Though every nation is of some degree of contradictory nature if one looks hard enough, the United States offers ironies of particular significance. Here we have a nation that produces an incredibly large percentage of peer-reviewed papers relative to its population size, which produces a similarly large share of its patents, which attracts some of the best scientific minds in the world to some of the best scientific institutions in history, which has conceived and implemented such an incredible array of technological innovations that it would be impossible to calculate the degree to which our finest minds have contributed to the overall cause of mankind, its modern capabilities and its future aspirations.
At the same time, it is a nation where science is under perpetual and sometimes successful assault, the great advances in our ability to understand and control evolution to the betterment of mankind co-existing along with a great population of people who benefit most from the resulting medical technology while denouncing the mindset that made such things possible. God often takes the credit that would more properly go to doctors and research scientists.
The single greatest indictment of the American population as a whole may be seen in a survey of international attitudes towards the theory of evolution, itself among the most important and useful scientific constructs ever devised. Less than half of the adults of our republic ascribe to this most crucial bedrock of modern science. By this measurement, we are more akin to those relatively superstitious nations of Africa where the Enlightenment never took hold and those of the Middle East where it has been actively strangled by Islamic fundamentalism than to our First World friends in Europe and Asia. The American Christian conservative has a great deal in common with his Middle Eastern Muslim conservative counterpart. This explains why advocates of the fraudulent pseudo-theory known as intelligent design opted a few years back to hold amajor conference in Turkey - which, incidentally, is the only Western nation in which evolutionary science is regarded with more disdain than it is in the U.S.
The United States, then, is the nation of the Enlightenment in which some half of the population longs for the dark ages - perhaps only unconsciously, but certainly without understanding the implications of what it is that they wish for, nor what will happen if they get it. There is a great deal at stake in the early 21st century, an era dangerously akin to earlier ones.
But a cup half-empty is also a cup half-full. More to the point, it's a cup. One can always get a refill.
Among those things that science has given us is known as the internet. It is a shame that it is known as such - not because of any problem with the particular name, but rather because any term, and particularly one that encompasses so much at once, will over time accrue mental associations that may not be accurate in describing it or helpful in understanding it. Regardless of what we call it, it is certain that we do not understand it perfectly anymore than we are likely to fully understand anything, particularly something of great complexity. It is not much of a task to encompass in one's mind an apple, to appreciate the positive and negative aspects of such a thing, to model in our thoughts the possibilities inherent to an apple, to be reasonably certain that we have taken best advantage of what the apple has to offer us and what it could potentially do for the civilization in which we each have a stake. The apple is very limited, after all; it lacks relative complexity. The internet, by contrast, is essentially unlimited, and as complex as anything we have yet encountered other than ourselves. In terms of our ability to predict what will come of it, it is the very opposite of an apple. And just as we probably need not stop and re-evaluate the apple from time to time in search of some revolutionary use by which we might perhaps solve some great problem, we would be negligent in our humanity were we not to give the internet some great deal of consideration, to take a moment or two to ensure that we are taking best advantage of this phenomenon that is unlike anything else.
The internet is still in its infancy, and the possibilities inherent to the medium have yet to be fully explored. New uses and dynamics keep popping up. They pop up in such quick succession that we do not even wonder at them anymore, would find it surprising only if new surprises did not appear. Recently there arose a new surprise whereby one may click a button and find one's self face to face with some random person in some random place, whether at the other end of the globe or in one's own city. This development was received with the same high degree of frivolity as one would expect from a society in which frivolity is often confused with maturity and worldliness; a breezy tone flows through most written accounts one finds on the subject, the inevitable encounters with male genitalia are emphasized to an extent far greater than their actual sociological implications, and one need not bother viewing any television news segments to know that whatever significance may exist here will not survive the dynamics of the medium. Meanwhile, for the first time in our two million year history, it is now a simple matter to communicate both visually and audibly with some individual with whom we were last connected perhaps a hundred thousand years ago by way of some common ancestor, and whom the twin barriers of physical geography and political reality would have successfully kept out of our reach were it not for the internet and the era that it has come to define.
Again, though, this is merely another wonder in an age of wonders, one in which it is drastically simple for an individual to have some profound effect on the world and its workings. Of greater fundamental importance than any particular development is the fact that such wonders now come about at such a pace and with such ease; this should tell us that there are additional wonders to be instigated, and that changing the habits of a hundred million people is simply a matter of identifying an opportunity and then acting on it. Institutions that have existed for tens, hundreds, or thousands of years are now exceedingly vulnerable to reform and even overthrow. Such institutions were once safe by virtue of having developed in a certain environment. That environment is gone forever.
