In the state of Tennessee there’s a debate currently raging over a law recently passed by the state legislature. It mandates that, in cases of “controversial” topics like evolution, global warming, etc., multiple views on the subject are to be presented in the classroom.
Surely this is something that no supporter of open-mindedness and the scientific enterprise would oppose, right? After all, the ability to listen to and judge the worth of various viewpoints is one of the chief qualities that we strive to develop in our children. Without it, a representative form of government like ours has little hope of succeeding. And so it naturally follows that efforts to expose students to a variety of positions should be supported by persons of all ideological stripes.
Well, at least that’s what I’ve always thought. But then I took the time to read comments about the law posted by self-proclaimed champions of science and free thought. To a person they condemned the TN statute as being “anti-science” and a throwback to medieval superstition. They painted nightmare scenarios of children being taught religion and pseudo-science. They declined to identify the Tennessee teachers who would be engaging in these indoctrination efforts, however. Apparently being a public educator in a southern state is all it takes to be branded a dangerous fanatic.
The comments posted by these “free thinkers” included many examples of common propaganda techniques, such as painting the issue in black and white terms, accusing the “other side” of sinister motives, and distorting the views of those who question evolution, global warming, etc. They used similar methods to defend their version of scientific orthodoxy, proclaiming that “the science community as a whole does not question” unguided evolution, human-caused global climate change, etc.
Statements like these rely on a fallacious form of reasoning known as the “bandwagon argument.” Basically it uses the popularity of a position to claim that it must be correct. “How could so many experts be wrong?” is the essence of this approach.
This ignores the fact that many of our most enlightening scientific discoveries were made by thinkers who dared to question the prevailing opinions of their time. Einstein is a splendid example. As an unknown patent clerk he challenged long-accepted and overwhelmingly verified Newtonian physics, going against beliefs held in inestimable esteem by the scientific community. Of course we know how the story turned out: the obscure Einstein was right, and the consensus of the physics community was wrong.
That wasn’t the only time something like this has occurred. Ideas such as black holes and continental drift were dismissed as crazy fringe notions when they were first proposed. In the 1970s scientists “knew” that the universe was composed of atomic matter. Anyone who disputed that was considered a wacko. Now, of course, we know that atoms and the sub-atomic particles that make them up compose only a tiny percent of the overall mass of the cosmos
Yet none of this occurs to the critics of the TN law. Their concern isn’t for the health of the scientific enterprise. It’s for the interests of their particular tribe, a coalition of militant atheists, political leftists, and cultural xenophobes who, like their simian ancestors, respond to any perceived threat with chest-thumping. In fact, their irrational, chimpanzee-like behavior constitutes some of the most potent evidence I’ve ever seen for humanity’s descent from primal ancestors.
Their reaction is matched in its vitriol only by their equally irrational opponents on the Right, who spout nonsense about the threat allegedly posed to America by gays and liberals. To them, anyone who supports raising taxes is a Socialist, even when this claim is thoroughly debunked by real, self-proclaimed Socialists. Did you know that Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are war-mongering capitalists? I didn’t either, until I spoke with some members of the Democratic Socialist Alliance.
What is really going on here? Simply this: the vast majority of Americans, be they liberals or conservatives, believers or atheists, rarely think for themselves. Instead they allow their views to be prescribed by the leaders of their particular tribe, who are engaged in a prolonged, high-stakes game with heads of other tribes for power, prestige and wealth.
Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think. – Thomas Edison
The last few decades have seen the rise of many prominent tribal leaders, including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Pat Robertson. Here are a few more: Richard Dawkins, Michael Moore, Sam Harris, and a variety of persons well known in Hollywood.
Look past the opposing opinions each tribal chieftain espouses and you’ll see some striking similarities in their tactics. They take a handful of valid observations, heap on generous amounts of sweeping generalizations and divisive rhetoric, and either ignore or grossly distort their opponent’s arguments. They tell their followers that they are the good guys, and all of the world’s problems are caused by those evil bastards in the opposing tribe.
These methods are used as often in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion as in Jerry Falwell’s Listen, America, which puts the world’s most famous atheist in the same company as one of the founders of the Religious Right. They’re as common in Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men as in Glenn Beck’s Arguing with Idiots. Apparently both sides of the ideological spectrum are now using Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as their playbook.
For Limbaugh and his ilk, the United States has been nearly destroyed by an unholy coalition of libtards, feminazis, and Socialists. For Moore it’s those right-wing plutocratic fascists who are the true villains. Dawkins says the planet’s ills can be traced to people who believe in God, while Robertson says it’s the Oxford infidel and his disciples that are the real threat to civilization.
Ridiculous opinions have gained a frightening degree of acceptance in our society. Militant atheists rail against the Crusades, while dismissing the fact that faith-based groups have done much good. Conservatives label Obama as “anti-gun,” despite the fact that firearms are just as easy to obtain now as they were prior to 2008. Liberals mock the second President Bush’s stupidity, while proclaiming him the mastermind behind 9/11. For all of these tribalists, their payoff comes in feeling superior to those they condemn. This makes them active co-conspirators with their leaders, whom they reward with fame, power, and riches.
This whole scenario would be laughable, were it not an accurate portrayal of the current state of public discourse. What these intellectual adolescents fail to notice is that, while they are engaged in their endless pissing contests, the edifice that shelters them all is burning down around them. And they’re the ones who are fanning its flames. A democratic nation cannot long exist if it’s composed of ideological extremists to whom compromise is anathema.
These things aren’t simply a passing trend. They’re warning signs of a long, slow decline that might prove Lincoln wrong. Government by and for the people may soon perish from the earth, a victim not of outward assaults but internal suicide.
If self-destruction is to be avoided, than it will require a significant number of Americans taking some rather painful steps. These include:
• Doing a brutally honest self-assessment of the things they believe and why they believe them
• Being willing to test those beliefs against objective standards, and to abandon or modify any that fail to meet muster
• Acknowledging that those in the opposing tribe are, like them, flawed human beings, whose beliefs are a mixture of fact and fantasy
• Becoming open to dialogue with those persons, accepting that along the way they will likely abandon much of their own worldview, replacing it with positions held by their former enemies
• Looking beyond personal ambition, and being willing to sacrifice individual power and prestige for the sake of the common good
• Being humble enough to accept that some things cannot be known for sure, and that, in those cases, the best any of us can do is take whatever leap of faith seems right to us, while allowing others the same option
Making these things happen will require courage, humility, far-sightedness, and wisdom. It will mean enduring the painful transition from loyal tribe member to free-thinking individual. It will force us to critically evaluate any argument, no matter how right it sounds to us on its surface. It will mean facing the wrath of tribal leaders who will accuse us of selling out. It will mean denying our primitive urges to divide ourselves into tribes and go to war. In short, it will mean becoming fully human, and forever leaving behind the ape that is in us all.
Doing these things will not be easy. But they are infinitely preferable to the apocalypse that awaits us if we continue on our present course. The path we take will determine whether our belief in self-government rests on the truth about our natures or on the shifting sands of illusory hopes.