The Better Letter: Do the Planes Land?

Our world is adrift in motivated reasoning

In the Orthodox tradition, immediately after Easter comes Bright Week, set aside for the celebration of the Resurrection, whereby the darkness of death is swallowed up by the Light of the World. The entire week is treated as one continuous day, with services all sung rather than said. 

Bruce Springsteen provides a perfect anthem for the occasion with a rousing rendition of a Sunday School song from my childhood. He even modulates “one step closer to God” for the last verse.

Whatever light we have should be shared, especially in these dark times. Happy Bright Week!

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Do the Planes Land?

The great scientist (who wasn’t such a good person) Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” He made that proclamation while castigating what he called “Cargo Cult Science.” I’ll let Dr. Feynman describe it

“In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war [World War II] they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas – he’s the controller – and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

This problem isn’t of recent vintage. Aristotle used some very detailed (but erroneous) reasoning to assert that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. However, he didn’t bother to check, and his claim remained unquestioned for nearly two millennia. When Galileo finally did, it became clear that Aristotle was wrong. His planes didn’t land.

It’s a current problem, too.

In 1968, Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich produced a major bestseller prophesying that “[i]n the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” and proposing authoritarian measures to deal with the perceived problem. Thanks mainly to the agricultural innovations of Norman Borlaug, that prophecy couldn’t come true.

Ehrlich’s planes never landed. 

Fifty years on, Ehrlich conceded that enough food is produced to feed the world even though its population has more than doubled over that time. Nonetheless, Ehrlich still claims to be right: “the basic facts given have not in any way been disputed.” His more recent projections are even “less optimistic,” if even further delayed. And he still seeks the same repressive political and economic restrictions, still shills for authoritarian regimes (like China) who have imposed draconian measures to impose population control, and still sees global collapse coming.*

TRANSLATION: The planes will land . . . someday.

It turns out that Ehrlich, like humanity generally, is often wrong but never in doubt

Professor Ehrlich was and is the victim of a particular brand of confirmation bias called motivated reasoning, most famously revealed in a case study of a 1951 Ivy League football game and most famously expressed by Upton Sinclair. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

American public life is chock-full of motivated reasoning, such that its victims, who are also proponents, don’t even purport to pay attention to whether the planes land or not (see Bloomberg, Michael, for a particularly riveting illustration). Rusty Guinn’s excellent recent piece documents many pertinent examples.

We are all eager for that which validates our priors and blames those we hate, making us attractive marks for motivated perpetrators. Today, media outlets explicitly advertise by promising prospective consumers that they will tell them what they want to hear, making no pretense of balance. For many, the outrage is constant but feigned. It’s all performance art, played to the crowd of presumed supporters.

Indeed, the abject phoniness is right out in the open. Rush Limbaugh – and conservatives generally – long argued for fiscal restraint and discipline. With budget deficits soaring under the Trump administration, long before the current (necessary) Keynesian bacchanalia, the pretense was gone and the lie in the open for all to see: “Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it's been around.”

Early on, when President Trump sensibly limited travel (the well-worn claim that he “banned” it is revisionist history on the president’s behalf) to the U.S. from China, the resistance media downplayed the threat of COVID-19.

Democrats did, too, and called it xenophobic.

The sycophant media reversed the polarity and marched in lockstep with the president, as always, no matter how much the president’s view shift.

When it suited the president to treat COVID-19 as a real crisis (or became impossible not to), his supplicants played right along as if nothing had changed while the resistance and its media enablers did the same thing in reverse.**

Obviously, and of course, President Trump’s fraught relationship with truth is second-hand and tangential, at best. Moreover, his positions are always flexible based upon the circumstances. Republicans before Mr. Trump were universally skeptical of executive power and rapturous in praise of federalism, with Democrats on the other side. Those roles are now reversed, with the president declaiming any responsibility for current difficulties but insisting he has “total authority.” And Republicans otherwise outraged over intrusions of the “nanny state,” fall all over themselves to pledge whimpering subservience.

We’ve all got elections to win or mortgages to pay (NSFW below).

Jared Harris (as Valery Legasov) made the critical point in Chernobyl: “When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”

When people tell us and show us who they are, we should believe them. As Dr. Feynman insisted, it’s all a matter of integrity, with hypocrites everywhere. We merely have to recall all the planes that don’t land.

_______________

* Ehrlich is hardly unique. There are entire “scientific” fields predicated not upon empirical evidence, but just-so stories.

** These Republican sins are more understandable if no more defensible than those of their Democratic counterparts in that the president demands unwavering and obsequious obedience and invokes swift punishment for those who stray while offering no loyalty in return.


Totally Worth It

Andrew Peterson’s music was featured in last week’s TBL. On Monday, he released an impromptu “quarantine edition” concert. Check it out here.

A seven-year-old is making and delivering care packages for elderly folks shut-in by the coronavirus. Local law enforcement officers came together to throw a seven-year-old boy who had recently lost his mother to cancer a socially- distanced birthday parade (video). There’s a “Saved by the Bell” reboot. Turning boarded-up businesses into art.


Duly Noted

Because there are 56.6 million American schoolchildren in grades K-12, the 2-3 percent mortality rate, Dr. Oz seems to find acceptable for reopening schools would mean as many as 1.7 million dead American children.


Benediction

Our Easter celebrations this year are much quieter than usual. No packed pews in sanctuaries filled with lilies. No fancy new clothes. No Handel with fortissimo orchestra. 

In 2020, we had a 20/20 view of an Easter that was live-streamed or observed from afar by pushing play, wearing sweatpants on the couch.

Easter arrived amidst a hungering dark, the famished world desperate for a light that shines in the darkness, even though the darkness does not understand it (as ever, if more obviously so). However, our muted celebrations this time were more in tune with the original story.

The gospels describe the resurrection in subdued plain prose, not proclaimed with poetry or parades. The resurrection was first seen and attested by women, and poor women at that – unreliable witnesses as dictated by the culture. The disciples dismissed them as telling an “idle tale.”

Despite the women’s report, those same disciples, the men who knew Jesus best, didn’t recognize their risen Lord until he had asked them to sit by the fire and cooked them breakfast. The last chapter of the last gospel features the resurrected Jesus standing on the shore in the dark, waiting for disciples who don’t recognize him to come to him, yet again.

In the gospel story, the resurrection isn’t heralded by loud fanfares. It is whispered in the gloom. It is misunderstood. It is much more candle in the dark than sky ablaze in glory. 

Andrea Bocelli performed a special Easter Sunday concert via YouTube – for free – in a magnificent but empty Duomo di Milano. It lasted less than 30 minutes, accompanied only by the church organist, more prayer than spectacle. Take it all in here

“When music can become a prayer, I think it’s the most noble way to sing,” Bocelli said. “I’m a singer, and my best way to pray for my country, for the people suffering at this moment, is to sing.” 

Bocelli concluded his concert alone in front of the cathedral with cutaways to deserted streets in Paris, London, and New York. He sang “Amazing Grace,” the classic 18th Century hymn by John Newton, who reflected on his years as a slave trader and how, “wretched” though he was, God’s “amazing grace” was extended to him anyway. Be warned; it wrecked me.

That prayer is this week’s benediction. And this week’s proclamation.


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 9 (April 17, 2020)