Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Before 2004


I offer below, random musings, reflections, correspondence, scraps of work-in-progress, and other such miscellany, perchance worth sharing but not ready for the prime time of formal publication.  

Much of this material  has been adapted from personal e-mail correspondence. While I am perfectly free to use, revise and expand on my side of these exchanges, use of the "incoming" correspondence is problematic. I have neither the right nor the inclination to include the words of my correspondents if they can be identified either by name or description.

If I am confident that the correspondents can not be identified and if their part of the exchange is essential to the exchange, then I might quote them directly. Otherwise, their ideas will be briefly paraphrased, only to supply context to my part of these conversations. In no case will I identify the correspondents by name.

On the other hand, signed letters to The Crisis Papers and The Online Gadfly are fair game as are other comments published in the internet. They were submitted with the clear understanding that they, and their signatories, might be made public.

Incoming correspondence will be identified by italics. My contributions will be in plain text.


January 8, 2008


Originally posted in The Online Gadfly

January is the traditional month for the checkout counter tabloids to publish the unfailingly inaccurate astrologers' predictions for the coming year.  Never, in those same publications, will you find rational rebuttals to this ancient superstition. 

About ten years ago, I wrote this manifestly unpublishable refutation of astrology.  This season of the year strikes me as an appropriate time to post it again.  EP

"More than one-third of American adults believe astrology has some scientific merit. Nearly one in seven regularly reads horoscope columns." (Los Angeles TIMES, May 10, 1992).

Except possibly for the persisting public preference for "creationism" over evolution, nothing more clearly indicates the dismal failure of science education in the United States than the public acceptance of Astrology.

Never mind, that this ancient superstition is devoid of any theoretical structure and routinely fails all controlled attempts at validation. To wit:

  • It is never explained just what independently identifiable universal forces, laws or principles should link the positions of the stars and planets at the time and date of one's birth, with one's subsequent personality or the events in one's life -- much less, how this linkage takes place. As one skeptic has pointed out, the tidal force of Jupiter is less than that of a truck driving past the hospital delivery room. So why should Jupiter's position at the moment of a person's birth be of any significance whatever?

  • Astrologers triumphantly report their "hits"  (first formulated in vague and ambiguous language), but never their "misses."  For an annual New Year's amusement, try saving the "psychics' predictions for the next year," as published in the supermarket tabloids, then read them a year later. The best years yield about a two-percent success-rate. (I entertained my classes with this stunt throughout most of my teaching career).

  • Numerous experiments inviting astrologers to correctly associate birth dates and times with individuals have failed to come up with "matches" far removed from statistical random chance. (I have conducted many such experiments in my own classes, with the same results).

  • Astrology developed in ancient civilizations (Egypt and Babylon) amidst astronomical beliefs (e.g., geocentrism) which are universally rejected today. Yet astrology, with all its foundational cosmology stripped away, is still believed.

  • (And this is my personal favorite): Even if, however incredibly, there were something to astrology at the time it was formulated some four-thousand years ago, it would be invalid today, since, due to the precession ("wobbling") of the Earth's axis, the apparent positions of the zodiacal constellations are quite different than they were when astrological principles were first proclaimed.

And that is just the beginning. A large book could be written, collecting such objections and reporting the abundant empirical refutation of this ancient superstition. In fact, many have. (To find some of these, check out the website of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:www.csicop.org).

And yet, a third of our compatriots "believe that astrology has some scientific merit."

Well, so what?!

For starters, a public capable of believing astrology (and disbelieving evolution) is capable of believing anything. If you doubt this, just consider the state of our our political discourse. And if you think that public credulity is harmless, tell that to the McMartin family in Long Beach and to other victims of the thankfully subsiding witch-hunt for "child-abusers" accused by "victims" of "repressed memories." It is a chilling thought that one day we might be judged by a jury of such "peers."

Perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of the popular belief in astrology and other public superstitions (e.g. the Bermuda Triangle, Water Dowsing, Atlantis, Noah's Ark, Alien Abductions, Rosswell, etc. ad nauseum) is that this kookery is promoted on the public airwaves by individuals who should (and in all probability do) know better. What they surely know is how to count "market share," and that is all that matters. The ensuing corruption of the public intellect is an "externality" of no interest to them.

