America’s Most Wanted
Several years ago, my friend and I were stuck in traffic for a full day with hundreds of other people. We were all on our way to a festival in New England that had been rained out, and there was no moving backward or forward on the road we were on. At some point, a young woman with a clipboard made her way over to my car window and I rolled it down.
“Hi. There are a bunch of people in line wondering where we are, and I’m taking a poll to see how far we are from the venue.”
A poll? I was taken aback, but I responded as best I knew how. “Well, I have an extremely detailed map of the area, and we reset our mileage counter when we got gas in that last town so I can tell you precisely where we are within about a tenth of a mile. In fact…see that bridge over there? That’s this bridge.”
She laughed. “Oh yes, everyone thinks they know exactly where we are. And yet their answers are all different. Hence the poll.”
On some level, of course, there is a truth here. As any good Buddhist will tell you, reality is comprised of the illusions that we all carry around in our heads. But science is the act of finding a description of a part of reality, however small, that works well enough—consistently enough—that we arrive at a consensus that we may count on it, if only for a little while. Yes, we get into trouble if we take our truths too much for granted, using them to arrive at rigid, inflexible certainties that are never subject to revision. But this just means that we must build a mechanism for continued reflection and revision into our scientific method. Which we have, at least in theory. If we abuse the scientific method, allowing ourselves to become fundamentalists chained to the rock of Holy Certainty, it is our fault, not science’s.
The map I was holding in my lap all those years ago is a fragment of such a consensus. As maps of reality go, it was literal—and a good one at that, made from the best efforts of human observations and calculations. (Rand McNally is not in the business of taking polls to determine the lay of the land.) And so naturally, when we finally got out of traffic we found ourselves exactly where the map had said we were.
I started thinking about this experience recently as a result of a discussion I was surprised to find myself having on Facebook. It began when I posted a link to an AP article about an international meeting on the global political and economic implications of climate change. A very tangential acquaintance from Texas (who I know from her profile prides herself in her “Christian” political values and enjoys Fox News) responded by posting a knee-jerk insult directed at Al Gore, who is not even mentioned in the article. In retrospect, I realize I could have used this as an opportunity to provide some compassionate and possibly persuasive outreach to someone determined to engage in a culture war against me and everything she believes I stand for. Instead I got annoyed and responded with what another person involved in the discussion called a “smackdown.” The woman from Texas unfriended me and called me a Marxist.
We are living in a strange time. We have access to limitless information available at our fingertips and yet Americans are, when regarded as a whole, continually deepening our ignorance of a host of cultural and scientific issues. Much speculating has been done as to how and why. I would contend that the episode with the map contains an important key.
The ideological landscape in America today is structured such that the ideas that win popularity in the public sphere go on to win “truth” status by virtue of consensus, regardless of the objective merit of the ideas. If more Americans believed that Greenland was in the Pacific Ocean than believed otherwise, Greenland would be for all intents and purposes located in the Pacific Ocean. The actual geographical position of Greenland might be weighed as evidence in the debate, but under the current standards we hold our sources of information to it would not receive privileged status over, say, how the idea of Greenland being in the Atlantic Ocean makes us feel.
To put it another way: there is currently an overwhelming consensus within the published, peer-reviewed scientific community that human activity has had a significant impact on climate change. And yet we constantly hear arguments to the contrary. In 2004, the anti-journalism bias watchdog organization Fair.org published an article stating that in the case of global warming coverage, the media tendency to “tell both sides of the story” actually works as a bias in and of itself, since it presents (often politically motivated) opinions with no scientific merit alongside the results of peer-reviewed studies as though the two viewpoints are somehow equally valid.
Perhaps nowhere is this tendency to allow public opinion to dictate our acceptance of physical fact more visible than in the operations of fundamentalist Christian organizations such as the Discovery Institute, who are in the practice of staging public debates in hopes of winning credibility for their Intelligent Design concept. Last week Pharyngula published a letter from the Discovery Institute inviting University of Vermont biologist Nicholas Gotelli to engage in one such public debate, as well as Dr. Gotelli’s spot-on response:
Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren’t members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.
In closing, I will point to the work of Komar and Melamid, a Russian/American artist duo known for using market research to produce their works. They used their data to compose the “most” and “least” wanted American songs, as well as a series of laugh-out-loud amazing paintings based on the “most” and “least” desired elements reported by research subjects in a variety of Western nations. If Komar and Melamid’s work shows us anything, it’s that cultural artifacts dictated by popular opinion are destined to fall somewhere between silly and unforgivably terrible. I think this is at least as true when it comes to gathering information.
Well, am I right? Maybe we should take a poll and see.