In 2013, we released Google Earth Timelapse, our most comprehensive picture of the Earth's changing surface. This interactive experience enabled people to explore these changes like never before—to watch the sprouting of Dubai’s artificial Palm Islands, the retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and the impressive urban expansion of Las Vegas, Nevada. Today, we're making our largest update to Timelapse yet, with four additional years of imagery, petabytes of new data, and a sharper view of the Earth from 1984 to 2016. We’ve even teamed up again with our friends at TIME to give you an updated take on compelling locations.
Leveraging the same techniques we used to improve Google Maps and Google Earth back in June, the new Timelapse reveals a sharper view of our planet, with truer colors and fewer distracting artifacts. A great example of this is San Francisco and Oakland in California:
There’s much more to see, including glacial movement in Antarctica, urban growth, forest gain and loss, and infrastructure development:
Using Google Earth Engine, we sifted through about three quadrillion pixels—that's 3 followed by 15 zeroes—from more than 5,000,000 satellite images. For this latest update, we had access to more images from the past, thanks to the Landsat Global Archive Consolidation Program, and fresh images from two new satellites, Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2.
We took the best of all those pixels to create 33 images of the entire planet, one for each year. We then encoded these new 3.95 terapixel global images into just over 25,000,000 overlapping multi-resolution video tiles, made interactively explorable by Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab's Time Machine library, a technology for creating and viewing zoomable and pannable timelapses over space and time.
To view the new Timelapse, head over to the Earth Engine website. You can also view the new annual mosaics in Google Earth's historical imagery feature on desktop, or spend a mesmerizing 40 minutes watching this YouTube playlist. Happy exploring!
*Landsat imagery courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and U.S. Geological Survey. Images also contain modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2015- 2016.
Ian McShane (Deadwood, Lovejoy) chats with Chris about his character Al Swearengen on Deadwood, how he got into acting on TV and how he picks new projects. Ian also talks about his dad who was a professional football player, they talk about being sober and his new film The Hollow Point!
"What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust."
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos, with one of the best essay openings of the year, examines the posthumous memoir of Xu Hongci, a Chinese revolutionary and true believer of Mao Zedong, later imprisoned.
In a thoughtful New York Times editorial, science fiction giant William Gibson mediates on the difference between the privacy that individuals have and deserve, the privacy that governments assert ("What does it mean, in an ostensible democracy, for the state to keep secrets from its citizens?"), and what this will mean for the historians of the future. (more…)
Lots of incredible science fiction movies are made outside America, though many of those movies—like next year’s French production Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets—are still made in the English language. But movie history has fielded some stellar foreign-language scifi films from Alphaville to Godzilla—and…
Time travel can be incredibly hard to get your mind around for storytelling—but Paradox Girl is a comic that manages to use the most daunting elements of time travel, all the complex loops and non-linearity, in some of the smartest and funnest ways we’ve ever seen. It makes for one hell of a comic.
SpaceX is nearly done with its investigation into the recent launchpad explosion, but not soon enough for one major customer.
The post SpaceX loses major contract as launch schedule slips to 2017 appeared first on ExtremeTech.
Kirby Ferguson, who created the remarkable Everything is a Remix series, has a new podcast hosted by the Recreate Coalition called Copy This and he hosted me on the debut episode (MP3) where we talked about copying, creativity, artists, and the future of the internet (as you might expect!). (more…)
During the 17th and 18th centuries, European Enlightenment philosophers discarded the origin stories in religious texts as wildly implausible or simply allegorical. But they found themselves charged with coming up with their own, naturalistic explanations for the origins of life, law, morality, etc. And most pressingly for their inquiries into psychology and cognition, many of those thinkers sought to explain the origins of language.
The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel had long been widely accepted, either literally or metaphorically, as indicative that all humans once spoke the same language (The so-called “Adamic Language”). Many competing theories came from philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, Condillac, Herder, and the Scottish jurist and philosopher James Burnett, known by his hereditary title, Monboddo.
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Anticipating Darwinian evolution as well as comparative linguistics, Monboddo argued that language arose as a response to a changing environment, and that it came into being, along with human beings, in one place, then diversified as humans spread across the globe and diverged culturally. This was known as the theory of monogenesis, or the “single-origin theory” of language.
