back in 2008, I came up with a theory of conservatism I called the Deist Miasma
, an attempt to understand for myself why the religious in general and conservatives in particular have such violent reactions against theories that challenge traditional interpretations of reality (specifically in that post, Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection vs. Creation). In Part II
, I further delved into the why
of the conservative reaction by tying their rejection to the more emotional parts of the brain that irrationally reject concepts that create a sense of disgust. I got that concept from Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map
, a fascinating book that chronicled the 1848-49 cholera outbreak and how a new germ theory of disease challenged the prevailing miasma theory.
Never heard of the miasma theory? I'm not surprised. Here are the essentials: "There were practically as many theories about cholera as there were cases of the disease. But in 1848, the dispute was largely divided between two camps: the contagionists and the miasmists. Either cholera was some kind of agent that passed from person to person, like the flu, or it somehow lingered in the 'miasma' of unsanitary spaces." (Johnson, The Ghost Map, Riverhead, 2007, pp. 68.) "Miasmas" are detected by the nose; if it smells bad, it likely causes disease.
Miasma theory has been largely discredited since the perfection of ever more powerful microscopes and research into the efficacy of hand washing, especially when done by doctors before surgery and assisting births. Essentially, the theory lived long after the evidence mounted against it simply because of the disgust bad smells can raise in the brains of the smeller. This disgust overwhelms the smeller's desire to examine a problem intellectually and rationally. This strong disgust emotion trumps and overrides the rational brain
, short-circuiting our ability to problem solve.
I hadn't considered it before, but econ blogger Asymptosis has: isn't neo-classical economics itself a form of the same flawed, disgust-based thinking that kept the miasma theory alive
? He makes excellent points, points that follow almost to the letter my association between the creationist camp and the progress supporting natural selection. I would add that disgust against Marxist economics might have been the founding event for the neo-classical thinkers, and that all their complex theorizing stems not from the desire to craft rigorous and disciplined empirical modeling of reality, but to reject the fairly sound observations Marx made in Das Kapital
. After all, creation "science" wasn't around before Darwin; there was no need, since the creation "science" was
Ah, but some of Asymptosis' conclusions resonated with some recent reading. James Howard Kunstler closes his most recent book with this observation about Barack Obama's first term:
He came along at a very difficult time in our national history. The economy is wobbling again for reasons this president has never adequately articulated (and which are the subject of this book), despite his renown for eloquence. And despite his genial disposition and adult demeanor he can be faulted for failing on many issues, including botched health care reform, a dumb energy policy, keeping two of the longest wars in our history going, and not reestablishing the rule of law in banking in the face of arrant misconduct.
(James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011, p. 240, I emboldened.)
In our President's defense, he studied law, not economics. For his economic expertise, he hired the brains behind Pres. Clinton's cabinet. Sadly, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin shared the same neo-classical tradition in their assumptions about our economic functioning, enough to pressure Mr. Clinton into signing the official repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a repeal that got us into this mess. Back to Asymptosis:
[There] are many valid and semi-valid ideas, theories, and constructs floating around in the world of textbook economics. But they are so intertwined with, caught up in the miasma . . . theories that today constitute mainstream economics . . . that it’s hard for even the clearest-eyed economist — much less the everyday person or Washington staffer, legislator, or policy wonk — to tell the shit from the shinola.
(I again emboldened.)
The result? Yes, we can judge the President for his actions; but we should also realize that no one person has a sufficient grasp of the arcane minutia to not
have advisers, and that given sufficient acceptance, even bad theories can prove widespread enough to taint said advisers. Translation: yes, Jim Kunstler may have a better understanding of our economy to avoid, as Asymptosis put it, "emptying the cesspools into the water supply" just like the Londoners in the grip of the miasma theory of disease; that doesn't mean a clear-eyed appraisal of our economy is wide-spread enough to reach the halls of power.
And judging by our current economic situation, I'd say it well and truly isn't.Addendum: The Next Day:
This TED video gives a good introduction into how disgust warps our opinions.X-Posted to talk_politics.