Archive for February, 2011

“True” Knowledge is Not an Enemy of Faith

But all too often “true beliefs” are the enemy of knowledge – and that sometimes even occurs within the so-called hallowed halls of science and academia.  True believers exist in all fields, and all of them are characterized by an unwillingness to change what they believe as knowledge and understanding of the world and the universe improve.

Human beings are far from knowing everything, but both as individuals and as a species, we are, so far, continuing to learn.  What we believe about the world is largely based on what we have observed and what we have heard or read.  The more we learn and advance, the more our beliefs should reflect that change, and yet more and more people seem to think that the opposite is true, even though the largest problem with “belief” and with “true believers” occurs when what people believe is at variance with what is.  Or, as the old saying goes, “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you so much as what you know that isn’t so.”

From the reaction to the last blog post… and others in the past, I’m getting the impression that at least some of my readers feel that I’m against or opposed to “faith” or religion.  I’m not.  I’m opposed to those versions of religion that deny what is, and what has been proved to be.  When some die-hard fundamentalist insists that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., given the wealth of scientific evidence and facts to the contrary… well, rightly or wrongly, I don’t think that such a view should be given public credence, nor should it be allowed to impede the teaching of science that has an array of demonstrated facts to show that the universe is somewhere around 14 billion years old, while the fundamentalist only has scripture and faith.

Some branches of certain religions “honestly” believe that women are not the equal of men. While one would be a fool not to accept that there are differences in the sexes, including the fact that for a given body weight, men generally have more muscle mass, in most highly  industrialized economies it’s become very clear that women do at least as well in almost all ranges of occupations as do men, and the fact that women are now surpassing men in academic honors in most fields of higher education in the United States should prove the idea that in general women are at least equal, if not superior, to men in intellect.  Yet such statistics and achievements have little impact in changing the views of such religious “true believers.”

Another problem with “true beliefs” at variance with what can be proved or demonstrated, particularly those that get enshrined in legal codes and laws, is that they create moral conflicts for honest and less doctrinaire individuals.  For example, if a law, as did Tennessee’s law at the time of the Scopes trial, prohibits the teaching of evolution, then a teacher must either teach a falsehood or not teach what he or she knows to be accurate in order to obey the law.  If the teacher obeys the law, then the teacher is essentially false to the very goal of education.  If the teacher is true to the goal of education, the teacher breaks the law.  This dilemma is far from new; essentially the same kind of conflict led to the death of Socrates over 2,400 years ago. 

Is there a God?  At present, there’s no scientific proof one way or the other, and I really don’t care if you believe in a greater deity or you don’t.  What I do care about is how you act and how whatever you believe affects me, those I love, and others in society.  All throughout history, beliefs that have been at variance with what is have resulted in oppression, repression, tyranny, and violence, not to mention a lack of progress and human improvement.  And given the fact that we’ve tendencies in those directions anyway, the last thing we need as a species is the support and encouragement of such misguided “true believers.”

The Problem of Proof/Truth

The other day I happened to catch a few minutes of the movie Inherit the Wind  [the 1960 Spencer Tracy version], a film which is essentially a fictionalized version of the Scopes trial of 1925, where a Tennessee public school teacher was convicted of  teaching of evolution in the public schools, in violation of then state law. In the film and in the actual trial, the presiding judge forbid the defendant’s attorney from calling witnesses from the scientific community on the grounds that the science was not relevant to the charge, because the question was not about whether the law was accurate, but whether the defendant had violated that law.  Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 [equivalent to roughly $1,250 today], but the verdict was later overturned on appeal by a technicality, and Scopes was never re-tried.  In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibition of teaching evolution was unconstitutional because it represented the favoring of one religious view over others [a fact seemingly overlooked or forgotten in the forty years following].

What struck me, however, about both the trial and the film was the underlying problem faced by the scientific community whenever a scientific theory, factual finding, or discovery conflicts with popular or religious beliefs.  All too often, the popular reaction is a variation on “shoot the messenger” who bears bad or unpleasant news.  The plain fact, which tends to be overlooked, is that a significant proportion, if not an overwhelming majority, of deeply religious individuals who identify themselves as Christians do not trust scientists, or indeed, anyone who does not share their beliefs.

