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Visit to A Verifiable Planet

Couple of nights ago, some friends and I went up to the American Museum of Natural History to attend the Fifth Annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. The topic for the evening was "The Enigma of Alien Solar Systems". It was a joy for many reasons, on many levels, but pardon me ma'am, that weren't no debate.

Before it started one of my friends said, "I hope they do a 'Resolved'. I love it when they do a 'Resolved'". I am deeply influenced by what others think, and so I concurred.

But this was more along the line of a panel discussion, and a very distinguished and interesting panel it was, too. Moving from house-left to house-right, from the observationals to the theoreticals:

The event was held in the LeFrak Theater adjoining the Museum. A lovely space. We remarked they could do plays in it. "Science plays!" we enthused. My friend raised her arms over her head and made a circle, demonstrating her theory of planet formation. "I am Neptune," she gravitationally contracted.

For an account of the event more newsful than I can summon up, see this article from www.space.com.

Sitting there, I felt I was in heaven, and as the evening progressed it dawned on me why. Yes, yes, I love hearing about all this stuff. It's interesting. I'm a science fiction fan. And I'm a fan of science (years-long member in good standing of the AAAS and the American Museum of Natural History), but none of that really accounts for what I was feeling.

There I was with 700 people in a lovingly restored theater attached to one of the most amazing museums in the world, listening as five very accomplished scientists and an enthused moderator discussed stuff they knew so far, and what they might guess, about alien solar systems. And I thought: I wish I lived in a whole world like this -- a world where people actually cared about verifiable stuff. The world we live in is so not that.

As human beans, we have this drive to ubiquitously know stuff. Sadly, there is a relatively common perversion of that drive -- a perversion which I call the drive to be right. The problem with the drive to be right is that it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actually being right; it has more to do with compelling others to believe that you are -- or perhaps more to the point, compelling others to keep quiet about it even if they think you are wrong. The drive to be right is about power; the drive to know is about verifiable truth. Gee, I wonder which world I would want to live in: one driven by power, or one driven by verifiable truth? I'll get back to you.

Okay, I'm back to you: I want to live in a world where verifiable truth matters -- not just in the LeFrak Theater, not just in science, but in politics, too, and in my daily life.

The daily life part is more or less under control. A little white lie now and again, for some moderately good cause in the name of friendship or what-all, that's okay. But you lie to me once in any significant way and you get a warning to never do it again. You lie to me again, it's over. Liars can't be trusted and if I can't trust you, then you are only a part of my life to the degree I am absolutely forced to deal with you. And I mean forced.

But in politics, well... I have great hopes. I'm afraid that's the most I can say. The problem is, you -- "you" being the body politic -- don't seem to care that much about the verifiable truth. You can actually verify what the corporatists and politicians tell you, you know. Yes, you can, you can actually do that, but too many of you don't. You don't care about living in a world of verifiable truths. You are happy living in a world that is about power.

We all know the famous quote by Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out..." and so on. You know how that story ends. This thing gets quoted time and again in the belief, I suppose, that it will have some sort of "bring it on home" effect on people, but my sense is that most people believe that the marker will never really land on their square. So what if they took all those other people? They'll never get to me. I'm Normal.

Okay, well, I guess there's a certain amount of justifiable calculated risk in that belief. Why would you worry about who they are taking away when you have your mortgage to worry about, and, by the way, things aren't going so well down at the plant, there may be lay-offs, and the wife is really beginning to get on your nerves lately about that broken dishwasher, and Johnny is looking a little stoned lately as he keeps getting home late for dinner. Most people are betting they can spend their time worrying about that sort of stuff instead of what the aristocracy faction is doing to the country.

The problem is, it's probably a safe bet. The aristocracy faction is going to go only as far as it thinks it can, lest its actions begin to threaten its power. They are going to mess with the middle-class only so far, and no further. So, yeah, probably it's a safe bet. It's an immoral bet, and a foolish bet, and a bet that threatens our democracy, but according to the limited risk/benefit parameters of the particular bet, yeah, it's probably a safe one.

