lunchtime apocalypse

Wednesday December 10, 2003
This is hastily transcribed almost verbatim from one side of an IM conversation, so apologies if I left something important out.

I just read Jason Asbahr's blog. He has a great link to a speech by Michael Crichton about the state of the environmentalist movement.

In keeping with his religious theme, I think his argument backs up my general feeling that the end of all life is really the only solution to the eternal questions that humanity struggles with.

It would be nice if Crichton put together a website to factually verify some of those claims he's making - such as the claim that DDT is harmless and its ban has killed millions worldwide - but the specific examples weren't terribly interesting to me. I'm willing to accept the possibility of their truth on the basis of numerous other examples that I've heard better factual evidence for.

Not a big environmentalist myself, I still find the main thrust of his speech really unnerving, though I don't think he approached it directly enough - how do you mobilize the public to act upon vague, potentially unpleasant, and most of all, changing information?

How do you sensationalize, propagandize, and thereby positively politicize rational thought? It seems like you'd have to in a mass-media democratic society if you want it to be allowed to have any impact. Ayn Rand tried pretty hard, and look where that got her. I've talked about what's wrong with objectivism before. Not all of it is due to the problem of mass-media exposure and misinterpretation, but the end result is the same - one set of assumptions get substituted for another, and you repurpose a few key buzzwords - "reason", "truth", and "love" to name a few - to mean something different than what they did in your previous ontological framework, and you're done. (Extra credit: find out what these three words mean in your favorite belief system, and how their meanings differ from the dictionary definitions.)

I've started to think lately that you really can't, that it's impossible, and that people have to be inculcated with a critical spirit from birth or they will never really acquire one. They may sway from the Church of Christ to the Church of Rand to the anti-church of LaVey, but they'll continue holding extreme positions with re-heated fallacious arguments without questioning of any of their beliefs until they have a crisis, at which point they question ALL of them.

More optimistically, It doesn't really matter that you can't discuss subtle and complicated issues in a broad public forum. Humanity staggers on anyway. The important thing is to prevent the criminalization of rational discourse and inquiry. That conflict is substantially easier to dumb down and sensationalize. At any given time, in the USA anyway, there is inevitably an unpopular thinker whose punishment is far enough out of proportion with his (thought)crime that the public can express some indignant outrage about allowing him to think whatever he's thinking (usually, with the implicit subtext of "as long as I don't have to listen to it").

The wonderful thing about rational thought is that it actually allows you to manipulate the natural world more effectively, which makes it less important that the dominant forces in society care about your methods and beliefs - as long as they're not actively working against you.

And that's why I'm a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. :-)