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Lance

"We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture."

Lance

We can start with whatever anybody wants to throw out as the first pitch, but I just want to note that the name Michael Savage appears in Pierce's book and that's a name I haven't read on a blog in a long, long time. Which is good to remember whenever I read the name Glenn Beck.

Lance

Lurking permitted, but standing shyly in the corner after saying hello is preferred. Anybody there?

Lance

Like I said, we can start anywhere, but sometime tonight I'm hoping you can help me understand something---I'm still not sure I know what Pierce means by a crank and why he thinks they can be a force for good.

PZ Myers

Idiot America is surprisingly gentle with the idiots -- where the other side (you know, the Becks and Savages and Palins and Malkins) like the idea of shuffling the Left off into a concentration camp, and are happy to label every liberal as anti-American, Pierce actually concedes the crackpots a place in the ecosystem of ideas. They're part of the creative imagination of the culture.

It's just that it's a bad idea to make the fringe the center and even the leadership of the country.

Lance

Evening Doc, you started answering my question before I even wrote it. Regarding the place of cranks/crackpots in the ecosystem of ideas: I'm trying to come up with other cranks/crackpots like Donnelly.

Lance

I think I'm clear on the charlatans.

Lance

I also think Pierce believes there are plenty of liberal cranks out there. Can't remember if he names any.

Lance

"I'm the nation's Surgeon General. I am not the nation's chaplain."

Lance

Quote from C. Everett Koop who resigned from the post of Surgeon General "fed up" says Pierce "with the theocratic sniping behind his back". Pierce says Koop "had been expressly forbidden from mentioning AIDS in public."

PZ Myers

I've been sued or threatened with lawsuits by some of them. Stuart Pivar, for instance, the New York septic tank magnate who thinks animal development is all about toroids getting twisted about. Mike Hallett thinks he's digging up dragons in the rocks of Utah. Ed Conrad ("Man as old as Coal!") finds funny shaped rocks in the slag pits of Pennsylvania coal mines and calls them fossilized human bones, human hearts, even human penises.

They're all completely nuts, completely off the reservation, utterly unacquainted with the mundane explanations for the phenomena they've discovered...but also completely sincere.

I think the virtue isn't that their ideas are right or even close to the truth, but that we can live in a culture with enough intellectual freedom that anything can be explored. That does mean that a few crazies on the fringe will go wandering off the edge of reality, but at the same time it means that we can have Margulises and Mitchells (the chemiosmotic explanation of mitochondrial function, if you don't know the name) who can follow up wild ideas that turn out to be right.

Lance

Koop quote's in my favorite chapter, A Woman Dies on Beech Street".

Lance

Dragons in Utah?

Lance

"I'm actually sympathetic to the ideas of developmental structuralism. This is the concept that physical, mechanical, and chemical properties make a significant and underappreciated contribution to the acquisition of organismal form; genes are not enough, do not carry a complete specification, and what we have to consider is interactions between genes, environment, and cytoplasm. Good stuff, all of it — and I'd like to see more work done on the subject. In my review, though, I had to point out that Pivar hadn't actually addressed any biology, and that his modeling was little more than an extended flight of fancy, unanchored by any connection to any embryology."---PZ Meyers

PZ Myers

Liberal cranks? Paul Wellstone and Dennis Kucinich. In the current environment, they represent a liberal fringe. It's just that they're more progressive and better than the conservative mainstream.

Lance

"This book is a description of the development and evolution of balloon animals."

Lance

Kucinich I can see has a streak of crackpottery. But Wellstone?

PZ Myers

Yes, he finds lumpy rocks that he claims are vertebrae and spines of pre-Cambrian sea dragons. He writes strange hand-written books about them. It's clear that he's wacky and sinks a tremendous amount of time into this obsession, but his family also seems to regard him with a kind of protective affection.

PZ Myers

One man's crackpot is another man's visionary. What do you think Rush Limbaugh thinks of the late Wellstone?

Lance

Do you think that he doesn't understand that he's got a good imagination? I'm looking at the drawings from Pivar's book you posted. Are they his own? They're very well-done. But it makes me wonder if with him it's almost literally a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing. It's like he doesn't realize he's an artist creating something. "I can't have made that up out of my own head, so it must be real!"

