The Growing Tide of Anti-Intellectualism

There is an undeniable, politically-supported growth of denial — and even hatred — of learning, facts, and the educated. Greed (and, most likely, fear of minorities) feeds demagoguery. Demagoguery can lead to harmful policies and thereafter to mob actions.

I’ve written on this topic here before. I also have cited an excellent essay from Scientific American about how the rising tide of anti-intellectualism threatens our democracy and future (you should read it).

What prompts this post is a recent article about a thinly-veiled political probe of the National Science Foundation, combined with the pending national election in the US. (Some of these issues apply elsewhere in the world, but this is a US-centric post.)

This view is also reinforced by my current experience — I am on a combined speaking tour and family vacation in Poland. I recently visited a memorial to the Katyn massacre, remembering when Soviet NKVD killed 22,000 captured Poles, many of whom were included because they were educated “intelligentsia.” Later today, I am visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, where intellectuals were taken as well as Jews, Romani, the handicapped, and other undesirables, over a million of whom were subsequently executed. The Cambodian killing fields were filled with the bodies of educators, scientists, and doctors — even simply people who wore glasses — and their families, because they were viewed as enemies of the ruling belief system who could point out inconvenient facts and fallacies in the pronouncements of the leaders. History is filled with examples of shuttering of universities, burning of books, banning of lectures, and mass executions of the educated. The death sentence on Socrates is a canonical example of the problem.

I will admit to my own partisan (in the US) leaning here — which is steadily increasing as I observe prior cutbacks to NASA, NSF and basic science (e.g., here), claiming made-up medical evidence to attack women’s health choice issues (e.g., this and this), denial of climate change (e.g., here), denial of evolution, attacks against the EPA in favor of big-money polluters, promoting incorrect history books in for secondary school education, rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education, perpetuating predatory student loan rates and other examples.

There is a clear and growing bias against education and even basic facts, primarily promoted by the GOP. Worse, they are finding widespread social support for these biases. Hiding behind claims of saving taxpayer money (so it can be spent on the military) and promoting religious freedoms (but in practice, only a select set of religions) has become their standard practice; those involved who don’t promote it either tolerate it or attempt to justify it. by picking a few counter-examples or cases of ignorance by other political entities.

For instance, if you read the above examples and were mentally making a list of “That citation is biased” or “All politicians are equally bad” or “But what about when that Democrat said….” then you are almost certainly part of the problem — denying the bigger picture by cherry-picking counterexamples. I won’t debate individual items, because that is to ignore the very clear overall pattern.

Socially, we are seeing the impact — for example, the popularity of Fox “News” stories that continue to present false information, candidates who are lying publicly despite being called out on it because the electorate doesn’t respond (Colbert’s “Truthiness” was a brilliant way of labeling this), the rise of one-issue deniers….

The recent scare-mongering and reactions to the spread of Ebola shows a combination ignorance of science, a political motivation (the GOP claims to want an “Ebola Czar” to make it look like they are doing something, but has been blocking the appointment of a Surgeon General and cutting funds to NIH for years), and even a racial component (1 death and 2 infections in the US is a crisis; thousands dying every week in West Africa merits not a mention).

Another case of malleable facts for political ends? Arguments for voter ID laws are specious and even evil (a veteran GOP US judge called it), but are being justified by made up facts so as to help keep voters disenfranchised who might threaten GOP candidates. (Look at the history of such laws — they are always proposed and passed in GOP-led state legislatures).

I don’t mean to condemn everyone who leans towards the Republicans, nor am I absolving any Democrats of their many peccadillos and faults. Politics tends to breed a certain level of corruption, and people with nuanced views are often unelectable.

However, I am deeply concerned with the direction in which we are headed, spearheaded by one political party, where dumb is considered “statesmanlike,” facts are inconvenient, religious mythology trumps science, and any observation of this is treated as if all views are equally valid. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson is alleged to have responded when creationists demanded equal time to present their view after the airing of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey on TV: “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers. Science is not there for you to cherry pick.”

Beliefs may be equal, but science and history are not “beliefs.” You can choose your beliefs, but you cannot choose facts.

If you have read this far, you are likely educated and capable of thought. You should be concerned about the trends, too. Don’t buy in to “All political parties are the same” because some research into this issue will reveal they are not, at least on this topic. Don’t excuse anti-intellectualism as simply “ conflict of competing belief systems.” Understand it for what is is. Speak out about it. If you are a fan of the GOP’s views on smaller government, immigration, or defense — fine, speak out in GOP forums on issues of science and truth, and make those a priority in your decision-making.

Perhaps more importantly, vote. Urge others to vote. Support candidates of any party who do not deny science, do not belittle education, do not make up their own version of the facts. Get others to vote, and educate them about the candidates. We want the smartest, best-educated people leading the world — not the dumbest, most biased, and most dishonest. Don’t vote solely by political party, although I encourage you to think about the above pattern if you don’t have any other information at hand.

