In his review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, Ted Nordhaus chides humanity for being too “bashful” when it comes to manipulating nature, insisting that such manipulation is necessary if we are to meet our environmental protection aspirations. We’ve likely been in a kind of Anthropocene for far longer than we recognize. The cat is out of the bag, Nordhaus seems to be saying, so we might as well learn to embrace environmental tinkering in earnest. Yet for all his chiding of environmental activists and their “grossly simplified models of the relationship between humans and nature,” Nordhaus ends up offering an equally facile binary in its place.
Nordhaus is no doubt correct that the concept of nature has always been problematically slippery. Metaphors like “carry capacity”, “balanced webs”, and “great chain of being,” obscure as much as they enlighten. He reiterates the well-known problem with “nature.” That is, it is very difficult to draw the line where humanity ends and nature begins. Humans impacted the climate as soon as they discovered fire, a tool that they used to reshape their environment. Yet, despite William Cronon’s over 25-year-old critique of the fantasy of pristine wilderness and how it blinds people to the difficulties of our unavoidable interconnectedness to nature, the myth of the untouched environment persists.
But humans think metaphorically. No differently from the problematic categorizations people use to order their world, they are a largely inescapable component of our imaginations. Eliminating previous metaphors and categorizations usually doesn’t uncover a previously hidden objective reality, because that process of elimination invariably involves overlaying new value-laden images on top of it. What exactly is the metaphor driving Nordhaus?
It would have been nice if Nordhaus had been more explicit. I feel like he hid behind the truism that humanity’s tinkering with the environment has been ever present. But it’s not too difficult to read between the lines when he seems to put prehistoric humans creating grasslands where forests once stood at the same level as genetically engineering coral to survive anthropogenic climate change.
Michael Shellenberger, only formerly associated with Nordhaus’ Breakthrough Institute, isn’t so keen to hide his cards. In coming out against renewable energy, he claims that their problem is that they cannot be sufficient “modern.” Shellenberger makes a little bit too much out of a few Heidegger and Bookchin quotes and a handful of decontextualized statistics to claim that a society based on renewable energy would be inevitably arrested in a state of agrarian backwardness.
Although Nordhaus isn’t so brazen, he doesn’t seem too different from Shellenberger when he talks of humanity’s relationship with the environment. In contrast to Shellenberger, however, he does recognize the risks, something apparent when recounts the compounding unintended consequences brought on by creation of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal was first constructed to keep Chicago’s sewage from inundating Lake Michigan. Asian carp was introduced to control weed and algae growth, but the carp’s capacious growth now threatens the ecosystem—only being reined in by erecting electric barriers to limit the species’ movement. As lamentable as this turn of events might be, Nordhaus waves it off: “Most Chicagoans would probably choose [ecological tragedy] over open sewers running through their streets.”
Imagine that humanity’s control over their tinkering with the environment were regulated by the same controls in an automobile. Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to be preoccupied with the accelerator and brake. The above depiction of the Chicago Sanitary Canal ends up implying almost the same Hobson’s choice as Shellenberger presents for renewable energy: We either dig canals and electrify them, following previous technological errors with new technical fixes in the same style, or we wallow impoverished and in shit.
To fair, technological decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They are path-dependent. We are partly ruled over by decisions made by the dead. Electric (and perhaps automated) vehicles appear to be the only answer to the ills of the automobile in a country where travel by foot, bicycle, or trolley car is made difficult to impossible by already established infrastructure—not to mention culturally entrenched ideas connecting automobility to progress, America, and masculinity.
But the answer given by eco-modernists, even if more implied than explicitly stated like in Nordhaus’s book reviews, reads almost like a kind of learned helplessness in the face of "progress": “This is the path we’re on, we might as well stick with where the least resistance seems to be. But don’t worry! We have read the statistical tea leaves. Everyone will probably be better off. We might as well push forward with our current mode of tinkering.”
History may end up vindicating ecomodernists’ faith in linear progress, at least in the short term, but their quickness to discount alternative pathways stifles a more charitable conversation about environmental problems. There is a real and troubling tendency in ecomodernist writing to reduce the debate into a black-and-white struggle between cornucopians and Malthusians, modernity and pre-modernity, or abundance and austerity. Such a move is just as oversimplifying as the “pristine nature” myths they critique.
Notions like modernity, progress, and abundance are themselves inextricably value-laden. If there is anything productive to come out of debates about how humanity ought to tinker with nature it will only be if those debaters were more honestly up-front about their value commitments. Too often ecomodernism (or degrowth) is presented similarly as liberalism, as if it were just a neutral path toward a better world rather than a one particular partisan vision of the good. And too often, statistical trends read from thirty thousand feet are included less to inspire thoughtfulness and more to lend one side’s argument an aura of inevitability: “Can’t you see that collapse/progress is coming?” Obscured are deeper questions about what makes for a good life and a good society. Exactly what kind of world should our environmental tinkering lead to?
Just because words like “nature” can be problematic social constructions doesn’t mean that they are useless. Most people would admit that there is a significant difference between viewing a tiger at the zoo and encountering one in a jungle. All the thorniness inherent in the concept of wilderness aside, we dispense with the notion that non-human or “natural” agency is important at the cost of realizing a far more complex conversation regarding biological and environmental problems, one that can’t be reduced to facile questions like “Is energy use good or bad?”
Consider minimalistic shoes, of which Vibram’s FiveFinger shoes are one example. These shoes are touted for helping runners realize a more “natural” running form, biomechanics ostensibly discouraged by the heavily padded runners developed during the 20th century. The debates regarding the merits of the shoes quickly went into scientistic territory, with no shortage of evidence available for either side to declare victory.
But most observers missed that the central tension was only superficially about what constitutes a “natural” human gait. It was really rooted in the question of how people should interact with the very ground that they run on. Are the parts of nature outside of our own bodies something simply to insulate and protect against or should there be a more dynamic dance between the agencies of non-human nature and of people? Should our shoes be built to make the material configuration of the ground almost irrelevant to our running or keep it as something we are forced to reckon with on an intimate level?
Taking these examples seriously doesn’t mean falling back upon an idealized bucolic nature, one without the “corrupting” influence of human beings and their technologies. Rather, the point is that there are different qualitative styles to engaging with world that the exists outside people and their creations. A pair Vibrams is no less a technological creation than Nike’s Vapormax running shoes, but each take for granted a different relationship to inherited human biology and how it intersects with the ground. Our disagreements about nature will only be productive when we recognize that it is the tension (and fuzzy border) between nature-to-be-controlled and nature-to-be-engaged, not fanaticizing binaries like “abundance vs austerity,” that lies at the root of them.
