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Softpanorama Lysenkoism and PseudoScience Bulletin, 2008

[Dec 31, 2008] Economist's View Correspondence, Abstraction, and Realism

Philosopher of social science Daniel Little on "realists" versus "instrumentalists":

Correspondence, abstraction, and realism: Science is generally concerned with two central semantic features of theories: truth of theoretical hypotheses and reliability of observational predictions. ... Truth involves a correspondence between hypothesis and the world; while predictions involve statements about the observable future behavior of a real system. Science is also concerned with epistemic values: warrant and justification. The warrant of a hypothesis is a measure of the degree to which available evidence permits us to conclude that the hypothesis is approximately true. A hypothesis may be true but unwarranted (that is, we may not have adequate evidence available to permit confidence in the truth of the hypothesis). Likewise, however, a hypothesis may be false but warranted (that is, available evidence may make the hypothesis highly credible, while it is in fact false). And every science possesses a set of standards of hypothesis evaluation on the basis of which practitioners assess the credibility of their theories--for example, testability, success in prediction, inter-theoretical support, simplicity, and the like. ...

Whatever position we arrive at concerning the possible truth or falsity of a given economic hypothesis, it is plain that this cannot be understood as literal descriptive truth. Economic hypotheses are not offered as full and detailed representations of the underlying economic reality. For a hypothesis unavoidably involves abstraction, in at least two ways.

First, the hypothesis deliberately ignores some empirical characteristics and causal processes of the underlying economic reality. Just as a Newtonian hypothesis of the ballistics of projectiles ignores air resistance in order to focus on gravitational forces and the initial momentum of the projectile, so an economic"> The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics.

Another epistemically significant feature of social hypotheses is the difficulty of isolating causal factors in real social or economic systems. Hypotheses are generally subject to ceteris paribus conditions. Predictions and counterfactual assertions are advanced conditioned by the assumption that no other exogenous causal factors intervene... But if there are intervening causal factors, then the overall behavior of the system may be indeterminate. In some cases it is possible to specify particularly salient interfering causal factors (e.g. political instability). But it is often necessary to incorporate open-ended ceteris paribus conditions as well.

Finally, social theories and hypotheses unavoidably make simplifying or idealizing assumptions about the populations, properties, and processes that they describe. Consumers are represented as possessing consistent and complete preference rankings; firms are represented as making optimizing choices of products and technologies; product markets are assumed to function perfectly; and so on.

Given, then, that hypotheses abstract from reality, in what sense does it make sense to ask whether a hypothesis is true? We must distinguish between truth and completeness, to start with. To say that a description of a system is true is not to say that it is a complete description. (A complete description provides a specification of the value of all state variables for the system--that is, all variables that have a causal role in the functioning of the system.) The fact that hypotheses are abstractive demonstrates only that they are incomplete, not that they are false. A description of a hockey puck's trajectory on the ice that assumes a frictionless surface is a true account of some of the causal factors at work: the Newtonian mechanics of the system. The assumption that the surface of the ice is frictionless is false; but in this particular system the overall behavior of the system (with friction) is sufficiently close to the abstract hypothesis (because frictional forces are small relative to other forces affecting the puck). In this case, then, we can say two things: first, the Newtonian hypothesis is exactly true as a description of the forces it directly represents, and second, it is approximately true as a description of the system as a whole (because the forces it ignores are small).

This account takes a strongly realist position on social theory, in that it characterizes truth in terms of correspondence to unobservable entities, processes, or properties. The presumption here is that social systems generally--and economic systems in particular--have objective unobservable characteristics which it is the task of social science theory to identify. The realist position is commonly challenged by some economists, however. Milton Friedman's famous argument for an instrumentalist interpretation of economic theory (Essays in Positive Economics) is highly unconvincing in this context. The instrumentalist position maintains that it is a mistake to understand theories as referring to real unobservable entities. Instead, theories are simply ways of systematizing observable characteristics of the phenomena under study; the only purpose of scientific theory is to serve as an instrument for prediction. Along these lines, Friedman argues that the realism of economic premises is irrelevant to the warrant of an economic theory; all that matters is the overall predictive success of the theory. The instrumentalist approach to the interpretation of economic theory, then, is highly unpersuasive as an interpretation of the epistemic standing of economic hypotheses. Instead, the realist position appears to be inescapable: we are forced to treat general equilibrium theory as a substantive empirical hypothesis about the real workings of competitive market systems, and our confidence in general equilibrium hypotheses is limited by our confidence in the approximate truth of the general equilibrium theory.

[Dec 3, 2008] » Blog Archive » Economic nationalism and the USD

Is this economic nationalism or just a common sense plus realization the US account deficit might be  unsustainable ?

 FT Alphaville

Bank of America’s Robert Sinche explains the significance (emphasis is ours):

… the international community is shifting its focus from reserve accumulation to domestic economic stability.

Russia is liquidating accumulated reserve holdings (almost $150bn since August) to support its domestic economic/financial system while South Korean reserves have fallen by $50bn in a similar effort. China has pledged a massive fiscal stimulus (accounting details aside) in an effort to rejuvenate its domestic economy, reducing its level of aggregate savings that can flow into foreign markets. Even Brazil announced this week that it will potentially use part of its small sovereign wealth fund (SWF) to support its domestic economy.

Given this growing tide of “economic nationalism,” funding the U.S. internal and external deficits may become a source of legitimate concern for the USD entering the new year. And while it is early for these forces to unfold, there already has been a noticeable slowing in the rate of growth in custody holdings of Treasury and Agency securities at the Fed for foreign central banks and official institutions.

Couple those current account problems (the US deficit looks set for another record year, something like 7 per cent of GDP according to BoA) with collapsing yields and you have further downward pressure on the USD. As BoA notes:

This period of extreme risk aversion may enable the world’s reserve currency to maintain its value on global markets, but the combination of low real yields, low domestic savings and high borrowing needs is not one that appears sustainable indefinitely.

For what it’s worth, BoA thinks dollar weakness won’t really start showing up until the first-half of next year.

…in 1H 2009 as the repatriation process slows, foreign savings are utilized for domestic policy initiatives and flows into low-yielding US assets remain sluggish. That is an environment in which even the world’s reserve currency could begin to suffer, leaving the USD and its asset markets at risk of underperformance.

[Dec 3, 2008] "The State of Financial Engineering"

An email suggested this as a follow-up to Quants Did It?:

The State of Financial Engineering, by Sylvain Raynes: ...All over the world, it has become fashionable for Universities and Colleges to offer Masters degree programs in quantitative finance or financial engineering (FE), a code word meaning the solution of the Black-Scholes option pricing differential equation in as many ways as possible. To do so, students are taught to use basic techniques in numerical analysis whenever the equation is either non-linear or does not lend itself to the standard analytical solution. As a precursor to this main task, the program usually includes a course in stochastic calculus during which Ito's celebrated lemma is discussed, proved and used.

In general, the cost and length of such programs are remarkably similar... Even Ivy League schools like Princeton University, who swore up and down they would never play this game, are now happily teaching finance and deriving significant incremental income from a fully depreciated curriculum.

The techniques taught in quantitative finance are completely standard in other fields. In most cases, the only exciting thing about the curriculum is that one day these methods might be applied on Wall Street to the calculation of cash flows. If they were instead applied to the making of widgets or the collection of tomatoes, it is a fair bet that nobody would be interested in them, and certainly no university would be able to charge $35K to learn them. ...

It is a plain fact that the field of quantitative finance has not made a single fundamental step forward over the past twenty years, not to mention that Black himself, by his own admission, had nothing to do with the equation that now bears his illustrious name. The BS equation was first formulated and solved by Casey Sprenkle some ten years before Black's famous 1973 paper in the Journal of Political Economy. Regrettably, it is still politically incorrect to give due credit to someone who made a real contribution to finance. Unlike those of some of his associates, Black's reputation hardly hangs on one paper.

Statistics and numerical analysis have nothing to do with finance per se but are merely tools of financial analysis, just like accounting statements and legal opinions. Finance is quantitative by definition; there is thus no need to add an adolescent adjective to the word. This is like saying aerial flight or wet swimming. Although people employed as aerospace engineers use computers on a daily basis, none would describe him- or herself as a computer programmer.

But if this were about mere semantics, it would not be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, FE programs are also drifting farther and farther away from their purported subject matter. In effect, quantitative finance has entered the scholastic stage whereby numerical techniques are taught completely out of context as if a deal were somehow a differential equation that could be solved for the right solution. In fact, there is no solution to a deal as there is to a differential equation. ...

Students thinking themselves financial experts simply because they can solve the BS equation in a few minutes (there is apparently no other one around) are being misled by their own mentors and teachers into the naďve belief that this amounts to finance. ...

» Continue reading ""The State of Financial Engineering""

[Nov 18, 2008] Anti-Intellectualism

It may well be that the Republican Party became the home of a specific brand of Lysenkoism...  Like CPSU in the past: extremes meet. "While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism..."
Sept 22, 2008 | Economist's View

Jeffrey Sachs says anti-intellectualism "could end up getting us all killed":

The American anti-intellectual threat, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Project Syndicate: In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving.

Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meager development assistance and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism...

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence. The challenges faced by a major power like the US require rigorous analysis of information according to the best scientific principles.

Climate change, for example, poses dire threats... that must be assessed according to prevailing scientific norms... We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

In the US, however, the attitudes of President Bush, [and] leading Republicans ... have been the opposite of scientific. The White House did all it could for eight years to hide the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change. It tried to prevent government scientists from speaking honestly to the public. The Wall Street Journal has similarly peddled anti-science and pseudo-science to oppose policies to fight human-induced climate change.

These anti-scientific approaches affected not only climate policy, but also foreign policy. The US went to war in Iraq on the basis of Bush’s gut instincts and religious convictions, not rigorous evidence. ...

These are ... powerful individuals out of touch with reality. They reflect the fact that a significant portion of American society, which currently votes mainly Republican, rejects or is simply unaware of basic scientific evidence regarding climate change, biological evolution, human health and other fields. ...

Recent survey data by the Pew Foundation found that while 58 percent of Democrats believe that human beings are causing global warming, only 28 percent of Republicans do. Similarly, a 2005 survey found that 59 percent of self-professed conservative Republicans rejected any theory of evolution, while 67 percent of liberal Democrats accepted some version of evolutionary theory.

To be sure, some of these deniers are simply scientifically ignorant, having been failed by the poor quality of science education in America. But others are biblical fundamentalists... They reject geological evidence of climate change because they reject the science of geology itself.

The issue here is not religion versus science. All of the great religions have traditions of fruitful interchange with -- and, indeed, support for -- scientific inquiry. ...

The problem is an aggressive fundamentalism that denies modern science, and an aggressive anti-intellectualism that views experts and scientists as the enemy. It is those views that could end up getting us all killed. ...

It is difficult to know for sure what is giving rise to fundamentalism in so many parts of the world. ... Fundamentalism seems to emerge in times of far-reaching change, when traditional social arrangements come under threat. The surge of modern American fundamentalism in politics dates to the civil rights era of the 1960s, and at least partly reflects a backlash among whites against the growing political and economic strength of non-white and immigrant minority groups in US society.

Humanity’s only hope is that the vicious circle of extremism can be replaced by a shared global understanding of the massive challenges of climate change, food supplies, sustainable energy, water scarcity and poverty. ...

The US must return to the global consensus based on shared science rather than anti-intellectualism. That is the urgent challenge at the heart of American society today.


Bruce Wilder says...

Jeffrey Sachs paints with a Manichean brush too broad even for me. I find myself genuinely puzzled, sometimes, by the determination of human beings, apparently, to "believe" what they will, but mostly it leaves me curious about what exactly people mean, by "believe".

It does not justify, in my opinion, in lumping together unrepentent racists, Republicans of various hues and stripes, religious fundamentalists of a dozen distinct types, neocon advocates of invading Iraq, global warming deniers in the pay of Exxon, hyper-partisan Know-Nothing bloggers and the likes of Richard Cheney or George W Bush.

