Saturday, August 26, 2006

Social Criticism is Lazy Thinking

Why do people complain about the state of society? We all do this sometimes. We complain about the Bush administration, Dick Cheney, pollution, economic policy, declining morals, intrusive government, loss of civil rights. corporate greed, housing prices (My personal favorite!), the status of women, and a bunch of other things.

My very favorite topic of criticism happens to be the quality of thinking that underlies much of modern society. That's why I keep blogging about social pollution. I 'm not a super-genius but it doesn't take one to see how many decisions are based on bad information, emotions whipped up by activists and politicians, and appeals to selfishness.

What am I going to do about it? I'll offer a list of vaguely defined things to do. I think you should pick something and decide to do it. If you want to work with someone then send me an email.

1. Become an activist for science education! Any democratic society where many people think evolution is "just a theory"  andf chemicals are bad for you is cricling the drain.

2. Become an activist for critical thinking lessons in schools. There need to be lessons on logic and on the thinking lessons like those developed by Edward De Bono. (See for more information.)

3. Create an outrageous Web site. Pick a bad idea you'd like to shine a light on, and create a Web site like Yes, that is a real Web site.

4. Create an outrageous public demonstration. Naked chicks painted like animals works for PETA. Maybe something similar will work for fighing social pollution.

5. Write about the myths and baseless ideas that underlie modern life in some area, like social policy or lifestyles or spending habits. Pick something and get your work published whereever you can.

6. Badger politicians by auditing what they say and what they write. Publish the results in letters to the editor, Web content, or whatever you've got. If there is a public meeting or question and answer session maybe you can ask a valid but embarrasing question.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Problem with Morality

Fighting sweatshop labor, getting fair wages for Third World coffee farmers, protecting the traditional family, and keeping people away from Internet porn are all moral crusades these days. To varying degrees almost all such crusades are all good for people, "good" meaning people will really experience benefits.

Still, moral crusading causes problems, aside from the obvious problem of the other side winning the battle. Who wants to see their side lose in a moral struggle over homosexual rights or whatever? Who wants to see society race along in "the wrong direction"? .

Sometimes "crackpot" moral crusades are easy to identify and we can tell that people are wasting their time. Is there really any social value in fighting to outlaw masturbation for example? Or premarital sex? Or private property? (Remember when I claimed that almost all moral crusades are good to some degree? Those three are exceptions!)

Then there are all of those other well-intentioned crusades that may not be worth the trouble. Consider the idea that we ought to buy fair trade coffee, crafts created by worker-owned collectives, and organic food.

Consider the massive amounts of time and money Americans pour into efforts that have questionable value. Why not buy cheap food and donate money to an environmental organization? Why not buy cheap art, then donate money to an international development organization? Why not donate time and money to efforts that will really help families?

All I'm saying is this: As a society we need to be more rational about how we use our resources to fight moral crusades. Don't just pick your battles, weigh the costs and benefits of your battle before you pick one. Society will be better off because of your efforts.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Worrying About "Social Order" is Bad

Maybe I am a bit behind the times here. In my day people worried about society going to hell in a handbasket (Please help me invent a better expression!) thanks to crime, gangs, gun violence, crack, disturbing economic inequality, unchecked corporate greed, decaying inner cities, racial tensions, and broke governments.

Now all we need to worry about is global climate change, the war on terror, racial tensions, disturbing economic inequality, and corporate greed. 

All of these problems could make people really nervous. Maybe those people are going to start agitating for drastic measures to be taken. we;'ve got to get the situation under control you know. Our way of life is at stake here. The bad guys are gunning for us, for a variety of nutjob reasons. We need tougher laws, more military spending, more law enforcement, and courts that are really tough on the bad guys.

Anyone who ever took a history class or watched the news probably knows where this could lead: totalitarianism. Kiss your rights goodbye! Since that much is pretty clear to us all I will move on...

When we get all worked up over the eroding social order, we fall prey to all sorts of simplistic and misleading ideas. Consider these examples:

1. The solution to Washington DC's "crime emergency" is to get more cops on patrol and impose a curfew on teens.

2. The root of our social problems comes from our society's drift away from its Judeo-Christian roots and into the briar patch that is secular humanism.

3. We need tougher laws to deal with _________ (insert a crime problem, any crime problem).

(Those were just examples, mind you; I don't take them seriously!)

Never mind that in all three cases we have no idea what the real problem is. Never mind that the "problem" may be something stirred up by activists or by reporters. Lastly, our belief in a "problem" or a "solution" may represent emotion and not a careful analysis of the situation.

