John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The bliss of ignorance

Writing about Sarah Palin in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban characterized Going Rogue as a “paean to virtuous ignorance,” a term that looks like something that could stand further examination.

***Just a minute, boys, let me be clear from the outset that I am not writing about Sarah Palin but about the concept of “virtuous ignorance.” No need to douse me with that adolescent vitriol you splashed on Mr. Raban at Free Republic. (Apparently, anyone who is not enchanted with Ms. Palin is a homosexual given to using big words, and that counts as refutation, at least on that site.)***

For a pure example of virtuous ignorance, it is hard to surpass Jenny McCarthy, the actress-turned-autism-advocate. Diane Sawyer invited her onto ABC News to denounce a study in Pediatrics, a medical journal, that determined that the special diets Ms. McCarthy advocates are ineffective. Her response was that it’s time that doctors “start listening to our anecdotal evidence.”

Ms. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, Evan, was previously granted a platform by Oprah Winfrey to discuss growing scientific evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Ms. McCarthy rebutted it thus: ‘My science is Evan, and he's at home. That's my science.”

It is a puzzlement: In a technologically advanced society, in which lifespan and standards of living have been improved by more than two centuries of post-Enlightenment scientific research, a Jenny McCarthy can become an influential figure in public health. Increasingly, people believe what they wish to believe, against all evidence, especially if someone with whom they can identify, whom they see as a sincere person, agrees with them.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on the high proportion of television meteorologists who are skeptical about the scientific evidence for global warming. Never mind that meteorology and climatology, though related, are distinct disciplines. Never mind that TV weather forecasters may have negligible training in climatology. They are the people seen every day as representatives of science, and their word carries weight.

Ms. McCarthy and the climate skeptics are quick to claim that there is a scientific establishment with a sinister agenda, falsifying research, operating on behalf of hidden interests. Indeed, there is malpractice in science, as you can read in Horace Freeland Judson’s 2004 book, The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. People rush to publish, people lie, peer review can fail.

But it’s dangerous to generalize from single cases. Piltdown Man was a fraud for decades, but its exposure did not mean that we had to discard anthropology. Science still has self-correcting mechanisms. The reason that proponents of creationism and intelligent design have turned to the secular arm to undermine by legislative means the teaching of evolution is that they have not been able to make a persuasive case scientifically.*

Do not imagine that paranoia and self-righteous fantasy are limited to the right, even though contemporary conservatives have vouchsafed us some of the more lurid examples. In Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens examines how Gore Vidal, a distinguished novelist (his Lincoln is exceptional) and formidable essayist, has given himself over in advancing age to uttering crackpot statements, among them the assertion that George W. Bush connived at the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is vile, and it is painful to see a man of letters fall so low.

Vaccines for credulity appear to be a long way off.



*I fear the day when the bigots discover that we got algebra from the Arabs (al-Kwarizmi’s book ’ilm al-jabr wa’l-mukabala, “the science of restoring what is missing and equating like with like”) and mobilize to eliminate the teaching of mathematics in public schools. Then all that will remain for us to do is ask what accommodations our Chinese overlords require.


15 comments:

  1. Science, like Obama, needs to speak up for itself. The only thing Science has going for it now is @BadAstronomer 's blog in Discovery.com and Mythbusters. We need another Sagen to come forth and explain things. Wonder what Bill Nye is doing these days.

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  2. Excellent article. It's so good to have a label for this odd behavior. I'm sure the practice of "virtuous ignorance" is not new, but now that we have a name for it, we'll notice it even more.

    [notes: your last sentence: "… is it painful to a man of letters fall so low." is missing something. "…it is painful to see a man..." maybe? Also, there's no appeasement for the FTC. Did you omit that on purpose?]

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  3. Thanks for pointing out the garble, which has been fixed.

    And this:

    DISCLAIMER FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION:

    If a reader should order the book from Amazon.com by clicking on the link above, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

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  4. Ooh, ooh, write a post on the differences between "connive with" and "connive at"! (The OED has quite an article on the historical usages of the word.)

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  5. Two or more parties connive with one another to accomplish some outcome.

    To connive at is to take action toward that goal.