Cases in point: "The History Channel," "The Discovery Channel" and "A&E." These cable channels, which claim to be "educational outlets" have instead become marketplaces of the occult -- television equivalents of The National Enquirer. We normally stay clear of this nonsense, unless drawn now and then by a morbid curiosity about just what is being fed the public these days. Usually, what we find is much worse than we feared. In one series, "In Search Of," we are greeted by the smooth Vulcan voice of Leonard Nimoy. ("Gee, Maude, there must be something to it: that's Mr. Spock and he's the Science Officer of the Enterprise!).  In a recently viewed half-hour episode on astrology, we heard perhaps two minutes of debunking by a professor of astronomy.  The rest consisted of a promotion of the superstition, featuring extended interviews with the likes of Sidney Omarr.

But don't look for "equal time" on commercial TV from the scientists or the skeptics, except on an occasional episode of PBS's excellent "Nova" series. Yet there are learned and eloquent individuals in abundance, ready to present the case for reason and "intellectual sales-resistance" -- individuals such as James Randi and Steven Jay Gould, and organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).

Unfortunately, so long as the public, encouraged by the media, prefers astonishment to enlightenment, and entertainment to education, there is little prospect for improvement. "The Mushroom Rule" prevails: "Keep 'em in the dark, and feed 'em bullshit."

That splendid Scottish skeptic, David Hume, said it best:

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at secondhand or by rebound, and place a pride and a delight in exciting the admiration of others.

"On Miracles," Section X of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Non-Mysterious Origins of Kookery -- A Postscript

(From The Online Gadfly, c. 1999.  Discontinued)

Back in February, 1997,  I viewed (and fortunately taped) a most amazing program on NBC-TV (network, notice, not cable): "The Mysterious Origins of Man," which was narrated by Charlton Heston (Ronald Reagan, not being available). Here we learned that homo sapiens was alive 200 million years ago, co-existed with the dinosaurs (there are footprints in Texas to prove it!), that the sphinx was built 25,000 years ago, and that (this is my favorite!) the site of Atlantis is beneath a mile of ice in Antarctica.

Antarctica?! How is that possible, you ask? Well, you see, as we all know, the earth's outer crust rests upon syrupy stuff call "the mantle." It so happens that every 20,000 years or so, the polar ice caps get sufficiently heavy to cause the crust to slide, like a big toboggan, some 2,000 miles or so. Thus, not so long ago (geologically speaking), McMurdo Sound was somewhere up around where Buenos Aires is today. Amazing!

How strange that there is no fossil evidence of these dramatic climate changes, elsewhere around the globe. Well, maybe there is. As the "scientists" interviewed on the program explained, their findings have been suppressed by a grand, world-wide conspiracy of "establishment scientists," who are more interested in defending their reputations and research grants, than they are in facing up to the "evidence" offered by these maverick truth-seekers.  It's the same debunk routinely used today by global warming deniers.

Needless to say, Science Magazine (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) takes a dim view of these shenanigans, noting, in a recent article, that "scientists have tried without success to get a response" to their complaints, from NBC. "When Science contacted NBC Entertainment ... the division that aired the show, a spokesperson said, 'we don't have a statement because to my knowledge, there have been no complaints.'"

For more pro-science, anti-kookery reflections, visit "No Mo Po Mo" at The Online Gadfly.


January 23, 2008

More about Mormonism.

Internet responses to my essay, "About this 'Mormonism' Thing"  (December 18, 2007) were heated, voluminous, and for the most part, favorable. Two that were not were from faithful Mormons. However, because they were sincere and thoughtful, they received careful and extended responses from me, which you will find below.

But before we get to them, I am including here my response to a query from the producers of the four-hour PBS Frontline series, "The Mormons" that was broadcast last April. It was, and is, an outstanding piece of broadcast journalism which I highly recommend. (The series can be seen at this PBS website).

This, in part, was the question I was asked:

At the end of the 19th century, the Mormon Church was a provincial backwater and today it is an international powerhouse. In the 19th century, the Mormons were seen as a licentious group of theocrats; today they are running for President. At the start of the 20th century, the church set their financial house in order and adjusted to secular politics. They've faced up to some of the most important modern challenges -- lifted the ban on blacks in the priesthood, developed their own system of welfare -- both for their own people, but also for victims of Katrina and the Tsunami. All this while, as you know, the church has grown increasingly conservative. Why? What has driven Utah from the independent conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt to become the reddest of the red states?