Pastor Martin Niemoller is credited with the famous saying “First they came for the Sociaists, and I did not speak out….Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” Let us not be the ones left, for whom there is no one left to speak. Let us seek to ensure that our descendants live in a world where knowledge is valued, truth — even difficult truth — is sought, and idiots are not given public acclaim.

And don’t forget to vote!

(Update: a few hours after I originally posted this, Borowitz came up with an appropriate news parody article in the New Yorker.)

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Spafford/Spofforth Family History + Trivia

[Updated 8/26/13 to include the contested 21st generation entry and fix small typos.]

Intro

Recently, my family vacationed in England. While there, we visited the town and castle ruins in Spofforth, a small town in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Spofforth is strongly suggested as the ancestral home of the Spafford, Spofford, Spufford, Spuford, Spoford, Spauforth, Spofer, Spawforth, Spofforth, Spoforth, Spoffurth, Spoffort, Spofferd, Spofforths, Spauforthe, Spoofourthe, etc. family lines, at least as far back as they can be traced. (And no, not the Staffords — that is a totally different family.) That has prompted me to write up some things about the family and family history for my daughter, nieces, nephews, and other Spaffords. Read on — if you dare.

A note about spelling. Up until a few hundred years ago, spelling really wasn’t viewed as “fixed.” There were many reasons for this, including lack of references, evolving language, and low literacy rates. Thus, things were often spelled out as the scribe heard them, and there are some different spellings over time. I try to spell things in an accepted way, and reproduce the ancient spellings the way I found them in the references.

Spafford Narrative History

If you go back far enough (100 generations, certainly), every family likely interweaves with every other in a locale. I imagine if you go back 100,000 generations or so you come up with the few original homo sapiens, so in that sense every family is connected. Thus, at some levels, we are all related.

Throughout time, there was a lot of intermarriage of families and clans, and even among not-too-distant relatives, so family trees don’t really branch out quite so much as mathematics would predict. But for purposes of this essay, if we base our story on the Western view of descent of family name via the paternal line, and if we assume that all the women directly on that line were truthful about who was the father of the children involved (not necessarily a given in any family line), then my family can trace back as far as Orm in Yorkshire, England in the 10th century.

Orm (or Arm; old Danish for Dragon) was apparently a Christian lord of Viking descent, born around 965 AD. It is entirely possible that he arrived in England during the conquest by King Cnut around 1010, and may have been one of the clan chiefs (or son of a clan chief) who helped Cnut in that conquest: Orm was mentioned in an early charter of land by Cnut in 1033. Orm was a Thane in the area, of the “family” Ormerod. Orm has record of being a significant leader, and shows up again in the “Ormulum” text. Little is really known of his life, but he apparently lived near what is now Leeds. Orm paid for the restoration of the church in Kirkdale, and an engraving above the door still commemorates that. He held significant estates in Northumbria, either by conquest or gift.

Orm married into royalty. His wife, Etheldreda was the daughter of Aldred, Earl of Northumbria. Her uncle was Duncan, King of Scotland. Her great grandfather had been King of Northumbria before it had been conquered and added to the kingdom of England.

Gamel, Orm’s son, had significant land in York, Dereby, Lincoln, Stafford, Salop and Chester. He was Lord of Thorparch, on the river Thorpe in Yorkshire, There is record that he was generous to the Church, as he gave one of his manor homes to the Church of St. Peter in York. Given the time when he lived, he may have participated in Earl Siward’s 1054 military expedition against the Scottish king Mac Bethad (Macbeth!). Gamel’s mother was sister to Siward’s wife, and he was thus viewed as “family” in that household. Siward, the Earl of Northumbria, died in 1055 from dysentery. His son was too young to assume rule, so King Edward the Confessor appointed Tostig Godwinson, one of his own brothers-in-law, as Earl.

Tostig was not well-liked in Northumbria, being a Saxon in a land of many Danes and Scots. A few years earlier, he had been exiled by King Edward, briefly, from England along with his father, the Earl of Wessex. Tostig spent a lot of time in the court of King Edward, preferring the company of his kinsmen in Wessex to the people in Northumbria. He also likely secretly allied himself with the Scottish king Malcolm III. Tostig heavily taxed the locals, made unpopular decisions, and generally was disliked. He increased this dislike by appointing an inept administrator in the form of someone named Copsig who was inept. Tostig ordered the killing of several lords who objected to his heavy hand, including Ulf, son of Dofin, and Gamel, son of Orm, in 1064 during a visit to his manor in York under safe conduct.

