Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 May 2010

“Intelligent Design” and Engineering: A Tale of Orwellian Word Theft


By itself, the term “intelligent design” is neutral and innocent. It means no more than a plan for something made by someone smart.

A foreigner who acquired English late in life could be excused for mistaking the term’s current meaning. He might think it describes the acts of engineers: people who design our cars, planes, highways, computers and software. He might think it connotes the work of an architect or draftsperson.

An especially insightful foreigner might even think the term describes the work of enlightened politicians or government administrators. When they use economic learning to craft new laws that exploit people’s natural, selfish incentives for the greater public good, isn’t that “intelligent design”?

Our Founders thought so when they wrote our Constitution. For the first time in human history, they designed a nation on rational principles. They built in freedom of speech and religion, the presumption of innocence, the promise of equality before the law, human rights and limited government. And they carefully calibrated checks and balances to keep bullies and tyrants in check. Our Founders were unabashed social engineers.

When we celebrate our Constitution on the Fourth of July, we will celebrate our Founders’ intelligent design. We will recall their social engineering of an entire society, the most successful yet in human history (although now in clear decline). We will laud the intelligent design of men, not God.

On hearing the term “intelligent design” for the first time, a foreigner to our culture could be excused for thinking about all that. But of course that foreigner would be wrong.

In cultural context, the term “intelligent design” now refers to a single thing. It connotes a politico-religious theory that evolution is wrong or unproven and that we―the human race―were designed by some supernatural Deity, just as an engineer at Toyota or Hyundai might design a car. Let’s call this meaning “Intelligent Design,” with capital letters.

Leave aside for a moment the philosophical debate. Leave aside the fact that believers disparage Charles Darwin’s work and its thousands of practical legacies, including our understanding of how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance and evolve into “superbugs.” Leave aside the fact that, in so doing, believers in Intelligent Design belittle one of the greatest collective achievements of human civilization: real understanding of biology and our own origins.

We’ll return to some of these themes a bit later. But for now, let’s keep our focus on words.

How did the neutral, positive phrase “intelligent design”―apt for any act of good engineering, social or otherwise―come to connote a religious view of reality based on faith and little else? Our country’s very plan, our Constitution, is itself a product of intelligent design by humans. So are our airplanes, cars, miracle drugs, computers, software, roads, bridges, TVs, radios, and the Internet. How did the radical right steal the phrase for an unproven religious theory, thereby removing it from the things we see, feel, use and rely on every day?

Right-wing propagandists are hardly masters of history, science, logic or math. But they are certainly masters of philology, the science of the meaning of words.

You might call their central weapon “applied philology.” They can take a positive word like “liberal,” which once meant open, tolerant, enlightened, generous and compassionate. In one generation they can turn it into an image of a promiscuous, atheistic, cowardly, drug-sodden freeloader.

They can take a movement like Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which was intelligently (and diabolically) designed around racism and regional resentment. Then they can“rebrand” it as a “Tea Party.” In so doing, they can expunge the stench of slavery and the Civil War and capture the positive aura of Northern Massachusetts, our most progressive state, and our Founding.

They can transform an adjective like “Democratic” beyond recognition. Not ten years ago it referred to a member (or the platform) of one of our two political parties, with neutral or positive connotations. Without anyone seeming to notice, they substituted the harsher and jarring noun, used as an adjective, thereby converting the party’s image into a barely concealed epithet: “Democrat.”

The greatest word theft was of “government.” In my childhood the word meant safety, stability, confidence and security. Government had just brought us through the Great Depression and our greatest war. It was developing an intelligent strategy of deterrence and containment, which would resolve a worldwide struggle with the Soviet Union peacefully. Government would go on to develop worldwide commercial air travel, tame polio, eliminate smallpox, create a universally admired system of higher education and research, put men on the Moon, and create the Internet and release it for commercial use.

Despite these monumental achievements, right-wing propaganda managed to convert “government”—our own democracy—into an inept, stupid, bumbling, incoherent, big-spending idiot. Government did make some big mistakes, including the War in Vietnam, but it didn’t really change much. What changed was people’s minds and the images in them. The government that had saved them from economic collapse, several different tyrannies, and dread diseases, and that had given them collectively the highest standard of living in human history, became their buffoon and their enemy.

This astounding transformation occurred through the miracle of right-wing propaganda and word theft. Now for many the word “government” is no longer a descriptive noun or adjective. It has become an epithet about which clear thought is impossible.

In politics words are weapons. They are most effective as weapons when the target doesn’t see them coming. That is precisely what is happening to our intellectuals. Not only don’t they resist this “rebranding” of common words and concepts basic to our heritage. They are complicit in it. Why? Because it falls below their radar.

Intelligent people, let alone great thinkers, think in concepts. To them, a word is like a label on a box. What matters is what’s inside the box, not the label. Their ability to think in concepts aids their acquisition of foreign languages, their development of leaps of imagination, and their own efforts at intelligent design.

