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Wednesday
Jan212015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 2.1: What is science literacy? And what is it for?

So yesterday was session 2 of the "real space" version of Science Science Communication course ver 2.0.  The topic was public "science literacy" or "comprehension" & whether the NSF Indicators and other standardized assessments are "measuring what counts."  The list of assigned readings are here.

Rather than summarize or sound off (again; I've done 738 posts on this topic since topic since this blog started in 1973), I thought I'd just post some questions & let you-- the 14 billion students who enrolled students in the "virtual" version of course (most of whom registered via Tamar Wilner's site) -- say what you think (& of course, ask and answer different questions if you like).

  1. How important is general scientific knowledge for a general member of the public? Does he or she have to understand particular bodies of science or be able to comprehend scientific evidence to be able reliably to identify and use of scientific knowledge in his or her personal life? In his or her role as a democratic citizen?

  2. Is the NSF science indicators battery a valid assessment of science literacy? What is the battery measuring exactly? And how reliably?

  3. What does Miller’s “civic science literacy” (CSL) measure? Are the elements of knowledge or the dispositions it measures essential for individuals to be able to recognize and use valid scientific knowledge in their lives?  What sort of evidence is there on that question?

  4. Is administering a public “science literacy” test to scientists a useful way to validate such a test?

  5. How does Miller’s CSL  relate to Dewey’s position that “scientific method” just “is thinking”? What might a measure of scientific literacy—or however one might characterize it—look like?  

 

 

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Thanks for the summary, Dan. My latest response paper is here:
Civic Scientific Literacy: Criticisms and Questions

January 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

@Tamar -- you are sort of student who wears out the instructor! Many people don't realize how hard it is to be a university professor. there's a reason we get 3 mos. off a yr. Also, that NFL/NHL head trauma business? Nothing compared to what we have to deal w/ in this industry. but I am processing the rich material in your reflections!

January 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

As I watched The Science Network Beyond Belief series, I was gobsmacked to see the extent to which most scientists have completely departed from reality. Scientists like Joan Roughgarden tried to pull the more starry-eyed scientists back down to earth, but to no avail.

And when it comes to starry-eyedness, Dewey sits at the pinnacle. Here's how Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it (emphasis in bold mine):

The notion of sinful man was uncomfortable for my generation. We had been brought up to believe in human innocence and even in human perfectibility. This was less a liberal delusion than an expression of an all-American DNA. Andrew Carnegie had articulated the national faith when, after acclaiming the rise of man from lower to higher forms, he declared: "Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection." In 1939, Charles E. Merriam of the University of Chicago, the dean of American political scientists, wrote in "The New Democracy and the New Despotism": "There is a constant trend in human affairs toward the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that time, and with increasing plausibility." Human ignorance and unjust institutions remained the only obstacles to a more perfect world. If proper education of individuals and proper reform of institutions did their job, such obstacles would be removed. For the heart of man was O.K. The idea of original sin was a historical, indeed a hysterical, curiosity that should have evaporated with Jonathan Edwards's Calvinism.

Still, [Reinhold] Niebuhr's concept of original sin solved certain problems for my generation. The 20th century was, as Isaiah Berlin said, "the most terrible century in Western history." The belief in human perfectibility had not prepared us for Hitler and Stalin. The death camps and the gulags proved that men were capable of infinite depravity. The heart of man is obviously not O.K. Niebuhr's analysis of human nature and history came as a vast illumination.

The trick is to keep a realistic outlook, to not fall victim to the absolutist cynicism and arbitrary willfulness of a Nietzsche (with his "will to truth" or "will to knowledge") or a Frank Knight (the founder of the Chicago School who made an absolutist political ideology by dwelling exclusively upon the baser elements in human nature). It's an unbelievably difficult balancing act. Here's how the rabbi David Novak explains it:

Unlike agnostics..., idolaters [e.g., Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens] know full well that humans cannot live with existential integrity and coherence without an absolute of one kind or another to which they are convinced they are ultimately answerable. They know as well if not better than theists that active human existence even more than nature abhors a vacuum. And they act accordingly....

[One] way to be opposed to idolatry is to be repulsed by it because it substitutes falsehood for truth. But doesn't that mean one has to be able to affirm the truth beforehand? Let me here use the analogy of the relation of justice to injustice, which is quite appropriate here considering Niebuhr's connection of injustice and idolatry.

Plato argued in the Republic that injustice can only be known as a privation of true justice. Thus one can infer from his or her knowledge of justice what is in-justice, but one cannot infer from one's experience of injustice what true justice is. But without knowledge of what true justice is, one might very well conclude that the social violence we usually call "injustice" is not, in fact, the obverse of a higher state of affairs called "justice." Instead, it is the fundamentally irrational human condition we try to muddle through somehow or other, but without any hope of actual resolution. We usually call this attitude "moral cynicism."

But what if one's revulsion at the violence and irrationality of injustice leads one to at least hope that, as the Talmud puts it, "from the negative you can hear the positive" (B. Nedarim 11a)? Here one's revulsion is not cynical - it is hopeful (see Psalms 27:13-14). One hopes that there is true justice, even though one does not yet know it, not having experienced it yet. At this stage, one is no longer a cynic, one is a questioner who can now say, "I don't know whether there is true justice or not, but if there is true justice, this violent state of affairs could not be it."

Unlike a cynic, who usually denies the possibility of anything to relieve his or her cynicism, a questioner is open to the possibility of something better. In other words, even a hypothetical affirmation of justice - and hope is always hypothetical - can give one a reason to revolt against what is real injustice. Hope is always hypothetical. It is faith that is certain (see B. Berakhot 4a). And one can have hope even as one questions whether what one hopes for actually exists. But, without that hopeful hypothesis, one's moral revulsion against injustice is but impotent rage against what one thinks can never be changed.