Gamelbar, Gamel’s son, was successful and inherited his father’s lands. He was Baron of Spofforth, was recorded (after the Norman Conquest) as having the following fiefs: Folyfate, Aiketon, Spoford, Ribbeston, Plumpton, Colthorp, Stockton, Lynton, Heselwode, Sutton, Sighelinghale, Lofthowse, Kibelingcotes, Guthmundenham, Cloughton, Pokethorp, Esthorp, Hoton, Fosseton, Wandesford, Nafferton, Queldryke, Wartre, Thriberg, Edelington, Middleton, Stubbum, Skaln, Colesburn, Nesselfeld, Inwely, Wheteley, Askwith, Dalton, Horton, Casteley, Letheley, Walton, Bergheby, Arlesthorp, Soreby, Hemelsby, Steynton, Asmonderby, Merkingfeld, Hornyngton, Wolsington, Yedon, Rondon, Oxton, Tadcastre, Snawes, Haghornby, Gramhope, Kerkby, Kerkby-Orblawers, Carleton, Midhope, Remington, Neusome, Boulton, Horton, Gersington, Lynton, Ketelwell, Thresfeld, Arnecliffe, Addingham, Routherneck, Stynton, Estborne, Malghum, Brunby, Swyndon, Halton, Pathorne, Elgfeld, Thornton, Bunyngeston, Difford, Gisborne, and Westeby. Spoford or Spofforth was a place name, derived centuries earlier, and means “spot of land where the ford is” (as in ford of the river). It is uncertain what river that may have been, but the town of Spofforth is along the River Crimple, which empties into the River Nidd.

Clearly, Gamelbar was a wealthy and powerful thane.

On 3 October 1065, all the thegns (thanes) in the region rebelled, marched to Eoforwic (York) and defeated Earl Tostig’s house troops (all Danish mercenaries — he didn’t trust the locals, and apparently for good reason); Gamelbar was a leader in this revolt. King Edward sent Harold, Earl of Wessex (his brother-in-law), to York as his emissary. Harold secured a truce, and returned to the king with the recommendation that Tostig be stripped of his title. It was so ordered by the king, and Tostig again went into exile, now with a big grudge against Harold.

Tostig raised some troops via his father-in-law, Count Baldwin of Flanders, and made several raids along the coast. In January, 1066, King Edward died and Harold became king. Many others wanted to claim the throne, including Harald Hardrada of Norway, who launched an invasion. In September Tostig joined forces with Hardrada to invade Northumbria where they conquered York. Nearly simultaneously, William the Bastard of Normandy invaded Wessex (he claimed that Edward had promised the throne to him; he and Edward were cousins).

King Harold learned of the fall of York, first, and he put his troops on a forced march to the north where he caught Tostig and Hardrada by surprise. Their army was not prepared for a battle, and were defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, with both Tostig and Hardrada killed and Gamel avenged.

However, as this concluded, news reached the King about William’s Norman force landing to the south. He put his exhausted (and bloodied) army on a march south to meet them. They eventually met at the battle of Hastings, where Harold — making some poor decisions along the way — died (as did his two remaiming brothers) and William became William the Conqueror; had he lost, he would probably still be known to history as William the Bastard.

Meanwhile, Gamelbeorn, also known as Gamelbar de Spofford, had been loyal to King Harold. He participated in the revolt to the Normans in 1068-1069, but the effort was defeated. William exacted terrible revenge on everyone in Yorkshire, including Gamelbar. He forfeit his estates, his mansion in York, and his many other manor homes. Those were given to William’s ally, William de Percy, who was made a Baron. Gamelbar’s main manor home was in the town of Spoford (Spofforth, now.) Gamelbar was almost certainly put to death if he was not killed in battle. (See the section below on Spofforth Castle)

So, the early history of the Spafford (et al) line has them being significantly involved with the incidents that led to the victory of William the Conqueror: Gamel’s assassination as a cause of rebellion against Tostig, leading to bad blood with Harold, leading to the attack that sapped Harold’s troops and thus unable to defeat William’s forces. As we will see later, they also were involved, very indirectly, with the Magna Carta. The family also had an indirect connection to Shakespeare via the real King Macbeth.

Line of Descent

Based on the available information (linked in above), the following appears to be the line from Orm, my (great-)29grandfather to me; there is some small dispute about whether there was another generation in 20-22. I’m leaving out siblings, although some are known (but not all are). A rather comprehensive family history up to 1888 is available as an online book, although at least one alternate and well-researched history presents some disagreement.