In short, you are happy living in a world driven by power -- well, happy as long as the power is exercised against people other than yourselves. What can I say? I guess just this: stop pretending you care about living in a democracy, because you don't.

See, even if the bet works out for you, all that you've really accomplished is to turn yourself into a medieval serf. Of course you have to worry about the mortgage and the job and all the rest of it, but unless you are satisfied with being nothing more than a serf, you have to take a little time each week to inform yourself with verifiable stuff. You can probably get by with a couple hours a week of actually paying attention to what the aristocracy faction is up to, but if that's all the time you can spend at it, you better be careful about what you are going to use for your sources of verifiable stuff. If you are short on time, I recommend Media Matters for America. It's a site run by an ex-member of the aristocracy faction so he's hip to how these guys who claim to be on your side are actually beating up on you. And remember this: You don't have to read everything there is to read; you only have to read enough to get your head on straight. The rest will take care of itself.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to La-La-LeFrak-Theater-Planet where I can sit in a whole room full of people who care about finding out verifiable stuff. Let me know when you are ready to get with the democracy program. This stuff really isn't that hard, you know, though I do admit that should you take up this practice of caring about the verifiable truth, you may have to face the horrifying prospect of occasionally finding out some of what you think is wrong. Yes, I know. This can feel like you are about to die some terrible death or something. Clue: you're not.


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You can actually verify what the corporatists and politicians tell you, you know. Yes, you can, you can actually do that, but too many of you don't.

The problem that I have with that is that while it's true, or at least, it's often true, it's general a huge pain in the ass to actually verify stuff, regardless of who it is that's telling it.

And, for the most part, it's sufficiently a pain in the ass that it almost moves into the catagory of impossible to verify. For stuff happening in, say, China, in order to actually know what was going on, I'd have to go there. But not just that -- I'd have to speak whatever dialect is common where I was interested in finding stuff out about, and I'd have to ditch the government minder that tourists get, manage to get there when the stuff was going to happen, and so on.

The best I can do for things that aren't happening in convenient commuting distance is rely on corroboration, and contradiction, rather than verification. The problem with that becomes one of who can or can't be trusted. And, just like everyone else, I wind up being more likely to trust stories that I want to trust when it comes down to competing narratives.

Which isn't to push for some sort of post-modernist view that there is no such thing as objective truth, just narratives. To assert that is to deny any possibility of distinguishing between truth and falsehood -- yes, the sort of things that occupy most people's political activities and opinions do come down to conflicting narratives, rather than stuff they can actually verify on their own. But one of those narratives is usually a lot closer to being correct than the others.

It comes down to looking at a whole bunch of sources, weighing the value of evidence as objectively as I can manage, and moving on. Actual verification is something that's very difficult to get, and seldom worth it.

The thing is, looking for a best approximation, for confirming evidence rather than verification, means that I could always be wrong. Something that's verified is true -- it's not going to become false at a later point. Something with a mountain of confirmative evidence is always subject to contradictory evidence.

Sorry, I seem to have rambled a bit.

To summarize:
Just because something isn't plausibly verifiable doesn't mean that it's out of the evidentiary realm. Being willing to re-evaluate is important, because very rarely am I completely right about anything. Calcium builds strong bones. Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.

Rambling is OK. I obviously do it.

Well, let me put it this way. There is stuff you can read from reliable sources. You can read, for example, Perfectly Legal by David Cay Johnston and verify how our tax system is used by the rich to rip off the middle-class. He reports facts about the system and he knows a great deal more about it than any of us do because he makes his living studying it.

You can read the Media Matters site and verify that Sean Hannity is a liar.