I seriously doubt that the political coalition, which is the Republican Party, when they agree to swallow a sheet of semi-absurd talking points for the Sunday public affairs programs, also subscribe to some elaborate, and common epistemic rejection of consensus reality. They just want a tactical advantage in a contest of zingers.

The political discourse, is something, which I believe bears more detailed examination. And, in the political discourse, I don't see sincere denial of reality as being much of a problem -- the key word being, "sincere". In the political discourse, tactical use of lies has proven powerful.

The tactical use of lies is a serious problem. But, I wouldn't draw any particular connection to religious fundamentalism, other than to simply note that personalities in the authoritarian attitude cluster are always somewhat more gullible than others.

Richard B Cheney appears pretty contemptuous of democratic political discourse. He's willing to say anything, in public, to the Media, to get his way. I don't think that's religious fundamentalism in action, though. It might reflect an unwise and unattractive and dangerous political philosophy. But, lots of people are contemptuous of the political discourse and of public opinion. Including Jeffrey Sachs, I'd wager, at times; the above essay is an attack on a large swath of public opinion.

Sachs complains about "aggressive" fundamentalism and an "aggressive" anti-intellectualism.

The "aggressive" use of lies to manipulate the political discourse troubles me. I wouldn't dignify those lies, let alone the aggression, by conceding any sort of sincere belief in the lies. The aggression may be its own reward, or the success of the aggression in achieving power or recognition may provide the incentive. It doesn't matter. It is the fact, that in our Media environment, lies work pretty well.

If you want to be on television discussing global warming, being a global warming denier improves your odds of Media attention by orders of magnitude, as no one in the Media wants to slog thru science, when they can televise world-wide wrestling entertainment. A slugfest, where one guy opines mindlessly, but conveniently and cordially, while the other is forced to choose between his planned, earnest condescension and more videogenic, albeit undignified shouting and eyerolling, is more of a ratings winner -- also easier to manage if you are a typical talking-head moron, who is not particularly smart, but is rich, and doesn't care.

If you want to be elected President (or Vice-President), lies may also be the ticket, the more aggressive the lies, the better.

(Me, I am pro-Moose in this campaign. A Moose will never lie. Polar Bears are also big truth-tellers. I am on the side of the Moose and the Polar Bear.)

napablogger says...

This article strikes me as blind if not arrogant on the part of the author. I am a Republican, not a Christian by any means (don't like Christians) but it is not hard for me to see that there could be a lot of room for doubt in both the global warming and evolution theories.

Frankly I don't believe in either creationism or evolution. Creationism is absurd, and evolution is one of the weakest theories in science. That is why it is continually open to doubt, not that many people believe in creationism. If they really had solid proof the debate would go away.

Is there no room for saying we are not really sure what is going on? Has man gained knowledge to the point that science knows all? Sure, we have learned a lot more, even than we did ten years ago. But we still know very little, and people like Sachs really come off as arrogant to me.

Perhaps if he engaged those like myself who have doubts on these theories with serious arguments instead of crass judgementalism against us he would get further. But that would be intellectual of him, wouldn't it, and I forgot anti intellectualism rules, at least according to him.

Cyrille says...

"it is not hard for me to see that there could be a lot of room for doubt in both the global warming and evolution theories. "

Oh, in theory there could be. But actually there is hardly any.

"evolution is one of the weakest theories in science"

This is hilarious. Black is white. War is peace. Freedom is slavery.
You truly seem to be validating his case there.

BJ Feng says...

There are a great many who have strange broad based conspiracy theories that they refuse to reconsider. They cherry pick isolated facts, or use associations between participants to "prove" their theories. The most recent example is that since Paulson was CEO at Goldman, and has recruited past Goldman employees to help, the bailouts are designed primarily to enrich Goldman partners. Another is the theory that 9-11 was manufactured by Bush with Bin Laden as an accomplice. The association between Bush, The Caryle Group, The Saudi Royal Family, Bin Laden's family, and Bin Laden himself are used as "evidence". They know each other so therefore it's all arranged. Look there's even a photo of Bin Laden and Rumsfeld. Or the theory that we went to war for Iraq's oil, or to enrich Bush and his supposed oil company buddies.

As with all conspiracy theories, there is some truth. Goldman will benefit as will all financial institutions, and Bush can be linked to Bin Laden through a web of associates and acquaintances, but if looked at in totality, the theories deliberately ignore contrary evidence which is far more abundant. We all know the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon. Well, it's very likely YOU could be linked to Bin Laden through seven acquaintances also. And the bailouts were offered to prevent a financial meltdown, not just to save Goldman or to enrich Goldman. As for the War as a method to enrich Bush's oil industry friends, there are many ways for those in power to give handouts to friends without causing a war that brings an unparalleled level of scrutiny and attention. Much easier to give tax credits and incentives for some sort of research or project with vague goals and uncertain outcomes. A buried earmark within a bill would be yet another method.

No, wackos aren't confined to the Right by any means. And I dare say that wacko lefties are even more numerous than religious zealots who believe the Earth was created 6000 years ago. Just go to any protest, mention Bush and Iraq in passing, and sit back for theories that are too unrealistic for even a bad science fiction novel. The World Trade Center was demolished by the Bush administration using explosives to justify war. But why bother? You'd think crashing two planes into the WTC would provide enough justification. Not to mention that the conspiracy requires a level of competence in its execution that Bush simply does not have. If Bush had planned 9-11, the planes would have missed the WTC, crashed into each other, and the explosives would have failed to detonate leaving tons of evidence behind. Don't be embarrassed, we all know one of these wackos, and they simply cannot be convinced by logic.

JeffF says...

I find people like napablogger fascinating.

To reject evolution because of religious belief makes some kind of sense. Such a person has decided that their religious leaders have more credibility than scientific leaders on the issue (well, actually it is more like they have decided their religious leaders have more credibility on all issues than anyone else). Obviously they are wrong, but at least they have a reason of sorts, and a huge institution that is very important to them demanding they believe up is down.

To me rejecting it without that is a far more profound anti-intellectualism, and indicates a lot more doublethink. I have discussed it with various such people, and they all seem to think themselves very independent thinkers as they parrot talking points from the various science denial industries.

It comes around to something I was thinking about a couple months ago. Expertise. I think many people go through life never having a close and lasting contact with real world class expertise, and most of us won't ever be world class experts at anything. This leaves them unprepared to separate real expertise from fake expertise and vulnerable to charlatans.

Ninja Zombie says...

Roger: "Larry Summers job was to be President of Harvard. It wasn't to present "hypotheses" about women's intelligence. That he thought he'd press that hypothesis showed his disqualification for the job."

He was asked to give a speech at a conference devoted to the particular topic of women in science, which he did. What should he have done, discussed the Harvard budget or asked for donations?

Last I checked, college presidents are still permitted to be scholars.

Roger: "But this also shows how anti-intellectualism works. "

Indeed. When you don't like the science, attack the scientist. So much easier than gathering evidence and carefully refuting their hypothesis. Also no risk of having the data come out the wrong way.

"I hypothesize that women (Jews blacks etc.) are inferior, and I am playing scientist, not bigot, so if you attack me you are being unscientific."

Turn "inferior" into some measurable quality (e.g., "the distribution of jewish long distance running ability is P(x) dx, Q(x)dx for other ethnic group"). Once you do this, asking the question, coming up with ways to falsify it, and suggesting further study is science.

It would be bigoted to assume it true without evidence, but Larry Summers certainly did not do that. As he clarified in the Q&A after his speech, "I think I said it wasn't clear...I hope we could argue on the basis of as much evidence as we can marshal..."

William Smith says...

Prof Thoma,

I think that rather than the erosion of the traditionalist social arrangements, that modern fundamentalist extremism is driven by the increasing insulation of its leaders from risk.

Time was, in Europe, that these people lead Crusades, didn't engage in New World trade (the earth being flat), etc. They were buried, either figuratively or literally, because of their beliefs, or were rousted from office by revolt or popular vote.

Nowdays, civility, public/political influence, astroturfing, etc have allowed fundamental extremists to insulate themselves against the sort of risk that once got them killed.

This is not to say that they should be killed but that the situation may be counter-evolutionary because of new societial arrangements.

[Oct 28 2008 ]  How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington  by George Monbiot

Please note extremely high level of comments to the article. The look like an academic discussion, not a regular press forum. Some of them were reproduced below. One of the key quotes of Geroge Monbiot article is "A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state's state school biology teachers believed humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time." Here is an astute reaction by one of the readers: "Some of it made for unnerving reading, especially the 25% of biology teachers who think humans were contemporary with dinosaurs. The piece was however lacking in corrobative references... would it be possible for the author to provide us with sources for this information?"

The Guardian

The degradation of intelligence and learning in American politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world's best universities and attracts the world's finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

There have been exceptions over the past century - Franklin Roosevelt, JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived - but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan's response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter - stumbling a little, using long words - carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said: "There you go again." His own health programme would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn't always like this. The founding fathers of the republic - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others - were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so stupid, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.

Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after the publication of The Origin of Species, for instance, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin's theory was mixed up in the US with the brutal philosophy - now known as social Darwinism - of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of social Darwinism.

But there were other, more powerful, reasons for the intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The US is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great educational gulf opened up. "In the south", Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the south stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state's state school biology teachers believed humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishisation of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln's career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary: all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were in vogue. In the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Almost every day men such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites" destroying America.

The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite - like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush - has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a lot to offer the US, but none of this will stop if he wins. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.


Utterson  Oct 28 08, 3:43am (about 22 hours ago)

The most interesting and best-written analysis of this pattern comes from Thomas Frank, in a number of books but best in *What's the Matter with Kansas?* (in the UK styled 'What's the Matter with America?*. Do yourself a favour and read him.

Here's a 2004 interview on related issues:

Susannah27  Oct 28 08, 12:28am

It seems to me that you're letting some cynical bad guys off the hook. This didn't just was planned. The Republican elite doesn't believe this stuff for a minute. It suits their agenda to assure its widespread acceptance but their children go to "the best schools" It's far worse than you think.

martinusher  Oct 28 08, 12:37am

Its not as clear cut as it looks. Think of government as two tier -- you've got the populist front end, the "tell the oiks anything that'll get 'em riled up and keep 'em on your side" and the back end which is where the real action is.

So, for example, the W. administration has been characterized by much chattering about faith and morals up front but actually represents a cabal of global oil interests. McPalin continues in this tradition -- what they say and what they will actually do are very different. The gap's made up by people skilled in mass psychology -- spin doctors is how they used to call themselves.

The current election climate is a bit weird because Obama's running on a platform that's not too different from McCain circa 2000. McCain's had to drink the Party KoolAid so he's now trying to push positions that he knows just don't make sense. He's been issued with a running made that's completely off the wall -- this whole trooper thing only scratches the surface.

For more explanations of the American Way, read the book "It can't happen here". (Its a novel published in the mid 1930s, something of a classic.).


Oct 28 08, 12:44am

And, most important, to my mind--an American Media horde (especially inside-the-Washington Beltway) that lives and breathes and enables and sustains cheap, meaningless personality-celebrity politics. With this, of course, we have a Repuglicritocracy in America that both preys on, and feeds off,
the Federal government (the people)!!!

Leesburg, VA


Oct 28 08, 12:45am

This view of the US and A could be part of a new comedy "Monbiot - Cultural Learnings of America to make great success for cliched liberal views of the US and A"

Gimme a break.

Sure the USA is filled with a particular kind of moron but at least, as anyone might of noticed, they get the chance to vote for their head of state.

Over here, in the UK, we're still dominated by an entrenched network of public school boys, feudal landowners all topped off by that establishment-clinching clique known as the Royal Family. The USA does have similar levels of entrenched elites as the UK but what chances a young Black man from a poor single parent family succeeding in the UK as Obama has in the USA? Not as much. It's hard to even see a poor white boy or girl achieving the same seeing as the halls of the great and good are universally stuffed with Oxbridge (intake still 60% privately schooled) grads. Dint of birth is still the defining marker in social order in the UK.