As the narrator in the video above, from linguistics YouTube channel NativLang, puts it, even after the story had been naturalized—and the languages of the world mapped into proto-evolutionary family trees—“Babel still held one intriguing idea over us; that original language.” And yet, rather than search for the mystical Adamic Language—the revelation of a divinity—as many alchemists and occultists had done, natural philosophers like Monboddo used emerging comparative linguistics methods to attempt a historical reconstruction of the first human language.
They were less than successful. Giving it up as futile, in 1866, the Society of Linguistics in Paris banned all discussion of the issue. “Enter the late Joseph Greenberg” to begin the search anew, says NativLang. A 20th-century American linguist, Greenberg used mass comparison and typology to compare “superfamilies.” Later linguists took up the challenge, including Merritt Ruhlen, who “compared vocabulary from across the globe and reconstructed 27 proto-words” supposedly belonging to the first human language, called “Proto-World.” Ruhlen‘s theory has since been critically savaged, says NativLang, and “confidently tossed… into the bins of fringe linguistics, pseudoscience… and yet, Babel’s first, and biggest claim lingers.”
The intellectual history in this five-minute video is obviously oversimplified, but it highlights some fascinating features of the current debate. As Avi Lifschitz, historian of Enlightenment theory of language, writes, we tend “to assume that our own cognitive theories are the latest word when compared with those of our predecessors. Yet in some areas, the questions we are now asking are not too different from those posed some two or three centuries ago.” In the case of the origins of language, that is most certainly so. Central to the theories of Locke and others, for example, “the precise role of language in the brain and in human perception” remains “one of the most topical questions in today’s cognitive science.”
Although many scholars have given up attempting to reconstruct the original language, linguists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary biologists continue to find compelling evidence for the single-origin theory. The NativLang video omits perhaps the most famous modern linguist, Noam Chomsky, who argued that a chance mutation occurred some 100,000 years ago, giving rise to language. Even as languages have diverged into what’s currently estimated at around 6,000 different tongues, Chomsky claimed, they all retain a common structure, a “universal grammar.”
Whatever it might have sounded like, original language would likely have arisen in Sub-Saharan Africa, where modern humans evolved somewhere between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. In 2011, University of Auckland biologist Quentin Atkinson used linguistic techniques somewhat like Monboddo’s to show that African languages—especially click languages like the South African Xu—have considerably more individual sounds (phonemes) than others. And that languages around the world have fewer and fewer phonemes the further they are from southern Africa.
Most scientists agree with the basic evolutionary history of human origins. But like Ruhlen’s “Proto-World,” Atkinson’s linguistic theory “caused something of a sensation,” writes Science Daily, and has since come in for severe critique. The debate over many of those Enlightenment questions about the origins of language continues. Barring some draconian ban, “the search for the site of origin of language,” and for the language itself and the evolutionary mechanisms that produced it, “remains very much alive.”
Was There a First Human Language?: Theories from the Enlightenment Through Noam Chomsky is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooks, Free Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.
If all maps must necessarily be selective, choosing what to show and what to leave out, surely map books must do the same. That thought came to mind as I perused Treasures from the Map Room—no relation—a book that presents maps from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, collected and curated by the Bodleian Map Room’s senior library assistant, Debbie Hall.
“Although maps have formed part of the Bodleian’s collections from early on, they have been collected actively only since around 1800,” Hall writes in the introduction. Broadly speaking, the Bodleian’s map holdings come from a combination of bequests and legal deposit requirements. The latter in particular means that the Bodleian’s holdings of British maps—including virtually every Ordnance Survey map and a large number of commercially published maps—are very extensive. The bequests are sometimes much better known: maps named for their owners and donors rather than their creators—the Gough Map, the Selden Map—falling into the Bodleian’s hands.
Hall organizes her selection—some 75 maps—into seven chapters organized by theme: Travel and Exploration, Knowledge and Science, Pride and Ownership, Maps of War, The City in Maps, Maps for Fun, and Imaginary Lands. Sometimes those themes make for unlikely juxtapositions: Hall mentions the Tabula Peutingeriana and American highway maps in very nearly the same breath; and Maps for Fun, a chapter dealing with tourism, recreation and travel, includes a 15th-century Holy Land pilgrimage map—Reuwich’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam—alongside the MountMaps 3D Navigator Map. But apart from that the chapters present us with some very interesting maps indeed: Travel and Exploration gives us the Gough and Selden maps; Knowledge and Science discusses Mercator, Ortelius and early astronomical maps, John Speed, Christopher Saxton and the Ordnance Survey; Maps of War gives us fortifications and plans, siege and trench maps, but also silk escape maps of World War II; Imaginary Lands ranges from Hole’s Poly-Olbion maps to Leo Belgicus, Tolkien and Lewis, and the art of Layla Curtis.
We get, in other words, a taste of just about everything—but only a taste. The breadth of Treasures of the Map Room is both a blessing and a curse. We’re made aware of the volume and diversity of the Bodleian’s map holdings, but we never get a chance to drill down beyond the most cursory of examinations, never more than one example of something. On the other hand, Hall’s approach brings to the fore maps that might not otherwise be included in books like this—books that can privilege the rare and the ancient over the more mundane but more significant. For example, the map I found myself staring at the most was the 1864 Ordnance Plan of the Crystal Palace and its Environs, a 1:2,500 map of incredible detail and delicacy. You might find yourself lingering over some other map. Discoveries like this are, I suspect, the whole point of book that is, after all, about a library’s hidden treasures.
I received a review copy from the North American distributor for this book, the University of Chicago Press.
Previously: Treasures from the Map Room.
Phil Torres in Motherboard (at Vice):
Motherboard: Trump has repeatedly painted an apocalyptic picture of contemporary America. He has talked about (black) people getting shot while walking down the street, about terrorists disguising themselves as refugeesfleeing the atrocities of Syria, and about Mexico sending its “criminals” and “rapists” across the southern border. Could you briefly explain why this characterization of the contemporary US is factually wrong?
Steven Pinker: Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for newsreaders to believe that apocalyptic picture. The news media give lavish coverage to violent incidents, seldom follow up on negative reportage in the past, and rarely put events in statistical or historical perspective. Worse, they allow themselves to be played by violence impresarios, namely terrorists and rampage killers, who correctly anticipate that they can attract the world’s attention by killing a number of innocent people at once. This is true not just of tabloids and cable news chasing eyeballs and clicks, but of high-quality outlets who feel that by highlighting what goes wrong, they are discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, and afflicters of the comfortable.
The facts are as follows. The rate of violent crime is lower now than it was at any time between 1966 and 2009. Immigrants have a lower rate of violent crime than American citizens. Terrorists kill just three-tenths of one percent of all American homicide victims. The rate of death from terrorism in the United States was higher in the early 1970s than it is today. And since 2002, more Americans have been killed by right-wing American terrorists than by Islamic terrorists. It’s true that the rate of violent crime went up between 2014 and 2015, most likely a consequence of the retreat of active policing since Ferguson. But it’s a small uptick in the context of the massive downward trend since 1992.
dj BC writes, "My best Christmas mashups from the past decade are collected for this year's Santastic (previously) holiday music sampler. You can also dig on the site for the full albums from past years, our 'Menorah Mashups' Chanukah collection, and my chill instrumental album of holiday classical remixes. It's all free."
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
How I traced the falsity of one internet meme, and what that teaches us about how an algorithm might do it.
I have a brother who is a big Donald Trump fan, and he frequently sends me articles from various right-wing media sources. Last week, he sent me a variant of the image below:
I immediately consulted Snopes, the fact checking site for internet hoaxes, and discovered that it was, as I expected, fake. According to Snopes, these are actually both electoral maps. Per Snopes: "On 11 November 2016, the Facebook page "Subject Politics" published two maps purportedly comparing the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election with the 2013 crime rate in in the U.S. ... The map pictured on the bottom actually shows a 2012 electoral map that was created by Mark Newman from the Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan." Snopes was unable to verify the source of the first map, but concluded (presumably by comparing with known electoral maps) that it is in fact an incomplete electoral map from the 2016 election.
Snopes, which uses human editors for fact checking, does a good job, but they can't find every fake news story. Still, when a reputable fact-checking organization like Snopes or Politifact identifies a story as false, that's a pretty good sign.
Continuing my research, I used Google to search for other sources that might provide more insight on the relationship between the electoral map and crime rates. I quickly found this 2013 article from Business Insider, "Nine Maps That Show How Americans Commit Crime." It shows a very different picture:
Since Business Insider told me the source of the data (the FBI Uniform Crime Report), I could go verify it for myself. Sure enough, the data on the FBI site matched the Business Insider map.
