Sunday, March 26, 2006

Guerrilla Think Tanks?

NOTICE: My apologies for the hiatus. A bout with flu and some unexpected travel put me behind a bit. So without further ado...

I confess I approach this post with some trepidation. Elsewhere I have lamented the passing of what used to be called the "public intellectual"; individuals both in and out of academia who helped bridge the gulf between what was going on in the academy and the interested public. Some blame their fading away on the post-WW II monopoly on intellectual life built by universities, flush with GI Bill cash and other Government funds. Others cite changes in our culture that have made it less friendly to generalists, which many of these people were.

But one also has to mark the rise of the think tank as a substitute institution. These organizations sit somewhere between the university and the public, carrying on research on specific areas, mostly dealing with public policy. To some degree, they have replaced the public intellectual’s role in our discourse, and unfortunately their net influence has not been positive overall.

There are a few out there that do excellent work. But many others were engineered from the ground up to support a specific political agenda, facts and logic be damned. This is possible because Think Tanks answer to no regulations, no rules (aside from libel and slander) dictating their content. The people who run them don’t need to have college degrees or any education at all. They don't even have to produce anything as far as I can determine. Today's think tanks are to the intellectual what totally unrestricted capitalist business is to the economist, with similarly tainted results. Now, I am a firm believer in the veracity of the marketplace of ideas, but I’m also realist enough to recognize that no truth, no matter how “self-evident” can survive unaided in the face of a well-funded, well-designed propaganda campaign.

On the other hand, there are allegedly numerous tax breaks and other fiscal advantages available to think tanks that might be of use to the struggling independent scholar or amateur scientist who is trying to support their work. Most grants made for scholarship and the like are not made to individuals, but institutions. Wrap yourself up in one of these think tanks, and suddenly you can apply for grants. Or so it goes in theory. Besides the practical reality behind that kind of funding, the question is whether one wants to assume the shady reputation that comes with becoming part of the think tank crowd. This is something I will explore further in later installments.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The City of God

By Michael P. Jensen
Guest Blogger

Disasters and political problems have led to some very dumb statements by some very thoughtless people.

• Televangelist Pat Robertson blames the debut of homosexual comedian/actor Ellen Degeneres’s television talk show for the insurgency in Iraq.
• This knucklehead also claims that Ariel Sharon had his stroke because he gave up parts of the West Bank in a negotiated peace deal.
• Former Nixon hatchet-man Charles Colson claims Hurricane Katrina is God’s way of saying we need to do a better job of protecting America against terrorists.
• New Orleans Mayor and closet bigot Ray Nagin said that Katrina was God’s punishment for going into Iraq under false pretenses, though he recanted that the next day.

Anyone with a bit of sense would realize that if God operated this way, he would have punished Ellen Degereres directly when she had her first homosexual experience, making sure she would never do it again. God would have hit Sharon when the deal was made, or if he is really that interventionist, stopped the deal from being made. Katrina can not tell us about terrorists. Only terrorists tell us about terrorists. And what kind of jerk would unleash his fury against people in Louisiana and Mississippi instead of the culprits in Washington D. C.?

If these men are right, one has to conclude that God is a real ass hole with lousy aim. Of course, blaming God for the world’s ills is a bad idea. It is also an old idea.

The earliest incident I know from several perspectives occurred in Rome on 410 A. D. The Goths invaded the city, the first time in 800 years that Roman citizens had been in danger from invaders. There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth, with some religious people saying this was the wrath of the gods.

That’s right, plural. They believed that since Christianity had become the state religion under Constantine, and many people had turned from the pagan gods, those gods sent the Goth invaders as punishment. How the sandal is on the other foot!

The man who argued against this silly idea was one of the most influential Christian thinkers of all time. Augustine wrote a very long book that in English is titled The City of God (come on, read it—its only 1000 pages). Augustine’s reason for writing is bigger than this one claim, but he carefully debunks it, then goes on from there.

Augustine’s point is that no society will ever be Christian enough to please God, and in an early version of the separation of church and state (though Augustine would not have recognized it as such), argues that no society will last, and no society will ever deserve our unwavering commitment, for even the best communities will be somewhat at odds with God, and will drift from God in time. The problems come when people think otherwise, and are too loyal to the state.

Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Ray Nagin, and millions of others representing all religious movements believe otherwise. They may not be smart enough to learn the lesson that Augustine taught, but even an agnostic like myself can benefit from understanding his perspective, and from knowing there is pagan precedent for this idea.

