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Seeing our society’s dsyfunctionality in tangible form, in the comments

4 September 2012

Summary:  Polling acts as one kind of mirror to our society; Internet comments provide a reflection of another kind. With over 23 thousand comments about geopolitics, the FM website gives us a perspective on America’s ills. Here we sort them and find one ominous pattern.

Result of broken OODA loop

There is conflict in every society because  people always debate the important things in life. How to interpret the past. How to see the kaleidoscope of current events. What path we should take towards the future. How to relate to incompatible values: individual rights vs the needs of the community, freedom vs. equality, etc.

We’re living the Best and the Brightest but larger. That book examined the failures of America’s elites during the 1960s. Now we experiencing the same thing but on a larger scale.

America’s intelligent and well-educated people should be one of our great resources, best able to see and understand our nation’s problems.  Instead our society’s dysfunctionality — our gullibility and credulity — has allowed our best to become indoctrinated.  They have been taught an interlocking set of historical falsehoods and bogus theory, become fervent believers of things that are not so, fearful of things not likely to happen.

It’s not political, appearing on both the Right and Left. It’s converted American politics into a theater of the absurd, a Kabuki of over-coked actors.

In my experience these people cannot be broken from these beliefs. Contrary facts, testimony of experts — all useless.  This is the battle fought out every day in the comments on the FM website since 2007.   Here are two examples.

(1)  Smart guy fearful of the absurd

Comment:  Question by a licensed clinical laboratory scientist, who has studied chemistry:

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There is always facepalm!

The human organism( and all other organisms on this planet) is adapted to a certain balance of atmospheric gasses. Do you really think it’s a good idea to alter the atmosphere from one to which biological organisms are adapted, to one to which biological organisms are not adapted?

This is weird. Let’s look at the effects of more CO2 and less oxygen.

CO2 forms 0.039% of the atmosphere. That’s 390 parts per million. It’s a trace gas. Some forecasts project a CO2 level as high as 700 ppm by 2100 (there many uncertainties in these long-term forecasts, which use largely untested models). How much will CO2 levels have to rise in order to affect us? I think we can trust Wikipedia for a rough answer (the entry gives citations and links for more information):

CO2 is an asphyxiant gas and not classified as toxic or harmful in accordance with Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals standards of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe by using the OECD Guidelines for the Testing of Chemicals. Concentrations of 1% (10,000 ppm) will make some people feel drowsy. Concentrations of 7% to 10% may cause suffocation, manifesting as dizziness, headache, visual and hearing dysfunction, and unconsciousness within a few minutes to an hour.

What about the corresponding change in the air’s oxygen content?  Assuming CO2 directly replace oxygen, its volume would go from 209,500 ppm to  209,800 ppm — an rise of 0.19% (390/209500).  If we that sensitive to change in oxygen levels, then humanity would occupy only a narrow range of altitudes. And altitude sickness would occur even with small changes, and become serious far more frequently. Travel bookings and Goggle Maps would automatically display the change in altitude of your trip.

(2)  I know what I know. It’s science!

A Comment prioritizing personal experience over science (common on both sides of the climate wars):

I lived in the San Fernando Valley from 1957 to 1970. It was hot there in summer but the temperature never got above 105 F. I visited four years ago in September and the temperature was 115 F. Forty years is a very brief time in geological history. The accumulation of green house gasses seems a very plausible explanation. What will the high temperature be 40 years from now? I would be concerned.

His impression of local data, even if correct (which I doubt) tells us nothing about global trends. That’s why we fund the large and expensive networks of satellites, radiosonde balloons, Argus ocean sensors, and land weather stations. The American Meteorological Society just released a new statement about climate change:

“Surface temperature data for Earth as a whole, including readings over both land and ocean, show an increase of about 0.8°C (1.4°F) over the period 1901─2010 and about 0.5°C (0.9°F) over the period 1979–2010 (the era for which satellite-based temperature data are routinely available).”

The global temperature increase (the two century long increase) is aprox one degree during the period you mention. And scientists debate how much of that one degree is caused by human activity.

Forecasts of the future are, of course, debated. We have reliable data from a brief period of time and space, sparse and often unreliable data from a larger area of space and time — processed by a poorly-understood set of mind-bendingly complex climate processes.

(3)  We lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Bring out the “stabbed in the back” myth!