January 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

"The belief in human perfectibility had not prepared us for Hitler and Stalin. The death camps and the gulags proved that men were capable of infinite depravity."

How does that follow? Perfectibility is not perfection, and the fact that some people don't doesn't mean there aren't others (and rather more of them) who do. The 20th century was also the age of Winston Churchill, and of those millions of other Westerners who fought Hitler and Stalin. When talking about the perfectibility of man, isn't it these that are being spoken of?

"But without knowledge of what true justice is, one might very well conclude that the social violence we usually call "injustice" is not, in fact, the obverse of a higher state of affairs called "justice.""

Some people would question whether social violence is necessarily injustice. It's commonly applied because those applying it think the subjects of it deserve it, which would make it a form of justice. The problem is not that it is irrational - the problem is that there are multiple moral systems, each with their own conception of what is 'just', and people disagree on them.

"Unlike agnostics..., idolaters [e.g., Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens] know full well that humans cannot live with existential integrity and coherence without an absolute of one kind or another to which they are convinced they are ultimately answerable."

What is "an absolute" supposed to mean here? What does it mean by "answerable"?

January 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Sorry, Dan, I don't want to be that student! My husband is a prof so I've heard the horror stories. I'll be away for 10 days starting tomorrow though, you'll be happy to hear. :)

January 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

@NiV said:

The problem is not that it is irrational - the problem is that there are multiple moral systems, each with their own conception of what is 'just', and people disagree on them.

You fall right back into the trap which Rabbi Novak warns against, which is attempting to define what justice is, instead of what justice isn't.

Let me give a specific example of what Novak is talking about from a speech by one of Niebuhr's greatest students, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr:

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.

--Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam

King's prediction has undoubtedly come true. No one, except some who live in the insular US/NATO bubble-world, believes in the US's moral probity any more. The hypocrisy is just too great, and especially after Carter militarized the US's energy policy with the "Carter Doctrine," which Reagan and successive presidents have certainly taken the ball and run with. The result is that the US has squandered any moral capital it might once have had.

This is the point Noam Chomsky is trying to make in "Paris attacks show hypocrisy of West's outrage", or Matt Taibbi is trying to make in 'American Sniper' Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.

As Taibbi observes:

The thing is, the mere act of trying to make a typically Hollywoodian one-note fairy tale set in the middle of the insane moral morass that is/was the Iraq occupation is both dumber and more arrogant than anything George Bush or even Dick Cheney ever tried.

No one expected 20 minutes of backstory about the failed WMD search, Abu Ghraib, or the myriad other American atrocities and quick-trigger bombings that helped fuel the rise of ISIL and other groups.

But to turn the Iraq war into a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold (is there any film theme more perfectly 2015-America than that?) who slowly, very slowly, starts to feel bad after shooting enough women and children – Gump notwithstanding, that was a hard one to see coming.

Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question.

It's the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that's the problem. "American Sniper has the look of a bona fide cultural phenomenon!" gushed Brandon Griggs of CNN, noting the film's record $105 million opening-week box office.

This orgy of immorality and hypocrisy by many who live in the West comes as no surprise to evolutionary scientists, however, or at least those evolutionary scientists who subscribe to the theory of multi-level selection. David Sloan Wilson in Evolution For Everyone concludes that "the average person is a facultative sociopath." Wilson explains that there is "ample psychological evidence that we are hardwired to distinguish between 'us' and 'them' and to behave inhumanely toward 'them' at the slightest provocation, as science journalist David Berreby recounts in his book Us and Them: Understanding Our Tribal Mind."

Wilson elaborates on the subject of between-group immorality in Darwin's Cathedral:

Within-group selection by itself creates a world without morality in which individuals merely use each other to maximize their relative fitness. Group selection creates a moral world within groups but doesn't touch the world of between-group interactions, which remains exactly as instrumental as within-group interactions in the absence of group selection. Moral conduct among groups can evolve in principle, but only by extending the hierarchy to include groups of groups. This possibility is not as far-fetched as it may appear. Remember that individual organisms are already groups of groups of groups, if the emerging paradigm of major transitions is correct. Perhaps history will reveal the rudiments of moral conduct among human groups struggling to emerge against opposing forces, rather than the total absence of moral conduct among groups. Even so, we should expect far more naked exploitation among groups than within groups....

Multilevel selection theory also fits hand-in-glove with social identity theory, which began as an effort to understand how the human mind can be capable of atrocities such as the Holocaust. Both theories force us to confront the uncomfortable truth that us/them thinking is a part of normal human psychology. Most of us, perhaps even all of us, are capable of restricting our moral conduct to a subset of the human race and of behaving instrumentally toward outsiders. This generalization applies to all human groups and should never be used as a tool of aggression against members of a given religion such as Judaism.

Moving back to the theology of the Rev. King, it is necessary to recognize that traditional religion operates on many levels, at the lowest level by encouraging only in-group morality and solidarity. We see this, for instance, in Deuteronomy 10:10-18:

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Niebuhr, however, argued that "the best of Jewish-Christian thought" seeks to transcend this sort of groupism. In "Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith" he notes that in the Jewish-Christian tradition the problem of pessimism :

is solved by faith in a transcendent God... It was this faith in a transcendent God which made it possible for Hebraic religion to escape both the parochial identification of God and the nation and the pantheistic identification of God and the imperfections of historical existence. It provided, in other words, for both the universalism and the perfectionism which are implied in every vital ethics. It is interesting to note that the process of divorcing God from the nation was a matter of both spiritual insight and actual experience. If the early prophets had not said, as Amos, "Are yet not as the children of the Ethiopians unto me, saith the Lord" (Amos 9:7), faith in the God of Israel might have perished with the captivity of Judah. But it was the exile which brought this process to a triumphant conclusion. A second Isaiah could build on the spiritual insights of Amos, and could declare a God who gave meaning to existence quite independent of the vicissitudes of a nation....

