What Ignorance Looks Like, Part II: Willful Ignorance

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

New York Times, SCOTT SHANE and MARK MAZZETTI, April 21, 2009

I thought I would write about this in the abstract, starting with my shock that this story hasn’t created an ongoing scandal. Imagine that you went to the doctor and he or she was unsuccessful at treating your disease. That’s upsetting enough. Now imagine that you read an interview with that doctor and he or she says that reading medical journals is a waste of time. That’s a scandal.

So this is doubly freakish and bizarre. We had a government that chose to ignore history; more than that, a set of officials at the highest level who thought that history was unnecessary. It just doesn’t occur to them. Then we have the mainstream media– today busily debating the ‘hundred days’ faux issue– that collectively cannot seem to recognize and criticize basic incompetence.

I am thinking much more concretely this morning, however, because I have been trying to deal with a student who thinks writing about “global warming” is inappropriate. It’s not hard to see where this is coming from: years of silly right wing propaganda suggesting that global warming isn’t real and so on. I disagree but that’s not what is so upsetting.

What is upsetting is that this student has a workable hypothesis– it may be unlikely in the extreme that thousands of scientists and thousands of experiments are wrong, of course, but it is still a hypothesis– that he refuses to examine. One problem, of course, is that he’s too ambitious. Global Warming is a very complicated theory with a lot of different kinds of supporting evidence.

I would not expect him to try to address everything of course or to be systematic in any sense. But he could pick one aspect of global warming, review the evidence, and then conclude with his (now well-informed) opinion on the science. Yet it seems to be that process– a careful review of assumptions– that he, and the Bush administration, finds so loathsome. That’s a scandal.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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