I have a new monthly column for The Skeptical Inquirer, the admirable old magazine put out by the similarly admirable Committee For Skeptical Inquiry. Skepticism, incidentally, is more than the practice of dismissing ghosts or holistic medicine; it is the practice of distinguishing between that which we know and that which we think we know. Some great degree of human misery has been the result of mistaken beliefs, either of the sort that prompts us to stop searching for the truth or the sort that prompts us to actively do harm to others. The plagues that killed off sizable portions of Europe on several occasions could have been drastically minimized if humanity had applied skepticism to their beliefs rather than assuming that they knew the causes of such diseases; the various religious wars that defined the monotheistic movements could have been similarly minimized in the absence of such a fine recruiting tool as God's Seal of Approval. Skepticism is not simply the hobby of killjoys; it is a matter of life and death. If the reader finds such an assertion to be outlandish, then the reader almost certainly lives in a society in which skepticism has made relatively grand strides, rather than in some country in Africa where myths regarding HIV and AIDS have contributed to the illness and deaths of millions, where virgin girls are routinely raped in a misguided and immoral effort to cure a disease that thrives in environments marked by credulity.
The AIDS-related rapes and religion-related witch burnings may seem alien to those among among our citizens who consider themselves sophisticated members of modern society - people who ascribe to the Bible, horoscopes, the power of prayer, the concept that God will intervene in one's financial life or will provide some degree of support to our military expeditions by virtue of His keenness on our form of government. But there is no fundamental difference between the potion-brewing shaman and the bestseller-composing Rick Warren, as both deal in magic and encourage others to depend on it in matters of life and life and death. Both are responsible for the consequences that result from the dependency of their followers on magic over hard work. Neither take responsibility for any of these consequences, though they are more than happy to take one's money. The real difference between the two is that the witch doctor is highly limited in his means of reaching new customers, whereas Warren is fortunate enough to live in a society in which materialist science allows him to fly to presidential inaugurations in planes, address new marks via television and radio, and otherwise make use of the products of secular thinking in the process of denouncing such a world view as has made it possible for him to be heard in the first place. More fundamentally, the difference is that Warren lives in a world built by his ideological enemies, whereas the witch doctor is at home among others sharing his own mindset.
Today, the internet provides a new means by which Warren and other mystics of the sort may ply their trade to an extent that would have been impossible not long ago. Does this mean that the internet will have an overall negative effect on the wholesale rationality of mankind? My first Skeptical Inquirer column makes the oddly controversial case that the cause of skepticism is in fact well-served by the communications age despite the challenges it brings. More importantly, I will also be making the case - in fact, will be spending the rest of my professional life doing so - that the dynamics of the internet provide us with an opportunity to redefine the world around us in a manner that would have been impossible just a decade ago, and that this is only a matter of a few individuals taking responsibility in accordance with their abilities. As I noted above, we would be negligent in our humanity were we not to give the internet some great deal of consideration, to take a moment or two to ensure that we are taking best advantage of this phenomenon.
Information is fundamental to the manner in which human society functions, and insomuch as that human society has rarely functioned as well as we know that it can as proven by instances in which it has functioned relatively well, we may determine that aspects of society may be drastically improved, and that such improvements may be spurred merely by an improvement in the flow of information. I have devised a schematic whereby information may flow in a manner superior to anything that has existed before, and which may thus be expected to have a significant positive effect to the extent that the schematic is adopted by others who operate in the realm of information. Certain individuals more prominent and resourceful than myself have already agreed to perpetuate the plan either by adopting it, promoting it, or supporting it, and thus the plan is already a success to the extent that a rock atop a clip has locked into it a certain amount of potential energy. More are in the process of joining, which is to say that, to some degree and at some pace, the plan will go into effect. But with more participants, the plan will achieve greater and quicker success.
The details will be announced soon, but in the meantime I am in search of additional participants to serve in a capacity crucial to the exact manner in which things proceed. A more formal announcement is forthcoming, at which point I will be recruiting in earnest, but if you are an individual who feels sufficient responsibility for the world around you that are willing to give a few minutes of your life in determining whether or not my plan is of sufficient viability to merit your backing, I would ask you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, in which case I will provide you with more information and answer any questions you may have.
In the meantime, I would simply note that never has there existed such opportunity for revolution in human affairs. I am merely proposing that we take advantage of this opportunity.