  1. Orm, Lord of Thorpatch. Born probably around 965, died before 1042
  2. Gamel of Spofforth. Born ca 990, killed 1064. Lord of Thorparch and Lord of the Manor of Ilkley. King’s fowler and Ranger of the Forest of Knaresborough. Assassinated by Tostig, Earl of Northumbria.
  3. Gamelbar or Gamelbeorn. Born ca 1015, died in or after 1068. Lord of Spofforth, Plumpton, Braham, etc.
  4. William de Spofforth. Born ca 1040. Joined Aldred, Archbishop of York in resisting Normans. His properties were also confiscated by the Normans in 1086 as a result of William’s scourge of Yorkshire.
  5. Walter de Spofforth. Born ca 1063, died ca 1091. Walter was killed in an invasion of England by Scottish king Malcolm III.
  6. John of Spofforth. Born ca 1085, died ca 1091. Married Juliana de Plumpton, daughter of Nigel, a lord. This was the first in a long familial association with the Plumptons over 200 years.
  7. Henry. Born ca 1115. Married the daughter of Sir Richard de Stokeld.
  8. Elwine or Elerina de Spofforth. (Also known as Robert.) Born ca 1145 and died after 1186.
  9. Gamel de Spofforth. Born ca 1175. Was Marshall to Nigel de Plumpton, Lord of Plumpton.
  10. William of Spofforth. Born ca 1200. Noted as attending a Parliment at St. Albans
  11. Nicholas de Spauford. Born ca 1235, died ca 1265. Married Dyonysia de Plumpton.
  12. Roger Blase de Spofford. Born ca 1260, died after 1325. Joined Lord Pembroke in the insurrection vs. Edward II in around 1320.
  13. Robert of Spofforth. Born ca 1285, died after 1338. Married Agnes Castelay.
  14. Robert of Spofforth. Born ca 1310, died after 1339. Married Evorta de Norwode. Served as the Prior of Helaugh.
  15. Robert Spofforth. Born ca 1340, died after 1361. Married Mary de Malebis, daughter of Sir Thomas de Malebis. Robert’s nephew, Thomas Spofford, was in the House of Lords in the reign of Henry V as Abbot of St. Mary’s in York. It is alleged that Thomas was a hero in one of the ballads of Robin Hood while Bishop of Hereford! He was also elected one of the four presidents of the Council of Constance.
  16. John Spofford. Born ca 1360, and died after 1396. Married Maria Meynel. Lived in Newsham, England.
  17. Robert Spofforth. Born ca 1405, died after 1431. Married Ann Anlaby, daughter of William Anlany and Alice Ughtred. Lived in Menthrope, near Selby, and in York.
  18. Robert Spofforth, born ca 1460, died after 1494. Married Ellen Roncliffe, daughter of Baron Bryan Roncliffe. They lived in Wistow Manor, near Selby.
  19. Bryan Spofforth. Born ca 1500, died ca 1555. Was rector of Barton-le-Street from 1536-1554. Married Agnes Aslaby (a nun), daughter of Walter Fawkes, in 1530. He was ejected from the church in 1554.
  20. Robert Spofford (sometimes listed as Richard). Born ca 1532. Married Agnes Clare, daughter of Gilbert Clare, in 1565. Robert was the first Protestant from birth in the family.
  21. [According to some accounts, there was another generation here, with Richard, b. ca 1565, died 1611. Married Anne. He was esquire to Sir Wm. Bambrough.]
  22. John Spofforth. Born ca 1588, died 1668. John was the Vicar of Silkstone, but was ejected as a nonconformist (Puritan). Married Ellen.
  23. John Spofford. born 1612 died ca 6 Nov 1678. Emigrated to Massachusetts in 1638 as a Puritan aboard the “John of London” sailing from Hull with a group led by the Rev. Ezekiel Rogers. Married Elizageth Scott, who came to MA at the age of 9 in April 1634 aboard the ship “Elizabeth.” She was the daughter of Thomas Scott and Elizabeth Strutt; the Scott family traces back to Charlemagne. John & Elizabeth lived in Ipswich and Newbury. John was 13 years older than Elizabeth. As a matter of trivia, each traveled to the colonies aboard a ship bearing their names.
  24. John Spaford II. Born 24 Oct 1648 in Rowley, MA and died 22 Apr 1696 in Bradford MA. He married Sarah Wheeler, daughter of David Wheeler and Sarah Wise. John’s name appears in the list of soldiers with Capt. Thomas Prentice’s Company in King Philip’s War, Feb 29, 1675-1676, and also in Capt. Appleton’s troop in the Narragansett campaign of the same war. John and Sarah had 8 children.
  25. Jonathan Spofford. Born 28 May 1684 in Rowley, MA and died 16 Jan 1772 in Georgetown MA. Married Jemima Freethe, daughter of John Freethe and Hannah Bray. Jonathan and Jemima had 13 children, not all of whom lived to adulthood.
  26. Jacob Spafford. Born 17 Aug 1722 Rowley, MA and died 1769 in Salisbury CT. He married Rebecca Smalley, daughter of Benjamin Smalley and Rebecca Wright. Jacob and Rebecca had 11 children. He was the first to use the last name Spafford with that spelling.
  27. Solomon Spofford. Born 21 Sep 1756 and died 2 Feb 1837 in Athol, Ontario. He Married Sally Sheldon. He had achieved the rank of Colonel in the army. He fought with the colonists in the Revolutionary War, but his allegiance changed and he fought with the British in the War of 1812, moving to Canada after the war ended. Solomon and Sally had 9 children.
  28. Abijah Pratt Spafford. Born ca 1787 and died 1842. Married Margaret Sheldon Ferguson, daughter of J. Ferguson and Polly Young. They had 9 children.
  29. Abijah Spafford. Born ca 1825 in Athol, Ontario, and died 4 Dec 1909 in Cherry Valley, Ontario. He had a paralyzing stroke in July of 1908. He married Anna Eliza Ketchum, daughter of Thomas H. Ketchum and Caroline Jackson. Abijah was a Methodist minister.
  30. Thomas Franklin Spafford. Born 16 Mar 1857, died Dec 1937, both in Cherry Valley, Ontario. Married Sarah Catherine Wood, daughter of Nehemiah Wood. He was a schoolteacher.
  31. Marcus Vernon Spafford. Born 11 Jan 1883 Sophiasburg, Ontario, and died 23 Jun 1948 in Rochester, NY. He married Ila Maude Foster, daughter of William Asa Foster and Lucritia Iantha Anderson. They emigrated to the US ca 1902, and he worked as a foreman in the film doping plant for George Eastman at Kodak. He became a naturalized US citizen on 29 November 1921. Ila lived to age 100.
  32. Howard Franklin Spafford. Born 22 Apr 1918 in Rochester, and died 3 July 2007 in Hartford, CT. Married Elizabeth Ann Gallagher, daughter of Eugene Paul Gallagher and Ruby Viola Shoemaker. Howard served in WWII in an antiaircraft battery deployed in Europe. He later served as an accountant and financial officer for several small companies in the Rochester area.
  33. Eugene Howard Spafford. The current affront to civilization from the Spafford family.

