The war over words

Politicians have always sought the power to control the meaning of language. But now this open warfare has raced past reprehensible to dangerous for democracy.

language-has-powerIn the vicious descent to American unexceptionalism that politicians and their rich supporters are hellbent on winning (common folk and consequences be damned), the election has become a continuing chase for the authority to control language.

That’s what modern power has become: the ability to define a word, and to prevent others from doing so. Politicians rarely make coherent arguments any more; they instead try to co-opt the meanings of words. That’s why debates have been nonsensical: Candidates may utter the same words, but the meanings they assign to those words are vastly different.

Consider just one particular word. Continue reading

Words Matter: Industrial climate disruption is not a religion

CATEGORY: ReligionWeekFor other posts in the Words Matter series, please click here

a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices (source)

Some people falsely allege that industrial climate disruption is a religion. This allegation is blatantly flawed, as is the related allegation that industrial climate disruption is a cult. But that doesn’t prevent deniers of industrial climate disruption from making the false allegation in an attempt to render the underlying science moot.

As shown in the definition above, a religion is a set of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices, with the key word being “religious.” Religion requires the worship of some greater power or divinity. Scientific disciplines do not. In general, religion concerns itself with faith and adherence to established doctrine whether or not the doctrine make sense. Science, on the other hand, concerns itself with what is observable, what can be explained using logic and mathematics, and what can be tested with experiments or future observations.

Industrial climate disruption does not postulate any particular greater power or divinity. This fact alone disproves the claim that climate disruption is a religion. But for the sake of argument, what greater power or divinity could possibly be invoked by industrial climate disruption? The measured infrared properties of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane make poor deities, seeing as they’re not imbued with any intelligence. Climate models also make poor greater powers since they are merely simulations based on fundamental physics that respond blindly to their inputs. And the various fundamental laws of physics used in climate models are as unintelligent as a molecule of carbon dioxide is.

The only way to make industrial climate disruption into a religion is to redefine the entirety of science itself as a religion. And at that point we might as well say that the Babel Fish is the proof of the non-existence of God, prove that black is white, and avoid zebra crosswalks thereafter (ref.).

And for those industrial climate disruption deniers who go even further and call industrial climate disruption a “cult,” cults are a subset of religions. Specifically, a cult is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” (source). If industrial climate disruption can’t be a religion, than it can’t be a cult either.

So why do deniers of industrial climate disruption make a blatantly flawed allegation? Some truly are ignorant of the differences between religion and science. Some may be so opposed to policies they fear will result from accepting industrial climate disruption as real that they have unconsciously chosen to ignore the blatant flaw. But the rest know that the allegation is false, but they allege it anyway in an attempt to discredit industrial climate disruption as a whole.

Since the Renaissance, science has earned a privileged place in human culture. Individuals and organizations make decisions every day based on what the best available science tells them will happen. For example, scientists knew that Mount Saint Helens was going to erupt weeks before it ultimately did – the evacuations ordered by the Governor of Washington as a result of the work of geologists monitoring the volcano saved thousands of lives. Given the privileged place science holds, if the science underlying industrial climate disruption is accepted, then naturally individuals and organizations will start changing how the interact with each other and with the world as a result. Those changes would naturally create winners and losers, and many of the people and businesses on top today would sustain massive losses in the process.

If successful, branding industrial climate disruption as a religion is a shortcut. Instead of having to challenge the expertise of each and every climate scientist one by one, they can all be tarnished as “high priests.” Instead of having to demonstrate errors in thousands of peer-reviewed studies, all the studies can be dismissed as mere holy writ. And instead of having to disprove multiple well-established scientific laws and independent lines of evidence that all demonstrate the reality of industrial climate disruption, all that information can be conveniently swept under the rug with rhetoric

If industrial climate disruption can be branded as a religion, then it can essentially be ignored. The individuals and organizations (both businesses and governments) who stand to lose the most can dismiss industrial climate disruption by saying “We don’t have to change to satisfy the religious beliefs of Jews, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, or pagans, so we don’t need to change to satisfy climate disruption either.” Governments of countries where separation of church and state is codified can go even further, claiming that creating policies to address industrial climate disruption would be in breach of that very separation.

Industrial climate disruption has no greater power or deity and thus cannot be a religion. But that won’t stop deniers from misusing “religion” in an attempt to discredit industrial climate disruption.

Words matter – and sometimes they’re misused on purpose.

A class discussion of Orwell's, ummm, lesser known works…

By Patrick Vecchio

This semester probably was my most satisfying in the 10 years I’ve been teaching, but even so, I faltered down the stretch.

