JACK SPENCER: Suppressed knowledge — What we know

It's amazing how much information swims around in the minds of human beings. Yet, how often do we access our full range of knowledge, let alone apply it? Our world is one of instant gratification and automated answers. In their everyday lives people are given less and less motivation to thoroughly think things through.

Modern conveniences are replacing our mental processes. For example, cashiers no longer need to know how to tabulate the amount of change customers' get back following a purchase. A machine does that for them instantly.

This is fast and efficient, but the process of thinking suffers as a result. Overall, this has had a negative impact on our political system. Increasingly, we see shallow impulse substituted for careful evaluation.

Failure to fully think things through leaves information we already possess untapped. This “suppressed knowledge” plays a key role with any number of issues. As a result, some of the most convincing political arguments are those that simply remind people of things they already know.

Here are some possible examples:

Science and politics

There's a difference between scientific debate and political debate. With science those who argue a point welcome the toughest questions. They want to tackle to most challenging criticisms. Even more significantly, they show respect for other points of view and alternative theories.

With politics, it's just the opposite. As much as possible, promoting a political idea involves presenting only one side of the issue. Awkward challenges and questions are to be avoided. It's all about controlling the debate; not legitimately engaging in it.

So when claims are made that are supposedly based on science; pay attention. Try to determine if the presenter is striving to limit the issue to a narrow discussion range.

Are they willing to broaden the debate and fully address serious challenges? If not, it's safe to assume that politics, not science, is behind the message.

What the numbers really mean

For several years, the average size of a household in the United States was said to be four and a half (4 ½) people. Basically that meant a mother and father, plus two and half (2 ½) children.

After relaying this fact to their students, teachers used to sometimes follow it up with a little trick. They'd ask everyone in their class who lived in an average household to raise their hands.

This served two purposes. First it exposed some students who hadn't been listening. Obviously anyone who raised their hand just hadn't been paying attention.

The second reason was to emphasize that a numerical average did not mean “normal.” There simply could be no households with 2 ½ children.

How often do we remind ourselves of this when we hear about average temperatures for a given date, average results from a study, or even some averages used in various forms of advertising?

Time differential

Geologists and other scientists generally agree that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old. That fact creates two separate definitions of what should be considered ancient. Human civilization dates back roughly 10,000 years. That seems like a long time from the human perspective. However, by comparison, it would be only a couple of seconds in terms of the Earth's history.

Extinction is a natural process

It has been estimated that nearly 99.9 percent of all species that have been on Earth have gone extinct. All but a tiny fraction of those creatures disappeared before humans emerged from the hunter-gathered stage.

Climate changes, which have constantly occurred throughout Earth's existence, undoubtedly caused many of the extinctions. Biological competition was probably also a major factor.

We're seeing that play out in the Pacific Northwest right now. The Barred Owl could well push the Spotted Owl into extinction. It mates with Spotted Owls and, due to its dominate genes, the resulting offspring are Barred Owls.

This sort of biological drama has probably occurred thousands of times in natural history. One wonders how many species were put into extinction by competing creatures that came to dominate vast areas of land, such as locusts and the American buffalo.

Humans are the only species that has ever worried about its impact on the environment. That's a good thing if the concern is based on science. If the concern is based on political rhetoric, the result could actually damage the environment.

USSR had the greatest environmental disaster

What is the worst man-made environmental disaster? Hands down, it is the shrinkage of the Aral Sea. Under the constant misuse by the government of the USSR, the Aral Sea has lost more than 90 percent of its water. It's become too salty for even sea fish to live in.

This could only have happened where government was 100 percent in control.

It is believed the Aral Sea may have been connected to the Caspian Sea as recently as the Golden Age of Greece, only 2,500 years ago. But, due to natural causes, the Aral Sea region was subject to a general drying trend for several centuries.

By the time humans began mapping Central Asia, the Aral Sea was separated from the Caspian by more than 100 miles. Still, just 100 years ago the Aral Sea was the world's fourth largest inland sea.

Knowing these facts, the last thing the USSR should have done was divert huge amounts of water from the rivers that flow into the Aral Sea. But that's what it started doing in the 1930's, with the mass construction of irrigation channels. What's more, the practice continued throughout the decades that followed.

In its proper role, government would be a watchdog and regulator over such activity. But when government is in total control, there are no watchdogs. A government will always allow itself to do stupid things that it would never let a separate entity (such as a corporation or utility) get away with.

Keep that in mind the next time someone suggests “government should do it,” because corporations and other private entities (which weren't allowed to exist in the USSR) can't be trusted.

Similar commentary could be made regarding the world's worst nuclear plant disaster. That occurred at Chernobyl,

in the USSR in 1986.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.