August 7, 2011

Common Sense and Elitism

There is a faction of people in this country who wield considerable political influence that seem to react with skepticism to all ideas supported by science and academia.  They justify their positions by using two phrases that cunningly disguise dangerous prejudices as noble attributes.  Those two terms are: 1) common sense and 2) elitism.  While the former is deemed to be good and the latter bad, the labels are used in ways to depict educated people as harboring ulterior motives that run counter to the interests of others and that those without book learning have an instinctive gut-level understanding of what is right.

To many people of this faction, all the truth and knowledge they need is contained in the Bible.  To them I ask the following two questions:
1.   Which version of truth and knowledge are you referring to?  Does it include the injunction not to kill, or does it allow the killing and displacing of others because God told Israel to take the Promised Land?  Does it require adulterers to be stoned, or does it demand forgiveness?  Does it give us complete dominion over the earth, or ask us to nourish and replenish it?  Does it teach us that we’re obligated to love only our friends, or that we must love everyone?  The reason I ask is because all of the above can be justified by reference to Biblical verse.
2.   Do you recognize the value of any knowledge not contained in the Bible?  If not, perhaps you should discard your television (and with it Sean Hannity’s daily drivel on Faux News).  After all, the Bible says nothing about quantum mechanics, which is the scientific basis for television.  Neither does it speak of democracy, DNA, combustion engines, penicillin, a Constitution that addresses civil rights and any of a range of value-producing concepts and technologies.

The point I hope to make is that suspicion and rejection of learning occurs at our peril and it occurs with increasing frequency.  If history teaches us anything, it’s that truth is far more complicated than anyone can grasp at first blush.  Understanding takes time and effort.  What initially appears obvious is rarely a full story.  Take, for example, the idea that parallel lines never intersect.  If that common sense notion hadn’t been overturned after thousands of years of universal acceptance, the non-Euclidean geometries allowing for curved space would never have been developed.  By extension, the ultimate elitist, Einstein, wouldn’t have uncovered the physical relationships behind his General Theory of Relativity. 

Today there are other disciplines even less understood by lay people than what is generally known about physics.  One is evolution (which most fundamental Christians assume to be fallacious and therefore never crack open a book to study)—another is the workings of capital markets.  The latter I know something about, so let me make a point about it.  The idea—which Tea Party loyalists espouse—that the US can default on its debt without dire global consequences is moronic.  Anyone with capital markets experience understands that the effects of regulatory and governmental decisions often result in problematic and unanticipated consequences on market liquidity.  Making funding less available in an already wounded economy would be devastating.  If there has been one thing the Fed and economists have consistently misunderstood it’s the consequences of too much, or too little, liquidity in capital markets. 

When government and Wall Street leaders confer, it shouldn’t be taken as evidence of collusion at the expense of common people.  During WW II, when it occurred to subject matter experts that the power of the atom could be harnessed to produce a powerful weapon, did government leaders gather a room of couch potatoes to consider next steps?  Of course not.  To determine the best course of action, many of the greatest physicists of the day were assembled and that led to the Manhattan Project.  In the same way, the fact that government leaders elicit the opinions of Wall Street executives should be deemed a necessary part of any carefully reasoned due diligence process. 

The same can be said about a number of important issues that our world and country face.  When Michele Bachmann says—despite considerable scientific evidence to the contrary—that the heightened level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is a harmless “natural byproduct of nature,” we have to assume her common sense is little more than unreasoned stupidity and that the elitists, backed by scientific research and analysis, know better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Alan,

Sorry I missed your book signing in Kenai. Got slammed by fishing. I'm glad to see you're back at blogging. Good stuff!