This transcendent morality which seeks to rise above the morality of groupism -- e.g., the intra-group morality of some ethnic, racial or national group -- is the morality which the Rev. Martin Luther King emphasized. Here he speaks of it in the same speech which I cited above:

The home that all too many Americans left was solidly structured idealistically; its pillars were solidly grounded in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. All men are made in the image of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State--they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any home! What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit. But America's strayed away, and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted with irrationality.

January 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation."

Those are our existing values. A *revolution* of values would turn the observation on its head, and regard it as shocking that such a large majority for so long made little contribution to our collective wealth, the burden resting almost entirely on the shoulders of a few. They would regard it as shocking that not only did we not praise and thank these heroes for their work, but that we instead stirred up hatred and jealousy of them, and tried to rob them of their rewards.

"It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just.""

Even allowing for the economic misinterpretation, that's still using the wrong word for it. It is just; it's just not merciful.

It's also wrong. People investing in the developing world are very concerned for their betterment - largely because you can make more profit from better educated and more prosperous people. They make better workers. Investing in local infrastructure makes doing business there cheaper. And throughout the developing world, it is working! Social conditions there have improved dramatically over the course of the 20th century, largely due to the modernization of industry driven by Western businesses.

The primary problem that prevents them succeeding as much as they might is corrupt government - that erects barriers to trade and then charges businesses bribes to circumvent them, that makes ownership of property by the poor impossibly bureaucratic, that blocks development with piles of regulations, that steals any successful businesses by nationalizing them, and that interferes with the market: setting tariffs and subsidies and price caps in the interests of some misguided socialist populism but end up causing shortages and gluts as the delicate price mechanisms that normally organize a sufficient supply of everything are deranged.

You *can't* invest the profits locally, because the local socialist-leaning governments destroy everything. Not even the locals are willing to invest locally! They understand that profit is what motivates people to do business with them, which is the only way they will better themselves.

People only criticize the taking of profit as a prelude to trying to steal it.

"No one, except some who live in the insular US/NATO bubble-world, believes in the US's moral probity any more."

So is that why millions of political and economic refugees are risking their lives in tiny boats to get themselves smuggled in to the Western countries, and there is such a noticeable absence of refugees fleeing the other way?

The poor living under the world's worst dictatorships and failed states recognise the moral probity of the US very well. That's why they want to live there, instead of in the hell-holes that they're currently stuck in.

The only people who don't believe in US/NATO moral probity are those who support the abusers.

"... set in the middle of the insane moral morass that is/was the Iraq occupation ..."

A case in point. Saddam Hussein was a bastard who routinely tortured, raped, mutilated, murdered, and massacred his enemies - including women and children. He had a prison that held the children of his political enemies imprisoned! He gassed an entire town!

Remind me, when was the last time George Bush gassed to death an entire American town he didn't like? And you talk about the American lack of moral probity...?!

The main people who regard Iraq as a 'moral morass' are the people who supported the tyrant Saddam, those who hate America and the West with such passion that they'll even side with a monster like Saddam to hit out at them, and the naive people who listened to them, and assumed there must be something in it for so many people to make such a fuss.

"David Sloan Wilson in Evolution For Everyone concludes that "the average person is a facultative sociopath.""

I wonder, sometimes, if such researchers are just assuming everybody else is secretly the same as them?

"Wilson explains that there is "ample psychological evidence that we are hardwired to distinguish between 'us' and 'them' and to behave inhumanely toward 'them' at the slightest provocation" ... "Within-group selection by itself creates a world without morality in which individuals merely use each other to maximize their relative fitness."

The 'us and them' mechanism *is* morality - this is how morality is enforced. The 'us' is that cultural group that follows the 'true' morality (i.e. that of the group). The 'them' is the people outside the group who don't. The harsh treatment doled out to those outside the group is what motivates everyone to obey the dominant morality - knowing that if they step out of line this is what will happen to them.

Morality itself evolved to enhance individual survival - it is what enables humans to cooperate socially. Animals living in very close proximity normally have conflicting interests, and fight it out. Above a certain population density, this doesn't work. The conflicts cost too much. So instinctive behaviours evolve to develop a shared way of living, common rules and understandings, that allow people to live closely packed together without stepping on one another's toes. And it is maintained both by external force - punishing those who break the moral rules - and internally - through feelings of guilt and shame. The enormous advantages of social living far outweigh the 'selfish' advantages of doing what you like. Morality *is* selfishness.

Incidentally, morality evolved to spread the 'morality gene' at the level of individual survival and advantage. People only act morally to people who are moral back, and therefore likely to have another copy of the same gene - morality is reciprocal, or it doesn't work. Group selection has nothing to do with it.

"This transcendent morality which seeks to rise above the morality of groupism -- e.g., the intra-group morality of some ethnic, racial or national group -- is the morality which the Rev. Martin Luther King emphasized."

Not 'above', just different.

Unfortunately, they just replaced the previous groups with a new set of groups, and then persecuted anyone not in their group, who still held to the old groups or who refused to discriminate along the lines of the new. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

January 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@ NiV said:

The poor living under the world's worst dictatorships and failed states recognise the moral probity of the US very well.

