Science & Cargo Cults, Global Warming, The Devil, and Democracy
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:16:27 AM EST
[update: I've been revisting the subject of the religious right and the birth of anti-environmentalism, and came across this essay I wrote back in 2007. I think it has held up well, and would add little except to mention this recent story of mine : A Majority of Americans 18-29 Years Old Now Believe in Demon Possession, Shows Survey - BruceW]

Last October [2006], I listened to United States Senator James Inhofe as he described, before an audience of perhaps one thousand people, his belief that Global Warming was a hoax foisted on Americans by a conspiracy to create a satanic one-world order....

In the end, faith in science is just that - faith. Have you ever seen a nuclear blast ? I haven't, so how do we know nuclear weapons exist ? We take that on faith in the same way we assume that there's a scientific reason our microwave ovens heat up our cups of coffee ; how do we know microwave ovens aren't driven by magic, from elaborate incantations laid on microwave ovens at the factory in which they are made ? How do we know there's a factory at all ?

Thousands of years ago, the Greek Skeptics demonstrated that it was impossible to really "prove" anything at all due to the facility of the human mind at generating alternative hypotheses for phenomenon.

How do we know that there's a world outside of our doors, really ? Can we prove we're not brains in a vat ? How do we know we're not living in The Matrix ? Or, how can we distinguish magical explanations for phenomenon from scientific explanations ?

And, what happens to democracy when magical explanations, mystery cults in essence, supplant materialistic explanations of reality ? What does it mean when powerful politicians and religious leaders say scientific warnings about an alleged disaster of unprecedented scale bearing down on humanity and the Earth is really a satanic plot?

20th Century Cargo cults believed that rich Western industrialized nations enjoyed a high level of material wealth from possessing special spells or magic that provided access to "cargo", stuff that is.

During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. one Pacific island nation where cargo cult belief was especially strong raised a sum of about $50,000 dollars as a bribe to offer president Johnson for the "secret of cargo", the special magic that would conjure up cargo and so provide inhabitants of that nation the level of material prosperity enjoyed by Americans.

So, how do I know that "cargo" - consumer goods, the stuff of modern material existence - doesn't simply pop into existence, conjured by magical spells ?

Well, I don't. I take it on faith. I could research the question by visiting factories where products get assembled and by traveling to mines and oilfields where raw material inputs for products get extracted from the Earth ; I don't do that because I'm satisfied my explanation is "true".

But, how am I different from a cargo cultist ? In the end I can only only give a qualified distinction - I believe in rational explanations rather than magical ones.

And, how can I demonstrate that my faith in a Heliocentric Solar System is better founded than the belief, by the Chalcedon Institute's Martin Selbrede, in a Geocentric Solar System ?

In the end the Geocentric model assumes too much ; the theory is not parsimonious at all but posits that hundreds of years of scientific research and discovery, which has made possible such technological marvels as the computer I'm typing on now, nonetheless has gotten wrong a fundamental aspect of our reality.

Geocentrism demands its adherents believe that centuries have passed and generations of scientists have been born and then died, yet it has only been in the past one or two decades that a tiny group of amateurs has uncovered the true nature of the Solar System.

I find that claim hard to accept because science is a highly competitive process and works in ways not dissimilar to the way capitalist markets work. In science, better theories - which have more and wider explanatory force - arise in time to displace older theories which explain less. Individual scientists compete to generate the best theories and those who do attain status, favored teaching position, grants, awards, speaking engagements, and so on. Superstar scientists sometimes write bestselling books.

There is, in short, a competitive marketplace for ideas and so the claim that science has gotten the basic nature of the Solar System so wrong, and for so long, seems quite preposterous to me. It might be true, and computer laptops might be conjured, through magical incantations, out of thin air at a secret "cargo" factory inside a vast underground complex, run by aliens and nazis, hidden underneath the South Pole. Possibly. But that's very unlikely.

I have some reservations about teaching children to be skeptical - I think prior to that children need to be taught what skepticism is, because unbridled, pure skepticism can breed a paranoid culture and ethos of Know-nothingism that is fertile ground for crank theories both ridiculous, vicious, and corrosive to democracy.

Democracy presumes a certain degree of common assumptions on the nature of reality.

So millions of Americans believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, so what ? Does it matter ? Well, both yes and no. Such beliefs aren't any great hindrance to getting along in modern life unless one happens to be a paleontologist, geologist, or perhaps a public school teacher. But the widespread acceptance of such ideas feeds a conspiratorial cultural miasma in which large swaths of Americans feel they are being deceived.

It is not unreasonable, given the well documented existence of a huge "black budget" area of federal spending that's not open to democratic scrutiny or even the scrutiny of most of the US Congress, for Americans to assume a certain level of government deception. But skeptical and conspiratorial thinking has polluted American belief in science itself and in what scientists tell us.

Americans in the 1950's probably had far greater respect for, and empathy with, scientists and the scientific venture. But over the course of the latter 20th Century many seem to have drifted away from or trust in science. Where do beliefs such as belief in Geocentrism or the notion that Global Warming is an elaborate conspiracy to advance a 'satanic', secular humanist "one world order" come from ?

