by Jim Bechtel

As published in the Fall 2004 issue of Alt.Write,

the quarterly journal of the Midwest Literary Underground.
"Thank you for not paying attention." As we approach the election, this slogan can be seen on the bumper stickers of bitter Democrats. Surveys repeatedly show Americans to be poorly informed, not just about politics but about the entire world around them, and it's obvious we pay a heavy price for our ignorance. But the problem goes deeper than that, it goes to the roots of human nature. We are poorly informed because a) we pay attention to the wrong things, and b) it's hard to practice critical reasoning.

Paying attention to the wrong things. Biologist Paul Ehrlich points out the dangers of the population explosion: When he was born world population was 2 billion, it is now 6 billion, with the next billion taking only a decade to add. The situation is not sustainable. Billions of people in the "third-world" are undernourished and illiterate, while the economies of the "first world" consume the earth's resources at an escalating rate (check out www.dieoff.org). Paul and Anne Ehrlich have reported on this in several of their books.

Paul asks "Why isn't everyone as scared as I am? The answer is simple: People are not scared because they have evolved biologically and culturally to respond to short-term 'fires' and to tune out long-term 'trends' over which they have no control. Consequently as fast as the population explosion has been, it is occurring at a snail's pace compared with, say, the breaking events on Headline News."

For hunter-gatherers the gossip of the day, short-term news around the campfire, was an important part of our original social environment, whereas the sciences did not yet exist, with their long horizons. How hard is it to change that ancient programming? The biggest headlines I ever saw on a front page of an Omaha World Herald ran on 12/11/97, announcing the retirement of coach Tom Osborne. Huge headlines! If you looked carefully, down in a corner of the page was a brief note about a global warming conference.

Gossip about celebrities remains more important than the survival of life on Earth --because at one time gossip meant survival. You needed to know who was who, and where you stood in the group; there was no life outside the group. But now, when I read, as I did in this morning's World-Herald, "Botched manicure infects Paula Abdul," after I stop laughing I just want to shake the editors and explain to them that we're not around that campfire anymore, our attention is needed elsewhere.

But we're stuck with the short-term attention span that concerned Paul and Anne Ehrlich. The result? Just as the frog's eyes evolved to focus on movement and tune out stationary objects, so slow-motion events are invisible to us. Slow-motion events like the rise of the suburbs and the decline of our cities, like pollution and extinctions and global warming, like cultural leveling, like the population explosion, like the globalization of work, or like social change.

How much society changes, right out from under us, can be seen in the nervous laughter we experience at movies only a couple of decades old. Did we really wear our hair that way, and listen to that music? And our grandparents wonder, did we really leave our doors unlocked, and call the corner grocer by name? And we wonder at our kids, glued to computer games. Each generation now grows up in a different world. This creates a different sense of identity in each generation -and a constantly changing world creates a fluid sense of identity, unsettled, disoriented, insecure.

This is new. Before the modern world, there was no such concept as "old-fashioned." Each generation shared roughly the same world as the generation before, and enjoyed a strong sense of identity. Continuity and familiarity encouraged connection and stability. But now we have hit the steep part of the curve, caught up in a whirlpool of change that weakens community ties and alienates people from each other. This is familiar to sociologists as “the loss of Gemeinschaft” or community. Our need for stability causes us to cast out anchors in the midst of this whirlpool. The problem is we're anxious for any anchorage, even a treacherous one; any belief system, as long as it promises stability and order; and any identity, even a pathological one.

It's hard to practice critical reasoning. Chimps can learn sign language and are as fine-tuned to their complex social environment as we are to ours, but they have neither philosophers of ethics nor engineers. Our neocortex makes us different. How well do we use it? Jean Piaget's research on how children learn led him to identify four stages of "cognitive development." At some point in our pre-teen years we enter stage three and finally leave the chimps behind. But it’s well-known that stage four, which Piaget called the "formal operational" stage of thinking, abstract critical reasoning, is never reached by most people. It takes special effort to learn to think beyond the kind of sleep-walking in which many people spend their days. A 1997 study of blood flow in the brain during deductive logic led researcher Daniel Perani to conclude "not everybody is able to do that."

In a civilization that runs on technology, and in which very few would want to go back to spending a Nebraska winter in a log cabin or a tepee, we might be concerned that over 90% of Americans are rated as "scientifically illiterate." Can we sustain a technological civilization in a society that doesn't understand how things work? If we can't think logically, on what basis will we evaluate the competing anchorages we are so eager to enter? In our desperation to find stability and identity in the dizzying whirlpool of change, will we make things worse by not thinking them through? When it comes to buying into rival belief systems that claim to have the answers, will we use as much common sense as we do in buying a used car? These questions bring us to the threat to civilization from various kinds of irrational thinking.

