David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “September, 2018”


In a previous post, I discussed the legacy of Ronald Reagan.  For 40 years, our country has operated under his shadow, and a big part of that legacy is a general anti-government sentiment.  This is especially directed toward the federal government, although it actually poisons our political discourse at every level.


When talking about federal employees, conservative ideologues often use the term “bureaucrat.”  It isn’t a compliment.  Of course, it is never applied to an employees of a private business, no matter how large or centralized.

Some years ago, I worked as a department manager in a supermarket.  It was part of a large regional chain.  As with any large corporation, there is an enormous, complex chain of command, and I often found that high-level management was out of touch with the needs of my particular store.  The shelves were full of products that sold very poorly in that particular area.  In perishable departments much of this quickly went out of date and into the garbage.  Instead of letting department managers, who knew what products moved quickly and what products didn’t, make strategic decisions about placement, poorly-informed directives from on high were usually imposed.  Procedures were often changed, then changed back again, without any feedback from low-level managers.

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This is exactly the kind of waste and inefficiency that conservatives usually point to when they criticize government-run operations.  They seem to think that it magically disappears when the profit motive is there.  But in fact, this kind of inefficiency is built into any large centralized system, when higher level managers aren’t driven by evidence and reason.  The profit motive has very little to do with it.

Henry Ford was a mechanical genius.  When he set out to build cars, he understood something that few car makers did.  The way to make big profits is not to make a few luxury cars for the wealthy, but to make affordable, reliable cars for the masses.  He helped usher in 20th century middle class America.  But Ford was also a control freak.  He not only gave his employees incentives to do well, he tried to run their lives, even their private lives.  And he despised the very consumeristic mentality that he helped build in America.


When his model T had been on the road for 20 years, and other companies were offering a variety of new and improved models for every type of consumer, it became obvious to his subordinates that a new model was needed.  But not to Ford.  He loved the model T.  And he almost ruined his own company clinging to it for years.  The profit motive was alive and well in Ford’s mind.  But that wasn’t gonna save Ford Motor Company.  A commitment to EVIDENCE and REASON saved the company.

My sister has worked for the federal government for more than 20 years.  She’s a postal carrier.  She sorts mail, delivers mail, memorizes thousands of bits of information, uses her experience to successfully interpret ambiguously addressed envelopes and packages.  Is she a “bureaucrat”?  Like any large, centralized system, the U.S. Postal Service has its inefficiencies.  Nevertheless, it is a business, a business that has existed for well over 200 years.  There is a tremendous amount of evidence- and reason-based management going on at every level.


The same kind of evidence-based management goes on in every department of the federal government.  The Department of Agriculture manages the country’s national forests.  The Department of Interior manages the national parks and national wildlife refuges.  The Department of State manages the country’s diplomats and protects American citizens abroad.  The Social Security Administration – well, you know what they do.  The Department of Commerce includes the National Weather Service.  The Department of Transportation manages the country’s air traffic control system.


At this moment, hundreds if not thousands of airplanes are taking off and landing at America’s commercial airports.  The reason crashes make national news is that they’re incredibly rare.  It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if the country’s air traffic controllers didn’t effectively manage the constant movement of airplanes.  Are these people “bureaucrats”?  Would we all be better off handing air traffic control over to private corporations, which constantly look for ways to cut costs?


The notion that a private corporation is inherently superior to a government agency, that the profit motive will invariably create more efficiency than a commitment to public service, is nothing more than attachment to an ideology.  If it were true, then private mercenary companies would do a better job than the U.S. military.  All of the anti-government ideology comes to a screeching halt when it comes to the Department of Defense, an enormous, centralized, federal “bureaucracy.”  Of course, no one calls it that.  The military is the one branch of the federal government that gets nothing but praise from conservatives, and seemingly infinite amounts of money.  No one questions the efficiency of the military – in fact it is almost considered the definition of efficiency, even though, like any large, centralized system, it contains its own inevitable inefficiencies.

Any large, centralized system can be successful if it PAYS ATTENTION to realities.  In other words, if it is evidence- and reason-based.  To the extent that it doesn’t, it will be inefficient and ineffective.  This applies to private corporations and it applies to government agencies.  In either case, the people who depend on evidence and reason to make decisions and manage the system are not “bureaucrats.”


In time, the shadow of Reagan will lift.  The era of anti-government ideology will fade.  Reagan gave the lazy and the cynical a convenient excuse for being lazy and cynical – that you shouldn’t participate in politics, government is the problem, not the solution.  But WE, the people, are the government and always have been.  We have always had the power.  We simply choose to wield it or not.

Evidence, Reason, and Politics

In this blog you will see a lot of facts and figures.  I have no illusions about the persuasive value of all these facts and figures.  This blog is not just here to persuade.  It is here to educate.


Politics has never been about truth, any more than a criminal trial is about truth.  In any trial, there are facts of the matter.  One side or the other is on the wrong side of the facts.  It is therefore the job of one side or the other to lie – to persuade the jury to believe a version of what happened that simply isn’t true.  In the movie …And Justice for All, Al Pacino plays defense attorney Arthur Kirkland.  He finds himself defending a judge who has admitted to him that he raped and brutally beat a woman.  There is no independent corroboration of the victim’s testimony, and the judge has used his connections to “pass” a lie detector test.  Kirkland has character witnesses who will testify on the judge’s behalf.  He knows he has a very good chance of winning.  And as the trial begins, the judge admits to him quietly that he “wouldn’t mind seeing her again.”

Kirkland begins his opening statement by talking about truth and justice.  He explains that the prosecutor is a very happy man, because he’s going after a judge – and if he gets him, he’s gonna be in the Law Review, centerfold.  He tells the jury, “We both wanna win.  We wanna win regardless of the truth, and we wanna win regardless of justice.”  The movie is a searing indictment of our justice system, the ways in which it rewards the wealthy and powerful and discriminates against the vulnerable.  Kirkland ends up defying all legal ethics and admitting to the jury that his client is guilty.


As a scientist, I’ve been trained to follow certain rules.  It’s only because of those rules that science progresses.  The reason is simple.  Science deals with the real world, and the real world doesn’t care how persuasive you are, how well you lie, or how good you are at distracting and manipulating people.  Try standing on a railroad track and trying to persuade an oncoming train that it should go around you.  Or making a boulder roll uphill because, you know, uphill and downhill are just points of view, and if you believe, REALLY believe, that boulders can roll uphill, who’s to say otherwise?

Nature.  That’s who.  Nature follows the rules of logic and reason, so any system that provides an understanding of nature must follow rules of logic and reason.  And an understanding of nature is what has given us the scientific advancements and technologies that have enabled us to conquer disease, predict the weather, and live in houses that are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.


Of course, it could be argued that human societies are not really part of “nature.”  They are artificial constructs, and as such they don’t have to follow the rules.  This is true as far as it goes, but the problem is, it doesn’t go very far.  Human societies contain real human beings.  There is pain and pleasure, sickness and health, poverty and wealth, fear and security, oppression and freedom, misery and happiness.  These things are not just “all in our minds.”  All the persuasion and manipulation in the world is not going to convince a person painfully dying of cancer that their life is just hunky dory.  Conversely, telling someone who lives in a nice air-conditioned home and has access to the best medical care that they would be better off living in a third-world shack with no running water will not usually succeed.

History tells a clear story.  A story that began with plenty of pain, sickness, poverty, fear, and oppression.  The trajectory of history is obvious.  People don’t want to live in misery.  And over time, they have managed to create societies that reduce this.  All along there have been those who desired power over others, regardless of how many of those others suffered.  Every generation has them, and they are still around, scheming and manipulating.  Slowly, humanity has gotten better at defending itself from them.  But we still have plenty of work to do


America is a young country, and like a young person, it is immature.  A child has difficulty understanding that what tastes good is not necessarily healthy.  Similarly, what is entertaining is not necessarily what contributes to a healthy democracy.  Debate is not discussion.  Public relations is not public discourse.

The scientific approach has given us our wonderful standard of living – the conquest of devastating diseases like polio and smallpox, clean drinking water and sewerage treatment, indoor climate control, accurate weather prediction, and on and on.  It works.  But science isn’t uncontrolled “democracy.”  In science, we don’t simply hear the presentations of different scientists and take a vote.  There are rules.  Arguments have to be built on evidence and reason.  Yes, it is fundamentally democratic.  Scientific consensus is built from the conclusions of many scientists.  BUT ONLY WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF A COMMITMENT TO EVIDENCE, REASON, AND WITHERING CRITICISM.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing in science that says, “Everything is just somebody’s opinion.”

Imagine if science operated the way our media system does – by manipulation, distraction, who has the best “presentation,” who gets the best ratings.  We would still be living in caves and painting ourselves blue.


In time, I have no doubt that we will come to realize that the scientific approach is just as applicable to politics as it is to nature – that the politics of manipulation, distraction, and superficiality must be replaced with the politics of open-minded skepticism.  And that genuine democracy requires a citizenry armed with the tools to defend itself against the hucksters and power-mongers.

The Unreality-based Community

In 2004, the NY Times Magazine published an article entitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.”  The author’s name was Ron Suskind.  Suskind quoted a senior member of the Bush administration as cynically accusing him of being part of the “reality-based community,” people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.”  And he told Suskind pointedly that “that’s not how the world works anymore.”  In the years since, this quote has often been attributed to Republican strategist Karl Rove, but Rove has denied it.


Suppose we were to turn this around, and say, “I’m a member of the unreality-based community.  We understand that an attachment to discernable reality is no basis for making decisions.”  Expressed this way, we see the absurdity.  Psychologists have a name for a disconnect from discernable reality.  It’s called psychosis.  But of course, politicians do not express themselves this way.