John Spofford (#23) was the ancestor of almost all of the Spaffords, Spoffords, and similar in the US and Canada. A few others have since immigrated from other parts of the British Empire.

To the best of my ability to tell, there are no male heirs to this line after at least Thomas (#30), and possibly earlier — all lines end in daughters. If I were to somehow have sons at this point, I might try to name them Orm and Gamel.

Crest and Motto and Etc

The family motto has been rendered as Fidelis ad extremum or “Faithful to the extreme.” Another version has been “Rather Deathe than false of Faythe,” which is rather the same thing. Given some of the family history of continuing to serve on the losing side of disagreements long after the outcome was decided, this certainly seems apt!

A commercial service has a version of the Spafford coat of arms. This is one of two versions. The other version is shown to the right.

There have been a few notable Spaffords about. Check out the Wikipedia page for Horatio Spafford, for instance, especially if you think your luck is bad; the Spafford Center in Jerusalem is related.
Suzy Spafford is a notable cartoonist. Spafford Lake on the campus of UC Davis is named after a long-time administrator in the UC system, Ed Spafford. Roz Spafford is an award-winning author. George Spafford has coauthored several books with my former student Gene Kim.

There is a jam-rock band from Arizona named Spafford, although I have no idea why they picked that name.

NY State has a town of Spafford. I’ve been there — it is a pleasant little town in the Finger Lakes region.

There are other Spaffords about, if you know where to look for them, and many are worth finding.

Spofforth Castle

The ruins of Spofforth Castle still stand in the town of Spofforth. Actually, it is the remains of a fortified manor house, but at one point it would have been seen as a castle. Only the western part of the castle still stands — there was originally more to the East, North, and West. After the castle fell to ruins, the locals took a great many of the stones to build their homes, churches, and common buildings, thus leaving much less of the grandeur that was once there.

After William took Northumbria, he gave all of Gamelbar’s lands and manors to his buddy, William de Percy. Spofforth Castle was constructed in the 11th century. It seems likely (although there is no clear archeological evidence) that Spofforth Castle was built on the foundations of one of Gamelbar’s early homes.

Legend has it that the first version of the Magna Carta was drafted at Spofforth Castle!

One account notes that Harry Hotspur was born here at Spofforth Castle in 1364. He is a notable character in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, as a friend of Henry V. In real life he also was a notable knight, who rebelled against King Henry IV and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

The castle was ruined in 1461, after the Percys sided with Lancaster in the War of the Roses — and lost. Over 100 years later, the castle was restored, but it was not used as a primary residence and fell into disuse. It was last occupied in 1604, and again ruined in the civil war (1642-1651).

The castle has a ghost, too!

One might make the comment that the castle is like the Spafford authoring this blog — old, weathered, and in ruins.

Here is a video tour of the castle, taken in 2011, with silly music in the background.

This is a gallery of pictures I took in August 2013 of the castle and its interior:

Historic marker

Long view from ENE

NE side

East side & entrance

SE side, looking NW

SE side looking W

South side, outside

NE corner

North side

NW side & tower

NW base of tower, looking S

West side

Entering in via N wall

Inside undercroft, looking North

Inside undercroft, looking South

Inside undercroft, looking NE

Stairs in SE corner

Another view looking South

NW corner with chapel window

View to NE from inside

View to NW from inside

Paranoia or Pattern Recognition?

Last year, I wrote this post about the increasing danger posed by fundamentalism in the U.S.A. — not Islamic fundamentalism, but so-called Christian fundamentalism, and its threat to science. (And here are some supporting thoughts published via Scientific American and the UK Guardian.)

This morning, as I finished my second gallon of coffee :-), this post set me off: Blind, severely disabled boy forced to take standardized test. That was on top of the news from yesterday that Senator Coburn had finally succeeded in getting one of his attacks against NSF included in a funding bill.

I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of things aren’t continuing salvos in a deeper agenda — one that not all of itds supporters may have even thought about. Then again, maybe I’m feeling especially paranoid and caffinated today, but….

