It's Sunday, so, hey, something a little preachy...
I recently stumbled across a post on my former MathTango blog from 2 1/2 years ago that I didn’t even remember writing (remembered thinking about it, just not ever actually posting it!). It touches on some matters I was recently thinking about again, so will re-post here with minor revisions:
We’ll start with a news story (…because we live in this wonderful time when you get to make up any damn thing you want and pass it along as "breaking news"):
==> According to top-classified PRIME Security documents uncovered by TMD special investigator Alexus Jones, the Donald Trump we see is in fact an electronic Slovenian-built, fully-programmable cyborg under direct control of long-time Moscow operative Melania Kvorniporakovski and her Russian handlers (no one, for example, has ever seen him actually use a rest room)….
Que sera sera…. (p.s… by the way, the beauty of fake news is that it's difficult to prove false since one can just add further layers of lies to keep it going).
There were many factors for Hillary Clinton's 2016 election defeat, but the simplest is that James Comey’s late intervention torpedoed her campaign, halting her momentum and moving many undecideds (cringing at the prospect of hearing about emails for the next 4 years), over to the Donald side. Without that single news event all indications are HRC would've won, and of course she DID win the popular vote handily. But with that said, at least the Comey announcement was an actual news event.
Another factor that got a lot of attention is all the “fake news” reports that were passed along (and believed), especially on social media, by the unaware (or dare I say, the none-too-bright)… some of it so ridiculous on-its-face as to bode ill for Democracy’s future! Which leads to the two topics I want to raise here. Because... what-the-hell is wrong with people's basic reasoning skills these days!?
American demographics are changing; specifically the percentage of older people, say 70 and over, is far greater than in the past relative to the number of young people, say 30 and under. Medical/health advancements and lower birth rates mean age proportions are becoming more skewed all the time.
But ANOTHER potential skewing is FAR more controversial...
It has been called "dysgenics" or 'retrogressive or backward or reverse evolution' (the opposite of eugenics). Unfortunately, controversial Nobel-Prize winner William Shockley brought the idea to public attention decades ago, though it well-precedes him in the biology community. If you remove notions of race and IQ from the discussion, the more general concept is worth reviewing as a partial explanation for the anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-establishment, and fringe views on prominent display these days.
Shockley spoke out at a time that the "Zero Population Growth" movement, family-planning, and widespread access to birth control were first spreading across America. In brief, his idea was that the most educated, most successful, most fit individuals were primary practitioners of these new trends, while the least educated, least successful, and least fit, were largely unaware of, or uninterested in, such trends. In short, the most fit, capable couples were often deliberately limiting families to 2-3 children at most, while their less fit (less capable) counterparts were more likely to have 4 or more offspring, who in turn grew up in less ideal conditions, received less education, were generally less fit or successful, and continued the cycle — self-perpetuated skewing (of ability and education).
70 years since the world collectively said "never again," the rise of xenophobia, anti-semitism, isolationism/nationalism, anti-elitism, anti-science, and simplistic-thinking across the globe is unmistakeable, and may coincide with factors Shockley noted decades ago.
An alternative explanation for recent political events specifically in the U.S. is that the right-wing have always been a part of the American populace, but were not very active politically in prior generations. Beginning in the 1960’s the Republican Party deliberately set out to contact, coddle, mobilize, and activate conservative rural and fundamentalist elements (the so-called "Silent Majority") through targeted mass mailings and talk radio... and now also with digital social networking. They were successful -- millions who were never previously active in politics now suddenly are... and they've changed the very nature of the Republican Party (for many formerly key figures in the GOP it's a case of 'be careful what you wish for' as they've essentially lost their Party).
In any event, if the numbers of less-educated, less critically-thinking people have risen in recent decades (partly perhaps because dysgenics, mathematically-speaking, may be baked into the demographics), then widespread quality education, starting early, may be the only antidote to all this. Which leads me finally to Martin Gardner….
The greatest skeptical mistake Gardner ever made, in my opinion, was his derision of non-Aristotelian "General Semantics." While some elements of G.S. (and its founder, Alfred Korzybski) are easily critiqued, the broader intent and purposes of G.S. were admirable. G.S. fundamentally trains people to be aware of the many ways, words and language manipulate thinking, perception, decision-making. In short, it assists in 'critical thinking,' in dismally short supply these days.
Gardner, of all people, should have been a fierce adherent of G.S.; instead his scorn helped make it a fringe field, doing for G.S. what Noam Chomsky did for “behaviorism” in psychology. In fact I don't know of any way to teach people critical (and skeptical) thinking without employing tenets from General Semantics. They are simple and basic, yet often not internalized by people without some instruction. G.S. inculcates a wariness of language in advertising/marketing, politics, relationships, religion, news-coverage, and even science, and a recognition of the subtle dogmatism that infuses so much communication. On a sidenote, here are a couple of popular 'taxonomies of logical fallacies' which actually relate back (unknowingly) to a number of G.S. basic principles:
(You may be able to embiggen them on your screen for better readability, or download them -- they ought be somewhere in every high school, IMO!)