One answer to that question is that in the intervening decades since the 1950's, Christian fundamentalists who felt threatened by secularism and the Enlightenment itself turned methods of modern PR towards the problem of undermining the ethos of the Enlightenment that, some historians would assert, underlay the foundation of America as a nation.

The project has been a startling success too : ideas that once circulated on the fringe of the American far right have now moved into the mainstream such that prominent US senators such as John McCain now court the political endorsement of rising Christian right leaders, such as John Hagee, who posit vast, shadowy, satanic conspiracies of "Illuminati" and "international banking groups" to foist a "one world government" on America through the United Nations.

In the 1950's John Birchers who proposed such ideas mingled, out on the political fringe, with members of the American Nazi Party. In February 2007, an advocate for such crypto-antisemitic conspiracy theory, Pastor John Hagee, delivered a Washington DC keynote address before close to half of the US Congress.

Fringe ideas of the 1950's have been mainstreamed, and that is not just a problem for American Democracy simply because the the voting electorate is splitting into opposing camps holding different and clashing explanations of reality but because the rise of fringe, conspiracist ideology now threatens the world itself: Enough Americans, their views amplified by PR disinformation bought with petrochemical interest dollars, believe Global Warming is at base a "satanic" conspiracy that action to confront the problem has been thwarted, possibly for an entire decade later than action might otherwise have been taken.

That's the ugly reality for much of the core ideological opposition to action on Global Warming coming from the American evangelical right - Global Warming is seen as a ruse to advance the diabolical plans of the Antichrist.

In effect, many Americans have advanced much further down the road of unreason than did cargo cultists of the 20th Century, because even a perfunctory effort will uncover copious evidence that Global Warming is real ; North America, for example, warmed several degrees during the 20th Century and there is plenty of documentary evidence to prove it.

Begrudgingly, all but the most die hard of skeptics have now, finally, conceded the Earth is probably warming. But most of those same critics and skeptics still maintain that the warming is not caused by human activity, and a major part of ideological core to that position is rooted in the conviction that Global Warming, as a theory, was born in the fiery pits of hell and advances, as Evolution is believed to do as well, a satanic agenda.

What religiously driven opposition to action on Global Warming implies is that many Americans do not believe that invisible gases, such as Carbon Dioxide, can have any sort of planetary impact regardless of how much of those gases spews from factories, coal burning electrical generation plants, or the tailpipes of automobiles.

That assumption would hold if the Earth were flat and extended forever in two dimensions, as an infinite plane ; if the Earth's atmosphere were infinite it would not matter how much CO2 humans added.  

In effect, religiously based opposition to government action to curb Global Warming can be taken to imply that Americans who hold such positions no longer look to science to tell them about the physical world ; they look to a magical explanation in which scientists are dupes or minions of the devil who seek to con Americans into accepting a world governmental regime that will advance the designs of ultimate evil.

Can science tell us how the natural world works ? Millions of Americans no longer believe that, and their numbers might be shrinking but not nearly fast enough and so arises the creepy possibility that evangelical belief that Global Warming is a theory born in hell may be driving humanity to an overheated future that could resemble hell on Earth.

By narrowing the way people think one could in effect cause them to more likely think in ways that work for you. Global Warming is either natural and can't be affected by puny humans or it is a gigantic hoax with the world's scientists who are not of the faith work in concert together to at base thwart the workings of the god of the fanatics. Once people accept that as the operant paradigm they will go with it and interpret all other data through that lens.

The Plutocrats in the mix must know that such climate calamities promote the "need" for rigid police states. Ones they could be controlling. The upper echelon would be immune from the Dominionist severity that the rest of the culture (s) would be under. Or at least until they lost favor.

Ironically the Plutocrats will find they need a Middle Class to operate their infrastructure and will be forced to rebuild it, but along more stratified lines. It will be forged from the same places that the Crusades, Inquisition and the Nazis came from. That same martial attitude and militarist treatment of people. Not a place the majority of us would want to live in. The world would develop into such a harsh place they would clamor to get inside the protective domes to work in servitude than survive or not outside as the weather grows more deadly.

by Nightgaunt on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 08:12:15 PM EST

I know of many links to his statement about global warming being the "greatest hoax" ever perpetrated but this "satanic one world order" is even worse.

by Villabolo on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 07:06:54 PM EST

I think this confusion in evangelical minds about the proper realms of religion and science is also evidenced, in a small way, by the evangelical reaction to the Harry Potter books. As I have argued on a number of occasions in other venues, wizardry in the Potter books is not an alternative religion, it is an alternative technology. The evangelical failure to comprehend that distinction led, on a local level, to the refusal of a group of fire-police to provide security for a YWCA fundraising event because their children's story hour included the HP books.

While there is a strong temptation simply to label such ideologically-driven actions as "stupid," the incident serves to illustrate the vast divide in world view between the evangelical understanding and a more scientific outlook. The barriers to real communication are extremely high when members of two groups have such radically different starting points. We aren't even defining basic concepts in the same way.

Dominionist leaders are quick to exploit this confusion and lack of understanding among their followers. To counter-act their plans, I think it is necessary both to oppose and try to thwart the leadership and also to engage, on a one-to-one basis, with the ordinary people in the pews who may, in gentle and non-confrontational conversation, be able to grasp some of the disconnect between what they are being told and the way the real world works.

by MLouise on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 10:24:57 AM EST

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