During a class last week, students and I discussed George Orwell and his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell wrote in 1946:

“[a] mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Continue reading

Nota Bene #123: Behold the Chickenosaurus

“There ought to be limits to freedom.” Who said it? Continue reading

Banished from the English language: "flip-flopper"

Every once in awhile a new term/catchphrase/buzzword/meme catches fire here in the US. Sometimes it’s a function of the fact that our incredibly plastic language, with its myriad dynamic influences (everything from media to subcultural to ethnic to technological) sort of inherently generates new words. Other times the term is a result of political or PR craftiness, as was the case with “Japan-bashing” (and subsequently, any more generalized iteration of “______-bashing”). The lobbyist who made the phrase up later famously said “Those people who use (the term) have the distinction of being my intellectual dupes.” Continue reading

Nota Bene #117: Wake Up!

“Hollywood is so crooked that Mafia gangsters are entirely outclassed and don’t stand a chance. People in Hollywood are smarter. They have more sophisticated knowledge of money and deals and how to steal legally rather than illegally.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #115: RIP No. 32

“If you’re really pro-life, do me a favor—don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #109: You Can't Tuna Fish

“It’s absolutely stunning to me, the contempt in which the network holds the audience. The idea that these people have standards is laughable.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #99: Heed the Peace Gnome

“You just pick up a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #97: toDwI'ma' qoS yItIvqu'!

“To be truly free, and truly to appreciate its freedom, a society must be literate.” Continue reading

Neither climate change deniers nor activists are Nazis or genocidal maniacs

I get seriously annoyed when I read that James Hansen and others are comparing climate disruption deniers and skeptics to Nazis and war criminals – it’s too extreme and it leads to polarization and results like the latest Gallup poll. I also get seriously annoyed when I read that garbage coming from said deniers and skeptics.

Yesterday, Dr. Arthur Robinson, Director of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and the originator of the petition against Al Gore’s global warming hoax which as of now 32,000 scientists have signed, told the 2nd International Conference on Climate Change, that the people like Al Gore who promote global warming alarmism are committing genocide by the withdrawal of technology from the developing world.

[Robinson] noted, “that the billions of people who live at the lowest level of human existence will suffer greatly from the rationing of energy, and this, in turn, will lead to the death of hundreds of millions, or possibly billions.” Continue reading

New EDF poll statistically invalid due to biased questions

Environmental Defense Fund’s latest poll claims that most Americans want climate change addressed as Congress tackles the economic problems facing the United States. But there’s a fundamental problem with EDF’s poll: the questions are so biased that the results are statistically meaningless. In addition, one poll question mentioned in the pollster’s summary slides is not listed in the EDF press release, an error that gives the impression that EDF cherry picked the results they published. Furthermore, the poll’s stated margin of error is either incorrect or indicates that the poll has a lower-than-usual confidence level. These problems raise concerns over whether the poll’s stated results are accurately described or whether they are an attempted deception on the part of EDF.

What follows below is a question-by-question analysis of why the questions are biased. Continue reading

VerseDay: Slow, slow fresh fount – how to control your words and your emotions…

benjonson.jpg A couple of weeks ago I spoke with you about poetry of ideas. Today’s entry will look at poetry that controls emotion.

The poet pictured above is Ben Jonson – “O rare Ben Jonson” an admirer said of him. Jonson is like most great poets – a person of contradictions. Known as perhaps the greatest poet of controlled language (and subsequently of emotion) in the English language, he could be irascible to the point of misanthropy – and once killed a fellow actor in a duel – and almost went to the gallows for it (he did bear the brand of felon on his thumb the rest of his days). He was understated and subtle in his verse – yet his chief vehicle in his plays was satire. He feuded with the literary establishment often and yet became the first English Poet Laureate. Like most of us, Jonson was complicated. Continue reading

Dr. Slammy in 2008: A thinkpower curriculum for the 21st Century

Hi. I’m Sam Smith, and I’m running for president on a platform that stresses education’s critical role in solving our nation’s problems and assuring a future of universal opportunity for all citizens. Today I’m introducing my platform plank on curriculum, a cornerstone concern for any productive educational system.

One size does not fit all. It goes without saying that we must emphasize education in mathematics and the sciences, as these skills provide the foundation we need to compete in a world of increasing technical complexity. Language, writing and communication skills, which have been sadly de-emphasized in the past 20 years, are also essential. Continue reading

The S&R list of banned phrases, vol. 1

We all have pet peeves when it comes to language – terms or phrases that grate on our nerves, common misuses that drive us bonkers, etc. But past the mere annoyances there’s a more corrosive category of terminology that does actual damage to the culture. Words and expressions that, when we hear them, signal that either someone is an idiot or thinks we are. Subtle misdirections designed to leave us believing things that aren’t true. Constructions carefully crafted to encourage us to hear that which wasn’t actually said. And so on.