I tell this story of two maps to emphasize that when people are discussing the truth or falsity of news, and the responsibility of sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to help identify it, they somehow think that determining "truth" or "falsity" is something that only humans can do. But as this example shows, there are many signals of likely truth or falsity that can be verified algorithmically by a computer, often more quickly and thoroughly than they can be verified by humans:
Note that when fake news is detected, there are a number of possible ways to respond:
As I wrote in my first article on the topic of fake news, Media in the age of algorithms, "The essence of algorithm design is not to eliminate all error, but to make results robust in the face of error." Much as we stop pandemics by finding infections at their source and keeping them from finding new victims, it isn't necessary to eliminate all fake news, but only to limit its spread.
Continue reading How I detect fake news.
A SPECTER is haunting the Levant — the specter of Hobbes.
As the democratic upheavals that swept the Arab world in 2011 have given way to bloodshed and instability, Western mavens are reverting to old verities. The Arab world is “not ready for democracy” they say. To restore order, to contain passions, and, above all, to protect the West from the twin dangers of terror and migration, the Arab world will need its Leviathans. For most of the post-colonial era, friendly autocrats had protected the West from these threats; they are being called into service again. If dungeons and dictators are the price of security, they reason, at least the costs are borne by others.
The United States’s dalliance with “democracy promotion” was brief and had already ended in Iraq by 2010. The Arab Spring was a blip. In Iraq, despite Nouri al-Maliki’s determined effort to shape the outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections, his sectarian bloc had secured fewer seats than a cross-sectarian alliance led by Iyad Allawi. In a surprise move, the US government backed Maliki to serve as prime minster for a second term. “Iraq is not ready for democracy,” General Ray Odierno was told by Chris Hill, an Obama Administration official, “[it] needs a Shia strongman.”
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda knows a thing or two about Alexander Hamilton and American history, and he really let that shine last night on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Above, Miranda narrates Hamilton’s school and military career, and below, things heat up a bit with Hamilton’s affair, which no one really thought he should talk about in the first place.
Not only is Miranda’s narration as lively and unique as you’d expect after writing one of the most celebrated musicals in recent memory on this very topic, but the cast—featuring Aubrey Plaza as Aaron Burr and Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton—is flat out amazing and takes every bit as much of the wonderful liberties as the Broadway show.
— Aasha Davis (@aashadavis) November 29, 2016
Take a peek at some of the other … historical moments below, and head over to watch the full episode yourself, complete with a hilarious Questlove cameo, if you’ve got a cable TV provider with which to log into Comedy Central’s website.
— Drunk History (@drunkhistory) November 30, 2016
— Drunk History (@drunkhistory) November 30, 2016
— Drunk History (@drunkhistory) November 30, 2016
(image via screengrab)
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One of the recurring refrains since the election has been a warning call against “normalizing” the extremist politics of Donald Trump—that if we care about American culture, we cannot make peace with the anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny of Trumpism, or politely give people like Steve Bannon a fair shake.
But, shit, sometimes you’ve got deadlines to hit, and calling a white supremacist “a white supremacist” gets to be a little much. Helpfully, Boing Boing has created a euphemism generator to keep things pumping. You just click on it and—bam!—you don’t have to call Steve Bannon or David Duke a white nationalist anymore.
There is, obviously, a bit of a pattern here, but the point still stings. The generator’s creator, Rob Beschizza, nails the idiosyncratic dictions of New York Times headlines, a skill he also employed six years ago for his New York Times ...
Joan Williams in Harvard Business Review:
One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.
Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm,” notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, “If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. If you have a way you want something done, come talk to me. I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.” Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont. Of course Trump appeals.
John Oliver talked HBO into letting him release his whole 29-minute, must-watch show on resisting the normalization of Trumpism, with its endorsement of rape; torture; mass-deportations; elimination of environmental, health and safety safeguards; and Islamophobia. (more…)
Order Of The Phoenix, mount up pic.twitter.com/ZWrZ8M0lAy
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) November 9, 2016
You know it’s a bad morning when the genre fiction you love stops feeling like genre fiction and starts feeling like instructional manuals and self-help books.