A comment in repsonse to the post “I come not to praise COIN but to bury it. And to ask you why we adopted it, at such cost.”

Journalists, and other so-called smart people, fail to understand one major important point about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; Iraq and Afghanistan were/are nation building missions. This policy was not created by the people on the ground; it was created/approved in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004 {see Wikipedia} …

… I also think the journalists should go after other journalists, academics and politicians who directed this policy be enforced in the first place. This is a bipartisan screw up of the highest magnitude, yet the people being attacked served on the ground, in country, away from their families; killed many terrorists and insurgents and kept the fight in the enemies’ areas of operation and areas of influence. This article makes Generals Stanley McChrystal and Petraeus, Major Nagl and Aussie (Dave Kilcullen) casualties of war.

It was incomprehensible to American hawks and war mongers that we — a SuperPower! — lost Vietnam. So they use the classic loser’s myth — it was a stab in the back.  We lost only due to the traitorous hippies and journalists, plus the weak American people (quitting when the consigliere could see the light at the end of the tunnel).

Despite assurances that we’ve learned from Vietnam, the same agencies have again led us to defeat. Will they admit error?  Will we change our militarized foreign policy?  Perhaps not, when the stab in the back ploy can be used again.  This comment might foreshadow excuses coming down at us.

In this version the Executive Branch and military were not responsible for our defeats. They were victims too, puppets of the all-powerful deciders in Congress, academia, and the news media. The bold advocates of the war were  — General Petraeus (now head of CIA), Nagl (Lt Colonel, then 2008-2012 President of the lavishly funded Center for a New American Security), and author/media star David Kilcullen. This is nuts, but emotionally appealing.

Will this myth gain traction? Our ability to learn from the expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan depends on the answer.

For more information

See this FM reference page for more examples of comments debating climate change issues.

To see many more examples go to the FM Reference Page Information & disinformation, the new media & the old.

The only constant element is us!

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 September 2012 4:21 am

    Watch the video and ponder, a bit, if you wish. Fascinating. (Will there be under 50% Eligible participation?)

    Breton

    Interview of Wilkerson about the GOP Convention, The Real News, undated — ” Failures of Obama administration opened door to far right revival.” Includes a transcript.

    .

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    Also see this analysis by Lambert Strether at Naked Capitalism.

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  2. Alex permalink
    4 September 2012 12:59 pm

    “Iraq and Afghanistan were/are nation building missions. This policy was not created by the people on the ground; it was created/approved in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004 {see Wikipedia} …”

    But in the same time you were talking admirably about Woodrow Wilson. However his enormous efforts to drag US into WWI had the same nation building mission; to make the world “Safe For Democracy”.

    So, I would say it started in 1917 by progressives.

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    • 4 September 2012 1:24 pm

      Alex,

      Can you explain that a bit more? I’ve just skimmed Bob’s comments, but don’t see anything “admirable” about WW.

      Like

    • Alex permalink
      4 September 2012 2:38 pm

      I’m searching your site … I’m sure I read it a couple month ago when you were talking about WW presidency in a very positive tone. I’m sure I read it on your site.

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    • 4 September 2012 2:48 pm

      (1) The quote you cite is not by me. It’s one of three clearly lableled as comments, to which I then respond.

      (2) While it’s possible I made a favorable comment about Wilson, it must have been about something pretty narrow. IMO he was not a good president (his wife was a better President, when she ran the nation during his illness). I see only one mention of Wilson in posts: in America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past, 30 June 2008:

      Hence WWI, and the folly of our first Grand Strategist. President (formerly Professor) Wilson had wonderful dreams, bringing us to war in April 1917, just as the contestants were near exhaustion. Our help extended the war by 18 months. The resulting deaths do not seem justified by any added wisdom in the eventual peace treaty, vs. what they might have achieved without our participation.

      Like

    • Buzz Killington permalink
      4 September 2012 5:48 pm

      “I’m searching your site … I’m sure I read it a couple month ago when you were talking about WW presidency in a very positive tone. I’m sure I read it on your site.”

      With all due respect, this seems to be a nice little example of the backfire effect, which I believe is a huge factor in American politics.

      Like

    • 4 September 2012 5:52 pm

      I had not heard of the backfire effect. It’s a useful concept. Thanks for posting about it!

      Like

    • 5 September 2012 2:01 pm

      his enormous efforts to drag US into WWI had the same nation building mission; to make the world “Safe For Democracy”.

