Only the Best People

 

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
— Maya Angelou

In a recent poll conducted by Civic Science, 56% of Americans responded “No” when asked if Arabic numerals should be taught in the nation’s schools. Such breathtaking ignorance, as well as presumed bigotry, is enough to make the other 44% of Americans take to alcohol. Algebra would be more difficult without using Arabic numerals, even if there are a lot of letters mixed into the formulas. Substituting Roman numerals would only make the subject more confusing.


Civic Science also asked if the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” should be taught in science classes, and 53% said “No”, and of that percentage 73% were Democrats. That theory is actually the basis of the Big Bang theory. While the responses of the majority to both questions point up biases, the two questions do not do it in exactly the same way and therefore the responses are not entirely equivalent.

Arabic Numerals origin
The evolution of Arabic numerals, from top to bottom. Rendering by Vispec.

The key word in the first question is “Arabic”, a term for people living predominantly in North Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are Muslim. By itself, the term describes only an ethnic group. Loading “Arabic” with negative bias is entirely the work of those responding to the term. The wording of the poll question does a good job of not giving anything away to tilt respondents’ attitudes toward the term.

The wording of the other question does not do as good a job since it includes the loaded phrase “creation theory”. It is most likely the case that most respondents had never heard of Georges Lemaitre and his “creation theory”. It is also most likely the case, however, that they had heard the phrase “creation theory” before, a phrase freighted with associations to fundamentalist Christian pseudo-science, even if it was more widely known as “Creationism”.

In as much as the respondents to both questions were reacting with knee jerk tribalism to a word or phrase embedded in each question without really understanding the question, then they are equivalent in their wrong-headedness. In both cases, a more truthful response would have been “Don’t know”, although apparently the poll takers offered only “No opinion” as a third option, a slightly different idea in logic, and not in mere semantics. In that way, both questions tease out the victory of tribalism over knowledge, but it is only the majority responses to the question about “Arabic numerals” that betray bigotry as well as ignorance, much as some might say they are part of the same continuum.

A clip from the “Primacy of Number” section of the 2002 meditative documentary Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. Philip Glass wrote the music, Godfrey Reggio directed the film, and Jon Kane did the editing.

There are a fair amount of assumptions here in parsing the answers to these two deceptively simple polling questions, and assumptions after all play a big part in bigotry. There are also the words of wisdom from the poet Maya Angelou which led this post. We can make educated inferences based on our experience and not have them fall into the well of roiling, unreasoning emotional assumptions and inferences that is bigotry. We can wake up and smell the coffee, as it were, to what only the best people, as they would have us believe they are, are up to in their bad faith quest to subvert the best intentions and best efforts of many, many others to improve human and animal lives and conserve the gifts of the Earth.
— Ed.

 

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Moon Dreams

 

“Who needs astrology? The wise man gets by on fortune cookies.”Edward Abbey (1927-1989)

With the full moon coming on Monday, September 24, it’s fair to wonder how much influence the moon, the planets, and the stars have on earthly lives and events. This full moon is known as the Harvest Moon for obvious reasons, at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the agricultural harvest begins in September. Linking the moon to telling time is sensible considering that through most of history people did not have or require time pieces accurate to minutes and seconds. That would await the Industrial Revolution. Before then, knowing the months by the phases of the moon and the hours by the daily movements (as it appeared from Earth) of the sun and the stars was good enough.


Where things got fuzzy and slipped from astronomy to astrology was the attribution by some people of powerful influences to the celestial bodies. Those influences went beyond gravity and tides to the extent of determining the character and fate of people. What an extraordinary hypothesis! Until the Renaissance, when Copernicus and Galileo disabused humanity of the notion that the Earth, and specifically its Homo sapiens inhabitants, were the center of the universe, people could indulge a belief in astrology and not be out of step with mainstream scientific thought. Now the idea that the moon, the planets, and the stars have any influence on people’s lives beyond the purely physical is magical thinking along the lines of palmistry and Tarot.

Harvest Moon rises over Washington
A Harvest Moon rises over Washington, D.C., on September 19, 2013. Photo by Bill Ingalls for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Most people now believe astrology’s rightful place is in the same pages of their daily newspaper as the comics and the crossword puzzle, and certainly not in the science section. The trouble begins when people in authority ascribe credence to magical thinking, and by extension astrology and other pseudo sciences. The determinism of astrology appeals to people with an authoritarian mindset because it restores a kind of certainty to a life that has become, for them, uncertain and therefore frightening.

“Moon Dreams”, performed by Glenn Miller leading the Army Air Force Band in 1944, was written by Miller’s long time pianist Chummy MacGregor, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

Feeling in control is comforting to them, even though oddly enough they are ceding control to an impassive universe. This is where the all powerful leader comes in, to reassure them that they are indeed still at the center of the universe and endowed by it with special qualities, rights, and privileges. The more thoughtful among them might reflect that special rights are accompanied by special responsibilities, but most are not troubled by such an uncomfortable thought, nor by the exclusion of The Other from the universe’s benevolence, as interpreted for them by their leader. What for most people is a harmless diversion in the funny papers becomes for a few true believers another reality, with its own truth they are determined to foist on everyone else. Ordinary people don’t take the true believers seriously at first, and then too late the decent, ordinary folks realize their fanatic neighbors weren’t kidding with their foolish, dangerous nonsense.
— Ed.

 

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