The common thread that explains so much in America.

Summary:  Increasingly I see a common element to our problems: irrationality. There are precedents in history, but they seldom end well. We have collectively chosen to send America into the “crazy years”. It is not too late to change course.

A portrait of modern America.

"The Persistence of memory" by Salvador Dali (1931))
A 21st C American landscape — “The Persistence of memory” by Salvador Dali (1931).

Here we see more of the mad pageant of 21st century America, where nothing is what it seems.

Hatred of bankers’ bailouts sparks the Tea Party movement, which then helps elect the most banker-friendly Congress since the Gilded Age (details here).

America unleashes special ops assassins and flying killer robots under direction of the Democratic Party’s “humanitarian interventionists“, led by our Nobel Peace Prize wearing President who boasts of assassinating American citizens and spreads our wars to many new nations. He winds down our war in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to expand it in Syria and Iraq — using the same tactics that failed during the past decade. Conservatives call Obama “Leftist” and “anarchist”, as he expands government surveillance to levels the Gestapo would have envied. They doubt any  numbers that challenge their beliefs: seasonal adjustments, numbers about inflation and jobs, and temperature records (and more here).

The most feminist generation of women ever flock to see a movie idealizing one of the most sexist heroes ever to appear in a big-budget Hollywood production (by comparison James Bond looks like Betty Friedan).


Leftists crusade in the name of science to prevent climate change, but largely abandon the IPCC — what they formerly described as the “gold standard of climate science” — for more extreme views held by a minority of scientists and often contradictory to the IPCC’s views (examples here, here, and here).

The Right has built their own world and moved in. They created their own sciences: creationism, and calling climate science a fraud. They create their own history: the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, amnesia about the horrors of the late 19thC (e.g., treatment of Native Americans, immigrants, unions), that we could have won in Vietnam, the horrible economy in the 1970s (& more here), and the Reagan economic miracle. The Right has its own economics: cutting taxes increases tax revenue, monetary stimulus produces inflation and stagflation, a strong currency is always good. My favorite trope on the Right is that “whites are the real victims of racism”.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Nehemiah Scudder for President
We’re doing better than Heinlein expected. Scudder was elected in 2012, with no election in 2016.

Heinlein saw this coming

“The Crazy Years:  Considerable technical advance during this period, accompanied by a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation, and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade, and the interregnum.”

— By Robert Heinlein; first published in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1940.

We’re in the Crazy Years, as foretold in 1940 by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein. There are precedents. The 14th century was a time of crazy years in Europe, brought about by a combination of massive social and political changes, plus natural catastrophes (e.g., plague and the onset of the Little Ice Age). For a vivid account of this time see Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978). More recently the French called the 1920s the années folles (crazy years), the aftershock of WWI followed by large social and political changes.

This irrationality is like an infection spreading through our society. I suspect (a wild guess) that it’s our response to our apathy and our resulting powerlessness. If so it is a choice not a destiny. Individually we’re pawns, but together we are strong.

All our reforms have helped strip the teeth of our gears, which can no longer mesh. They spin idly, side by side, unable to set the social machine in motion. It is at this exercise in futility that young people must look when thinking about their future.

— From Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” (1987).

For More Information

You can buy Heinlein’s full The Past through Tomorrow “Future History” Stories from Amazon. They have a happy ending. Here are posts about our increasingly strange world:

  1. The World of Wonders: Monetary Magic applied to cure America’s economic ills.
  2. The World of Wonders: Everybody Goes Nuts Together.
  3. Do you look at our economy and see a world of wonders? If not, look here for a clearer picture…,
  4. A guide to the weird numbers that run our world, describing financial bubbles & climate change.
  5. Look at the economy. Fight the illusion of normality. Feel the weirdness.
  6. Embrace the weird news. It signals the transition to a new world.
  7. Any day something small might happen that changes the history of the world.
  8. A key to understanding the news: the unexpected rules in our age of wonders.

Another portrait of America

M.C. Escher: "Relativity" (1953)
M.C. Escher: “Relativity” (1953).


29 thoughts on “The common thread that explains so much in America.”

  1. IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri says global warming is his religion

    The head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change panel Rajendra Pachauri, 74, has resigned amid charges that he sexually harassed a 29-year-old woman working in his office in Delhi. In his resignation letter to UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, Pachauri wrote,

    “For me, the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems, is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.”