It should also be added that the UK has exported gazillions of brainnumbing reality TV shows to the USA while we've had the Sopranos, the Wire etc in return. Our culture is dumbed down to extraordinary levels. The USA has brought us jazz, rock and roll, jeans, art, writers (Steinbeck to Wolfe), filmmakers (Welles to the Coens) whose entire body of work outweighs the UK for longevity and the ability to infuse the popular with the profound.

Monbiot's USA bashing is rooted in a weird parochial British liberal view of things that is more akin to Jeeves and Wooster than sentient thought. He's out of touch because for him, from his nice secure posh upbringing, living in his rural idyll, the best of what the USA represents has always been a cultural threat.


Oct 28 08, 1:54am


The USA does have similar levels of entrenched elites as the UK but what chances a young Black man from a poor single parent family succeeding in the UK as Obama has in the USA?

John Major was poor and didn't even go to university. Margaret Thatcher was a woman. Disraeli was Jewish. There are many openly gay/atheist MPs. It's not even an issue.

HPLoveboat  Oct 28 08, 12:49am

Firstly, George Monbiot should be congratulated for a thought-provoking article. Some of it made for unnerving reading, especially the 25% of biology teachers who think humans were contemporary with dinosaurs. The piece was however lacking in corrobative references... would it be possible for the author to provide us with sources for this information?

Secondly, I had always thought Mr Monbiot tending towards dryness in his writing, but he proved me wrong with his belly-laugh-inducing line: "Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president?" Well-played, sir.

And to think I used to imagine a Harvard education would signify talent rather than money...

Unencom Oct 28 08, 1:01am

Franklin Roosevelt, JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived - but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite

John Kerry and Adlai Stevenson were not intellectuals they were posers. JFK's thinking was done for him by Ted Sorenson and Arthur Schleisenger.

They were a stupid person's idea of what an intelligent person acts like. It isn't a huge surprise that George Monbiot finds them so impressive.

Anyway didn't Ned Temko do this article a couple of weeks ago?


Oct 28 08, 1:04am

Yeah. Isn't Democracy awful? Why they let hicks vote too!

We have had thisarticle from Western intellectuals going back to Plato if not longer. Isn't Democracy just terrible - they can elect people just like themselves! They no longer tug their forelocks! Why can't they just accept that it is better for them to be ruled by the Wise, the Good and the Just - people just like us!

The truth is as dumb as dumb people are, the really dumb things are done by intellectuals. It was intellectuals that endorsed Stalin - and Hitler too for that matter. It was Sartre that defended Stalin's Terror techniques. All when any eight year old could see the USSR for what it was.

I'll take Sarah Palin over Sartre any day of the week. Whatever the usual crowd of Palindrones think.

buddha07 Oct 28 08, 1:15am

Good article.

I usually am immediately suspicious (or downright angry) whenever sweeping generalisations are made about america. They invariably smack of a certain intellectual smugness on our part; the classic "americans don't get irony" is a good example of this lazy racism. Trying to defend the inevitable criticism by saying "most powerful nation on earth blah blah " beforehand just makes me think of Kilroy Silk saying "some of my best friends are black".

Having said that I appreciate what Mr. Monbiot is doing here and you can't really write an article about the american election without generalising somewhat. I like the social darwinsism point. He gets to the root of the problem with the fundamentalist religion in schools as well. Nothing compares to the sense of profound frustration I get when I think of the millions of children being indoctrinated to believe in some bizzare fairytale. I'm with Dawkins when he calls it "mental child abuse" - I believe religion really does make you stupid, it certainly limits your thinking. And it happens over here as well (faith schools are terrifying). Sarah Palin is what happens when you dont have a robust, secular, education system.

The irony is that all of the americans I've known well (and I've travelled quite a bit there) are invariably friendly, gracious, hardworking, knowledgable and clever (but maybe thats just bcos I tended to meet younger, travelling types). Im a bit of a sucker for the place and I like to think (maybe too optimistically) that they will do the right thing eventually.

I cant think of a better example of "doing the right thing" than electing Barack Obama as their president. Ive never been massively into politics but this one has got me hooked. I want that man to win so much it hurts. It is such a screamingly obvious choice.

When he gets in next week I am going to go out and party till I drop. COME ON OBAMA!

wacobloke Oct 28 08, 2:16am (about 23 hours ago)

This is indeed a good, thought-provoking article, and I would like to put some of its oversimplifications down to "limited space available."

But, I think there are a few other aspects besides US politics that mystify Mr. Monbiot. US Religious denominations and affiliations and "how such things work" being one of them.

As loathe as I am to defend tne Southern Baptist Convention (especially since the fundamentalist purge of the 70's through 90's), characterizing them in this generic fashion tars a lot of pretty intelligent folks with the same broad brush.

For one thing, unlike truly vertical groups like Anglicans, Catholics or even Methodists, the "Convention" is a more or less voluntary association of separate independently governed legal entities (churches/congregations), and many southern Baptist churches are members of both the SBC and also other more liberal (and academic) Baptist associations.

Academically sound and fine southern/Texas universities such as Wake Forest and Baylor have historical Baptist ownership, although, admittedly they both have had changes of either ownership (Wake) or governance (Baylor) within the past 20 years to stave off the predations of the fundamentalist Baptist jihadists who used modern political techniques (i.e. well known to Republicans) to take over the Convention. (The Ivy League Brown was also Baptist, by the way, founded by either Roger Williams or an accolyte--can't remember which at the moment.)

Many of the Ivy's were originally religously affiliated or owned universities, and still have strong religion departments and/or seminaries, a fact that is also more and more forgotten or ignored.

As one who has lived through some of these fundamental take-over sea changes in southern religious thinking, governance and education, and, as doltish as some Southern Baptist preachers and laypersons can be at times, I would suggest that the biggest blip in the ignorance meter has not come from the SBC, but from the rise in "private" personally-owned churches and "ministries" (most visible in the TV variety), which actually are more in the "Christian academy" and home school business than the SBC itself, I think.

The average privately owned church and/or TV minister is simply the modern day version of the snake oil salesman, and, since THEY LITERALLY OWN IT can (and do) tend to foment the behavior most likely to rouse the rabble's emotions--so they will send money, of course. And since THEY LITERALLY OWN IT can require, through power of the purse (i.e., employment) fealty even to the most extreme or bizarre behaviors.

Listen: it is no random fact that the likely illegalities--and at least the improper and non-historical level of political misbehavior of the US Justice Department under the incompetent Alberto (who Harvard has to defend, if they can)--came via marginally educated and likely dumb-as-Palin ideologues recruited from the lowest-rate private law schools formed, owned and/or propagandized by the likes of the Robertsons and Falwells.

And, in the end, I remain a bit more optimistic than Mr. Monbiot's apparent final assessment that things are unlikely to change within the political establishment, and that ignorance will remain king.

My observation and experience is that politicians always respond and "change" according to what gets them elected--or not-elected.

If enough good, reasonably educated folks vote others than the usual Republican dupes and blockheads into office this time, I suspect that we will shortly see less and less of the looney tunes likes of the Robertson's, Hagee's and Parsley's on the political stump, or as spiritual guides.

It is those non-SBC folks who are the real fount of ignorance, hate, fear and resentment.

And those are four things that totally antithetical to education.

BertStanton  Oct 28 08, 2:34am (about 23 hours ago)

What on earth is Monbiot talking about? The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest religious group in America? What? It's probably one of the smallest in the US. It has 16 million members (out of 300 million US citizens), 99.9% of which exist in the South. Compare that with the 70 million Catholics in the United States.

I'm pretty left wing myself, but Monbiot is desperately twisting the facts here to fit his (and some of his readers') assumptions about America. All the wacky crazy things people talk about in the US exist, yes, but they exist on the fringe. Somehow the Republicans were able to manipulate this fringe into victory through the apathy of the general public; now we're finally seeing a backlash as our average American citizens recoil in horror at what they've done.

When people say, "all these biology teachers don't believe in evolution!!!" they're talking about teachers who teach children in towns with populations of 100 or 200 people; these bizarre, poor backwaters. Of course writers like Monbiot ignore the well educated people in the regions that have higher populations than the whole of England... no, that wouldn't fit with their image of America.

Europeans simply do not understand the United States. They don't understand how vast this country is, and the fact that most of the citizens here live in the well-educated, generally liberal urban areas. [I am nor sure the US suburbs are liberal --NNB]  People look at the wackos in the isolated, rural villages and trump it up as THIS IS AMERICA! I TOLD YOU THEY'RE IDIOTS! Good job there, chief. The truth is, the problems we're facing now are caused by apathy and preoccupation of the educated majority, to the advantage of the nutjob minority who work way harder to push their agenda. They also simply have more free time. John McCain has blamed for the crisis. Coming from Mr. McCain, a longtime champion of financial industry deregulation, it was a puzzling attribution, squarely at odds with the cherished belief of free-market enthusiasts everywhere that unbridled pursuit of self-interest promotes the common good. As Adam Smith wrote in “The Wealth of Nations,” “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Greed underlies every market outcome, good or bad. When important conditions are met, greed not only poses no threat to Smith’s “invisible hand” of ccts all kinds of competitive endeavors. This may be seen clearly in the world of sports.

Consider a sprinter’s decision about whether to take anabolic steroids. The sprinter’s reward depends not on how fast he runs in absolute terms, but on how his times compare with those of others. Imagine a new drug that enhances performance by three-tenths of a second in the 100-meter dash. Almost impossible to detect, it also entails a small risk of serious health problems. The sums at stake ensure that many competitors will take the drug, making it all but impossible for a drug-free competitor to win. The net effect is increased health risks for all athletes, with no real gain for society.

This particular type of market failure occurs when two conditions are met. First, people confront a gamble that offers a highly probable small gain with only a very small chance of a significant loss. Second, the rewards received by market participants depend strongly on relative performance.

These conditions have caused the invisible hand to break down in multiple domains. In unregulated housing markets, for example, there are invariably too many dwellings built on flood plains and in earthquake zones. Similarly, in unregulated labor markets, workers typically face greater health and safety risks.

It is no different in unregulated financial markets, where easy credit terms almost always produce an asset bubble. The problem occurs because, just as in sports, an investment fund’s success depends less on its absolute rate of return than on how that rate compares with those of rivals.

If one fund posts higher earnings than others, money immediately flows into it. And because managers’ pay depends primarily on how much money a fund oversees, managers want to post relatively high returns at every moment.

One way to bolster a fund’s return is to invest in slightly riskier assets. (Such investments generally pay higher returns because risk-averse investors would otherwise be unwilling to hold them.) Before the current crisis, once some fund managers started offering higher-paying mortgage-backed securities, others felt growing pressure to follow suit, lest their customers desert them.

Warren E. Buffett warned about a similar phenomenon during the tech bubble. Mr. Buffett said he wouldn’t invest in tech stocks because he didn’t understand the business model. Investors knew him to be savvy, but the relatively poor performance of his Berkshire Hathaway fund during the tech stock run-up persuaded many to move their money elsewhere. Mr. Buffett had the personal and financial resources to weather that storm. But most money managers did not, and the tech bubble kept growing.

A similar dynamic precipitated the current problems. The new mortgage-backed securities were catnip for investors, much as steroids are for athletes. Many money managers knew that these securities were risky. As long as housing prices kept rising, however, they also knew that portfolios with high concentrations of the riskier assets would post higher returns, enabling them to attract additional investors. More important, they assumed that if things went wrong, there would be safety in numbers.

PHIL GRAMM, the former senator from Texas, and other proponents of financial industry deregulation insisted that market forces would provide ample protection against excessive risk. Lenders obviously don’t want to make loans that won’t be repaid, and borrowers have clear incentives to shop for favorable terms. And because everyone agrees that financial markets are highly competitive, Mr. Gramm’s invocation of the familiar invisible-hand theory persuaded many other lawmakers.

The invisible hand breaks down, however, when rewards depend heavily on relative performance. A high proportion of investors are simply unable to stand idly by while others who appear no more talented than them earn conspicuously higher returns. This fact of human nature makes the invisible hand an unreliable shield against excessive financial risk.

Where do we go from here?

Many people advocate greater transparency in the market for poorly understood derivative securities. More stringent disclo asset bubbles cause real trouble when investors can borrow freely to expand their holdings. To prevent such bubbles, we must limit the amounts that people can invest with borrowed money.

[Oct 3, 2008] Sam Harris on Sarah Palin and Elitism Newsweek Politics Campaign 2008

Sara Palin as a vice-president would tremendous victory for religious obscurantism in this this country. IMHO this would a slap in the face of any academic...

Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin's performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin's speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones "God and country." If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.

Then came Palin's first television interview with Charles Gibson. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin's luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady's misfortune—and, above all, upon the "liberal elites" with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.

The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth's surface (she didn't have a passport until last year), or that she's never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter's microphone, saying things like, "I'm voting for Sarah because she's a mom. She knows what it's like to be a mom." Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.

Palin's most conspicuous gaffe in her interview with Gibson has been widely discussed. The truth is, I didn't much care that she did not know the meaning of the phrase "Bush doctrine." And I am quite sure that her supporters didn't care, either. Most people view such an ambush as a journalistic gimmick. What I do care about are all the other things Palin isout financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin's ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.

I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn't: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events. Needless to say, she shares this belief with mil-lions of Americans—but we shouldn't be eager to give these people our nuclear codes, either. There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn't ready for? He wouldn't. Everything happens for a reason. Palin seems perfectly willing to stake the welfare of our country—even the welfare of our species—as collateral in her own personal journey of faith. Of course, McCain has made the same unconscionable wager on his personal journey to the White House.

In speaking before her church about her son going to war in Iraq, Palin urged the congregation to pray "that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God; that's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God's plan." When asked about these remarks in her interview with Gibson, Palin successfully dodged the issue of her religious beliefs by claiming that she had been merely echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times later dubbed her response "absurd." It was worse than absurd; it was a lie calculated to conceal the true character of her religious infatuations. Every detail that has emerged about Palin's life in Alaska suggests that she is as devout and literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land. Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the "end times." Which is to say she very likely thinks that human history will soon unravel in a foreordained cataclysm of war and bad weather. Undoubtedly Palin believes that this will be a good thing—as all true Christians will be lifted bodily into the sky to make merry with Jesus, while all nonbelievers, Jews, Methodists and other rabble will be punished for eternity in a lake of fire. Like many Pentecostals, Palin may even imagine that she and her fellow parishioners enjoy the power of prophecy themselves. Otherwise, what could she have meant when declaring to her congregation that "God's going to tell you what is going on, and what is going to go on, and you guys are going to have that within you"?

You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. In the churches where Palin has worshiped for decades, parishioners enjoy "baptism in the Holy Spirit," "miraculous healings" and "the gift of tongues." Invariably, they offer astonishingly irrational accounts of this behavior and of its significance for the entire cosmos. Palin's spiritual colleagues describe themselves as part of "the final generation," engaged in "spiritual warfare" to purge the earth of "demonic strongholds." Palin has spent her entire adult life immersed in this apocalyptic hysteria. Ask yourself: Is it a good idea to place the most powerful military on earth at her disposal? Do we actually want our leaders thinking about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy when it comes time to say to the Iranians, or to the North Koreans, or to the Pakistanis, or to the Russians or to the Chinese: "All options remain on the table"?

It is easy to see what many people, women especially, admire about Sarah Palin. Here is a mother of five who can see the bright side of having a child with Down syndrome and still find the time and energy to govern the state of Alaska. But we cannot ignore the fact that Palin's impressive family further testifies to her dogmatic religious beliefs. Many writers have noted the many shades of conservative hypocrisy on view here: when Jamie Lynn Spears gets pregnant, it is considered a symptom of liberal decadence and the breakdown of family values; in the case of one of Palin's daughters, however, teen pregnancy gets reinterpreted as a sign of immaculate, small-town fecundity. And just imagine if, instead of the Palins, the Obama family had a pregnant, underage daughter on display at their convention, flanked by her black boyfriend who "intends" to marry her. Who among conservatives would have resisted the temptation to speak of "the dysfunction in the black community"?

Teen pregnancy is a misfortune, plain and simple. At best, it represents bad luck (both for the mother and for the child); at worst, as in the Palins' case, it is a symptom of religious dogmatism. Governor Palin opposes sex education in schools on religious grounds. She has also fought vigorously for a "parental consent law" in the state of Alaska, seeking full parental dominion over the reproductive decisions of minors. We know, therefore, that Palin believes that she should be the one to decide whether her daughter carries her baby to term. Based on her stated position, we know that she would deny her daughter an abortion even if she had been raped. One can be forgiven for doubting whether Bristol Palin had all the advantages of 21st-century family planning—or, indeed, of the 21st century.

We have endured eight years of an administration that seemed touched by religious ideology. Bush's claim to Bob Woodward that he consulted a "higher Father" before going to war in Iraq got many of us sitting upright, before our attention wandered again to less ethereal signs of his incompetence. For all my concern about Bush's religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to "talk the talk" between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to "walk the walk" until the Day of Judgment.

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."

"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."

"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."

The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex—and dangerous—with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us. When asked why she is qualified to shoulder more responsibility than any person has held in human history, Palin cites her refusal to hesitate. "You can't blink," she told Gibson repeatedly, as though this were a primordial truth of wise governance. Let us hope that a President Palin would blink, again and again, while more thoughtful people decide the fate of civilization.

Harris is a founder of The Reason Project and author of The New York Times best sellers “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” His Web site is

[Sep 28, 2008] Palin Claimed Dinosaurs And People Coexisted

Come on people. This is not XVII this XXI century. America deserves better then that.
ANCHORAGE -- Soon after Sarah Palin was elected mayor of the foothill town of Wasilla, Alaska, she startled a local music teacher by insisting in casual conversation that men and dinosaurs coexisted on an Earth created 6,000 years ago -- about 65 million years after scientists say most dinosaurs became extinct -- the teacher said.

After conducting a college band and watching Palin deliver a commencement address to a small group of home-schooled students in June 1997, Wasilla resident Philip Munger said, he asked the young mayor about her religious beliefs.

Palin told him that "dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time," Munger said. When he asked her about prehistoric fossils and tracks dating back millions of years, Palin said "she had seen pictures of human footprints inside the tracks," recalled Munger, who teaches music at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and has regularly criticized Palin in recent years on his liberal political blog, called Progressive Alaska.

The idea of a "young Earth" -- that God created the Earth about 6,000 years ago, and dinosaurs and humans coexisted early on -- is a popular strain of creationism.

Though in her race for governor she called for faith-based "intelligent design" to be taught along with evolution in Alaska's schools, Gov. Palin has not sought to require it, state educators say

[Sep 17, 2008] Letters Financial mayhem - Letters, Opinion - The Independent

I wonder why nobody sees a strong link between creationism and communist doctrine with its obsessive idea of central planning ;-)

Science lessons from creationism

I agree with Robert Smith (letter, 13 September) that creationism should be taught more widely; pupils could learn a lot by analysing the implications. I've been thinking about the events of that busy first week in the "Young Earth" model.

Consider the challenge of creating the first chicken (on the fifth day); an egg would be no good on its own. Would you start at the beak and sweep backwards? You would have to be quick, or fluids would leak out. No, it would have to be completely formed in an instant, with all the organs and blood supply and nerves (including behaviour and memory). The space it suddenly occupies would have to be cleared of air at exactly the same moment to prevent a deafening shock-wave.

Creating a whale would be even more challenging; a large volume of water would have to be removed in an instant, and not by converting it into energy, or the planet would be blown away.

The difficulties don't stop there. All the delicate inter-relationships between species would have to be immaculately planned, and there would have to be fully-grown trees (the third day), ready-rotted wood and dead animals for scavengers; nests, burrows and much else. And this for the whole world, down to the last ant and pine-needle, rotifer and bacillus.

That's zoology, anatomy, physiology, psychology, physics (newtonian and nuclear) and ecology.

David Ridge

London N19


Hugh Dower (letter, 13 September) asserts that "creationism is a legitimate theory, which means that natural evolution is only a theory too". Unfortunately, this is a completely false comparison.

His dismissal of evolution as "only" a theory confuses the general understanding of the word theory (a conjecture or hypothesis) with the scientific understanding (a testable and thus potentially falsifiable explanation). And this latter point is precisely where creationism falls down: it can never be a legitimate theory because it is unfalsifiable, and by Karl Popper's test is not scientific.

It would be both pointless and misleading to attempt to teach it in science classes; we might as well teach astrology or the existence of the tooth fairy.

Dr Richard Carter

London SW15

[Sep 14 2008]  Our scientists must nail the creationists Comment is free  by Robin McKie

Was Michael Reiss appointment a special operation of  the Templeton Foundation

The Observer

The Royal Society should take a much stronger stance in opposing religion in the school lab

All comments (137)

There are two ways of reacting to the Royal Society's claim that its education director Michael Reiss was misrepresented in reports alleging he thought creationism should be taught in science classrooms. Either journalists got it wrong or Reiss - an ordained Church of England clergyman - did indeed suggest religious dogma be mixed with science teaching. I tend very much to the latter view.

As Sir Harry Kroto, a society fellow, and a Nobel prize winner, pointed out in a letter to the Royal Society, Reiss was an accident waiting to happen: 'I warned the president ... that his was a dangerous appointment. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be.'

Now the society has been caught out, though in the short term it may ride out the current controversy. In the wake of Reiss's remarks, most commentaries have focused, quite reasonably, on the issue of how science and religion should be taught at school. At the same time, the Royal Society has rushed to assure scientists that it still believes creationism has no place in school laboratories.

There is a second, more important issue at stake, however. How should the Royal Society, the world's oldest and most prestigious scientific organisation, treat religion within the confines of its own headquarters?

Science and religion do mix, though the combination is often volatile - the reaction often depending, intriguingly, on the discipline studied by a particular researcher, according to Sir Tim Hunt, winner of the 2001 Nobel prize for medicine. 'Cosmologists and physicists dwell on cosmic forces which - if altered only slightly - would prevent many chemical reactions, and life, from occurring. The sheer improbability of our universe makes them all a bit spiritual and soft on religion. By contrast, biologists see evolution constantly at work in their research and are more hard-nosed about God.'

The idea is not without exceptions, of course. Hunt, a biologist, is scarcely hardline about Reiss's creationism call, for example. 'I am not worried about this one, though I am definitely anti-religious.'

But if he is unworried about God getting a foot in the Royal Society's door, many other fellows find recent developments troubling. Scientists such as Kroto, Sir Richard Roberts (another UK Nobel winner), and Richard Dawkins look with horror upon the spread of faith schools; the growing influence of bodies such as the Templeton Foundation, a conservative US organisation which constantly seeks to establish links between science and religion; and the prospect of creationism being taught in Britain's science classrooms. They expect the Royal Society to take a tough stand on these issues.

Many of their fears are based on their American experiences, it should be noted. Kroto and Richards now work there while Dawkins is a frequent visitor on the US lecture circuit. And what they see in America unnerves them: school science teachers who firmly believe the world and humanity are the 6,000-year-old handiwork of God and who cannot accept what DNA tells us about our close relationships with the animal world, what isotope research reveals about the deep antiquity of our planet, what astronomical studies tell us about the size and age of the universe; and what fossils reveal about our own species' multimillion-year lineage. The prospect of such ignorance spreading to Britain quite rightly appals them.

'I don't know if it is too late to stop the slide in Britain but I think it is in the US where they [the religious right] have now almost complete control over politics, the judiciary, education, business, journalism and television,' says Kroto. 'And it will only take a presidential victory by McCain, followed by him having a heart attack weeks later, and Sarah Palin, a creationist supporter, will become head of the world's most powerful country.'

It is the duty of scientists to fight such onslaughts and be examples of rationality in a darkening world, it is argued. Hence the anger at the Royal Society for failing to firmly nail its colours to its mast. The organisation has a motto: 'Nullius in verba' (roughly, 'Take nobody's word for it'). In other words, verify everything by experiment and think for yourself. Both are noble aspirations. It is therefore baffling how an ordained minister - a man committed to believing the word of God without question - could have been asked to play a senior role in the society. Equally, the society's acceptance of money from the Templeton Foundation raises further concerns.