My answer:

My best guess about the LDS official turn to the right:

  • The religious right is far more concerned with (personal) "virtue" than with (social) "justice." Hence the emphasis on chastity, sobriety, anti-gay, anti-abortion, with a neglect of such issues as poverty, economic injustice, racial ethnic and sex discrimination, international law and peace. This is a pattern that is long established in Mormon history.

  • The extraordinary success of the Mormon financial "empire" has oriented the Church toward the business community. Paraphrasing Calvin Coolidge, "the business of the LDS Church is business." This emphasis inclines the LDS church and membership to the GOP.

  • Combine this with theocratic dogmatism and anti-intellectualism. I seem to recall an oft-cited quotation from the LDS general authorities: "When the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done." ("Prophet" meaning the LDS presidents, past and present). Science and scholarship have not been friendly to the LDS Church: e.g., contra biblical literalism (cf. evolution and historical geology), American archeology (cf. The Book of Mormon), critical historical scholarship (vs. "the Mormon myth").

  • The US and the world are changing ever more rapidly, and out of the control of the church. Bush claims to be "born again" and the GOP supports an "establishment" of religion in secular life and government. This is appealing to the LDS leadership and members.

  • Sociologists will tell you that, almost inevitably, radical and innovative religious and social movements, if they are to survive, must become institutionalized, with articulated rules, leadership structures, lines of authority, an "identity" recognized and defended by both leaders and rank-and-file members -- in a word, they become "conservative." This was true of early Christianity, of Protestant denominations, of Soviet Communism and other communist states (cf. Cuba).

That's my best take on LDS "conservatism." I hope that it is helpful. For more of my ideas about the alliance between fundamental Christians and the secular right, see my "Suckers for Jesus," the second section of Chapter 20 of my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive.

Next, an exchange that was published in OpEdNews in response to my essay:

Dear Dr. Ernest Partridge,

Your amazing rant against the religion of your fathers betrays the fact that while you may have scaled the Olympian peaks of your chosen profession (philosophy) you have never bothered to "waste" much intellectual effort on a serious investigation of Mormonism. Your Loony-tunes summary of the "basics" sounds, in fact, like it was cribbed from some anti-Mormon site.

Perhaps your disdain for Governor Romney is because you know that he is a very intelligent and accomplished person and you feel threatened that he hasn't come to the same conclusions, philosophic, religious, and political, as you?

Romney's faith cannot be explained by stupidity. (Google [Mormon education religiosity].) How could it possibly be that 75% of LDS scientists have a very strong belief that Joseph Smith was inspired by God, with an additional 12% having a "strong" belief? (For what it's worth, I'm among the 75%.)

As for the "great difficulty" of having your name removed from the records of the Church, google [Mormon remove name] "I'm feeling lucky!" Yes, there are indeed plenty of ex-Mormons willing to support you in the Herculean task of composing, printing, and mailing a letter!

Before you mail that letter, however, I beg you to exercise your synapses a bit more and spend a few days seriously investigating the religion for which your noble great-great-grandfather, Edward Partridge made such great sacrifices.

You might start by googling [alma 36 chiasmus]. Don't believe in miracles? Surely it is a miracle that in 1830 an unschooled 29-year old farmer on the American frontier produced such a chapter -- and such a book!

If you find Alma 36 in any way intellectually stimulating, then take one more step. Try the suggestion of Nephi and "liken all scripture" unto yourself, for your "profit and learning." (1 Nephi 19:23). After all, your article does suggest that you are pretty much in the same path that Alma was in before his life-changing experience.

If you can put yourself in Alma's shoes, then perhaps the core of the message to his son, which is at the center of the "chi" (X), will sink deep into your heart:

"And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

"And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

"Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

"And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

"And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!" (Alma 36:16-20)

I don't know how much religiosity is programmed into Edward Partridge's Y-Chromosome, but since that chromosome is contained in every cell of your body, you have the potential to undergo a powerful physical and spiritual transformation.

Edward Partridge lives on in the spirit world, of course, and surely he is aware of you, and praying for you. May the spirit of Elijah yet work its wonder on you and turn your heart to the promises made to your fathers. (Malachi 4:5-6, 3 Nephi 25:5-6, Joseph Smith History 1:38-39, D&C 110:13-16)

With sincere best wishes,

Tracy Hall Jr
In OpEdNews.

Ernest Partridge replies to Tracy Hall:

Without citation, your statistic that "75% of LDS scientists have a very strong belief..." doesn't impress me very much. Who conducted this study? What was the sample, and sampling method? As you state it, this statistic is strangely circular. An "LDS scientist" would, almost by definition, be assumed to have such a belief. I would be much more interested to find out how many scientists have, as a result of their scientific education, left the Church. Unfortunately, I know of no such study. I am personally acquainted with many such persons, but of course, anecdotal evidence is also not very impressive.

That there are some accomplished scientists that are also devout Mormons is also a known fact, which I will freely stipulate. I've known a few of these also. Dr. Harvey Fletcher, a pioneer in acoustic physics and audio technology, was a member of our New Jersey ward, when I was a child.  The physicist Dr. Henry Eyring, as Graduate School Dean of the University of Utah, signed my Masters Thesis.  The Dean who signed my Doctoral Dissertation, and coincidentally also served on my dissertation committee, was an agnostic "social Mormon," Dr. Sterling McMurrin.  (McMurrin once remarked to me, "if you want your child to have a graduate education but also remain true in the faith, then have him study the physical sciences or engineering. But be sure he stays clear of the social sciences, and above all, history.")  But all this is moot. I don't base my fundamental convictions on the testimonials of others.

Reports and summaries of extensive scientific studies, on the other hand, I take very seriously. And the reports from new world archeology, physical anthropology and linguistics have convinced me that the Book of Mormon is not authentic. All claims to the contrary are from LDS sources. In "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought," Summer, 1973, new world archeologist Michael Coe wrote: "as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the [the Book of Mormon accounts] to be true,... nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon... is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere." (pp.42, 46)

Coe's report is corroborated by this statement by the Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian Institution: "Smithsonian archeologists see no direct connection between the archeology of the New World and the subject matter of [the Book of Mormon]... Certainly there were no contacts with the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, or other peoples of Western Asian and the Near East." Perhaps you are aware of this statement. If not, you should be.

The Smithsonian Institute statement reports that "American Indians had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels before 1492." (New world camels and horses became extinct about 10,000 years ago). In addition, "iron, steel, glass and silk were not used in the New World before 1492." The Smithsonian might have added that the wheel and axle had no practical application in the New World, and are only found as Inca toys.

Steel, iron, wheat, horses, chariots, etc. are all mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Yet not one steel artifact, not one chariot wheel, not one pre-Columbian horse bone has been uncovered in the New World. Surely, if wheat and other near-east plants had been cultivated prior to 1492, they would have survived the extermination of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Yet, not a grain nor a leaf is in evidence. Add to all that, the DNA studies which have conclusively established the Asiatic origin of the American Indian.

Presumably, you can set all this aside and base your conviction on something called "faith." I can not, for I am fully aware that other "faiths," of equal strength, conflict with yours: faith in Catholicism, in Islam, in the "inerrant Bible," etc. So instead, I turn to evidence.

I do not share your conviction that it would be a "miracle" for Joseph Smith to produce the Book of Mormon. Smith was clearly an extraordinarily intelligent and creative individual. But even if you were to convince me that Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon, it does not follow that the book is authentic. Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, for example, were well educated, and talk of the Indians as "lost tribes of Israel" was commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century American revival. The Book of Mormon is astonishing, but less than "miraculous."

While I have focused my attention on question of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, it is only a small part of the inventory of reasons that I can no longer believe the claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I have never written out an extensive account of these reasons. However, I have more to say about my solitary journey away from Mormonism in the unpublished works mentioned in my essay: "A Peculiar People," and "Religion, Education and Morality: A Dialogue."


Ernest Partridge
(In OpEdNews)

Finally, my exchange with a Mormon who wrote a lengthy, point-by-point, rebuttal to the essay which you can find here, (along with his name which I need not disclose). Two paragraphs from a subsequent e-mail from this critic sets up my reply

He writes:

I would guess that the wrong assumption that's causing you problems is that the LDS religion is false. I do know that this is incorrect, the religion is true. And it's an important point.

If you fight against the Lord's restoration, try to discourage others from it, you will have problems. It's inherent. You can't make the religion false by wishing it were, or by any fiat man can do. And maybe you're finding this out, and it's an irritation.

My reply:

I understand the strength of your convictions -- in the face of overwhelming empirical, historical and scientific evidence to the contrary -- because long ago, I shared them.

It is equally the case that "you can't make the religion TRUE by wishing it were," yet that's the central function of "faith" -- the faith of a catholic priest, of a devout Moslem, of a rapturite fundamentalist, etc. "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1 -- conventionally believed to be by St. Paul, but textual analysis shows this to be doubtful. Author unknown).

I respect your faith, understand that it is untouchable, and thus see no point in discussing it with you. I doubt very much that your faith in the LDS religion, which is to say your certainty as to it's "truth," is any more fervent than the contradictory faith of the aforementioned priest, Moslem, rapturite, etc.

"Lo here, lo there."

Given that logical impasse, I have no recourse than to look to the evidence -- historical, scientific, textual, etc. This was the decision that led me away from the LDS faith, during my freshman year at BYU. That evidence led me to conclude that Genesis is, scientifically and historically, bunk, from beginning to end, that there is no independent evidence whatever of the events depicted in the Book of Mormon or of the Semitic origin of the Amerinds. In addition, the butchery and genocide described in the early books of the Old Testament are deeply offensive to my sense of morality, and contrary to the morality of the "minor prophets" (Hosea, Micah, Amos) and most of all, Jesus of Nazareth, which I endorse. A just God would not order, much less condone, the slaughter of the residents of Jericho, the Canaanites, the Mideonites, etc.

Just as I respect your faith, I ask that you respect my perspective. (And please, don't tell me that my secular/scientific point of view is "just another faith." It is qualitatively and logically different, as I argue in my "Is Science Just Another Dogma?").

You are asking me once again to travel down a road that I have traveled before and have observed and assessed scrupulously and objectively. I have come to a different conclusion than you have. And I see no reason to revisit that road.

"What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8). No mention here of faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands.


Ernest Partridge


Regarding (the word) "media."

On January 15, 2008, The Democratic Underground posted my essay, "The Great American Election Charade." There were forty replies to the essay, half of which were about the trivial question of whether or not the word "media" was singular or plural. By itself, that question is not worthy of notice. But it did raise deeper questions about the nature of language, which might be of some general interest.

Immediately below is the reply to my essay that initiated the discussion. Next a very intelligent rebuttal, and finally my concluding comment.

"crud76" objects to "media" as singular:

"Media" Is Plural Form Of "Medium."

To say, "Following the conventions, the mainstream media rolls out the heavy artillery..." is incorrect since you're referring to more than one medium, be it TV, radio, etc. The correct way to say this is "...the mainstream media roll out..."

. . . . .

"In the 1920s media began to appear as a singular collective noun."  It was incorrect then too!

Popular misuse of a term DOES NOT make it correct.

"Troubleinwinter" rejoins:

"When referring to the media, as in the mass media, i.e., the mass-communication industry comprising journalism and entertainment, media is usually held to be a singular noun (because it is not the plural of medium. It is a term derived from the concept of an industry communicating through different media, e.g., newspapers, television, films, magazines). In all other cases, it is the plural of medium, whether one is referring to artistic media, storage media (e.g., blank media, such as CDs), media players, etc." 

. . . .

"Media, like data, is the plural form of a word borrowed directly from Latin. The singular, medium, early developed the meaning “an intervening agency, means, or instrument” and was first applied to newspapers two centuries ago. In the 1920s media began to appear as a singular collective noun, sometimes with the plural medias. This singular use is now common in the fields of mass communication and advertising, but it is not frequently found outside them: The media is (or are) not antibusiness." http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/media 

... . .

The language is a living thing. You DO believe in evolution, don't you?