Lance

That seems to have been the case with Pierce's opening example, Donnelly.

Lance

Speaking of Limbaugh, he's only a shadowy figure in Idiot America. The chapter on Right Wing talk radio has more about Michael Savage. Is Savage still out there anywhere?

PZ Myers

It's weird. I can't give him credit for too much imagination, because he has precisely one idea and he's been busy trying to hammer everything to fit it. I'm also not sure that the drawings are his: he's very, very rich and has strong connections to the NY art community, and I think he commissions those sketches (but I could be wrong on that).

I don't know how he reconciles his drawings to reality, though. Embryology texts are full of drawings of skulls at different stages as they form, for instance, and none of them look anything like his weird geometrical transformations.

PZ Myers

Michael Savage is still out there -- he's found an online home with Whirled Nut Daily. Now there's a place to find modern day cranks: birthers, truthers, creationists, New World Order conspiracy freaks, gold standard fanatics, etc.

Lance

I see. So it's more a case of monomania than daydreams he doesn't know he's dreaming.

Lance

Oh boy. So much of this stuff seems to me quasi-religious, attempts to see random accidents as having an order and purpose.

Lance

Though it seems as though the it works this way. Something happens that has an explanation. The crank doesn't like the implications of the explanation. Decides it can't be the explanation then. Comes up with a new explanation. If the original explanation was wrong then the crank moves the ball forward by calling attention to its wrongness.

Lance

So have the 9/11 truthers played a role in the gradual realization that the Bush Leaguers dropped the ball on 9/ll?

Lance

Here's a question. Pierce mentions Leon Kass. I first heard of Kass when he appeared in an episode of a series Bill Moyers did in the 1980s, A World of Ideas. I think Moyers admired him then. And Kass didn't come off as a kook on that show. I went to the library the next day and checked out one of his books. Did Kass go off the rails after that or had Moyers missed something essential?

Lance

Can't find the passage right now, but Pierce says Kass is opposed to eating ice cream cones in public?

PZ Myers

Kass is a real oddball. A humanist who reveres the book of Genesis, opposes a whole lot of important research in biology because of some kind of muddled vitalism and human exceptionalism, and just generally annoys me. I can see where Moyers would like him because Kass is definitely a thoughtful guy, but he's also someone whose thoughts are nearly 100% wrong as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't help that he pushes a lot of my hot buttons, opposing much of modern developmental biology and also having a freaky reverence for religion.

PZ Myers
Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone --a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

From here. Yes, there's more.

Lance

I wonder what Moyers thinks now. That was over 20 years ago. He also seemed to pick guests for their eccentricity as much as their ideas. He interviewed a black Randian conservative too.

Lance

Anne Wortham.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpWEM2Z9yn8

Lance

Ok, now where did you find Classical Values? Is it as crackpotty as it looks?

Lance

This post is a perfect example of conservative crackpottery. No more see-saws? Has he been to a playground anywhere?

http://www.classicalvalues.com/archives/2010/06/the_safety_of_m.html

Lance

In Idiot America you can decide something's true because you need it to be and when you do you just stop seeing evidence that it's not true.

Lance

I want to believe that liberals and lawyers have taken all the fun out of America. I've noticed that old fashioned metal jungle gyms have been replaced by far more interesting playground equipment but I loved jungle gyms when I was a kid. Therefore their disappearance must be a bad thing and a sign the world is going to hell. It must be that liberals and lawyers hate jungle gyms. I bet they hate see-saws too. I used to love see-saws. So there are probably no more see-saws either. Those kids on that board going up and down? They're not there.

Lance

Eleven o'clock here. Probably time to call it a night. Thanks for stopping by, Dr Myers.

Lance

Thread's never close, they're like Mobil Quik Marts. Stop in anytime, leave a comment, take home a Slurpee.

Victoria

Oh, so sorry to have missed this! - I only just dragged my sorry self here from my sick bed... I'll try to return once I'm back in working order.

Ken Muldrew

Sorry I missed this, but you two have sold me on the book; I'm going to pick it up on the way home tonight.

So what is the solution here? We live in a densely populated world and an overwhelming fraction of that population relies on technology, on the fruits of intellectual pursuits, for their very survival. We're like the Easter Islanders watching the last few trees being cut down to roll statues about, even though we know perfectly well that the loss of the forest probably means a total collapse of our society. What can be done when so much of our society is hell-bent on societal suicide, all the while sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting insults at those who wish to survive? What on earth can be done to stop this madness?

Lance

Ken, Victoria, I wish you both could have been here too. Ken, let us know what you think of the book. Victoria, I hope you feel better soon.

Ken Muldrew

I got the book on Friday but wasn't able to start until last night (the part of the washing machine that stops the water from flowing broke, main floor laundry, finished basement, aye yi yi...).

The stuff about ordinary crackpots was great; very nostalgic. Starting in the early 90s I used to read the Usenet a lot. My favourite group was sci.physics where some legendary crackpots held court (or so they imagined). These cranks were very much in the mould of Ignatius Donnelly: Alexander Abian, Archimedes Plutonium, Vertner Vergon, Bum Wallace, ...; fiercely individualistic and fully devoted to their own very peculiar ideas, they would never have considered taking talking points from on high and shouting them at their critics. Not in a million years. Even though their version of reality was different from what most people agreed on, they still felt that reality mattered. They were looking for the truth, not for victory over some other group. Theirs was an intellectual struggle, not a bid to amass social power. It's just that their methods for obtaining reliable knowledge were so hopelessly tangential to what generations of people had developed that they became lost in their own separate realities.

The psychologist Bernice Eiduson has written about how the necessity for imagining reality in scientific thinking puts practitioners on a knife edge: "Were this thinking not in the framework of scientific work, it would be considered paranoid. In scientific work, creative thinking demands seeing things not seen previously, or in ways not previously imagined; and this necessitates jumping off from 'normal' positions, and taking risks by departing from reality. The difference between the thinking of the paranoid patient and the scientist comes from the latter's ability and willingness to test out his fantasies or grandiose conceptualizations through the systems of checks and balances science has established -- and to give up those schemes that are shown not to be valid on the basis of these scientific checks. It is specifically because science provides such a framework of rules and regulations to control and set bounds to paranoid thinking that a scientist can feel comfortable about taking the paranoid leaps. Without this structuring, the threat of such unrealistic, illogical, and even bizarre thinking to overall thought and personality organization in general would be too great to permit the scientist the freedom of such fantasying."

The anti-relativity cranks probably see themselves as trying to rescue the poor souls who have lost the battle to maintain their sanity. The notion of time (which the cranks feel is something more than just "what clocks measure") being different for different observers is a departure from "reality" that they simply cannot accept. The normal denizens of sci.physics often wondered why you never found cranks who attacked Einstein's explanation of specific heat, or diffusion, or even the photoelectric effect, and that very absence of crackpottery is the clue that they weren't just trying to achieve fame by knocking off the king; they were sincerely pursuing what they perceived as reality.

The creationist cranks are a very different kettle of fish. They are obviously a political movement with the goal of consolidating social power. When you read Philip Johnson, you can clearly see that he is a Straussian engaging in the "noble lie" for the betterment of society (his version of better, anyway). One would like to see him mock the scientists' belief in naive realism while someone throws a brick at his head (if he ducks, he, too, believes in naive realism, if he doesn't, well there is a nice demonstration of how empirical experiment leads to reliable knowledge). The movement also has its share of proseletizers who are actual believers, the passionate, but dull witted, Hank Hennigraf comes to mind, but most of the major lights are thoroughly dishonest.

Fundamentalist religion is the birthplace of Idiot America. If you live in the modern world and you have to take the myths and societal mores of bronze-age people as the literal truth, written as literal truths outside of time (equally valid now as then, without any allowance for the writings having been constructed with a particular audience in mind), then you are going to have some cognitive dissonance. One look at the difference that proper sanitation can make to the quality and length of life for urbanites should tell anyone with even the meanest appreciation of reality that there are problems (and solutions) that are absent from scripture. It should be obvious to anyone that you need more than those books contain, and that the collective actions and thoughts of people are up to the challenge. Somehow that is not obvious to Idiot America, though. Somehow an enormous number of people are working tirelessly to hasten their own demise by denying reality.

The book is enormously fun so far. I can't wait to get back to it.

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