One would have to be quite the true believer in US national mythology to make such an empirical claim, given the ease with which it can be demonstrated to be false.

BBC´s 2014 Country Rating Poll, for instance, found only 35% of Mexicans believe the US's influence in the world is "mainly positive." The US fared a little better in Canada, with 43% of Canadians believing US influence in the world is mainly positive.

Only 21% of Russians believe the US's influence in the world if mainly positive, 18% of Chinese, and a measly 16% of Pakistanis.

Not to worry, though. A whopping 66% of USians believe the US's influence in the world is mainly positive. And majorities in the US's two most steadfast NATO allies, France and the UK, also believe the US's influecne in the world is mainly positive.

Worldwide, only 42% of those polled (USA excluded) believe the US's influence in the world is mainly positive.

NiV said:

People only act morally to people who are moral back, and therefore likely to have another copy of the same gene - morality is reciprocal, or it doesn't work. Group selection has nothing to do with it.

Well it looks like Saint Dawkins is right up there with Saint Rand in your pantheon.

January 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Glenn,

Good one! I looked at the league table on page 4, and the top countries are: Germany, Canada, UK, France, Japan, EU, Brazil, USA... Funnily enough, five out of the top eight being in NATO (six if you count the EU), and the others only excluded by virtue of being nowhere near the north Atlantic. The USA has 42% in favour and 39% against.

Of course, it's a different question to the one that I was talking about, and a different group being surveyed, so I'm not sure what one can deduce from that. Is "overall positive influence on the world" the same thing as "moral probity"?

Although I'm not sure I believe the results, anyway. I suspect it's one of those questions that people answer more for political effect than honestly. Or with very much thought.

But as I said, I'd rather judge by where people want to live, and risk their lives to get to, than what they say. They call it 'revealed preferences'. Would the Mexicans rather live in Mexico, or the US? Would Americans rather live in the USA, or Mexico? Which is the better government to live under?

"Well it looks like Saint Dawkins is right up there with Saint Rand in your pantheon."

Yes! Definitely! Better that than Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Mao, Chavez, Pol Pot, and Castro... :-)

January 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV said:

But as I said, I'd rather judge by where people want to live, and risk their lives to get to, than what they say. They call it 'revealed preferences'. Would the Mexicans rather live in Mexico, or the US? Would Americans rather live in the USA, or Mexico? Which is the better government to live under?

Well once again, empirical data just doesn't back up what you are implying.

Using your own criteria of "revealed preferences," Mexicans have demonstrated the United States is not the Mecca which true believers in US national mythology believe it is. Mexicans want to live in Mexico, not the United States. And when they do immigrate to the United States, it is almost always because of economic necessity and not for some other reason.

The Pew Research Center reports that "the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed, according to a new analysis of government data from both countries by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center."

"The sharp downward trend in net migration from Mexico began about five years ago and has led to the first significant decrease in at least two decades in the unauthorized Mexican population," the Pew report continues. "As of 2011, some 6.1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants were living in the U.S., down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau."

Why are Mexicans returning to Mexico in such large numbers, and so few coming to the US? A recent poll revealed that 89% of returning migrants indicated that they returned on their own to Mexico. Only 11% cited deportation as a reason for their return. Nostalgia and family are the main reasons Mexicans give for returning to Mexico.

Why do Mexican immigrate to the US? The reasons Mexican immigrants give are overwhelmingly economic, and have little or nothing to do with your claim that the United States has a better government to live under.

January 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

How important is general scientific knowledge for a general member of the public? Does he or she have to understand particular bodies of science or be able to comprehend scientific evidence to be able reliably to identify and use of scientific knowledge in his or her personal life? In his or her role as a democratic citizen?

My contrarian instinct was to answer this question, "Not very." I then sought to rationalize that answer, and thought about it for awhile.

As much as I'd love to impart some adequate level of "general scientific knowledge" on the public, however arbitrarily that level is determined, the returns must diminish faster than an ice cube in a Texas August. The people participating here will generally agree that scientific knowledge is no bar to forming, holding, defending and acting upon egregiously irrational scientific opinions.

Rather, if I were able to impart a quality to the public, I'd prefer it be self knowledge rather than scientific knowledge. Knowledge of the limits of one's understanding, and the limits of one's rationality. I used to recommend that creationists read What Evolution Is, knowing at the time it would do little good but not really understanding why. I think now I'd prefer they, and everyone, read Thinking Fast and Slow.

Unfortunately, I suspect that self knowledge is a harder thing to teach than scientific knowledge. And I'm not convinced its a more effective deterrent to irrationality in practice.

January 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin M

" The reasons Mexican immigrants give are overwhelmingly economic, and have little or nothing to do with your claim that the United States has a better government to live under."

The first causes the second. They're the same reason.

January 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

When I read the defactualized US national mythology which you proselytize, I can't help but be reminded of something James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, published in 1963 when Jim Crow was still very much the law of the land.

"The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible," he observed, "to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing."

"The American Negro," Baldwin continued, "has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors of inferiors.... Negroes know far more about white Americans than that."

And I suppose it goes without saying that US national mythology is what is taught in the US "educational" system, and indoctrination into the tenets of US national mythology is what we call "being educated" in this country. And you, of course, are a very highly educated person.

The use of education as a tool of propaganda in the hands of dominant groups was recognized early on and was one of the hopes of the privileged classes when they first began to yield the privilege of education to the less privileged. As Adam Smith, that great 18th-century champion of concentrated wealth and privilege in the hands of the rising middle classes, noted in Wealth of Nations:

An instructed and intelligent people are always more decent and orderly than a stupid one. They feel themselves each individually more respectable and more likely to gain the respect of their lawful superiors.... They are disposed to examine and are more capable of seeing through the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are upon that account less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government.

