 250 pages are filled with enough pop-culture references that the book is almost certain to feel dated in a few decades. This might prevent it from being remembered as one of the great books of our time, which – one moment of absurd predictability aside – it nearly is.

2. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire (5/5) – Reread this to teach it to my writing classes. I still enjoyed it a lot. Abaire’s dialogue is so loaded and so subtle. This is a perfectly told story. I love that he leaves it nicely messy and unresolved at the end.

3. Winseburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (5/5) – I reread this every fall. I’ve already written a lot about it on this blog, and I won’t pretend that I have anything new to say. It always grounds me and reminds me what I love best about literature.

4. Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver (4/5) – This was the only one of Kingsolver’s novels I hadn’t read. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t blow me away. The story is interesting and compelling, but this is one of her early attempts to work social issues into her writing, and I found it a bit heavy-handed in spots. In her effort to make everyone reasonable, they all become too nice and she loses some believability. It’s a perfectly nice novel, but I’d read everything else of hers before trying this.

5. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2.5/5) – This might be the biggest disappointment of the year. I thought his last book, Middlesex, was fantastic, but this is utterly mediocre and rife with problems. One problem is the very idea of the marriage plot. I get that he is intentionally duplicating some 19th century tropes, but the result is a book that feels like you’ve read it before. Most troubling, however, is the omnipresent misogyny. Feminists in this book are treated like unsophisticated parrots incapable of thinking for themselves. The central character (Madeleine) is a woman, but she lacks agency – functioning instead as something for the male characters to worry about. And then there’s the sex. Nearly every sex scene functions as a reason for a man to think about his penis and Madeleine’s moment of greatest sexual pleasure comes when she is raped by her boyfriend. There is so much wrong with this book that I can’t believe it took him nine years to write it.

6. The Double Helix by James Watson (4.5/5) – This is a personal account form one of the scientists responsible for the discovery of the double helix DNA structure. The book lives somewhere between memoir and pop-sceince, but it still works very well. It’s nice to get a glimpse into the personalities of the scientists involved. Most important, the storyteller keeps his ego in check. Watson is very upfront about his failings and about the contributions of those around him. All of this makes for a very engaging read about an important moment in the history of science.

7. No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (5/5) – After recently rereading Things Fall Apart to teach to my classes, I was reminded how much I like Achebe. Correspondingly, I thought it was time to explore some of his other work. This book is a sequel to TFA and follows Okonkwo’s grandson after his return from England where he was sent by his village to receive a university education. The education has lifted him into a new social class, but he still runs up against the racism of the colonizers and the expectations of his village. Thematically, it’s very similar to An American Tragedy in the way it deals with wealth and social privilege. Assuming his other works are of similar quality, Achebe deserves to be remembered for more than one book.

8. Powering the Future by Robert Laughlin (2.5/5) – This was an interesting but flawed text. Laughlin makes assumptions about human nature (we will always use the cheapest energy and never change our usage patterns) and climate change (it’s pointless to worry about) that may or may not prove valid. After making these assumptions, he goes forward to discuss various energy sources in a sort of cost-benefit analysis that gets old the fourth or fifth time he does it. I would have enjoyed more depth from his discussion of energy and fewer economic musings.

Fall/Winter Book Queue Update:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Netherlands by Joseph O’Neill
  • Next by James Hynes
  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides

Money Is Not Inspirational

August 19, 2011

Recently, the space shuttle program came to an end. You may have heard. Astrophysicist (and nerd-celebrity) Neil DeGrasse Tyson got pretty worked up about it. You can find a video of him being worked up here. In it, he talks about how the lack of ambition where space exploration is concerned hurts the sciences in education. He talks about how many kids wanted to be astronauts once upon a time and how this got them involved and engaged in science. I can remember this. When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut. His ramble on the subject got me thinking about how we try to inspire kids today.

All you ever hear about, be you educator or student, is how if you go to college you will make X dollars a year more than if you don’t. That’s it. Money is supposed to serve as the whole motivation for getting an education. But when I was a kid, no one ever talked about how much money astronauts made. I can’t remember ever thinking about how much any of the fantasy jobs I wanted paid. I didn’t care about the money. I just thought they would be neat things to do.