Threats to civilization. Carl Sagan saw the danger: "I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time --when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost their ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness." (The Demon-Haunted World.)

A lot of belief systems are fun to believe in, and are harmless echoes of that time in childhood when it made us feel good to believe in the Tooth Fairy or in Middle Earth. We have to start out gullible; how else could we absorb what we need to know? But we also have to grow up -at least a critical mass of us. We have to learn to evaluate things not on the basis of how tempting the claims sound, but on the basis of the evidence. There is still plenty of awe and wonder in the real universe (Sagan, Cosmos).

Evaluating our own beliefs is such a rare talent that at least one observer, Alan Cromer (in Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford University Press) thinks it was a fluke, that if the Greeks hadn't developed the art of objective thinking when they did, it might never have arisen because it is so contrary to our naturally egoist and animist way of looking at the world. We can't help but see things subjectively, the way our ego wants them to be, not objectively, as they really are; and as animists at heart we project onto the world our own emotions (the forest is scary, God is Love) and our own motives (this lousy car won't start to spite me, Jehovah sent the rainbow to bless us).

As one reviewer of Cromer's book puts it: "... new age enlightenment is going in the wrong direction. They want to focus on transcending our physical selves to reach a higher existence, but every description of this higher plane is either egocentric or animistic in nature, and these emotions are strongly entrenched in the physical self... Studying science is literally transcending our physical self."

Maybe the Greeks really were the only ones who could have pulled it off, this transcending of our natural, emotional bias toward error (whatever feels good is true), I don't know. But from the fascinating things I've read in Needham about Chinese science, it seems to me they might have done it too, given enough time. But they didn't. It was Muslim civilization that spread the Greek accomplishments all across Eurasia, and the seeds sprouted most successfully in the European Enlightenment. Critical reasoning became a valued tool for uncovering what was wrong with the world. The “Enlightenment Project” to banish superstition, intolerance, exploitation and ignorance began.

But there has been a reaction building up ever since. Tolerance threatens moral absolutists, science challenges superstition, and reason frightens those with insecure beliefs. The Project has never been universally embraced, and the social change it brings is enough reason for some to oppose it, especially those who value stability and authority above all else. If they couldn’t win the argument by logic, they would resist the Project by force. Josef de Maistre, b. 1753: "All society rests on the executioner's ax." The roots of fascism run deep.

In the May 24 LA Times, Francis Wheen wrote "Over the last 25 years or so, after two centuries of gradual ascendancy, Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and scientific empiricism have come under fierce assault from a grotesquely incongruous coalition of [postmodernists], New Age mystics and Old Testament fundamentalists.”

No question there are dysfunctions and problems with the modern world we have created ( Wirth, 1938; Marcuse, 1964) but the cure isn't to abandon the Project; we have no choice but to figure things out, use our heads. The way out is the way forward. The seductive shortcuts are dead ends.

Racism and homophobia, war, attacks on civil liberties, political repression, all feed on irrational beliefs. Racism, for example, is demolished by what science knows about the human gene pool (Cavalli-Sforza, 1995). Much extremism rests on scapegoating, finding easy targets to blame for the dislocations caused by rapid social change (Adorno, 1950).

The path is cleared for these harmful ways of thinking by the flood of irrational beliefs that surrounds us. Let's look at that next. Irrational beliefs. The list of irrational beliefs that sidetrack us away from critical reasoning is long, and some are much more serious than others, but even the trivial ones contribute to our dumbing down. How widespread they are is obvious from the reaction most people have, when shown this list: “But you’re not including THIS on the list, are you? It’s been important in MY life!“ Believe me, if you take the time to look into the evidence for their claims you find that none of these hold water. None.

By the way, debunking such claims can be great fun. If you’ve seen Penn and Teller on Showtime, or any of James (“The Amazing”) Randi’s appearances, you know what I’m talking about.

I divide the list into three main groups. First, pseudoscience and superstition: Alien abductions, psychics, astrology, prophecies, crypto-archaeology, miracles, New Age spirituality, crop circles, postmodernism, pyramid power, channeling, dowsing, ancient astronauts, and the like. Second, religious issues: apocalyptic cults, fundamentalist conspiracy theories, Armageddon, creationism in schools, religious extremism in politics, attacks on separation of church and state, and religious terrorism. Third, quackery: therapeutic touch, homeopathy, faith healing, magnets, chiropractic, crystals, and most of “alternative medicine” in general.