The Royal Society - which should set the fiercest of examples in its commitment to rationality - has shown worrying signs of spiritual sloppiness. (Its current president, Lord Rees, is a cosmologist who attends church 'as an unbelieving Anglican', it should be noted.) Those of a religious persuasion might welcome this softening. I would sound a note of caution, however. Britain is still a broadly secular society which guarantees freedoms not just to atheists but to all religions, no matter how few its adherents. If we follow the example of America then all are threatened by the rise of a powerful Christian right.

We badly need our premier scientific society to stand firm and present a clear vision of how our planet, our species, and the cosmos came into existence. It needs to be unequivocal about the wonders of nature as revealed through rational, scientific investigation. As Douglas Adams put it: 'Isn't enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?'

[Sep 11, 2008] September 11th Defeat Terrorism by Reacting Rationally (Skeptical Inquirer September 2002)

At the one-year anniversary, we examine reactions to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the context of other causes of premature deaths. An objective of terrorism is to multiply damage by inducing irrational fears in the broad population. One defense is to learn to evaluate such situations more objectively.

Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris

Human beings might be expected to value each life, and each death, equally. We each face numerous hazards-war, disease, homicide, accidents, natural disasters-before succumbing to "natural" death. Some premature deaths shock us far more than others. Contrasting with the 2,800 fatalities in the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 (9/11), we barely remember the 20,000 Indian earthquake victims earlier in 2001. Here, we argue that the disproportionate reaction to 9/11 was as damaging as the direct destruction of lives and property. Americans can mitigate future terrorism by learning to respond more objectively to future malicious acts. We do not question the visceral fears and responsible precautions taken during the hours and days following 9/11, when there might have been even worse attacks. But, as the first anniversary of 9/11 approaches, our nation's priorities remain radically torqued toward homeland defense and fighting terrorism at the expense of objectively greater societal needs. As we obsessively and excessively beef up internal security and try to dismantle terrorist groups worldwide, Americans actually feed the terrorists' purposes.

Every month, including September 2001, the U.S. highway death toll exceeds fatalities in the WTC, Pentagon, and four downed airliners combined. Just like the New York City firefighters and restaurant workers, last September's auto crash victims each had families, friends, critical job responsibilities, and valued positions in their churches and communities. Their surviving children, also, were left without one parent, with shattered lives, and much poorer than the 9/11 victims' families, who were showered with 1.5 million dollars, per fatality, from the federal government alone. The 9/11 victims died from malicious terrorism, arguably compounded by poor intelligence, sloppy airport security, and other failed procedures we imagined were protecting us. While few of September's auto deaths resulted from malice, neither were they "natural" deaths: most also resulted from individual, corporate, and societal choices about road safety engineering, enforcement of driving-while-drunk laws, safe car design, and so on.

A Lack of Balance

Why does 9/11 remain our focus rather than the equally vast carnage on the nation's highways or Indian earthquake victims? Some say, "Oh, it was a natural disaster and nothing could be done, while 9/11 was a malicious attack." Yet better housing in India could have saved thousands. As for malice, where is our concern for the 15,000 Americans who die annually by homicide? Apparently, the death toll doesn't matter, not if people die all at once, not even if they die by malicious intent. We focus on 9/11, of course, because these attacks were terroristic and were indelibly imprinted on our consciousness by round-the-clock news coverage. Our apprehension was then amplified when just a half dozen people died by anthrax. Citizens apparently support the nation's sudden, massive shift in priorities since 9/11. Here, we ask "Why?"

Suppose we had reacted to 9/11 as we did to last September's auto deaths. That wouldn't have lessened the destroyed property, lost lives and livelihoods, and personal bereavement of family and associates of the WTC victims. But no billions would have been needed to prop up airlines. Local charities wouldn't have suffered as donations were redirected to New York City. Congress might have enacted prescription drug benefits, as it was poised to do before 9/11. Battalions of National Guardsmen needn't have left their jobs to provide a visible "presence" in airports. The nation might not have slipped into recession, with resulting losses to businesses, workers, and consumers alike. And the FBI might still be focusing on rampant white-collar crime (think Enron) rather than on terrorism. While some modest measures (e.g., strengthening cockpit doors) were easy to implement, may have inhibited some "copycat" crimes, and may even lessen future terrorism, we believe that much of the expensive effort is ineffective, too costly to sustain, or wholly irrelevant.

Some leaders got it right when they implored Americans after 9/11 to return to their daily routines, for otherwise "the terrorists will win." Unfortunately, such exhortations seemed aimed at rescuing the travel industry rather than articulating a broad vision of how to respond to terrorism. We advocate that most of us more fully "return to normal life." We suggest that the economic and emotional damage unleashed by 9/11, which touched the lives of all Americans, resulted mostly from our own reactions to 9/11 and the anthrax scare, rather than from the objective damage. We recognize that our assertion may seem inappropriate to some readers, and we are under no illusion that natural human reactions to the televised terrorism could have been wholly averted and redirected. We, too, gaped in horror at images of crashing airplanes and we contributed to WTC victims. But from within the skeptical community there could emerge a more objective, rational alternative to post-9/11. Citizens could learn to react more constructively to future terrorism and to balance the terrorist threat against other national priorities. It could be as important to combat our emotional vulnerability to terrorism as to attack Al Qaeda.

Terrorism, by design, evokes disproportionate responses to antisocial acts by a malicious few. By minimizing our negative reactions, we might contribute to undermining terrorists' goals as effectively as by waging war on them or by mounting homeland defenses. We do not "blame the victims" for the terrorists' actions. Rather, we seek that we citizens, the future targets of terrorism, be empowered. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." We can help ensure that terrorists don't win if we can minimize our fears and react more constructively to future terrorism. We don't suggest that this option is easy or will suffice alone. It may not even be possible. But human beings often best succeed by being rational when their emotions, however tenacious and innate, have let them down.

[Sep 8, 2008]

Ran Paul raises important questions relevant to this topic

[Jun 19, 2008] Hip Heterodoxy Christopher Hayes

It might be that the most instructive part of the article was the Card portion.

May 24, 2007

"Card, a highly esteemed economist at the University of California, Berkeley, caught flak for his heresy not on trade but on the minimum wage. In 1994 he conducted a study to see whether an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey had the negative effect on employment that basic neoclassical theory would predict. He found it didn't. In fact, his regression analysis showed that, controlling for other factors, New Jersey gained fast-food jobs after increasing its minimum wage, compared with Pennsylvania, which hadn't raised wages. The paper attracted a tremendous amount of attention and criticism, and Card himself largely abandoned working on the minimum wage. In a 2006 interview, he explained his decision to leave the topic behind this way: "I've subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole."

What this brings to mind is not mafia style omerta as much as soviet science under Stalin. The very notion that economics as a whole has a "cause" is revealing. As is the fact that Card felt compelled to drop that area of research. Not exactly a model for the free market of ideas.

[Jun 19, 2008] Is neoclassical economics a mafia

Freakonomists (aka neoclassical economists) might be probably considered to be a group close in the ideology to Lysenkoists...  At least people with views similar to Milton Freedman's views (as expressed in Capitalism and Freedom) definitely  belong to the church of  "free market fraud" as John Kenneth Galbraith put it in 1999. He also warned that ""Never underestimate the power of very stupid people in large groups." "

May 26, 2007 |  Dani Rodrik's weblog

Sort of, says Christopher Hayes in a very well-written and very interesting piece in The Nation. He says orthodox economists are a close-knit group and are quick to penalize those among them or from outside who overstep the boundaries. Here is an excerpt:

So extreme is the marginalization of heterodox economists, most people don't even know they exist. Despite the fact that as many as one in five professional economists belongs to a professional association that might be described as heterodox, the phrase "heterodox economics" has appeared exactly once in the New York Times since 1981. During that same period "intelligent design," a theory endorsed by not a single published, peer-reviewed piece of scholarship, has appeared 367 times.

It doesn't take much to call forth an impressive amount of bile from heterodox economists toward their mainstream brethren. John Tiemstra, president of the Association for Social Economics and a professor at Calvin College, summed up his feelings this way: "I go to the cocktail parties for my old schools, MIT and Oberlin, and people are all excited about Freakonomics. I kind of wince and go off to another corner or have another drink." After the EPI gathering, Peter Dorman, an economist at Evergreen State College with a gentle, bearded air, related an e-mail exchange he once had with Hal Varian, a well-respected Berkeley economist who's moderately liberal but firmly committed to the neoclassical approach. Varian wrote to Dorman that there was no point in presenting "both sides" of the debate about trade, because one side--the view that benefits from unfettered trade are absolute--was like astronomy, while any other view was like astrology. "So I told him I didn't buy the traditional trade theory," Dorman said. "'Was I an astrologer?' And he said yes!"

Hayes makes a number of good points about how ideology permeates a lot of thinking by orthodox economists. Anybody who strays from conventional wisdom is in danger of being ostracized. Some years ago, when I first presented an empirical paper questioning some of the conventional views on trade to a high profile economics conference, a member of the audience (a very prominent economist and a former co-author of mine) shocked me with the question "why are you doing this?" 

On the other hand I have never found neoclassical methodology too constraining when it comes to thinking about the real world in novel and unconventional ways. See the Carlos Diaz-Alejandro rule here. To me it represents nothing other than a methodological predilection for deriving aggregate social phenomena from individual behavior--and as such it is a very useful discipline for any social science. You say people have some preferences, they face certain constraints, take others' actions into account, and go from there. Neoclassical economics teaches you how to think, not what to think.

So it has always been a bit difficult for me to understand the critique that neoclassical economics is necessarily driven by ideology or leads to foregone conclusions. Just as it puzzles me why so many neoclassical economists are ready to jettison what they teach in the classroom and espouse simplistic rules of thumb on policy.

UPDATE: Fadi, you guess right, and you win this.

UPDATE: Peter has some very perceptive comments in the thread below. I recommend them to all.

UPDATE: Christopher Hayes responds in an e-mail:

Your point about neoclassical economics as an approach as opposed to a substantive set of principles is an important one, and gets at the crux of the issue. To what point does the toolbox determine what the carpenter fashions? If all you have is a hammer, does everything begin to look like a nail?

[Jun 2, 2008] Supply-Side Fairy Tales by Steve Waldman

Supply side economic (aka "voodoo economics") is a classic example of cargo cult science. Steve Waldman insiteful comments on Greg Mankiw's proposal to cut corporate taxes... (hat hit to Mark Thoma)

Supply side fairy tales, by Steve Waldman: Greg Mankiw offers a strong endorsement of a proposal to cut the corporate income tax from 35 to 25 percent, claiming "It is perhaps the best simple recipe for promoting long-run growth in American living standards." ... A good case can be made for cutting or even eliminating the corporate income tax. But Mankiw's argument does not cohere.

Let's start positive. Mankiw is right to point out that the "incidence" of the corporate income tax might not in fact be as progressive as its proponents would wish. He quotes studies suggesting that workers end up paying 70% to 92% of the taxes in the form of lower wages. I'm skeptical of those numbers, but it is surely true that some fraction, perhaps even a large fraction, of the corporate tax burden falls on workers and customers rather than presumptively wealthier investors. Mankiw does us all a service by reminding us of this.

Then he tells us a fairy tale ...

... ... ...

Supply side economics is a nice story, a hopeful story. It offers a clean, plausible policy framework: encourage investment, always and everywhere, and prosperity is sure to follow. But this decade has been about a pure a test of that idea as we could hope for. Capital in the United States was incredibly cheap, and what did we do? We destroyed a lot of wealth. We don't need more capital (although we might soon, if our foreign backers get skittish). We need more discriminating capital. In the meantime, the only thing I'm sure "works" about the supply side story is that it shifts the tax burden from richer to poorer. I'd rather that stop working so well.

See also discussion Economist's View Supply-Side Fairy Tales

[May 18, 2008] Asia Lysenkoism - American style

Asia Times

... Milton Friedman and their followers will be lumped together with Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, stooge and sycophant of Josef Stalin.  Lysenko sent his fellow biologists to the Gulag, never to be heard from again, for opposing his hare-brained theories of genetics. Lysenko betrayed science as he betrayed humanity. He was, no less than Stalin, a monster.