It’s easy to forget that Chicago only needed a Sanitary Canal because American society chose—and still chooses—to dump its waste into waterways rather than compost it. Chicagoans were wallowing in shit because they failed to envision a relationship with waste other than trying to make it disappear in ditches, sewers, and waterways. Because they failed to commune with composting bacteria, early modern cities had to go to war with cholera.
We lose the ability to reimagine the dynamics and character of humanity’s tinkering with nature when progress is imagined as a binary. The pathways available to us are not just forward and backwards, toward “modernity” and away from it, or doing things “because we can” and environmental asceticism. There is a steering wheel available to human societies, which they could use to chart any number of pathways through our environmental challenges, if we would only remember that it’s there.
How can STS scholars spread their work and ideas outside of academia? In the last decade, STS has demonstrated a broad commitment to extending the rails of its scholarship. Yet even well-meaning tech activists like Tristan Harris and Cathy O’Neil have seemed unaware of even the existence of the field, much less the contributions it could make to public debates. And when STS scholarship does appear in popular works, such as in Planet of the Humans, things sometimes go off the rails. But the interdiscipline has immense potential to help with impending crises, such as climate change or “post-truth” politics. At the very least, it is imprudent to allow scientistic narratives proffered by people like Michael Shellenberger or techno-fixes proposed by Mark Zuckerberg to dominate the media.
The purpose of this panel is to share knowledge and collaborate in imagining how STS trained people could be more effective “thoughtful partisans,” how their research and analysis could more reliably influence policy debates. We are interested in panelists who can speak to: How to pitch STS-inspired op-eds to popular outlets? How to reach out to and work with journalists and documentary filmmakers? How to run a successful podcast or YouTube channel? Participants should be open to non-traditional panel formats, ones that allow more interaction and sharing with attendees. And we are particularly interested in contributions that emphasize learning from non-academics (not simply “informing” them) as well as engaging diverse audiences, especially across race, class, level of education, and political affiliation.
Taylor Dotson, New Mexico Tech
Michael Bouchey, New Mexico Tech
Society for Social Studies of Science
Toronto and World-wide, October 6-9, 2021
Submissions will open Monday, January 25
Deadline: March 8th, 2021 (Link)
Although it is a common cliché that a new sitting president will “unite” us, the idea of the “American people” falling in line behind a new administration is a fantasy. Presidential approval ratings have always been polarized along party lines—although the partisan gap has widened over the decades. Yet such rhetoric remains an integral part of the post-election political theater, helpful for relieving some of the partisan pressure built up over a frequently nasty campaign season.
The gaping chasm between Biden supporters and Trump voters, however, is not going to be narrowed by rhetorical olive branches. The pre-election belief that ousting Trump would restore political normalcy is rooted in the mistaken idea that his 2016 success was an aberration, a freak anomaly that would be soon forgotten after a more respectable statesman or woman took over the Oval Office. That story is nothing more than a flight of fancy, one that ignores the underlying causes for rampant polarization, “post-truth,” Trumpism, or however one diagnoses our political malaise. The problem is that Americans worship entirely different notions of Truth.
Many of my fellow leftist friends and colleagues desperately want to believe that Trumpism is little more than the last gasps of a dying racist culture. It is a convenient move, which allows them to think of Trump voters as the political equivalent of anti-vaxxers. Once diagnosed as hopelessly deluded and on the wrong side of history, there is no longer any need to understand Trump voters. They only need to be defeated.
Washington Monthly contributor David Atkins openly wondered how we could “deprogram” the 75 million or so people who voted for Trump, dismissing their electoral choice as due to belonging to “a conspiracy theory fueled belligerent death cult against reality & basic decency.” What a way to talk about an almost full quarter of the population! Only the most dyspeptic will admit to daydreaming about ideological reeducation drives, at least publicly. Optimists, on the other hand, allow themselves to believe that “truth and rationality” will inevitably win out, that the wave of popular support for politicians like Trump will naturally subside, ebbing away like the tide.
The desire to equate of Trumpism with white supremacy is understandable, even if it is probably political escapism. Trump’s company faced a 1973 federal lawsuit for racial discriminating against black tenants, and he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1989 to call for the death of five black and Latino youth falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white jogger. His 2016 campaign rhetoric included insinuating that Mexican immigrants mostly brought drugs and crime to the United States, and promised tough-on-crime legislation that disproportionately burdens minority neighborhoods.
The “dying racist America” thesis is not merely propped up by a sober accounting of Trump’s panoply of racial misdeeds but by attacking the next plausible explanation: working class discontent. Adam Serwer’s review of the 2016 election statistics raises serious challenges to that argument. Clinton won a greater proportion of voters making less than $50,000. And neither did the opioid epidemic ripping through white rural America seem to tip the election toward Trump. White working-class citizens whose loved ones were coping with mental health problems, financial troubles, and substance abuse expressed less support for Trump, not more.
But then again Biden was most successful in the counties where the bulk of America’s economic activity occur. The 477 counties accounting for 70 percent of the US economy went to the former vice-president, while a greater proportion of counties that have faced weak job, population, and economic growth went to Trump. To top it off, Trump lost white votes in 2020 and made significant, albeit single-digit, gains among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. Although Trump’s base has traditionally been with white voters who railed against immigration and the perceived feminization of society, neither the “economically disenfranchised working class” nor the “white supremacy” theses seem to really explain the former president’s appeal.
Science vs. Common Sense
Political movements are rarely understood by focusing on members’ deficiencies. An especially misleading starting point is wherever those movements’ opponents think the deficits are. Political allies are more strongly bonded by their shared strengths than their flaws—however obvious and fatal the latter may be.
Data on the employment backgrounds of political donations are insightful here. The Democrats are increasingly of not just the party of the professional class, but the college-educated in general. Scientists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and accountants dominated donations to Biden, whereas Trump’s support came from business owners, police officers, truckers, construction workers, pilots, stay-at-home mothers, and farmers. This split doesn’t map well onto to income-based conceptions of “working class.” Business owners and pilots often make a good living for their families, while well-educated social workers do not. Rather, the difference lies in which kind of knowledge defines their competency.
Today’s political divisions are only indirectly class and racially based, the more fundament divide is between formally schooled expertise and experience-based judgment. Office workers, service employees, and elite knowledge-sector analysts are on one side, whereas blue-collar manual laborers and business owners are on the other. Despite our culture’s tendency to equate intelligence with a talent for mathematical abstraction or the patience (or pretension) to read dense books by French authors, writers like Mike Rose and Matthew Crawford remind us of the discerning judgements necessary for competence in physical work. Blue collar workers and business owners don’t explicitly analyze symbols but have precisely tuned gut feelings that help them do their jobs well.
Much of America’s political malaise is due to the polarized veneration of these competing styles of knowledge. The idolization of science translates into support for technocracy, or rule by experts. The same worship but for common sense drives an attraction to populism. It is this division above all others that increasingly separates Democrats and Republicans. In his victory speech, Biden explicitly painted himself as a defender of science, promising to put properly credentialed experts in charge of pandemic planning.
In contrast, Trump and his allies have taken great lengths to champion how (some) lay people (fail to) understand public problems. Recall how Newt Gingrich dismissed FBI crime statistics as immaterial in the run-up to the 2016 election, stating that “the average American…does not think that crime is down.” He followed up with, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel.” Likewise, faced with polls and election numbers showing a Biden victory, Trump voters saw the occurrence of voter fraud as “common sense.” They reason that since Democratic politicians and media outlets despise Trump so much, why wouldn’t they collude with poll workers to spoil the election? As Democrats have portrayed themselves as defending “the facts,” the right has doubled down on gut feeling.
This same dynamic increasingly defines America’s racial politics as well. Armed with concepts and theories from academics such as Robin D’Angelo, people don’t end up having rich, empathy-evoking conversations about their experiences of race in America. Rather, the more militant members of the “woke” left play armchair psychologist, focusing on diagnosing fellow citizens’ racist personality dysfunctions and prescribing the appropriate therapeutic interventions. They demand that others learn to understand their lives through the vocabulary of critical race scholars, whose conclusions are presented as indisputable.
White people who struggle with some critical race theorists’ stark view that one is either racist or actively anti-racist are labeled as suffering from “white fragility,” an irrational and emotional response to having one’s own undeniable racism exposed. Regardless of whether one thinks this judgement is apt or not, it is difficult to deny that the prognosis comes off as arrogant and dismissive. How else would we expect participants to respond when hearing that some of their cherished ideas about valuing hard work, individualism, or the nuclear family is just part of an inherently racist “white culture”? But empathic understanding is often in short supply when antiracists find themselves in a rare teachable moment. As a New York City Education Councilwoman put it to her colleague in a now viral video, “Read a book. Read Ibram Kendi….It is not my job to educate you.”
Many conservative Americans have reacted to the inroads that critical race theory has made into the workplace and popular discourse by retreating to a similarly incurious form of “common sense.” Ideas from critical race theory become labeled as political correctness run amok, or even “cult indoctrination.” All this is somehow imposed on the rest of the nation by left-wing academic activists whose far-reaching powers somehow only disappear when it comes to concretely influencing policymaking or to getting their 18-year-old students to actually read for class.
Regardless of where one’s sympathies lie in this debate, it seems clear that productive conversations across party lines about the extent of America’s racial problems and what could be done about them are simply not happening.
The real tragedy of today’s political moment is that the elevation of “truth” over politics has locked us into a vicious cycle. Technocracy breeds popular distrust in experts. And the specter of populism spurs the professional class to further wrap themselves in the mantle of “the facts.” And no one budges on anything. Consider ongoing protests of pandemic protection measures. Resistance to state government’s social distancing and stay-at-home requirements has not been a rejection of science so much as the rejection of the inflexibility, strictness, and occasional arbitrariness of executive orders.
Yet many governors have reacted to the pandemic situation as if politics is no longer necessary, as if leaving any room for negotiation were dangerous. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom stated that “health outcomes and science – not politics” would guide reopening plans. And Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer concurred, contending that her decision was a “data-driven approach based on facts, based on science, based on recommendations from experts.”
And much of the media repeats ad nauseum the facts of the matter. It is as if journalists believe that if they present just the right infographic on ICU beds or presentation of the size of one’s social “bubble”—along with a healthy dollop of social shaming—less risk averse Americans will immediately change their holiday plans and social lives to sequester at home. When that fails to happen, the talking points shift to the irrationality and immorality of a public that fails to respect facts.
The problem with the mantra “please just listen to the science!” is that science literacy doesn’t determine whether citizens listen or not. What matters is the perceived trustworthiness of experts and public officials. Expert guidance only gets legitimated through a kind of common sense. Citizens go “with their guts” on whether the elected officials and their science-based advice seems sensible and trustworthy.
One of the best ways to inadvertently sow distrust in experts is to portray them as an unquestionable authority. Anywhere where “post-truth” seems to be on the upswing—in the response to the pandemic or for childhood vaccinations—the determinations of experts are handed down as if divinely decreed, or as if citizens’ reservations need to be only “managed” or countered. The stakes are judged to be so high that ordinary people are deemed unworthy of being consulted regarding how exactly expert recommendations should be implemented. Health researchers and doctors don’t think to ask the vaccine hesitant how they might be made to feel more comfortable with the vaccination process; state governors never bothered to ask people how pandemic protections might be implemented in ways that are less disruptive to their lives.
The other way is for experts to get things wrong. When “the facts” are initially presented as unassailable, later corrections aren’t taken as the routine self-corrections of the scientific process but rather as evidence that the science has been tainted by politics. Early in the pandemic, health experts told the public that masks were ineffective at preventing a COVID-19 infection, but then turned around and recommended that they be mandatory in many states’ pandemic guidelines.
The minor inconveniences of mask wearing and reduced restaurant occupancy have blown up to become perceived as gross violations of freedom in the “common sense” of a substantial portion of Americans not because those citizens deny science but rather because expert opinion was arrogantly applied. Officials failed to be honest and admit that even the scientists were feeling their way through an uncertain situation and that they too make value judgements in light of what they don’t yet understand.
And governmental policies have been inconsistent and sometimes unfair. I can get ticketed in my own state if I walk around a deserted athletic field without a mask. In many states, bars and restaurants are open but outdoor playgrounds remain closed. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that these rules probably do not match the on-the-ground risks. But when leaders and experts overplay their hand, some portion of citizens just start taking expert guidance less seriously. Precious political capital is wasted to enforce compliance in ways that may be pure hygiene theater. Neither has it helped that governors such as Andrew Cuomo originally seemed content to waste vaccines, lest they go to someone who has been calculated by state bureaucrats to be less deserving.
Beyond Political Road Rage
Amidst the trench warfare between technocrats lobbying fact-laced truth bombs and populists laying “common sense” landmines, Americans have largely forgotten how to do politics. The underlying reasoning is understandable. If our collective problems are recast as completely solvable by straightforwardly applying science or something called common sense, what reason is there to debate, negotiate, or listen? Doing so would needlessly give ground to ignorant rubes and brainwashed ideologues.
Americans need not like the viewpoints of their compatriots, but they ought to at least try to understand them. But far too many people appear to put their faith in Truth with a capital T. If only their opponents could be led to see the light and recognize “the facts” or popular “common sense” that they would they quit arguing and toe the line. If only politics were so simple.
It is easy to imagine things getting much worse. A less dysfunctional public sphere feels like a utopian daydream. A good first step would be for Democrats to stop wrapping themselves in the mantle of science and learn to listen better to Americans who don’t have a college degree. Everywhere that populism has developed, it has been in reaction to the popular perception that the political establishment is increasingly elitist and distant. Is it any surprise that 64% of Americans now disagree with the idea that politicians “care what people like me think”? Appearing to hand important political decisions over to scientists in distant universities and governmental agencies is literally the worst thing that elected officials could do right now.
For their part, conservatives, libertarians, and others should lay off the polarizing rhetoric about universities and experts. Rather than attack expertise itself, it is far better to focus instead on efforts to intellectually diversify higher education or turn political conversations back toward the moral (rather than factual) divides that define them. The claim that institutions of higher education are “under attack” by an “insidious” woke ideology is needlessly melodramatic. It reinforces the image of the world as hopeless divided between incommensurable worldviews and further fuels polarization between credentialed expertise and practical common sense. Worst of all, it portrays wokeness is something to be excised from the body politic rather than faced up to as a legitimate political adversary. Hyperbolic handwringing about traitorous cultural Marxists is as antidemocratic as any of the more draconian proposals coming from the left.
Taking one’s political adversaries seriously means making a serious effort to persuade fence sitters—and not just through shaming. When a majority of Americans balked at the “Defund the Police” slogan over the summer, defenders doubled down on the phrase. The problem wasn’t with their poor choice of rhetoric, they seemed to imply, but that the public was misinformed about what the phrase really meant. I can’t think of a more potent example of willful political unawareness.
Whether it is woke-ism or Trumpism, fanatical political movements tell us that something is seriously amiss in our body politic, that an area of public discontent is in a need of serious attention. We must be willing to take those discontents seriously. Focusing on apparent deficits in factual understanding or commonsense reasoning prevents us from better addressing the underlying causes of popular frustration.
George Carlin once mused, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” American political discourse is little different, having become the rhetorical equivalent of road rage. Citizens need more productive ways to talk about their collective problems. Unless people are willing to admit that people can hold a different political viewpoint without being either an idiot of a maniac, there is little hope for American democracy. Power will just continue to vacillate between aloof technocrats and populist buffoons.
Joseph Epstein's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed has been controversial to say the least. While his article is ostensibly penned as a personal letter to the future first lady, Jill Biden, urging her to not so adamantly insist on being called "Doctor", his main focus is on what he sees as the "watering down" of the academic doctorate.
Much of the fury directed at Epstein (and the Wall Street Journal for publishing it) has focused on signs that he was possibly more motivated by sexism than a good faith exploration of what honorific Doctor should mean. He doesn't help his case by being informal to the point of condescension. I mean, he referred to her as "kiddo"! Even though there is a more charitable interpretation: Epstein was playing off of future President Biden's own rhetorical style, that allusion was not clear to nearly all readers.
Given both their of their ages and career experience, Jill Biden and Joseph Epstein are obviously peers. If Epstein had wanted more people to take him seriously, he would have avoided seeming to talk down to the future first lady. Put in context of the long hard road that women have had to fight to get themselves taken seriously within fields like academia, his approach is tone deaf, if not worse.
I made the mistake on Twitter of trying to engage with the non-sexist part Epstein's thesis. (Yes, I am really that bad at social media). As unsavory as the history of women's credentials being disrespected is, I don't think we should let that history totally overshadow all the other readings of Epstein's argument. Certainly one can argue that discussing whether a PhD really merits being called Doctor should wait until our society is more equal. But that is different than the implication that the question is sexist on its face.
Regardless, Epstein's focus is on the increasing ease with which PhDs can be obtained. Exams on Greek and Latin have been dispensed with. More and more PhDs are being minted every year. And honorary doctorates are seemingly handed out to anyone with a sizable donation to offer or even a middling level of celebrity.
I think debating the "difficulty" of the degree is the wrong question. Any kind of credential could be made excessively arduous so as to weed out most of the students that attempt it.
When I get introduced as Doctor, I usually qualify with a jokey line that my father-in-law used to add, "But not the kind that helps people." The sensibility at the heart of that joke is what lies at the crux of the issue. The extra respect that medical professionals receive is not simply due to the difficulty of obtaining a medical degree. Though, even in that line of thought, it is easy to forget that medical doctors have to take difficult licensing exams, pursue continuing education, and can face potential discipline by a professional governing body--things that PhDs are almost nowhere subject to.
Rather, the most important difference between MDs and PhDs is that the former take the Hippocratic Oath. They publicly commit to using their knowledge to help others, although they can and sometimes do fall fall short of that aspiration. The beneficiaries of the work of PhDs are often unclear. The cliché that PhDs are motivated purely by curiosity or knowledge for knowledge's sake obscures a troubling reality. The most reliable benefits of academic work accrue to the researcher themselves (in terms of professional status) and to the small clique of scholars they associate with. No doubt there are exceptions, such as when PhDs admirably choose to work on "applied" problems. But those researchers usually take a big hit professionally by doing so.
If PhDs are to earn the Doctor label they should be required to take an analogous oath, one that commits them to using scholarship to benefit at least some small group of people who do not hold PhDs. The attitude that PhDs are entitled to the status of Doctor because they successfully wrote a dissertation, in my mind, inevitably culminates in a narcissistic form of elitism. Status should be a product of how a person serves others, not something awarded because they survived a largely arbitrary academic gauntlet.
One of the major oversights that Epstein made in his piece was that he failed to take seriously the difference between a PhD and the degree that Jill Biden actually has, an EdD. Educational doctorate programs are designed to enable graduates to apply their knowledge to situations that are likely to be encountered in real-life educational settings. It is a credential that sets up graduates to do good in the world, not just produce knowledge for other academics. So, in light of my own argument, Jill Biden is more befitting of the Doctor honorific than I am. That is a more exciting and interesting conclusion than I thought would have come from engaging with Epstein's sexist op-ed, one that is worth considering.
It seems hard to square face-to-face education with pandemic prevention. In states like Colorado, increasing COVID transmissions are driven by college student cases. The New York Times tallies 178 thousand infections and counting at institutions of higher learning across the country. My own institution has just shut down in-person classes for the next two weeks after learning about several large parties happening over the weekend. The few colleges that so far seem to be successful at preventing outbreaks have expended immense resources, some going so far as to test students weekly or prohibit leaving campus except for an emergency. Are universities up to the task of preventing pandemics?
