Saturday, October 31, 2009

Truth system trumps reading comprehension in Wired

Wired magazine is currently running a good, informative article on the battle over vaccination. In it, they provide a wonderful quote by the late, great Carl Sagan, in which he presents reasons why the persistent belief in wacky pseudo-science (like the totally unproven link between vaccines and autism) may not be driven simply by ignorance and stupidity:

“A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

In other words, people don't believe pseudo-science because they are weak minded, but because capitalism sucks, and does a lousy job of providing support for human beings, which it tends to treat as machine tools. (Yes, I am aware Sagan does not single out "capitalism" for critique here. I am attempting to extend the useful Mormon tradition of posthumous conversion for use by us socialists.)

However, rather than build on Sagan's words, Wired seems to ignore them, as the very next sentence in the article suggests that proper middle-class rationality is self-evidently superior to all other forms of thought, and is only ever ignored because it is just too hard for the dumb, lazy masses.

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves — beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace — the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

Let me be clear here, I think the vaccine deniers are wrong, and that preventing children from getting vaccinations is a terrible mistake that could have deadly consequences. However, treating people as children who just need to be properly "disciplined" will only ever make them act as children. If we want to earn the public's trust, we have to build a system of knowledge production (and of production in general) worthy of that trust. One they can be confident is working for them, not to enrich some CEO. Until we do this, their fears will continue to manifest themselves in these dangerous and harmful ways.

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