This viewpoint is certainly not limited to Christians, and there are more than a few scientists who do not trust the ability of deeply believing Christians to guide public policy, especially in regard to science and education.  The radical factions of Islam are unlikely to trust western secularists on much of anything, and all stripes of militants are going to be skeptical of those who do not share their views of how the world should be.

In essence, one person’s “truth” can all too often be another’s heresy, even when there is overwhelming factual evidence of that truth.  That overwhelming factual evidence can be denied is most easily seen in dealing with hard science [regardless of belief, there is far too much evidence of the development of the universe to allow any credibility to the idea that the earth and the cosmos were created in 4004 B.C.], but the problem exists in all areas of human endeavor. 

Simply put… how do we know whether what someone says is accurate or truthful?  Generally speaking, we weigh what is said against what we know and believe, but how do we know whether what we know and believe is accurate?

The “traditional” answer to that question was the basis for so-called liberal education, where an individual studied a wide range of subjects, questioning and experimenting with facts and ideas and obtaining a broader range of knowledge and perspective.  Unfortunately, the increasing complexity and technological basis of modern civilization has resulted in a growing class of individuals who are highly educated in narrower and narrower fields of knowledge, and who believe that they are “knowledgeable” in areas well beyond their education and experience.  Some indeed are.  Most aren’t.

Nonetheless, the problems remain.  How can society educate its citizens so that they can distinguish more accurately between what actually is and was and what they wish to believe that cannot be supported by facts, observation, and verifiable technology and science?  And how should society deal with those who wish society’s rules to be based upon beliefs that  can be factually shown to be false or inaccurate?

The Book Business Revisited

The day before yesterday or thereabouts, Borders Books announced bankruptcy and the closure of more than 200 superstores, following its announcement last month that it had deferred payments to its creditors, including the monies it owes to my publisher. Yesterday, one of the largest Australian bookselling chains announced bankruptcy.  Last week, the Canadian distributor for my books [and all those titles released by Macmillan and its subsidiaries] announced bankruptcy and immediate shut-down.  And now, Walmart has removed the already small F&SF section from at least some [if not all] of its stores. The circulation numbers of print versions of F&SF magazines are generally down once again, as are the paperback book sales. On top of that readers are complaining to me that they either can’t get ebook versions of my work outside the USA… or that there are only a few titles available.

Needless to say, this is a worrying time for authors, especially new authors or those whose recent sales numbers are considered “borderline” by their publishers.

What tends to be forgotten in all these stories and depressing financials and figures is that, at least in the United States, the past fifty years have been either a golden age in publishing and writing [that’s if you’re an optimist] or a prolonged “bubble” [if you’re a pessimist].  Prior to a century ago, only a few handfuls of writers could make a living strictly from their writing. Even some thirty years ago, Isaac Asimov calculated that there were less than 500 U.S. writers making a living wage in speculative fiction, and most were barely scraping by. Over the past two decades, I’d wager that there well might have been ten times that number.

Will that level of “prosperity” continue? 

I hope so… but I’d have to say that I have my doubts… for a number of reasons.  First, despite fluctuations on a year by year basis, surveys indicate that the number of young people reading books continues, overall, to decline. Second, the number and geographic range of book sales outlets is also declining, and this will be accelerated if Borders Books fails, which, unhappily, is looking more and more likely despite the attempt to remain in business through bankruptcy restructuring.  Third, the rate of high-level functional literacy is also declining.  Fourth, the range and scope of other entertainment options, particularly visually-video-oriented and interactive ones, is increasing.  And fifth, the amount of uninterrupted time free for reading is also declining.

Now… I’m not saying that reading or books will vanish, but unless these trends reverse dramatically, book readership will continue to decline markedly, and eventually, so will book sales, more than the annual declines over the past two years.  Some of this longer-term decline will be masked when more and more baby-boomers retire, because they will have more time to read, and most likely will, but as they die off, they’re not likely to be replaced, and book sales will decline more significantly.

So… for those young writers who are selling well now… I’d recommending saving a lot more than you are at present because the good times never last forever.

Efficiency = Disaster?

I was struck by the observation made by two comments on my last blog, the point that, in the quest for efficiency – and higher profits in the case of corporations – both government and industry are effectively destroying redundancy in industry and infrastructure and in the production of goods and services.  That lack of redundancy, inventory, or reserves results in higher costs, often the destruction of businesses, and unsafe or dangerous conditions for millions of people.