So-called hybrid and in-person classes have taken an immense about of planning and preparation. Hand sanitizer and face masks had to be bought in immense quantities, rooms needed reconfigured for distance education, and dorms and food service needed redesigned to support social distancing. Unfortunately, it seems like few, if any, college administrators gave as much consideration to the organizational and social facets of pandemic prevention, preferring to wag their finger at undergraduates and expect them to behave. No one appears to have stopped to ask, “What do students need in order to be able to comply?”
Just as abstinence-based sex education is ineffective at reducing teenage pregnancy, an abstinence-based approach to pandemic schooling won’t stop social intimacy among college students. And this should have been no mystery to college administrators, or at least it would not have been if they consulted social scientists rather than only epidemiologists and virologists. Safety has rarely been the technological accomplishment. Preventing outbreaks could have only be done through achieving the right kind of campus culture and a deep understanding of how to actually empower people to act safely.
The reality that safety is socially accomplished is well-known to people who study risky technology. Decades of studies on operators of nuclear reactors, sailors on aircraft carriers, and air traffic controllers show that safety can be assured only by investing in a culture of high reliability. High reliability organizations invest considerable time and effort investing in people. Members need to have complete “buy in” regarding the organization’s performance. They not only receive considerable training but are also empowered to help make important collective decisions about the hazards they face. High reliability employees are more than just “rule followers.”
The question is, “Can university campuses become high reliability organizations when it comes to pandemic prevention?” There is good reason to believe the answer is “no.” The same kinds of organizational studies that uncovered the existence of organizations capable of averting disaster typically found college bureaucracies to be very much the opposite. Festering problems go unaddressed, “solutions” are developed to non-existent problems, and decisions get made without obvious efforts at careful problem solving.
The organizational dysfunction of universities is well known to the people that work in them. We have just been lucky up until now that colleges haven’t had to actually handle anything hazardous, like nuclear fuel or supersonic jets. The consequences of chronic institutional incompetence are just a growing mental health crisis among students, poor graduation rates, and graduates who lack many of the fundamental skills that they will actually need in their later careers.
To the skeptic, the solution is dead simple: colleges should only offer online classes. That is the only inherently safe strategy. As a classic paper on the safety of petrochemical plants put it, “What you don’t have, can’t leak.” The easiest way to mitigate the harms of dangerous chemicals is to employ them in smaller amounts, move them shorter distances, introduce them into chemical reactions under more benign conditions, or simply replace them with safer alternatives. The same is true for colleges: What students you don’t have on campus, can’t get infected.
But perhaps that goes too far. Maybe there are lessons from the safe operation of nuclear plants and other potentially catastrophic technologies that could be applied to the college environment. Safety expert Sidney Dekker calls one version of the high reliability approach “Safety Differently,” and it works by seeing people not as problem to managed or to fixed but rather as essential parts of the solution. University administrators have mainly done the former by implementing mandatory testing and quarantine procedures, enforcing social distancing protocols, and employing threats of punishment and injunctions to “be responsible” to try to cajole the students into doing the right thing.
All those efforts seem commonsensical. The problem is that they backfire. Threats of punishment lead people to hide their mistakes, meaning that vital information is not shared with the people who need them. Students have a party, then lie about it.
An overemphasis on protocols reduces safety to rule following, undercutting people’s motivation to think about what the right thing to do might be for a given situation. People treat mask wearing and 6 ft. of distance as if it were magic. They enforce compliance in situations where transmission risk is likely already low, like when walking outside, which can eat away at the seriousness that people take mask requirements. And it remains an open question whether or not cloth masks are really good enough to last an hour of breathing and talking in the enclosed space of a classroom, especially if students don’t launder them enough or they become wet.
Making students part of the solution of pandemic prevention would mean including them in discussions about what kinds of protocols should be implemented and how. In the effort to prevent campus outbreaks, students are no longer universities’ “customers” and more like the operators of a nuclear reactor. It is their behavior that determines whether risks are contained. It is only students who can prevent a pandemic meltdown. Most importantly, they are the only ones with the expertise regarding how different demands and precautions can be made compatible with student life and their social and mental health needs. Without them, administrators are trying to manage a high-risk sociotechnical system that they can’t really understand.
But that sounds like a tall order. Cultivating a high reliability culture is one thing on an aircraft carrier, but quite another among college students. Even worse, students are already infantilized by our educational system in general: by the demeaning carrot and stick incentives of the grading system; by the lack of space for individual curiosity; and by the reluctance to let students take responsibility for their own learning. If we cannot even trust students with their own education, how can we rely on them to be responsible when it comes to COVID? Achieving outbreak-free in-person campuses may prove to be impossible without far more radical changes to the structure of higher education.
Are Americans losing their grip on reality? It is difficult not to think so in light of the spread of QANON conspiracy theories, which posit that a deep-state ring of Satanic pedophiles is plotting against President Trump. A recent poll found that some 56% of Republican voters believe that at least some of the QANON conspiracy theory is true. But conspiratorial thinking has been on the rise for some time. One 2017 Atlantic article claimed that America had “lost its mind” in its growing acceptance of post-truth. Robert Harris has more recently argued that the world had moved into an “age of irrationality.” Legitimate politics is threatened by a rising tide of unreasonableness, or so we are told. But the urge to divide people in rational and irrational is the real threat to democracy. And the antidote is more inclusion, more democracy—no matter how outrageous the things our fellow citizens seem willing to believe.
Despite recent panic over the apparent upswing in political conspiracy thinking, salacious rumor and outright falsehoods has been an ever-present feature of politics. Today’s lurid and largely evidence-free theories about left-wing child abuse rings have plenty of historical analogues. Consider tales of Catherine the Great’s equestrian dalliances and claims that Marie Antoinette found lovers in both court servants and within her own family. Absurd stories about political elites seems to have been anything but rare. Some of my older relatives believed in the 1990s that the government was storing weapons and spare body parts underneath Denver International Airport in preparation for a war against common American citizens—and that was well before the Internet was a thing.
There seems to be little disagreement that conspiratorial thinking threatens democracy. Allusions to Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay on the “paranoid style of American politics” have become cliché. Hofstadter’s targets included 1950s conservatives that saw Communist treachery around every corner, 1890s populists railing against the growing power of the financial class, and widespread worries about the machinations of the Illuminati. He diagnosed their politics paranoid in light of their shared belief that the world was being persecuted by a vast cabal of morally corrupt elites.
Regardless of their specific claims, conspiracy theories’ harms come from their role in “disorienting” the public, leading citizens to have grossly divergent understandings of reality. And widespread conspiratorial thinking drives the delegitimation of traditional democratic institutions like the press and the electoral system. Journalists are seen as pushing “fake news.” The voting booths become “rigged.”
