Thursday, June 26, 2008

trl Role of the Learned

On the Importance of Eliminating Credentialism


When I was in middle school, my father rented an old farmhouse surrounded by large fields right next to Mount Hope Airport. During the annual air show, our landlady used to come and charge visitors to park on the field, stand by the fence and watch, within earshot of the public address system, the planes doing their tricks overhead. After we moved away, the airport expanded and now the land we lived on is part of the runways of a much busier airport. My brother was inspired by our proximity at that time to get his private pilot's license, and since our father offered to foot the bill, I followed desultorily in his footsteps.


I took the low-cost introductory one-hour flying lesson and over several weeks went through ground school. The first serious lesson, though, involving as it did a landing that seemed crazy-dangerous and impossibly steep (my stomach floated up past my heart, then when we hit the ground it sunk down well into my intestines -- thinking back, the pilot may have hot-dogged it to impress a beginner that this was not easy and he knew what he was doing) persuaded me that maybe this flying is not the safe, normal activity that it is cracked up to be. You could not get me near a small plane after that. My marks in ground school were miserably low, but a few years later, an official phoned to say that a fire had destroyed their records and I could come down and write down for them whatever mark I wanted to tell them I got and they would count it. By then it was moot, my interest had passed, and I did not bother.


Now my interest in flying has been renewed. I am still convinced that private aviation is crazy-dangerous, far worse than its advocates make out (they rely on statistics that are twisted by commercial aviation, where professionals fly hundreds at a time), but I am hanging out with some of the 200 or so Chinese student pilots that have invaded our small town of Dunnville, also near a small airport, and their interest is infectious (I cannot help but notice that the Chinese government is not convinced either, otherwise, why would they be sending all their student airliner pilots over here to Canada, rather than starting up their own private aviation infrastructure?).


I dug out our junk pile the old "virtual pilot" flight simulator yoke (a steering wheel that you can push forward and back, like in an airplane) that my brother cast off years ago when his interest in computer simulated flight flagged, and I am working on setting up a little flight simulator in the garage. Combined with our LSA's video projector, I should be able to wow my pilot buddies with a large projected display of a flight simulator. Combined with the yoke, I might be able to help out Jason pick up the ropes faster; last time he confided that he is getting nervous that he is not getting enough time in the air.


Anyway, last night rather than go to bed I started watching brief YouTube video compilations of hair-raising landings by jumbo jets. "Dangerous landings" were the keywords, as I recall. Take my advice, if you are ever going to fly, do not watch these amateur films. What happens is that some people sit by runways, film every approach, then string together the wackiest, swingiest, swirliest landings, and give them names like "the best pilots in the world." Either that, or the drunkest, at least until they hit the ground. You will admire your pilot the more for seeing how they can approach the ground under adverse, crosswindy conditions, while the airliner does these unbelievable pitches, rolls and yaws (you see, I remember some of my flight school terminology) and still get you down in one piece. But the problem is that your heart will stop if you know what really is going on outside as you come down for a landing.


Finally, I latched onto this 90-minute chopped-up documentary called something like "The Worst Crash in Aviation History." I could not stop watching until way past bedtime. It is about a 1978 disaster in the Canary Islands where two state-of-the-art jumbo jets crashed into each other on the ground, several hundred dead. The film lists all the dozens of contributing factors to the collision, including a terrorist bombing of a larger airport, but it all boiled down to the old saying, "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots." In this case, hundreds paid for his error with their lives. The immediate cause of the collision was an arrogant mistake by a Dutch pilot who decided to take off in thick fog, without clearance from the control tower, while another plane was still on the runway before him. Boom. The whole roof of an American jet was torn off, but a few of the passengers managed to jump to safety. The Dutch passengers were not so lucky; in a plane just loaded with fuel, they had no chance when they hit the ground.


I had read about this blunder before. It seems that this Canary Islands collision prompted a major, permanent change in the political decision-making processes of flight crews. Now when the co-pilot and others have doubts about a choice the pilot is making, they are less likely to defer. They are trained to speak up.