Of course there are dueling narratives. Narratives in the part of the world you, in particular, live in are especially perilous. Still, you can find out "what happened", so to speak. What conclusions you draw from what you find out is up to you inasmuch as you are a thinking being. My problem is most people don't trouble themselves to simply find out what is available out there regarding the facts.

It isn't that hard to pay that much attention. It is very hard to be perfectly in the know about everything. But people don't have to be that. They have to pay attention and verify what they are being told, to the degree that they can.

After all, if that isn't possible, then we might as well hand the world over to the tyrants. We might as well abandon our ambitions for democracy since you can't have a democracy unless the people actually pay enough attention to make informed decisions. I'm actually kind of afraid all of it is impossible, but I refuse to give in to that fear. People have to do what they can and it has to be a hell of a lot better than what they are doing now. Otherwise, it's just hopeless.

It's not that we have much in the way of a disagreement here. I guess my problem is with the word "verify" more than anything else. I'd be much more comfortable with something like "confirm". Because, as I see it, there is such a thing as objective fact. And it's possible to have an opinion about matters of fact, and then verify that opinion.

The problem is that there are also matters of fact which are really hard to absolutely verify, and seldom worth the effort.

I mean, if I were to tell you that I was living in Kalamazoo, there'd be a great deal of evidence against that assertion -- stuff that I've written recently indicating that I'm not living in Michigan, testimony from people in Israel indicating that I'm living there, testimony from people in Kalamazoo that I'm not living there, the fact that later in this post I say that I'm not living in Kalamazoo, and so on.

But to actually establish as a point of fact that I'm not living in Kalamazoo would be a good deal harder. The easiest way to do this would be to follow me around for long enough to establish that I'm not maintaining any sort of residence in Kalamazoo. And even then you might be fooled.

Which isn't to say that if I claim to be living somewhere that I'm not that you'd have to believe me, or that you wouldn't be justified in calling that claim false. Yes, my residence in Israel could be an elaborate hoax, but given the preponderance of evidence it's probably not.

There is an objective universe out there -- I don't live in Michigan. However, unless you're dealing with facts that have actually been verified, it's probably a good idea to at least bear in mind the possibility that even unlikely claims might be true -- if you see a picture of me being arrested after an OSU/Michigan brawl, the likelyhood of me actually being a Kalamazoo resident would go up.

The same applies to the cases that you gave. I haven't read Perfectly Legal, but it seems likely that the evidence given to support his claim is reasonably good. On the other hand, if I were particularly interested in the subject, I could probably find books about the tax structure written by people from conservative think-tanks which reach opposite conclusions, and which also seem to give reasonably good evidence. And, just like the author of Perfectly Legal, those people also make their livings studying that stuff.

In the end, there is an objective reality, which is far too much trouble to confirm. I'm going to have to go by second hand or third hand reports, and those reports are unavoidably going to be filtered through my personal biases. Just about everything that that I decide is true is going to be stuff that I've decided is the best avaliable guess.

The only real difference is going to be how amenable I am to new data. And I guess it's an issue of tone -- if I'm asked to verify stuff, find one or two bits of confirmatory evidence doesn't really cut it, whereas that's about the best I can hope for in terms of everyday stuff on which I have to make decisions.

You should become a rabbi. :)

OK, let's go back to the LeFrak. The five scientists up there agreed that the existence of alien solar systems has been verified. I think they would have mentioned if they actually traveled to these systems to verify their existence. Instead, they are basing their conclusions on evidence that is apparently good enough. At the same time, however, there is a great deal they can't yet verify.

The point is, you should do what you can. That's all. If you don't like the world "verify", then use another word that captures for you the idea of no longer being victimized by the bullshit. The idea is if more people actually cared about not being victimized by the bullshit, the better off our democracy, or any democracy, will be. If people can't be bothered, well, then we might as well cross democracy off the list of available ways to govern societies.

Aw, she should've said "I'm Neptune." Or even "I'm Jupiter," for an even bigger gravitational contraction!

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