Antal E Fekete is professor emeritus, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John's. Further information on the Gold Standard University can be obtained by writing to

(Copyright 2007 by A E Fekete. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)

[Apr 20, 2008] 'Open Letter to a victim of Ben Stein's lying propaganda' by Richard Dawkins -

4. Now, to the matter of Darwin. The first thing to say is that natural selection is a scientific theory about the way evolution works in fact. It is either true or it is not, and whether or not we like it politically or morally is irrelevant. Scientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave. I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil's Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live. I have several times said, starting at the beginning of my very first book, The Selfish Gene, that we should learn to understand natural selection, so that we can oppose any tendency to apply it to human politics. Darwin himself said the same thing, in various different ways. So did his great friend and champion Thomas Henry Huxley.

5. Darwinism gives NO support to racism of any kind. Quite the contrary. It is emphatically NOT about natural selection between races. It is about natural selection between individuals. It is true that the subtitle of The Origin of Species is "Or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life" but Darwin was using the word "race" in a very different sense from ours. It is totaly clear, if you read past the title to the book itself, that a "favoured race" meant something like 'that set of individuals who possess a certain favoured genetic mutation" (although Darwin would not have used that language because he did not have our modern concept of a genetic mutation).

6. There is no mention of Darwin in Mein Kampf. Not one single, solitary mention, not one mention in any of the 27 chapters of this long and tedious book. Don't you think that, if Hitler was truly influenced by Darwin, he would have given him at least one teeny weeny mention in his book? Was he, perhaps, INDIRECTLY influenced by some of Darwin's ideas, without knowing it? Only if you completely misunderstand Darwin's ideas, as some have definitely done: the so-called Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer and John D Rockefeller. Hitler could fairly be described as a Social Darwinist, but all modern evolutionists, almost literally without exception, have been vocal in their condemnation of Social Darwinism. This of course includes Michael Shermer and me and PZ Myers and all the other evolutionary scientists whom Ben Stein and his team tricked into taking part in his film by lying to us about their true intentions.

7. Hitler did attempt eugenic breeding of humans, and this is sometimes misrepresented as an attempt to apply Darwinian principles to humans. But this interpretation gets it historically backwards, as PZ Myers has pointed out. Darwin's great achievement was to look at the familiar practice of domestic livestock breeding by artificial selection, and realise that the same principle might apply in NATURE, thereby explaining the evolution of the whole of life: "natural selection", the "survival of the fittest". Hitler didn't apply NATURAL selection to humans. He was probably even more ignorant of natural selection than Ben Stein evidiently is. Hitler tried to apply ARTIFICIAL selection to humans, and there is nothing specifically Darwinian about artificial selection. It has been familiar to farmers, gardeners, horse trainers, dog breeders, pigeon fanciers and many others for centuries, even millennia. Everybody knew about artificial selection, and Hitler was no exception. What was unique about Darwin was his idea of NATURAL selection; and Hitler's eugenic policies had nothing to do with natural selection.

8. Mr J, you have been cruelly duped by Ben Stein and his unscrupulous colleagues. It is a wicked, evil thing they have done to you, and potentially to many others. I do not know whether they knowingly and wantonly perpetrated the falsehood that fooled you. Perhaps they genuinely and sincerely believed it, although other actions by them, which you can read about all over the Internet, persuade me that they are fully capable of deliberate and calculated deception. You are perhaps not to be blamed for swallowing the film's falsehoods, because you probably assumed that nobody would have the gall to make a whole film like that without checking their facts first. Perhaps even you will need a little more convincing that they were wrong, in which case I urge you to read it up and study the matter in detail -- something that Ben Stein and his crew manifestly and lamentably failed to do. parallels between Neo-Creationism and Lysenkoism - science Discussion Forum

Daniel Dickson-LaPrade says:

one BIG difference is that Lysenkoism was very top-down. Darwinist biologists were imprisoned, exiled, killed, or pressured to emigrate so that the glorious forward march of Soviet agriculture could continue untrammeled by the crypto-capitalism of Darwinist stooges (LOL).

Luckily, the ID movement and other astroturf evolution denialist movements have had no luck whatsoever gaining any respect either within the scientific community or (for the most part) in the highest levels of government.

Jeff Williams says:

Agree that there were obvious political differences as DDL points out.

But its clear was thread runs through both movements...the rejection of a system of thought known as the scientific method to obtain political or social ends, primarily because the "offending" system ran counter to achieving those political ends.

Different ends...same means. Reject fact, reject the scientific process and twist the "facts" and the "system" to fit within a failed political/social agenda.


I’d never heard of the series The Ascent of Man before, but this clip captures perfectly why the current administration’s claim to absolute certainty is to be feared. INTELLIGENT DESIGN Hypothesis+Prediction+Mechanism+Experiment = SCIENCE - science Discussion Forum

Michael Altarriba says:

A relevant critique of the concept of "detecting design":

The concept of "irreducible complexity" is likewise deeply flawed. Now this is disturbing and depressing - science Discussion Forum

Looks like there is a rich bolshevism tradition in certain parts of the USA media ;-)
Mark Hornberger says:

There are tens of millions of Americans who believe that people and dinosaurs co-existed. There is a Jack Chick tract explaining where the dinosaurs went--we ate them. Chick's view of the world is more common than many like to admit. How people "end up" like this is complicated. It's part religion, but that isn't really it.

There is a rich vein of ant-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment running through American culture. Add in our latent populism (i.e. the average guy in the street is as smart and informed as you need to be to understand just about anything of value) plus the conspiracy us-against-the-powers-of-evil mindset prevalent in the right wing and you have a


Last edited by the author on April 21, 2008 1:07 PM PDT

mostserene1 says:

Mark, you hit the nail on the head. You see anti-intellectualism spewing from the mouths of cable pundits, ironically many Harvard-educated, who hold out the "average-joe" - the uneducated, blue collar worker, as the heart and soul of America, a noble savage that can spot an "elitist" a mile away, especially in the presidential race.

According to these pundits, the people do not want too smart a president; rather, they want a president with whom they can envision downing a cold beer. So, If I understand it, these average joes want their own kids to go to the best college possible but they want their president to be an average-IQ good ol' boy.

From the redoubtable Dr. Dawkins in The God Delusion: Mensa meta analysis indicates religiosity is inversely correlated with education, interest in science, and IQ. Guess we should not be surprised. Sorry, I strayed a bit off topic, but then again these noble savages are the ones who think dinosaurs perished a few days ago.

Mark Hornberger says:

Greg Janzen -- "Religion, as usual, is the source of the problem."

I'm not trying to exonerate religion, but my point is that it's a bit deeper than that. Religion is the vehicle (or excuse, or label), but anti-intellectualism was also rampant in Pol Pot's Cambodia and Mao's China, to well-known effect. The first thing Pol Pot did was shoot the intellectuals, going so far as to simply kill everyone wearing glasses.

Where religion already has a foothold (and is already leaning towards to anti-intellectualism) then that's the form it takes, but God is not the entirety of the problem. I know many evangelicals who, if they abandoned their faith tomorrow, would just flip over to belonging to the atheist "club," with t-shirts, bumper stickers, and thoe whole "part of something" thing they like but which is so inimical to critical thinking.

3 of 4 people think this post adds to the discussion.
In reply to an earlier post on April 22, 2008 10:16 AM PDT

Greg Janzen says:

Interesting. But it's been argued (by serious historians and not just by popular commentators like Hitchens), and I tend to agree, that regimes like Pol Pot's, Mao's, Stalin's, etc. were effectively religious regimes. E.g., all of them encouraged submission to an all-powerful dictator, a quintessentially religious practice. So one wonders if it isn't a confluence of religious elements that ultimately led to the anti-intellectualism of those regimes.

But your claim regarding the evangelicals seems true. I, too, know evangelicals who would take up crystal gazing, astrology, or some other bunkum if they lost their faith in god. I don't know if this is a symptom of the whole "part of something" thing, but it's a complete abandonment of the intellect. They seem positively intent on avoiding anything that might require them to use their noggins
Stephen Marley says:

Did you see this article about a recent poll taken in the UK?

A CHARITY set up by an ardent Christian to fight slavery and the opium trade has identified a new social evil of the 21st century - religion.

A poll by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation uncovered a widespread belief that faith - not just in its extreme form - was intolerant, irrational and used to justify persecution. Pollsters asked 3,500 people in Britain what they considered to be the worst blights on modern society, updating a list drawn up by Rowntree, a Quaker, 104 years ago.

The responses may well have dismayed him. The researchers found that the "dominant opinion" was that religion was a "social evil".
Many participants said religion divided society, fuelled intolerance and spawned "irrational" educational and other policies.

One said: "Faith in supernatural phenomena inspires hatred and prejudice throughout the world, and is commonly used as justification for persecution of women, gays and people who do not have faith."

Many respondents called for state funding of church schools to be ended.

The findings contrast with Rowntree's "scourges of humanity", which included poverty, war, slavery, intemperance, the opium trade, impurity and gambling.

Poverty and drugs remained on the list, but are joined by issues such as family breakdown, young people's behaviour and fears over immigration.

Tom Butler, the Bishop of Southwark, rejected the poll's indictment of faith. He said: "People meeting together, week after week, for worship, support and education in church, synagogue, temple, gurdwara and mosque can not only help people build local community but can teach children to become good citizens."

However, Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said he was "extremely pleased". "Britain has had it with religion," he said.

hell kitten says:

TD -- so what? dinos & people co-existed & cuz eve ate an apple - plant eating kitty cats (and other carnivores) started eating (*gasp*) other animals. every culture has their weird beliefs -- why should we be immune? let people believe whatever nonsense they like -- it might make them happier. but here is where i get controversial...I think, before people *vote* they have to demonstrate *competency* on several levels. qualifying exams on key issues, that's all i ask.

Stephen Marley says:

TD & Elliot,
I first read about the report in U.K Times Online (when I found the link again it would not open) Evidently, the published news article was somewhat controversial in that the hard data wasn't included. I found the actual Rowntree Foundation report in pdf form -
Evidently, they didn't publish the actual number of respondents who felt religion was a "social evil" either. (Knowing that percentage seems to be at the center of the dispute between secularists and theists)
What the report said - "There was disagreement among participants around the issue of religion. Some identified the decline of religion in society as a social evil.
A more dominant opinion, however, stood in stark contrast to this: some people identified religion itself as a social evil. This group generally focused on one of three issues: the "erosion of secularism"; religion as cause of intolerance and conflict; and religion as a source of irrationality."

So we're left to ask what number out of 3500 constitutes the "dominant opinion" and, of course, in the highly religious USA, the results would be significantly different.

Best Regards

[Apr 4, 2008] naked capitalism The Ethics of Harvard MBAs

After the accounting scandals of 2002, where Skilling and other Harvard MBAs played high-profile roles, the school studied what it could do to improve the conduct of its graduates. It concluded that students' ethical compasses were set before they got there, which one could view either as accurate or a way of punting.


Richard Kline said...
While this is cross-grain to the purpose of your post, Yves, I just can't put out of my mind the question of who Dubya Bush _paid_ to do his course work for that diploma. I cannot, CANNOT, believe that a man as fundamentally stupid, unlearned, and incapbable of extracting any real content even from the few books he mentions in passing that he currently has read could have mustered a passing grade at a competitive graduate program, let alone one heavy on the math side like an MBA. Who'd he pay, 'cause it's a no-brainer he couldn't cut this course?
Yves Smith said...
First, a lot of people who graduate from HBS aren't the brightest bulbs. Only a fairly low percentage (under 10%) is either flunked out or drops the program. And you get a long way in that program by stating the obvious, with conviction.

Second, in the runup to the 2004 election, someone sent me a video of Bush giving a speech and taking questions when he was campaigning for Texas governor. The difference was stunning. He could handle multisyllabic words and complex sentence structures with confidence, and could field questions with answers that appeared nuanced. So the intervening years of hard drinking killed more brain cells than most of us realize.

... ... ...