Some things I found:

"People also use media with the definite article as a collective term to refer not to the forms of communication themselves so much as the communities and institutions behind them. In this sense, the media means something like “the press.” Like other collective nouns, it may take a singular or plural verb depending on the intended meaning."

"Quite frequently, however, media stands as a singular noun for the aggregate of journalists and broadcasters: The media has not shown much interest in covering the trial. This development of a singular media parallels that of more established words such as data and agenda, which are also Latin plurals that have acquired a singular meaning."

"However, "media" is today very often used as a singular noun to refer to all the agencies of mass communication as an entity. This usage is so widespread that it can no longer be considered incorrect."

"Media can take either singular or plural and both are completely acceptable."

"Latin plurals: Treat words like media as singular nouns (e.g., "the media is...," not "the media are...").

"Oxford Dictionary citation from 1966 notes the use of media as a singular noun"

"Although “media” is plural, it is used increasingly as a singular noun to refer collectively to the agencies of mass communication. Thus, the singular verb is used in cases such as “the media is responsible for the increase in violence”."

"Many authorities nowadays approve sentences like "My data is lost.""

Have you ever been to an opera? Would you have said, "The opera was wonderful." or "The opera were wonderful."?

"OPERA": Singular noun. Plural form of "opus" (meaning a creative work) is opera"


-My data is lost.
-The City Council agenda has been set.
-The opera was lovely.
-The insignia was applied to the plane.
-The media is fucked.

I found this to be particularly interesting: "Media and data are nearly always treated as singular in English. To treat them as plural is precious and rather like waving a little flag inscribed, 'Hey! I studied Latin.' I'd suggest that when writing you give priority to expressing yourself clearly and not to sending irrelvant and distracting messages about yourself."

Partridge's (concluding) response:

"Troubleinwinter" has it nailed: language evolves. And his supporting evidence is impressive.

Modern (descriptive) linguistics: "Correct English is what most English speakers speak."

Old-fashioned (prescriptive) linguistics: "Correct English is what English professors speak."

English professors today accept the "modern" interpretation. Don't take my word for it, Dr. Elinore Partridge, Professor Emerita of English and Linguistics, told me so. And in this house, she gets the final word about things linguistic.

Crud76 writes that "popular misuse of a term does not make it correct." Well, yes and no. If a few people use a term contrary to ordinary usage, then they are "incorrect." But if more and more adopt that usage, it becomes more and more "correct," even though determined resistance to the change might remain among some professions. (Thus English, strictly speaking, is a collection of dialects; professional and vocational as well as regional). When a usage grows (evolves) from a few non-conformists to universal use, it becomes "correct."

Example: "disinterested." A generation ago, this meant "unbiased," as in "a disinterested judge." Now, to my great regret, it has become synonymous with "uninterested." So I have given up using the word "disinterested," and use "unbiased" instead.

Another example: Scholarly types recognize a crucial distinction between "imply" (an objective, logical, function) and "infer" (a subjective, psychological function). E.g. "The prosecution presented evidence which strongly implied the guilt of the defendant. The jury inferred that he was, and returned a verdict of guilty." In casual discourse, "infer" and "imply" tend toward synonymy.

As for the singular/plural status of "media," "Troubleinwinter" has given us a wealth of examples of plural words that have "evolved" into singularity. "Data" is the word that comes immediately to my mind. Also, I would never say that "Tosca" is my favorite Puccini Opus -- it is an Opera. Until I read this page, I had never encountered the word "insigne," the singular of "insignia," which has itself become a singular ward.

"Media" as singular and "media" as plural have distinct connotations aside from mere number. Singular "media," as in "mainstream media," suggests unity and perhaps collaboration, whereas plural "media" suggests diversity. It is clearly the former, not the latter, that I wish to convey with "mainstream media."

Oh, and I almost missed this from "Troubleinwinter:" the plural of "medium" (as a "channeler" with the dead) is "mediums," not "media." Terrific!

The English language is not a perfect entity, which must be perpetually protected by us "educated elites" from desecration by the "ignernt masses." It was not given to us, intact, by God Almighty. It is not a perfect Platonic Form. It is the collective "property" of those who speak it. English is as English does -- as it is spoken, written and read.

And yes, it evolves.

So too does every natural and living language.