The sociological lesson here: Knee-jerk reactions to problems of "social order" can cause us to waste a huge amount of labor and money on nonsolutions. We could even allow something like Nazism to take root.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Measuring Social Pollution

OK, so we all know that society is plagued by bad ideas. We do know that don't we? Good. Maybe we should devise a way of measuring social pollution. Some of you may be familiar with Harper's Index, a list of anecdotes and statistics. The Index is really only for entertainment, but the items listed do give an amusing look at the nature of our times.

Well, maybe the ideas that characterize our times deserve the same treatment. The index could include statistics like these, from a 2005 Gallup Poll of 1,002 Americans:

  • 41% of respondents believe in ESP

  • 42% of respondents believe in telepathy

  • 51% believe that aliens have visited Earth

Ideas related to science, technology, morals, and ethics could also be good Index items I think. How many American's prefer to avoid food grown with chemicals? (NOTE: Food is chemicals. Plants make their own pesticides.) How many people think its okay to steal from a chain store but not from a locally-owned corner store?

I tried to actually create a Social Pollution Index like the one I just described. Tracking down enough information to publish a montly index turned out to be tough! Maybe I should return to that idea; it could even be the focus of my sociology blogs.


FOOTNOTE: Social scientists may want to create a very different sort of index. This one would rate the level of social pollution in society by combining scores on variables such as superstition and technological literacy.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Individualism is Bad for You

Can the cornerstone of American life really be a problem? Say it ain't so!

Inidividualism is valuable to a degree. In this sense, individualism is just like science, religion, and lots of other things. The problems start when individualistic thinking gets carried to extremes. Of course this happens all the time as a desire to have our inidividual selves recognized and respected gets twisted in dangerous ways. Huh?

Consider social policy - We come up with stupid ideas and vote on stupid policies because we:(1) Only care about our taxes not going up, not even a penny, (2) we assume that people have more control over their behavior than they actually have.

Consider self-help - How many millions of hours and billions of dollars are wasted by people who have nothing wrong with them. Of course, being OK is not OK. We have to discover our inner selves and blah, blah, blah. (Self-improvement books can be helpful but, really, how much imporvement do most of us need?)

Consider relationships - What do you suppoe is going to happen to marriage, and general relations between the sexes, if all we care about is our almighty egos? Maybe there will be more cheating, more beating, and more dislike of the opposite sex (same sex for gay people of course).

I wonder how much money and time we waste each year protecting ourselves from amoral individuals who we know are going to take advantage of us if they can? And why are those inidivudals amoral, you ask? Because they grew up being taught to honor their egocentric desires above all else.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Religion is a Social Problem

Islamic fundamentalism, Christian evangelicals (maybe), cults, crackpot faith healers, belief in crystal power, and televangelist garbagecreate problems. Why? Well, I'll explain in a minute. Remember that I'm not bashing religion; I'm just pointing out some of the costs that we pay by focusing on religion and spirituality.

Consider all of the money and time wasted each year, in America at least, on seemingly worthless religious activities: going to tent revivals, watching televangelists, donating to televangelists, and meditating with crystals. If 20,000,000 give an average of $100 a year to televangelists, that's $200,000,000 a year that's arguably been wasted. New Age books, crystals, and seminars probably bleed off a few billion more every year. I Iwonder how much money people spend each year on trips to Lourdes? Then there is the time wasted each year.

I guess you could describe the social impact of religion as a set of mathematical equations. X people spend Y hours on watching televangelists. X people spend Y dollars a year on new age books, tapes, and videos. I think you get the idea.

Religion also has other social consequences, that I can't quantify so easily. People could be doing other things with the money and time they devote to dubious religious activities. Maybe the money could be sent to charities that take concrete actions to improve peoples' lives. Maybe people could actively try and make their lives better instead of working to get supernatural comfort and guidance.

Religious belief fuels wars too. I guess you figured that one out, so I'll not beat that horse any more. I wonder if Jainists, Buddhists, or Hindus ever started a war? (India is not a Hindu nation because it officially has a secular government.)

How many times does religious belief make people ignore problems that are obviously caused by human action or by biology. When we say that Down's Syndrome is the will of God we excuse ourselves, as a society, from looking for a way to prevent or cure this condition. When we say that God decides who is rich and who is poor we excuse ourselves from having to care about shocking economic inequality. Religion can sap our humanity, and that is something already in extremely short supply these days.

Maybe, moral laziness is a side effect of having a religious worldview. People stop caring about other individuals because God wants that old guy to be a vagrant. Or,maybe the vagrant is being punished for some offense against the gods. Either way, we are excused from needing to do anything.

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