    In 2007 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore and other IPCC scientists.

    In true Pachauri fashion, his resignation letter is a two-page love letter to himself. You wouldn’t know that recent allegations of sexual assault, stalking, harassment, and uttering threats suggest strongly that he is a longtime sexual predator.

    Yes, the IPCC – which we’re told to take seriously because it is a scientific body producing scientific reports – has, in fact, been led by an environmentalist on a mission. By someone for whom protecting the planet is a religious calling.

    1. MJB,

      I don’t understand your comment, as the points your raise don’t make any logical criticism of the IPCC.

      (1) Pachauri’s letter of resignation
      What’s wrong with his goal, as a high level statement of faith? Everybody of worth has strong personal goals, usually root in faith — or personal greed. What kind of people would you like to run key organizations? How much psychoanalysis would you require before hiring them? Would you forbid all people with religion? And, I assume, those with strong political beliefs? Anyone without those should not have high office, IMO.

      (2) The 2007 Peace Prize
      First, he did not get it or “share it”. It was awarded to the IPCC (they were quite explicit about that). Second, the Peace prize is a joke IMO.

      (3) “His letter is a 2 page love letter to himself.”
      And your point is what? I’ve known quite a few famous people, including politicians and CEOs. Most are self-obsessed. Most of the biz and political leaders are sociopaths (in the non-technical sense).

      (4) “he is a longtime sexual predator.”
      Richard Whitney was president of the New York Stock Exchange from 1930 to 1935, until convicted of embezzlement and imprisoned. Probably not the first or last crook at senior levels of the NYSE. Should we abolish it? Nixon was a crook in many ways, but escaped jail due to Ford’s pardon. Should we abolish the Presidency?

    1. We agree that the long-term head of the IPCC is a sociopath, a sexual predator and considers environmentalism to be his religious calling. (He is also a fan of Shirley MacLaine, read his book.}

      1. MJB,

        “head of the IPCC is a sociopath, a sexual predator and considers environmentalism to be his religious calling.”

        I don’t know with any of those things. I don’t know him, so calling him a “sociopath” would be silly. I don’t judge people crimes based on newspaper stories. I don’t know what you mean by “religious calling”, nor has he said such a thing.

        “He is also a fan of Shirley MacLaine, read his book.”

        Many brilliant and influential people have odd beliefs. More broadly, I’m a fan of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, but that doesn’t mean I agree with their views on anything.

        More important, none of these things have the slightest relevance to the IPCC and its works. It’s just chaff in the discussion, of the sort activists on both the Left and Right dispense to clog the nation’s public policy machinery.

  2. Fascinating portrayal. Irrationality. The amnt and speed of change has perhaps overtaken too many of us. Instability is too common and much too pervasive. That needs to subside. But how ?


    1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

      In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

      It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

      The IPCC, in what will surely be remembered as one of the most idiotic and irresponsible predictions ever made, assessed the probability of a glacial meltdown by 2035 as “very high” — a probability of over 90%.

      1. MJB,

        You are making evaluations that are clearly beyond any expertise you have in these matters. You’re entitled to your opinion — it’s a free country — but wow.

        As for the Himalayas glacier story, the IPCC produces thousands of pages. Nothing of that length is perfect. You’re applying a standard that would crush you if applied to your own personal and work life. Examinations of the Britannica easily find many errors. Nothing on Earth is perfect. It’s a daft standard, suitable for the activists on the Left and Right who seek only to toss chaff into the discussion — to confuse us for their personal political goals.

        You are not making a coherent argument, just tossing in random talking point. This is grossly off topic to this post. I’ve been a good sport about this, and let you have your say. But enough is enough.

  3. The United Nations summary concludes that most of the half degree F warming from 1980 to 2000 (it has held flat for the 15 years since then) was the result of human emissions. But the justification for this conclusion comes almost entirely from the fact that a few modelers, using hundreds of parameters for unknown and currently unknowable interactions, can get a decent back-fit on previous global mean temperatures when they assume a certain sensitivity of temperature to CO2 and methane levels.

    That is hardly the “scientific consensus”. It’s a mathematical effect, which can also be produced with baseball batting averages as the correlated variable, given enough tuning of the other parameters. And the modelers have had to cut their sensitivity almost in half recently to account for the recent 15-year hiatus.