Airlines, for example, strive to fill every seat on the plane and have virtually no back-up aircraft available – and even if they do, airports have no more landing/take-off slots. So… when bad weather or other delays occur, thousands upon thousands of passengers may literally have to wait days or weeks to make a business trip or return home.  Last summer a crane knocked over one power pole here in Cedar City.  One pole on a residential street, and a quarter of the town was without power for the entire day. Again, here in Cedar City, one of the pumps providing water to the town failed, and it took two weeks to get and install a replacement pump – and for two weeks severe water restrictions were in place because the city didn’t have a replacement pump. 

One of the reasons for the financial melt-down of several years ago was another lack of redundancy, if you will – the lack of capital reserves on the part of banks, investment banks, and brokerage firms.  To be “efficient” and squeeze every possible drop of profit from their investments, they leveraged themselves to the hilt… and they had no reserves left when large parts of their portfolios went sour.

State governments are guilty of the same sort of short-term thinking.  They cut taxes or spend more funds when tax revenues are good, never setting aside reserves, and then have to cut services or raise taxes at the very time when such cuts are not only the most painful, but when such cuts have a multiplier effect that makes the economy even worse.

All this so-called efficiency is nothing of the sort.  What the quest for efficiency has become is an on-going pressure to get more work out of fewer people and more profit out of less investment, all of which results in the inability to deal adequately with the inevitable but unpredictable disasters that will always occur, whether caused by weather, human error, or economic collapses of one sort or another.

There’s a point where the pursuit of efficiency becomes, as the old saying goes, “penny wise and pound foolish,” and most businesses and governments passed that point long ago.  What’s even sadder is that those who guide both don’t have either the wisdom or the guts to say, “Enough is enough.”

Infrastructure Fragility

Last week the winter resort community of Brian Head [Utah] lost electric power for 19 hours during a bitter winter storm.  Because the outage was caused late in the day by a downed power line and insulators broken by subzero temperatures, blinding snow, and high winds in a mountain area not accessible except by foot or snowcat in the winter, it was more than twelve hours before power crews could even locate and then reach the site.  This loss of power caused an estimated $30 million worth of damage to more than 200 condominiums and resort homes from frozen and burst pipes.

There are, of course, a few questions as to why this happened.  How could so much damage occur in such a short time?  After all, I live some thirty miles away, as the crow flies, from Brian Head, and the temperatures here weren’t that much colder. In fact, we turn the heat down from 65 degrees to 50 at night, and the house didn’t even cool fifteen degrees that night.  But then, we have a well-insulated house, and the starting temperature was 65 degrees.  The majority of the dwellings damaged in Brian Head were rental units, many of which were unoccupied at the time, and the baseline heating level was probably around 50 degrees. Second, those units were not all that well insulated and depended on continuous power in the winter.

Even so, what happened in Brian Head illustrates just how dependent how most of us in the United States are on the continuous flow of power, water, and other infrastructure services.  We’re also often ill-equipped to deal with massive disruptions, as witness what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Our daughter and her husband in Houston, not even in the direct path of the Hurricane, were without power for nearly a month because the power crews could not get to their street because the number of downed trees overwhelmed their capabilities.

Yet neither the majority of Americans – or U.S. politicians – seem to recognize either our degree of dependence on our infrastructure or its deteriorating state.  The electric grid is outdated and held together with creative fixes… and hope.  Tens of thousands of bridges are deteriorating.  The water system serving New York City is over a century old and leaks millions of gallons a day.  The list goes on and on… and only when there’s an emergency – or a disaster – does it seem like either businesses or government even take notice.

They’re all like the rental property owners in Brian Head – build it and operate it as cheaply as possible, regardless of the possible damages and costs if something goes wrong – just another example of short-term thinking on the part of both the public and the private sector.

College… or Vocational School… or ???

The headline read “Useless Degrees?”, and the newspaper story went on to tell about a state lawmaker who was upset about the fact that too many students, especially here in Utah, obtained degrees in areas of study for which there were either no careers or very few jobs for the number of students with academic degrees in those fields.

This sort of questioning raises a fundamental question about both the value of an undergraduate collegiate degree and the purpose of such a degree.  Is the principal purpose of an undergraduate degree to provide what amounts to vocational training or is it to teach the student how to think?

Immediately, of course, the response from most people would be:  “Why not both?”