First, think about the ideological attacks on public school teachers as moochers and incompetent (think: Wisconsin as a glaring example, and here’s a good explanation of the phenomenon). The thrust of these efforts is to drive their pay and benefits so low that the profession is completely unattractive to anyone with competence (let alone, excellence). Coupled with this are passage of laws that threaten their pensions and prevent them from using unions to resist.

More or less concurrently, the laws have been set up to penalize schools based on testing — forcing every student to take tests that they are set up to fail, thus depressing the scores to provide “proof” that public schools are “failing.” (As an aside, if only we had similar evaluation of the legislators passing these laws based on scores rather than financed, partisan elections…..)

Another step is to open up voucher programs and make them easy to get for parents who want to opt out of public schools. This further erodes the resources for public schooling. It also boosts the attendance at schools that teach crap creationist “science” and revisionist history (think: the fairy tales that Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin spout). The adults educated as children in these schools will almost certainly tend to vote for the know-nothings who are engineering the destruction of real education, and will want their own children to attend these New World madrassas rather than be exposed to reality.

So goes the spiral as secular, scientific, reason-based education circles the drain.

Couple this with the mantra of “must eliminate the debt and big government” that are used as excuses to cut research (Senator Coburn’s vendetta against NSF is one example, and shuttering NASA programs another), cut early education and child support, continually reduce higher education support and scholarships, and block appointment of any Federal judges many of whom show evidence of understanding separation of church and state,… hmmm, what else? Concentrate the wealth and thus much of the political power in the hands of an elite that are largely separated from average people. Mix in the advocacy of increased military spending. Paint Islam and China as looming threats. Extrapolate from those data points, and many more you can add in.

Let’s see. Cut away at good secular education, deny advanced education for any but the dogmatic, undercut chances at economic freedom, the privileged are “more equal than others because they work harder,” promote an agenda of extreme ideals, and beat the drum for “vigilance” against heretical foes. What comes to mind? Orwell’s 1984, Nazi Germany, the early Soviet Union, North Korea… and the USA of 25-35 years from now? Foster ignorance, economic stagnation, and rabid ideology, and it is simple to move to totalitarian control.

All this is coming from one end of the US political spectrum, and one political party. Is it surprising to anyone if they might have delusions of the US as a sectarian military power dominating the world with their ideals? If not, ask yourself — what threatens that vision? What is “under attack” according to their rhetoric? How could they change the U.S. to be more suitable to their view of domination? And is that inconsistent with what has been happening?

Am I getting all that from 1 report of insane rules overapplied to a child in Florida? Nope. But I’ve seen so much of this in the last few years, and especially this week (the Coburn move against NSF being the most irritating) that, coupled with too much coffee, here’s my rant.

I can guess at some of the people who will read this far and who will denigrate everything about it. Sadly, those people are almost certainly aligned with the ones helping perpetrate the decline, perhaps even without thinking about where it all might lead. The most dogmatic are the ones who are most easily misled and who most quickly rise to their defense.

If we care, we need to push back. Push back against Senator Coburn, and Governor Scott Walker, and Reps. Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann, and all the other demagogues who would happily push us into the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Even if I’m not paranoid it doesn’t mean that the know-nothings aren’t out to destroy all teaching of science and history they don’t like (which the rest of us can call “reality” for short). It doesn’t mean they won’t try to push their religious views on us. And it doesn’t mean they won’t seek to hobble — economically and politically — everyone who doesn’t agree with them.

All it takes for those ideals to win out is for the rest of us to allow those demagogues to keep getting elected and spouting their nonsense on radio and TV without correction (e.g., that “reality” stuff). Does it matter to you, or are @lolcats, “The Batchelor” and “Jersey Shore” all you really care about? Based on response from three different classes this week, less than 10% of even the best educated are bothering to keep up with the news — they didn’t know about the cyberattacks in South Korea, that the President was in Israel, that China had elected a new premier, the financial crisis in Cyprus…. but wow, several of them certainly knew about who was on “Dancing with the Stars” and which teams were in the NCAA basketball tournament. I’m beginning to wonder if the forces of ignorance have not already won. 😦

The Road to a New Dark Age in the US

This rant was triggered by a news article. I posted a link to it in my Twitter feed. I received several fatuous, smug responses. The combination prompted me to write what follows. We’ll get to the article eventually.


Consider that the US led the world in science and technology for decades. We created atomic power, put humans on the moon and in the deepest ocean trenches, we discovered the most fundamental subatomic particles, and have imaged the most distant galaxies. We have constructed immense skyscrapers, we communicate with light, and we can predict (usually) the weather. We can put almost the entire sum of recorded human knowledge on charged bits of silicon, and calculate with numbers larger than the number of atoms in the universe. We can take apart cells and put them together again to form new ones, and we have extended our average lifespan by decades through improved medicine. Working with others around the world, we have eradicated terrible scourges (smallpox) and nearly eliminated others (polio, the Guinea Worm). We have done amazing things, and there is more yet to be done than we have barely imagined.

