It’s easy to wed the notion of economic productivity to a buzzword like prosperity. The prosperity buzzword is frequently employed in the political sphere, just like other cheap maneuvers, like kissing babies or cutting ribbons.
Who’s opposed to prosperity anyhow? Anybody claiming that their opponents are opposed to prosperity are probably just bullshitting. Most everyone wants prosperity. People disagree about the precise meaning of the term and people have different political approaches to the real-world phenomenon of disparity in prosperity. But pretty much everyone wants prosperity (at least for themselves); it’s a good thing.
Part of my mandate here is to promote science education (it helps that I’m educating myself as I write this series!) Recently I’ve resigned myself to the fact that science education itself is founded on concepts of objective truth and progressivism, notions that are being actively eroded by the ‘science-haters.’
I’m ranting about the word prosperity because, as a physical scientist, I appreciate how difficult it’s been for people to figure the substantive meaning of the concepts such as space, time, mass, energy, or information. But politicians or economists throw around the word prosperity like it’s a substantive concept. And it’s actually quite hard to hammer-down what people mean by the term. Invariably, you find out that they’re not utopian-utilitarians; usually the path to prosperity involves a lot of poverty for somebody else in the picture. Prosperity becomes a proxy for something more substantive, and far more ethically vacuous, like productivity or efficiency.
I like the notion that the overall political tone needs to change, and it certainly does. But to advance science education, which is founded on an valuation of objective truth, we must protect this value when scientific concepts get dragged into the political sphere, where the rhetorical manipulation of truth is endemic.
So I’m making a case for a renewed appreciation for the precision of language.
Some presuppose that values like prosperity or progress ought to be thoughtfully weighed against our mandate to preserve ourselves. The comparison is fairly meaningless. A stable food and water supply takes priority over “economic productivity” for the same reason that Maslow’s pyramid has the physiological needs at the base! What good is prosperity when it has cost us our life support system?
I’m not exaggerating about life support. We do not have a viable alternative to preserving the biosphere as our source of food and especially oxygen. Going to Mars does not solve anything! A single species of ocean cyanobacteria, prochlorococcus, is thought to make around 20% of the air we breathe. If we perturb the ocean enough to kill-off that single species, we could, you know, face an air shortage. “So who’s prospering from the air shortage?” you may ask. Good question. No it isn’t, it’s a horrible question!
I’m not a neo-Luddite or a primitivist. I like civilization, and it’s comforts, and its prolongation of my life span. I want to preserve it and to help it function correctly, and because I also like reality, I see that civilization (as I know it) is on a course to failure. As long as we prioritize economic-political-speak like ‘prosperity’ over humanistic truisms like ‘the air we breathe,’ we’re on a slow path to collapse.
Some of my readers indicated that my previous post addressed a straw man. They say, “Nobody denies that the Earth is warming” but it’s obvious that influential people do. Recent polls show that substantial portions of the US disbelieve that the climate is changing. (An interesting result shows that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed on this issue.) And the recent blizzard that hit the Northeast was emphasized by many Fox News commentators to directly disconfirm “global warming.”
I couldn’t believe it. Wow is Fox News ever stupid!
But I don’t think the stupidity of Fox News proves that its viewers are equally stupid. I think the truth is more insidious. I think Fox News is stupidity education, de-education, like Orwell’s newspeak. Each pundit sticks their hand out, catches a snowflake, and says, “What global warming? What me worry?” Not just spreading false ideas, actually demonstrating the process of stupid reasoning.
Therefore I don’t think Fox News viewers are all stupid, but I do think they’re probably stupider than before they started watching. Like a dentist handing out lollypops, Fox News seems to be expanding their own market.
So when our Fox-News-viewing citizens start engaging the rest of us, we should ask them what they mean by prosperity or conservativism, when the most conservative, prosperous thing to do is to preserve ourselves. Try to make them think, do whatever you can to make them think about the meaning of words, even if you just raise a doubt. And whatever you do, keep to simple language, because if you use a word of oldspeak they’ll immediately shut down.
Ryan MB Hoffman has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He is mostly interested in how protein molecules fluctuate throughout their functional processes. During his doctoral work he studied troponin, which is a switch that regulates striated muscle contraction. He works as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. He is active with the Intrinsically Disordered Proteins subgroup of the Biophysical Society. Ryan likes to remind people that his contributions to TRN are performed entirely using his personal resources.