(Oh well, so much for Smith being a libertarian, at least when it comes to the liberties and freedoms of the less privileged orders of society.)

"Education" in the US, as a result, emphasizes a very different set of historical facts than what "education" in Mexico does. Every year, for instance, the history of how conservative forces in Mexico colluded with Henry Lane Wilson, US ambassador to Mexico, to murder the democratic reformer Francisco Madero, is given ample airing. In this way a "highly privileged local minority," Carlos Fuentes explains in El Espejo Enterrado, was installed by the US to manipulate the levers of economic power in Mexico, namely with "favorable agreements for their merchants, loans and credits, investment, and the handling of the export economy of minerals, agricultural produce, and natural products required by Anglo-American expansion." Fuentes adds that

Our perception of the United States has been that of a democracy inside and an empire outside: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have admired democracy; we have deplored empire. And we have suffered the actions of this country, which has constantly intervened in our lives in the name of manifest destiny, the big stick, dollar diplomacy, and cultural arrogance.

Immediately after its formulation in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine was rejected by Latin America as unilateral and hypocritical policy. While forbidding a European presence in hemisphere affairs, it certainly did not exclude United States intervention in our affairs. When President James Polk moved against Mexico in 1846 and took half of its national territory, we saw that nothing shielded us from U.S. aggression. Mexico again suffered U.S. intervention in 1914, during the revolution, when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed, "I will teach Latin Americans to elect good men to office."

But nowhere was U.S. intervention more rampant than in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, liberated from Spanish rule, went on to become, and remains, a de facto colony of the United States. Cuba was given pro forma independence but was saddled with the Platt Amendment, which granted the United States rights to interfere in the island's internal affairs. Theodore Roosevelt simply took the province of Panama from the Republic of Colombia, transformed it into a sovereign nation, and then cut it in half with the Panama Canal and the United States-controlled Canal Zone. Roosevelt was simply irritated by "those wretched little republics that cause me so much trouble."

Military interventions and occupations in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras were all carried out in the name of stability, democracy, law and order, and protection of U.S. lives and property (notably those of the great agribusiness of that time, the United Fruit Company). But no nation in the region suffered more prolonged humiliation than the Central American republic of Nicaragua, first taken over by the North American freebooter William Walker in 1855 and then almost continuously invaded and occupied by the United States from 1909 through 1934. In that year the rebel leader Sandino was assassinated, and with the support of the U.S. Marines, his murderer, Anastasio Somoza, was put on the presidential seat at Managua, where he and his family reigned until their defeat by the Sandinista revolution of 1979. During these decades the Somozas got all they wanted from Washington. As Franklin Roosevelt put it, "Somozo is a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."...

In Chile, the socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in 1973 by a military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet. In a savage action, Allende partisans were rounded up, gathered in a stadium, and murdered en masse. Others were sent to concentration camps, and still others were exiled and sometimes murdered abroad. Pinochet did all of this in the name of democracy and anticommunism.

Not until very recently has documentation become available which shows Nixon and Kissinger's deep involvement in backing the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by Pinochet.

Of course none of this history can ever be found in US text books.

January 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

"And I suppose it goes without saying that US national mythology is what is taught in the US "educational" system, and indoctrination into the tenets of US national mythology is what we call "being educated" in this country. And you, of course, are a very highly educated person."

I'm not an American. And my state-provided education if anything tended towards the sort of political line you espouse. I came to my own conclusions without such assistance.

"Oh well, so much for Smith being a libertarian, at least when it comes to the liberties and freedoms of the less privileged orders of society."

If you think that, on the basic of the excerpt you quote, then I don't think you know what being a libertarian *is*.

Anyway, who on Earth said Adam Smith was a libertarian? He believed in free markets, but I'm not aware that he went along with any of the rest of the philosophy.

""Education" in the US, as a result, emphasizes a very different set of historical facts than what "education" in Mexico does."

You mean the sort of education that pushes anti-American propaganda, yes?

The issue is not really a question of whether the US is as virtuous as it claims to be - it isn't. They have done and still do a lot of things they shouldn't. The issue is the selective and disproportionate attention that US abuses get where those of others are ignored, downplayed, excused, or traded as being somehow morally equivalent in some sort of a 'tu quoque' sense.

I'll tell you a story that illustrates what I mean. It was at around the time of the Iraq war that I and a group of friends were enjoying the countryside, sat on a sunny hilltop with a nice view. Birds singing, and all that. The peace, however, was somewhat spoiled by my friend who kept on going on and on about Guantanamo Bay and how terrible it was. In the interests of not starting an argument I didn't say anything, but eventually it got wearing.

So I asked him to imagine for a moment that each prisoner incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay was represented by a grain of rice, one millimetre across, and they were laid out in a line. How far would it extend, I asked?

He didn't know. So I pointed out that with around 600 prisoners, Guantanamo Bay could be represented by a line 60 cm long. About yea big, I said, holding out my hands.

"OK", he says, "What's your point?"

Now do the same thing for the Laogai, I said. How far would it go?

"What's the Laogai?" he replied.

And that's what's wrong with the world. He had watched continual rotating newsreels detailing every American atrocity, repeating endlessly on TV for weeks - months probably by then. But he didn't even know what the Laogai was. And neither do most people in the West - curiously, it gets left out of their education. (It's not funny. Or trivial.)