By encouraging gullibility, all of them make us more vulnerable to whichever snake-oil peddler has the best sales talk. If you’re willing to believe things regardless of evidence, then it doesn’t matter what you believe, it just matters who gets to you first. If it’s William Pierce who first exploits your gullibility you join the National Alliance, whose skinheads are currently active in Omaha, if it’s the Rev. Jim Jones you drink poison Kool-aid at Jonestown, if it’s L. Ron Hubbard you join the Scientologists, if it’s Ayn Rand you become an Objectivist, if it’s Shoko Asahara you introduce poison gas into the Tokyo subway, if it’s Marshall Applewhite you join Heaven’s Gate and seal a plastic bag over your head for a trip on the Hale-Bopp comet, and if it’s Bush you wave the flag for his war and his tax cuts; it’s all easier than thinking, and, after all, as the New Age postmodernists say, we “create our own reality,” don’t we? So go ahead and believe whatever you want, right? Followers aren’t skeptics, but surely ought to be. After all, the worst-case scenario for being excessively skeptical is you’re the last one to jump on the bandwagon (big deal) but the worst-case scenario for being excessively gullible is you’re dead.

We can’t go through that list one by one, but you can check out many of them at the website of CSICOP. As a teaser, we can take a quick look at a couple of schools of “alternative medicine.”

Are practitioners of alternative medicine really harmful? Isn’t that an exaggerated claim? After all, there are over a hundred chiropractors in Omaha, for example, and they are widely accepted as “mainstream.” We all have friends who go to chiropractors. Surely there must be something to it, right? Well, let’s do what their customers rarely do, let’s take a closer look.

Chiropractic was founded in 1895 when D. D. Palmer, after failing with a “School of Magnetic Healing” in Iowa, claimed he had cured a man’s deafness by adjusting his spine, “apparently unaware that the nerves of hearing are entirely in the skull,” as the editors of Consumer Reports put it. Bacteria and viruses are no longer completely ignored by chiropractors, but they still view spinal adjustments as the cure-all and core of their profession, claiming that disturbances in an undetectable flow of some mysterious energy through the spine is the cause of all diseases, despite the total lack of evidence for such claims. In 1974 a chiropractic ad maintained that “subluxations” of the spine kill “millions of people yearly.” Their texts often attack conventional medicine and make fictitious claims for chiropractic cure rates. When pressed for the statistical data behind these claims, they resort to anecdotes, engage in personal attacks on their critics (I’ve experienced that myself), or they ridicule the “scientific method.”

As boring as they might be, statistics can inform us. According to specialists in internal medicine, the placebo effect cures about 1/3 of most ailments, and many complaints seen by doctors in their offices “have obvious psychological components,” so naturally the comforting massage-like aspects of chiropractic, therapeutic touch, Rolfing, body oils, etc, sometimes work. (But that’s not what doubled our lifespans in the past century.) Is spinal manipulation at least good for back pain, as many believe? Well, several studies show 60 percent of back pain is OK in three weeks, and 90 percent in two months, regardless of treatment. Save your money.

How do chiropractors stay in business? Beyond P. T. Barnum’s famous phrase, there’s another explanation. Like any Big Business, they’re well organized, and heavily into lobbying. “For years, grass roots politics has been the lifeblood of chiropractic.” It was not impressive research results in peer-reviewed journals (nonexistent) but their lobbying power, pure and simple, that got them recognized for Medicare payment and gave them an air of legitimacy. Already in 1984, before the recent New Age boom, a House Subcommittee found that “quackery” was a $10 Billion business with powerful lobbying influence. Asked why they were not doing more about quackery FDA Commissioner Hayes replied “we are simply overmatched.”

Chiropractors are a threat in four ways; their treatments, such as twisting the neck, can be dangerous (see Inside Chiropractic, by whistle-blowing chiropractor Samuel Homola); they encourage gullibility; they divert patients’ resources away from legitimate medicine; and, most outrageously, they try to persuade parents not to get their children vaccinated. Since they cling to their own 19th century theory on diseases, they oppose immunization programs and distribute literature full of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. I have watched local chiropractors on cable access television, read their literature and their letters to the editor, and attended talks by them. In all of this I have personally witnessed them pushing their national campaign against protecting our children from communicable diseases. So they not only divert resources away from evidence-based medicine but constitute a direct threat to public health.