The problem with the “both” answer is that learning “how” is often very different from learning how to ask “why.”  Asking why often requires challenging the status quo, and accepted beliefs, as well as examining what lies behind what created society, or a certain discipline, in its present form.  The original concept of the university was based on educating a comparatively small percentage of the population to question and to master a limited number of high-level skills, such as law and medicine, and later engineering. Other skills were learned on the job through what amounted to apprenticeship.  Today, however, many occupations require young people to have a much higher degree of knowledge and skill and some form of formal education in order even to be considered for employment. Part of this is because society has become more mobile and businesses are often reluctant to spend the money and time to train people in order for them to master skills and then leave and use those skills elsewhere

The problem that colleges and universities face is that, first, many are not equipped to operate as high-level vocational schools, nor to determine which students belong in what field of study, and even when they can, societal expectations essentially restrict their ability to determine which students take which courses.  Second, not all students are suited to all disciplines, and very few know their strengths and limitations.  Third, our society is changing rapidly enough that any “vocational” education provided to a student will be time-limited because the field itself will either change drastically over the course of a student’s later life or may even vanish.  This is one reason why many educators fight the idea of “vocational” education and emphasize trying to teach students to think. Another reason is simply that universities shouldn’t play occupational “god” and insist they know what a student should study, although it’s fair to say that they are equipped to determine, by allowing a student to try a course and fail, what a student should not study.  But, of course, giving students such a choice is expensive, both for the student and the institution.

As many of you know, my wife is a college professor, and I’ve taught at the collegiate level.  So it’s likely that I’m apt to see matters in a different light from that politician who wants more students to obtain degrees in math, sciences, health care, and computer-related fields.

From a student’s point of view, there’s one critical question that should drive a choice of a collegiate major or field of study:  Does the student have the aptitude for that field?  I’m not talking so much about preparation as the raw capability.  No matter how great the desire, in some fields, without certain basic aptitudes, a student will not succeed. I think it’s more than fair to say that, although I’m fairly bright, I’d never succeed as a music major.  I can’t tell whether I’m on pitch/key, whether I’m singing or playing an instrument.  Nor do I have any sense of rhythm.  It doesn’t matter how bright I am.  Without those capabilities, I’d fail at music.  Other students and relatives I’ve known simply have limited mathematical capabilities. Others didn’t develop linguistic skills early enough in life, and therefore will never succeed in areas requiring written skills.

Yet our collegiate system encourages students to follow what they think their “passion” may be, regardless of what their abilities may be.  This often results in a student taking far more courses than required to get a degree… and higher costs at state-supported schools… and law-makers wanting to mandate restrictions or higher costs.

Even if colleges become what amount to high-level vocational institutions – which I think would be a disaster for the United States – such a change wouldn’t address the problem of students not knowing what their capabilities and desires are.  The capability problem could be addressed by a secondary school system that demanded more rigor and course content, and less teaching to the tests, but less teaching to the tests would result in less certain assessment, etc., all of which points out the basic problem:  Education is being labeled as the cure for everything, and it’s not.  Education in itself cannot instill drive or ambition.  Nor can it provide discipline or self-discipline, not without the support of parents and community.  Nor can it provide the desire to learn, only the opportunity.

For all these reasons, among many others, while education is vital to society, what kind of education is best depends on the student, and no one kind of education, with a simple degree path of the sort that everyone from lawmakers to parents seem to be demanding, will suffice.  One size never did fit all, and neither will a simple fix, even one backed by law, achieve any real solution.

We’re Different…

Last week I watched a political talk show which included a pair of “liberals” and a pair of “conservatives.”  Among other things, for some reason, the subject of evolution came up, possibly because the moderator wanted to show the conservatives as either not excessively bright or not excessively consistent, and out of nowhere one of the liberals [non-American] made the statement, “You’ve seen the evidence that bacteria grow and change in response to exposure to antibiotics, how their descendants become resistant?” Then came the follow-up question, “If you can accept evolution on the bacterial level, why can’t you accept it on a higher level, as in the case of humans?”

One of the conservatives immediately made the point that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove human evolution, just “scattered” fossils.  The other one had no response. In point of fact, there’s a great preponderance of evidence, and the volume of that evidence grows every year.  But… no matter how great the evidence becomes, it won’t ever be enough to convince individuals such as those whom I observed, neither of whom, I might add, could be considered stupid or unintelligent.

So why do intelligent and thinking individuals, often those who have been incredibly successful in various fields, find it so hard to accept a mounting stack of evidence that reinforces the accuracy of the theory of evolution?