So when someone changes or removes the label―no matter what their motive―smart people hardly even notice. With Shakespeare, they believe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. They focus only on what’s inside the box.

But right-wing propagandists are smarter in one respect. They understand that most people are not intellectuals. They know how many never open the box to examine what’s inside, but just read the label.

Control the label, and you control the concept. Control the concept, and you control the thought. Control the thought, and you control the mind. That’s the right wing’s Orwellian formula.

The “rebranding” of words is one of the most powerful and effective tools of propaganda ever conceived. Most of us smart people hardly noticed. It is so effective that people can call a president they dislike (mostly because of his mixed race) a “Nazi,” “Communist” and “fascist”―sometimes even in the same breath.

The President’s detractors don’t even notice the logical contradiction. Ignorant of history, the don’t realize that these groups fought each other to the death, in the millions, during the last century. The logical contradiction inside the box doesn’t matter, either to them or to their puppet masters, as long as the label on the outside has a negative connotation.

So what does all this have to do with Intelligent Design and engineering? Plenty.

I mentioned social engineering first because our right-wing wordmasters have made that phrase pejorative, too. But our Founders knew exactly what they were doing, and their box was full of social engineering. That label didn’t appear on the box because it didn’t exist in Colonial times. But the concept was there, and our Founders enthusiastically endorsed it.

Engineering of all kinds―physical and social―was and is what has made our nation great. We tamed the wilderness by agricultural engineering, turning forest and prairie into field and pasture. We mastered the size of our huge new land with engineering, first of canals and waterways, then of railroads, and more recently of interstate highways, aircraft, and the Internet. We beat our enemies in the world’s greatest war by engineering the best weapons, including the very first nuclear weapons. We conquered the world’s greatest scourges, including sepsis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, smallpox and cholera, with engineered vaccines, antibiotics, and proper hygiene and sanitation. We tamed the Mississippi and its horrible diseases (including yellow fever) with locks, flood gates, levees, swamp drainage, and insecticides. We made our lives more healthy and comfortable and less smelly with intelligent design of artificial heating and air conditioning, flush toilets, and modern plumbing. These advances―among so many others―were products of human engineering, human intelligent design.

As with physical engineering, so with social engineering. Our forebears discovered early on that markets work better than monopolies, so we engineered our national economy based on free and open markets. We engineered our legal system, with antitrust law and intellectual property, to foster the competition and innovation that free markets are supposed to produce.

When free markets kept producing debilitating boom-and-bust cycles, culminating with the Great Depression, we modified our intelligent design. We invented the “mixed” economy, which relies on well regulated free markets. That single act let us emerge from the Great Depression, win our greatest war, and later produce the most meteoric rise in living standards in human history. We are now in the process of figuring out how to “re-engineer” our economy and our markets to prevent yet another great bust like the one still in progress.

Human intelligent design, i.e., engineering, is the primary source of our success as a people.

The theory of Intelligent Design steals the words and the concept, takes it out of our hands, and puts it in God’s. It warns us not to tinker with what God has designed―including us―lest we err and cause unintended consequences. It encourages fatalism, a submission to presumed supernatural authority that has always distinguished other cultures from ours.

Theft of the concept of engineering also has other pernicious effects. First, it encourages submission to worldly authority, our ruling class. If God is the only engineer, and if human social engineering is suspect, then who organizes things on Earth? Our largely unseen ruling class does: people like Bill Gates, Lloyd Blankfein, the Pope, Pat Robertson and other informal religious leaders and, yes, even the affable Warren Buffet. Abdication of public engineering is a surrender of democracy to those who pull the strings in private.

The second pernicious effect of stealing the concept of engineering is more subtle. By opposing the theory of evolution (the foundation of all modern biology) Intelligent Design creates a social and political reaction against science generally.

Democracy is popular rule. Engineering (intelligent design by humans) is the means by which democracy betters the human condition, socially and materially. Science, including economics and sociology, provides the theory and cognitive infrastructure that allows engineering to achieve that end. Undermine any of these links in the chain, and you undermine the ability of human societies to better their condition.

Who gains? The ruling class, of course, especially those whose wealth and power derive from the status quo. Someone has to control society’s direction. In a democracy, that’s someone is supposed to be us, the people. But someone also has to inform the people how to achieve their ends. Science does that by explaining how the world works, using rigorous observation, experiments, and mathematical analysis. Engineering shows the means, outlining alternative options and explaining their costs and benefits. (And honest engineering, like economics, never promises a free lunch.)

Are modern science and engineering complex? Sure. But one of the greatest modern physicists, Richard Feynman, once said something profound. No one, he said, understands a theory unless he can explain it to his three-year-old daughter in a way that makes sense to her. By that rule, any good engineer (or politician) should be able to explain the benefits of any social or physical program without resort to God, mystery, or authority.

You may not understand Einstein’s special theory of relativity, or the algebraic Lorenz Transformation that is its mathematical infrastructure. But you can understand that rapidly moving radioactive particles decay more slowly than those at rest, thereby proving a central (and counterintuitive!) tenet of that theory: moving clocks slow down. If you are interested enough, you can even see charts and graphs from experiments proving the point.

Follow the explainers; beware the mystifiers! That’s a good recipe for democracy.

But there are different levels of explaining. For thirty years, the right wing has “explained” economics with three principles. Free markets work best. Markets self-correct. Regulation confines and costs. But how do these principles work? That’s a mystery. The best the ideologues can come up with is Adam’s Smith’s “invisible hand.” In the final analysis, that hand, like God, is a matter of faith. The foundation of conservative economics is faith in mystery.

And so we had the extraordinary spectacle of Alan Greenspan. Trained in the best twentieth-century quantitative tradition, he could do the math. He had superb mathematical intuition. He spoke like an oracle, using convoluted, euphemistic sentences that required oracular interpretation.

But in the end, all Greenspan’s knowledge and skill boiled down to simple faith in the invisible hand. He confessed that his most important decisions—the ones that helped subvert our entire economy—were wrong. But his confession was not of mathematical error, which other economists might have seen and corrected. It was a much more insidious error of misdirected faith. Our chief economic engineer had “explained” himself not in logic, but in mystery.

The contradiction of Alan Greenspan epitomizes the last thirty years of American politics, since Ronald Reagan. On the one hand, it encourages the view the God is the only engineer; that organisms as complex as us could not possibly have arisen from accumulated random mutations, disparaged as “accident.” Yet on the other, it asserts that no human can successfully engineer a society or a market, that the accidental operation of unfettered free markets is more “intelligent.”

That contradiction is wide enough to steer an ocean liner through, but no one seems to have noticed. And even if intellectuals do, it’s subtle enough to be hard to explain to the masses.

So the ruling class’ logic is simple. “Intelligent Design” is for God, who Designed us. We humans are poor engineers, and especially poor social engineers. So don’t try to plan, design, engineer, or regulate. Let the rules that God put in place hold sway, especially in unregulated markets and unregulated commerce. Accept your fate, however sorry it may be. And if that plan somehow seems always to promote the ruling class’ own economic interests and retard others’ social and even physical progress, isn’t that God’s plan, too?

Is this a conspiracy? As I’ve explained before, I don’t think so. The ruling class is neither that diabolical nor (if the truth be told) that smart. Except in some businesses, it’s not a very good planner or engineer itself. It just wants to be let alone to pursue its own selfish ends.

The ruling class lets story tellers like Beck, Limbaugh and Rove spin their entertaining yarns, and watches. When an entertaining yarn, a creative lie, or a successful word theft catches on, the ruling class adopts and supports it. It does so just as it supports the Tea Party movement, not because it believes in that movement for a moment, but because that particular rabble serves to promote its continued dominance and transient economic interests.

Call it opportunism. Call it adaptation. Call it conspiracy if you like. But the right wing’s propaganda, word thefts, and lies present a clear challenge for those who can see. They support a desultory tyranny, made by half-reluctant despots over weak minds. However desultory, in thirty years that intellectual tyranny has served to enrich a small coterie of quite undeserving men beyond their wildest dreams and bring a great nation to its knees.

Words are not these half-reluctant despots’ only weapon. Money and fear are powerful, too. But twisted words have a power that smart people often underestimate, for they can control weak minds.

For those of us who think and write, words raise a special question. Are we going to let the right wing, for the economic advantage of a few, continue to steal our national heritage by reserving engineering for God and His representatives on Earth, whom the rich keep in their pockets? Or are we going to resist?

I, for one, am going to resist. I will use the word “Democrat” as a noun, only for an individual member of my party. For my party, its platform, and its principles, I will use the proper adjective “Democratic.” I will use that word because it is correct both grammatically and substantively. If the right wing claims that it is democratic, too, let them prove it by deeds, not words.

I will abandon the word “liberal,” which demagogues have stolen beyond retrieval. Instead, I will use the word “progressive,” which is more resistant to theft and distortion. Who can oppose progress?

I will not use the words “intelligent design” for the work of a Deity whom I cannot see or show to others. I will use it, synonymously with “engineering,” for all marvels wrought by human planning and regulation, which I can see and show to others, and which made our nation great.

When I use the term “social engineering,” I will use it not with diffidence, but with pride. For I know it is the essence of our two-plus-century experiment in democracy.

And I will never use either term to urge my fellow citizens―those who see the label but don’t look inside the box―to abdicate their Reason to some unnamed higher power. Why leave engineering to an Almighty, who usually turns out to be a mask for selfish and shortsighted interests of the ruling class?

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