So the S&R team has pulled together a brief primer of terms and phrases that we don’t ever want to hear again, at least not in the cynical context in which we’re accustomed to encountering them. (If anything here offends you because you do it, too, and you don’t think you’re guilty, don’t feel bad. As we’ve looked over each other’s entries some of us have been indicted, as well.)

From Sam Smith

Support the troops: Know what – we all support the troops, bitch. Continue reading

‘Natives,’ ‘Immigrants’ and ‘Pioneers’ in the Digital World

By Sunfell

I recently had an interesting discussion with an online acquaintance. We were discussing a tagging project she’s doing for a thriving Live Journal community I referee moderate. She found the project to be very productive and educational, and I was happy to let her use her considerable skills as an organizer and archivist to clean up the hundreds of tags the community has generated in its four years of existence. She told me that I seemed to be very comfortable operating in the digital world and that my work-style and behavior was that of a ‘digital native’. She then asked me my age, and was surprised when I told her. I’m 46- a ‘cusp’ of the Baby Boom and Generation X. She’s almost thirty- a genuine ‘Generation Y’.

Why the surprise? And why the significance of ages? It appears that folks of both Gen-X and the earlier Baby Boom generation are considered by certain scholars to be ‘digital immigrants’ while people of her generation, who were born in the late 70s and beyond- are considered ‘digital natives’ because they’ve grown up with all the wonderful digital toys we now take for granted. I had Merlin, she had Nintendo. But she was the person who introduced me to the idea of ‘digital natives’- and she paid me the compliment that my online behavior was like that of a ‘native’.

Of course, I was intrigued, so I went digging, as I tend to do when introduced to a new idea. There are lots of interesting articles about the cognitive and methodical differences between ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’ and how they apparently have a hard time speaking to each other. The “immigrants” come out looking like clueless, often wrinkly lamers. What gets forgotten in all the labeling is that folks of my generation helped to create, build, test, and perfect all the lovely toys that the ‘natives’ take for granted today. Continue reading

Richard Rorty’s legacy of hope

Richard RortyBy Robert Silvey

Richard Rorty is dead at age 75. He was more than a philosopher; he was a social thinker. In this era of dysfunctional, amoral government, he left Americans a legacy of hope by reminding us of the intellectual foundations of our political morality and practical accomplishments. Rorty wrote, in his 1999 book Philosophy and Social Hope, of his “hopes for a global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society,” and many of his later essays explored the ideas on which such a society could be built.

Hope is what we chiefly need in the era of George Bush, Osama bin Laden, and their fellow fearmongers. We need leaders who encourage us to broaden the circle of friendship and kinship beyond the usual boundaries, who sensitize us to the suffering of fellow human beings and help us to identify with them—and therefore to reduce the tensions that lead to violence and war. Rorty suggests that this is the best path to take not because it is admirable or moral in some universal sense, but because it is practical; if we have defined our desired goal as a peaceful, egalitarian society, such expanded sympathy is simply the most likely path to achieve that goal.

Continue reading

It’s alway 1984 somewhere…

Today is the 58th anniversary of the publication of 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a corporatized totalitarian world where “Big Brother” is always watching and where the art of “double-think” (holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time and accepting both as true) is a way of life.

1984 first edition cover

It’s easy enough to point at the last six years and grouse that the Bush administration has done and is doing all they can to make this country into 1984’s Oceania – engaging us in a pointless and economy debilitating war; enabling corporations to treat both employees and consumers in egregiously manipulative, self-serving and often harmful ways; bullying, cajoling, and co-opting the media into reporting information that not only flatters the government but that misleads the public about its real intentions; and even conducting spying on citizens who use their free speech to criticize these behaviors. Continue reading

The words we use…

When I was in the sixth grade, I read my first full book of poetry (I don’t count A Child’s Garden of Verses by R.L. Stevenson because my grandmother read pretty much all of that to me a number of times before I read it for myself). It was a book by Stephen Vincent Benet and his wife Rosemary Carr called, aptly enough, A Book of Americans. There are poems about many famous Americans, most of of them legendary figures like Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone. But Benet also includes unusual choices – interesting historical figures like Nancy Hanks and James Buchanan. The book affected me profoundly because I read it for comfort in the days after President Kennedy’s assassination. Lines from the poems still haunt me and pop into my mind at odd moments: Continue reading