For a majority of the nation — and, as Dan reminded us earlier, a majority of the people in this country did vote for Clinton — a big question that they have is, What can we do now? There’s a general sense of wanting to do something. Of course, much of it comes from people with something to lose in the coming administration: women, racial/ethnic/religious minorities, LGBTQIA people, the disabled and those who are not neurotypical. However, a lot of it comes from those Americans who are white, straight, cis, and able-bodied, allies who don’t want our hard-won progress to go backward.
For those people specifically, you might start by taking a cue from Jessica’s playbook and reaching out to anyone you know who might have it a bit worse than you today. If you’re a man, check in with the women in your life, and let them know that you plan on continuing to fight by their sides. If you’re straight and/or cis, reach out to the LGBTQIA people in your life and let them know the same.
Up Your Politics Game
Something I plan on doing is using this as motivation to up my political activism game. Now is not the time to give in to apathy. Now is the time to keep tabs on our local politicians to make sure they’re doing what you want them to be doing. And more than that, actually reaching out to their offices (they all have websites with phone/email/snail mail contact information) not only when there’s something you wanna yell at them about, but also to write in praise of something awesome they’ve supported that’s important to you! Find your representative in the House here, or your senators here.
Keep up with these people throughout the year so that, when elections roll around, you’ll be informed about what’s going on and who’s actually standing up for you in office. Vote in every election, and if you worry about having to go to polls or stand in lines, take some time right now to look into whether or not you can apply for a mail-in ballot or if your state offers early voting. There are several ways you can participate in voting. Register, then find out which way is right for you!
Up Your Activism Game
When candidates who aren’t as concerned with social issues win elections, it always reminds me that we don’t necessarily need to rely on government for certain kinds of help. Granted, it’s government’s job to help and protect its people, and we should always hold government accountable for doing or not doing its job. However, there are other ways to ensure that the populations or issues we care about get the attention they deserve somewhere else.
For example, if there’s a specific issue that matters to you, chances are there are organizations already doing the work of fighting the fight. For example, as Charline told us, Planned Parenthood is not going anywhere, regardless of whether or not the government decides to pull its funding. If all women having access to affordable/free health care is something that matters to you, by all means, donate to PP or volunteer your time to ensure that their work continues.
Are you concerned about LGBTQIA rights and access to resources? Many cities have some sort of LGBTQIA center that provides services and advocacy to their local communities. The LGBT Center of Los Angeles is the largest such organization in the country, and LGBTQIA people from neighboring states come to L.A. specifically for The Center. They could always use your support, but definitely seek out similar places locally. And don’t just offer donations or volunteering hours, but if you’re a member of that community, stay active in your local center, and bring them your needs.
For example, when Jessica posted her article earlier about trans people in America, someone reached out to us via Twitter to ask “Is there any sort of fund to assist trans people in getting passports?” I didn’t know of any, but I’m sure there will be, and the thing is, this is something that you can do if this is an issue that matters to you. If there isn’t a fund like this where you are, help start one. Call your local LGBTQIA center or group and ask them what options they provide. If they don’t have a dedicated fund like this, ask what it would take to start one, and let them know that you’re a member of the community and that this is a need you’re expressing.
There are organizations devoted to just about every social justice cause you can think of, and they all need financial and human resources. Jezebel provides a great list of “Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support.” Check it out, and contact the ones that are the most relevant to your needs and interests. Donate. Volunteer. Brainstorm new ideas based on needs with which you’re familiar.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Prevent An Injustice-In-the-Making
Right now, there’s one issue right now that is, as the New Republic refers to it, “a symbol of America’s casual racism and endless money-worship…the perfect opportunity to write a new chapter.” The situation at Standing Rock, North Dakota.
As you may have heard, right now a company called Energy Transfer Partners is building the Dakota Access Pipeline right through land that is sacred to the Sioux. Native Americans have been protesting for months, and right now, the DAP has yet to go through the sacred sites. But the US Government needs to know that Americans want to protect the land, and not cave to the demands of oil companies and their contractors. There is going to be a #NoDAPL National Day of Action on November 15th, so you can participate at an Army Corps Engineers headquarters near you. You can also keep up with ways you can best help and get involved at StandWithStandingRock.net. Let’s end 2016 actually stopping a racist injustice before it happens.
Bottom line, there’s still so much we can do, both to demand accountability from our government, and to fill in the gaps our government won’t. We can hold our government accountable. We can fight. We can love and take care of each other. We can still have hope.