We have accomplished all this through engineering, technology and especially science: the process of forming hypotheses, conducting experiments to verify or refute them, and then refining those same hypotheses. All of science is theoretical, in the sense that all theories are open to refinement when we obtain new data. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was simply a theory with lots of confirmation of the usual case, which was refined when Einstein came along. The atomic model of matter is a theory, and it is refined and retested with each new means to break apart atoms to find constituent parts. The “Luminiferous Aether” was a theory for light propagation until Michelson and Morley’s experiment showed it to be false. The “four humors” was a theory of medicine before we began to understand biology.

Science is based on theories. Theories with massive bodies of repeated experiment and confirmation are often labeled “laws” but are still theories. The Law of Gravity is actually a theory. So is the Theory of Evolution. Both have undergone repeated trials by independent experiment, with the results very critically analyzed by others. Those theories have been confirmed again and again by the vast majority of trained observers. That is how science advances. We construct experiments to test our theories, and each successful experiment confirms its associated theory a little more, while each unsuccessful experiment drives us to ask “why?” and seek further refinement. If there is something that cannot be tested by experiment, then it is not something that can be known to science — it is not a verifiable fact, and can only be supported by belief.

Human advancement stumbles when ideology trumps knowledge. We refer to a period in the past in Europe as “the Dark Ages” as a time when inquiry was constrained by religious dogma; it is no accident that what followed was called the Enlightenment, a word we also use for gaining knowledge. During those dark ages, learning was treated with suspicion, and those who accomplished what the common person did not understand were sometimes killed as witches or tortured by religious authorities, seeking to make them “repent.” Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union crippled agricultural development and biological research for decades, as well as resulted in the death of many leading scientists in prisons, and their work destroyed. Whether it was the destruction of the House of Wisdom by the Mongols, the Nazis burning books that did not support their ideology, the Catholic Church’s censoring knowledge with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or any of hundreds of other major acts of suppression of knowledge — including extremes such as the mass genocide of the educated in Cambodia’s killing fields by the Khmer Rouge — darkness is brought about by those who would suppress knowledge, education, and inquiry.

It is no surprise that many of our nation’s leaders are focusing on increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) research and education, both to keep our economy competitive, but as a matter of national security. The US has been losing ground in these fields, as has been pointed out time and again in major studies (two of which are the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and its successor). Our ability to compete as a nation, to meet future economic challenges, to improve our health care, and to maintain our national defense all depend on our ability to innovate, and that requires education and scientific advances based on inquiry unfettered by superstition and myth.

So, given the proven history of scientific advancement (and the grim negative examples), and the obvious needs for foundational aspects of that advancement in education and infrastructure, it should be clear that it should be a national priority, right?

Well, no. We have seen a rising political movement over the last few decades, and it is destructive, yet not often mentioned by those in positions of leadership. After all, angering religious fanatics who are sure they have the blessings of heaven and who are unswayed by logic or reason is not without its vexations. Yet, to be silent is to let the darkness increase.

What darkness?

The darkness of ignorance and the unbending dogma of those who are united in their belief: science is wrong, facts are not to be believed, religion is the overriding (or only) truth. This is a growing problem that we have seen get worse over the last few decades. It has been obviously manifest in the last few national elections, and only becomes more pressing.

We have increasing numbers of the population denying evolution, refusing to acknowledge climate change, avoiding immunizations (and thereby endangering the rest of the population as the “herd immunity” is lost), and similar while being openly contemptuous of scholarship and scholars. Denial of foundational science in biology, physics, and geology is frequently made. And it has probably had a side-effect on our public, a significant fraction of whom don’t know (for example) that New Mexico is part of the US, cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, don’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq (and don’t even begin to ask about Sunni vs. Shia), have no idea how to figure a 17% tip, and many of whom think the Sun orbits the Earth! After all, when some facts are hotly denied, why bother learning any? (Although, to be fair, this great public ignorance may well be the cause of an increasingly dogmatic population, and not the effect.) It will cripple future generations if they are prevented from learning things known to be true, especially in the sciences. That was Bill Nye’s message, too, that has caused some controversy by those who fail — or refuse — to understand it.

From a public policy perspective, this trend is leading to (directly and indirectly) cutting funds for research, cutting funding for public universities, cutting back on student aid, vilifying teachers, and even threatening Big Bird (PBS). The adherents clamor for vouchers and home schooling so they can perpetuate their ignorance and superstition. (To be fair, some vouchers and home schooling is intended to provide a quality alternative to underfunded public schools; this is a feedback loop.) It is an anti-intellectual movement that has been encouraged by some demagogues, primarily in one political party, because they have sought to use the votes for influence, but it has further emboldened the fringe elements. Heck, even an official with the campaign staff for their candidate for President said that facts don’t matter, and one state’s party convention adopted a position against critical thinking! This all evidences actual contempt for knowledge. (There are many more examples, including many with our 43rd President, but this post is already too long.)