The simple answer, and the one most often offered, is that they truly believe that the theory is not correct – but not one of those people, including scientists, can offer evidence to the contrary.  The best that they can offer are various reasons along the lines of:  there isn’t enough evidence; the theory doesn’t explain “X” [and there are several different Xs]; there’s no way evolution could result in a being as complex as a human; etc.  None of these reasons refute evolution; they’re merely reasons for insisting that, until the theory is perfect and airtight, evolution can’t possibly explain the development of life on Earth.  They’re all rationalized forms of denial.

The real reason, it appears to me, for most unbelief in evolution, as illustrated by the exchange dealing with bacteria, is that most who reject evolution want to believe that human beings are truly special, and that, being special, we’re different from all the other species that have ever existed, even when DNA analyses show that over 99% of our DNA is the same as that of chimpanzees. 

This feeling of being special and different can inspire someone to great accomplishments, but it’s also dangerous.  It’s the same sort of rationalization that supported slave-holding.  It’s the same sort of mindset that allows financiers to think they’re so much superior to the “little people” their schemes fleece, the same sort of mindset that’s behind every ethnic-cleansing movement in history.  Yes, each of us is indeed different in some degree from anyone else, even from an identical twin… but that difference, held up against the universe, pales in comparison to our similarities.

Denial of evolution is more of a scream of protest that humans, especially the screamers, are truly different and special, and that’s more than ironic, because all too many of the monsters of human history have said exactly the same thing, in one way or another, even creating massive monuments to prove their difference and specialness.

Medium as “Massage”?

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the massage,” often as not corrupted to “the medium is the message.”  What he meant was that the medium had become so all-embracing as to massage the receiver and to affect the meaning of the message.  In the years since, particularly in the last decade, Americans and, indeed, most of the technological world embraced the corrupted version of his philosophy with a vengeance, despite the fact that, in fact, the medium is NOT the message, because all form has to have some sort of content.

The problem is and has always been that the obsession with form [the medium] tends to dilute the content to the point where it’s so vapid at times that the information content and value is insignificant, trivial, or irrelevant.  Even when it’s not, that content is often overpowered by the form of the message… or in the case of Twitter, e-mail, texting, etc., the existence of so many competing message-forms. As I’ve noted before, the amount of “real” information I receive, either in paper or electronic form, is less than one percent of the total information sent to me.  I’m fortunate; I can read quickly and dismiss the junk without missing much.  I’ve learned that most people can’t, and, because they can’t, or won’t spend the time to sift logically though all those “communications,” many just prioritize by the flash of what hits them, by, if you will, the effectiveness of the massage created by the form of the message.

Do all those tweets, texts, voice-mails, and even cellphone calls really carry any meaning?  Aren’t most of them merely reaching out so that their senders and receivers can be reassured and “massaged” in some way?  All this massaging is having an effect, and much of it is anything but good.  Mayors in several cities, and legislators across the USA, are calling for restrictions on cellphones, ear buds, and other devices being used, not just by drivers, but by pedestrians as well, as the number of fatalities caused by both distracted drivers and walkers/runners has begun to increase markedly. 

This wide-spread need for instant reassurance and instant information is also reducing the attention span of students and younger Americans, and recently a large number of professionals have begun to publish books and studies on the deleterious effects of too much instant communication.  Interesting enough, several of these have been called “attacks on the information age.”  Yet, none of the critics are attacking the technology; they’re attacking the way in which people are using it and the growing dangers posed both to individuals and society by such uses. 

Another impact of the growing impact of the “medium massage” is the dumbing down of mass media to make it “more reassuring.”  One example is in cinema. My wife is a movie buff, and over the years I’ve been exposed to movies I never knew existed, but one thing that’s become very clear to me is that many third-rate movies from fifty years ago have better writing [not necessarily better plots] and more clever dialogue than most first rate movies today.  Why?  There may be a number of reasons, but I think the bottom line is simply that there was more emphasis on message and meaning than on medium.  Special effects and brilliant cinematography are now what draw the most viewers, not provoking and insightful dramas.

I’m not attacking the media or the technology, but I am attacking the glorification of the gadgets and the use of technology to swathe users in continuously-communicating social reassurance.  A social massage once in a while is fine; continuous social massaging is like any other addiction – destructive, and it’s well past time to call it what it is.