      And, what, you believe that?? Wilson was interested in keeping the European markets open to US trade, increasing the advantage of the US position in the world, and expanding US influence. “Safe for democracy” was the simplified form – a lie – to sell the subsequent events to the cannon-fodder-to-be.

      Politicians frequently conceal their real intentions for the simple reason that most of the time, people wouldn’t put up with them if they just told the truth. But there are always true believers who will march to the drums for a good sound-bite.

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  3. guest permalink
    4 September 2012 3:23 pm

    “In my experience these people cannot be broken from these beliefs. Contrary facts, testimony of experts — all useless.”

    Do you think those persons represent a high enough proportion of the population, are so much more militant, or so much more influential as to preclude educational or argumentative approaches in general (i.e. towards the general population)?

    Like

    • 4 September 2012 3:40 pm

      That’s got to be “best question of the thread”. I wish I’d thought of that! Now that you’ve raised it, here’s my guess…

      Near the end of Watership Down General Woundwort explains that numbers matter little in conflict among rabbits. That’s true for us, as well. These indoctrinated intelligent and educated people are the shock troops for our educated elite (eg, see the Tea Party movement) — different from the lower-class hordes mass movements often rely upon. If we hit difficult times I explect their numbers to swell as people join the largest and fastest-growing teams.

      These people already dominate public debate in America on a wide range of issues. Their influence and numbers seem likely, IMO, to grow. A bleak vision, unfortunately. But I believe that one should never ask for the blindfold.

      Like

  4. themurr permalink
    4 September 2012 4:08 pm

    Between this post and the last one, I think a factor (major, maybe dominant, maybe not) is the breakdown in trust between different centers of gravity. On the one hand it’s always taken place to some extent (reading the attacks on presidential candidates before elections during the early years of the republic is entertaining, something about the british coming to rape and pillage, or a candidate having a hermaphroditic nature) Watergate could be the landmark moment when everyone can no longer ignore the lies, whereas now Nixon would have lawyers and reporters scrambling over themselves to declare why it was legitimate. Probably could tie in the lack of trust in every non military institute, but that’d be a much longer post.

    Slightly off topic, Fabius, do you have a good source for learning about Wilson’s presidency? I know bits and pieces, but didn’t know about his wife ran the nation for a chunk of time. He’s also viewed very favorably in some places so it would be good to have a solid grasp of the positives and negatives.

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    • 4 September 2012 5:50 pm

      You raise an important point about the loss of trust. I want to think about that; it’s a vital dimension I had not considered!

      As for research… I used to start with the Britannica, and still do for serious research — or for a quick reference (where I’m not going deeper). Otherwise, most of the time I start with Wikipedia, whose great value lies IMO in its links. That cannot be one-stop shopping, but is a good place to start.

      Like

  5. Todd Guthrie permalink
    4 September 2012 10:30 pm

    I guess you missed the memo, but science says that global warming is a result of natural selection of atmospheric gasses due to their cumulative effect on our nervous systems.
    Carbon dioxide gets into our lungs through the atmosphere, seeps into our blood stream, and accumulates in our brains. Over time it has evolved to affect our minds in such a way as to cause us to want to produce machines that generate even more carbon dioxide. This is a clever reproduction strategy, similar to a parasite or a virus. FACT. Clearly humanity’s industrial revolution and all resultant advances in human progress are the direct result of a devious conspiracy by this particularly tricky molecule.
    In addition, the reason why liberals and Democrats tend to be relatively unaffected by this inexplicable motivation to burn hydrocarbons is because they tend to live in coastal areas, where the ocean currents will calm and clean the air. You can’t argue with science.
    Now if only we can lock down the atmospheric gas that causes people to be jerks and post inane nonsense on the internet, then we’ll be set. I’m looking at you, Argon…

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    • 5 September 2012 12:10 am

      See how easy Guthrie makes it look to do geopolitical humor!

      Unfortunately, after some regrettable and unfortunate failed efforts, our Editor forbids me to write hilarious posts. Until Amazon starts selling a sense of humor, we rely on our readers to supply this in the comments.

      Thanks to Todd for today’s!