Want more evidence? Take a look at this news article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yes, this is the one that started me off on this. 🙂

This guy is running for reelection, unopposed in a district that includes a major university — the University of Georgia (as a Georgia Tech alumnus, I will forego some obvious comments), so this is even more disheartening.

Note especially that Rep Broun is on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. So is Todd Akin, the fellow in Missouri who made the incredibly inane comments about women not getting pregnant from “legitimate rape.” These are only two of many such people that our fellow citizens somehow think are qualified to represent them, but are overtly nescient. They are among the leadership and oversight, making decisions on our national programs of science and technology. Is it any wonder that, the rest of the world is gaining on us as a nation? There are many more like these folks running for office in national, state and local races, too.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S., nor to only one religion, nor only at this time. We have seen instances of the Taliban destroying buildings, burning schools and books, and killing others who do not share their beliefs. We see news of Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel pushing restrictions on those who do not share their beliefs. We see stories of clashes with some militant Hindu nationalists. All of the holy wars and crusades, the Inquisition, and the destruction of many civilizations because the populations were “heathen” are indicia of the tradition of suppression of any knowledge but their own. Despite this history, there are almost no places in the world where so many people actively seek to degrade and deny science and science education as in the U.S. now; in many places, such as China, Korea and Russia, they are doing everything they can to promote education, and it shows in their growing capabilities.

Actually, the parallels are really quite obvious if you look for them. We have many religions where fundamentalist adherents believe their holy writ is direct from above, their particular religion is the only “correct” one, their holy book and leaders are infallible and unquestionable, they send their children to religious schools to ensure they are brainwashed educated without exposure to open inquiry and secular thought — or perhaps to be schooled only in their religious texts — and they believe there is no question that the government’s laws should support their point of view — after all, theirs are the views of heaven! Our U.S. fundamentalists are ideologic twins of those in the Muslim world who want to roll their countries back to the 13th century caliphate, with the major difference being that those in the US are not believers in Islam. Yet, make these comparisons and you will get strong pushback (from both sides)– after all, the adherents of that other religion (whatever it is) are damned for believing the wrong thing; only we are the enlightened ones…exactly like every other religion, past, present, and future. No irony there.

Does all that mean that faith and science cannot coexist? Not at all! There is a clear distinction between the two, but not an opposition. Science is based on the body of theories that can be proved or disproved by anyone repeating a defined experimental procedure. They are subject to repeated and new experiments, and theories may be replaced. Faith is the remainder of belief: it is those things that can never be proved or disproved, but are merely believed (or not) by each person. Many, many, many people are able to abide their faith yet be open to the processes of doubt, inquiry and learning. They understand that anything of this world is precisely that — of this world — and divinity is to be experienced through one’s acts, not the pages of a book or through the self-serving pronouncements of a hierophant. They reject dogma and think for themselves. Those people view the process of inquiry as expanding their knowledge of the world in which they function and believe — rather than as a challenge to their beliefs. After all, no religion has a deity so weak and questionable that true faith can be shaken by honest questions and discoveries in the world of that deity’s making, does it?

The 14th Dalai Lama put it very nicely for Buddhism; it can (and should) be applied in other religions:

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

There are many axes along which one may organize one’s life. Encouraging ignorance, stifling open inquiry, crippling dreams, hindering education, embracing dogma, and advocating against science are the traits of darkness, even if committed with selfless intent. We condemn those acts when we see them practiced in other countries and other times. We need to condemn them when we see them here and now. And we need to stop electing people who are agents of neo-Lysenkoism before they steer us all into a new Dark Age.

U.S. elections are November 6th. Be an agent of enlightenment when you vote. (And if you need some guidance, there’s my previous blog post.)

Religion may simply be another word for ignorance

We have had many a report from learned commissions one after another about how the US is declining in innovation and science, and how our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) abilities as a nation are slipping away (e.g., “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”). We see fewer people entering engineering professions, a huge shortfall of students in computing, and general math abilities are so poor that the nation is in a economic meltdown because, in part, too few people seemed to understand how interest works on credit cards and mortgages.

Meanwhile, we have people muttering about how that “atheist, communist” country China is emerging as a powerful leader in these same fields. “It must be espionage and theft” we conclude.

Tonight, as I read the article linked in below (and not the first such one I have read) it occurred to me that perhaps the biggest and most pernicious threat to the US and parts of the West is that of fundamentalism. No, I don’t mean Islamic fundamentalism, although that is one aspect of the threat. I mean religious and political fundamentalism right here in the US.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1001.blake.html

How can we expect our children to innovate and lead when their early education is shaped by the spiritual descendants of Trofim Lysenko?   

How can we decry the Pakistani madrassas when we allow US schools to be shaped by some of the same forces — those who believe that religion defines what should be taught?

More and more I worry that the future may be less “Star Trek” and more “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
(And, ironically, many of the people I worry about won’t even understand the reference to Lysenko, madrassas or Atwood’s novel because those may not agree with their religious or political viewpoints and will thus never be explored.)

Ironic, also, that the “Godless Chinese” may end up dominating the future because they are simply that –“godless.”

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