Such developments are no doubt concerning, but we should think carefully about how we react to conspiracism. Too often the response is to endlessly lament the apparent end of rational thought and wonder aloud if democracy can survive while being gripped by a form of collective madness. But focusing on citizens' perceived cognitive deficiencies presents its own risks. Historian Ted Steinberg called this the “diagnostic style” of American political discourse, which transforms “opposition to the cultural mainstream into a form of mental illness.” The diagnostic style leads us to view QANONers, and increasingly political opponents in general, as not merely wrong but cognitively broken. They become the anti-vaxxers of politics.
While QANON believers certainly seem to be deluding themselves, isn’t the tendency by leftists to blame Trump’s popular support on conservative’s faculty brains and an uneducated or uninformed populace equally delusional? The extent to which such cognitive deficiencies are actually at play is beside the point as far as democracy is concerned. You can’t fix stupid, as the well-worn saying has it. Diagnosing chronic mental lapses actually leaves us very few options for resolving conflicts. Even worse, it prevents an honest effort to understand and respond to the motivations of people with strange beliefs. Calling people idiots will only cause them to dig in further.
Responses to the anti-vaxxer movement show as much. Financial penalties and other compulsory measures tend to only anger vaccine hesitant parents, leading them to more often refuse voluntary vaccines and become more committed in their opposition. But it does not take a social scientific study to know this. Who has ever changed their mind in response to the charge of stupidity or ignorance?
Dismissing people with conspiratorial views blinds us to something important. While the claims themselves might be far-fetched, people often have legitimate reasons for believing them. African Americans, for instance, disproportionately believe conspiracy theories regarding the origin of HIV, such as that it was man-made in a laboratory or that the cure was being withheld, and are more hesitant of vaccines. But they also rate higher in distrust of medical institutions, often pointing to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and ongoing racial disparities as evidence. And from British sheepfarmers’ suspicion of state nuclear regulators in the aftermath of Chernobyl to mask skeptics’ current jeremiads against the CDC, governmental mistrust has often developed after officials’ overconfident claims about the risks turned out to be inaccurate. What might appear to an “irrational” rejection of the facts is often a rational response to a power structure that feels distant, unresponsive, and untrustworthy.
The influence of psychologists has harmed more than it has helped in this regard. Carefully designed studies purport to show that believers in conspiracy theories lack the ability to think analytically or claim that they suffer from obscure cognitive biases like “hypersensitive agency detection.” Recent opinion pieces exaggerate the “illusory truth effect,” a phenomenon discovered in psych labs that repeated exposure to false messages leads to a relatively slight increase in the number subjects rating them as true or plausible. The smallness of this, albeit statistically significant, effect doesn’t stop commentators from presenting social media users as if they were passive dupes, who only need to be told about QANON so many times before they start believing it. Self-appointed champions of rationality have spared no effort to avoid thinking about the deeper explanations for conspiratorial thinking.
Banging the drum over losses in rationality will not get us out of our present situation. Underneath our seeming inability to find more productive political pastures is a profound misunderstanding of what makes democracy work. Hand Wringing over “post-truth” or conspiratorial beliefs is founded on the idea that the point of politics is to establish and legislate truths. Once that is your conception of politics, the trouble with democracy starts to look like citizens with dysfunctional brains.
When our fellow Americans are recast as cognitively broken, it becomes all too easy to believe that it would be best to exclude or diminish the influence of people who believe outrageous things. Increased gatekeeping within the media or by party elites and scientific experts begins to look really attractive. Some, like philosopher Jason Brennan, go even further. His 2016 book, Against Democracy, contends that the ability to rule should be limited to those capable of discerning and “correctly” reasoning about the facts, while largely sidestepping the question of who decides what the right facts are and how to know when we are correctly reasoning about them.
But it is misguided to think that making our democracy only more elitist will throttle the wildfire spread of conspiratorial thinking. If anything, doing so will only temporarily contain populist ferment, letting pressure build until it eventually explodes or (if we are lucky) economic growth leads it to fizzle out. Political gatekeeping, by mistaking supposed deficits in truth and rationality for the source of democratic discord, fails to address the underlying cause of our political dysfunction: the lack of trust.
Signs of our political system’s declining legitimacy are not difficult to find. A staggering 71 percent of the Americans believe that elected officials don’t care about the average citizen or what they think. Trust in our government has never been lower, with only 17 percent of citizens expressing confidence about Washington most or all the time. By diagnosing rather than understanding, we cannot see that conspiratorial thinking is the symptom rather than the disease.
The spread of bizarre theories about COVID-19 being a “planned” epidemic or child-abuse rings is a response to real feelings of helplessness, isolation, and mistrust as numerous natural and manmade disasters unfold before our eyes—epochal crises that governments seem increasingly incapable of getting a handle on. Many of Hofstadter’s listed examples of conspiratorial thought came during similar moments: at the height of the Red Scare and Cold War nuclear brinkmanship, during the 1890s depression, or in the midst of pre-Civil War political fracturing. Conspiracy theories offer a simplified world of bad guys and heroes. A battle between good and evil is a more satisfying answer than the banality of ineffectual government and flawed electoral systems when one is facing wicked problems.
Perhaps social media adds fuel to the fire, accelerating the spread of outlandish proposals about what ails the nation. But it does so not because it short-circuits our neural pathways to crash our brains’ rational thinking modules. Conspiracy theories are passed by word of mouth (or Facebook likes) by people we already trust. It is no surprise that they gain traction in a world where satisfying solutions to our chronic, festering crises are hard to find, and where most citizens are neither afforded a legible glimpse into the workings of the vast political machinery that determines much of their lives nor the chance to actually substantially influence it.
Will we be able to reverse course before it is too late? If mistrust and unresponsiveness is the cause, the cure should be the effort to reacquaint Americans with the exercise of democracy on a broad-scale. Hofstadter himself noted that, because the political process generally affords more extreme sects little influence, public decisions only seemed to confirm conspiracy theorists’ belief that they are a persecuted minority. The urge to completely exclude “irrational” movements forgets that finding ways to partially accommodate their demands is often the more effective strategy. Allowing for conscientious objections to vaccination effectively ended the anti-vax movement in early 20th century Britain. Just as interpersonal conflicts are more easily resolved by acknowledging and responding to people’s feelings, our seemingly intractable political divides will only become productive by allowing opponents to have some influence on policy. That is not to say that we should give into all their demands. Rather it is only that we need to find small but important ways for them to feel heard and responded to, with policies that do not place unreasonable burdens on the rest of us.