April 29, 2008

On Libertarianism: Two Objections with Rebuttals

The following two messages, responding to my essay  Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians, were sent to my personal e-mail address, unsigned and with the "From" and "Subject" lines blank. Thus I have no idea of their origin. Even so, they pose worthy questions and deserve a thoughtful reply,

While I would like to send my replies directly to my critic(s), they have afforded me no means to do so.

Thus I can only hope that they will somehow find the following.

Perchance, they might even identify themselves, if that is not asking too much.

About "The Argument from Authority:"

In logic there is something known as the Ad Authoritatem fallacy. It is committed by this article wholesale. It offers nothing as evidence but the words "scientific consensus." There used to be a scientific consensus that humans could not fly. That is not sufficient to make it so. Every paper I have seen written in standard English that argued that there was any sort of human-caused global warming appealed to other papers, which appeal to other papers, ad infinitum, you never find the actual evidence other than a few false equations of correlation and causation, or on one occasion even an argument that assumed global warming as a premise in order to prove it.

My reply:

OK, I'll admit it: I rely on authoritative information (informally, "someone else's say-so") almost all of the time.

When do I, instead, accept direct knowledge? Let's see: When I "know" that it is cold outside. When I "know" that I'm hungry. When in "know" that my car needs to be washed. When I "know" that the car is almost out of gas. No wait!  Strike that last one. I take it on someone else's "word" that the gas gauge is telling me that the tank is almost empty. I haven't the slightest idea how the information that the tank is empty is relayed to that gizmo on the dashboard.

Otherwise, 99% of the abstract knowledge that I have is via someone else's say-so -- i.e., "ad authoritatem." So too with anyone else, including my anonymous critic. It is an inevitable consequence of specialization and the division of labor, which are pre-requisite to the civilized condition. Thus we rely, every day, on the "authoritative knowledge" of doctors, lawyers, mechanics, accountants, store clerks, and (if we are unduly gullible) the mass media.

Just try doing without "authoritative" knowledge for as long as an hour, and you will see what I mean.

"Critical thinking" consists, not in the total rejection of all second-, third-, and N-hand knowledge-claims, which is flatly impossible, but in the ability to assess such claims. This is a skill that can be acquired through education as well as through practical life-experience.

And one of the best sources of authoritative knowledge is information gathered and validated by the sciences.

Science is not a perfect source of knowledge: no human institution is perfect. But it is the best that we we have, and for reasons that can be clearly identified and explicated (as I have done in my essay, Is Science Just Another Dogma?).

Scientists have, of course, been wrong in the past, as, for example, in the case of the Piltdown Man hoax. But it is worth noting that all scientific errors, like the Piltdown hoax, are exposed and corrected by better science.

And scientific laws and facts, in their application, are proven every moment. If any of thousands of proven and applied scientific facts, laws, and equations were false, my computer would not boot up, my car would not start, and aircraft would never get off the ground.

My critic takes me to task for relying on scientific papers that cite other scientific papers. What would he have me do? Accept the undocumented word of a citation-less paper? Apparently that is exactly what he expects of me when he writes, sans citation, of "an argument that assumed global warming as a premise in order to prove it." What "argument"? Where? By whom? With what credentials? Never mind all that, he seems to say, just accept what I say, "ad authoritatem."

Meanwhile, reject the "scientific consensus" regarding global warming. It's merely "ad authoritatem."

I "offer nothing as evidence" of that "scientific consensus," simply because I am fully aware, as my critic should be, of where one might find that consensus. Read the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center on Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, numerous refereed scientific journals, etc. and etc.   Will all that be "consensus" enough?  For some, apparently, it will not.

Those reports, of course, will contain citations of other reports and papers, leading back to rigorously controlled scientific observations and experiments.

Why should we believe these citations? Because refereed scientific papers, qua scientific and refereed, contain information that is public and replicable. As noted, errors appear from time to time in scientific literature, but it is the task of journal referees to spot them and cull them out prior to publication. Deliberate fraud in refereed scientific journals is extremely rare, not because of the moral probity of most scientists, but because the sanctions against fraud are extraordinarily severe: nothing less than disgrace and the termination of one's career.