Richard Kline said...
Yeah, well, I do know that few graduate programs wash out their aceptees, especially at the masters' level: it reflects poorly on the _program_. And these MBS barns are tremendous cash cows for their institutions, so I guess.

And I agree with the very first observation regarding the impact on attendees ethics by these programs, that the ethical perspective of those individuals is largely set before they ever arrive. Whether or not these programs should teach ethics, they will have little impact on the actual morals or lack thereof of those whom they instruct.

And Dubya, hard-drinkin' _since_ he got elected in Texas? I mean, I really don't keep up on his personal timeline, but doesn't this go back on, y'know, his pact with God?? . . . Could it be blow, maybe??? The man sure does _not_ seem to function congnitively.
anon said...
I have found Harvard MBAs to be unambiguously afflicted with excessive hubris, compulsive salesmanship, mediocre intellect, and unimpressive analytical skills - in other words, quite well positioned to assume leadership roles in business.
insurance guy said...
One of the problems with business school in general is that it teaches that management's role is to serve shareholder interests and that shareholder interests are best served by maximizing profit.

[Apr 4, 2008] Harvard's role in US aid to Russia By Janine R. Wedel

According to Wikipedia "Shleifer's involvement in Russia was investigated by David McClintick, a Harvard alumnus and journalist for Institutional Investor Magazine. His 30-page January 2006 article claims to show that "economics professor Andrei Shleifer, in the mid-1990s, led a Harvard advisory program in Russia that collapsed in disgrace."

March 25, 2006  |  The Boston Globe

WHEN LAWRENCE Summers resigned the Harvard University presidency last month, his action was attributed in large part to difficulty in human relations. Whatever the true reason, when Summers's legacy is examined, he should be held to account for his role in a scandal with which he was intimately involved, both as a Treasury official and at Harvard. Yet the strange saga of Harvard's involvement in US aid to Russia in the 1990s is more than a scandal about Summers and Harvard. The case illustrates the overall failure of the US accountability system.

Ten years ago my article about the role of the US-funded Harvard advisers in Russia's economic reforms exposed their maze of networks. I analyzed the web of interconnections that enabled Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer, a friend of then Treasury official Lawrence Summers, and a close-knit group of Russians and Americans to largely shape US economic aid policy and Russian economic ''reforms" while managing virtually the entire nearly $400 million US flagship economic aid project. Summers helped Shleifer and Harvard gain noncompetitive government awards through arrangements that were highly unusual in foreign aid contracting at the time, according to US officials.

This maze of networks guaranteed the Harvard players their success in the 1990s. It also enfeebled the multiple investigations of their activities during the same period. Although the US Justice Department filed suit in 2000 (following a three-year investigation), alleging that Shleifer and Harvard had conspired to defraud the US government, the case came to a head only last summer with a negotiated settlement that required the university to pay $26.5 million in fines and Shleifer to pay $2 million. And despite being versed in Summers's entanglements, in 2001, the Harvard Corporation, with sole authority to hire and fire the Harvard president, appointed him the university's president.

The Harvard case points to the failure of modern democracy to adapt its monitoring and accountability systems to a new breed of players exemplified by Shleifer. These peripatetic players have gained influence in the reorganizing, networked world in which authority has been diffused by the profusion of government outsourcing contracts and the end of the Cold War.

The result is that accountability has been undercut by relationships between governments and contractors that are too tenuous, flexible, and ambiguous to be genuinely monitored. Shleifer, for example, played sometimes indistinct and overlapping roles as he lobbied in favor of his projects and advised both the United States and Russia while making investments for his own personal gain, all the while presenting himself as independent analyst and author. The endowment funds of both Harvard and Yale gained access to valuable investments through networks inhabited by Shleifer and/or his currency-trading wife. His investments in Russia, which he does not deny, included securities, equities, oil and aluminum companies, real estate, and mutual funds -- many of the same areas in which he was being paid to provide impartial advice.

Shleifer's defense in the Justice Department's lawsuit is revealing: Although US prosecutors charged that his investments violated federal conflict-of-interest regulations, defense lawyers maintained that he was a ''mere consultant," and thus not subject to these rules. Yet as director of the project, the buck stopped with him.

The system is virtually incapable of dealing with such players' infractions and lack of transparency in a timely fashion. It is not for lack of inquiries, including a 1996 Government Accountability Office investigation and a lawsuit brought by a US mutual funds firm working in Russia, which was settled out of court in 2002.

Traditional accountability frameworks are no match for the ways in which today's diffused authority provides new opportunities for players to brandish influence, evade culpability, and gain deniability, while writing the new rules of the game. While Shleifer must pay a settlement and legal fees, it is too late for the Russian people, who, instead of wise guidance, got corruption and a system wide open to looting. Until the United States devises better ways to track the networks and activities of these new players, it is destined to have an ever more untransparent and unaccountable system, with grave implications for democracy.

Janine R. Wedel, professor of public policy at George Mason University, is author of ''Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe."

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

The Age of American Unreason Susan Jacoby Books

3.0 out of 5 stars Too Long, Thinly Documented and Lacking Recommendations, February 15, 2008 "The Age of American Unreason" aims to update us (post Richard Hofstadter's 1963 "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life") on how American culture devalues knowledge and rationalism. Supporting material include findings that only about half of Americans read a book in any year, only 26% accept Darwin's theory of evolution, and only a minority can name the four gospels or the first book of the Bible. Jacoby also contends that anti-intellectualism and knowledge is worse in the U.S. than any other developed economy - but offers no evidence.

How did we get to this state? McCarthyism, liberal Soviet defenders, the growth of religious fundamentalism and junk-science, and a celebrity-focused culture are proffered candidates for blame. Again, however, little is offered as evidence except in the case of junk science - fomented by right-wing backers. Regardless, Jacoby also fails to peel back the onion further - eg. "Why has fundamentalism grown?" Jacoby does make an important point stating that the impact of anti-intellectualism is much greater today than the 1800's when science and medicine had much less to offer.

Other candidates should also be considered for blame - the growth of particularly strong anti-intellectualism among inner-city African-American youth, endless self-promoting junk science "research" from other sources (eg. drug companies, various "diet gurus," many social 'scientists'), elevation of race- and gender-based courses to major fields of study, the growth of "political correctness" and cultural relativism, truth-twisting by politicians, misleading and overly simplistic books and articles (eg. concluding causation via correlation), weak academic standards, and media's minimal efforts at investigative journalism.

Jacoby also fails to note that the average citizen's aversion to knowledge and rationalism can at least be partially explained. After all, who wants more work after their eight+ hours on the job and fighting traffic, preparing and eating breakfast and dinner, PLUS taking care of the children and other family matters? Further, separating junk science from the real thing requires considerable subject matter (often deliberately withheld) and statistical background. As for politics, even some knowledgeable people I know see involvement as a waste of time - "nothing changes," "they all lie," and "only big donors have input," while leaders since Harry Truman have bemoaned economists' inability to come to useful conclusions.

On the other hand, it is troubling to see how readily misinformed Americans acquiesce to acceptance of non-thinking ideology and major misdirections in American governance.

4.0 out of 5 stars Anti-Intellectualism Revisited, March 8, 2008

By Loyd E. Eskildson "Pragmatist" (Phoenix, AZ.)
By Izaak VanGaalen (San Francisco, CA USA)

More damaging and pervasive than fundamentalist religion is our culture of "infotainment," available everywhere and all the time, promoting junk science, celebrity culture, youth culture, and mindless music and video segments. Jacoby argues that what is lost in this type of media bombardment, which requires only the shortest of attention spans, is the ability to think at all. She longs for the print culture of earlier times, when people still had the leisure and the quiet to read the classics.

Those times, however, are gone. Technology is driving today's culture and intellectuals are adopting to the changes. The distinction between old and new media is already obselete. Newspapers and books now appear in digital form giving people have a superabundance of information to sift through. The question is do we stll have the stamina and discipline to discern what in our culture is worth keeping?

[Feb 22, 2008] Are Americans Inherently Anti-Intellectual

February 20, 2008 | charles hugh smith-

Is the U.S. a deeply anti-intellectual, anti-learning culture, and thus a deeply ignorant one? Every few years comes a book which argues persuasively, "yes." This year's entry is The Age of American Unreason . Longtime correspondent U. Doran alerted me to the book via this story link: Susan Jacoby: Bemoaning an America that values stupidity.

A generation ago the book du jour chastising the dumbing down of America was The Closing of the American Mind which judging by sales on remains very much in the public consciousness.

[Feb 14, 2007] Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism

The Anatomy of Science

The Anatomy of Pseudoscience and Irrationalism

The Great Plagiarism Witch Hunt

[Feb 14, 2007] Hand-wringing About American Culture - Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge By PATRICIA COHEN

New York Times

...T. J. Jackson Lears, a cultural historian who edits the quarterly review Raritan, said, “The tendency to this sort of lamentation is perennial in American history,” adding that in periods “when political problems seem intractable or somehow frozen, there is a turn toward cultural issues.”

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.

Ms. Jacoby, dressed in a bright red turtleneck with lipstick to match, was sitting, appropriately, in that temple of knowledge, the New York Public Library’s majestic Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea for this book back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

Ms. Jacoby doesn’t expect to revolutionize the nation’s educational system or cause millions of Americans to switch off “American Idol” and pick up Schopenhauer. But she would like to start a conversation about why the United States seems particularly vulnerable to such a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism. After all, “the empire of infotainment doesn’t stop at the American border,” she said, yet students in many other countries consistently outperform American students in science, math and reading on comparative tests.

In part, she lays the blame on a failing educational system. “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more,” she said.

Ms. Jacoby also blames religious fundamentalism’s antipathy toward science, as she grieves over surveys that show that nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught along with evolution.


While a lot of people, particular older people, will make the same charge (full disclosure, I'm 58, and have both a BA and a MA, and can and do read books) the fact is that Ms Jacoby would have been better off just looking at Americans v. Americans.

There are in every culture better educated/worse educated, more intelligent/less intelligent, more interested/less interested. Comparing across cultures, I have no doubt that Ms. Jacoby was seduced by the accents and apparently advanced cultural levels of her correspondents, all of whom, almost by definition, would be drawn from the "educated elite."

If she wants to get "down and dirty" I suggest she go to the banlieus (suburbs) of Paris (that supposed center of culture) and interview First Generation children of Tunisian and Algerian immigrants, many of whom live in appalling poverty, denied access to higher education and compare them, for example, to the prototypical "coal miner's daughter" or even more fairly, to first generation American children of immigrants from ANYWHERE.

Here we do provide "free public education" at least for a while, although we make it increasingly difficult to take advantage of it.

And yes, I'm afraid a lot of people WILL call her a crank, because she is part of the problem, the "tut-tutting, pooh-phooing, of America" that doesn't do any thing EXCEPT sell books.

Perhaps in the next administration, when they adjust tax rates, they should have a special "Jacoby surcharge." Put the funds to public education.

— Judy, Fairfax, VA


As an American living in Sweden, I occasionally travel back to the U.S. on visits. It never fails to astonish me that what passes for news there is mindless, repetitive and focused primarily on celebrities. When vastly greater swaths of news time are spent on some celebrity's being sent to jail as opposed to informing Americans how our Constitution is being undermined and subverted by the Bush administration, not to mention what's happening of significance elsewhere in the world, it reveals exactly why too many citizens are ignorant of not only the rest of the world but of their own country.

With half the people polled in a reputable national poll believing that evolution and natural selection are myths and that "creationism" is worthy of being taught in the nation's schools, it's to be expected that America is becoming dumbed-down under the influence of the irrationality of religion, particularly fundamentalist religion. It boggles the mind that one of your leading Republican candidates for the presidency holds blinkered views like this and is a former fundamentalist preacher in the bargain. Imagine a guy like that in the Oval Office or just a heartbeat way from the presidency.

So why are so many American actually and properly perceived as being hostile to global knowledge, indeed, knowledge essential to a nation's survival? Start by taking an honest look at what purports to be "news" there and at the unhealthy dominance of religion in American life. More could be said on other malign influences, but start with those just mentioned. Prediction: if America continues on its present path, look for it to become a second-or-third rate nation no longer looked to as worthy of emulation.