    The modelers themselves call their future figures “scenarios” and not “predictions.” They also acknowledge that they must resort to solar and other natural variations to model an even greater temperature rise from 1890 to 1940, since industrial CO2 in that era would have had little effect. Their scenarios have huge error bands, in part because the laboratory effect of CO2 on temperature is a square root rather than a linear function, meaning that the impact of additional CO2 on temperature levels off, rather than keeps increasing. This is because the CO2 molecules, which happen to oscillate at the same frequencies as infrared leaving the atmosphere, get “filled” with the resulting heat-trapping interactions, and absorb less and less of the escaping infrared over time.

    There is absolutely not a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is “a serious threat.” The UN report provides little to show that droughts, hurricanes, and sea height have increased due to, or even with the warming. I know because for many years my students have taken the individual, usually peer-reviewed studies cited in the UN’s footnotes and analyzed them for their final projects, so I’ve had to read all the studies.

    Are Climate Skeptics Like Doubters of Evolution?“, posted at We Love Electricity: Caleb Rossiter’s “Climate Change” Blog, 9 March 2015.

    1. MJB,

      IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I: “It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”

      (1) MJB: “That is hardly the ‘scientific consensus’.”

      That is the consensus of climate scientists. It’s a strong consensus (albeit on narrow grounds), with a large number of polls showing 75% – 95% agreement. See some of the polls here. That you don’t agree with it is immaterial.

      (2) MJB: “There is absolutely not a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is ‘a serious threat’.”

      I agree that this point is commonly misrepresented — and often seriously so (e.g., Obama and Democratic Party politicians make outlandish statements about this, without a shred of evidence). I am unaware of any reliable polls on the question. The IPCC results are the best available evidence about the consensus opinion, showing that there is some level of consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a serious threat. I am aware of no polls of climate scientists about the magnitude and timing of the threat; my guess is that there is widespread disagreement about both.

      (3) MJB: “The UN report provides little to show that droughts, hurricanes, and sea height have increased due to, or even with the warming. ”

      The IPCC’s reports clearly state that there is as yet no substantial evidence of increases in extreme weather — other than warming and perhaps precipitation — due to anthropogenic warming. This is a headline conclusion; there is no need to consult its footnotes. For documentation about the IPCC’s conclusions and the actual trends see:

      The sea level data is controversial, with some studies showing an acceleration (albeit from very slow rates of rising). The IPCC’s AR5 discusses this acceleration, but in mild terms.

  4. Judith Curry:

    The IPCC was seriously tarnished by the unauthorized release of emails from the University of East Anglia in November 2009, known as Climategate. These emails revealed the ‘sausage making’ involved in the IPCC’s consensus building process, including denial of data access to individuals who wanted to audit their data processing and scientific results, interference in the peer review process to minimize the influence of skeptical criticisms, and manipulation of the media. Climategate was quickly followed by the identification of an egregious error involving the melting of Himalayan glaciers. These revelations were made much worse by the actual response of the IPCC to these issues. Then came the concerns about the behavior of the IPCC’s Director, Rachendra Pachauri, and investigations of the infiltration of green advocacy groups into the IPCC. All of this was occurring against a background of explicit advocacy and activism by IPCC leaders related to CO2 mitigation policies.

    Why is my own reasoning about the implications of the pause, in terms of attribution of the late 20th century warming and implications for future warming, so different from the conclusions drawn by the IPCC? The disagreement arises from different assessments of the value and importance of particular classes of evidence as well as disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence – my reasoning is weighted heavily in favor of observational evidence and understanding of natural internal variability of the climate system, whereas the IPCC’s reasoning is weighted heavily in favor of climate model simulations and external forcing of climate change.

    Scientists do not need to be consensual to be authoritative. Authority rests in the credibility of the arguments, which must include explicit reflection on uncertainties, ambiguities and areas of ignorance and more openness for dissent. I have recommended that the scientific consensus seeking process be abandoned in favor of a more traditional review that presents arguments for and against, discusses the uncertainties, and speculates on the known and unknown unknowns.

    1. MJB,

      I’m confused as to what you are saying. Your first post said that the Chairman’s personal peccadillos discredit the work of this multi-thousand person institution. You second said that you didn’t believe that the headline IPCC statement represented the consensus of climate scientists (clearly false). Now you cite an individual climate scientists who has a number of reservations about the IPCC. What’s the message here? Each comment shifts to something new.