Another example; homeopathy. I have given several speeches locally during which I have eaten the entire contents of a bottle of 100 homeopathic sleeping pills. No need to call an ambulance or get a stomach pump, I do it to illustrate the point that there are no active ingredients in homeopathic remedies. None. When a homeopath says, in the World-Herald, "It involves a highly diluted formula," he ain't just whistling Dixie! How about dilution equal to one drop in a sphere of water the size of the planet Earth? It supposedly works because the water molecules magically "remember" being in the presence of the active ingredients. As you might predict, there is no scientific evidence that this stuff is effective beyond the placebo effect. I once asked the pharmacist at my local Walgreen's what he thought about the big rack of these "remedies" next to the cash register, and his exact words were "if it was up to me, I'd throw them in the trash, but it makes a lot of money for the company." For sure! You certainly don't need to spend much on active ingredients!

A final example; herbal remedies. In 1994 the Newt Gingrich Congress rewarded lobbyists with the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, which reversed the burden of proof for over-the-counter “remedies” and supplements. Before, you had to show the FDA that your product was safe and effective; after, the FDA had to show your product was dangerous, “when the bodies start piling up,” says Robert Park (Voodoo Science). After some celebrity deaths and a long battle, they finally got ephedra banned, and recently warned 23 companies peddling steroids, but the FDA is handicapped by the law, which does not require anything from the manufacturers, not even quality control against impurities.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, co-author of the 1994 law, represents Utah, where dietary supplements are the third largest industry at $3 billion a year. The manufacturers make campaign contributions to Hatch and have paid the Senator’s son $2 million in fees to lobby for them according to Forbes, the business journal, in a front-page article on “The Men and Money Pushing Dangerous Diet Supplements.” Medical science is subordinated to politics.

At a time when life expectancy has reached an all-time high, why is quackery booming? As William Jarvis explains, some of quackery's success is due to modern marketing techniques, but it is also related to the human condition. Science has cured the easy diseases, and is closing in on the biological limits of the human life span. Most people alive today have not witnessed the dramatic advances such as the polio vaccine that were once so obvious to the public.

Human error in using the discoveries of science-based medicine is heavily publicized, weakening confidence in the system. Science and technology are seen more as sources of problems than benefits to humanity, and so they become easy scapegoats for our frustration at the failure of our political leadership to solve our social problems.

As Jarvis points out, studies reveal that when people are unable to control events with science and technology, they revert to magical thinking and behavior. Modern medicine routinely achieves what would have been considered miracles a short time ago, but it is expensive, and it is unable to fulfill the wishful thinking and deep emotional needs of many people. Due to its specialized and impersonal nature, evidence-based medicine may drive more people toward quackery than the quacks would be able to draw to themselves, but the success of quackery still is no more a failing of medical science than the success of astrology is due to the failures of astronomy. (Go to the websites of Quackwatch and the National Council Against Health Fraud for more on chiropractic, homeopathy, herbal remedies, alternative medicine in general, and a detailed definition of the term “quackery.”)

It’s an uphill battle.

In the first place, science has always been subordinated to politics, but under the Bush administration distortion and misinformation have become so blatant (e.g., on climate change, pollution, farm waste, stem cell research, and the Star Wars scam) that the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a damning report, “Scientific Integrity in Policy-Making: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science,” endorsed by 20 Nobel Prize winners.

Secondly, this culture, like all cultures, is biased in favor of its own prejudices; our culture is filled with mouthpieces for irrational beliefs who receive plenty of attention, while rationalists and humanists are generally ignored. The World Herald routinely provides coverage whenever any New Age quack comes to town to perform (for stiff fees) at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, but the free talk at the Omaha Public Library by Zach Miner from the Center For Inquiry in New York went unreported.

He spoke on the dangerous "Mind Siege" movement, a fundamentalist Christian version of the Taliban’s madrassahs. Not even the “alternative press” in Omaha would publish a piece on Zach Miner’s talk. As someone involved in a local group trying to foster rationality, I can vouch that this happens all the time. New Age “healers” are interviewed almost weekly by the World Herald and The Reader, while our humanist speakers are routinely ignored.

Republican Congressman Sam Graves got Blue Springs, Missouri, a $273,000 grant to “combat” the harmless Goth subculture there, but it’s impossible for rationalist and humanist groups to get grants to combat pseudoscience and extremism, and they struggle along on shoe-string budgets.

