Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Robot Cultist Condemns Scientific Illiteracy On Which Robot Cultism Depends

Over at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET, the Institute for Ethics (where the ethics are rarely really discussed) and Emerging Technologies (where the technologies are rarely really emerging), Robot Cultist Travis James Leland bemoans the rise of stubborn scientific illiteracy, especially in American culture, though elsewhere too.

He mentions the widely discussed recent comment of Paul Broun of Georgia -- who happens to be the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who declared theories "about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory" to be "all lies straight from the pit of Hell." He mentions the curious theory of "legitimate rape" by the now infamous Todd Akin, that women have a special ability to "shut that whole thing down" so that pregnancy won't occur under conditions of actual duress. Of course, Todd Akin was trounced in an election Republicans expected to win for his comments. And Leland's false equivalency in declaring that "both candidates [were] asked to openly explain their policies regarding science. Both refused to answer," is nonsense, given Obama's celebration of science fairs and scientific discovery and endless references to the need for investments in math and science education to ensure continued American accomplishments in medicine and renewable energy in the years to come.

Indeed, though Leland notes that both Broun and Akin are Republicans he fails to notice that one political party is systematically interfering with policy outcomes informed by consensus science while the other is conspicuously committed to quite the opposite. Leland does not mention that Republicans have been devoted to the denial of knowledge for well over a generation, refusing to heed the studies that predicted and now document the failures of abstinence only education -- the preposterous security theater of draconian Drug War laws, racial profiling, California's catastrophic Three Strikes -- the magical thinking of supply side economics and repudiation of Keynes-Hicks macroeconomics -- and so on. Although his outrage at the assignment of Representative Broun as Chair of the Science Committee is fitting and seems genuine, Leland seems to attribute it to a generalized dumbing down of American culture, as not long after he bemoans the popularity of the "Kardashians, Snooki and Honey Boo Boo," as compared to "Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein" the heroes of an earlier age in his estimation. Of course, this is nonsense. The popular entertainers of the vaudeville and radio age and "golden age" -- that is to say, white White WHITE! -- of television Leland is lionizing were easily as idiotic as today's Kardashians, and even today the Kardashians are targets of ridicule rather more than praise as far as I can see, a symbol of vulgarity and vapidity inspiring snark and directing people to more interesting content available peer-to-peer.

The generalized dismissiveness in which Leland is indulging here is no match for a more considered critique in which we grasp that Republicans place know-nothings in science committees simply in order to ensure those committees no longer devote their energies to documenting abuses and recommending legislation that would impose costs on extractive-petrochemical interests or interfere with crappy private education boondoggles that pay handsomely to keep Republicans flush in the cash they need to run campaign ads and GOTV efforts in their districts every election. I must say I noticed with great interest that among the extraordinary scientific achievements of the year Leland is outraged received so little adoration from America's scientifically-illiterate ingrates was that "a privately-owned spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. This means that space is now within reach for everyone, not just the government." It is of course arrant foolishness to imply that everyday folks are even incrementally more likely to find their way to space as a result of this development (about which I complain at length elsewhere, for example here and here), and in indulging his little bit of libertopian economic and political illiteracy here it seems to me Leland failed to notice that his "anti-gu'ment" spacecraft used technologies created by public research at public universities for a project funded by government contracts that docked at a space station created and maintained by a consortium of governments at public expense.

But I have saved the best for last. Quite apart from the whiff of elitist cultural conservatism that seems to drive his observations about the illiterate masses and the selective blindness to the structural conservatism that makes Republican politics incomparably more culpable in the anti-science policies he bemoans and his indulgence in the framing of reactionary anti-governmentality that feeds the very forces of scientific illiteracy he imagines he is targeting, I think my favorite thing about Leland's article is that the whole thing is meant to provide the answer for the question he asks in his piece's opening paragraph:
Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? “The Casual Transhuman” examines H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give [sic] suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.
Words of Isaac Asimov immediately follow, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States," thus setting the stage for the argument about scientific illiteracy which I have already examined. Can one "ignore" what doesn't exist? It is enormously important to remind you all in this moment that the litany of exciting prospects to which Leland refers describes the beliefs that decapitated heads frozen, vitrified, or otherwise hambergerized and thrust in a dewar are awaiting swarms of programmable nanobots that, guided by the ministrations of a superintelligent history-ending Robot God, will resurrect the "info-soul" presumably interred in such heads by "scanning" them and then either scooping them into model-sexy comic book super-hero robot bodies or migrating them as angelic avatars into a bug-free cyberspatial treasure-cave orgy-pit virtual heaven where they will cavort ecstatically forever.

Permit me two modest propositions by way of conclusion here. First, I propose that transhumanoid Robot Cultists, like all other people in the world, can best avoid "looking like crackpots to the world-at-large" by refraining from believing palpably crackpot notions and proselytizing about them in public places. Second, I propose that Robot Cultists of the transhumanoid, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, nano-cornucopiast, and digital-utopian varieties absolutely depend on the scientific illiteracy of ill-educated citizens, pop-tech journalism fandoms, and credulous rubes who are scared of aging and death or who are terrified by the insecurity of neoliberal exploitation and extractive-industrial climate change and who are eager to be told there are technofixes to these problems that require little more from them than ritual declarations of excited belief in what the Very Serious White Guys of The Future tell them from their organizational perches in various islets along the Robot Cult archipelago. A world in which more citizens were educated and encouraged to do real medical and scientific research to solve urgently shared problems, a world of citizens devoted to the accountability and equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to all its stakeholders, a world of citizens actually informed enough to hold their representatives accountable for sensible policy outcomes would be a world with very little room for the pseudo-scientists and guru-wannabes of the Robot Cult.


jimf said...

> I propose that Robot Cultists of the transhumanoid, singularitarian,
> techno-immortalist, nano-cornucopiast, and digital-utopian varieties
> absolutely depend on the scientific illiteracy of ill-educated
> citizens, pop-tech journalism fandoms, and credulous rubes. . .

. . .and people who remain at the intellectual stage of 12-year-olds who have
just graduated from comic books to "serious" SF.

joe said...

"Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity?"

I love the way he makes it sound like these are just a few months away from being launched like the latest iPad and why are more people just not ecstatic waiting for them....

Almost like a kid arguing with someone that Santa is really real, you'll see..


joe said...

I was just over on Io9 and Dvorsky had this thread up..

I thought you'd get a kick out of it...if this is the way the TH/H+ers act then they may just ipe themselves out.

Although I think he may be trying to kill people with some of the stuff he is talking about and as other people over there pointed out to him...Although he just brushes it away with "I warned you to be careful"

How about not advocating using the potentially lethal chemical you dingleberry...