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:
- R. Paul Butler, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington;
- Fritz Benedict, McDonald Observatory, University of Texas;
- Margaret Turnbull, Carnegie Institution of Washington;
- Peter Goldreich, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton;
- Scott Tremaine, Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University;
- Moderator: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium.
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.