The politics of emotion. These irrational beliefs prepare the ground for the politics of emotion, the tempting shortcut to power for those without logical argument to back them up. Populist Tom Watson turned to racism to get re-elected, the fascists' slogan "act, don't think" was their path to power, Milosevic rose by exploiting ethnic fears, and so on. The politics of emotion trumps the politics of reason. Picture a demagogue in front of a crowd, whipping up their fears and hatreds. Pretty soon they're jumping up and down, hooting and hollering. Now picture a different speaker in front of a crowd, quietly and calmly urging them to sit down and carefully think through an issue. Who'll get more attention, more listeners?

The simplistic politics of emotion can be seen in issues like abortion and war that polarize the country, in the extremist positions spouted on talk radio ("hate radio"), and in the resulting decline of comity and cooperation in Congress. The rise of the Radical Right is the ultimate politics of emotion.

The Radical Right dates from the hysteria of the early Cold War years. McCarthyism was its most visible form. A number of groups originated then, such as the Francis Parker Yockey Movement and the fascist Liberty Lobby, founded by Willis Carto in 1957. Carto was so violently anti-Semitic that even Robert Welch of the extremist John Birch Society broke with him. With time, the Radical Right has become more “respectable” (more powerful).

The Intelligence Project (formerly Klanwatch) has this to say about the Ku Klux Klan’s successor, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC): “The CCC is a reminder that organized racists are not always identifiable by their Klan hoods or swastikas....[in fact] the CCC has become so respectable that key politicians such as [former] Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott [Republican of Mississippi] have felt comfortable addressing its national conference.”

“In the early ’90s, the radical right was immensely successful in recruiting by exploiting resentment of the federal government.... that reached its peak just before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.... Now, we’re seeing many of the same activists using fears about non-white immigration and issues like abortion to build up an extremist movement.”

True conservatives have been replaced by reactionaries committed to victory in a bitter “culture war.” How real is the culture war? Research by the Russell Sage Foundation on American opinions and values led sociologist Alan Wolfe to conclude in his book One Nation, After All that the culture war theory is the creation of right-wing pseudo-intellectuals who projected their own dislikes and squabbles onto the society as a whole, and got the Republican party to buy the idea. It’s another tool in the politics of emotion.

Economist Paul Krugman is baffled by what’s happening. In his new book, The Great Unraveling, he asks: “Rich people did very well in the 1990's; why this hatred of anything that looks remotely like income redistribution? Corporations have flourished; why this urge to strip away modest environmental regulation? Churches of all denominations have prospered; why this attack on the separation of church and state? American power and influence have never been greater; why this drive to destroy our alliances and embark on military adventures? Nonetheless, it's increasingly clear that the right wants to do all these things." It makes no sense. It is irrational. It is the politics of emotion. And it is in play, big time.

It’s no accident that the Nazis were devotees of the occult, holding mystic rituals at Wewelsburg castle, center of the Knights of the SS. They revived naturopathy and the interpretation of runes, believed the Aryan master race had fled Atlantis when the Third Moon crashed, and launched a search for Atlantis and the Holy Grail. Wolfram Sievers headed the search. Sievers, Executive Secretary of "Ahnenerbe," the Ancestral Heritage Society, collected skulls from concentration camps; he was executed at Nuremberg.

If you’re willing to believe things regardless of evidence, then it doesn’t matter what you believe, it just matters who gets to you first.

Umberto Eco points out that fascism is syncretic, combining opposites (such as the Nazis mixing superstition and myth with technology and industry), and that it rejects modernism and embraces irrationalism. It reacts to the problems of the world by yearning for a return to the Dark Ages, where master and slave knew their place, thinking was suspect, and society was upheld by force. For a brief analysis of fascism, see Eco’s list of identifying characteristics. Sad to say, many of those characteristics will seem familiar. So we have our answer to Paul Krugman’s questions. Why are they doing those things? Because they are in the grip of their irrational Radical Right ideology.

Nebraskans will have a chance to talk about these issues. Our local group, R.E.A.S.O.N., Rationalists, Empiricists, And Skeptics Of Nebraska, will hold our Fifth Annual Forum at UNO on September 15. Our topic will be "Examining the Political, Religious and Economic Agenda of the Radical Right." Three “agendas,” three speakers.

We are bringing national experts to Omaha for this; will the World Herald interview them? Don’t hold your breath. After all, they aren’t offering to cleanse your chakras for a lot of money, they are offering you insights into a serious social issue --for free.

Jim Bechtel teaches college in Omaha, is a founder of R.E.A.S.O.N., and in his less rational moments, is a Knight of the Groundhog.