The age of unreason?

Prometheus makes the case that our current age of unreason can be largely attributed to the Baby Boomers. As someone who can be viewed either as a very young Baby Boomer or a very old GenX-er, I nonetheless heartily agree with his clarion call near the end of his analysis:

Our society is growing more and more dependent on rationality, science and technology to keep it from collapsing. It’s too late to turn back, now – giving up on reason and returning to magical thinking will cause a human (and probably environmental) catastrophe that would beggar the imagination. And, at the same time, the forces of Unreason encourage us to turn our back on reality in favor of “The Secret” or other such nonsense.

The technology that most people take for granted is far beyond the knowledge of the “average” citizen – not because they can’t understand it, but because they don’t. We run a very real risk of having an increasingly smaller proportion of our population that understands how critical technologies work or – even worse – the principles behind them.

Now is the time to take a stand – to come out on the side of Reason over Unreason, of Science over Magic, of Reality over Fantasy.

Preach it, brother!


  1. #1
    April 14, 2007

    We are thinking about starting a technology committee for our small NH town because no one in our town hall seems to have a clue about technology in the sense of information systems. They use the software to some extent, not much, but e-mail and the web seem to be beyond most of them. And since they don’t understand what they are doing or using, they make many mistakes that compromise the security of the system, and they appear to be unteachable, because they can only learn by rote. They can’t figure anything out, or understand the why and how of what we ask them to do, like saving everything to the server, instead of their own computers, so that the backups work. That sort of stuff.
    I didn’t get started online until maybe 6-7 years ago, I am 64 now, so older than the baby boomers, I was born during WWII. I take to computer stuff like a duck to water, but I am nothing compared to some of the people I know. But I am curious and willing to try. I don’t understand people who don’t seem to be at all interested in what the web has to offer. I don’t understand people who don’t want to keep learning. But then I don’t understand religious people either. I guess I just don’t have that place in my brain, the part that wants to stay the same and never change.
    I really enjoy ScienceBlogs, I am more a political junky, but have you all bookmarked and check in daily.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 14, 2007

    “… of Science over Magic, of Reality over Fantasy…”

    My wife, father, son, and I have all published both Science Fiction, and Fantasy. 3 of the 4 (excluding my late father) also published Science papers. We consider it our responsibility to know which is which. Would that journalists and politicians adhered to the same responsibility.

    Technically, my father did have one letter to the editor of a local Rhode Island newspaper published that argued that 1 was a prime number. But he used an absolete definition. The last professional mathematician to publicly label 1 a prime number was Henri Lebesgue in 1899.

    So before we even engage in the fight for Rationality, we need to ensure that students, journalists, and politicians are Numerate. That’s what “No Child Left Behind” cleverly prevents. See also the recent statistical evidence that, after a gigabuck of government funds expended, “just say no to sex” makes no difference in teenage sexual frequency.

    Lies, damn lies, and statistics?

  3. #3 Nobrainer
    April 14, 2007

    As much as I am frequently irritated by the — and I don’t intend this in a mean way — ignorance around me, the best conclusion is that we are highly advanced because we are highly ignorant.

    If everyone had to know the inner workings of a computer (and all related technologies) before they used it, the probable outcome would be far fewer people with computers.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    April 14, 2007

    It’s a good post, but he comes too close to undermining it by using the typical ultra-simplified cant about Iran’s nuke program as his first example. I’ve left a comment, we’ll see if it’s approved.

  5. #5 Orac
    April 14, 2007

    Actually, I tend to agree with you. I had planned on adding a comment something like what you mentioned, but never got around to it…and suddenly the autopost posted my post. 😉

  6. #6 Colugo
    April 14, 2007

    The boomers did a lot to blend progressive politics with Wandervogel-style loopiness, Eastern mysticism, alternative medicine, Edenic ‘back to nature’ fantasies, romanticization of nonwestern and preindustrial societies (still undeservedly plagued by blonde-dreadlocked backpacking ‘seekers’), and drugs. Because of that boomer ‘accomplishment’, one of the dividing lines within the left of center is between scientific secular rationalists and woo-meister mystic, Green radical, anti-‘Big Pharma’, neo-Luddite, conspiracy theorists.

    Marvin Harris wrote about the mush-brained thinking associated with that generation in 1974’s ‘Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches.’

  7. #7 Colugo
    April 14, 2007

    Marvin Harris, ‘Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches,’ 1974: “Disdain of reason, evidence and objectivity — superconsciousness and its heady freedom of belief– are steadily stripping an entire generation of the intellectual means of resisting the next call for a final and decisive struggle to achieve redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale.”

  8. #8 Pseudonym
    April 14, 2007

    If you find yourself wondering if you’re a young boomer or an old Gen Xer, you’re arguably neither.

  9. #9 Graculus
    April 14, 2007

    There’s a major untested assertion here, and that is that irrationality has somehow increased.

    And I’m not Welsh. Gotta get a better name for us… Oh, and the most popular music for that generation was metal.

  10. #10 Porlock Junior
    April 15, 2007

    Of course it’s the Boomers’ fault. Ah, for the Golden Age of reason in the 50s before those woo-mongering hippy commie boomers started to take over. I personally remember (being too old for Boomerhood) those great times when you could hear unexpected breeding behavior in dogs attributed to the International Geophysical Year, and odd weather attributed to the nuclear tests — oh and of course the actual evils of those tests didn’t get any play, of course, in those dear days of sophistication and sweet reason. Scientists assured us that those ranchers who thought their sheep were dying just didn’t understand that there was no harmful fallout.