Of course, much of this is the naïveté of childhood. We were pretty poor when I was little, but money still never entered into the equation whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do. Later, in middle school and high school, I started to hear the money-first rhetoric and suddenly I wanted to be some indistinct thing called a “businessman” (I distinctly remember putting this on some career survey they had us do). Of course, I never really wanted to be that. It was simply driven home to me that money was what mattered and money, obviously, was in business. Whatever that was.

But why do we do this? I am a high school teacher and I am happy in my job. I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with my paycheck. I have a friend who is now a lawyer. When he was in law school, he told me that I should go to law school so I could be a lawyer and make ridiculous money. My response was that I did not want to be a lawyer. I did not think I’d be happy working the absurd hours a lawyer has to work to make ridiculous money while spending all my time doing something that didn’t seem particularly enjoyable.

But I like the job I have now. Yes, the summers off are nice, but I like getting to work with kids on writing and I like teaching good books and I like that at least a few kids have made it clear that I’ve made a positive impact on their lives. But no one ever talked to me about this kind of thing when I was in school, and I think that’s a shame.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know that money wasn’t the most important thing to me, but it was a close call. I wonder why we can’t talk to kids about how money might not make them happy if that’s all they go after. In fact, it probably won’t (ask my friend who now has the lower-stress and lower-paying lawyer job by choice). There is something to be said for contributing to society or pursuing your low-paying dreams in the arts or whatever else it is that really grabs you.

You hear a lot of stuff about how growing up has a lot to do with letting go of your dreams (something I disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there), but I think we’re almost reaching the point where kids don’t get to dream at all. We’ve become such a materialistic, Tea-party driven society that the only thing we really praise is the pursuit of wealth. As a result, I think we, as a society, are losing a wonderful kind of purity.

Think about when you were a kid and how your dreams gripped you. At different times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, and eventually a writer/English professor. Most of those things have a lot to do with curiosity. They are about pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This was what inspired me. It wasn’t money.

I grew up at the end of a time in America when everything seemed possible. Who knew where we might go in space? Who knew what we might accomplish as a people? There was real value in helping. In working for societal gain instead of personal gain. There was satisfaction to be found in cooperation and creativity and curiosity and sacrifice. As a result, our society grew and innovated and prospered. Perhaps I am being nostalgic for my childhood, but it seems to me we were happier and better for it. If I get the chance, I will try to mention this to my students.

Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.

Sometimes, I feel as though our society is going through an intellectual dark-age. So little value seems to be placed on critical thinking and so much value on a sort of cave-man mentality that “what I think is what I think, facts be damned. Also, I am right because I never change my mind.” Two things have brought this lately to my mind: the creationist amusement park slated for Kentucky and the Baseball Hall of Fame. You may think these things are unrelated, but I’m going to talk about both of them anyway.

First, let us talk about the creationist amusement park. Kentucky already houses a creationism “history” museum which the amusement park will, presumably, augment. What disturbs me about these things is that there is so much money in them. A lot of people go to that museum and a lot of people will likely to go the amusement park and these people take this stuff seriously. This all happens because none of them are willing to question a literal interpretation of the Bible that was never ever merited or intended. Of course, knowing this would require one to question one’s beliefs and that is impossible because I AM RIGHT AND NOTHING IN YOUR BOOKS CAN TELL ME OTHERWISE!!!

Which means, of course, that we end up having arguments about whether or not creationism is science whether or not “liberal” science really tells us anything at all because it contradicts a collection of myths several thousand years old.

Now, for the Hall of Fame, I know most of the people who read this are not baseball nerds in the way that I am. Correspondingly, you may be unaware that the latest election results were announced this week. Two excellent players (Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven) were justly elected. However, several worthy candidates were left off. Baseball scholarship has reached the point where it is possible to tell, more or less objectively, how good a player was. Arguments can still happen (what matters more, career peak or longevity, for instance), but these should be the kind of things discussed only with the most borderline of candidates. Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, and several others like them are definitively not borderline cases. They are, by every objective measure among the very best that have ever played the game of baseball and are also unassailably better than many other players already enshrined. So why have they not been?

