In his acceptance speech at the 69th annual conference of the American Humanist Association (which will be featured in these pages in the fall), Humanist of the Year Bill Nye remarked that if you’re someone who likes to worry, you’re living in the right moment. The inconceivably disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, a shaky economy, metastasizing corporate power, global warming, two wars in the Middle East, nuclear capabilities, homegrown terrorists, religious and ideological incursions into education, a failed immigration system, racism, women’s inequality… and the list goes on. This is my list, no doubt similar to others. I’ll add to it the utter failure of President Obama to ease my myriad concerns.
On one front—the war front—the escalation of troops and operations in Afghanistan, while worrisome, should not have come as a surprise. Back when the president sent 17,000 extra troops there last year (“to mop up” as Gore Vidal put it; sadly that wasn’t the case) I had to remind myself that Obama was doing what he said he’d do all along, which was to shift the U.S. war effort from Iraq back to the first theater of his predecessor’s “Global War on Terror.” That Obama wasn’t going back on a campaign promise but instead moving forward on one was cold comfort. Had I believed in his promise of change? Yes. Do I feel duped? No. I feel angry at myself for buying into the narrative that Obama was an outsider who would artfully solve all our problems (and mad that there wasn’t an anti-war contender to support for president).
Remember Obama’s winning campaign slogan: Change You Can Believe In? So many of us—critical thinkers and proud skeptical types—were so focused on the first word of that idea, we didn’t stop to grumble about the rest. In essence this is the issue at hand in the July/August Humanist—an examination of belief in contemporary American culture, not exclusively religious but that which is seemingly immune to factual data, and how it affects the most pressing issues of the day. In dissecting the so-called culture of belief, Brian Trent takes a critical look at the American mindset and concludes that belief has no bearing on reality. A just and civil society should accept the reality of a thing, like Obama’s citizenship or global climate change, for example, based on evidence and deny it for lack thereof. Believers in conspiracy theories (which are fun for their potential but dangerous for their deception) accuse others of not being open-minded. But, Trent writes, “true skepticism is precisely about being open-minded—yet not so open-minded that you become a vacuum.”
This brings to mind recent analysis of the public’s attentive following of the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which suggests that we’re riveted in part because we, as a society, have believed that science and technology can get us out of any problem. Money and politics of course muck things up, but aren’t our minds just a little blown that those running the show haven’t been able to stop that gushing well?
In this issue we also look at the climate of denial, namely among global warming skeptics. Physicist Freeman Dyson gets fair treatment, not as a denier, but as one who sees a dichotomy between humanists and naturalists when it comes to the use of fossil fuels, who thinks the so-called frenzy about climate change is alarmist, and who warns his colleagues not to shy away from unorthodox thinking. “Heretics,” he’s said, “have historically been an important force in driving scientific progress.”
So, as the cover asks, what kind of skeptic are you?
Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.