Editor's Pick

Black and White and Shades of Gray

The only thing I can’t do in excess is moderation.
—Baxter Black

“Moderation in all things” is a popular saying that many of us have heard all our lives. Still, a good number of people seem to have forgotten the sentiment behind this advice. Instead of looking for the good that exists within the bad and the bad that dwells within the good, people are choosing to line up behind one extreme or another. Nuances are being ignored in favor of strong positions on either side of the middle. This has led inevitably to polarization, partisanship, and balkanization in our society. For some reason, moderation has been forgotten.

Reason Versus Extremism

The use of the word reason in the previous sentence is perhaps a stretch because “reason” does not seem to be part of the present debates. All issues of importance seem to have been hijacked by those who do not allow any viewpoints occupying the middle ground. This is true whether the issue is climate change, interpretations of history, displays of homage to past heroes, political correctness, immigration policy, expressions of free speech, liberal versus conservative political outlooks, or a host of other issues currently being debated.

Diversity of opinion has always been part of our society, but diversity can only take us so far. At the core of any sustainable society must be basic unity. And, for many of us, that unity needs to be rediscovered and fostered as never before.

The natural outcome of all this extremism is anger at those who do not share in the same extremist views. Anger is on the rise in our country, perhaps even in the world, if for no other reason than that some groups do not consider themselves as having anything in common with other groups. There is extreme loyalty to one’s own group and little, if any, regard for others. Lack of respect, arguments, and physical violence have followed.

It has not always been like this. Even during the radical disruptions of the antiwar protests opposing the Vietnam conflict and the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, there were love-ins, teachins, and sit-ins. The protests were sometimes loud and raucous, but they were not usually violent. “Peace” and “Make love, not war” were the slogans of the day. After the war, there was a show of American unity when on Sunday, 25 May 1986, approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the contiguous United States. My wife, two daughters, and I participated in that event.

Extremism in Science

The extremist situation existing today has even extended to science. Kloor [4] has written about the “science police,” those who would inject political viewpoints into their evaluations of draft papers for publication.

He tells of a paper on ecological diversity submitted by Mark Velland to the journal Nature. In this paper, Velland reported on the results from a meta-analysis indicating that plant diversity at local levels had not declined as a result of species extinctions. In many places, species richness had increased. This was contrary to the popularly held idea that, as species extinctions increased, so did diversity and with it ecosystem function.

The first peer reviewer commented, “I can appreciate counterintuitive findings that are contrary to common assumption” but argued that the way the results reported in this paper might be interpreted had raised the bar for acceptance. “I do not think this conclusion would be justified, and I think it is important not to pave the way for that conclusion to be reached by the public,” the reviewer concluded. Despite the clear evidence it presented, the paper was rejected.

Kloor also notes that similar impulses appear to be driving some of the policing in the climate arena. If the purpose of science is to investigate, imperfectly but systematically, the workings of the physical world, then “wrinkles in science, conflicts and arguments, and due skepticism of previously established findings” are all essential.

Scientific truth depends on the accumulation of results from many experiments. Some test results may seem to contradict results from other tests. However, after sufficient replication and identification of/explanations for outliers, consensus eventually is reached about scientific truth, and scientists move on. Thus, science requires open-mindedness: scientists must be open to all eventual possibilities, especially with regard to exploratory research.

Engineering, of course, is different, in that engineering research is usually not so open-ended. Such research is more often directed toward finding improvements in existing technologies. So far as I know, the extremists have not yet tried to influence the acceptance of engineering research results. (However, I have to admit to some reticence about putting into writing a conclusion I reached years ago: the performance burden of wearing respiratory protective masks by first responders at the World Trade Center Towers after the 11 September 2001 attacks could have cost lives that would not have been lost if the masks had not been worn. Of course, those rescuers without masks would have suffered from the long-term effects of contaminant inhalation, but, at least, they would be alive. This conclusion would not be popular with industrial hygienists who advocate for respiratory protective wear use.)

Facts, Misinformation, and Critical thinking

There is a good deal of misinformation, or “alternative facts,” appearing on social media and feeding the tendency to extreme positions. Of course, exactly which pieces of information are labeled “misinformation” depends on which side of an issue one is on. Misinformation for one group is an undisputable fact for another.

Rich Davis [2], writing as a reader to Scientific American, has offered a solution to the extremist malaise we seem to be in. He notes the amount of misinformation promulgated on social media and points out that this leads to mistaken ideas about important issues:

We cannot remove social media— it is here to stay—and we cannot squelch ideas even if they are highly “virulent.” So, what can we do about how susceptible we are to conspiracy theories? It may take a generation, but I think we should focus on improving critical thinking skills in young people— kindergarten through college. We need to teach them to assess information analytically, to appreciate complexity, and to employ strategies against bias to mitigate the human tendency to seek simple answers and assign blame.

