goodbye to the decade of the crank

If you're a divisive, scientifically illiterate crank whose only talents are to start fights and attract attention, you've been living your best decade.
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In just a few days, the decade will come to a close and every major publication has been trying to give a name to the last ten years. Naming a decade is no easy task of course. The name has to give readers a fairly good idea of what characterized this period of time and when we consider that much of the new millennium has so far been devoted to war, bitter political contests and a global economic boom followed by an epic crash that’s going to be felt for years to come, the only terms that seem to come to mind are either negative or somewhat meaningless numerical designations. As for me, I’m going to highlight something that seems to have slipped the minds of many would-be decade designators. From where I sit, this decade was the decade of the crank.

Over the last ten years, we’ve been inundated by a constantly growing stream of punditry and in a quest to give every view its time in the sun and equal treatment, we’ve managed to empower a contingent of people whose disregard for education, expertise and those with different political beliefs are nothing short of amazing. From old fixtures of partisan inanity, to new sensations like Glenn Beck, a man who seems to be a living, breathing incarnation of Above Top Secret, Prison Planet and Infowars, pundits have taken over TV. Whereas before, we knew that personal opinions and editorial agendas were being mixed into our news and accepted the subtle attempts at media manipulation as an unspoken given, the bias and partisanship of the news today is brazen and immediately apparent in the most obvious and ridiculous ways. When comedians are trusted more than news channels and the hardest hitting reporting comes after South Park and Futurama reruns, we have to be willing to admit to a crank infestation in the mass media.

Likewise, with ever growing access to medical and scientific information on the web, there are plenty of those who believe that reading WebMD or looking up a few concepts in physics online give them the knowledge to seriously debate with scientists and experts who dedicate their entire lives to the topics they study. Fueled by anti-intellectualism which sees genuine expertise as nothing more than elitist pretense and assumes that all kinds of complicated things like cosmology or oncology are actually simple and can be mastered with a quick reading of a few web pages on the subject, the graduates of the University of Google have been the engines behind the rapid spread of the anti-vaccination movement, 2012 doomsday alarmism, homeopathy, Electric Universe and countless other pseudosciences with which we’re confronted today. And when politics enter the debate, things can get out of control. Just show a global warming denialist some snow and he’ll thunder how the very fact that we can still get a blizzard in winter is proof that the planet can’t possibly be warming up. Right. Because obviously, a potential five to six degree warming means it will never snow again. Ever.

The years of neglect for teaching critical thinking and curiosity in favor of cramming for standardized tests and blatant anti-intellectualism from partisan pundits and post-modernists alike has come back to bite us and bite us hard. We seem to have jettisoned the idea of experts and authority and replaced it with manufactroversies for ratings and blowhards who generally have no qualifications other than a strong opinion on the matter. We started taking medical advice from Oprah and Jenny McCarthy instead of actual doctors. We see conspiracies everywhere we turn. And we have to be so nice and considerate towards everyone and everything that unless we want to be flooded with complaints about being mean and bitter, we have to give everyone a pass, from a creationist who wants to dismantle science education after having a chat with God, to homeopaths and faith healers who want to force insurance companies to pay for things that don’t work. And perhaps worst of all, the cranks are highly paid professionals in their con artistry while the skeptics and scientists who try to keep them in line can’t even hold a candle to their income.

It’s not all gloom and doom though and there is a way out of this mess. But it’s not going be done in a day or a year. This turn of events took years to develop and it will take years to be wound back, starting with better and more reasonable education standards. Rather than teach kids the tests and allow the school administrators to treat them like products to be churned out on a steady schedule, create curriculums what will challenge the students, make them think, give them variety and accelerate how fast they learn. Education should stimulate, not become routine memorization and repetition. Next, there has to be an emphasis on math and science to emphasize the need for R&D, expertise, knowledge and groom a new generation of critical thinkers and high aiming innovators.

These changes won’t come on their own or even with a nice letter to your local lawmakers, but after intense, thundering campaigns that don’t just affirm the need for science but tell a story of a nation in decline as far as innovation is concerned. Rather than just assume that the facts speak for themselves (they often don’t to those who are not aware of them), underline the problem. People should fear a future without a powerhouse R&D economy and we need to explain to them exactly why in the most brutally honest way we can. Nice obviously isn’t working. Perhaps honest and straight to the gut is the way to go.

Yes these are lofty goals and they will take a lot of time and effort, but if enough people start caring and getting tuned into the skepticism movement to help spread good science and the why we need to change the way we do things, maybe, just maybe the next decade could be the decade of scientists, researchers, engineers and artists who work for a better future for us all while inspiring others to do the same…

# science // mass media / science education / skepticism


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