So... When did we lose it? What was the moment where human thinking crossed the event horizon on it's way to oblivion? What am I talking about? Okay, let me put it this way: in this month's edition of Scientific American, the cover story was about the four most pressing science priorities for Biden. Things that he needs to do, from a scientific perspective, to help the country out of its myriad problems. What did they cite? Well, two obvious things and then two that seem more subtle but are probably vastly more powerful. The first two were Covid and Climate change, and within the first week of Biden taking over he's signed a number of executive orders attacking those very issues. There is a great deal to do and you're not going to get it all tackled in a week to ten days, but.. it's a start and it's a demonstration of intent. Great. Those two are truly emergencies in the time sensitive sense - stuff we have to get our arms around. The next two are fascinating...
They discussed restoring expertise - the idea that there even is such a thing is to most everyday Americans an idea that's rejected and that expertise is something that can be trusted (and not secret societies out to hoodwink the common people) is likewise rejected. Clearly to have a functioning society, this trust in and reliance upon expertise needs to once again be the dominant position. What seems fairly obvious was that this mission goes hand in hand with education and a sense that what people are being taught in school while growing up is true... if, in fact, it hones to scientific discoveries made over the past centuries. In order for a lot of people to buy into expertise again, they're going to need to be educated all over again - scientific ideas are going to need to be proven... to adults who somehow didn't give a damn the first time around and now are suffering for it. That's a tough one - a multi-generational enterprise to turn around what's been a disaster since well before Carl Sagan referred to the dumbing down of America in the early 90's. Still... it has to happen.
My favorite of Scientific American's big four was reestablishing reality. Ah! The big kahuna! If we can't agree on the easy stuff - a shared and agreed upon construct of what reality is... we're totally screwed. Civilization falls apart. In the past 20 years we have collectively and willingly chosen not to accept the shared reality and agree to it. Why did this happen? Why did we do this? Past generations didn't. Why did we? I think it really comes down to a lack of integrity and a sense, generationally... that Generation X never really grew up. If you want to deny the reality of something these days... it's not that hard to do. There's no real punishment for doing so - in fact, in many communities the instinct is rewarded. I think the bottom line is that when we are forced to agree to a shared version of reality and adhere to its dictates, it happens because we've lost an argument. In the past this wasn't a hard thing to do - there was a sense of fair play across disciplines (including arguments) and when you lost... your sense of integrity compelled you to admit to that and to conform... to somebody else's reality. Some people still do that, but a critical mass of the general population... won't... and never will.
That's a problem! And it's a problem bigger than all the others. Without a shared reality... there's no starting place for working out any of our other issues! This came to mind this week after the death of two famous people: Hank Aaron and Larry King. King once said that "Life imitates the World Series" which I'm not sure he invented, but he heard it somewhere and repeated it and that's how I came to be familiar with it. Yes, baseball in all its majesty and faults, is a great microcosm for the American experience. That occurred to me and then I thought of Aaron. What a towering personage - a truly marvelous human being of enormous integrity and possessing great talent. I thought of Aaron and thought of him as the greatest home run hitter of all time, which I believe he was, but then remembered... baseball still thinks of Barry Bonds as the home run king... which is ridiculous!
People have been disconnected from reality as long as there have been humans, but rarely do we truly suffer from mass delusion - or mass self-inflicted delusion. But we did in baseball... for a while. And we did it because we couldn't stand the idea that we would have to admit to ourselves that Barry Bonds and all the other steroid users - yeah, all of them... were cheating the sport. They were... cheaters. This doesn't need to be relitigated here - there were tons of people that revived flagging careers or had ones they never would have otherwise had because of their use of steroids (and don't make the weak argument that somehow being on steroids is the same as taking vitamins - sorry, there's a world of difference). Bonds was one of the most obvious and like many of the steroid guys, not a terribly likable human being. The truth was he was a taciturn, angry man and always had been, but the steroid use only made it worse. Like Roger Clemens and others, Bonds was about one thing and one thing only... the greater glory and financial success of Barry Bonds. And yet... there were tons of sports media people... that would never hold Bonds accountable because... he was a story... and it was happening on their watch... and after all anything that helped them as writers and commentators... no matter if it was evil... was okay with them. Bonds went for Aaron's record with all the drive of a man... taking every bit of juice to get him there. The shame of course is that Bonds was a great player - he didn't need to do this... but his drive and ambition was insatiable and not in a good way.
The truth is there shouldn't have been anything to discuss. Bonds, on 'roids for years, would break Aaron's record. The reality of the situation was perfectly obvious - it was a completely hollow and tainted achievement - but a lot of people (think sportswriters, broadcast people and a lot of fans) had either stopped caring about reality or had long since forgotten where they had left it (and were way too lazy to look). All that mattered for sports media, in the main, was self interest. The truth? There wasn't any truth, there were only opinions and what the mob was accepting as the truth on any given day. Journalism broke down in this instance and it has continued to do so. The institution of journalism - editors and those in power were derelict in their duty and if we could collectively lie or ignore what was true on a baseball diamond... we could lie about anything. Bob Costas spoke out on this sort of stuff during that time and, coupled with him telling the truth about concussions in football - something else nobody wanted to talk about - it undoubtedly made him a pariah, and he had (and in some quarters has) as good a reputation as anybody in sports journalism.
It's been said that America has given the world three great gifts; the U.S. Constitution, jazz and baseball. We can't agree on the constitution, jazz is a fractured mess that has long since lost its identity or any connection to an audience and baseball... can't agree on it's own history as the lords of the sport continue to tinker with it rather than accept it for what it is. Things are more than a little tattered right now and everyone is asking for a way to put it back together. There is no magic bullet, but a shared reality is the foundation of all else. How do we get there? We admit when we're wrong. We hold ourselves to a far higher standard of individual integrity... and we demand it of others. In fact, we demand it so much that the idea of lying or bending the truth for personal gain... becomes impossible because... it makes you unemployable. When we get there - when this sort of thing is something we all police as a society... we'll be on the right track. Not until.