Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

The Curse of Greatness

(or, "The Sow's Ear Project Continues")

"[Bush's] intellectual limitations ... remain firmly in place.  Bush continues to exhibit the same lack of curiosity, thoughtfulness, and engagement with ideas that made him a C student.  Nuance, complexity, subtlety, and contradiction are not part of the mental universe he inhabits.  And curiously enough, it is these very qualities of mind -- or lack thereof -- that seem to be making him such a good war president.

"... In wartime, certain qualities sometimes associated with high intelligence -- fascination with detail, a tendency to self-reliance, an awareness of ambiguity -- become greater obstacles to effective leadership.  And the contrary qualities  often associated with mediocre intelligence -- oversimplification, an eagerness to delegate authority, moral certainty -- can be pronounced advantages."

Jacob Weisberg, "Simple Gifts"
Slate, January 4, 2002

Sadly, it has been our misfortune to be cursed with intelligent leaders such as Lincoln and Roosevelt during our previous crises.

"Taxes are for the little people" (Leona Helmsley)

In 1996, over 16,000 of the richest Americans -- those making $200,000 or more -- enjoyed an effective tax rate under ten percent, lower than a middle-class family.  Over 1,000 of these Americans, including 101 millionaires, paid no income taxes.  The rest of us must pay more to cover for the tax dodgers: $195 billion annually, or $1,600 per taxpayer.  In the face of a tax-shirking epidemic, the IRS is decreasing enforcement and prosecution.

The Cheating of America, by Charles Lewis, Bill Allison
and the Center for Public Integrity.

Educational Devolution

"Cue dueling banjos!

"The Alabama State Board of Education recently decided to continue their policy of placing disclaimers on biology textbooks, voting unanimously last week to put stickers stating that evolution is a "controversial theory' on 40,000 news textbooks. Yeehaw!  What next" Stickers on physics textbooks stating that "the sun may, in fact, rotate around the earth?"  How about geography textbooks?  "According to some people, our planet may not be flat."  Apparently John Giles, state president of the Christian Coalition, was disappointed that the new sticker was not as strongly worded as the old one (and presumably was also disappointed with the removal of a section on the boiling point of witches..."

From "The Top Ten Conservative Idiots (Week 44)
November 12, 2001.  Democratic Underground.

All this should not surprise us, if we consider that:

  • "Most Americans reject the fact that humans developed from earlier species of animals" and that "almost half of Americans believe that humans were created in their present form, 10,000 years ago.

  • "68 percent of Americans believe that 'creationism should be taught along with evolution' in public schools; [and] another poll showed that almost 40 percent of Americans favor the teaching of creationism instead of evolution. 

  • "A poll in early 2000 indicated that half of Americans believe that evolution is "far from being proven scientifically."

  • From 39 to 45 percent of high school biology teachers! believe that creation should be taught public school science classes.

Randy Moore, "Educational Malpractice..." 
Skeptical Inquirer, 11/12, 2001
(See this source for documentation of above).

Never Hire an Accountant from Mississippi!

The admirable "Urban Legends" website (www.snopes2.com) reports that the following is "true."  However, I must admit that it stretches my credulity just a bit.  Be that as it may, the Yoknapatawpha County Register of August 13, 1999 reports:

The Mississippi legislature passed a bill eliminating fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of all public secondary schools in the state....

The bill, which cleared the Mississippi Senate by a vote of "a lot" to "a little" (with "this many" Senators abstaining) after come initial confusion over how many votes constitute a "majority," directs public secondary schools in Mississippi to emphasize whole numbers arithmetic in mathematics courses and orders the removal of questions involving non-integer mathematics from standardized state tests after 1999.  The fate of percentages remains undetermined...

"This has absolutely nothing to do with religion," [Senate Education Committee Chair] told reporters at a press conference...  "We're simply seeking to make mathematics more accessible to schoolchildren by de-emphasizing the elements that so many of them find confusing.  It makes no sense to try to train our students  how to think logically, then present them with nonsensical concepts such as 'irrational' and 'imaginary' numbers." ...

Several senators indicated that an additional measure aimed at removing "irregular verbs" from English classes might be in the offing.

PostScript:  A couple of years ago (c. 2005) I received an e-mail taking me to task for my gullibility.  This story is a hoax, I was told,  as I should have known.

Well, of course I am aware that it is a hoax.  Aside from the fact that no legislature, not even in Mississippi, could be this so stupid, the tip-off was "Yoknapatawpha County," which is a literary invention of the Nobel Laureate novelist, William Faulkner.  "Snopes2.com" must also be aware.  A leading character in Faulkner's novels is one "Flem Snopes," who, I suspect, is the source of the name of the website.

21st Century?  Hell, we ain't even ready for the 20th!

Science Magazine (2/3/89) reports on a study by two professors, an American and a Brit, 
on public knowledge of basic science.  The dismal results:

[The researchers] fielded two questions designed to test "acceptance of the scientific world-picture."  They asked whether people agree or disagree with the proposition that "The universe began with a huge explosion," and that "Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals."  [They found] that "moderately" more people in Britain accept the Big Bang theory and that at least three-quarters of the British accept evolution.  But in American the split is closer to 50-50.  "There are almost as many Americans who reject the idea of human evolution as there are those who accept it."

It might be noted that the public is not uniquely ignorant about science.  Studies have shown substantial weakness in knowledge of history and geography as well.... "Most people can't name the states that border their own."

Sadly, The Gadfly's personal experience confirms that there is a deplorable state of ignorance among American undergraduates.  Twelve years ago, while on the faculty of one of the California State Universities, we perceived that some of our scientific-historical-cultural allusions were being met with perplexed expressions or blank stares among our students.  So we prepared and distributed a "General Information and Opinion Questionnaire" to gain a sense of the students' general cultural knowledge.  The results were startling, to say the least.  Of the forty-eight students responding:

Seven identified the Secretary of State
Six Identified the Secretary of Defense
None Identified the Attorney General
None Identified the UN Secretary General
Thirteen identified both California Senators
Eight identified the nine US Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt
Less than half correctly identified the "Big Three" allied powers, and the Axis powers
        in World War II.
Twelve placed the date of the Civil War within the "window" of 1855-1870.

Less than three (in a Philosophy class) were able to identify: Bertrand Russell, 
        Alfred N. Whitehead,   Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dmitri Shostakovitch, 
        Stephen Hawking, or Michael Faraday.

We neglected to ask the students to identify the rock stars heading the charts at the time.  Of course, The Gadfly would have flunked that test.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .