Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Who Believes This Stuff?

Bigfoot is a giant hairy ape-like creature who walks on two legs and is hard to find. So hard to find that it probably doesn’t exist. But that’s just my opinion, not shared by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, whose website collects scraps of possible evidence to show that Bigfoot lives! To see for yourself, you could go on one of the dozen 4-day expeditions that BFRO organizes yearly in wilderness areas across the US to find Bigfoot. If you can’t get away from work, just tune in Sunday evenings to “Finding Bigfoot”: the BFRO’s researchers have been broadcasting their search on one of Animal Planet’s top-rated programs for 5 years. Perhaps a more accurate title would be “Not Finding Bigfoot”.

My interest is more theoretical: who believes in Bigfoot and other unlikely ideas? Polling organizations produce different results about the belief in Bigfoot. Public Policy Polling in 2013 said that 14% believe, and the Baylor University Religion Survey in 2007 agreed, finding that 16% thought absolutely or probably that Bigfoot lives. But Angus Reid Public Opinion says that in 2012, 29% of Americans thought Bigfoot was definitely or probably real.

PPP and Baylor agree that belief in Bigfoot is spread across the American landscape: there is little difference by gender or political party or age. The only significant differences are in education: 27% of those who did not finish high school, 20% of high school graduates, but only 10% of college graduates.

Bigfoot is not a political animal. Neither is belief in aliens, but the number who believe is harder to pin down. PPP’s poll said 29% think that aliens exist; a 2013 poll by Survata, a consumer research firm, found that 37% “believe in the existence of extra-terrestrial life”, while National Geographic said 77% believe there are signs that aliens have visited earth.

Other wild ideas that are not shaped by politics are whether shape-shifting reptilian people control our world (believed by 4%); whether Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1966 (5%); or whether television contains secret mind-controlling technology (15%). But how else to explain the popularity of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”?

About one-fifth believe that vaccines cause autism, according to the 2013 PPP survey, replicated by the American Medical Association. That idea is pretty evenly spread across age, gender and ethnic groups and political positions. Like all of these beliefs, it seems immune to scientific evidence that shows it’s not true: the paper by the British scientist Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a connection was a fraud in service of his own financial gain.

Some strange beliefs are highly political. For example, PPP asked people, “Do you believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order?” About one quarter of Americans said “yes”, a scary thing in itself for our political process. Who are they? The more conservative, the more likely is belief in the New World Order: 45% of those who identified themselves as “very conservative”, 33% of somewhat conservative, but only 12% of very liberal. Men are about twice as likely to women to believe this, and whites more likely than minorities.

The New World Order advocates may be the same people who make other outlandish political claims which all lead in the same direction: President Obama is evil. Among very conservative respondents, PPP found that 21% believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ. And there still are lots of “birthers”, people who believe that Obama was not born in the US and so should not be President: in a poll earlier this year, 38% said that. Who are they? They are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, among whom about two-thirds believe this. They tend to be older whites who did not attend college. Very similar results were found by Rasmussen Reports.

The public production of Obama’s long-form birth certificate did nothing to stop the birther conspiracy claims, demonstrating a deeper truth about crazy ideas: they don’t go away. No amount of evidence has convinced those who claim the Holocaust never happened or that the moon landing was faked.

Scientific research, which is often rejected by most conspiracy theorists, can help us understand why such theories are believed. Belief in broad secret conspiracies is connected to feelings of powerlessness in the face of great forces and powerful institutions. Distrust of government, which has a solid rational basis, leads to distrust of scientists and media, especially when they say things that are disturbing or complicated. Cynicism about politics leads to conspiracy theories about political events. Then attempts to debunk inaccurate information can actually strengthen false beliefs, in the so-called “backfire effect”. The internet provides confirmation of every nutty idea, making debunking even harder.

There is nothing inherently dangerous in believing in Bigfoot. But holding similar nutty ideas can be dangerous: the false vaccine-autism link reduced parents’ interest in vaccines, allowing some formerly extinct diseases to come back, like measles and whooping cough. Distrusting scientists or “mainstream media” isolates people from reality. The only way to reduce the influence of crazy ideas is for people who know they are untrue to stop using them for their own selfish purposes.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 14, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Lessons of History

George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the aftermath of the mass murders of World War II, several state legislatures, including Illinois, voted to teach about the Holocaust in public schools, in order to prevent a repetition.

Right now the lessons that history can teach have provoked a nationwide argument. The College Board, creators of the Advanced Placement history test for high school seniors who wish to get college credit, wrote a revised framework for their test last year. Conservatives are outraged. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in August criticizing the AP US History curriculum (called APUSH) as “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The Texas State Board of Education demanded that the College Board remove the “political bias” of APUSH.

This argument has exploded into a public dogfight in Colorado. In Jefferson County, the state’s second largest school district, three new members of the School Board wrote a manifesto of conservative objections to the new curriculum. They are unusually explicit about using history lessons for political purposes. “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

The new AP curriculum is different from the way that American history has traditionally been taught. But any examination of older American history textbooks demonstrates clearly how our history was white-washed. Public school textbooks used in Texas were emphatic about savage Indians and lazy Negroes. Only gradually over the past decades has a more inclusive and a more accurate historical perspective been written into public school texts, and conservatives have been fighting it ever since. Many charter schools run by conservative or evangelical groups still use texts with racist messages.

The controversy over APUSH is the latest skirmish in a cultural war about how to teach our history. Here’s a classic example of the difference between the two sides. The original mover behind the conservative rejection of APUSH is Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher. He complained that he used to teach Manifest Destiny as “the belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technology across the continent,” but APUSH describes it as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”

Those who developed the idea of Manifest Destiny in the middle of the 19th century, like the journalist John L. O’Sullivan, argued that God had given Americans the destiny to spread democracy across the continent. Advocates stressed the unique virtues of the American people. O’Sullivan looked forward to an “irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration” pushing inferior Natives and Mexicans aside as whites moved west, and he defended the rights of southern states to maintain slavery. (Thanks to Gene Warren, Project Manager at Burlingame Family Health, for this reference.) Krieger, and the conservatives who follow him, want to teach an idealized version of Manifest Destiny, while APUSH offers a more realistic description of what its proponents really said and how it actually worked.

Conservatives are also upset that history teaching has evolved away from memorizing facts about great men to understanding concepts and critical thinking. The College Board wants to test understanding rather than memorization.

The powerful reaction of parents and students have drawn attention to Colorado and the desire to air-brush American history. Hundreds of students from six high schools in Jefferson County walked out in protest of the School Board’s decision. The interference of elected officials in curriculum questions provoked precisely the popular protest that conservatives want to edit out of American history.

The conservative effort to whitewash the history of American racism and to minimize the wave of civil disobedience which eventually overturned the Jim Crow system in North and South displays the current schizophrenia of the right. Conservative politicians have been proclaiming the illegitimacy of our government ever since Barack Obama was elected President. They have encouraged popular protests against the laws of the land, making a hero out of Cliven Bundy, until they discovered his racism. Yet they don’t want young minds to learn that protest, even illegal protest, can be a highly moral response to immoral authority. They want to preserve a myth of American moral purity, while reserving for themselves the right to dissent.

They are afraid of history.

I have been teaching history for 40 years. I doubt that history lessons have much effect on students’ political beliefs. More powerful are the ideologically driven actions of authorities, which provoke the very protests they want to erase from the historical record.

The facts about the Holocaust might teach young Americans valuable civic lessons about the disastrous consequences of racial prejudice in Europe. Conservatives fear that the facts about racial prejudice in our own country might teach young Americans to be critical of myths about America as a uniquely Godly country and to be critical of the policies that conservatives advocate.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 7, 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Let’s Pay More Taxes

That seems like a crazy idea, doesn’t it? So many people are so obsessed with paying less taxes, that they can hardly think about anything else. Half of our politicians seem to have only one prescription for making America great again: lower taxes. We are just coming out of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and many people are far from anything like recovery. Why should we pay even more taxes?

Those who repeat endlessly that we need lower taxes hardly ever say anything about what taxes are for, so it’s useful to go back to basics – we pay taxes to provide public services that we all must have. Taxes build and maintain our roads and our airports. Taxes pay police who protect us and firefighters who protect our homes. Taxes pay our armed forces. Taxes pay for the complex services that a modern society needs to function properly: automobile registration, air traffic control, weather prediction, street lighting, water purification, testing of new drugs, maintenance of public parks. None of these functions could even be imagined when our nation was founded. If you travel to places where taxes do not support these services, you might feel like you were returning to the 18th century, when life was short and uncomfortable.

The biggest area of spending of state tax revenues is for education. Nearly 40% of all state spending is for education, from pre-school through public schools, community colleges, and state universities. An even higher proportion of local taxes goes to education, especially property taxes.

In recent years, state funding for public education in Illinois has dropped precipitously: appropriations per student have been cut by 11% from 2008 to 2013. The most recent state budget envisions another 1% cut in school spending. This is not just our problem, but a national problem. The total number of school employees in the US has fallen by 4% since 2008, meaning fewer teachers, fewer aides, and more students per classroom. Of the 11 buildings in District 117, only one is less than 43 years old. While state contributions to our local schools are falling, our local needs are growing. It’s up to us to invest in our own schools.

This Election Day, in exactly five weeks, the following proposition will appear on ballots in Morgan County: “Shall a retailer’s occupation tax and service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a “Sales Tax”) be imposed in Morgan County at a rate of 1% to be used exclusively for school facility purposes?” Morgan County voters will decide whether to create a County sales tax of 1% for school expenditures. The tax would not apply to sales of groceries and medicine, nor to the sale of vehicles. Revenue could only be used for “school facilities”, not salaries or programs. The state of Illinois authorizes counties to create such a tax up to 1%. Such taxes have already been approved in 18 of Illinois 102 counties, but also have been rejected by even more counties.

Morgan county residents may remember that the last time we were faced with a ballot question about increasing our property taxes for education, it was voted down. What is different this time?

This year starting in January, the entire community has been engaged in thinking about how we all want to improve our schools. The Vision 117 Community Engagement process brought hundreds of local residents together in four public sessions to consider a variety of options. The Facilitation Team under the leadership of Mary Fergurson, Gary Hadden and Mike Oldenettel took the findings from these meetings, combined with some local polling results, to make the following recommendations: 1) additions and upgrades to the Turner Junior High School building, in order to create a middle school with grades 6 through 8; 2) fund these changes through a sales tax of 1%, but no property tax increase.

The Vision 117 process demonstrated wide popular support for renovating Turner Junior High, making it into a middle school, and paying for these physical facility changes with a county sales tax instead of higher property taxes. This county sales tax will spread the burden from property owners to everyone who makes local purchases. If this passes, our sales taxes will still be lower than Champaign, Urbana, Springfield, Decatur and Peoria.

Why pay higher taxes? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. A better question is, do we want our local schools to remain at their current, barely acceptable level, or do we want a school system which will be attractive to potential new residents of Jacksonville, both homeowners and businesses? Given the deterioration of school buildings and the cuts in state funding, doing nothing means getting nowhere. If we want Jacksonville to thrive in the 21st century, if we have hope for a better school system, we need to invest in our schools. So I’ll vote YES in November.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 30, 2014