New Year’s Message: The Greatest Offense

Doctore Who

I’ll admit it: I have committed the greatest offense of them all. And I did so willingly and gladly. Many, many times.  It’s an offense, indeed, that is the primary purpose of this blog. It’s an offense that can lose you “friends” and elicit a great deal of hostility toward you. It’s an offense that can prompt many in the media to revile you as public enemy number one.

What is this unforgivable sin? It’s challenging people’s beliefs.

Most people do not want their beliefs challenged. In fact, most people are more defensive of their beliefs than they are of their homes, their families, their money. There’s a little speech in the play Inherit the Wind in which schoolteacher Bertram Cates notes that because he dared to teach evolution in school, the townspeople look at him with more hatred in their eyes than they would if he were a hardened criminal. There may not have been so much animosity toward Cates’ real-life counterpart, John Thomas Scopes, but he was put on trial for teaching scientific fact that conflicted with fundamentalist dogma.

Literally nothing is more important to most people than holding onto their beliefs at all costs. In 1954, an Illinois housewife named Dorothy Martin proclaimed that God had given her a message that the world would end on December 21 of that year. But the faithful would be saved by a UFO. She assembled a sizable cult of followers who prepared for the end. And when neither the end nor the spacecraft did come, were they deterred? On the contrary, they were more steadfast in their beliefs than ever, declaring that because of their faith, God had decided to spare the entire planet.

Writing about this phenomenon in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance, which is now a standard fixture in the lexicon of popular discourse. And for very good reason. Typically, when people experience cognitive dissonance — i.e., when the facts conflict with their beliefs — they alter their facts rather than alter their beliefs. Just as the UFO cult did.

As Doctor Who observed almost exactly 40 years ago:

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views.

I make it a point to avoid trying to convince anyone of anything. Because people do not want to be convinced of anything except what they already believe. And confronting them with contrary information only causes discord. The best you can do is put information out there for anyone who’s interested and hope it eventually trickles down to those who most need to hear it.  Challenge beliefs, but not in the face of the believers.

For many centuries, virtually everyone in Europe believed, because of the story of Adam and Eve, that women had more ribs than men. Until around 1543. When somebody finally got around to actually counting them.

Here’s hoping this will be the year when people start counting ribs.

Chaos in Japan, Cognitive Dissonance in America

“And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power – the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream”.        —Homer Simpson

Earthquake. Tsunami. Radiation. Japan was certainly struck with its share of disasters this month. And as a result, the U.S. was struck by a huge wave of hot air. Not produced by nature or technology, but by the media, as the pro-nuke punditocracy raced to assure us that things like this don’t really happen, and even if they do there’s no sense in getting alarmed because there’s no way radiation would harm the Japanese people (since that’s never happened before), and even if it does it couldn’t happen here, so we should forget the dangers and go full speed ahead with nuclear plants, just because, and if you question that then you must be tree-hugging  librul moonbeam jockey or something.

I heard people point out that the only ones who were questioning the advisability of nuclear power at this time were the ones who’ve always done so. To which one can only respond: “Well. duh.”  But it was the others, the ones who believe that expediency and profit trump all else, who have been dominating the “debate” in the media. (For the kind of informed, intelligent debate on nuclear energy that you probably won’t see on TV, go to TED Talks.)

To some, it seems distasteful that the topic should come up at all. There is a pervasive attitude about radiation hazard that is somewhat like the Victorian mindset about sex: everybody knows it exists but acknowledging it is deemed an impropriety. I heard an RRR (Rabidly Right-wing Relative), apparently reciting a Fox talking point, say, “Well look, we have hundreds of people killed by the earthquake and the tsunami, but some people are obsessed with radiation, which hasn’t killed anybody.”

Even though I was all too aware that the opinions of RRR’s are infallible even when they’re secondhand, I felt compelled to point out a couple of key differences here.

First, earthquakes and tsunamis are more or less instantaneous; and in this case they’re already past tense and we’re just dealing with the aftermath. Radiation, on the other hand, may not makes its effects known for years, even decades. (Care to ask the Japanese about this?) To say that the radiation hasn’t killed anyone is to make an extremely premature call.

Second, nobody knows how to prevent an earthquake or tsunami. Nuclear disasters, on the other hand, are one hundred percent preventable.

The question of whether they should be prevented with certainty (by eliminating nuclear power)- in other words, the question of how the risks stack up against the benefits, is open to debate. But the very existence of risk itself is not. Everybody knows it’s real. Well, everybody except this person maybe. Even the interviewer, fellow Fox funhouse fanatic Bill O’Reilly, is taken aback by this one.

With the exception, however, of this one sad individual who clearly is making yet another desperate attempt to draw attention to herself, we all  are more or less aware of the danger. We just prefer to look the other way. Because that’s what the punditocracy says we should do.

And in that regard, it’s very hard to come up with a more apt quote than this, from former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill: “If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear is really very good.”


Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?