    And the reactions of those well educated people, trained in critical thinking as the boomers never were, when Adlai Stevenson, under pretext of “talking sense to the American people” used big words that they didn’t understand — well, he sure got his comeuppance.

    Before the Boomers took over, we had enlightened government from Joe McCarthy and Bull Connor, while old Daly kept everything orderly and enlightened in Chicago. I sure pine for those days of Leatrile and orgone boxes.

    The age of Boomer dominance sucks, or sucked, I’m not sure which; and the age before sucked, and the age the GenXers dominate will suck.

  11. #11 Pastbyer
    April 15, 2007

    Jonathan Vos Post: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics?

    Rather coincidentally, my University has a statistics course with that exact title (with an exclamation mark in place of the question mark). Presumably it aims to educate people about the dangers of statistics.

    Or lack thereof. Like Graculus says above, is there any data regarding the trends in mean irrationality of society? Or are we simply falling into the “Myth of the Golden Past” fallacy here? (I’m too young to answer that from personal experience, mind you.)

  12. #12 hinschelwood
    April 15, 2007

    In the 1930s (for example), any idiot could understand how a car, radio, etc worked and could build it themselves. Many did as well. It was at least easy to maintain. Now it is impossible.

    I remember reading once about POWs in WWII who knocked together crystal radios from bits and pieces that they found. This skill, like knapping flint, is now gone, because even if people knew how to do it, it wouldn’t work anymore with digital radio.

    Things are just too damn complex nowadays. How many people here know how their mobile phone works? You basically need a degree in electronic engineering to understand what’s going on. This is one of the (many) reasons why I don’t own one. (I’m not consistent here, otherwise I wouldn’t own an iPod either. So who knows how that works, eh?).

    It really is the case that people can’t understand the technology that they’re using now. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that magical thinking comes along to try to explain the wonders of everything.

  13. #13 Interrobang
    April 15, 2007

    To riff on hinschelwood’s comment a bit, I think the problem is an intended or unintended consequense of the cult of professionalisation we’ve seen in the last fifty to eighty years or so. Kids and amateurs used to be able to build radios; now you need a degree in electronics engineering to do the equivalent, or you at least need to be a pretty serious hobbyist (my electronics-hobbyist boyfriend actually has a couple of university-level electronics textbooks to work from). Lots of people still program computers in their spare time, but professional software developers generally release better products. Even some of the really big open source projects are developed by what are essentially professional programmers. To use a non-tech related example, even small-business marketing has been taken over by professionals. I don’t live in a very big city and I personally know of three firms that specialise in nothing but doing marketing campaigns for small businesses.

    The reason is basically that many things have gotten extraordinarily complex over the last century or so, and it would take several lifetimes to learn everything one needs to know to be as competent at any given set of fields (choose, say, more than three) as the current crop of professional whatevers are. You could call it a problem of salient information overload. (That’s alongside the problem of general information overload.)

  14. #14 John Marley
    April 15, 2007

    How many people here know how their mobile phone works? You basically need a degree in electronic engineering to understand what’s going on.

    I may not be able to completely explain a cell-phone or the details of the infrastructure that allows them to operate, but I do know how transistors work and how radio transmission works. I do “understand the technology [I’m] using now.” I am not an Electronics Engineer. I was an Electronics Technician in the Navy in the ’90’s. But even as a teenager I knew enough to see that it isn’t magic. Science and technology are not “too damn comlex nowadays.” People who don’t understand them are to apathetic (or ,to be generous, intimidated by them) to bother learning.

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
    – Robert Heilein

  15. #15 Joseph Hertzlinger
    April 15, 2007

    The remarks on Iran were probably a “trust cue” intended to reach people who are apt to dismiss anything pro-Darwin.

  16. #16 James
    April 16, 2007

    Ultimately specialization is a trend that has been occurring for millennia, it is an indespensible aspect of economic development.

    perhaps the best solution is to introduce philosophy (the most general intellectual discipline) to high-school education. At the very least the basics of critical thinking would be good.

  17. #17 Prup aka Jim Benton
    April 17, 2007

    I’m someone who is from the earliest end of the Boomers. (As far as I can tell, my conception was the unplanned result of an end-of-WWII celebration. The timing is right, and it’s the only explanation for how my mother, a lesbian her entire life, had me.) I agree with many of Porlock Junior’s comments, but I’d like to suggest another reason for the ‘retreat into unreason’ that occurred, for the most part during the Vietnam War. And that was the war itself, which was, remember, the ‘good guy’s — i.e., liberal, rational — bad war.’ It was seeing the people we’d supported, for example, during the Civil Rights Crusade, suddenly doing something so mad, and supporting it with a fake veneer of rationalism, and seeing the response against it proceeding so slowly for so many years that — sadly — caused too many people to seek ‘other ways of thinking’ because the one they grew up supporting was — seemingly — betraying them.

  18. #18 Uncle Dave
    April 20, 2007

    I believe this very topic was covered in the science fiction work titled “March of the morons” by C M Kornbluth.

    Heck I don’t know how my 512M USB memory stick stores so many 1’s and o’s so quickly???

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