Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Making Sense of the News

[Warning–this piece applies stereotypes from my school days, close to 50 years ago. A nod to the late Meg Greenfield, Washington Post editor, who observed all Washington was variation on high school.]

Items from today's (2-1-05) NYTimes and Post: Bernie Ebbers is on trial, immature teenage brains don't mature until the mid-20's, religions compete for adherents, and the former science editor of the NYTimes recounts her unpleasant experiences as a woman in male-dominated science.

Scientists have shown by MRI's that teenage brains are awash in a sea of emotions, ungoverned by wisdom and thought, highly susceptible to peer influences, aiming for eminence and distinction, yet dependent on the comfort of the group. Now they're saying we don't mature until 25 or so (some people, humorists especially are never mature).

Mr. Ebbers is reported to have denied any accounting expertise by pointing out that he was a phys ed major in college. This is intended to distance himself from responsibility for the accounting frauds that took MCI-Worldcom into bankruptcy.

Take yourself back to the 60's–the young Bernie Ebbers in high school is one of the jocks, who are the apex of the social pyramid. The jocks look down on the brains, who are interested in such things as math and science. Some of the jocks have brains, some of the brains can jock, but to occupy safe and secure social niches they minimize similarities and accentuate the differences. The male brains, being in a lower position, then become macho, although in a suitably subtle way, in pursuing their interest in math and science, thereby marking off their turf from being invaded by females. (50 years ago the female brains were genetically programed towards marriage, that mutations have since disabled that gene and the one that made females throw from the elbow.)

The women, who've been discouraged from math and science all along, have been winnowed down to a small number. That means the theory of the "tipping point" applies, the intellectual neighborhood has gone to the dogs, and the few remaining women flee to more comfortable intellectual pursuits.

Years pass, and Bernie (do we use the diminutive at his request, or to express our own resentment) has money and position. But he's still maintaining the distinction between him–he's the glorious leader able to hire and fire the brains, who know those accounting mysteries. Real men don't count, they lead. (Thinking of the new personnel system proposed for the Homeland Security department–wouldn't Ebbers have done Sullivan's performance evaluation, so wouldn't he be responsible regardless of how well he understands accounting? )

Take a wider picture–the jocks and nerds and women have settled into ruts, but some miss something, something that a church, a religious belief can fill. Searching for an answer, they look for churches with clear identities, as clear as the identities of the groups in high school. One way for a church to make a mark is to capitalize on anxieties caused by scientific and technological advances. Where some on the left go for radical environmentalism and opposition to genetic modifications, others take the course of attacking Darwin and evolution. It's a rewarding course–there's no need to give up any of the benefits of modern science. But it's easy to take modern science as claiming the high ground of knowledge, and very human to believe anything that will undermine that claim.

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