The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 2, 2010


Don’t forget, Sunday is our Independence Day

This year we can truly celebrate the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. Townspeople have been invited to gather at the Revolutionary War Memorial, a boulder with a bronze plaque located adjacent to the First Religious Society on School Street, at 11:45 on Sunday morning, July 4. There they will honor the 16 Carlisle Minutemen who marched to Concord on April 19, 1775, to fight in the Revolutionary War.

After reading the names of these men, who helped us gain our independence from Great Britain in 1776, there will be a reading of the Declaration of Independence, starting at noon after the church bells have tolled. Everyone is invited to join in the reading, and texts will be made available at the gathering. Those who wish to just listen are invited to come, as well.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared the 13 North American colonies to be free and independent of Great Britain. The drafting committee was responsible for writing the declaration, but it was said that Thomas Jefferson practically wrote it in its entirety. So here is the opportunity to reflect on the words our forefathers used 234 years ago to set the stage for the country we have become.

Several years ago, I attended a talk given in Lowell by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough. As the question and answer session was coming to a close, McCullough looked out at the audience and remarked, movingly, “You people, who live in this part of the country, are so lucky to be living here, where so much of the history of America began.”

I thank Carlisle resident Cynthia Schweppe for coming up with this idea and for organizing the event. We should all be taking the time on this special day, July 4, to give thanks to our forefathers who founded this great country of ours.

We’re stupid, but not that stupid

I’ve just finished reading (in the Opinionator section of the online version of The New York Times) a fascinating five-part essay by Errol Morris (who made the film “The Fog of War” documenting Robert McNamara’s painful reassessment of his role in the Vietnam War) entitled “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” the gist of which is that we are too stupid to know what we don’t know, since our analytic capability to assess how we’re doing is no better than our ability to do the things we are assessing, such that we inadvertently deceive ourselves into thinking we are doing a better job than we actually are.

This theory is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it, in a nutshell, is the human condition. We don’t – can’t – know what we don’t know we don’t know.

Accepting this as true helps explain a lot. The disaster in the Gulf is a case in point: On the one hand, we have the engineering genius to extract oil from the earth under a mile of water. On the other hand, our hubris kept pretty much everyone from realizing – despite past disasters, BP’s laughable safety record, and actual warning signs on the drilling rig before the explosion – that one thing we apparently aren’t smart enough to deal with is a sea-floor gusher and the complexities associated with the dark, the cold and the pressure a mile deep.

Consider the “debate” about global warming, particularly the latest twist: if global warming exists, not to worry . . . because we’re so smart, we’ll somehow devise a technological fix in the nick of time, necessity being the mother of invention and all.

Or consider our collective American hubris about how much better we are than everyone else, and the true patriot’s view that it is somehow unpatriotic to even question that unassailable “Truth.” How could that get us into trouble? (Something to ponder this Fourth of July.)

Perhaps we are doomed, forever unable to overcome our inability to know how stupid we are. Or maybe we are blessed by our blissful ignorance. (See Morris’ different theories about mankind’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.) Or maybe we’re just delusional. What differentiates man from the apes is not that we are rational, but that we can rationalize. Morris recounts the work of studies by neurologists of amputees with phantom limbs or similar delusions that demonstrate how the human brain is extraordinarily adapted to deceive itself.

What to do in the face of this dilemma? I think the key is to try – to the degree we are able – to keep any such self-deception inadvertent. Accept the challenge of our humanity: understand that on some level hubris is unavoidable. But let’s not resign ourselves to anything; let’s remain curious, open to input and feedback. Even if the other guy (or woman) is stupid, too (or at least not as smart as he or she thinks), he or she may know something we don’t. And although the Anosognosic’s Dilemma means we won’t be able to assess whether or not the knowledge gained has any validity, we define ourselves by the strength of our desire for more knowledge. It’s not about being smarter than everyone else; it’s about understanding that we can’t know anything for certain, and to be on guard individually – and communally – against the presumption that we can.



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