The Laogai, I explained to my friend, was Mao Zedong's version of the Gulag, and something like 20 million people died in it. At a grain of rice each, that would stretch 20 kilometres, about as far as the horizon we could see. The number that had been incarcerated there was 40-50 million, which would stretch all the way to the horizon and then all the way back again. Many were given long sentences there for trivial or trumped-up crimes - like one guy imprisoned for wearing spectacles, which were seen as a sign of being an 'intellectual'. And the conditions were hideous. Moreover, there are still an estimated 3-5 million still imprisoned in it, the products of their slave labour traded on international markets for the Communist Party's profit.

The two foot long line of the American prison is, I agree, two foot too long. There are no excuses for it. But to suggest that what the Americans do is in any way comparable to the crimes carried out in the rest of the world is just sickening.

My friend had protested about the occupation of Iraq. I asked him when he last protested about the occupation of Tibet. He never had, apparently, and couldn't explain why not. He had at least heard of it.

There is no proportionality in the media coverage. It is politically fashionable on the left to dislike and to criticise America. (and Israel, of course. Their hatred for the Jews never dies.) Some of it verges into outright anti-American hatred. It's understandable really - the USA is the symbol of Communism's failure, it is the biggest and most successful champion for that imperfect variety of capitalism that has created this unprecedented rise of health and prosperity around the world. It has also confronted Communism directly, both militarily and economically, and been the most successful of the various attempts to block its spread. The contrast between those unfortunate places where the left's policies hold sway, and the US, is stark - and it has become impossible for even the dumbest citizen to completely miss. No wonder the media take every opportunity to knock America, and to highlight all of its faults to the world. It is their enemy, and anyone who opposes them is thereby 'the enemy of their enemy'.

So that's why when the US fights wars, the media and the education system are rooting for the other side.

Everybody knows that knocking America is what you're supposed to do - it is the fashionable position - so when asked their opinion people generally try to fit in. It's Dan's thing about cultural identities: ask a question that triggers 'who they are', and they'll answer in conformity with the group, irrespective of what they actually know. But people do know, and their knowledge is reflected in their behaviour. People know that China's human rights record is far worse than America's, that their dirty tricks brigade are dirtier, that their lying government propaganda is more blatant, that their manipulation of world events for their own profit goes further. They might not know everything, they don't understand the sheer scale of their atrocities, but the news that there are some has leaked out. Everyone knows which is worst. That's why Communist countries build walls around themselves to keep their people in, and Western countries have to build walls to keep people out.

January 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@ NiV

Your long screed about how the left in the US hates America, and how there exists a massive media conspiracy within the US to demonize America, is all very entertaining. But evidently it isn't working, because 66% of those who live in the US still believe the US exerts a mostly positive influence on the world.

And what does any of this have to do with the US's poor image outside the US? Or do you believe US left-wingers control the entire world's media, including that outside the US, so they have been able to brainwash the entire world's population, both inside and outside the US?

And let me remind what your initial claim was. You asserted that "The poor living under the world's worst dictatorships and failed states recognise the moral probity of the US very well."

That statement is false. The poor living outside the US, and especially those who live in what you consider to be "the world's worst dictatorships" (like China), have a very low opinion of the US. Public opinion surveys show it. And I was offering some reasons to hopefully explain why that might be so.. But maybe you're right. Maybe the US is viewed so poorly by the denizens of the rest of the world because of some massive, world-wide media conspiracy orchestrated by the US left-wing.

Furthermore, I hardly see how bringing up Israel behooves your argument. For if the US is viewed poorly by most of the world's population, Israel is the absolute pits. According to the BBC Country Ratings Poll, it ranks almost as bad as Iran and North Korea, a whopping 18 points below China, and 12 points below Russia. Only 23% of the world's population (who live outside Israel) believe Israel has a mostly positive influence on the world, with 49% believing its influence has been mostly negative.

But hey, 60% of the Israelis polled believe the US's influence in the world is mostly positive, so they must speak truth and the rest of the world's population has fallen victim to the perncious anti-American propaganda campaign.

January 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

I can just picture it - a citizen in China is stopped in the street and asked by an official-looking surveyor whether they wish to state that the USA is a great place to live and much better than China; its government more honest, more competent, and less repressive. What would you say?

"Or do you believe US left-wingers control the entire world's media, including that outside the US"

Who said anything about *US* left-wingers? They have left-wingers outside the US too, you know. Lots of them.

Do you think the Chinese Communist Party (hint!) would only present anti-American left-wing views if the left-wingers in the US were telling them what to say? What a strange theory!

"For if the US is viewed poorly by most of the world's population, Israel is the absolute pits."

Yeah. I know. Like I said, the left's hatred for the Jews never dies.

January 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@ NiV

So anyone who doesn't walk in lockstep with Israeli and US neocons hates Jews?

Channeling our inner neocon there, are we?

January 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

No. The exaggerated hatred for Israel among Westerners exemplified by your survey results originates in the general left-wing hatred for Jews.

The guy on the left in this photo founded the Palestinian Nationalist movement - you see him here meeting with a contemporary socialist European leader of the time. The roots of the left's alliance with Nationalist/Islamist terrorists and their continuing dislike for Israel are fairly well-documented.

I don't agree with everything Israel does or has done. But on the whole, Israel are one of the more moral nations we've got, and the vitriol hurled in their direction entirely disproportionate.

But given where it originally comes from, the hypocrisy and double-standards are not surprising.

And yes, I have some sympathy with the neocon position. Given that they thought we ought to fight Stalinist totalitarian oppression rather than appease or make alliance with it, it's obvious why some on the left don't like them. On the whole, I see that as rather to the neocons' credit.

January 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV -

You say...

=>> " Is "overall positive influence on the world" the same thing as "moral probity"


Haven't read the thread yet..looks like it could be fun...but for some reason this jumped out at me:

=>> "But as I said, I'd rather judge by where people want to live, and risk their lives to get to, than what they say. They call it 'revealed preferences'. "

Lol. Judge what?

So is your argument NiV, that Mexicans want to emigrate to the U.S. because of how highly they rate the general "moral probity" of the U.S.?

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Haven't read the thread yet..looks like it could be fun"

Well, I was certainly having fun! ;-) Glenn was obviously trying to wind me up earlier with his references to Dawkins and Rand, so I thought I'd return the favour. I'm not being entirely serious about it!

Just a bit of light entertainment to pass the time.

"So is your argument NiV, that Mexicans want to emigrate to the U.S. because of how highly they rate the general "moral probity" of the U.S.?"

Mexico is not the only country we need to consider. The people in Cuba do. Asylum seekers generally do. There are more things to escape than poverty.

Whether you would accept that the Mexicans do too depends on your beliefs about the morality of free markets. My friend Glenn and I have been discussing the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who held that economic freedom was a moral issue. Corruption, bureaucracy and protectionism raise barriers to trade and private ownership by small traders, which forces trade into the black markets, which are highly inefficient due to the lack of long-range legal protections for contracts limited scope, and lack of efficient information exchange. Something like 10% of the country's economic turnover is spent on bribes to officials. I think a lot of citizens of the USA would regard that sort of corruption as immoral, if not criminal. In other parts of the world, it's just the way things are. A country is more than just it's government - the moral probity of its citizens, businesses, law enforcement, and so on counts too. For society to hold to the principles of law and order, equality under the law, fair dealing, following rules, and having reasonable rules to follow are probably a deeper and more significant moral barometer of a state than it's contributions to world affairs in the fields of international diplomacy and military endeavor.

Ayn Rand certainly thought so. Her magnum opus 'Atlas Shrugged' is an extremely long diatribe on the iniquities of such corrupted economics, and it's social consequences, and it is presented throughout as a moral issue. The situation in the story is exaggerated, of course, describing a world collapsing under an extreme form of such a corrupt social organisation, but a lot of people have noted prescient parallels, in the same sort of way they do with Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty Four'.

Of course, other people with different beliefs about economic morality wouldn't think so, and I don't expect you'd like 'Atlas Shrugged'. ;-) Nevertheless, it's clear that the state must be doing something wrong since Mexico is poor and the USA is rich and it's evidently not the people's fault, since they can make money easily enough in the US. I hope we can agree that corrupt government - which many commentators across the political spectrum have connected to the economic woes in Mexico - are at least a moral issue in some sense, if not in the Randian one.

Of course, if you believe the USA is only rich because it steals all the wealth and resources from the poor, you'll likely come to the opposite conclusion. Our political identities determine our conclusions. As per usual.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

So NiV -

Let me ask you. I often hear it argued that if taxes are raised too much, wealthy people will leave the country in some kind of mass exodus of the "productive people'

If that were to happen, would you similarly attribute such action to a change in their view of "moral probity?"

Maybe that they'd be so disturbed by the moral dimensions of increased taxes, that they just wouldn't be able to continue living in such a morally depraved environment?

You know, suddenly they'd think that the "moral probity" of the Cayman Islands suddenly increased at precisely the same time that it decreased in the U.S. by some kind of cosmic coincidence?

Seems to me that if that were to happen (which I highly doubt, btw), it would be purely because of economics than because of assessment of the general moral character of the country. And if anything, poor people would be more likely to move their residence on the basis of economic necessity than rich people who really aren't going to suffer a huge life-style setback if they suddenly have to start paying a larger percentage of their massive expendable income and enormous wealth in taxes.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"If that were to happen, would you similarly attribute such action to a change in their view of "moral probity?""

From a Randian point of view, yes, definitely. Tax is a form of theft - demanding money with menaces, ultimately at the point of a gun. They'll do things politely to start with if you cooperate, but that's what it comes down to. If you refuse to pay, men with guns will come and lock you up in a box along with many unpleasant people until you cooperate.

The Cayman Islands are more moral in the sense that they offer not to rob you. I wouldn't say theirs increased as the US's decreased, but their moral ranking might reverse even with only one of them moving. People free to choose will try to find the best place they can.

What you earn, you own. People should not be required to work for others except willingly in exchange for services of greater worth, as they judge it. Forced labour without recompense is a form of slavery.

Theft and slavery are definitely matters for morality, so yes. Given that Rand's moral system is still something of a minority position, I don't know if the people moving to the Cayman Islands would think of it consciously or so systematically in those terms, but I'd say that something very much like it underlies their annoyance.

"And if anything, poor people would be more likely to move their residence on the basis of economic necessity than rich people who really aren't going to suffer a huge life-style setback if they suddenly have to start paying a larger percentage of their massive expendable income and enormous wealth in taxes."

That's pretty much what any burglar would say.