The findings and the projections of the "consensus" of climate scientists are dreadful. While I sincerely hope that they are mistaken, I fear that they are not. I would welcome any news that these scientists are mistaken and the human prospect is more cheerful.

But I insist that such news be based upon the same rigor, discipline and solid evidence that has brought forth the ominous "scientific consensus" that I cite.

Otherwise, why should I believe it?

About Libertarianism, and the "initiation of force:"

Libertarianism can be put much more simply: it says you cannot initiate force against someone else. Times when you can use force are limited to self-defense and force against a criminal that has used force or fraud.

If Ernest Partridge says he is not libertarian, I hear him saying that it is okay to use force against honest, peaceful people, to achieve some societal goal.

But in general, I have looked at some government sponsored data. When you look over a several thousand year or tens of thousands of years, the temperature data seems clear to me that any current upswing in temperature is miniscule compared to wide variations as shown by studies of ice in Greenland, for example. If there is data that shows that the temperature variation is more the two standard deviations away from the norm, I can be proven wrong. Anyone have such data?

My reply:

I've about shot my bolt on global warming in the above rejoinder. Suffice to say that if we are in for the sort of temperature change that took place tens (and hundreds) of thousands of years ago, as indicated by studies of Greenland ice cores, we are in big trouble.

I don't have access to those ice cores, and even if I were in the cold rooms that store them, I'd have no idea how to study them. But those who do the studies seem to be sending out the warnings of trouble ahead.

So yes, there is such data. You have a computer, access to the internet, and Google. So go find it.  Provided, of course, you are willing to trust the reports of qualified "authorities."

Now about libertarianism.

What you (and the libertarians) call "force against someone else," I call, with Justice Holmes, "the price we pay for civilization."   "Semantic escalation" does not constitute a valid argument.

Civilized society creates the conditions that allow most of us to prosper and for some to accumulate enormous wealth. It seems reasonable to require those who benefit from civilization to pay for the maintenance of the institutions that are requisite for that prosperity and wealth: institutions such as public education, courts, infrastructure, scientific research and development, and yes, government regulation of commerce and industry.

Even the most dogmatic libertarians condone what you denounce as "use [of] force against honest, peaceful people, to achieve some societal goal." Those libertarian "goals" are the protection of the basic libertarian triad of rights to "life, liberty, and property." Hence the legitimate existence of the police, the military, and the courts.

This is all the "force" that the libertarians will sanction in their "minimalist state."

Liberals insist that this "minimalist state" is insufficient to sustain a civilized condition. Without more "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" (as Garrett Hardin puts it), which includes taxation to support the aforementioned institutions, society regresses to a Hobbesian "state of nature" of "war of all against all."

I submit to you that this is precisely what is happening today in the once-prosperous United States of America.

Meanwhile, the more enlightened nations of western Europe, having adopted a liberal "social democracy," are doing quite well, thank you very much.

This is merely a sketch of a reply to libertarianism, which requires a much more deliberate and extended treatment.

For that analysis, see my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive, which you can read if you follow the link. See especially, Chapters Four through Ten.

June 3, 2008

A Farewell to an Old Friend

Bruce “Utah” Phillips, a friend of almost fifty years, died a week ago Friday. A pacifist, activist, poet, folklorist, and song writer, Bruce Phillips lived an uncompromising life of protest, independence and a celebration of humanity that those who knew him could admire though scarcely equal.  He never copyrighted his songs, on the principle that “the talents that the Good Lord, or nature, or whatever” gave him for free, he would not charge others.  When Johnny Cash offered to record some of those songs, Bruce declined. He preferred not to “feed the [corporate] dragon” as he put it. He is survived by his words, his music, and the fond memories of his friends. And if his spirit survives, it is joined today in a grand celestial hootnanny with his heroes, Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill.

Amy Goodman recorded these reflections from Utah Phillips. It is a fitting epitaph:

"The long memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been taken away from us. You haven't gotten it in your schools. You're not getting it on your television. You're being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next. Mass media contributed to that by taking the great movements that we've been through and trivializing important events. No, our people's history is like one long river. It flows down from way over there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I have the courage to go out and ask questions."

Follow this link  to see or hear Amy Goodman's fifty minute tribute and interview with Utah Phillips.

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 .