This is where we as teachers, practicing engineers, and adults come in. It is up to us to show that there is more than one side to any issue. If there is evidence to substantiate one side, we need to point it out; if there are weaknesses in that position, we should point them out as well in a spirit of fairness. If there is some merit to another interpretation, then we need to make others cognizant of our determination. In short, we need to demonstrate to others—whether they are students, fellow employees, acquaintances, or anyone else—that we can fairly judge an issue and admit to some validity on both sides, if that is the case. Extreme interpretations discourage intercourse.

We need to foster true conversation, not just articulating our own positions but also listening to the positions of others. I’m afraid that the art of true conversation is being lost these days. Too many people are absorbed in their own cell phones, tablets, and computers to pay attention to other people, much less converse with them. Through verbal conversation, we can learn to appreciate the feelings of others. True dialog leads to familiarity, and familiarity can be necessary for appreciation.

We must prepare ourselves with facts and data. Arguing without facts is ineffective; arguing with facts would, at least, stop the argument, even if they are unconvincing to an opponent.

Of course, then one would have to deal with anti-intellectual attitudes and junk-science opinions. Much of science these days has become so remote from personal experience that one must want to believe the scientist who is presenting his or her results to accept those results as absolutely true. If the scientist is not believed, then the scientific results he or she reports can be dismissed. A good example of this is climate change, which most people do not necessarily feel and so is easily rejected by unbelievers as just more hype.

Common Ground, Not “Cognitive Bubbles”

We don’t all have to agree on everything: that would make all but one of us redundant, as they say. But we can try to see the value of other opinions and positions and give their holders some respect, as long as they also acknowledge some validity to our positions. If we believe their positions are wrong, then we should be able to explain why and try to bring them over to our side. Of course, they will be trying to do the same for us.

I once had a white student admit to me that she had never worked with a black person before I assigned them to the same class group. Undoubtedly, she had learned something more than just the technical material taught formally in the class. I hope she learned that people, no matter what their color, are complex human beings and not just abstract characterizations. The same goes for contacts with people of different religions, nationalities, ethnic groups, and origins; familiarity reduces the chances for false assumptions about those who are somewhat different from ourselves, and this reduces chances of conflict.

Musician and artist David Byrne [1] has observed that the various social media have increased societal divisions by “amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles.” It has also been shown, he says, that social networks are a source of unhappiness that “drive us apart and make us sad and envious.”

Social media or constant interactions with others of like opinions may be parts of the problem, but engineers know that it takes positive feedback in an electronic circuit to drive it to extreme voltage states. This is the basis of all the digital devices we use for virtually everything these days. And this is precisely what happens when the only viewpoints to which we are exposed are those nearly identical to our own. This is positive feedback, and it tends to reinforce extremism.

The antidote to positive feedback and its resultant radicalism is negative feedback, which is used in electronic circuitry to stabilize a position somewhere in the middle of voltage limits. In terms of human contacts, negative feedback would be achieved through meaningful dialog with others of divergent views.

The Prospects for New Technology

Newer technology may actually help lead us out of the social media conundrum. Childhood interactions with human-voice sounding devices such as Alexa (Amazon Echo), Siri (Apple iPhone), Viv (Samsung), Cortana (Microsoft), or Google (Google Home) are teaching youngsters how to converse with others again. Al – though the voices coming from these devices are not of direct human origin, they get treated as such by children who communicate with them; they learn how to express themselves clearly, how to follow established communication protocols, and even how to be respectful. In short, they learn how to talk with others, and that is a good thing.

Perhaps the best cure for the malaise rampant in society is optimism, the certainty that we can affect change for the good. As citizens and engineers, we know that we can do good things. Despite all the despair that can creep into our psyches, we know for certain that the fruits of our labors will result in a better world for our customers, if no one else. We can be the sources of good works. We have it in our power to do so.

In the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Democracy is not a solo concert; it’s a chain of voices blending to create a beautiful sound. Sure, there’s a discordant note now and then, but even these sounds help the rest of us harmonize.” We need to be choir directors who help keep us all singing together. We cannot let extremism ruin our collective musical cantata. We have to realize that there are nuances to every issue, or, as H.L. Mencken has said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

References

  1. D. Byrne, “Eliminating the human,” MIT Technol. Rev., vol. 120, no. 5, pp. 8–10, Sept.–Oct. 2017.
  2. R. Davis, “Catching conspiracy, reader letter to,” Amer. Scientist, vol. 317, no. 2, p. 5, Aug. 2017.
  3. A. T. Johnson, “Faith in science,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 68–80, Jan.–Feb. 2014.
  4. K. Kloor, “The science police,” Issues Sci. Technol., vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 78–84, 2017.
  5. R. Metz, “Growing up with Alexa,” MIT Technol. Rev., vol. 120, no. 5, pp. 71–72, Sept.–Oct. 2017.