Friday, July 10, 2015

Let's Trust the Dawning Future

The line, “trusts the dawning future more,” from “As Tranquil Streams” (#145 in SLT),  was written in 1933 during the bad times of the Depression and Dust Bowl.  But the sentiment sounds out of place in Unitarian Universalist circles today.  Who can trust a future fraught with the dangers of  climate change, frankenfoods, and pandemic superbugs?   Pessimism, especially eco-pessimism, has become fashionable, nay politically correct, in liberal and Unitarian Universalist circles.
The trend began just after World War II, with books like Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn and Road to Survival by William Vogt, published in 1948, Spaceship Earth by Barbara Ward in 1966, and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, and Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. These books all contended that too many people are using up too few resources.
Unitarian Universalists bought into the Malthusian mind set implicit in these works.  At the 1970 General Assembly, they cited two hundred UNESCO scientists from fifty different countries who in 1968 had come to the conclusion “that within a period of approximately twenty years the life process on earth will be seriously threatened if not in fact dead, unless major changes are made immediately.”   As we noticed, life was still flourishing in 1988.
The 1970 UUs were “convinced that man’s survival as a species is imperiled by his mushrooming technology and his excessive breeding rate.”  They claimed “many distinguished ecologists believe that environmental problems are not ultimately solvable by mere [sic] science and technology.”
The 1970 UUs didn’t understand that technology and ecological carrying capacity are inversely related.  For instance, the Green Revolution saved a billion people who would have starved without its technology.  According to Vogt. “It is obvious that fifty years hence the world cannot support three billion people.” Maybe the world couldn’t have supported three billion people with 1948 technology, but with better technology it supported seven  billion people sixty years later with a smaller fraction of them in poverty than in 1948.  Life expectancy has increased; infant mortality and family size have decreased.  
Instead, the UUs claim, to solve environmental problems: “A new religious emphasis is needed which includes a deep reverence for the diversity of life and understands people’s dependence on the planet’s life system.  Such an awareness would lead to a new life style which is balanced ecologically.”  How this would play out is unspecified.  On a practical level, UUs were supposed to bear no more than two children, as well as campaign for more environmental legislation and support the UUSC in its population control efforts.
Small Is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher in 1971 advocated small local economies to address environmental problems.  Forty-five years later UUs believe the economy should be local based rather than world based even though we have an historical example of local based economies.  These local economies were called the Dark Ages for good reasons: famine, illiteracy, violence, and religious wars.   Belief in the food mile fallacy (buying local saves fuel) is rampant in UU circles despite the math that shows big trucks can transport more pounds of food per gallon of fuel than the family car traveling to a family farm.
Books predicting imminent catastrophe continued to be published by such authors as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Vandana Shiva, and David Korten.   These doomsayers have been so persuasive that a cottage industry to cure environmental despair has emerged, for example Joanna Macy’s Active Hope groups.  However, in these groups the participants are not  confused with the facts of decreased poverty and infant mortality, increased wealth and life expectancy since 1970.
History shows Unitarian Universalists could have trusted the dawning future in 1933 and in 1970.  I believe the future can still be trusted in 2015.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Flynn Effect Defeats Eugenics

Why was the eugenics movement never revived after the Nazi Holocaust?  The goal to create better and smarter people was arguably laudable.  What if something happened that made people smarter without selective breeding?
Something did.  In the mid 80s, psychologist James Flynn discovered that since 1900, everywhere intelligence tests have been given, scores have risen by three IQ points every ten years. IQ tests measure short term memory, spatial recognition, mathematical ability, and abstract reasoning.
The eponymous Flynn effect has created smarter people much faster than selective breeding ever could. Possible explanations for the Flynn effect include better nutrition, smaller families, heterosis, more stimulating environments, and the ability to use logic to work in a hypothetical situation.  The last is the most significant change. In Flynn’s words:   “We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, non-verbal symbols, and visual images that paint alternative realities.
“There has been a transition from using the mind to manipulate the concrete world for advantage toward logical analysis of symbols increasingly abstracted from the appearance of the concrete world and even the literal appearance of the symbols themselves. This is what I call supplementing ‘utilitarian spectacles’ with ‘scientific spectacles’—which does not imply that the average person knows much science.”
An example of thinking using “utilitarian spectacles” comes from Unitarian Universalist minister David Breeden in a description of a visit to his nearly illiterate parents.  Fresh from his first year at college, he tried to explain Spinoza’s argument that we create our image of God depending on who we are.  For instance, triangles would create a triangle god, ants would create an ant god. This idea made no sense to his pre-modern parents.  “How could a triangle think; why would an ant think about God?”
Flynn comments on the mind set of people like Breeden’s parents, “Note how the pre-modern mind refuses to abandon the concrete world and refuses to use logic to analyze a hypothetical situation. Today, we automatically classify things rather emphasize their differences, take the hypothetical seriously, and use logic to analyze both the hypothetical and abstract symbols.”
Breeden believes the ability to think in the abstract is a gift and a privilege.  However, the Flynn effect shows that with education that focuses on abstract reasoning, such as that required to solve mathematical story problems, rather than memorizing, almost everyone can learn to employ logical analysis of symbols.  Breeden’s education was a gift and a privilege, but his parents, raised in rural isolation, never had educational opportunities.