While some might pooh-pooh this suggestion, pointing to conspiratorial thinking as evidence of how ill-suited Americans are for any degree of political influence, this gets the relationship backwards. Wisdom isn’t a prerequisite to practicing democracy, but an outcome of it. If our political opponents are to become more reasonable it will only be by being afforded more opportunities to sit down at the table with us to wrestle with just how complex our mutually shared problems are. They aren’t going anywhere, so we might as well learn how to coexist.
America’s nuclear energy situation is a microcosm of the nation’s broader political dysfunction. We are at an impasse, and the debate around nuclear energy is highly polarized, even contemptuous. This political deadlock ensures that a widely disliked status quo carries on unabated. Depending on one’s politics, Americans are left either with outdated reactors and an unrealized potential for a high-energy but climate-friendly society, or are stuck taking care of ticking time bombs churning out another two thousand tons of unmanageable radioactive waste every year
Continue reading at The New Atlantis
Anyone who knows the history of major disasters like the BP oil spill will have noticed one common feature: overconfidence in the face of the unknown, or what most of us know as foolhardiness. If US colleges are to avoid being mentioned in those kinds of history books, residents, students, and parents need to demand that university presidents reverse course on their campus reopening plans.
Many institutions of higher learning across the nation find themselves in a precarious financial position. They face declining enrollments, oil bust-driven decreases in funding, and the costs of COVID-related protections. Throughout history, organizations in charge of serious hazards have had to grapple with similar economic pressures. And many of them have made unwise decisions as a result. The disaster in Bhopal, India that took the lives of thousands of people was the result of cost cutting measures by Union Carbide, which fundamentally undermined their chemical plants’ safety systems. More recently, Boeing stifled dissent about destabilizing design changes to their 737 MAX jets, because they were preoccupied with not losing market share to Airbus.
There is an implicit cost-benefit analysis behind university administrators’ justification for reopening. They have balanced the chance of a handful of students in the ICU—perhaps one or more dead—against ensuring a higher quality “educational experience” and shoring up enrollment numbers as well as room and board revenues. No doubt private companies and regulators do the same thing every day when they decide whether it is worth including additional safety features in cars or if extra road and highway deaths caused by high speed limits are a fair price for giving drivers a quicker commute.
But the hazard presented by reopening universities is a different class of risk altogether: Car accidents don’t spread exponentially. We risk repeating the mistaken thinking of Union Carbide or Boeing, courting disaster in the pursuit of more modest gains (or the avoidance of losses). Rather than accept the certain costs of decreased enrollment and of the absence of on-campus students, administrators have bet the farm on in-person and “hybrid” semesters, gambling on unproven strategies meant to keep college students from being socially intimate with each other. If they succeed, the spoils will be modest: Their own institutions won’t lose much ground to peer colleges. If they end up sparking a major outbreak, the damage may prove ruinous to their institution’s reputation and financial solvency, not to mention the harms to nearby residents and local healthcare systems. There are reasons why intelligent people don’t play Russian Roulette. You only get to lose once.
We can do far better than gamble with the lives of students, staff, faculty, and community members in order to avoid moderate financial losses. Forward-looking institutions will instead focus on attracting enrollment by drastically improving the quality of online delivery and on redoubling their efforts to attract dollars through research proposals and contract work. There is no guarantee that such efforts would bear fruit, but at least the losses would be known and plausibly manageable. Far too many universities and colleges are committing themselves to the institutional equivalent of Pamplona’s “running of the bulls,” where "winning" only means avoiding mortal injury. There is still time to change course. But will wiser heads prevail?
“Gift to Big Oil.” “Toxic.” “Dangerous.” Planet of the Humans, which criticizes the idea that green energy will solve the climate crisis, has made a lot of people very upset. Some critics have gone so far as to equate its argument with climate denialism or demand that the film be taken down. While the documentary is far from perfect, far worse is the shallowness of the discussion about the film. Both Planet of the Humans and the critical response of it illustrate everything that is wrong with our fact-obsessed culture, one in which perspectives on controversial topics aren’t honestly engaged with but merely “debunked.”
Most of the critics have zeroed in on parts of the film that are outdated or potentially misleading. The 8% efficient solar panels shown early on of the documentary are now 22% efficient. Most electrical grids are dominated by natural gas rather than coal, greatly improving the relative carbon footprint of an electric car. While the share of different renewables in Germany’s total energy mixture—which includes transportation and home heating—do hover around the single digits, altogether they comprise some 40% of electricity production.
But the facts used in the rebuttals are usually themselves only slightly less simplistic or equivalently misleading. Life-cycle analyses of electric vehicles (EVs) show that they have approximately a 30% advantage in cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions, but their impact on water sources and aquatic life is higher because they require exotic mined materials. So, while critics do have a point that the carbon outlook on electric vehicles are better than what director Jeff Gibbs implies, they don’t actually provide much to counter his argument that EVs may not actually be good enough to deliver on promised environmental outcomes. Will their carbon advantage balance out the harms if we end up building billions of them? Likewise, isn’t it deceptive to only use electricity production statistics to tout the progress made by renewables, since all energy use outputs CO2?
Neither do critics prove themselves to be dispassionate fact arbiters when they cherry pick parts of the documentary to shore up their own narrative of it as misinformed energy heresy. Much has been made of co-producer Ozzie Zehner’s statement in front of the Ivanpah concentrated solar facility: "You use more fossil fuels to do this than you're getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend." Critics aiming at a “gotcha” moment have used this quote to portray Zehner as so obtuse as to believe that no solar technology has a better carbon footprint than fossil fuels. The more reasonable interpretation is, of course, that he’s talking specifically about the Ivanpah solar facility that he’s standing right in front of at that very moment. At this point, critics’ claim to the moral or factual high ground starts to seem suspect.
The underlying problem with the whole debate is the widespread belief that “the facts” will tell us that we are on the right track, that clear-eyed carbon accounting will clear out all the messy political and moral debates inherent in the climate crisis. If only. We get simple answers only by making simplifying assumptions and using reductive metrics, blinding ourselves to the multifaceted ways that our technologies often harm both people and the environment and obscuring far deeper questions about what humanity’s relationship with the planet should be.
The focus on “debunking” distracts us from the recognition that the climate crisis poses far more complex question than the mere carbon footprint of alternative energy technologies, that whenever we generate energy we commit ourselves to doing harm. The framing of PVs and wind turbines as “green,” “renewable,” and “zero-carbon” distracts us from how all energy technologies lead to deaths (animal and human), ecosystem destruction, massive levels of extraction and processing of raw materials, pollution, and even the disruption of our experience of non-human spaces.