      There are 9 posts here featuring Prof Curry’s work. She agrees with the headline statement, although believes the confidence level is unrealistically high. She has a number of other concerns; but then most climate scientists have concerns about the IPCC — and every other climate agency. That’s life on Earth.

      Even if you had cited somebody with stronger objections to the IPCC’s work — such as MIT Prof Richard Lindzen or U AL-H Prof John Christy — that would tell us little. A consensus does not mean unanimity.

    1. Peter,

      I’d like to nominate you for the first one just for the idea. Epistemology is imo an important step to wisdom. When starting the FM website I thought we’d post about cutting edge issues — things on the edge of the known — and comments would debate their significance and implications for the future. We’d talk about values and scenarios. Instead comments overwhelming talk about basic facts. Worse, not just about now (understandable, it’s difficult to keep up with the rush of events) but about the past. In my experience people tend to have no sense of epistemology.

      When we fix that social problem we can begin to teach General Semantics. Starter text: Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics. For those diving into the deep end: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

      1. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Epistemologists concern themselves with a number of tasks, which we might sort into two categories.

        First, we must determine the nature of knowledge; that is, what does it mean to say that someone knows, or fails to know, something? This is a matter of understanding what knowledge is, and how to distinguish between cases in which someone knows something and cases in which someone does not know something. While there is some general agreement about some aspects of this issue, we shall see that this question is much more difficult than one might imagine.

        Second, we must determine the extent of human knowledge; that is, how much do we, or can we, know? How can we use our reason, our senses, the testimony of others, and other rnesources to acquire knowledge? Are there limits to what we can know? For instance, are some things unknowable?

        Is it possible that we do not know nearly as much as we think we do? Should we have a legitimate worry about skepticism, the view that we do not or cannot know anything at all?

      2. Peter,

        In their pure form VERY few people follow any of the classical schools of philosophy (or religion, imo). Skepticism as a discipline provides a valuable counterbalance to our natural self-deception about how much we “know” and with how much certainty. Like all drugs, it’s poisonous in excess.

  5. From here:

    In very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, … the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, for the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do. [Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Logic and Knowledge, ed. R.C. Marsh (London: Allen & Unwin, 1956), p. 185]

    Russell was quite a guy.

  6. News flash: humans are fundamentally irrational, compelled to action by primal drives which often prove self-destructive. The logical rationales which we construct to explain and justify our actions is mostly an ad hoc narrative confected after the fact in order to rationalize our bizarre behavior to ourselves and others.
    See, or example, the Schacter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion, and the evidence supporting it. Or the Dunning-Krueger Effect, which explains most of American politics.
    I strongly recommend the following books:

  7. Not irrationality, complacency. The book, the historical analogy, the psychologist. Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Alfred Wegener and continental drift. Daniel Kahneman:

    The illusion of deeply ingrained in the culture. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is….The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation…Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable

    Kahneman’s Nobel-winning work demonstrates that confidence levels have no connection to the truth. In his words: Overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

    1. MJB,

      I don’t understand your comment. Kahneman’s work is, of course, brilliant and important. But how do the phenomena I describe relate to disputes between well-founded scientific theories (some of which prove better than others)? My pint is the opposite: it’s not that we believe in scientific theories that future generations will believe false or outmoded — but that we believe things that the evidence today shows to be false (or even delusional).

  8. “Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths. He said also that children would be healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north. . . .He states that a man bitten by a mad dog will not go mad, . . . ; that the bite of the shrewmouse is dangerous to horses, especially if the mouse is pregnant; that elephants suffering from insomnia can be cured by rubbing their shoulders with salt, olive oil, and warm water; and so on and so on. Nevertheless, classical dons, who have never observed any animal except the cat and the dog, continue to praise Aristotle for his fidelity to observation.” [Bertrand Russell, Impact of Science on Society (1952) ch. 1]

    See, in particular, Asch’s 1951 conformity study. Here are 10 depressing psychological studies showing the weird behavior on which FM comments — viz. “we believe things that the evidence today shows to be false (or even delusional).”

    1. Thomas,

      The standard reply to any observation about change is to insist that change is impossible, as if a mad version of Zeno inhabits the commenting software. But the fact of history is changes in the magnitudes of the many qualities which make up men and women. Close reading of history shows that people of the past are aliens to us in their thinking and behavior. This contributes to the rise and fall of peoples which the warp and woof of history,

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