The moral problem with it, though, is that it's still their money, not yours, and if they're not going to get the benefit of it, then why should they do the work? And given that the work they do is what creates the wealth we all share in and the businesses that employ the rest of us, to stop them is to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The practical problem with it is that while everybody cheers at the prospect of getting a free slice of the richer guy's pie, they always forget the millions standing behind them in line ready to grab a slice of their pie. As a citizen of one of the world's wealthier nations, there are a lot more people regarding you as one of the wealthy, who won't miss a larger percentage of your massive income. In a world with so many surviving on a dollar a day, you can certainly afford it. But it's a bottomless pit, that will suck the wealth away from anyone who produces and hand it all to those who don't, and it's one of those aphorisms of economics that whatever you spend money on you get more of. Pay poor and unproductive people, and that's what you'll get more of. People will eventually try to hide any trace of competence, knowing that it will only buy them more work with no reward, and instead accentuate their desperate poverty and need, because that's what gets rewarded. The entire social system eventually self destructs, but not before it has destroyed the productive capacity and work ethic of everybody living there.

That's more or less what happened in the Soviet Union. Ayn Rand grew up there, before her family fled to America, and saw it happen at first hand.

But always in the past it has been limited in scope, prevented from being fully implemented, which means there are always fresh fields of new victims to move in to when the corpses of the old have been sucked dry. Rand asked what happened at the end, when the last productive victim fell, and there was nobody left to loot. 'Atlas Shrugged' is an interesting and provocative book that turns the usual moral judgements about these things on their head - and there's no doubt in my mind that Rand set out to provoke with such a hard line position on the morality, to shake people out of the complacent mindset that sees the way things are as normal. It needs softening somewhat to work within the real world.

It's still worth reading, though, even if only to know what you're arguing against. One American survey said it was the second most influential book after the Bible. Amazing, eh? :-)

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

==> "I don't know if the people moving to the Cayman Islands would think of it consciously or so systematically in those terms, but I'd say that something very much like it underlies their annoyance."

So even though they might describe their motivation merely as a matter of paying less in taxes, and thus a decision made on economic terms, and one that has nothing to do with their assessment of "moral probity," and for all you know they might well think (as they had previously) that the "moral probity" in the U.S. is generally higher than in the Cayman Island, you can see with your special form of vision that in reality there was an underlying moral calculus taking place.

Like when a business changes its address to avoid taxes, they're doing so because of a question of morality also.

==> " If you refuse to pay, men with guns will come and lock you up in a box along with many unpleasant people until you cooperate."

It is always interesting to see what gets left out of that construction. They make a decision to live here or to leave, based on an evaluation of the costs and benefits. At any time that they feel that the costs would outweigh the benefits, they can leave. Your construct rests on a distortion that somehow they are forced to stay.

They can move to the Cayman Islands. By remaining here, they are agreeing to accept that along with the benefits, there will be a cost.

Now another moral configuration would be that they could continue to live here, under a pretense that they are agreeing to accept the cost along with the benefits, but actually try to skate by without accepting the costs (and only gain from the benefits). Or maybe they'll decide to accept their disgust at the general "moral probity," but hire tax lawyers to help give them a bromide to assuage their discomfort from compromising their morals?

Or, another would be that they could accept a moral framework that such solutions are in violation of the rule of law and the pervading societal construct of morality, and just leave and move somewhere that there is a different operational morality - where they can live in an environment with a different cost/benefit structure.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"So even though they might describe their motivation merely as a matter of paying less in taxes, [...], you can see with your special form of vision that in reality there was an underlying moral calculus taking place."

Moral calculi are generally simplified models fitted to people's unconscious, instinctive preferences and principles - in much the same way that linguistics studies people's instinctive use of language. A linguist might say that a person used a particular way of phrasing a sentence "because" of a particular rule for irregular intransitive verbs, when the person in question doesn't even know what an intransitive verb is. The linguist recognises the patterns in people's instinctive use of language, and the moral theorist recognises the patterns in people's moral judgements.

But just as simple grammatical rules fail to capture the complexity of language, so all formalised moral systems tend to miss the complexity of actual human morality.

Ayn Rand described one particular formalisation of economic and political morality that resonated strongly with the way a lot of Americans (and others) already felt, but had never been able to put into words, and set out many logical implications of that moral stance that her readers had likely not thought through, but agreed with when she did. Philosophers can certainly argue about what causes what, but in the sense of the everyday usage of the language, people resent high taxes because of their feelings that they're being involuntarily robbed of their earnings for insufficient return.

"They make a decision to live here or to leave, based on an evaluation of the costs and benefits. At any time that they feel that the costs would outweigh the benefits, they can leave. Your construct rests on a distortion that somehow they are forced to stay."

I thought them leaving and moving to the Cayman Islands was what we were discussing?

However, I'd note in passing that for a lot of people, leaving isn't such a simple matter. Some countries don't let you leave at all and will shoot you if you try (something I was discussing previously with Glenn), some continue to tax you even if you live abroad, and to truly escape from one country you usually have to be accepted by another, and as we know most countries are reticent about that, especially for the poorest people. Your job, your qualifications, your contacts and background knowledge are all based locally, and you face a major barrier to moving and starting from scratch elsewhere.

However, you're perfectly correct that for the prosperous of the more civilised countries it is indeed a trade of costs and benefits - in the same sort of way that other people choose to live in a high-crime neighbourhood because the rents are low. It may be a conscious choice they made, to trade a little risk for other benefits - but that doesn't make them any happier about getting burgled or mugged. And if the crime rate goes up - the moral probity of their neighbours having declined - then they might decide the costs now exceed the benefits and choose to leave.

And the poor, if they cannot gain legal entry, can do it illegally.

Nevertheless, most people don't think of it that way. People consider themselves to be stuck with the government of the country they happen to be citizens of, and the government insists on taxes being paid at the rate *it* says, with no negotiation or agreement required of the citizen - as is the case with almost any other trade. Just as people on the other side of the debate, decrying the capitalism/consumerism/industrialism of the West rarely consider moving to North Korea. It's a point of view.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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