Because some voters think these men do not “feel” like Hall of Famers. What does that mean? It means, effectively, that these voters believe in mystical things like “clutch” performance (this is, supposedly, the ability to perform better in pressure situations. Its existence in Major League Baseball has been roundly debunked by numerous studies). It means, more truthfully, that these voters refuse to question prior knowledge. They are unwilling to adapt. We used to think certain things made a player valuable. We have learned that some of these things don’t, actually, say anything about how good a player is and that some of them don’t actually exist. But, the voters still refrain: I HAVE BEEN WATCHING GAMES MY WHOLE LIFE AND I KNOW MORE ABOUT IT THAT YOU!!!

These are just two examples, but there are more. Many of my students are worried about the apocalypse in 2012. Many more of them take horoscopes seriously. It goes on and on and on and it bothers the hell out of me. I do not mind, and I will never mind, people having views that are different than mine. I only wish that more people were willing to question themselves, I mean really question. As in, if you start looking into something and every bit of actual information you find tells you that some of your views are wrong, you have to be willing to adjust your views instead of denying facts because they don’t fit in with your view of the world. Sadly, at the moment, it is those who yell the loudest and not those who have thought the hardest that seem to carry the day. Welcome back to the dark ages.

Go into a bookstore. It can be your favorite local place or one of the big chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders. Walk around a little bit paying special attention to the sizes of different sections. Fiction will be the biggest. That makes sense, you figure. Literature is probably why bookstores exist in the first place. Others sections also have a bit of heft. History, for example. Religion. Cooking. But there’s one way back in the back somewhere. It will be small and sparsely stocked. You’ll have to try hard not to miss it. This is the science section.

The science section is the ugly step-child of the bookstore, and I find this very disturbing because it means that people are not reading about science. Whether we acknowledge it or not science plays a bigger daily role in our lives than almost anything else. Further, one has to try to be science literate. It’s not going to come from just watching the evening news or having conversations at cocktail parties. Consider the following “debates” currently taking place in our society that happen only because too many people stopped paying attention to science in the 3rd grade:

1. Should we vaccinate our children? (Yes)
2. Is evolution a real thing? (Yes)
3. Is global warming caused by humans? (Yes, again)
4. Will genetically modified food kill you? (No)

The answers provided in parenthesis aren’t debatable. Not really. I mean, sure, some crackpot will get on the news and scream about how there is no evidence of evolution right before they go home and set fire to the hundreds upon hundreds of books explaining how it works and showing the mountains of evidence for it. Same with the others. But we keep having the debate. Why? Because we are lazy.

See, we all remember what science words sound like. It’s about all we remember from middle school science. They end in -onomy and -ology and they have lots of syllables. The other thing we know is that those wacky scientists are always coming up with something new. The word discovery really resonates. So what happens? We believe everything as long as someone can spin enough bullshit.

Not that long ago, I read a book called Denialism. It was a good book, but it had some issues. It’s primary thrust was that people are too willing to dismiss science. This is true, but what it didn’t deal with is the way we are constantly being screwed with by corporations who use science for evil. Genetically modified food isn’t going to kill you, but that doesn’t mean Monsanto is your friend. This is the kind of thing we run into periodically. Big corporations use bad science or fudge numbers and we get burned.

So what happens? It seems to me that most people take one of two approaches: They either believe everything they are told or they believe none of it. Neither of these is the solution. The solution, instead, is to wander back into that dark hole in the bookstore. There is knowledge there. Some of it is practically new. Much of it is not. You can learn about how overwhelming the evidence is for global warming and vaccinations and if you want to get really into things, you can learn about the history of the entire universe. It’s neat stuff. But also, and I think this is most important, you can learn how to tell when someone is blowing smoke up your ass, and then when some slick-looking person with fancy words comes on the TV, you can know whether or not they are full of shit.

Science is real. I have mentioned lots of things in this post that could be expanded into whole blog posts on their own, but that’s not the point. The point is this: If you want to function as a reasonable person in modern society, you must be scientifically literate. Science is at the foundations of our climate, our food, our jobs, and nearly anything else you can think of. If you’re unwilling to learn about science, please don’t join the BS machine by having an uninformed opinion and please don’t vote in the next election. If you are willing, then start right now. Go. Hurry. Read a book and maybe they’ll start stocking that section a little better.