If it can be said that there’s a silver lining to this dark cloud at all, it’s that these election results will likely inspire more activism and political awareness, and there will likely be so much awesome art created in the next four years.
(images via Warner Bros.)
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In 1980, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov argued in an essay that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.” That year, the Republican Party stood at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, which initiated a decades-long conservative groundswell that many pundits say may finally come to an end in November. GOP strategist Steve Schmidt (who has been regretful about choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008) recently pointed to what he called “intellectual rot” as a primary culprit, and a cult-like devotion to irrationality among a certain segment of the electorate.
It’s a familiar contention. There have been critiques of American anti-intellectualism since the country’s founding, though whether or not that phenomenon has intensified, as Susan Jacoby alleged in The Age of American Unreason, may be a subject of debate. Not all of the unreason is partisan, as the anti-vaccination movement has shown. But “the strain of anti-intellectualism” writes Asimov, “has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Asimov’s primary examples happen to come from the political world. However, he doesn’t name contemporary names but reaches back to take a swipe at Eisenhower (“who invented a version of the English language that was all his own”) and George Wallace. Particularly interesting is Asimov’s take on the “slogan on the part of the obscurantists: ‘Don’t trust the experts!’” This language, along with charges of “elitism,” Asimov wryly notes, is so often used by people who are themselves experts and elites, “feeling guilty about having gone to school.” So many of the American political class’s wounds are self-inflicted, he suggests, but that’s because they are beholden to a largely ignorant electorate:
To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines—but how many nonelitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?
Asimov’s examples are less than convincing: road signs “steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible” has more to do with linguistic diversity than illiteracy, and accusing television commercials of speaking their messages out loud instead of using printed text on the screen seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the medium. Jacoby in her book-length study of the problem looks at educational policy in the United States, and the resistance to national standards that virtually ensures widespread pockets of ignorance all over the country. Asimov’s very short, pithy essay has neither the space nor the inclination to conduct such analysis.
Instead he is concerned with attitudes. Not only are many Americans badly educated, he writes, but the broad ignorance of the population in matters of “science… mathematics… economics… foreign languages…” has as much to do with Americans’ unwillingness to read as their inability.
There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read… but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulation of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent—or less—of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.
One might in some respects charge Asimov himself of elitism when he concludes, “We can all be members of the intellectual elite.” Such a blithely optimistic statement ignores the ways in which economic elites actively manipulate education policy to suit their interests, cripple education funding, and oppose efforts at free or low cost higher education. Many efforts at spreading knowledge—like the Chatauquas of the early 20th century, the educational radio programs of the 40s and 50s, and the public television revolution of the 70s and 80s—have been ad hoc and nearly always imperiled by funding crises and the designs of profiteers.
Nonetheless, the widespread (though hardly universal) availability of free resources on the internet has made self-education a reality for many people, and certainly for most Americans. But perhaps not even Isaac Asimov could have foreseen the bitter polarization and disinformation campaigns that technology has also enabled. Needless to say, “A Cult of Ignorance” was not one of Asimov’s most popular pieces of writing. First published on January 21, 1980 in Newsweek, the short essay has never been reprinted in any of Asimov’s collections. You can read the essay as a PDF here. There’s also, one of our readers reminds us, a transcript on Github.
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John Kaag and Clancy Martin in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
For two professors, the opening words of Goethe’s Faust have always been slightly disturbing, but only recently, as we’ve grown older, have they come to haunt us.
Faust sits in his dusty library, surrounded by tomes, and laments the utter inadequacy of human knowledge. He was no average scholar but a true savant — a master in the liberal arts of philosophy and theology and the practical arts of jurisprudence and medicine. In the medieval university, those subjects were the culminating moments of a lifetime of study in rhetoric, logic, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
In other words, Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.
Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?
More here. [Thanks to Eric Chaffee.]
[The Girl on the Train is] also the latest in a long line of texts that channel women’s rage at living under patriarchy. It offers an escapist fantasy, but unlike most fantasies, the escape is not into a more perfect world, just one where women can call bullshit, some more murderously than others, on the increasingly impossible expectations that legislate our lives.
So writes Anne Helen Peterson at BuzzFeed about why thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train have exploded in popularity over the past five years.
Netflix’s runaway hit Stranger Things did a lot of things right, and chief among them: antagonizing the US Department of Energy.