Spectre upon Science

Argh. Somehow I’ve become the rewrite guy for a paper on modeling the United States healthcare system. Big chunks of the material we have so far is a direct transcript from somebody’s talk, so it has to be thoroughly revamped. Also, the people we’re writing it for have apparently forgotten everything junior high school taught them about logarithms, which makes explaining why a power-law distribution looks like a straight line on a log-log plot rather, well, interesting. I’ve been told to exile all actual equations to the sidebar. While I get on with my head-impact-wall moment, here’s something I found on my hard drive. I promise some juicy and weird stuff about statistical physics and neuroscience, once I regain my esteem for humanity.

SPECTRE UPON SCIENCE: A VIGNETTE

“These are dark times, my fellow Americans.

“Do you know what is happening across this country? Dawn is sweeping from one coast to the other, mothers are rousing their children from bed, and children are walking and bicycling to school, where they are being taught how to lie with statistics. In math class, little Johnny is learning how the axes of a graph can be distorted, the dangers of selection bias and that correlation is not causation. He and Mary go to English class, where they’re trained in today’s tool from the ‘baloney detection kit‘. They learn that ‘All the aggressor’s attempts to advance beyond Baghdad have failed‘ is a cover for the loss of Baghdad. I’ve just received poll results showing that for the first time, seventy-two percent of Americans know that electrons are smaller than atoms, seventy-eight percent believe that human beings evolved from a common ancestor shared with apes, and ninety-two percent know that the Earth travels around the Sun! These figures shock us all, I know, but they are only the most visible edge of a phenomenon which threatens the continued existence of our organization.

“In my father’s time, a man could openly admit his racism and still rise to political power. When I first took his position as Number One, a candidate caught making a racist remark could be hounded and ridiculed until he was forced out of the political arena — but openly denying scientific facts about biology or global climate was not a liability. No, it was even an advantage. It brought the uncritical adulation of the proletariat.

“Today, this rein has slipped from our hands. We all know how our choicest candidate fared in his senatorial bid, and losses both narrow and wide elsewhere force us to reappraise dramatically our means of controlling the citizen body.

“I have my own speculations on this matter, but first I would like to invite the views of the Central Committee. Yes, Number Three?”

“Sir. I believe our first mistake — for which I bear a measure of personal responsibility — was to neglect the extent to which certain grassroots organizations could mobilize, attract widespread attention and thereby influence the decision-making process. Once the proper tools appeared on the Internet, some years ago, to convert what had been unproductive discussion forums into decision-making arenas focused on actions and implementations — well, new curricula were proposed and established before we could formulate a proper response.”

“If I may interject, Number Three, one of our double agents calls that change the shift from centrifugal websites to a centripetal network.”

“Indeed. Thank you, Number Five.”

“And thank you, Number Three. Your interpretation tallies with my own inquiries. Ah, yes, Number Seven?”

“If it please you, Number One, I believe it prudent to note that we also underestimated the Network’s ability to let the public interact with scientists, and to ‘lower the bar’ for scientists to engage in the educational process.”

“Hmph.”

“Yes, Number Four?”

“With all due respect to my colleague, and to yourself, sir, Number Seven forgets to mention how unbelievably full of drivel the Internet is. The whole thing is a. . a. . . cacophany of fools. I’d wager that ninety percent of it is unmitigated sewage.”

“Your comments, Number Seven?”

“Ah, yes, sir. While ninety percent of the Internet may be, as Number Four says, unmitigated sewage, I expect that the same holds true for any information medium. Where we failed, sir and colleagues, was in underestimating the entrepreneurial ability to find new ways of, shall we say, letting the cream rise to the top. I hasten to add, with all due respect, that it was Number Four’s task force which was assigned to evaluate the newly developed methods of content ranking.”

“Hmmm. Number Four, that task did fall within your purview, did it not?”

“Yes, Number One, but —”

“And did your evaluation agree with the eventual results?”

“No, sir, but —”

“Then I expect an explanation, Number Four.”

“Well, sir —”

“Which I doubt will be forthcoming.”

Bzzzzzzzt.

“Freeellllaaagh!”

“What an. . . unfortunate business.

“Ensure that the drain is functioning when you drop him in the piranha tank.

“Now, where were we? Yes: the public becoming increasingly aware, not just of the findings of science, but also of its methods, thanks to better and more effective communication which helped organize and inform citizens, who then tried to change existing political organizations in any and every way possible. Is that about it?”

“Ah. . .”

“Number Five?”

“We might also mention the, ahem, shift in public attitudes when the consequences of global climate change became increasingly obvious — proving that the eggheads were, you might say, right all along — and the turn of nationalism against us when other countries made highly visible advances in Big Science. The Chinese Moon mission is only one example.”

“Ah, yes. New communication channels being used effectively for the first time, combined with nationalism. . . sounds a bit like Luther and the Reformation, doesn’t it? Speaking of which, Number Two, what are the results of your inquiries on the religion situation?”

“Briefly put, my distinguished colleagues, it’s a mixed message.”

“A mixed message, Number Two, may be the best news we’ve heard today. Pray go on.”

“Unfortunately so, Number One. A continuing series of scandals has damaged the organized churches’ moral standing, causing them to turn, perhaps surprisingly, to environmentalism in order to maintain their credibility. This, of course, partially negates their usefulness from our perspective.

“I can summarize the demographic changes by saying that the phrases ‘I’m an atheist, but. . .’ and ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ have declined in prevalence, corresponding to a significant increase in the number of ‘outed’ atheists who no longer ‘believe in belief.’ Furthermore, public acceptance of atheists — willingness to vote an atheist into political office, for example — has been on the rise, as has the tendency to categorize religion with astrology and homeopathy, and atheism with general skepticism. It’s only a moderate change, so far, but it shows no sign of stopping.”

“If the Bible mentioned America, our job would be a whole lot easier.”

“Indeed, Number Six. The good news is that institutional inertia has prevented the ‘moderate’ churches from speaking out against, for example, the shady tactics used by creationists. This may hurt them in the long run, but they believe it’s giving them short-term stability. Furthermore, the prevalence of fundamentalist religion among those with authoritarian personality traits remains high.”

“God bless the RWAs, one might say.”

“Quite so, Number One. Unfortunately, the creationists have yet to launch an attack on science education able to conceal its religious roots — though we had high hopes for the ‘misrepresent evolution‘ strategy — but luckily for us, the cash flow of major creationist groups remains largely uninvestigated. I personally had expected noses to poke into the business when that $27 million ‘museum’ went up, way back, but to my knowledge, our involvement — and the purposes for which we use those channels — remain unknown.”

“Thank you, Number Two. Our organization faces. . . grave challenges. Perhaps subsuming them all is that our enemy is not one man or another group like ours, but a society, a citizenry. We stand in the path — never misunderstand — of the Enlightenment. That is the danger against which we guard, and our nemesis.”