Curiosity and Parenting

March 21, 2010

I have been doing a lot or science reading recently, particularly some essays written by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Much of it has touched on something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in my role as a teacher as well as a parent. That is, curiosity. I am, as Cate can attest, frequently awed by the total lack of curiosity my students seem to have. Many of them openly profess that they do not care about anything and are not interested in anything. I find this not just alarming, but unbelievable. How is it possible to be so incurious? A while ago, I had a discussion with my friend Justin about just this thing. We wondered whether curiosity was inborn and whether it could be taught.

But something I read recently from Tyson reminded me of something I should never have forgotten. He says about kids that, “we spend the first year teaching them to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.” Children, he is pointing out, are born scientists. They are naturally curious. Nothing is a better reminder to me of this than when I watch my daughter crawl around and get into absolutely everything. Especially the things we don’t want her to get into.

I am fortunate, I think. I almost always had my curiosity encouraged. While, like any child, I drove my parents crazy with questions of “Why, why, why, and how come?” I was never discouraged from asking them. I do not think that it is a coincidence that I grew into a curious adult who still seeks out information on new topics of interest.

So much of our society teaches children not to ask questions. Parents believe they need to be god-like in their knowledge. Churches that assert that all answers lie in god are often careful to make sure it is known that questions will not be tolerated. Both of these things are a shame and both of them have roots in the same fear of ignorance. There is nothing wrong with a parent saying, “I don’t know.” There is no reason that simply because we do not currently know answer, we should assume that we will never be able to know it and thus, the only explanation is god, which is really no explanation at all. The result of all of this is that I have students who willingly believe that he world will end in 2012, but think evolution is the biggest load of crap they have ever heard of. They have been taught not to question and to put their trust in the mystical and mysterious.

I am fond of saying that if an idea or belief doesn’t stand up to questioning, it is not because there is something wrong with the questions. What I hope to be is a living example of that. It will not be that long until my daughter starts to ask questions. Only a little bit after that, she will start to want to know why Cate and I set our rules the way we do. I want to try my best to make sure that we always tell her why. This means that we actually have to think about the rules we make. It also means that we have to be willing to admit we are wrong when our daughter points out flaws in our logic. We will, I am sure be forced to change. I am sure, also, that “because I said so” will escape my lips at least once or twice. I will try hard to prevent it, but to err is human, and I have a long history of erring.

Most importantly, I want our daughter and her future, but thus far theoretical, sibling to also know that it is ALWAYS okay to ask questions. That it is always okay to be curious and to want to know not just the answer, but why it is the answer and if there are any other answers that work just as well. That is how humans got to where we are today. The best parts of our history are filled with the questions why and how. These are the parts I hope continue.

Cate and I have often talked about how uncomfortable we are with the term “agnostic” because it implies belief with a hearty dose of skepticism. In a Christian society this is especially troubling because I DO NOT believe in the Christian god who is logically impossible for more reasons than I can begin to discuss here (though see an earlier post for some of that), who is often unbelievably cruel, and who has been immeasurably corrupted by thousands of years of willful ignorance and inflexible dogma. However, I have always felt equally uncomfortable with the term “athiest” for reasons I often had difficulty articulating.

Recently, however, I was puttering around YouTube, and stumbled on this wonderful interview Margaret Atwood gave on the subject of religion where she rather convincingly asserts that atheism is a religion because it asserts something as fact that cannot be proved. And that is exactly the point I have been unable to articulate. I have said to people before that part of my problem with atheism is that you can’t prove there is no god (though, as noted, I do believe that the gods of some religions can be disproven). But what really gets me is that atheism is a religion just as much as Christianity. It has dogma (there is no god) that cannot be proven just as religions do. I find religion pretty pointless. I prefer science. Thus, I am not an atheist. Neither am I an agnostic. If you were to ask me which way I lean, I would tell you that I have a very hard time believing that any of the gods in any of the religions I have encountered being real with the Buddhist concept of Nirvana seeming the least ridiculous to me, but frankly, I do not know, as I have seen far to little evidence to cause me to really lean toward either side.

So, what am I? I do not belong to any religion, including atheism. I am not an agnostic. I don’t think there is a word that describes my viewpoint. I do not worship. I do not believe without evidence. I suppose, if you wanted, you could call me a scientist, though that might stretch the meaning of that word just a bit.