Thursday, November 6, 2008
Some musings on ignorance and stupidity
Michael Crichton died yesterday from cancer at 66 years old. Nowadays, that's very young.
Crichton wrote a lot of very successful semi-scientific thrillers. He was considered a best-selling author and not a science fiction author, and that distinction may have come from his excellent sales numbers and his ability to get his books made into major motion pictures.
I only read a little Crichton, and what I read did not make me want to read more. Einstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. Crichton was a big proponent of simpler than possible. It was what put bread and butter on his table. When I read Jurassic Park, I knew that cloning from single cells found in blood in mosquitos encased in amber was damned unlikely, but I don't know enough biology to say it is completely impossible. What I do know is math, and the explanation of fractals in the book was just stupid cocktail party talk, a complete distortion of the concepts of Mandelbrot, which I will discuss next Wednesday.
Crichton recent book State of Fear was from the perspective of denying global climate change. He views environmentalists as members of a fundamentalist religion, and in his world, their religion includes an efficient death cult, like Earth First! combined with the Mossad.
While we are all ignorant about some things, I don't consider Crichton an ignorant man. To me, he was more of a huckster. In his early books, he made some pretense at having scientific underpinnings, though I've talked to many evolutionary biologists who despise Crichton's early success The Andromeda Strain with a white hot hate. As he got older and saw how little work had to be done to sell his readers on his premises, he evolved into a singularly lazy organism. This is a fate that can befall anyone, and when laziness is still bringing in the big bucks, it takes a person of real character not to succumb.
Michael Crichton, dead at the age of 66, was not a man of real character.
While he has nothing like Crichton's educational resume, I don't consider Bill O'Reilly either stupid or particularly ignorant. His intellectual problems run much deeper, and are much harder to cure. On the Huffington Post, there is a story about the back biting inside the McCain campaign with many lurid details. Reporter Carl Cameron, who was recently highly praised by O'Reilly's arch rival Keith Olbermann as the best reporter Fox News has, talks to O'Reilly about the things that people on the staff are saying about Palin now that the slow motion train wreck of a campaign is finally over and mercifully buried.
From staff reports, we get a picture of a woman whose sins include a nasty temperment, unseemly greed with other people's money and a vast well of ignorance. She thought Africa was a country, not a continent. She couldn't name the countries of North America. She didn't know what three countries signed the NAFTA agreement.
O'Reilly's believes it is his job not to report the news as much as to debunk it if it goes against his world view. When Cameron brings up the reports of Palin's ignorance of basic geography, O'Reilly finds these details unimportant, and says she can be brought up to speed quickly. "This is not a stupid woman." he opines, and Cameron is forced out of politeness to agree.
Is she a stupid woman? As I said before, we are all ignorant of a lot of things, but after a certain age, aren't we expected to know some stuff? Personally, I think a lot of Americans would have trouble naming all the North American countries off the top of their heads, probably forgetting a Belize or Guatemala, maybe throwing in a Caribbean or South American country by mistake. But for an adult not to know the basics about Africa or NAFTA, that's a sign of someone seriously not paying attention, which is both worse and more common than people with limited intellectual capacity. Like with Bill O'Reilly, the problem with Sarah Palin is that there are none so blind as those who will not see. (I would also put a certain troll many of my readers are acquainted with on that list, who, if he were a man, would have come to my blog and admit he lost a bet by now.)
So what is my "certain age" when people are expected to no longer be ignorant of the world around them? I don't have a number set in stone, but it's well after graduation from high school. Another story on The Huffington Post is from Scott Kesterson, who interviewed soldiers in Afghanistan deeply depressed about Obama's win. These guys completely buy the crap on right wing talk radio, but what choice do they have? Armed Forces radio doesn't let a lot of voices to the left of Rush Limbaugh on the air, so Rush has taken the role of a modern day Tokyo Rose demoralizing our troops by lying about motives and plans of Obama, trying and failing to scare a public that is harder to scare these days, but putting doubt in the minds of our citizen soldiers as to their role under the new administration.
And while we are talking about ignorance, somebody at HuffPo should work a little harder at editing Mr. Kesterson's prose. It's Commander-in-Chief, not Commander and Chief. I found your report interesting, Kesterson, but I had to push past feelings that I was reading the work of a fucking idiot.