Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2017

‘In the dark’, from Griffith Review 55: State of Hope, edited by Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington

state-of-hope

Cover image: Captain Adelaide (1973) by Nigel Murray-Harvey (1938-2013)

Cultural warning: Indigenous readers are advised that this review contains the name of an Aboriginal person no longer living.

The latest Griffith Review: No 55, ‘State of Hope’ is all about South Australia.  It’s a most interesting miscellany of short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and there are also photo stories.   The collection is permeated by an awareness of South Australia’s economic problems in the wake of the collapse of its manufacturing industry, but also by an optimistic faith in its future – not unjustified, given its history under the innovative and visionary former 20th century premier, Don Dunstan (1926-1999).

I can’t possibly do justice to this diverse collection even with the open word limit of a blog, so I am going to focus on just one piece:

Tory Shepherd’s piece called ‘In the dark, when ‘truthiness’ eclipses the truth’  turns out to be strangely prescient in the light of the American election.  (This edition of the review was officially published on the same day as the inauguration, but the content was of course written before that).  With the SA blackout last year triggering all kinds of false claims about the causes, Shepherd reminds South Australians how important it is that they think clearly – because their future depends on it.

Sloppy, anti-scientific thinking leads to poor policy, stagnation and deaths.  Climate change denialism and resistance to renewables means that at a federal level Australia is not doing all it can; the manufactured ‘controversies’ put the brake on progress.

The rejection of well-proven science can be fatal.  That has been shown in those who reject vaccination, or conventional cancer therapy.  If the world does not speed up its action on climate change more people will die through the increasing volatility of the weather.

Truth, arrived at through the scientific process, leads to progress and growth.  South Australia, particularly, is in need of a rather large growth spurt.  Our employment levels are languishing.  the economy is worse than sluggish.  Our dwindling share of the nation’s population means we are set to lose one of our federal seats in parliament, leaving us with just ten MPs in the House of Representatives of one hundred and fifty seats.

Science is a beacon of light in the quagmire. South Australia has the beginnings of a way to finally ditch the ‘City of Churches’ tag and become the centre of rational thought and progress.  Of wind farms and solar power and peerless thinkers and cutting-edge technologies.  World-class medical facilities and top-notch researchers.  Science can make our wine and cheese even better.  It can open up new avenues of industry and create jobs. (p.60)

All this could be sabotaged by people failing to think critically.  What Shepherd could not have known when she wrote this article was that the world’s most powerful man has already been the catalyst for the endorsement of  ‘alternative facts’.   The value of Shepherd’s article is that she explains how an anti-science tendency is getting traction outside the conspiracy theorists’ purview, a phenomenon we are witnessing here in Australia in the examples she provides:  Senator Roberts thinks his opinion about climate change is more valuable than that of Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel; hordes follow celebrity chef Pete Evans’ bizarre dietary advice for babies; and One Nation calls climate change a fabrication.  The danger is that the growing profile of these people can influence policy decisions that will impact on progressive thinking and economic development.

How does this happen?  When I hear these nutty ideas, I wonder about how they get this kind of traction in modern Australia where everybody has had the benefit of education.

Shepherd quotes David Aaronovitch in Voodoo Histories, The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. He writes that some individuals believe that they are the lonely custodians of the truth and that they got there through the quality of their minds. 

Shepherd explains why this attitude is appealing:

Some argue that truth is relative.  Climate change deniers claim that their (cherry-picked, wrongly interpreted) data is more valid than NASA’s, say, or the Bureau of Meteorology’s. Still others state science is a set of beliefs with no more claim to truthfulness than a religion.  And having a different belief to the mainstream makes people feel special.  They’re not just ‘sheeple’, unwitting believers in what the authorities say, but are part of a special subsection of society that possesses the truth.  (p.57)

But with the advent of the internet they are no longer alone.  She tells us that

Online, deniers and conspiracy theorists strengthen their bonds with others who believe the same misinformation as they do.  (p.58)

Buttressed by the network of support, the false beliefs ossify:

The mistrust of the ‘establishment’, of the accepted science, too easily turns to loathing.  This is where the divide between science and anti-science really kicks in.  The conspiracy theorists loathe the system, and the system starts to loathe them in return.  Pseudoscientific beliefs are constantly debunked by scientific institutions such as the Australian Medical Association, the CSIRO, the Cancer Council, NASA.  But those who feel they are treated with contempt are unlikely to change their minds; they only harden against the ‘authorities’ that dismiss their strongly held thoughts. (p.58)

And therein lies the problem.  Shepherd acknowledges that the ‘smackdown’ doesn’t work.  We have seen these ‘smackdowns’ on Q&A or The Project but they have no impact on false beliefs.  Shepherd explains that the desire to find patterns in the phenomena around us derives from the primitive period when humans who could do this had an advantage.  She quotes the explanation of Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain)

Homo sapiens believe things for a complicated and sometimes random series of reasons.  Why they hold onto the wrong beliefs is the interesting question – why, when presented with evidence of climate change or the benefits of renewable energy, do some refuse to accept the facts?

Shermer refers to the TV series The X-Files. Credulous FBI agent Fox has a poster in his office that reads ‘I Want to Believe’.  Humans want to believe, in part, because we have evolved to be pattern finders.  To find the evidence.  Those who could track the droppings of prey or spot the telltale signs of a predator were more likely to survive.  Finding patterns in stars might help you find the way home.

Shermer points to how this operates for conspiracy theorists (those who believe man never landed on the moon, or that September 11 was a grand hoax) when he writes in The Believing Brain: ‘It is because their pattern-detection filters are wide open, thereby letting in any and all patterns as real, with little or no screening of potential false patterns.  Conspiracy theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns, and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency.’ (p.56)

If I had known this when I was teaching, would I have had any strategies to combat it? Are these undiscriminating pattern-detectors already ossified in primary school-aged children?   Mine is the generation that had to pass the ‘Clear Thinking’ component of Year 12/VCE/Matriculation English so we learned to detect flaws in written arguments – do secondary schools still require this?  Or is a conspiracy theorist born not made?

South Australia needs its people to invest in STEM: science, technology, engineering and maths.  All of which rely on truth and the rejection of truthiness to succeed.  South Australia’s hope depends on stopping the viral spread of truthiness and steering the boat back to truth.

****

There is much, much more to this edition of the Griffith Review.   I was intrigued by Max Allen’s article about developments in the Riverland wine region that show how initiatives from individual farmers can thrive, and I’ll be looking out for the wine varieties he describes.  There’s also an interesting piece by Emily Potter about the role of olive trees in a changing climate.  Amongst the fiction is an excerpt from Jane Rawson’s new novel From the Wreck (see my review); there is also poetry from Ali Cobby Eckerman; a moving memoir by Tracy Crisp about the impact of Fly In, Fly Out jobs on a family; and a stunning full colour bilingual photo story in the Adnyamathanhal language, together with Eva Horning’s story of its creation by Uncle Buck McKenzie.  And I loved Lea McInerney’s piece about learning Ngadjuri, the local language of her home town of Clare.

There is also a really valuable article called ‘Stormy Times’ by John Soehr which explains how governments have an important role to play in steering development in new directions.  (An example of this is the building of a state-of-the-art research hospital to attract biotechnology experts working on new pharmaceuticals for export).  His conclusion is worth quoting in full:

While dark clouds gather on the economic horizon, the threat they pose could be minimised by job-rich stimulus measures to accelerate the growth of knowledge and design-intensive industries in response to both domestic and global demand, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region.  At the same time, entrenched unemployment, growing underemployment, poverty and inequality must be confronted by well-integrated social and economic policies with the same commitment and vigour that we have seen in times of crisis when great storms, drought, economic shocks and recessions threaten hardship and suffering.  South Australia must be well prepared and positioned to manage all of these challenges. (p.31)

That’s probably true for other states of Australia too.

For a review by a proper historian, see Marion Quartly’s review at Honest History.

Editors: Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington
Title: State of Hope, Griffith Review #55
Publisher: Griffith University in association with Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498295
Review copy courtesy of Griffith Review

Available from Fishpond: State of Hope (Griffith REVIEW) or you can subscribe to the quarterly direct from Griffith Review.

 


Responses

  1. I know it’s ‘worthy’ but I always struggle to fit Griffith Review in my budget. Isn’t it interesting how we are starting to see more articles about smackdowns of denialists being counter productive. Though Shepherd writes “others state science is a set of beliefs with no more claim to truthfulness than a religion” – in fact denialists mostly see religion as fact. My own belief is that if our leaders were open about climate change then the denialists wouldn’t stand a chance, but of course the far-right – who see the politics of climate change as a war against the left – have the upper hand, not least with the gutless Turnbull.
    In passing, I’ve always seen ‘city of churches’ as being about Adelaide’s prettiness, not religion, obviously Shepherd feels it differently.

    • For me, it’s not so much the budget, though my extravagance has had to be reined in since retirement, it’s that when I did subscribe, I just didn’t have time to read them all. I still have two on my TBR that I kept to read “at some stage” and the rest I sent to the Op Shop to make room on the shelf. Which I still regret…
      I have dim memories of lectures at teachers college about how hard it is to change attitudes. That was in the context of racism, but the message is the same. Entrenched attitudes are very, very hard to shift.
      Don’t get me started about Turnbull. He failed to win the republic debate because he doesn’t have the art of persuasion. If he can’t persuade his own party of his ideas, he can’t persuade the Australian people about anything important (which, hey! that’s what leadership is about) and he’s just an empty cipher bleating inanities on our TVs. Fortunately we have some not-too-bad state leaders at the moment, pressing on regardless..

      • Haha Lisa, I have a little pile of partly read Griffith Reviews that I’m thinking I should pass on to LifeLine but keep holding back. I don’t subscribe but buy the odd one and fondle pretty much every one!

        I was thinking about your comment “When I hear these nutty ideas, I wonder about how they get this kind of traction in modern Australia where everybody has had the benefit of education”, I guess the question is what sort of education and how interested people were in their education. Not much I’d say for many. And I can’t help thinking that the public is not well-served by politicians, and journalists who do not, overall, engage in much analysis. Of course some do, but not enough – or not the noisy ones.

        • It must make it hard for these journals; there are so many that are really good, but even if we could afford to support them all, we wouldn’t have time to read them all and books as well.
          Well, education… yes… I see that NSW is revising its curriculum to ‘make it more rigorous’. Of course, they always say that, they have to, to get politicians and the tabloid press off their backs, but I do think that the push towards a more general education to achieve better retention rates, has perhaps led to some lost opportunities. Of course the very bright can write a rigorously analytical essay about Cloudstreet but that’s not the same as analysing Hamlet or Macbeth and IMO most of what’s in the reading list sells those students short. In my Year 12/VCE/Matric I read Bertrand Russell’s Authority and the Individual and contrasted it with Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and we read a George Eliot though I can’t remember which one now because I’ve read them all. Now they get Wuthering Heights which they probably contrast with Twilight or some such. From what I see of the Y12 booklists (and I peruse them from time to time out of curiosity) there is nothing as demanding as any of the books we read, though curiously, in Victoria, although they get fobbed off with Measure for Measure instead of a meaty tragedy they do the quite difficult poetry of John Donne and Euripides’ Medea. (I remember doing John Donne at teachers’ College with a bunch of young women who blushed furiously over The Flea when it was explained to them, would they do that today, I wonder?)

          • Yes, I’ve been pondering the curriculum changes announced today. I think they probably have been selling many students short. One of the biggest pleasures of my last three years of high school was doing Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (having done some of his others in my first high school years). However, this return to rigorous more “classical” (they are saying though I’m not sure they realise what that really means) won’t work for all. And that’s the big challenge. I’m not sure what the answer is – but I don’t think it’s a “one size fits all” approach.

            • Oh yes, I think it’s very difficult indeed for secondary teachers: in a primary classroom teachers have to contend with differences in ability that span 5 years or more by the time kids get to Year 6, and the span only lengthens as the years go by. Then you can add differences in IQ into that mix, typically anything from about 85 to 125-30, some of those students having IQs higher than their teachers.
              In Secondary schools there are also students who don’t really want to be there and it’s a huge ask to expect teachers to meet all those needs…

              • Exactly — in the days of streaming you could offer different levels of classes to different abilities/desires/needs. I know streaming has its problems but there must be a better way of delivering rigorous intellectual education to those who want it and more practical or directly vocational to those who want that.

                • Well, the trouble is, that costs money. Here in this country we are ok about steaming by postcode and parental income via private schools, but not ok about streaming by intelligence.

  2. It’s a very challenging time in this country. S.A. has been privy to some excellent policies particularly Don Dustan’s era. What a different era from this dumbing down of serious matters the daily fare of the MSM and the pettiness of the mendicants that fill the airwaves. One could easily despair but that’s not a choice so far. Malcolm Turnbull and his ilk are not interested in the future of this country but rather their own place in posterity. Not good. I like your optimism Lisa about the few state premiers who seem to present a more inclusive and progressive outlook.

    • And we hope that in the US, leaders in progressive states such as California will press on regardless too!

  3. I have RW Jepson’s Clear Thinking still on my bookshelves, Lisa. The fifth edition published by Longmans – pretty sure it was what we used at Croydon High in the 1960s. I have been questioning my students about whether it is still taught in schools because I wonder how we could have produced someone like Roberts et al. And if those elected to lead us can’t think clearly what hope for the general population not privy to all their info? The quote by Jeremy Bentham (studied him too!) at the beginning of Chapter Three ‘Thought and Language’ – “When we have words in our ears, we imagine that we have ideas in our minds.” a great introduction to discussing the power of words and how we use them – often to crystallise our own experiences and prejudices forgetting that clear thinking and clear expression should be complementary. Case in point, the debate over SA power failures and the energy mix crisis – I’ve heard so many (mis?) interpretations of the regulator’s report and renewables versus fossil fuels, you wonder who to believe. Meanwhile like Nero fiddling our politicians throw tantrums and theatrics. I’ve a couple of editions of the Griffith review when they’ve covered a social issue in-depth, but my budget is tight so I haunt the op shops. (Maybe I was lucky to pick up your throwaways!) I think Dunstan was like Whitlam – a man ahead of his time or at least one who believed in having a vision for the future and working hard to achieve it. He also had political courage – prepared to challenge ‘the party machine’ – not much of that happens now either.

    • Well, Mairi, you would have liked the event I went to tonight, a talk about climate science by Dr Penny Whetton at The Clyde Hotel, organised by the Victorian Skeptics. She summarised key aspects of the projected future climate, with a particular focus on Victoria. It was excellent.


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