Whoever made the statement about the “reality-based community,” they clearly meant that as a society, we create our own reality – that whatever has happened and is happening, what will happen in the future is entirely up to us.  But he probably had no idea how far the Republican party would depart from the “reality-based community.”  Saying that we can create new realities is one thing.  Actively believing what is simply and plainly untrue about the past and present is another.  Yet this kind of poo-pooing of the “reality-based community” clearly set the stage for where we are now.


It is no longer enough, it seems, for a Republican president to merely ignore the past or exaggerate the present.  To get elected he must actively create an alternative history in voters’ minds – one that satisfies a narrative of a bygone era of American greatness, followed by a long decline, followed by a dramatic turnaround in November of 2016.  Dictators have long understood that to control people you need to control the narrative of history.  History matters.  But people’s knowledge of their history has to come from somewhere.

Of course, there is a real world with real people.  There is real wealth and real poverty, real sickness and real health, real crime and real security, real misery and real happiness.  Americans, for all of their religiosity and missionary tendencies, tend to be pretty pragmatic.  Eventually, departures from reality tend to catch up with the power-mongers.  But in the meantime, a lot of damage can be done.


The great struggle of our time is the struggle against the “unreality-based community.”  The struggle to defend actual evidence and actual history from “alternative facts.”  The struggle to defend science and reason from ideology and manipulation.  Our current moron-in-chief is about as far as we can go into the realm of “truth isn’t truth,” without sliding into an Orwellian dictatorship.  It is becoming increasingly clear to me that this isn’t going to happen.  In a third world country where he could control the media, yes, it would probably happen.  But not here.

The resolution of the larger struggle, the struggle against unreason and detachment from reality, will play out over the coming decades.  There are those who are very pessimistic about it, pointing to the effect of social media on people’s perceptions about the world.  They argue that society will fragment into echo chambers, each with their own version of reality.  Yet I look at virtually every field of endeavor, at the people who actually organize our society, who make plans and solve problems and quietly keep things operating, and everywhere I see evidence-based decision making.  Every day there are conferences going on, where people share information and correct each other’s mistakes.  Every day there are planning sessions and operations and results and feedback and more planning sessions and more studies and more feedback, and learning from the past.  This is how things actually get done, whether in private business, government, or academia.


It is only in the rarefied world of high-powered maneuvering and infotainment politics that unreality and unreason manage to get a foothold.  For those of us whose job it is to find real solutions to real problems (and there are a lot of us), progress is inevitable.  We move forward.  The “deep state” that right-wingers are so afraid of is, frankly, all of the managers, whether in private business or government, who have to actually navigate the systems that keep our society going.


George W. Bush was faulted, rightly so, for invading Iraq on false pretenses.  The flimsiest evidence of weapons of mass destruction was used to justify it.  They saw what they wanted to see.  But people often overlook something about Bush.  When he was told by his advisors in 2008 that the entire American economy was in danger of collapsing, he took action.  The “conservative” thing to do would have been to deny that anything was terribly wrong, to not intervene, to let financial institutions fail.  Instead he stepped in and began the process of an enormous government intervention.  When push came to shove, Bush yielded to the reality-based community.  It’s quite possible that without this, America and the world would have fallen into another Great Depression, rather than one of its deepest recessions.

Now the reality-based community is actually resorting to subverting the will of the moron-in-chief.  Thank goodness!  As the recent anonymous author of the famous NY Times op-ed (a conservative, by the way) said, “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state.  It’s the work of the steady state.”  Even conservatives, most of them, understand the catastrophe that follows an utter disconnect from reality.

In the end, I think we will come out the other side all right.  But probably not without experiencing some crises.  It is the crises that have shaken us out of delusional thinking in the past – the Civil War, the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism.  Delusions can be hard to break out of.  There’s lots of resistance to shattering the glass house.  Things often have to get worse before they can get better.


This blog is a personal declaration of war against ignorance, unreason, and delusional thinking.  It is my humble attempt to share my knowledge and experience, as a scientist and a student of history.  Most of us do not have the luxury of a sheltered existence, a bubble of self-deception and shameless self-promotion free of consequences.  Those who do sometimes emerge to manipulate us for their own purposes.  We need the tools of knowledge and critical thinking to defend ourselves.

Real GDP growth in Trumpland:


Real GDP growth in the real world:


Unemployment rate in Trumpland:


Unemployment rate in the real world:


Tax rates in Trumpland:


Tax rates in the real world:


Crime rates in Trumpland:


Crime rates in the real world:


Illegal immigrants in Trumpland:


Illegal immigrants in the real world:




Yes indeed. The brain is much more important.

Thomas Jefferson:  “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Abraham Lincoln:  “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt:  “We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy:  “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.”

Donald John Trump:  “Really we do it without like, the musical instruments. This is the only musical: the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth.  Right?  The brain, more important than the mouth, is the brain. The brain is much more important.”

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