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  6. This isn't limited to politics, of course. People obsess about many threats -- crime, terrorism, tainted vaccines, swine flu, you name it -- and utterly ignore the fact that the most dangerous thing they can do with their families, statistically speaking, is to pack everyone into the minivan and drive to the mall. Or conversely, people spend billions on concoctions and unguents, on foods and beverages, and on strangers' advice, all in the belief of their benefits, yet all of dubious or utterly useless value.

    Thinking logically is hard for people -- all people -- and intellectually speaking, we mostly lead with the gut. It's certainly not news that people can "know" something to be true in the face of little evidence, no evidence, or counter-evidence, and their "knowledge" is the trump card on the matter. I hesitate to bring up the size and history of certain human institutions for which this has been true since literally before history began, but there you go.

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  7. Why does "Ms." take a period? Is it an abbreviation?

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  8. It's disheartening that people don't trust good science over bad science. If any of you have seen Conservapedia the things written there could easily have been made by the Onion or Private Eye, such is the level of bias in them.

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  9. We got paper from the Arabs, too--Iraqis, actually. Ironic, eh?
    Maybe we'll have to switch to Etch-a-sketches...

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  10. "Two or more parties connive with one another to accomplish some outcome.

    "To connive at is to take action toward that goal."

    I've always prided myself in knowing the difference between "compared to" and "compared with," but now I know the difference between "connived with" and "connived at." Took me only 66 years to learn it.

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  11. Patricia the TerseJanuary 18, 2010 at 5:28 PM

    MS means manuscript - MSS means more than one manuscript. Sarah Palin, in any event, is a married woman: she is Mrs Palin. And I don't believe that homosexuals have a monopoly on long words - unless you count Gore Vidal. Mr Vidal has for many years lived in Italy, returning only to the United States to tout his latest book, remind us he's still alive and make waspish comments about conservative politicians. Perhaps it's too much cheap red wine,or the perils of driving on the autostrada, but for years he's been sinking lower and lower to a sort of literary Al Franken. He and Oprah should get together- perhaps he could "redeem" himself in front of an audience of sympathetic women.

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  12. I'm amused (and saddened) by climate-change deniers who cite recent cold winters here and abroad as proof that global warming isn't happening. There are some climate models that predict global warming would worsen Northern Europe's winters. Why? If enough cold fresh water floods the Atlantic (from glaciers, the Arctic, etc.) the Gulf Stream will be shut down. The Gulf Stream gives Northern Europe more moderate winters than other places that are equally far north, such as parts of North America.

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  13. Patricia the TerseJanuary 22, 2010 at 2:05 AM

    When did history "begin?" Do you mean written or oral? Is one more reputable than another simply because it comes with footnotes and bibliography? I'm sooo confused. And why are people who aren't scientists debating the planet's climate?

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  14. "Never mind that meteorology and climatology, though related, are distinct disciplines. Never mind that TV weather forecasters may have negligible training in climatology. They are the people seen every day as representatives of science, and their word carries weight. "

    In the UK the Haldey centre is also the metorology centre of the Met office. If both are disctinct it is because one is a real science - aware that climate models are computer models and computer models fail all the time, and the other assumes their models are correct and not subject to actual empirical evidence. However the mathematical knowledge needed for both is at the same level - this is merely an argument to specialization, or an appeal to authority. Which is a bad argument. A nonscientific argument.

    " If enough cold fresh water floods the Atlantic (from glaciers, the Arctic, etc.) the Gulf Stream will be shut down. The Gulf Stream gives Northern Europe more moderate winters than other places that are equally far north, such as parts of North America."

    Which has nothing to do with the recent sold winter in Europe, and in fact the idea itself is dismissed by the IPCC report. Why is it so popular? Hollywood.

    And lastly Algrebra was invented by the Greeks. The name comes from arabic but so does the name for alcohol - also not invented by the Arabs.

    but everything else you said was right.

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  15. I didn't say that the Arabs invented algebra; I said we got it from them. It was the Arabs who preserved and transmitted much of classical culture while the ancestors of today's Anglo-Saxon-Celtic Ascendancy were illiterates painting their behinds blue in preparation for battle.

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