On the Rarity of the Kepler Moment
If you were to ask my opinion of the second greatest scientist of all time, I would have a hard time responding. There are so many choices and I would probably have to spend an hour clarifying the criteria with you before coming up with any kind of response. But my first choice is easy, and I’ve already written a post about him. Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and what he did specifically for the field of astronomy and the way we view the universe are great achievements. But his most profound gift to science was his willingness and ability to abandon a theory in which he was intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually invested – having spent his entire life trying to prove it. In the face of conclusive and contradictory evidence, and with a heavy heart – he changed his mind. He gave up his quest for mathematical proof of the existence of a Godly order in the universe. He didn’t abandon his belief in God. He simply abandoned a tenet he had cherished. He thought critically and acted with intellectual integrity unmatched by even many of those arguably more brilliant than he. He had to be open to the evidence. He had to be willing to let go.
In my brief stint as a substitute teacher in between undergrad and law school I had the pleasure of subbing a civics class of high school seniors for a couple of weeks due to the teacher’s serious illness. Kids love to debate, but they don’t necessarily enjoy the learning involved in debating effectively. Most everyone of every age believes he or she debates effectively. They state their positions, by which they impress themselves, and they assume that anyone reasonable should be equally impressed. Their positions are most powerful, because they believe them. If they weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t believe them.
After a couple of days discussing some topic of government or policy, I became a little frustrated. (probably if I had been blogging for any length of time beforehand, my level of expectations would have been much lower). At one point I asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and fill the page with their argument. Most of the kids had no problem. A few had a problem limiting the argument to one page, but I insisted. Five minutes or so later everyone was finished. Other than grammar or spelling, my later review of the papers generated little disappointment. These were bright and articulate students.
Then I asked them to turn the paper over. Their next assignment was to write an argument just as compelling, but for the opposite side of the issue. I didn’t want irony. I didn’t want qualifications. I wanted them to write their position as if it was their own. I wanted them to convince me of that argument. I got resistance. Some were frustrated and said they didn’t know what to write. Others were unable to fill the page. A few couldn’t bear to turn in the paper without reassuring me at the end that they didn’t really believe that position. One asked why she had to do it. (I didn’t realize at the time that some Christian fundamentalists object to such exercises as “values clarification” curriculum which undermines their faith). Only three or four in a class of about twenty were really able to do it, and only after some prodding.
It’s not easy to see another view. It runs against human nature. We have the capacity for it, but we do not have the drive to compel it. We don’t want to change our minds. Not even a little.
About eleven or twelve years ago I participated on an early Internet forum. Some of you may remember those ancient times before blogs where the forum was set up like a flow chart where you could track a discussion on the main page (those forums are probably virtual collector’s items now). I had an encounter with a conservative participant very well versed on the NRA talking points about gun control. My views on the Second Amendment differ significantly from those of most of the gun control advocates. The short version is that while I agree that the Second Amendment contains a qualifying dependent clause which suggest an intent to regulate the right of possession with a little more scrutiny than the other rights named in the Bill of Rights, the framers left few clues as to their intent and therefor the text should be construed in favor of the individual and against the state. The longer version is in an old post. And I elaborated a bit more in a later post.
Well, in my encounter with the NRA member, the fact that my ultimate conclusions on the issue matched his was not good enough. He was invested in not merely the conclusion, but on the whole structure of the narrative. That I attributed any intent of the glorious “Fathers” to limit gun rights in any way was simply unacceptable, and he surmised that I wasn’t truly in favor of the Second Amendment or gun rights. He didn’t call me a liar. He simply repeated his customary rant rhetoric, as if I was a gun control advocate (I am actually – as are some NRA members – it’s a question of degree). He could not leave the box of his dogma long enough to realize the ridiculousness of the rant. It reminded me of a scene on L.A. Law where a young attorney had spent so much time preparing her arguments that when the Judge dismissed the case against her client within seconds of calling the case she continued to argue. The Judge said, “how not guilty do you want me to find your client?”
Before he could accept me into the fold, whatever it may have been, I had to recite the full catechism. I had to agree that the Second Amendment is clear and concise, and that “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” was always intended to be the equivalent of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The first portion of the sentence was merely philosophy, intended for no legal effect. He wouldn’t say it that way, because it sounds ridiculous. But anything less was caving to the liberal narrative.
You can listen to my last radio show, aired this last Thursday, at the archives. The 7:00 p.m. slot for those who don’t know about it. I confess I transgressed. Although I support GMO labeling (purely from a consumer rights perspective) I remain agnostic as to whether there is absolutely no positive value to GMO biotechnology. Unlike some of my callers, I am not an expert on what I know nothing about.
Innocently I raised some of the arguments against GMO’s, one being the potential for genetic strains of organisms loose in the wild with no ecological context. I cited the salmon farming as an example of such a biological contamination – the fact that salmon which have been selected for certain characteristic have gotten loose to contaminate the wild gene pool is a serious concern of some biologists, as explained to me during one of my trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I suggested that the biotechnological genetic modification could potentially be as dangerous as the selective breading genetic manipulation. Bad move on my part. Apparently the anti-gmo narrative is that selective breeding is not genetic modification, the main reason being because so many industry hacks have said that it is. That discussion dominated much of the show, as I was accused of “spreading the corporate line.”
In the beginning I asked listeners for information of balanced discussions of the topic, but all I really got were sources to convince me of the anti-gmo line, some of which sounded interesting, but none of which I was really looking for. One book was recommended. Otherwise, it was all films and websites. But that’s fine. A couple of women called me up afterward, laughing at some of the callers, and suggested some leads. Either way, that’s not really the topic of this thread. The topic is the investment not just in the conclusion – they were willing to forgive my agnosticism on the subject. They were not willing to concede that selective breeding is genetic manipulation.
Afterwards I remembered arguments made on behalf of the nuclear industry during the early 80s when they were on the defensive following Three Mile Island and the timely release of The China Syndrome, along with mass demonstrations against nuclear power. One industry advocate said, “all we do is boil water.” It became a mantra. “We boil water.” Sounds benign.
So boiling water must be inherently destructive. We can’t boil water on our stoves. Or we can’t admit it, because that’s what nuclear power does. We merely raise the temperature of water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit to render it into a gaseous form. But we do not boil water. To acknowledge that we boil water should require a Kepler moment. Apparently it will be required of some activists who cannot accept that genetic manipulation takes place outside of the biotechnological realm.
Yes on Proposition 37. I realize that’s not good enough for some of you.