Friday, May 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal to Pomote Domestic Tranquility

Published on Opinion Forum on May 20, 2010

Huff and Puff and down fall the houses of falsehood

Here is a truly fascinating article from Huffington Post by Jim Taylor, PhD in psychology and lecturer at the University of San Francisco, a well known bastion of unbiased intellectual thought. Mr.* Taylor complains that the sources of information nowadays are too many, too prolific and too motivated by politics and/or ideology, and that we lack the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to distinguish "facts" from "falsehoods" and from opinion. President Obama recently said much the same. They are, of course, right correct.

Mr. Taylor directs his message not to those whose "facts" are incongruent with his.
The reality is that, for these extremists, when ideology comes face to face with the facts, facts are the victim. You need look no further than the birthers, truthers, death panelists, and Sarah Palin devotees to see the profound disconnect from fact for those who hold extreme ideologies.
Rather, his message is directed toward the reasonable folk who agree with him.
This post is directed toward to [sic] everyone else, those who, whether a Republican or Democrat, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist, environmentalist or industrialist, socialist or capitalist, are reasonable people who believe that truth should trump ideology, who are interested in separating fact from fiction, and want to know both sides of an issue before forming thoughtful and well-supported opinions. Just look at the health-care legislation. Decent people can disagree about what is the best health care system for America, but that determination should be based on facts, such as how many people will be covered and what will the costs be, not ideology or prostituting to special interests.
Truth is good; untruths are bad; distortions, spins and misinformation are bad. Gosh Darn! We agree.

However, Mr. Taylor's prescription (in this context, perhaps I should accord him the honorific "Doctor") is as follows:
The federal government should create a Department of Information whose responsibility it is to determine the facts behind any decision that confronts our country. I know what you're thinking: This sounds like something that belongs in a totalitarian regime. But the reality is that someone has to decide on what is factual and what is not. So who can we trust to give us the most accurate information available? Big Business? Traditional media? The blogosphere? I certainly wouldn't trust any of them.
Though our government is far from perfect, it does exist, at least in theory, to serve the best interests of the American people. That's more than can be said for any other influences in our society; everyone else has a self-serving agenda. And our government already decides what is factual in many areas, whether the Office of Management and Budget deciding how much the health-care legislation will cost, the Federal Reserve describing the state of our economy, or even the decisions handed down by Supreme Court (though, interestingly, they are called opinions not facts). I know, budget estimates are often wrong, the Fed has made glaring economic-policy mistakes, and the Supreme Court has made some lousy decisions, but those mistakes may be more a reflection of the complexities of life and honest disagreement on ambiguous issues rather on than intentional misinformation.
Here's the next part of my proposal. Anytime there is a factual dispute, the Department of Information would render a decision on what the facts are. Those parties who come out on the short end of those decisions would not be allowed to use their "facts" any longer (just like having potentially dangerous drugs or products taken off the shelf). If they do, there would be fines levied to punish the transgressors. This system would not only make clear what the facts are and empower those who want the facts to be known, but it would also discredit the lunatic fringe and reduce the influence of their views on the majority of people.
Now that's a stupendous idea, despite that ratty old Constitution written by a bunch of long dead obscenely rich white male jerks (please excuse the redundancy) obviously cursed with an overabundance of Neanderthal genes! It should be tossed into an (ecologically sound) trash bin. Should it fly (and Mr. Taylor acknowledges that it might not -- but then, scientists were once said to know that a bumblebee couldn't fly), anyone who advocates that 2 + 2 = 6, that the Germans and Japanese were the bad guys and the United States and Great Britain were the good guys during the Second World War, that Arizona's Jim Crow immigration law is reasonable and constitutional or that under the Health Control Law costs are likely to rise, medical care to suffer and/or that the old farts might get the short end of the stick – being in all cases clearly misguided, politically and/or ideologically suspect wrong – would have to shut up or be punished by fines. Big fines, I hope. Perhaps Huff and Puff and Daily It's So Kos I Say So should get some of the fine proceeds. That will show those damn Fascist ideologues on the right. If only King George Bush II the Perverse or Prince Cheney the Unspeakable had thought of this and implemented it! But then President Bush's faith-based initiatives were bad and President Obama's faith-based initiatives are good. Maybe there is an ideological difference. Or maybe President Obama is the physical embodiment of faith.

What are facts, anyway? Obviously, it a true fact that man made global warming is happening and that the consequences will be draconian unless we cease spewing toxic CO2 into the atmosphere – now, Damnit! Saint Al the Gored is correct, there is no legitimate scientific dispute and civilization as we know it will fall into oblivion if he can't buy another mansion or jet aircraft out of the (non) profits from cap and trade transactions. Once upon a time, more physicians preferred camels to any other, well, I suppose, cigarette.

Back when the Health Control Law was passed and signed, and only some of Santa Claus' elves (and maybe Rudolph) at the North Pole had read and understood it, there were no "facts;" only opinions based, quite likely, on the same reliable sources as those upon which Attorney General Holder relied in criticizing the new Arizona immigration statute – television and newspaper reports by folks who hadn't bothered to read it either and who, I might suggest, were among the ideologically blessed. Responsible officials can't be bothered with the trash spouted by those of impure ideology or worse. Get thee behind me, Satan, Fox, Beck, Palin, Rush et al! Make way for The New York Times and MSNBC! Quick! Before they die.

Still, if there were to be an official governmental arbitrator of what is fact and what is falsehood, it would greatly simplify life. The entire problem of separating the wheat from the chaff would be pushed off on someone else and hidden behind one of Douglas Adams' SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) fields where nobody could see it. The SEP field theory was noted in the second (or was it the third?) of Adams' five book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I have read that "Adams had a keen interest in the effects of drinking on intelligent people, and discovered that you can get past writers block by drinking vast amounts of alcohol, blacking out, and waking up in a cow field." I don't believe it for a moment and hence it is not a real fact.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that alcohol is inexpensive and there are plenty of cow pastures here, I have implemented a remotely similar strategy at home. We have four dogs. Two of them are too puppy-like and carefree to worry, and I don't like doing it myself. So, I have delegated all responsibility for worry to the two pups who seem best fitted to the task. Getting a lobotomy might serve the same purpose, but might not be covered by my health insurance: it might be covered under the new Health Control Law, but I don't know and need a Department of Information to tell me. Regardless of that, the pup delegation costs absolutely nothing. I have denied them internet access, imbuing them with a degree of purity generally lacking in others. Now, I can be happy and carefree. Something similar would, in my carefree state of mind, be superior to Mr. (Dr.) Taylor's offering, and might also encourage the adoption of unwanted puppies otherwise doomed to execution. That, at least, seems worthwhile.

*When I was in undergraduate school eons ago, people with medical degrees were referred to as Doctor. It was considered snobbish for a PhD to refer to himself as "Doctor" because all of his peers also had that degree. Even lowly instructors and the post-doc teaching assistants who handled small seminars for the Big Man had them. Students absorbed this perception, and Professor Doctor Smith was referred to simply as Mr. Smith. Alas, that was then and this is now, but I still adhere to the notion.

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