If we get too caught up in the dream of green-energy-fueled progress, we risk sleepwalking through the innovation process, ignoring deeper problems until it is too late and setting ourselves up to repeat the same kind of mistake that we made with fossil fuels. In massively expanding wind or tidal energy, will the potential effects on wildlife be worth it? Is it a fair trade to give up the ability to climb a mountaintop in Vermont and hear nothing but the rustling of the trees? Will the probable environmental and sociopolitical consequences of mining rare earth metals in South American and African countries be a worthy sacrifice?
Even then, it is unclear if promises of a 100% renewable consumer society can ever be delivered. Even though a life-cycle analysis of an individual car or photovoltaic unit can produce a nice-looking number, things become far more complex at higher scales. Take Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s proposal, which would require nearly two billion roof-top solar installations along with thousands upon thousands of tidal turbines, Ivanpah-like facilities, and geothermal plants. One would think they were reading a proposal to terraform Mars, given the sheer material requirements of such an endeavor. And even then his proposal has been pilloried for simplistic assumptions about the power grid, environmental constraints on hydropower capacity, and land use. Gibbs’s core worry that the green energy dream may be a deceptive illusion remains an important one, for the dream remains but a speculative future, one that we are by no means guaranteed to achieve.
To be fair to the critics, the documentary tends to be pretty ham-fisted, and that main point gets lost as Gibbs chases a tale of corporate greed and corruption. My sense of the film is that Moore’s and Gibbs’s voices are too loud, and that the perspective co-producer and environmental scholar Ozzie Zehner is only present in disjointed fragments. For those who feel the urge to condemn the documentary to the dustbin, I recommend taking a look at Zehner’s 2012 Green Illusions.
Surprising as it may seem to viewers of Planet of the Humans, Zehner actually concludes halfway into his book that he believes that the world will eventually be powered by renewable energy, just not in the way that we usually think. He contends that the least expensive and most environmentally beneficent way to shut down a coal plant is to not have to replace it with anything. That is, energy reduction beats green energy any day of the week. But the dominant media narrative is suffuse with speculative ecomodernist hopes and dreams of a world almost entirely unchanged from what we enjoy today, albeit powered by PVs and wind turbines. So, we dedicate far too little money and effort to all the ways that we could use far less energy, needing not only fewer fossil fuel plants but also significantly less green energy to replace it.
Zehner’s book further parts ways from Planet of the Humans by actually providing solutions. A key part of his recommendations is that none of them actually require us to “sacrifice” for the climate. There’s no bleak demand for energy “austerity” here. For example, he advocates designing cities to require far less driving and be made up of denser, more energy thrift housing. Such neighborhoods would provide residents with a level of community engagement that they likely haven’t enjoyed since college (if ever) and a quality of life difficult to find in most contemporary American cities.
Especially noteworthy is Zehner’s answer to the population question. Because Gibbs leaves the viewer to read between the lines when he proposes population control, critics have taken it upon themselves to assume the worst possible interpretation, linking Gibbs’s suggestion with something called “ecofascism” and “far-right hate groups.” (Does that also count as misinformation or is it merely misleading?) Despite the left-wing tendency to dismiss the idea inherently racist and “problematic,” Zehner’s proposal for population control couldn’t be more progressive: gender equality. He simply notes that cultures that afford the equal right of women and girls to go to school and have careers produce fewer babies. That’s certainly not ecofascist by any stretch of the imagination. But why wasn’t that in the film?
So, the problem with Planet of the Humans isn’t so much that it is factually flawed. (I mean, if other large-scale technological controversies are any guide, many critics would use even more minor empirical failings to dismiss an inconvenient perspective in its entirety.) Rather, the real limitation of the film is that it lacks a compelling vision of the future. It too easily allows others—whether it be “big oil” or nuclear energy fanatic Michael Shellenberger—opportunistically fill in the void with their own self-serving conclusions. It allows critics to dismiss it as a paean to ecofascim or nihilism. But Gibbs’s film still alerts us to something important: the need to pause and reflect upon exactly where all this “green” industrial energy activity is supposed take us. But will the critics be too preoccupied with “getting the facts right” to really hear it?
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
If You Don't Want Outbreaks, Don't Have In-Person Classes
How to Stop Worrying and Live with Conspiracy Theorists
Democracy and the Nuclear Stalemate
Reopening Colleges & Universities an Unwise, Needless Gamble
Radiation Politics in a Pandemic
What Critics of Planet of the Humans Get Wrong
Why Scientific Literacy Won't End the Pandemic
Community Life in the Playborhood
Who Needs What Technology Analysis?
The Pedagogy of Control
Don't Shovel Shit
The Decline of American Community Makes Parenting Miserable
The Limits of Machine-Centered Medicine
Why Arming Teachers is a Terrible Idea
Why School Shootings are More Likely in the Networked Age
Gun Control and Our Political Talk
Semi-Autonomous Tech and Driver Impairment
Community in the Age of Limited Liability
Conservative Case for Progressive Politics
Hyperloop Likely to Be Boondoggle
Policing the Boundaries of Medicine
On the Myth of Net Neutrality
On Americans' Acquiescence to Injustice
Science, Politics, and Partisanship
Moving Beyond Science and Pseudoscience in the Facilitated Communication Debate
Privacy Threats and the Counterproductive Refuge of VPNs
Andrew Potter's Macleans Shitstorm
The (Inevitable?) Exportation of the American Way of Life
The Irony of American Political Discourse: The Denial of Politics
Why It Is Too Early for Sanders Supporters to Get Behind Hillary Clinton
Science's Legitimacy Problem
Forbes' Faith-Based Understanding of Science
There is No Anti-Scientism Movement, and It’s a Shame Too
American Pro Rugby Should Be Community-Owned
Why Not Break the Internet?
Working for Scraps
Solar Freakin' Car Culture
Mass Shooting Victims ARE on the Rise
Are These Shoes Made for Running?
Underpants Gnomes and the Technocratic Theory of Progress
Don't Drink the GMO Kool-Aid!
On Being Driven by Driverless Cars
Why America Needs the Educational Equivalent of the FDA
On Introversion, the Internet and the Importance of Small Talk
I (Still) Don't Believe in Digital Dualism
The Anatomy of a Trolley Accident
The Allure of Technological Solipsism
The Quixotic Dangers Inherent in Reading Too Much
If Science Is on Your Side, Then Who's on Mine?
The High Cost of Endless Novelty - Part II
The High Cost of Endless Novelty
Lock-up Your Wi-Fi Cards: Searching for the Good Life in a Technological Age
The Symbolic Analyst Sweatshop in the Winner-Take-All Society
On Digital Dualism: What Would Neil Postman Say?
Redirecting the Technoscience Machine
Battling my Cell Phone for the Good Life