Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Clear, Simple and Wrong

Tom Toles talks about simplicity overwhelming reality in discourse these days, in prose and cartoon. He's entirely correct:

HL Mencken said that for every complex problem, there's a solution that's clear, simple and wrong.

The 'simplicity' Toles is talking about, the 'Era of Stupid', of 'we create our own reality', has a few sources. The media has moved from print to radio to TV, and, within TV, ever further towards entertainment values even in news and other factual programming, while 'reality TV' and the celebrity culture render fantasy and reality ever less distinguishable. And the predominance of TV media in election campaigns, the role of money, the methods of advertising/marketing overwhelming those of discourse with actual content, substitute sound bites and bumper stickers for any sort of thought. Meanwhile, science, engineering and contact with the natural world in general seem ever less important than whatever you see on the display/TV.

In the 1980s and 90s, a critique of science arose amongst postmodern types, mostly lefties, attacking science's claims to a unique, privileged, virtuous place in human endeavor. They held, mostly but not entirely correctly in my view, that science, especially reductionist science seeking a single explanation, a Theory of Everything, to describe all of reality, is no less socially constructed than any other body of human endeavor, subject to politics, racism, sexism, misuse and all the rest of it. Meanwhile, pop culture ever more frequently resorted to 'paranormal' plots. Medicine moved in a direction that compromised the human connection between doc and patient in favor of imaging technology and excessive remuneration for, and reliance on, procedure, and, at that, complex, uncomfortable, painful, even dangerous procedure, over cognition. This emotional distance led, I think, to ever more interest in 'alternative' and 'holistic' medicine, which, though mostly crap scientifically, addressed real needs unmet all too often in orthodox medical practice. And Bush's 'own reality', his religious and political zampolits, his rejection of evolution, all made things even worse, while those defending the life of the mind in general, and science in particular,were far less assertive.

I'm not sure what to do about all that. You put it all in one place, it's daunting. It'd be nice were schools able to address it, though, in the social context they operate in success is problematical. It'd be nice were there a sense of responsibility in the media. I think Obama gets some of this, but, as in other spheres, he hasn't been forthright enough. The Tea Partiers and the Republicans may, actually, eventually do part of the job. They're ever crazier, and that'll make them less effective, and more obviously at remove from reality; maybe the word will get around. There's a better way to approach the world, and the world needs to hear about it. Daily. Loudly. Right now. Time's a-wastin', and the polar bears won't last forever...


steve simels said...

In the 1980s and 90s, a critique of science arose amongst postmodern types, mostly lefties, attacking science's claims to a unique, privileged, virtuous place in human endeavor.

I think we can assume, correctly, that this was not exactly The Left's finest moment.

See: Alan Sokal and the whole Social Text hoax controversy.

In which a lot of smart lefties made total jackasses of themselves defending the intellectually indefensible.

ProfWombat said...

Yup. Lots of dogma and nonsense, which was too bad, because science can indeed be criticised, and probably should be; the good points got completely obscured. And Bush wound up asserting the postmodernists' logical conclusion, that reality didn't matter a whole lot. That works...