Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What you can't say

I forgot how good this is.

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different?


Some would ask, why would one want to do this? Why deliberately go poking around among nasty, disreputable ideas? Why look under rocks?

I do it, first of all, for the same reason I did look under rocks as a kid: plain curiosity. And I'm especially curious about anything that's forbidden. Let me see and decide for myself.

Second, I do it because I don't like the idea of being mistaken. ...

Third, I do it because it's good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that's in the habit of going where it's not supposed to. ...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Aphorisms on inactivism

...they've been piling up. Google will tell you where they came from.
(and fortunately, many of these are obsolete, in locales more culturally advanced than ours)
Global warming deniers are "like polar bears on shrinking real estate." *
It’s their point of view. Annoyance, not collaboration, is their idea of effective action.
It's a munitions factory for saturation bombing of any debate that might actually be interesting and useful. There’s no interest in acquiring knowledge. It’s all for politics.
Conspiracies happen all the time. But we deny this because of a classic American fallacy, born of our relative unconnectedness to the old world: what I like to call the fallacy of insufficient cynicism.
In this persistent and well-funded campaign of denial [the skeptics] have become interchangeable ornaments on the hood of a high-powered engine of disinformation. Their dissenting opinions are amplified beyond all proportion through the media while the concerns of the dominant majority of the world's scientific establishment are marginalized.
‘How can we expect Americans to know anything beyond what they happen to remember from science class? Journalists certainly don’t tell them.’
It is a belief that can gain consensus and then become a permanent cultural carbuncle.
It seems to me we should be using mole traps, and not mallets, as the whack-a-mole game is nonending.
One partisan can tie up a whole company of the enemy’s troops by sniping from good cover and forcing them to pay attention to him, while maneuvers are going on elsewhere.
I don't think these people who believe that stuff ... I think they're not really getting it from the print either. They're getting it from Fox News and, I've heard, from their ministers, at their churches.
[Elke] Weber’s research seems to help establish that we have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem ...comes along. ...And even if we could remain persistently concerned about a warmer world? Weber described what she calls a “single-action bias.” Prompted by a distressing emotional signal, we buy a more efficient furnace or insulate our attic or vote for a green candidate — a single action that effectively diminishes global warming as a motivating factor. And that leaves us where we started.
What too many people refuse to understand is that the global economy's existence depends upon the global environment, not the other way around.
Someone asked [Dr. James Hansen] what the most important thing to do is, what can we personally do to help stabilize climate, to "answer the call to action"--what is the most important lifestyle change?

Hansen's answer was unequivocal. Take part in the political process. Help make our democracy real. Hold our candidates accountable.
Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system* not as a morality play but as a technical challenge.
it was that night, a year ago today, that provided the lesson - never let a setback wreck our spirits, and never presume it's as bad as your opponents tell you it is - and gave the opening for a "teaching moment" about the contagion that is panic and the antidote that is hope.
and of course
It's not enough to pull drowning victims out of the river; we need to walk back upstream and find out who's throwing them in.

Update, some more* -
A newspaper's main product is neither news nor information but influence.
...the strong version of the Copernican thesis - where ever you are is, by definition, unimportant.
Reality is that which, when you refuse to believe in it, doesn't go away.
It's clear that the body politic is subject to power disorders. By this I mean events where some person or group suddenly concentrates a lot of power and abuses it. Power disorders frequently come as a surprise, and cause a lot of damage.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When the cavalry's not coming: some rules of thumb for standalone citizen journalists

Do as I say, not as I did.
"..."following the money" might be productive here."

I said that a year ago, before this journey began. And while I didn't end up following the money, I did dig into the story, and it dug its claws into me; and while the digging's not over, the outline's now clear.
(What's the outline, you ask? Patience...)

But oh, the time it took, that it didn't have to take; the mistakes I made... So, in the hope that this might save someone else from tarrying in dumpsters in blind alleys, if they undertake a quest like this one, I offer some rules of thumb.

1. If you're a newbie, try to avoid doing it on your own. If you can possibly find a group to work with, containing someone whose judgment you trust, enlist them. Doing it on your own is fine when it's going well, but really, really sucks when it isn't. And when those around you have zero or negative interest in your quest. or are using "local" epistemology - which they will, in a small town - it's mighty hard to summon up the will and the confidence to boldly go where you need to. Also, someone who knows more than you do will see more than you do, which - if your mind is open to recognizing it - can save you a whole lot of time.

2. Look up once in a while. It's great to focus on the minutiae - that's what alerted me to this story in the first place - but unless you stand back from your digging once in a while to survey the terrain, it might take you a long time to realize that the story's much bigger than just the one piece that caught your attention.

3. History matters; as Paul Graham says, it's all the data that we have so far - and if the history comes in book form, you also get the infrastructure for interpreting the data. Knowing the relevant history will help; you're going to need some structure to understand your story, and you don't want to have to build it yourself from scratch.

So again, look up; find the shoulders of giants, and stand on them - take time away from web and phone and go read books, since they contain pretty much all* the wisdom that we have so far. People and institutions and arrangements don't spring up de novo, they have antecedents; and knowing what's happened and what's been discovered before will cue your brain into recognizing similar themes in your own investigation. I've spent much of the last few weeks reading, and things just leap out at me now that had slipped my notice before.

The books are particularly helpful if you're not getting support elsewhere - like Machiavelli (the human, not the metaphor) you can spend time in the cognitive company of experts -
"When evening this graver dress, I enter the courts of the ancients, and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world."

We primates don't thrive alone, and the right authors help to ameliorate the cognitive isolation.

4. You will be able to perceive subtleties that are real, but that you'd never be able to convince someone else of*. So open your mind to recognizing this, and thus to sensing when you should just save your breath.

5. Be prepared to consider the unthinkable; sometimes it's been consigned to unthinkability for a reason.