      Like

  6. Thomas More permalink
    5 September 2012 12:12 am

    And the comments on this site are mild compared to the virulent craziness that spills out on sites like econbrowser or ezra klein’s blog or especially sites like zerohedge. It’s amazing to witness the lunacy that erupts when scholars make uncontroversial posts showing, e.g., that inflation is very low, or that our current recovery from the recent U.S. recession shows a much lower GDP growth than typical postwar economic recoveries, or that American students score poorly on standardized math/science tests compared to the rest of the developed world.

    The typical commenter on those sites rants and raves about the alleged evils of “fiat currency” (we should all return to gold coinage!!!) or how fractional reserve banking has supposedly destroyed civilization (!) or how illegal immigration purportedly explains America’s current K-12 educational woes. Commenters regularly accuse Obama of being a Marxist Kenyan muslim Manchurian candidate sent secretly to America to destroy capitalism and replace it with an Islamofascist caliphate.

    I didn’t see this kind of mass dementia until Reagan came to power. Then an alternative reality seemed to replace observed facts and reported statistics and the American people seem to have come unglued.

    The weird results of American polls show that something has gone terribly wrong with the U.S. population: for example, during the Iraq War, 30% of respondents polled said that Iraq had used weapons of mass destruction against our troops; today, 60% of respondents polled claim that al Qaeda represents a greater danger to America than the former Soviet union with its thousands of nuclear weapons (!); and more than 60% of Americans polled say they disbelieve in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an explanation for the fossil record. Meanwhile a whopping 70% of Americans polled say they believe in the actual physical existence of Satan (presumably lurking behind some particularly dingy Dairy Queen).

    For an eye-popping example of American mass insanity, see the Reuters news service article “Poll finds more American believe in devil than in Darwin.”

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    • 5 September 2012 2:28 am

      “And the comments on this site are mild compared to the virulent craziness that spills out on sites like econbrowser or ezra klein’s blog or especially sites like zerohedge.”

      No! I must stand up for the honor of the FM website! We’ve had comments as crazy as on any of those websites. Unemployment insurance and food stamps are evil. Torture and assassination are good! We’d get hordes — scores, hundreds — when the Instapundit would link to one of our posts (aka an “insta-lanch”), usually favorably. Horrifying.

      They didn’t just often advocate sheer evil. They believed a great many delusionally false things. It was an overwhelming flood of madness. I turned off the comments for a few months and started writing tough critiques of the Instapundit’s propaganda (eg, here and here). The combo shook off these folks. Less traffic, but allowed me to resume my delusionally optimistic view of human nature.

      But they had one similarity to many who comment here today commenting about Right-wing economics (faux economics) and climate change: they were immune to data or expert analysis (even from experts of their political persuasion, as in the comments to this post).

      Like

    • Bluestocking permalink
      5 September 2012 1:17 pm

      TM, I suspect that this is probably a side effect of being a nation settled by people who were seeking religious freedom…but in some cases (indeed, quite a few cases), people whose beliefs were considered somewhat extreme according to the prevailing standards of the time. In fact, the truth is that these beliefs are actually still somewhat extreme in comparison with those of other Protestants elsewhere in the world (since Protestantism remains the dominant religious belief of this culture). This nation has also given birth to its own Protestant sects which some people might consider somewhat extreme such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Perhaps the only reason why beliefs such as these are considered mainstream in this country is because significant numbers of people in this country share them. After all, Christian fundamentalism and biblical literalism — which are at least in part responsible for such beliefs as the physical existence of Satan and disbelief in Darwinian theory — are in many respects an American creation.

      Not only that, quite a few of the people seeking religious freedom in this country wanted it for themselves but weren’t quite so keen on letting other people have it. Here in the United States, we’re taught as children that the Pilgrims came to this country seeing religious freedom — but unless we attend college (which only about 25% of us do) and take a class in American history, we probably never learn the full story which is that the Pilgrims actually intended to establish a theocratic community here in this country based on their own beliefs. In fact, before coming to this country, they’d attempted to settle in the Netherlands but found the Dutch too liberal for their tastes and feared that their children would assimilate to the Dutch culture. The Puritans likewise also established theocratic communities here in the United States and were not known for their tolerance of other faiths (evidenced by their persecution of the Quakers)