— dbsweden, Sweden


Yonkers, New York

14 February 2008

It is quite true that most Americans have long been been plagued by parochiality or insularity.

But it is over the top to say that they are "hostile" to global knowledge.

After World War II, the Korean War and VietNam, Americans by and large have been shown windows to the outer world. Thus, they are no longer as parochial or as insular as they were before World War II.

America is the richest and the mightiest nation on our planet. It has arrogated unto itself the unenviable role of policeman of the world.

Under President George W. Bush's leadership, America in fact seems driven by a overarching messianic fixation to remake the world in America's own "democratic" image--by military force if that is what it takes.

America is fighting the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. It is fighting another war--a war of "choice"--in Iraq.

It maintains military bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other places on our globe. It is the leading force in NATO. And it is the largest financial contributor to the United Nations with headquarters in New York City.

Given the present reality of Pax Americana, it is a stretch to say that Americans are hostile to global knowledge.

— Mariano Patalinjug, Yonkers, New York


As a recent new resident, I find the cultural differences between the US and Canada and Europe to be astounding.

Somehow or other the culture in the US has cultivated, and generally accepts that the US is somehow exceptional in all respects. With US exceptionalism comes a certain hubris that (i) the rest of the world should somehow automatically accept that view, (ii) that there are no lessons to be learned by the US, (iii) that US practices are best practices, (iv) the rest of the world should automatically and immediately accept US policies and practices, and (v) there is something wrong with the rest of the world if they don't.

Oh, by the way, another belief which leads to trouble is that the US republic is the first among equals of representative and responsible elected governments. Properly functioning constitutional monarchies with histories older than that of the US do quite well.

With these popularly held ( and acted upon) beliefs, it is no wonder that the US culture generally is perceived (and in my experience is) hostile to global knowledge.

— TP, washington


Ben Franklin made the idea of a democratic government in America wildly popular in Europe by explaining it would be based on reason, knowledge and science rather than religion. It would create religious freedom specifically because it did not promote one religion over another. Europeans, wary of centuries of one religious persecution or another, were so enthusiastic about this that Franklin was toasted by royalty and common folk wherever he traveled and gave him the support neede to start the American Revolution. Ironically, religion has so flourished in the USA - more than our educational system - that many Americans are being persecuted again by their own religions. Religions that demand obedience to doctrine instead of promoting inquiry, knowledge, and reason. It is these religions that promote hostility to knowledge in our society. Ultimately religion is an antiquated belief system that on balance does more harm than good and we should be done with it. But in the short term, if we must tolerate it, religious beliefs should have no place in government. Those who argue that morality is based in religion and therefore necessary in a just society show lillte faith in mankind's ability to be moral without having to lean on God.

— separation of church and state, philadelphia

 Recommend Recommended by 43 Readers


I think it's very hard to generalise - some Americans are close friends, others leave me bewildered. On a visit to Lancaster, CA in 2005 I was stopped carrying a documentary handycam into a WalMart in pursuit of our subjects.

The hander-out-of-vouchers' first comment was "Don't bring that thing near me", her second: "Cute accent, where you from?" "New Zealand." "Is that like Ireland? I've always wanted to go there". I replied: "Where? Ireland or New Zealand?" "Yes! Over there." "Best you allow some time - they're some distance apart." "Oh really? Oh well..."

This being immediately after G W Bush's re-election, I became cheeky: "Can I ask you a question?" She was open to that. "Where's Iraq?" "Ooooh... on a map – someplace near Jerusalem!" She got that right, in geopolitically hemispheric terms at least, but I couldn't help being left with the impression that in that part of California, global consciousness didn't extend much past the mall. It felt systemic in origin. America seems to have inbuilt cutoff points - if you don't get past high school, your global view is predictably set.

Hopefully with Barack Obama, the world will have a US president who'll think in broader terms - but I couldn't help a little shadenfreude. As a person with a good liberal high school education and an uncompleted degree,and a bit of travelling under my belt, the level of global awareness, or lack of it, that I encountered in America was staggering. There seemed to be one phrase to explain anything: "9/11".

I was clearly moving in the wrong circles, but my friends in this country seem to know more about American politics, even state politics, than most people I talked to in their home towns. I was left wondering why anyone believed Fox News about anything, but seemingly, everybody did. Why?

Patriotism. "My country, right or wrong." Excessive salutation of the flag. Stratification of the education system, and the sense that freedom of thought is reserved for those who qualify to attend Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Yale or MIT. The rest had best settle for Fox's opinions, pervasive as they are, and connect "emotionally" to events.

But I sense a change in the body politic, and a welcome one for us all, helpless observers though we may be, from afar. There's change coming, and the world is watching. I hope Americans understand how profoundly the election of Mr Obama will affect America's global standing. It's immense.

—, Auckland, New Zealand


Recently, I spoke with a Japanese women in her 30's about American politics. She wanted to know about the candidates and I briefly explained, to my knowledge, the difference between the candidates and how they would affect the US. One of the things she couldn't understand was why Huckabee was so getting so many votes. She didn't understand why so many people would vote for someone who believes in Creationism and how so many people choose to believe god over science. "How can American people be so stupid? How do they find evidence for god creating the earth?" I honestly couldn't answer her question. Then she said, "I guess ignorance is bliss, they can avoid the accountability for the all the mess they created around the world and blame it on god." I was quite offended by the comment but could not retort, then I remembered a quote from the news before the Iraq war by some Iranian teenager. "Everyone in the world strives to be more technologically advanced and less theocratic, but America is becoming more theocratic?" I think it's because we are just taught to be engines of the economy and thinking/worrying about other things will detract us from being productive. Buy! Consume! Enjoy life, nothing else matter!

— kb, Japan


It's not a new phenomenon. Americans have always been provincial. After I got out of the Army in 1971 and was living in Paris, the students I knew at the Sorbonne were shocked to discover that I thought Viet Nam was a horrible mistake, and had since 1967.
"All the Americans we meet defend your war," they said.
Look at the current occupier of the White House. He'd never even been to Europe before he was appointed. This provinciality from a man of a wealthy family... but one who has the curiosity of ruminant.
The problem with lack of intellectual news curiosity starts with early schooling. We are taught that we are the greatest "democracy" (which we have never been) the world has ever known. So what's to learn? We are surrounded by oceans on two sides, one keeping us from the culture of Europe and the history of Africa, and the other ocean keeping us safe from Asia. We disdain Mexico and think Canada is quaint. It doesn't occur to most Americans that what happens on the rest of the planet matters to them, unless of course someone pierces that veil of apathy with four jumbo jets. Then we become bellicose and defensive. "What did we do wrong?" so many asked, having no clue what we've done "wrong" for the last 50 years, since they paid no attention (this is not to defend the horrific acts of Al Qaeda ...merely to point out that there was a cause... they weren't random acts.)
A nation which is consumed by the trivia of baseball players, movie stars, soap operas and other worthless pap, can't seem to find time for world events which do affect the entire country. Unfortunately, it leaves us open to the demagoguery of unscrupulous leaders who march to war against the wrong country, even lying to us to get us to fall into lock step! Like an alcoholic, we are addicted to our creature pleasures and useless information- caught in a perpetual world of Pong. We have abrogated our responsibility to be truly informed to a pack of people who merely manipulate us. And like an addict, we will not discover the cure, knowledge and active participation, until we hit bottom. But we will, at any moment, be able to tell you the latest basketball scores and where Britney is spending the night.



Americans are not hostile to global knowledge. I lived in the States for 17 years and got an education there.

Everybody wishes openly that they would like to know more about the World. There are though some interesting questions:

Why do Americans associate knowledge with IQ? They call someone who is educated smart. In Europe they do not think that. Even a mountain sheppard can be smart without ever going to school.

Why is there an aversion towards a rigorous function of the intellect? All technology is geared to automatization of thought and thinking. But thinking requires facts -bits of knowledge; with automatization they are not neccessary.

Nationalism, and there is plenty of it in American everyday life, has made the US the center of the world. There are so many things that Americans have to learn for their own motherland -indeed a vast country, that there is no time for anything "outside". More, being in the "center", minimizes interest in the periphery.

Is it perhaps the Imperial Ideology propagated in the popular media? It can be summarized as follows: "all we want is to help these people to develop and establish Democratic rule -like ours in their country. We may steal their raw materials, meddle with their politics -so we can ensure the siphoning of these materials,and those who do not like that or resist, we must reform or eliminate. Our citizens, this is all they have to know -nothing else. If they know more, that could endanger their way of life." A bad picture must be painted of these people, so exploitation can go on without serious resistance in the homefront. It worked during slavery, it can work now. The result?

A psycological block for any substancial knowledge for the Other.

Does Primary education focus on global or historical processes? Does it focus on wide social phenomena? Not much. Here the attention is focused on the individual, character, biology, personal values, perception, inspiration etc. In Europe, education is permeated by a marxist, materialist system of thought, obsolete, though for scientific analysis, nevertheless a useful for the citizen tool, that promps him to always scratch the surface and look for real facts. Any Official Version is not enough for the European, so he must learn and that is a motive to education. Unfortunately, in the US, Enlightment is not for the masses, it is hinted upon only in higher education.

Last, it is perhaps the commercialization of life that plays a role in Americans not getting a decent education: The designation of television as the authority of what a citizen must know, of what is Important.

It is important to know what are the consumer products available, their qualities, prices, availability of money, etc. Every day life is full of such concerns. Personal euphoria at what price; everything is translated into exchange values. Now what is the exchange value of knowing where river Don flows?

— masterantre, Athens, Greece


The bulk of the media totally supports the mindless crap that passes for "news". In addition to that, there is a strong anti-intellectual/anti-academic wind that blows in this country. Somehow it is blindly accepted by a lot of folks that academia are bastions for those hated "liberal" goings-on. How pathetic. And as far as "global knowledge" is concerned, we Americans still feel that we are the "greatest" country on Earth - in spite of the trash that's been going on during the Bush presidency - and the hubris that is associated with that thought (the "greatest" country on Earth). As for me, I think the US of A is on the downhill slope of our "ascendancy" - the dumbing down alone in our country is testament to that.

— alsbh, New York City


Why should we care? We are the greatest nation on Earth. Even more so than Rome. We have the most progressive political system (if you think we have problems, take a look at Israel, or what England and France sweep under the Rug), our economy has a profound effect on every other countries, even with our trade imbalance. And we have Bill Gates and Sean Milton, now THat is something to be proud of!!

— hasifleur wagibigit, nyc


Ignorance starts at the top and works it's way down. I believe the U.S. government, which is run by the wealthy, greedy and powerful, would rather keep it's citizens ignorant of it's many misdeeds at home and abroad. When my daughters went to high school they learned nothing about geography and little about history except the propaganda line of how wonderful we were and how we never did anything wrong.
It's easier to keep ignorant people happy and under control. Once they start getting educated and learning the truth it could cause a reformation like happened in Europe about 1500 AD and the boys at the top would not like that.
Look how easy it's been for the military industrial complex to manipulate George, who must have cheated in college, who in turn manipulates the masses.

— Jerry, St. Louis


So why has America-bashing become such a popular pastime? Because America IS still the top dog. People care about what affects them, which is why the entire world is so wrapped up in the U.S. presidential election. Americans don't care very much about what happens outside of America because very little of it affects them. For better or for worse, the world will continue to be heavily influenced by U.S. business interests for many years to come.

— Ben, law student, NY


I just love it when somebody reinvents the wheel. In 1966, the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter published the definitive history of this phenomenon in his groundbraking book, ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE. The botton line: denigrating or undervaluing the achievements of the mind is an American tradition. As contemporary proof of the pudding, just look at the buffoons our society idolizes as heroes and role models. And it is this anti-intellectualist streak that, in this day and and age, still leads large segments of the population into denying the reality of evolution, global warming, and other tenets of modern, established science.

— FJJM, Atlanta, GA


Is the average European really more knowledgeable than the average American? As a German once told me, "the average guy in Europe gets home from work, gets a beer, and sits down in front of the TV, just like the average guy in America."

— HS, Manhattan



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Last modified: March 12, 2019