I submit this is one of the problems with the United States today. The confusion of patriotism with fundamentalist Christianity is too well documented to need a more than a nod here. The same goes for the treatment of George W. Bush as God’s governmental spokesman. The inability of millions of people to differentiate between the will of God and the will of Bush, or to differentiate between God’s agenda and the agendas of the imperial neo-conservative movement has contributed to the current problems in the Middle East, over a million American’s slipping below the poverty line, and the loss of America’s place of influence in the free world. We need to be smarter then Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Ray Nagin, and, yes, the Bushbaby and his cronies to turn things around. The next time some religious or political leader credits God with something that would have happened anyway, think about Augustine and be better than that.

Visit Mike Jensen's home page at

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Five Ways to Change the World

I am packing for a trip to the west coast this coming week, so this entry must needs be short.

In at least one previous blog I have lamented the demise of Whole Earth Review, which reincarnated itself briefly as Whole Earth Magazine before it finally faded away. That was a truly wonderful publication, each issue filled with fresh, challenging, and sometimes just plain profound ideas.

One of my favorites was a very short piece in the Winter 2000 issue that I enjoyed so much I copied the essence of it on to a file card for future reference. My card file is sort of like a huge, mad Tarot deck that I use as a kind of idea sifter and review of interesting thoughts. Something for another time.

The idea behind the article was "how to change the world", and the author Danny Hillis listed five ways one could go about this:
  • Impose your will upon the world
  • Discover a new truth
  • Change people's minds
  • Creat things of great beauty
  • Make new tools for change
When you put it that way, suddenly it seems much easier to change the world. And let's be candid here; being a Guerrilla Scholar is about changing the world. Every one of the things in that list are things that could easily grow out of the work of an independent scholar or amateur scientist.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dealing With Crackpots

Since we talked about expertise as an amateur, it’s only fitting that we take a look at the flip side of the non-academic, non-corporate intellectual: the genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, crackpot. They are not Guerrilla Scholars, nor are they true amateur scholars or scientists. Amateurish, yes. But their work seems to feed a diseased mind and a fragile ego that is not nearly mature enough to cope with the ups and downs of true science or scholarship.

During their careers, most physics professors have received unsolicited treatises from individuals who claim to have come up with the ever-elusive Grand Unified Theory of Everything. They will write meandering discourses that amount to little more than rants about their paradigm-shattering discovery, but cannot marshal a single cogent fact in support. My spouse and I refer to such intellectual detritus as “crank scholarship”, and we have a special section of one bookshelf dedicated to what we consider to be truly noteworthy “crank”. Usually, this is stuff that is either self-published, or some commercial publisher was somehow persuaded to print the stuff.

Crank scholarship isn’t restricted to physics. I’ve seen some incredible stuff in antiquities, either the Giza Pyramids or the Dead Sea Scrolls, or some other famous piece of ancient civilization draws crackpot theories like UFO cultists to Roswell. I think the operative word here is “famous”. Somehow these people who are unable or unwilling to acquire the knowledge and discipline that real science and scholarship demand, still want to associate themselves with these external ideas that denote great minds. New cosmologies, the mysteries of the Pyramids, the spectacular discovery of the Scrolls… all of them somehow boost the ego of someone who can somehow lay claim to their secrets.

I find it interesting, for instance, that I haven’t heard of a crank scholar who based his or her work on the archive of Ebla. This amazing discovery in the 1970’s of over 40,000 tablets and fragments was one of the most remarkable documentary discoveries in the history of Mesopotamian archaeology. But it has faded over time and so it draws few cranks.

How do you spot crank scholarship? There are some guides out there, including this one by John Baez. But here are some telltale signs that you are reading (or, God forbid, having a conversation with) a certified pseudoscholarly loon:

1. They do not speak the language of their field. Cosmology or physics is discussed without a single equation. Egyptology is descanted upon without any knowledge of Egyptian, or the knowledge of a language or other sub-discipline is clearly incomplete.
2. They make great claims for themselves beyond that of their work, comparing themselves to Einstein or Feynmann or Newton when this actually has nothing to do with the results of their work.
3. They take the fact that no one in the established scientific or scholarly field takes them seriously as unimpeachable evidence that they are right and, moreover, that they are the victim of a vicious conspiracy to silence them.
4. They will often tell you that they have been working on their project in complete isolation; they have kept their work secret from everyone for fear of having it stolen, but now they are going to reveal it to the world.
5. Their work contains no testable hypotheses if it’s a scientific treatise. Work in the humanities uses that vague associations and parallels (the dreaded “parallelomania”) with no connecting rationale as evidence of cause, effect, bias, conspiracy, or what-have-you.
6. The real wackos believe they are on some kind of divine mission, and that if you do not embrace their findings at once, you are an enemy of the truth. I agree with a friend of mine that these cranks represent an as-yet uncatalogued form of megalomania or some other delusional disorder.

What can you do about it? Not much. Just don’t get into a conversation with them, and don’t ever let them think you are taking them seriously. You’ll never be rid of them.