15 April 2009

CFI 12th World Congress Day 2, 10 April 2009 Morning Analysis

Me and the indefatigable James "The Amazing" Randi.

This was to be the first full day of the 12th World Congress. Lectures, luncheons, panel discussions, and a big band concert were all on the agenda. Also, as luck would have it, a nicely laid out continental breakfast every morning. This came in handy as my second morning involved forgetting my wallet, and having to drive back to my brother-in-law's home to retrieve it. Had the CFI not had the foresight to provide that breakfast, I'd have been one grumpy, hungry bastard until lunch. So good on the CFI for that.

Patricia Scott Schroeder: The United States: A former Global Leader in Science, Apologizes for the 2001-2008 Service Outage!

I don't honestly remember much of this address. It was fairly generic, and rah rah. Schroeder has a long political history in congress, and she did discuss her influence and victories as such. She made some rather sweeping claims about how she and other women, and women's groups put the National Institutes of Health in its place, claims that at least one scientitst I spoke with contested vigorously. The thrust of her discussion though was the paucity of good science done under the Bush administration. This is certainly true, but almost obviously so. I suppose what I expected was less partisan chatter, and back patting and a more substantial assessment/analysis of the past eight years, as well as what the way forward might look like. Whether justifiably or not, I found myself somewhat underwelmed by the content of her talk. Maybe my coffee hadn't yet kicked in?

Susan Jacoby: Author of The Age of American Unreason, Keynote Speaker.
Paul Kurtz provided the introduction, which involved highlighting the convergent missions of CFI and Jacoby. Both saw the dumbing down of American educational standards as a danger, both were committed to free inquiry, and the promotion of science and reason.

I've listened to Jacoby before (Moyers, and on NPR I think) and she is a fine voice to have in the fight against the tendency toward unreason, and anti-intellectualism even though I don't agree with her entire analysis of the ills facing the US. The most interesting argument of her keynote was the suggestion that American anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism is the "flip side of core American values." More about that in just a bit.

There is a historical tendency of older generations to mourn the loss of high standards of their era while silmultaneously castigating the obviously low standards of the next generation. To note the deep values of their youth, while noticing, a little too eagerly, the lazyness, and overall moral decrepitude of their children, and their children's children. I'm not sure why this is, but it seems to have been going on since humans have had the capacity to look over their shoulder at the good ole' days. When ever I hear such talk, I find myself immediately on the alert, and somewhat skeptical. The flavor of Jacoby's talk was a bit rich in this department. And that seems more than mildly weird. It would be hard to avoid the conclusion that every generation has made numerous and meaningful contributions to culture, science, art (okay maybe that goes under culture), philosophy, literature (yeah under art, which goes under culture). This tone was, to my mind, somewhat histrionic.

Her complaint that people didn't read enough for instance was offered without a single reference. She further argued that actual reading of books was vastly superior to the use of Ibooks, and other text based forms of entertainment. Books, she thought offer the reader several levels of analysis and depth that nothing else can approach. This is a broad generalization based on her love of books apparently, because this charge too is without reference or study. Two of her most powerful and pessimistic assertions then are essentially baseless and stem largely from her personal tastes. She spent several minutes lamenting the popularity of video games. Anecdotally I noticed that you could agreement with this point would have been positively correlated with age. Looking at faces from young to old, Jacoby would have found agreement ascending with age. When asked about her thoughts on "text-based games" she was immediately dismissive.

"I hate the word text." She began her less than deep response. She lamented wikipedia, and the quality of information to be found on the internet. But consceded some games were probably okay. But in the end she maintained that movies, and games and the internet invited us to be passive recievers of information. How books do something different she did not really say. But the obvious rejoinder it seemed to me was that books invite such passivity as well as any other source of information. This is not a minor objection to her talk, but one that didn't diminish some of her more interesting points.

The most interesting of which is that American anti-rationalism, and American unreason are a by-product of some of the values we hold most dear, she argued that these tendencies have always fettered the American intellectual landscape, but that the past forty years has produced a boom in anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism, and lazy thinking. She offered a quote, (from whom is missing from my notes sadly) that she thought caught the spirit of much of the American attitude toward the life of the intellect.
"I like a man who can just read."

It is this sentiment and the acceleration of the unholy trinity mentioned above that are responsible for the rise of something she referred to as junk thought. Political pandering, words like "folks" lowering the bar instead of elevating it is certainly one of the fuels adding to the fire. She used the nomination of Sarah Palin as the most extreme example of the worst in the American experience.

The three forces most repsonsible for the deep problems facing American intellectualism.
1. Triumph of video over print.
2. Quixotic religious fundementaism (highlighting a huge dissonance between the known and myth)
3. Failing public education.

No doubt there is some truth in each of these things, but her analysis of at least one and three needs a vast amount of extra depth. She said things like "Reason and eduction are the foundation of rationalism. Not science." I am not even entirely sure what that might mean. Education? In what? Her lament of print's losses seems a bit premature since books seem to be booming. I think her main worry is the loss of newspapers. She conveniently is forgetting a huge history of policital activism in print news organizations. Papers were often the bullhorn of the rich and politically motivated. This trend is nothing new. A larger concern is the uniformity of news coverage brought about by the fact that more and more news organizations are owned by fewer and fewer people. That should concern us vastly more than the delivery system of the news itself.

A valid concern is the twenty-four hours a day, infotainment industry that does encourage a bit too much lounging around and over all lazyness.

Overall, Jacoby's talk has me interested in buying her book, despite the fact I suspect she is guilty of an, at times, shallow analysis that favors her preferences. I am sure it will provide an interesting and argumentative read.

After this, we broke for an extended brunch (which I most assurdedly did not do)/lunch/special luncheon time till the afternoon panel discussion. Allow me to voice a minor, or perhaps major complaint.

Paul Kurtz Special Luncheon address, which I did not attend seems like a silly, silly idea. The lunch cost something like ninety-five dollars to attend, and seemed more than mildly self-serving. At the lunch I would've been able to watch Paul Kurtz get an award, and then hear him speak. Giving the leader of CFI an award at a CFI sponsored event, at ninety-five dollars a plate just reeks of gratuitous bad taste. And given the amount of asking for money that happened over the course of the whole weekend, (they were trying to get 250,000 by the end of the weekend) the whole affair at the Hyatt seemed vastly too expensive. My main complaint is that if CFI is going to hold an event and dole out awards (or friends of CFI are going to dole out awards) why not encourage wider exposure by awarding someone outside the organization who is furthering the cause of humanism, secular government and skeptical thinking? Keeping it in-house smells too much like a restricted club.

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