It amazes me that secondary students are still forced to read Shakespeare or Dickens or Hardy, but never taught rudiments of how language operates on our cognition, a far more important faculty in today's world (indeed it's amazing/disappointing how many life skills are NOT taught in our schooling, but left almost to chance!).
I won’t try to summarize G.S. principles here, and I haven’t kept up with G.S. volumes over the years, but two of the old popularizations (there are many) that most influenced me were:
Language In Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa
The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase
In its own way, Alan Sokal’s “Beyond the Hoax,” which I’ve referenced before, also touches on many of these issues. I was a bit miffed some time ago to see Ben Goldacre, in a tweet, imply (if I interpreted it correctly) that Sokal’s hoax may have actually contributed to the large-scale mistrust people now exhibit towards science and academics. That’s not true at all; on the contrary Sokal’s target was specifically 'postmodernism,' and some of the ’softer’ disciplines that brush on a mere veneer of science instead of the real thing. We need more Alan Sokals, not fewer, to combat the growing anti-elitism, anti-science sentiments thriving today.
Anyway, at the bottom of the page I’ve also tacked on a couple of weblinks that further detail the whole rift between Gardner and G.S. Some people even viewed G.S. as a “cult,” in part probably because L. Ron Hubbard was said to have incorporated parts of it for his early “Dianetics” program, but many of G.S.'s principles are broad enough that they can be incorporated in any number of programs.
In fairness to Gardner I will note that he was less critical of the “popularizers” of G.S. than of its Korzybskian foundations and some of its technical notions.
In his autobiography Gardner uses an example of how "E-prime," a G.S. idea that never caught on (which advocated avoiding all forms of "to be"), would alter some simple doggerel. Here’s an example of an E-prime version on left versus standard on right in parentheses:
Roses look red (Roses are red)
Violets look blue (Violets are blue)
Honey tastes sweet (Honey is sweet)
As sweet as you
I suppose to many (like Gardner) these may seem trivial, innocuous changes, but buried in language/words are deep meanings/mindsets and effects, and the effects of these two versions ARE different (the first being more accurate, less dogmatic; the second being assertive, but unprovable and potentially inaccurate). Emotions, prejudices, ambiguity are intrinsically buried and maintained in our language use. I’m a bit flummoxed that a writer as clear and incisive as Gardner didn’t show a deeper grasp of how words (dangerously) manipulate people. If you think that words like "chairman," "fireman," and "policeman" are sexist and ought be changed to "chairperson," "fire fighter," and "police officer" then you believe in elements of G.S.
Or take a different short sentence: “Mary had a little lamb.”
Sounds simple; you likely think you understand it. But in fact you CAN’T really understand it without more context because it has too many possible meanings. Just emphasizing different words shifts the meaning:
MARY had a little lamb.
Mary HAD a little lamb.
Mary had a LITTLE lamb.
Mary had a little LAMB.
And putting these varying sentences into different extended contexts can further significantly alter what is being said. The point is that routine language (that we take for granted) is imprecise and ambiguous, yet people react to it as if it is clear and explicit. I’m using minor examples here, but there are far more nefarious ones out there in the world (especially in this day of bountiful conspiracy theories and lies).
There is some irony that a spurned figure like Shockley was perhaps prescient in foreseeing where the U.S. was headed, while Gardner’s much-touted skepticism led him to rebuke one program that could have prevented this electoral outcome; prevented the very gullibility and irrationality he spent his adult life battling.
Properly taught at young ages, General Semantics, would be an antidote to the nationalism, anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism we now face. Though it is still around, G.S. basically flopped back in the 50s/60s, shortly before the time that Shockley began worrying aloud about dysgenic factors in this country. 50 or 60 years later a demagogue gets elected President of the U.S. Well, no shit Sherlock!! ;-)
As a self-described “democratic-Socialist,” Gardner would be spinning in his grave (or wherever), at the 2016 election outcome. But I’m here to say, even if a bit facetiously, that he was unknowingly partially responsible. And the trend is no better in many other democracies. Fascism will always hold appeal for an unaware or angry populace.
p.s… an aside: I once briefly mentioned to Jim Propp my disappointment in Gardner’s failure to take General Semantics seriously, and he countered that every fan of Martin has some one beef with Gardner -- some particular thing they think he got very wrong. So rest-assured, in that context, I still consider myself a typical, inveterate admirer of Martin, but as a skeptic and even a word-maven, how he missed the essence and significance of what G.S. tried to teach I’ll never quite fathom.
For anyone wanting to know more about the Gardner/G.S. clash here are a couple of pages that go into further detail: