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On a Facebook thread condemning President Obama for signing the Continuing Resolution with a rider protecting Monsanto from law suits, my defense of the President (pointing out that he really had to sign the CR and that all bills that come to his desk have unsavory riders in them) received some vitriolic responses from a couple of rabbidly anti-GMO activists. When I then mentioned that I am more agnostic on the issue of GMOs themselves, because I don’t think the evidence weighs so unambiguously against them as these particular activists maintained, their vitriol was ratcheted up even more.

As a result, I made the following post on my own Facebook page:

Here’s an interesting lesson in political advocacy: Don’t go out of your way to alienate people who share your general concerns but honestly differ on the particular analysis. On a thread about “Monsanto-gate,” when I mentioned that I’m agnostic about GMOs due to the many benefits on the plus side of the leger (reduced erosion, reduced pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer demands, thus reduced run-off and groundwater contamination, increased food production per acre, increased resilience, etc.) and the relatively few on the negative side, two anti-GMO zealots attacked with such venom that, despite myself, I’m a bit less agnostic now: I’m more pro-GMO than I was before!

It reminds me of a line from Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” about the harm done by overprescription of psychiatric drugs. He mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry could have paid the Scientologists (and Tom Cruise) to take the position against psychiatric drugs that they did, because it made a basically rational position look like one that only fanatical zealots support.

A long and productive discussion ensued, at the end of which, in response to various comments on both threads, I wrote the following:

Human beliefs and emotions are much like viruses, spreading through the population more or less robustly for a variety of reasons. The British biologist Richard Dawkins dubbed these cognitive-emotional viruses “memes,” because they mirror genes in how they reproduce and spread and evolve.As a general rule, memes that are motivated by hope and love and compassion are good ones to spread, and memes that are motivated by fear and hatred and anger are bad ones to spread. This isn’t always true, because some fears are legitimate, but whenever a meme is or a set of memes are spreading due to fear or anger, it’s a good time for folks to step back and be very, very introspective and self-critical about what memes they are latching onto and spreading. The human tendency toward panics should always give us pause and make us question our own certainties and our own “hysterias” (despite the sexist etymology of that word, there’s no other that quite captures the same flavor of meaning).As some of you know (and as I hope not to rehash here in relation to the specific issue I referred to), I think that we are overly certain even about some things for which there is considerable evidence, because though the world is extraordinarily complex and subtle, we tend to gravitate too quickly to certainty and dwell too briefly in uncertainty. We have to be careful not to let wise uncertainty become an unwise position against action based on the best available knowledge, but we should not feel the need to be certain in order to act, a psychological need which is exacerbated by the political demand to take strong positions. (A person who advocates for a political position while admitting to uncertainty undermines him-or-herself in public discourse.)In a more rational world (or with more rational participants in a conversation or debate), the opposite is true: Too much certainty undermines one’s credibility. On the original thread, one commenter (not one of the two belligerent ones) suggested that we are breeding super-pests with GMOs, because of their genetically built-in pesticides. (As an aside, I’m not sure how GMOs do this more so than the traditional use of pesticides does it, and would think that GMOs might do it less so.) Then he made what I consider a rhetorical mistake: He insisted that it was a certainty, and clearly and indisputably a catastrophe in the making.It’s a good point and a legitimate concern, but I am not convinced that it is quite as dispositive as he assumes. For instance, as he noted, the same argument can be made for the use of antibiotics, and, indeed, controlling the worldwide overuse of antibiotics has become particularly urgent for this very reason. But I would not consider it to have been a good thing to have nipped in the bud the use of antibiotics by a movement informed with such foresight a century or so ago.I tend to look at the world a little differently, through a more inclusive and organic paradigm which sees even human foibles as catalysts in a much larger evolutionary process. Yes, it’s true, the more dramatic our manipulations of nature, the greater the risk of catastrophic cascades, but it’s also good to remember that people have been predicting the human-induced destruction of the world for millennia. The world has always been on the verge of catastrophic collapse, with every new innovation throughout human history. Every single time.The reality of complex dynamical systems is that they’re very adaptive. They reorder themselves around even dramatic changes. That’s not to say we should be blithely indifferent to the potential consequences of our actions, but it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the ubiquitous predictions of inevitable catastrophe.My point here is that we would benefit from more uncertainty, and more interest in exploring the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in. The two women who were extremely vitriolic and offensive with me were that way because I had challenged an article of faith, and when you challenge people’s articles of faith, they become very angry. We could use less anger in the world, and we could use fewer articles of faith. Then, from that foundation of wise uncertainty, we could have the most informed and informative of national debates on all topics of importance to our shared existence, and do a far better job of aligning our policies to those which are best recommended by reason in service to humanity.

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On this 100th aniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, it seems fitting to write a tribute to that historic event, but one which takes what lessons it may offer and applies them to our own ship of state today.

A story on the PBS Newshour yesterday (Friday, 4/13/12; about an interesting New Yorker article (“Unsinkable: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic,” by Daniel Mendelsohn; got me to thinking about the parallels between that ill-fated vessel, and our perhaps equally tragic nation. The parallels Mendelsohn drew were to Greek tragedy, to the themes of hubris, of Man v. Nature, of something glorious and admired and full of a sense of its own exceptionalism going down in flames, or icy waters, as the case may be. It is about too much smugness and too little pragmatism.

As Mendelsohn aptly put it: It’s too perfect, too much like a story, the “unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage. Like Oedipus, the flawless hero, swept up and sucked down by forces that grab hold of all those who eschew humility, the great Titanic was doomed by its own sense of perfection, or the sense of those who had invested their identities into it. It was about the limits of technology, about class and injustice, about the bracing, icy reality confronting the dreamed up ideal. It was, of course, the ideal of unsinkability rather than the reality of unpredictability which sank.

The United States is, in many ways, “the Titanic Nation,” this great ship of state launched by the culmination of European development, by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, full of a sense of its own exceptionalism, bigger than life, “unsinkable.” We are still on our maiden voyage, for the first couple of centuries in the history of a nation is still its infancy. And we are careening toward the icebergs of our hubris, of our uncompromising belief in our own exceptionalism, in our scoffing at the demands of pragmatic reality in deference to the oversimplified ideal we believe will always trump it.

Despite what many say, despite what many cling to, despite the satisfaction it may give to entertain the notion, in the final analysis, America is not an ideal; it is a nation, a product of history, a living, breathing, thriving and striving and faltering and self-correcting society, a work in progress, an on-going challenge to be met with a modicum of humility and a heavy dose of pragmatism. And it is the increasing rather than decreasing loss of this awareness that sends us hurtling toward unseen icebergs, destined, perhaps, to collide with them and rip ourselves to shreds in the process.

But we have not collided yet. We have not sunk yet, and do not have to. We can regain our humanity, our recognition of being nothing more or less than a nation struggling with the challenges of thriving in a complex and subtle world, a nation guided by wonderful values and founding principals, but a nation that is not invulnerable because of them, or beyond improvement in deference to them. Sometimes, we need to correct our course, to re-chart our trajectory, to avoid the obstacles that those who designed and launched us could not possibly have anticipated. Their design, and the course they charted for us, remain our foundation, but they do not remain the limits of who and what we are.

There are those in America today, too many, too loud, too smug, too full of hubris and folly, too natonally self-destructive, who insist that we must not evolve, that we must not develop our political economy to confront the challenges of today, that we must not adapt and grow and steer our course through the ever-dangerous waters of history. There are those who offend the spirit and character of the brilliant but historical and fallible men who drafted our Constitution by reducing it to a shallow sacred document, stripping it of its meaning, stripping it of its intent, and seeing in it only a mirror of their own blind ideology, whether its specific clauses actually mirror that ideology or not. (See. e.g., Right-Wing New-Speak.)

There are those who insist that a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosopher got everything right, and the entire empirical and analytical discipline of economics as it has developed ever since has gotten everything wrong, and who claim that theirs is the only reasonable position imaginable, all others being error. There are those who are as lost in their own blind ideologies, as insulated from reason and evidence, as any Medieval Inquisitor ever was, and who insist that that is what America is, that that is what America was meant to be. And they are steering us straight toward those icebergs of human folly, of ignorance, of hubris, of believing that an act of admirable engineering, whether technological or social institutional, whether a historically unprecedented giant ocean liner or a historically unprecedented national Constitution, once accomplished, need no longer be piloted in response to the realities as they are encountered, and can not possibly fail if only left to barrel ahead blindly.

As the economist and dynamical systems analyst Brian Arthur noted in his wonderful book, The Nature of Technology, these feats of engineering, of historical innovation, are not faits accompli, but are rather always works in progress, always tested and honed and refined by the reality of life and the challenges that it poses. The brilliance of our nation is not that we got it right once and for all, and only must adhere to that perfect, unsinkable design, but rather that we accomplished something admirable on which we can build, which we can continue to steer, which will take us farther than we ever imagined if only we continue the work rather then rest on ancient laurels.

We are, indeed, a Titanic Nation. But ours is one Greek Tragedy whose ending hasn’t yet been written. We are the ones who will write it. We are the ones who will determine whether it is written by our hubris and folly, or by our wisdom and humility. We are the ones who will either steer it into the icebergs that lay before us, or will continue to navigate our way among them, refining our institutions and developing our humanity to confront a reality that was not part of or foreseen by our original design, but rather is a part of what continues to make us . . . or break us.

As I like to say, let’s write our story well.