Education, Climate Change and Inequality: The Assault on Reason

Every living creature has a means of survival. Plants have roots and leaves to gain nutrients and energy. Birds have wings to seek out food while escaping predators. Predators, such as lions or wolves, have speed, instincts, claws and fangs with which to chase down and consume their prey. While man cannot survive by any of these methods he does have his own means of survival- his rational faculty. His reason.

Ayn Rand sums it up this way in The Virtue of Selfishness:

Man cannot survive, as animals do, by the guidance of mere percepts. … He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available–but to build the simplest shelter, he needs a process of thought. No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools, how to make a wheel, how to make an airplane, how to perform an appendectomy, how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron or a box of matches. Yet his life depends on such knowledge.

Reason is the faculty that allows man to grasp the facts of reality and integrate them in a non-contradictory manner, forming concepts which allow him to understand more and more of the world around him. Note that reason deals with the facts of reality, not man’s whims or wishes. At every step in his thinking, man’s knowledge must adhere to reality, and to fail in this is to court disaster. To ignore such facts of reality as the properties of fire or the law of gravity because you wish them to be other than they are is to seek injury and eventual death. In short, to break with reality is to court extinction.

Despite the obvious human need of reason for our basic survival, there is an assault on reason that has been going on for more than 100 years.

In 1889 John Dewey, the father of modern education in the United States, stated that there was “no clear social gain” in the learning of “facts and truths,” i.e., in using reason to learn about reality. So in schools today, as Dewey wanted, the focus is more on socializing the students rather than in learning to make sense of reality. This gives rise to high school graduates who cannot create a grammatically clear sentence, a fundamental skill for clear thinking and communicating, or who have to take remedial mathematics classes upon entering college.

Lest you believe this sort of thinking, if you can call it that, is a thing of the past, a couple of months ago I read an alarmist article on so-called catastrophic global warming titled “How Much Hotter is the Planet Going to Get?” The article is an attempt to break down a new study regarding the sensitivity of the climate to additional CO2. In regards to whether the study means that CO2 sensitivity is high, the article states, “It means we can no longer dismiss models with high sensitivity on the basis that their projections don’t match reality.” [emphasis mine] So when talking about global warming, an area in which strident calls for drastic measures are based on predictions from climate models, it doesn’t matter if those projections don’t match reality, are contrary to reason? Imagine trying to make it through a single day if you acted contrary to the facts of reality.

Another example, this time in the area of economics, is the argument offered by some in defense of the theory proposed by French economist Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He claims to prove that income from capital grows faster than the economy as a whole, thus leading to greater and greater inequality which must be combatted via higher income taxes on the rich and a global tax on wealth. (I will leave aside the problems I have with the theory itself.) When it was revealed by the Financial Times that Piketty likely “fudged” his data to get the results he wanted, Danny Vinick at the New Republic wrote, “Even if you believe that Giles’s [the Financial Times reporter who uncovered the problems with the data] findings dramatically change Piketty’s results, they have little bearing on his economic theory. … Piketty fits data to this theory, but does not depend on it.” (Shouldn’t theory be fit to reality rather than the reverse?) So as with climate change models, it does not matter if your theory has no basis in reality, in reason? Imagine the results if you tried to maintain the theory that man can fly unaided, contrary to the facts of reality.

Whether claiming that facts of reality serve no purpose in education or that models and theories need have no connection to reality, such assaults on reason, if successful, can have only one ultimate end: The failure of man to survive as a human being. To give a final concretization- imagine you have a theory that sweet tasting berries are good for human health (anti-oxidants you know) and should be eaten freely. You really wish that the theory is true, and so you ignore the facts of reality when children die from eating Doll’s Eye berries. Your theory states berries are good; what does it matter if the projections of their health benefits don’t match reality? Your theory doesn’t depend on the facts after all.

Does it?