The Intersection

i-df9ee7e374c27bae39d475229dc6bdbb-assault on reason.jpgUPDATE JUNE 30: So. I’ve finished reading The Assault on Reason. I must say, it’s not what I expected. My ultimate takeaway feeling is that this is a very powerful book, whatever flaws it may have. But that’s getting close to giving away my review, which I’m still in the process of writing….so in the meantime, let’s carry on the great dialogue we have going in the comments. I’ll do so by making the following additional points:

* In response to Mark Powell: I know you think Gore is making too much of the concept of “reason”–but it’s clear that in using this term, Gore doesn’t simply mean a thought process. Instead, he quite literally means the entire Enlightenment project of self-government and self-determination. I had no idea Gore’s critique was going to be this broad, this sweeping, this ambitious. Gore is definitely a forest guy, more than a trees guy.

* I don’t know that Gore’s solution meets the challenge. If our citizenry has become less deliberative, less connected, less engaged, and less reasonable, it doesn’t suffice simply to point to the Internet as salvation. To me, being deliberative and reasoned relies on being willing and able to engage with viewpoints other than one’s own. But as Cass Sunstein and others have argued (and as Jon Winsor points out in the comments), the Internet may well just help funnel people to sites where there are lots of other like-minded people. Even Scienceblogs, much as I love it, has an aspect of this to it.

* So Gore’s book strikes me as mainly a lament…although, as I said, an intensely powerful one.

UPDATE JUNE 28: I’m rewriting this this post, now ten days old, and moving it to the top of the page now that I’m actually reading Al Gore’s book. I’ve read the Introduction as I write this. The comments below have already helped me shape my thinking about what I’m reading.

I agree strongly with commenter Mark Powell that Gore’s idea of a “well-informed citizenry” is an idealization at best, and wholly unrealistic at worst. Nevertheless, I also think I agree that we might achieve, let’s say, a “more informed citizenry” if we had more responsible coverage of public affairs on television, rather than Britney-Spears-shaved-her-head infotainment crap all the time.

In any event, as I continue to read, I’m looking forward to seeing whether Al Gore’s proposed solutions measure up to the magnitude of the problem he’s addressing. The problem certainly exists, that’s for sure. But whether we’ll ever close the Pandora’s Box of less-reasoned public discourse that has been opened by television, and by highly sophisticated public relations techniques, seems to me to be doubtful…..

Anyway, I’ll say again: If you haven’t read it yet, you should buy Al Gore’s book, and we can continue to use this thread as a kind of mini-book club…..

Comments

  1. #1 mainsailset
    June 17, 2007

    I just got it on tape Friday so will tag along with you. FYI, I also ordered Storm World which B&N said will ship 6/20-earlier than I had anticipated! Also they had that the audio wouldn’t be out until Sept.

  2. #2 bloomingpol
    June 17, 2007

    I am telling everyone in my grassroots community who is involved in town government, works in a library or a school, is involved in any endeavor that uses science and needs government to get done, or is involved in any political process to read this book if they don’t read anything else this year. It pulled together so many threads of what I have been observing over the past few years, since I got involved during the Dean campaign.
    It has made me realize how important it is to get involved locally so that people come to know and trust you, and therefore each other, as we try to save our country, our planet and our children. We have to work together in a political process to do this, and we can’t do that if we don’t trust each other. And if all we get are lies, we stop trusting anyone!

  3. #3 Deech56
    June 17, 2007

    I just got the book from my local public* library Thursday and am about two chapters into it. Disclosures: I voted for Mr. Gore back in the 1988 primary and in the 2000 elections, and would vote for him again in a heartbeat. I also make a living doing science.

    First impressions: I find the book readable, and like the way he ties the threads of reasonable thought through history (although the sheer number of quotations towards the beginning gets to be a bit much – but I get antsy at scientific meetings as well). The discussion of the research of higher and base levels of reaction by the human brain provide an interesting, and welcome, scientific foundation to the idea of reasonable thought.

    *BTW (somewhat OT): Speaking of framing, I have seen numerous instances of religious fundamentalists refer to “public schools” as “government-run schools”. We need to maintain the word “public” as a good and useful thing. Same with the word “society”.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    June 18, 2007

    mainsailset — thanks! Interestingly, at least according to Amazon, the book that people are most frequently buying with Storm World (not counting my other book) is The Assault on Reason.

    bloomingpol and Deech56 — thanks for your reactions. Looks like I have a good read ahead. So far, I have still only stared at the cover…but that will end soon!

  5. #5 Jon Winsor
    June 18, 2007

    I’ve read it. I got it when it first came out on Audible.com.

    It does bring together a lot of disparate threads. It was almost as if I were reading a summary of the best stuff I’ve read in the netroots (which makes sense because he says he reads netroots blogs), David Brock’s work, the investigative journalism of Suskind and others, and the science abuse reporting I’ve read here, in the RWOS and elsewhere.

    The downsides that I can see are that he seems to repeat himself from time to time, the material on neurology drags in places (it could have been summarized with no loss to his arguments), and the book as a whole might have been organized more effectively. But the arguments themselves seem spot on as far as I can see.

    To make your review timely, you might want to mention some of the ironies that have happened on Gore’s book tour (see ThinkProgress, David Roberts, and Eric Boehlert).

    Also, here’s a good Charlie Rose interview with Gore about the book on Google Video.

  6. #6 Mark Powell
    June 18, 2007

    I think the central idea of the book is wrong. I don’t think the use of reason has declined in the last few decades.

    Things have certainly changed, and I can see why a “just the facts” person feels unfairly marginalized. Mastery of facts doesn’t carry much weight.

    Facts or Gore’s reason have never been dominant in public discourse, except maybe for a “mini-Enlightenment” around the 1960s and 1970s. Dense policy proposals were kind of cool, because of basic respect for wonky, professional problem-solvers. But after major failures, the respect faded. Don’t make the mistake of believing that wonky solutions ever carried the day because of reason. It was merely minor celebrity for the Reasoners.

    Biases and mental filters have changed, and Gore failed to change with them. He became marginalized but doesn’t understand why. He failed to adapt.

    Ironically, reasoned study of how to move people has helped others adapt and defeat Gore. Better reason has allowed others to surpass Gore’s ability to persuade. Only in the last few years, as he made a big movie, has he begun to catch up. It’s not his reason that’s attractive, it’s his celebrity.

    Public discussion has always relied on biases, mental shortcuts, and choices of trusted authorities. The supposed enemies of reason in Gore’s book just learned better (using reason) how to become trusted authorities and win votes.

    For a while, faith and similar badges of trust became more useful than an advanced degree and an erudite vocabulary. This too shall pass, and in fact its passing feels like a giant kidney stone in America’s midsection right now.

    What matters is finding ways to connect with people, to build relationships and trust, to get past biases and mental filters. Only then do ideas have power. Is that manipulation? No, it’s just defeating the natural and pervasive skepticism that we all have against our own image of who are the purveyors of snake oil remedies.

    We’re all skeptics, and our biggest difference is what triggers our skepticism and makes us begin to ignore a public speaker. Professing faith turns off PZ Myers and professoring turns of a different set of people. And when turned off, listeners are deeply skeptical of whatever is said. What Gore decries is just the ability to use reason as a badge that inspires trust. People never understood and bought the arguments of Gore’s reason, they just liked the people who sounded like Reasoners.

  7. #7 Jon Winsor
    June 18, 2007

    I agree that the public sometimes doesn’t have the time or inclination to parse through what are and are not reasonable arguments. But isn’t the press supposed to help sift through things? Aren’t they supposed to investigate, fact check, etc., and report with some degree of clarity on the different issues of public interest? I think Gore’s point is that the public is poorly served by the priorities of the present media (e. g., cable news), with its serial obsessions on celebrity, cheap-to-produce sensationalist stories, etc., and that the media we have now is easy to subvert by bad actors (as David Brock detailed in The Republican Noise Machine).

    This issue is close to home for Gore as he’s been the victim of this kind of trivializing coverage himself. It’s important to remember that coverage is often the result of conscious choices made by actual journalists and editors (maybe “conscious” is not a good word, because sometimes it’s laziness).

    He’s been onto this theme for a while, by the way, and it’s informed by his experiences at Current TV. Here’s a speech he made about a year and a half ago with a lot of the ideas in his present book already formed …

  8. #8 Mark Powell
    June 18, 2007

    One approach to an issue is to sift and weigh facts. But how does one decide which facts to include, how to sift, and what’s most important?

    Often, we rely on trusted authorities to advise us. If we’re readers of NY Times and Nature, we may look for a well-reasoned op-ed by a scientist and trust the choice of cited facts and resulting conclusion.

    Now suppose that the issue is whether to build more nuclear power plants, and the scientist’s op-ed says the technology is safe and we need to cut CO2 emissions.

    Do you still trust the well-reasoned op-ed? Or, do you doubt the conclusion that it’s a good idea to build more nuclear power plants?

    I predict that assumptions, doubts, and other preconceptions determine whether one accepts the conclusion, more so than facts and reasoned debate. Reasoners may argue that such assumptions and doubts come from reasoned arguments, but they seldom arise from pure reason.

    This is as it should be. It’s helpful to scan and filter information and select based on quick review and trained judgment. Progress in thinking would be impossible without such shortcuts. Trust and authority are important in this process.

    I remember discounting work from a particular lab when I was a research scientist, because everyone in the field “knew” that the lab had a reputation of being fast and loose. It was impossible to tell from the actual published papers, but everyone was skeptical. This is appropriate and smart filtering. It’s necessary.

    People use a version of this approach in public dialogues. We all trust or distrust certain figures (e.g. Rush Limbaugh), and our willingness to accept a conclusion varies depending on the source. This makes good sense.

    What’s being debated here is not the use of reason to decide things. What Gore is really attacking is the inability to use reason as a valued badge of authority and a way to win trust. Reason had a day in the sun as a way to win trust, but now it’s gone and Reasoners don’t like that.

    Even more striking, many Reasoners refuse to do anything else, believing that reason alone is pure and true. In this view, connecting with people to build trust and improve understanding is “spin” or “manipulation,” and it’s wrong.

    It’s interesting to note that Gore has stepped out of reason with his movie, had better success, and is being critiqued by some Reasoners for this move.

    Reasoned argument can be part of a process of public dialogue, but if it’s the only approach you use, it’s incomplete. You might as well try to fly with an airplane engine and no wings.

  9. #9 Jon Winsor
    June 18, 2007

    Even more striking, many Reasoners refuse to do anything else, believing that reason alone is pure and true.

    I actually agree with this. And PZ Myers is a good illustration (I actually disagree with Myers on a lot of things). It’s true that we all use trusted sources to get information.

    However, I’m not primarily talking about the public, and neither is Gore. Gore is talking more about the shape that the media has taken. Maybe an example would show what I’m talking about. Let’s take the case of Mark Morano. Morano is Senator Inhofe’s communications director and helps him with his climate change denial. Interestingly, Morano also played a role in the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth campaign in ’04 (this is his Sourcewatch page).

    You can actually hear him in action at this Society of Environmental Journalists conference (there’s a link to the MP3 on the page–it’s pretty interesting). It’s hard to deny in both cases, Morano’s main aim is to stop journalists from doing their job well, which involves researching and following the preponderance of evidence, and applying basic reason.

    To a significant extent, Morano and his ilk have been successful. You can hear him pleading for false balance (“come on guys. Find some dissenting TV meteorologists!”) And a short time ago, that kind of pleading to many ears hadn’t seemed so absurd, even though to an informed person it was absurd (“you’ve got to get more Fred Singer in there for balance!”)

    The same goes for the Swiftboaters. Morano and his ilk were very good at putting the Swiftboat characters out there on cable news with vague innuendoes. And cable news just swallowed it up uncritically, like it was run-of-the-mill celebrity reporting.

    Now, doubtless, the bulk of the blame for this sort of thing goes to Mark Morano and his crowd. But listen to Bill Blakemore in the recording. He admits, he and his editors didn’t allot the resources to investigating climate change seriously until shamefully late in the game, which gave the Moranos of the world the run of the media to do their manipulating and spinning. You could say something similar about cable news and the Swiftboaters (on a shorter time scale, of course).

    They can “publish corrections: later, but what do people remember? One end of a false balance can be incredibly weak, but people still remember it as a controversy. So the manipulation was successful. Similarly, people won’t tend to “unsee” the image of veterans on cable news with free airtime denigrating Kerry. The respectability of the news organization is projected on to them. They were given a platform.

    There’s often no accountability for this sort of thing. News organizations are rarely embarassed by their lack of reasoning, and they’re rarely called on it.

    Again, Morano’s main aim has been to stop journalists from doing their job well. I think Gore’s point is that for various reasons in our current media environment, it’s been far too easy to do this. The Right is at fault, but there are other reasons as well, a great many of them related to the media establishment itself.

    Another case in point has been the war. If you read the books mentioned in this post by NYU professor Jay Rosen (scroll down to a “Small Shelf of Books”) what you read won’t have much resemblance to what you’ve followed on cable news.

    And here’s a quote from a recent Gary Kamiya piece on the coverage of the war:

    Time and again, in the run-up to war and during its early phase, I was amazed at the difference between the clear-eyed analysis to be found in books, and the mushy centrist pap that dominated the papers and TV. It was a kind of surreal battle of books vs. the mass media — and books won hands down.

    Why was this? I would say it had a lot to do with what Gore talks about in his book.

  10. #10 Mark Powell
    June 19, 2007

    Jon,

    Maybe our difference is your view of the job of the media:

    “researching and following the preponderance of evidence, and applying basic reason.”

    To me, that seems like hoping that media will rescue us from ourselves. If we the people won’t do such analysis ourselves, then it’s unreasonable to expect media to do it for us. And if they did, what’s to say we’d watch, understand, and trust it?

    We get the media we deserve. If Gore (and you) are talking about media, then I think you both need to consider the public and what we demand.

    Has there ever been a time when public discourse was dominated by reason? When?

    If a benevolent, smart, and generous media were doing analysis for us, how would we know it was trustworthy? Because the San Francisco Examiner said so?

    Deciding which public figures to trust is a complex process in which the appearance of reasoning is attractive to some. That’s the primary value of reason in public discourse and the value fluctuates across audiences and over time.

  11. #11 Jon Winsor
    June 19, 2007

    If we the people won’t do such analysis ourselves, then it’s unreasonable to expect media to do it for us.

    But this is exactly what Gore is saying. He says we should be engaged and demand more. The Internet is part of the equation–and helps make for a more interactive public sphere. He says in his book that television (an incredibly non-interactive medium) rolled back the interactive relationship to an unprecedented degree.

    Time magazine has a brief excerpt of Gore’s book here, if you haven’t seen it:

    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1622015,00.html

  12. #12 Mark Powell
    June 19, 2007

    Gore wants us to rebuild a mythical age of Reason that never actually existed. When were we ruled by Reason?

    Public leadership has always relied on things other than reason. Power, charisma, whatever. The only thing that’s new is the open exposure of the factors that win audiences and support.

  13. #13 Jon Winsor
    June 19, 2007

    You’re preaching to the converted. I agree. Humans are to a large extent non-rational animals. I’m the character on this site who keeps bringing up Isaiah Berlin’s Counter Enlightenment, which criticized 18th century hyper-rationality. You’re right, the idealized version of the age of reason never existed.

    But, that doesn’t mean the ideals involved in writing the US Constitution don’t matter. They’re very real and worth preserving. Trying to create a public space where “the forceless force of the better argument” (Habermas) wins the day is something to try for. That hasn’t been happening lately, and we’ve been missing it badly. If the media had reported on the validity of the facts cited in the 2000 presidential debates, as opposed to Al Gore’s sighs, it might be a very different world right now. And the people who have been pointing this sort of thing out (Paul Krugman, for instance) have been consistently right on a large number of things. Again, if the media had been taking some of their advice instead of focusing on celebrity and mistaking authority for objectivity, we might have ended up being in better shape.

  14. #14 Mark Powell
    June 19, 2007

    The Iraq fiasco proves we need solutions, yes. But we Reasoners cede victory if we try to elevate Reason as the principle that dominates public discourse.

    We need to recognize how to connect with people and win trust, and employ Reason at the right time and place.

    I won’t defend coverage of the debates. This is a risky subject to discuss, but there is a lesson here if we choose to see it.

    Focusing on Al Gore’s sighs told a powerful story to many viewers. Saying that shouldn’t happen is like trying to repeal the law of gravity. Instead, people of Reason need to quit believing that Reason is everything and use a full range of approaches to win trust and support.

    Al Gore came across as a superior twit to many viewers of the debates, and reminded them of people in their past that they didn’t like. That activated a storyline that ended with those viewers rejecting him.

    A good use of reason would be to recognize this, reason out solutions, and employ the solutions. Step 1: don’t act like a superior twit. That just invites people to shut off and not hear the powerful Reasoning coming out of your mouth.

    Heeding my own lesson, I’ll not say anything else here unless I get a strong sense that somebody wants to see more.

  15. #15 Jon Winsor
    June 19, 2007

    I take your point about not coming across as superior. I personally think Gore was a better “advisor” type than an executive political leader.

    That said, frank, intelligent discussion has a place. And lately it seems like people in our public life could use more of it. And the people in charge of the public discussion in the media could use more of it too. (Notice I’m not talking about the public, really. I’m talking about the media and the people in public life itself.) This is from a recent Paul Krugman column:

    You may not remember the presidential debate of Oct. 3, 2000, or how it was covered, but you should. It was one of the worst moments in an election marked by news media failure as serious, in its way, as the later failure to question Bush administration claims about Iraq.

    Throughout that debate, George W. Bush made blatantly misleading statements, including some outright lies — for example, when he declared of his tax cut that “the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.” That should have told us, right then and there, that he was not a man to be trusted.

    But few news reports pointed out the lie. Instead, many news analysts chose to critique the candidates’ acting skills. Al Gore was declared the loser because he sighed and rolled his eyes — failing to conceal his justified disgust at Mr. Bush’s dishonesty. And that’s how Mr. Bush got within chad-and-butterfly range of the presidency.

    Of course, the public will draw its own conclusions. And part of what they’ll conclude has to do with who they feel comfortable having in their living rooms for the next four years. But as Krugman points out in his column, the public would be better served if the news was more helpful about the substance of what was said–whether it’s sound and reasonable, as opposed to the celebrity-obsessed angles. This applies to the realities regarding war, the environment, the candidates’ military service or whatever.

    Thanks, by the way, for the great discussion. It really motivated me to use good reasoning, etc. in my arguments… ; )

  16. #16 decrepitoldfool
    June 21, 2007

    If Gore lost because he “came across as a superior twit” (which not incidentally is the same criticism leveled at Dawkins) it does mark a downturn in the fortunes of the articulate and thoughtful. Gore was superior; his take on issues was better-informed and better thought out. But it is no accident that voters are being trained to dislike superiority, to look for someone as president with whom they’d like to have a beer. It is precisely to capitalize on popular anti-intellectualism, to weaponize it as a political tool.

    A voter once told Adlai Stevenson that “every thinking person in America would vote for him”. He responded; “Thank you ma’am, but that won’t be enough. We need a majority.” Superiority has been out of fashion for a long time but there once was a time when it was respected, when Robert Ingersoll drew packed halls everywhere he went and Mark Twain was mobbed by admirers. Learned people were role models, not jokes; education was an aspiration, not a pejorative.

    Now we have Newt Gingrich doing TV specials on how college is probably a waste of time. The other side is working hard on public relations and we should be, too. Dawkins != Sagan.

    I’m in chapter 3. So far I would say Gore is right; people do read less, and in less depth. One need only look at a fifty-year-old magazine (Time, National Geographic, Scientific American, whatever) and compare with their current incarnations to see the difference.

  17. #17 Deech56
    June 22, 2007

    OK, I’ve gotten as far as Chapter 8. What I find interesting in the mid part of of the book is the rather pointed attack on the current President and his administration. Being a reader of lefty blogs and books, not too much of this is new material, but it is presented in a different context mostly by contrasting the current situation with the actions of past administrations.

    Because of a short attention span I only skimmed the above discussion about the premise of the book (sorry guys – I had trouble with seminars as a grad student as well. As soon as the gel slides went up I tuned out). I think that the main point is not that the past was a utopian Age of Reason, but that there were certain things that American just did not do, or (murkier still) only did temporarily during moments of emergency or madness. Things like torturing, locking people up and throwing away the key, suspending habeas corpus. These days, the current emergency (the GWOT) is being presented as a long-term state, and the temporary may become the permanent if we stand up for what is right.

    What I find interesting is that Mr. Gore embraces the roles of reason and faith in public life – rejecting perhaps the fundamentalism that results in black/white, good/evil dichotomy, and which closes us off to the concept that there are gray areas that we need to wrap our brains around in a reasonable way.

    I think that the strongest argument for an assault on reason is in the discussion regarding the sowing of doubt in the face of overwhelming evidence of anthropogenic climate change (Chapter 7). Because of the history of these same tactics in the smoking “debate” I am not so sure that this assault is anything new, but maybe the recent attention paid to the centenary of Rachel Carson’s birth (along with the changes that her book inspired) makes me think that something indeed has changed. She was a hero in the 1960s, but now when her name comes up it seems to be for the purpose of villianizing her.

    I guess what the book address so far is an explanation for something that has been bugging me about our country – have we gone nuts? I see what is happening and honestly believe that we are heading for a course that is un-American.

    I also wonder whether the arguments put forth in the book would resonate as much with someone to whom the information presented is new. Things to think about as I finish this.

  18. #18 Chris Mooney
    June 22, 2007

    I want to thank you all for starting such a hearty discussion here. I would have joined in but alas, work kicked up, and I haven’t started the book yet ;< However, I plan to start on Monday. So around then I will be back here to join in, and may move this thread up to the top of the blog or something.....

  19. #19 Deech56
    June 23, 2007

    Just a couple more thoughts. I think Mr. Gore is trying to do a bit of framing in his book. He is painting the current conservative movement as a radical force that is a departure from our American traditions based on ideas that stem from Locke and that crowd. Abandoned are such quaint notions like checks and balances – if one is in the right, others must be wrong. He writes about higher cortical function vs. “reptile brain” and I think misses an opportunity to link this to the idea that modern conservatism is the culmination of the Goldwater campaign, whose slogan was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” An appeal to the brain stem if I ever heard one. Add to that a strain of fundamentalism and we have a dangerous mix.

    Anyway Chris, good luck on your reading. Hope we haven’t put too many spoilers in or colored your thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading your new book soon.

  20. #20 Jon Winsor
    June 24, 2007

    Here’s an interesting read at the Daily Kos:

    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/6/24/102023/968

    I think this review speaks to some of Mark Powell concerns (above).

    I agree that the public needs to hear principles, and leaders using language that frames those principles effectively–and not be blugeoned by dry, cerebral rhetoric. I think this is what George Lakoff is after when he talks about getting a real infrastructure going, one that will be able to make connections with different types of voters, and have a set of core ideas, so that each person running for office won’t have to reinvent the wheel…

    However, this is a different issue from news organizations doing shallow, slipshod, horse-race-dominated political reporting, and politicians themselves trashing long-standing rational, deliberative processes (check out WaPo’s recent series on Dick Cheney to get a flavor for this…)

  21. #21 Mark Powell
    June 25, 2007

    More reading and thinking on this book have me ready to add something.

    Gore elevates Reason, which is essentially a technique, to the level of being a principle. Big mistake.

    Interesting that Gore’s mistake is parallel to Bush/Cheney Inc.s (BC Inc) successful use of “terror” as our enemy. Terror is a technique, not an enemy.

    But there’s something important here, Gore’s mistake hurts his ability to get where he wants to go, and Bush/Cheney Inc get where they want to go using terror as the enemy. Terror is shadowy, hard to define, and can never be defeated, so it lasts forever as a source of fear to control people.

    This same thing about techniques makes Gore’s use of Reason a failure. Techniques are hard to pin down, they can be followed starting from any base, any set of assumptions.

    You can use logic to argue for anything, so it’s an empty principle. People see through it, and you can talk about Reason all you want and people won’t know what you stand for.

    So Gore’s Assault on Reason misses the boat in another way, it elevates a technique to the level of a principle. All that happens is Gore makes it seem like he has no principles. He needs to figure out what his real principles are and figure out how to talk about them.

    (The review cited above does speak to some of my concerns, including the techique/principle problem, thanks Jon. But I don’t agree with your take that shallow media coverage is a different issue. Media coverage can be focused on discerning principles, which is a big, important, non-shallow job, and I think you could still call it shallow if it didn’t sort and analyze facts.)

  22. #22 Deech56
    June 26, 2007

    I did finish the book and will add thoughts later. But as this thread gets buried deeper and deeper (Chris, are you done reading yet? 😉 ) I am thinking about Mark Powell’s point above about principles and techniques. I am not a philosopher (I am a scientist), so I may be a bit off in my terms, but I am not so sure I would equate “reason” with “logic”. I see “reason” as encompassing the use of science to determine what is known. It is the basis of what is known based on observation (and experimentation) that for me defines “reason” (as opposed to faith). Since Mr. Gore spends a bit of time on the topic of climate, I think he is trying to make the point that by accepting the science (and that the scientific method is the best tool to use to learn about he natural world) one is acting “reasonably.”

  23. #23 Chris Mooney
    June 27, 2007

    Folks,
    Thanks again for this great thread. I suck: I proposed a kind of book club and then didn’t read the book. What a bad blogger/host I am.

    But I’m starting it now–tonight! Never fear….

  24. #24 Chris Mooney
    June 27, 2007

    Let me add, I’m sorry this thread got buried, I have moved it back to the top of the blog with a new statement of my thoughts after reading the (quite long) Introduction:

    “I agree strongly with commenter Mark Powell that Gore’s idea of a “well-informed citizenry” is an idealization at best, and wholly unrealistic at worst. Nevertheless, I also think I agree that we might achieve, let’s say, a “more informed citizenry” if we had more responsible coverage of public affairs on television, rather than Britney-Spears-shaved-her-head infotainment crap all the time.

    “In any event, as I continue to read, I’m looking forward to seeing whether Al Gore’s proposed solutions measure up to the magnitude of the problem he’s addressing. The problem certainly exists, that’s for sure. But whether we’ll ever close the Pandora’s Box of less-reasoned public discourse that has been opened by television, and by highly sophisticated public relations techniques, seems to me to be doubtful…..”

  25. #25 David Roberts
    June 28, 2007

    Mark, you’re making some fantastic points, and for the most part I agree with them. But I think you’re brushing too quickly past the media critique. Take this:

    Focusing on Al Gore’s sighs told a powerful story to many viewers. Saying that shouldn’t happen is like trying to repeal the law of gravity. Instead, people of Reason need to quit believing that Reason is everything and use a full range of approaches to win trust and support.

    Al Gore came across as a superior twit to many viewers of the debates, and reminded them of people in their past that they didn’t like. That activated a storyline that ended with those viewers rejecting him.

    This is a crucial point: Gore didn’t come across that way to viewers at first. Every poll taken immediately after the debate had Gore winning by a fairly large margin. Viewers “rejecting” him because of his sighs and mannerisms didn’t start happening until days later, after relentless vapid media coverage. (See the DailyHowler for much, much more on this.)

    You’re right about choosing trusted authorities. But the media is, still, for now, a trusted authority. It is the filter for most people, the guide to what’s significant. So changes in the populace’s primary authority — remember, 4.5 hours a day watching TV — are bound to have an effect on the way people think, and what they pay attention to, and what they deem significant.

    So changes in the media are crucial to understanding the situation Gore laments.

    Here’s my thumbnail version. Back in the early days of TV, the major media, the opinion-setting mechanisms of this country, were controlled by a fairly small elite class — old money WASPs, stiff upper lip types who’d lived through depressions and wars. Their biases dominated, and lots of voices were excluded. However. They also shared a set of unspoken rules about propriety, dignity, proportion, seriousness — basically, traditional Western elite values. Because they had such completely disproportionate control over the media, a more or less dignified dialogue took place; messiness was repressed. Everyone looked to the same few sober, thoughtful news anchors and newspaper columnists (think Cronkite, etc.), who took their job quite seriously, and didn’t see it as primarily a profit-making enterprise.

    Anyway, obviously all that’s changed. For one thing, tons of new voices have entered, including some revanchist, nationalist, lizard-brain voices that used to hide in the corners. Also, the elite is different now, more new money, more relativist, more profit driven, less respectful of tradition and propriety. And they control things in a less direct, less open way — the techniques have become advertising-based, playing on our subconscious, all the stuff Gore describes. Also the whole enterprise has just completely fragmented.

    So there really are no widely shared authority figures any more, who get to impose rules and constraints on our dialogue. That’s what Gore misses, I think. And while he may grossly romanticize it, I’m not entirely sure he’s wrong that it was preferable back then. Sometimes I get caught up in the new-media hoopla, the democracy of voices, the wisdom crowds, but other times … I wish the adults really were back in charge.

    Hope some of that was coherent.

  26. #26 Mark Powell
    June 28, 2007

    I was just about to add a comment to the bottom of a buried thread, and here it is at the top again. OK, one more thing…

    Gore can’t pull together his analysis into a compact, coherent statement of what’s wrong. He finds much to criticize, but can only connect them by two things: Bush/Cheney Inc is responsible, and they were bad ideas (lacking good use of Reason).

    The book soars when listing the wrongs of Bush/Cheney Inc, but stumbles in saying what connects the wrongs. Gore needs to isolate, define, and state clearly what is the failed ideology of Bush/Cheney Inc. That he fails to do.

    He seems to fall into the camp of believing that Bush is really dumb, and that’s the big problem. If only we had good, clear thinking, then everything would be fine. IMHO, Bush/Cheney Inc. succeeds very well in pursuing a failed ideology using good, sharp Reason. It’s not reason that’s lacking, it’s a well-calibrated moral and ideological compass.

    What’s my candidate for the principle that’s lacking? Bush/Cheney Inc have no interest in what I think is the source of America’s greatness…our willingness to sacrifice individual gain to invest together in a better shared future for all. And the all includes people outside of our borders.

    Bush/Cheney Inc don’t care about me, they don’t care about you, they only care about a small privileged elite. And they use sharp Reason to serve the few they care about. That’s why they’re scary.

    Now I’m interested to see what Chris comes up with.

    Some specifics worth noting…

    I was struck by Gore’s weak analysis on p. 208. Is this the best he can do in connecting the prisoner scandal, and human suffering post-Katrina. Isn’t there something more compelling that links these failures?:

    “…draw a line connecting the feelings they had when they saw the visual images of our soldiers, acting in our name, with our authority, torturing helpless people…” “…with the emotions they felt during Hurricane Katrina…” “…draw another line connecting those responsible…” “…and the line makes a small circle.” “In the middle of that circle is President George W. Bush.”

    And on p. 215, I was struck by his emphasis on how smart people will do great things when they work as a team. That’s not enough Bush/Cheney Inc had a smart team working together. He needs to find a higher principle than this:

    “The relationship between checks and balances on the one hand and the reliance on the rule of reason on the other is the Da Vinci code of American democracy.”

  27. #27 Theodore Price
    June 28, 2007

    Mark, I agree that the book soars when listing the wrongs of the current administration but I felt that Gore did a nice job of showing that the ideology of the neo-con movement was the thread that tied these wrongs to the lack of reason. The ideology was a pre-determined decision to convert major middle east countries (namely Iraq) to democracy even though all current and past analysis indicated that this would be extremely difficult if not impossible (in my scientific mind ignoring or discarding evidence contrary to your hypothesis is the definition of lack of reason). Moreover, the distortion of evidence in the leadup to the war further demonstrates a lack of reason that ties the wrongs to their failed hypothesis of easily creating a democratic Iraq.

    I agree completely with you on the weakness of the quotes you list above… the lines and circle with Bush really bothered me when I read the book and nearly ruined the last part of it for me, it was all I could think about.

    I thought the strongest point of the book was how Gore clearly showed how important it is for us to be a nation of laws and that we now set those laws aside all too easily when confronted with difficult situations. There is no single issue that concerns me more and I was glad to see someone of his influence clearly address this problem. It is my opinion that our respect for the rule of law and the principles of the constitution have given us our priveledged position and if we continue to abandon them we will have little to stand on.

  28. #28 Chris Mooney
    June 28, 2007

    Hey Everyone,
    Thanks for the continuing commentary. I totally agree with Dave Roberts; I gotta pick a slight bone with Mark Powell, though, in that I’ve just finished the part where Gore explicitly says that he doesn’t think Bush is dumb…rather, he thinks Bush is a fierce ideologue.

    So far–I’m through Chapter Two–this is a book that is trying to do a heckuva lot of things. Gore really strikes me here as trying to paint an extremely big picture, and I get the sense that he may have tried to pull too many disparate things together. In a sense, we range from what you might call “Star Wars 101”–the lesson that power corrupts and demagogues use fear to manipulate publics into giving them more power–to laments about the corporate control of the media.

    Still, I like that Gore’s rhetoric is starting to reach some serious heights–particularly in his uncompromising denunciations of Bush and crew–and I get the sense that while this book may turn out to be a bit unwieldy and to pack in too much, it’s also going to be fundamentally right about the big picture….

  29. #29 Jon Winsor
    June 28, 2007

    Chris– I agree that Gore’s book could have been better organized and probably more effectively argued. It’s interesting that there are a couple of facts that he repeats 2-3 times in different sections of the book.

    Also, his arguments have been made elsewhere–by people like Ron Suskind, David Brock, and Bill Moyers. But having Gore say them lends them some weight, which is a good thing, I think.

    On the subject of changes in the media, there was an interesting exchange between Bill Moyers and Walter Pincus in Moyers’ *Selling the War*:

    WALTER PINCUS: More and more, in the media, become, I think, common carriers of administration statements, and critics of the administration. And we’ve sort of given up being independent on our own.

    ANNOUNCER: (3/6/1981) Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.

    WALTER PINCUS: We used to do at the Post something called truth squading. –President would make a speech. We used to do it with Ronald Reagan the first five or six months because he would make so many– factual errors, particularly in his press conference.

    PRESIDENT REAGAN: (3/6/1981) From 10 thousand to 60 thousand dollars a year…

    WALTER PINCUS: And after– two or three weeks of it– the public at large, would say, “Why don’t you leave the man alone? He’s trying to be honest. He makes mistakes. So what?” and we stopped doing it.

    BILL MOYERS: You stopped being the truth squad.

    WALTER PINCUS: We stopped truth squading every sort of press conference, or truth squading. And we left it then– to the democrats. In other words, it’s up to the democrats to catch people, not us.

    BILL MOYERS: So if the democrats challenged– a statement from the president, you could– quote both sides.

    WALTER PINCUS: We then quote– both sides. Yeah.

    BILL MOYERS: Now, that’s called objectivity by many standards isn’t it?

    WALTER PINCUS: Well, that’s– objectivity if you think there are only two sides. and if you’re not interested in– the facts. And the facts are separate from, you know, what one side says about the other.

    This makes it a lot easier for one side to demonize the other, even when the truth is on the side of the demonized party.

    Add to that an atmosphere of horserace-and-personality-obsessed reporting, and a party PR infrastructure built to capitalize on the whole situation, and you’ve got a recipe for a misinformed electorate.

    There was never a golden age and there will never be, but that doesn’t mean things couldn’t be much better…

  30. #30 Jon Winsor
    June 28, 2007

    Something else came to mind. In his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Joe Trippi (Howard Dean’s campaign manager) had this to say about political campaigns before and after television:

    In 1948, Harry Truman’s presidential campaign consisted of 31,000 different campaign stops, most of which involved him waving from the back of a train car. Let’s say each time that train stopped, an average of six hundred people gathered to see him lean over the bunting and wave… At six hundred people per stop, he might’ve reached nineteen million Americans.

    Just four years later, in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower reached those same nineteen million Americans by simply driving to New York and standing in front of a TV camera for a few minutes. Just in this one example, you see the roots of the insidious and destructive effect of TV on Politics. Those nineteen million Americans were active and social in seeing Truman, going down to the train station, standing with other people, talking with them. The people who saw Eisenhower did nothing but turn on the TV.

    …TV is a passive top-down medium. Sitting around watching television inspires nothing but sitting around watching television… One estimate is that every hour watching television watching translates to a 10 percent drop in civic involvement. (p. 38)

    So you might argue that pre-television, the “marketplace of ideas” had more going on than just the print media.

    Trippi goes on to argue that the Internet, as a participatory medium, could take back at least some of what television took away. This is up for debate, of course. While Trippi has a lot of campaign experience on which to base his opinions, he’s probably also selling a certain point of view. Critics of the Internet like Cass Sunstein would probably want to add some cons to Trippi’s pros…

  31. #31 Mark Powell
    June 29, 2007

    Truman’s audience got to watch him wave, and that’s better? They were active and social in seeking him out, but they probably decided what they thought based on whether he connected well, not based on Reason. Why is that a better marketplace of ideas? Where’s Gore’s “Reason” in this scenario?

  32. #32 PMH
    June 29, 2007

    While I’m only 100 pages in or so, and I find a lot of Gore’s arguments compelling, I find myself thinking that he’s not going to convert very many people that don’t already agree with him somewhat. His appeal (however idealized) to Reason, support from neuroscience, and the early chapters’ dense quotes from our founding fathers may tend to continue the public’s view of him as, well, a superior twit.
    Chris, thanks for the bookclub startup on this. I look forward to finishing the book, and have found the comments thus far quite interesting.

  33. #33 Mark Powell
    June 29, 2007

    I echo thanks to Chris for this, it’s interesting. I’ll try once more to say why I disagree that there’s an Assault on Reason happening.

    It’s kind of messy, but here goes..

    I wonder if we’re talking about different types of Reason here.

    Gore expects Reason to act as a filter on ideology, to challenge and question ideological plans. He would prefer this questioning and challenging type of Reason to reside in the person who leads. Lacking that, it should come from other officials, the media, or the public. Reason exercised in these successively larger circles could filter out ideological plans that don’t pass the test. And, he thinks this isn’t happening enough. Let’s call this “questioning Reason.”

    Bush/Cheney Inc use a different type of Reason, one that serves ideology by finding the best way to implement ideological plans. This implementing type of Reason doesn’t count as Reason for Gore, because it’s not his type of Reason. It doesn’t constantly challenge the plan and question or re-evaluate objectives or ideas. Let’s call this “implementing Reason.”

    A leader dominated by questioning Reason (Gore) is prone to questioning and equivocating and appears to be full of self doubt.

    A leader who uses Reason (Bush) to implement unwavering goals doesn’t question goals and can be called “decisive” (if successful) or “stubborn” (if not successful).

    Gore wants checks and balances, or the media, or the public to impose his type of questioning Reason on a leader (Bush) who doesn’t use it himself. But maybe the public doesn’t love questioning Reason so much as Gore.

    Back to the Assault on Reason…Gore seems to believe that questioning Reason is the only kind of Reason, and he’s attacking Bush/Cheney Inc. for essentially not using Reason to question and challenge their goals and objectives. If that’s what he’s saying, then I mostly agree, although I still think there was never a time when our civic conversations consisted of using Reason in that way.

    If, however, Reason includes the implementing kind, the use of logic to implement a plan or to push towards a goal, then I disagree with the book. I think Bush/Cheney Inc. have unwavering goals, and they use Reason sharply and effectively in finding ways to push towards the unwavering goals.

    Since I think both types of Reason are real and important, I say there is not an “Assault on Reason” going on. Instead, I see a divide between those who use Reason to constantly question goals and objectives–and those who don’t question goals and use Reason to challenge and question only the implementation plan.

    Gore’s battle with Bush/Cheney Inc. isn’t about Reason and Truth. That’s an akward framing of a non-ideologue challenging some staunch ideologues.

  34. #34 Fred Bortz
    June 29, 2007

    I’m not reading the book, so I have not been commenting on what is a fascinating discussion.

    Mark Powell’s latest comment, though, may explain why I like Gore’s approach. Like a scientist, he follows questions and doesn’t necessarily expect to find unambiguous answers. But he recognizes that the new questions he finds represent progress.

    Bush seems to rely on faith, meaning that he expects a clear answer. He doesn’t deal well with ambiguity.

    Does Gore say anything about how to deal with ambiguity in the book? We expect both faith and logic to be unambiguous, but a reasoning mind can deal with situations that are not perfectly clear. Right?

  35. #35 Chris Mooney
    June 30, 2007

    Thanks, everyone, for the continuing comments.

    I just finished Gore’s book and now have a lot to say about it. I will say more shortly and move this post back up to the top again….

  36. #36 Chris Mooney
    June 30, 2007

    Okay: This post is back at the top of the page again. And having now finished the book, I’ll add the following:

    * In response to Mark Powell: I know you think Gore is making too much of the concept of “reason”–but it’s clear that in using this term, Gore doesn’t simply mean a thought process. Instead, he quite literally means the entire Enlightenment project of self-government and self-determination. I had no idea Gore’s critique was going to be this broad, this sweeping, this ambitious. Gore is definitely a forest guy, more than a trees guy.

    * I don’t know that Gore’s solution meets the challenge. If our citizenry has become less deliberative, less connected, less engaged, and less reasonable, it doesn’t suffice simply to point to the Internet as salvation. To me, being deliberative and reasoned relies on being willing and able to engage with viewpoints other than one’s own. But as Cass Sunstein and others have argued (and as Jon Winsor points out), the Internet may well just help funnel people to sites where there are lots of other like-minded people. Even Scienceblogs, much as I love it, has an aspect of this to it.

    * So Gore’s book strikes me as mainly a lament…although, as I said, an intensely powerful one.

  37. #37 Jon Winsor
    June 30, 2007

    Mark–This is a bit like playing Stairway to Heaven in the blogosphere (someone will point to a sign and say, “Hey! No Stairway!”), but take a look at this 2004 New York Magazine piece by Ron Suskind, which has the famous passage that says:

    The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    This is a bit of a divergence from, say, the values of the authors of The Federalist Papers. Notions of reason versus the passions, the dangers of dominating factions, good deliberative processes–it’s hard to find these in the words Suskind quotes…

  38. #38 Jon Winsor
    June 30, 2007

    By the way, if anyone’s interested in hearing more about Cass Sunstein’s work on the subject of the Internet, I thought this book review by Ethan Zuckerman provided a pretty good overview…

  39. #39 bob koepp
    June 30, 2007

    I think Mark’s contrast of a “questioning and challenging” form of reason and an “implenting” form of reason maps nicely onto the traditional distinction between critical and instrumental reason. Gore is certainly correct that we need more of the former if the latter is going to serve human needs. I’m not sure, though, that his own example is exemplary.

  40. #40 Mark Powell
    June 30, 2007

    OK, I’m partly convinced that Gore’s onto something, even though I think he fails to define it well (thanks Jon and Chris especially). But I’m still vaguely troubled and I’ll hunker down and try to define why.

    Right now, I think I see a movement incubating. I’m mostly in it, and Gore is trying to define it. It’s a Joe Friday “Just the Facts” thing championed by (among others) PZ Myers. It has a red meat, take no prisoners, no apologies style. But one problem…I know what it’s against, but what is it FOR? Doing lots of thinking to figure things out? Not much of a philosophy or set of values there.

    It takes a side on framing science, evolution/ID, Gore/Bush.

    I like it overall, but I have a few worries…

    It seems too vitriolic, too righteous, and unwilling to listen. But the biggest problem is that it’s mostly head and too little heart.

    How does this relate to Assault on Reason? Gore ought to put more value on heart-directed, reason-powered governing. Am I alone in seeing that Gore would prefer Reason-directed, Reason-powered governing? (BTW, Reason-directed governing seems empty and not good to me.)

  41. #41 llewelly
    June 30, 2007

    Mark Powell:

    It’s a Joe Friday “Just the Facts” thing championed by (among others) PZ Myers. It has a red meat, take no prisoners, no apologies style. But one problem…I know what it’s against, but what is it FOR?

    To save lives, and to improve human quality of life. We are constrained by the behavior of the universe around us ‘laws of physics’, if you will. Reason[1] and empiricism are the only known methods for discovering these laws, and developing our understanding of how they interact, and therefor, reason must play a central role in whatever we wish to accomplish.

    Specifically:

    (a) Reducing the occurrence of preventable diseases. Someday, someday soon, take a field trip to an old graveyard whose plots were mostly filled before 1900. Look for markers that don’t stick up. Note the high proportion of infant deaths. Medical advances, due entirely to reason, have saved billions of human lives, and the drastically lower infant mortality rates in much of the world are only one sign of this.

    (b) Reducing poverty. It has been shown again and again that too many children is a primary cause of poverty. The anti-science methods of those who oppose birth control and pretend to be anti-abortion have become a primary cause of preventable teen pregnancies, and preventable pregnancies which cause families to exceed affordable sizes. Since poverty increases both the occurrence and mortality rates of nearly every kind of disease or disorder, this in turn results in death. Once again, the reason movement, by fighting the anti-science anti-choicers, are saving lives.

    (c) Improving the rights of those who are discriminated against. Misogynists use anti-science methods to argue that women are less intelligent, are poorly suited to science careers, do not deserve or should not have the right to decide whether they should complete a pregnancy, and on and on. Similar behavior can be seen in racists of all stripes. Reason has defeated a great many of their methods.

    (d) The anti-science methods used to promote the case of the tobacco industry resulted in millions of people taking risks they would not have otherwise taken – and millions of unnecessary deaths due to lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking-related illnesses occurred. Reason could have prevented this, and is slowly bringing an end to this – again, saving lives.

    (e) The anti-science methods used to attack the scientific consensus on issues such as global warming have delayed action for decades. How many lives this will cost is not yet known. The reason movement is gradually defeating the anti-science forces on this topic, and likely preventing a great deal of global warming by doing so.

    (f) The anti-science methods used to promote creationism and other such lunacies have filled the lives of many with fear and confusion. The reason movement is slowly bringing an end to this.

    In each of the above cases, the reason movement has chosen what to be against based on what it is for. Writers like PZ Myers and Daniel Dennet have reiterated this for so long, and for so tirelessly, that, unfortunately, I feel I am poorly suited to answering the question, because I am at a loss to understand how so many people can take the question ‘but what is it FOR?’ so seriously; I find myself shaking my head and wondering ‘do they actually read what (for example) PZ Myers writes, or do they just assume it’s just unreasoning reflexive hatred of religion, and skip it?

    You might think that religion is not involved in all these items, and certainly, it plays mixed roles in some of them. Nonetheless – note that several prominent pseudo-scientists, such as Fred Singer, who worked for the tobacco companies to cloud smoking safety issues, worked for CFC manufacturers to cloud ozone-depletion issues, worked for the fossil fuel industry to confuse people about global warming, and so on, are funded in part large religious organizations such as the ‘Unification Church’, better known as the Moonies. (Separately, the overwhelmingly anti-reason G.W. Bush administration is heavily funded by Reverend Moon himself.) And finally, it would be amazing if decades of reinforcement in anti-reason thinking, such as ‘faith’, which is common to many politically important religions, did not have severe long term detrimental effects on one’s reasoning abilities.

    [1] Not to be confused with the hit-and-miss libertarian rag Reason, which PZ Myers finds unreasonable more often than not.

  42. #42 Hume's Ghost
    July 1, 2007

    I’m coming to this post late, and I skimmed the comments so if I reiterate what someone already said my apologies in advance.

    I read this book the day it came out and have been sitting on a review of it that I’ve pretty much finished (for various reasons) since then.

    I agree with Gore’s aim of restoring the Enlightenment goal of using citizen wisdom to power and drive self-government, and I also agree that the internet can be a powerful tool in this direction. But I do not believe any serious change can occur until the public interest and anti-trust regulations are restored to the media in order to break up what Gore cites Jurgen Habermas as calling “the refeudalization of the public sphere.”

    http://bp1.blogger.com/_ap-UwV3BvS4/Rj-DjL6cdYI/AAAAAAAAAAk/IqP2nJmvyJI/s1600-h/media-ownership.gif

    I look at that chart and see the precipitous decline in diversity of media ownership being democracy’s dying lifeline. At the bottom end of that decline, you get Clinton’s impeachment in ’98, Bush being appointed by the Supreme Court in 2000, the ’03 invasion of Iraq, and the ’04 re-election of Bush despite the most disastrous military engagement in US history.

    I don’t think the fact that America has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism should take a way from the progressive goal of striving towards increased citizen wisdom and the restoration of reason to a central role in our deliberative processes. Our country might not have been founded had not the men participating in The Republic of Letters shared such an ideal.
    What is Enlightenment (1784) – Immanuel Kant

    If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” As matters now stand, a great deal is still lacking in order for men as a whole to be, or even to put themselves into a position to be able without external guidance to apply understanding confidently to religious issues. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment–to their release from their self-imposed immaturity–are gradually diminishing

  43. #43 Jon Winsor
    July 2, 2007

    Chris–Just a heads up: Marty Paretz at the New Republic says about Gore’s book: “The reason that has been assaulted is not quite of the 18th century sort.” I’d say the reason that was assaulted included the 18th century sort, but maybe I’m not getting Paretz’s point…

  44. #44 Mark Powell
    July 2, 2007

    llewelly, It’s probably just my problem but the Bright effort or “Reason” movment doesn’t move me. And I have a naturalistic worldview. To me, it feels head-centered not heart-centered. I’ve read about it and there are words saying what it’s FOR, but the cause doesn’t hang together for me. All I can see (must be I’m not bright enough) is that we’ll think really hard and solve problems and we don’t need God to do it. Sorry, but that’s a yawn for me.

  45. #45 Jon Winsor
    July 2, 2007

    I wouldn’t lump Gore in with the “Brights”. I think it’s somewhat accurate to call him a technocrat–a bunch of people who were around long before the New Atheists.

    But I don’t think he’s really a pure technocrat, either. David Brooks wants to paint him that way, but you can’t recognize Gore’s book in what Brooks wrote (how about what Maureen Dowd wrote? Makes you ill.) Anyway, technocrats tend to present lots of stats and charts and graphs instead of quoting Thomas More, Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, Upton Sinclair, MLK, Plutarch, St. Paul, etc. …

  46. #46 Dark Tent
    July 2, 2007

    “we’ll think really hard and solve problems and we don’t need God to do it. Sorry, but that’s a yawn for me. ‘

    That’s no yawn for me. Sounds downright reasonable, in fact — at least compared to the alternative: “not thinking really hard and letting God solve the problems”, which is clearly the way some would have it.

    As I see it (not sure whether Gore agrees), the “Assault on reason” has always had its root in religion and/or superstition.

    The recent assault is no exception.

  47. #47 Jon Winsor
    July 2, 2007

    The “Assault on reason” has always had its root in religion and/or superstition.

    I’d agree, but I’d add that superstition can be ideological, not just religious. For example, there are many atheists who have a superstitious belief in free markets. Or take the Neoconservatives, who aren’t very religious but have an almost superstitious belief in the effectiveness of military power over diplomacy.

    Unfounded belief takes all sorts of forms, sometimes even masquerading as science. Think of the Victorian colonialists and their “scientific” views on race (to cite just one of the less subtle examples of this sort of thing).

  48. #48 Mark Powell
    July 2, 2007

    I sure didn’t mean to say that God will solve problems. Ugh to that. There are more options than relying on Gore’s Reason and relying on God.

  49. #49 Dark Tent
    July 3, 2007

    I’m not under the impression that reason should — or even can — dictate our decisions on everything. I don’t think Gore is either. Lots of decisions are value-based (subjective) and therefore do not lend themselves to a logical solution.

    I think what Gore really means when he speaks of “The Assault on Reason” is that we seem to have moved away from the situation where reason informs the decision making process as it has in the past.

    In fact, lately, “reason” seems to have become a “dirty word” — to some of our current leaders, at least.

  50. #50 Jon Winsor
    July 3, 2007

    Well, “reason” is just a way of framing the problem–and it’s an effective one, I think.

    The problem is what frequently passes for the public discourse we have. It’s often either brain dead or compromised by ingenious PR.

    And then there’s the government itself. Lately there’s been a disturbing tendency to ignore evidence and treat it as a PR problem, and to short-circuit bedrock traditions and due processes which have served our government for a very long time (some of them even predate our country and have roots in English law).

    This is a situation that should be talked back to, with a more thoughtful level of discourse than our cable newsers, for instance, presently have.

    You might not like Al Gore as a messenger. But as far as Reason goes, this country was founded by Reasoners. Jefferson, Franklin, Madison were all Reasoners, in spades. They’d definitely make a short list of Reasoners in what’s been called the Age of Reason.

    So, ambitiously, Gore is trying to reach back and give a sense of the health of their project. His use of “Reason” is appropriate. I can’t imagine how he’d discuss what he’s trying to discuss without it…

  51. #51 Dark Tent
    July 3, 2007

    “this country was founded by Reasoners.”

    Just imagine if our current leaders sat down in Philadelphia tomorrow to draw up a new Constitution.

    What would it look — and sound — like, if George Bush wrote it, for example?

    “We the Folks of the United States, in Order to form a more better Confederacy…I mean Union, establish Justice (for our buddies in high places, hee hee), insure domestic Tranquility (by lockin’ up them commie pinko war protestors), provide for the common defense (of Haliburton and other companies doing business in Iraq), promote the general Welfare (of Enron, Haliburton, Harken Energy, Exxon-Mobil …and all Dick’s other friends ), and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves (Praise the Lord) and our Posteriorty, do ordain and establish this Constipation for the United States of Tex.. I mean America.”

  52. #52 Mark Powell
    July 3, 2007

    Some food for thought (book link at the end):

    …he recounts how the much-touted New England town meeting often suffered from low turnout. He reminds us that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in secret session; that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were largely rewritten for publication; and that the moment of highest voter turnout at the turn of the century was also a time of widespread political corruption, including money for votes. Having given the back of his hand to the popular conception of a country once ruled by a well-informed citizenry…

    http://www.amazon.com/Good-Citizen-History-American-Civic/dp/0674356403

  53. #53 Mark Powell
    July 5, 2007

    I began to wonder if I am alone in my views, so I did a bit of digging. I found some others with ideas that I find useful, important, and largely at odds with the “reason-based” model that Gore likes.

    Here’s an example, from http://www.mtsu.edu/~seig/paper_m_schudson.html

    Understanding the history of civic engagement in America is not a matter of positing a single standard of good citizenship and then documenting how well or how poorly Americans lived up to it in different eras. As it happens, that was the task I originally set for myself. I wanted to measure how well America lived up to a Habermasian model of a vibrant public sphere in different periods of our history — as if there is and always has been a single normative standard of democratic public life. This book began as a conversation with Habermas. I thought I was a critic of Habermas, because I did not see the late l8th century as an Eden from which we have since been banished. I rejected Habermas’s nostalgic view of European history, yet I labored under the deeper Habermasian illusion of a unitary and unvarying standard by which to measure public life. It took me awhile to discover that the Habermasian view was even in its most historical formulation profoundly ahistorical and entirely insensitive to the ways in which intellectual and moral ideals of public life have themselves shifted over time. Moreover, once I came to see this, it became clear that today’s academic and journalistic discourse about citizenship is deeply mired in ruts worn in our thought during the Progressive Era. This blinds us to the virtues of trust-based, party-based, and rights-based models of citizenship in its dogged emphasis on a rationalistic, information-based model.

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