      In my honest estimation, the reason why it seems to you that the country came “unglued” with the election of Reagan was not just the fact that Reagan catered to the religious elements in this country (and he did)…but also because the 80’s saw the increased deployment of commercial satellite technology and the expansion of cable television, both of which made it easier for Americans to get a sense of the zeitgeist in the larger world outside their own community and broadened that vista. I suspect that what you refer to as this “mass dementia” has always been there but was previously mostly restricted to the realm of men’s clubs, church socials, local talk radio programs, the golf course, the neighborhood barbershop or beauty parlor, or (maybe) the “Letters to the Editor” column in the local newspaper. The expansion of mass communication made it much easier for people to become aware that other people in other parts of the country shared their views which at least some no doubt took as confirmation that their beliefs are the correct ones. People tend to forget these days that even during most of the 20th Century, it was actually fairly unusual for people to move around a lot or even move far away from their birthplace because it took a long time to get anywhere. Even today, it’s estimated that as many as 50% or more of all Americans have never lived more than 200 miles away from where they were raised…and this probably serves to limit their horizons because there’s little variation within that distance compared to some other parts of the world (most notably Europe, in which 200 miles could potentially take you into a different country with a completely different language and culture).

      Like

  7. Rune permalink
    5 September 2012 2:40 pm

    @bluestocking

    A minor correction, it should be “I suspect that this is probably a side effect of being a nation settled by people who has constructed a narrative of being persecuted and seeking religious freedom…” That is, unless you see religious freedom as religious freedom only for your group. The reason the puritans felt ‘persecuted’ in merry ol’ England, was that they were not allowed to hold biblical law above the law of the land. When they got to organize themselves in New England, it was as theocracies.

    I’m not trying to say that there was nothing good about the Puritans. Our old friend de Tocqueville admired greatly their democratic practises while at the same time describing them as harsh and bigoted people.

    But I guess a nation needs its myths.

    Like

    • Bluestocking permalink
      5 September 2012 3:50 pm

      That’s a valid comment, but I did make an effort to address that in both my first and second paragraphs. In fairness to the Pilgrims, it’s said that there are two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in between (which implies that both stories probably contain at least some degree of objective truth in addition to the subjective truth) — and the objective truth is that the Pilgrims were subjected to criticism and mockery from people who did not share their faith. Granted, the Pilgrims and Puritans were not officially persecuted by the government and what the experienced was a very long way away from being tortured or executed (either officially or unofficially) for their faith…but the implication that the lack of tolerance was entirely on their side is not completely accurate either.

      I also can’t entirely agree with your statement since it implies that everyone who came here seeking religious freedom was at best exaggerating their claims of persecution and at worst only imagining it…but the fact is that quite a few of the people who have come here in the name of religious freedom were being actively persecuted unofficially if not officially (as an example, I would definitely put the immigration of the Ashkenazi Jews during the latter part of the 19th Century in this category).

      Like

  8. revelo permalink
    6 September 2012 4:07 am

    “If something works, it is true.”

    If proposing a war with Iraq gets you promoted or makes you rich, then the war was successful for you and so the war was a good idea. Nothing dysfunctional at all in having supported or continuing to support the war for such a person. Even a war like WWII, which most people would say was good for the United States, might not have been good for all Americans. Suppose you were a blond, blue-eyed German-American, of conservative tendencies, with no interest in fighting, who got drafted and then killed or maimed in the war. For you, fighting and winning the war was worse than losing to the Nazis, since you might well have prospered under nazi rule.

    What we have in this country is a situation in which people can say and do all sorts of things that are destructive to the country, and they are never held accountable for their behavior. And I’m not just talking about the big shots. The situation is actually worse at the low-level, because low-level voters are NEVER held accountable for their behavior. If 60% of the voters vote for crooks and incompetents, versus 40% who vote for honest and able politicians, are those foolish 60% ever taken aside and punished for their stupidity without also punishing the wise 40% as well? Never.

    So where’s the incentive to do the right thing. There isn’t any. The smart thing is to join the team which appears likely to win, so as to enjoy the patronage benefits. If this winning team then destroys the country, so what? The destruction would have happened anyway (1 vote almost never determines the outcome of an election), you won’t receive any additional punishment for having contributed to the destruction versus having tried to stop it, and you’ll just end up missing out on the patronage benefits that you get by joining the winning team.

    What I’ve just described is the fatal weakness of democracy, at least in larger societies, such that accountability becomes a problem. With small groups, say under 100, democracy works, because then people can be held accountable for their statements and actions and votes.

    Like

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