In fact, as I watched the mistake being re-enacted, I could not help but think that this is a perfect microcosm of what Jane Jacobs called credentialism. This impolite, blustering and blundering Dutch pilot was no beginner, he was a star, the best pilot they had. Nobody had better qualifications than him, on paper. He was literally the poster boy for KLM, his face was on all their advertising. He had spent most of his time lately training other pilots, including his co-pilot. He knew what he was doing but impatience overcame knowledge. He pushed the throttle forward impulsively, intending to take off early, and the other crew members actually stopped him, reminding him that they needed to get flight clearance first (clearance to take of is the next step). Unfortunately, when he repeated the same slip a minute later, they were afraid to speak up. After all this guy had the best credentials of anybody. He did not suffer fools gladly. As a result, a fiery death was had by all.


The strange thing is that credentials, impressive as they may be, speak only of the past, not of right now. As long as we are human, we are liable to error in the present. Our expertise is directed at other things, not necessarily the self-knowledge and, yes, fear of God, that keeps one from slipping up or making that foolish move. The more absolutely certain we are that we are right, the less qualified we become to say that we are right. There is only one way to be right all the time and that is to be grovelingly humble and timorous of God's wrath. Hence all the admonitions in Holy Writ about fear of God being the start of all knowledge, the essence of wisdom.


This thought strangely reminded me of what the Guardian said in a pilgrim's note that I read the other day. He said something to the effect that this whole civilization is going down, but unlike the passengers on those planes, the mistake is generalized and willful. Its rejection of God comes from a large cross section of the population, so in a sense the whole shebang is guilty. We should not mourn it but concentrate on the new Order. This resonates with me still; I am sick of reading thinkers who are technically brilliant but still miss the mark. Thought about the environment especially falls short. We have been and still are being led astray by eminently qualified but very arrogant leaders of thought, all of whom have roundly rejected the only thing that is going to help, Baha'u'llah and His teachings.


Yesterday I made a few brief comments about p*o*s*t-m*o*d*e*r*n*i*s*m (henceforth known as the "p" word; I do not want word search engines to attract more flies to this blog). This provoked the most comments in a long time, and at least two of the commentators I know to be highly qualified academics.

 I invite you to look over the clever but fallacious logic that they use in concocting objections out of thin air; see the comments section at the end of yesterday's post. One mugwump decides that I am incongruously putting the Guardian into an argument against a philosophy that had not been born yet (actually the ideas of the p word have been around a long time but were regarded, for some reason, as spurious; they had not been baptized and grown to the height of fashion in the time of the Guardian). Another rightly asks for the source of that definition of the p word (the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, as I recall), but goes on trip over what is known as an intrinsic definition. The word "relative" means related to something absolute. Without an absolute there can be no relative, the word itself would have no meaning. Yet this poor fellow has been ingesting the poisonous food of controversy for so long that even basic propositional conclusions seem worthwhile carping at.


Clearly, this "p" buzzword is so fashionable in some circles that it has become a flag to every bull in the stable. An entire class of society is, in Baha'u'llah's phrase, "drunk with pride." Their arrogant negligence is identical to that star pilot who, utterly confident of his knowledge and past achievements, decided to make the rather basic error of taking off into a pea soup fog without clearance. However, the worst of it is that when people do not die directly from mistakes, they are not corrected.


The trade of piloting reacted immediately when that Dutch pilot killed several hundred people. How could they not? Their very jobs were on the line. But, to use one example that irks me more than most, universities throughout the west teach English Literature as if it were world literature, ignoring their basic responsibility to end the language barrier, which excludes most of the world from the forum of discourse, and dooms them to poverty. Yes, people are dying hundreds a minute from this greatest of structural injustices, but it is so spread out that English Literature professors can cash their paychecks without the slightest pang of guilt. As Buckminster Fuller said,


"I learned very early and painfully that you have to decide at the outset whether you are trying to make money or to make sense, as they are mutually exclusive." Fuller, Grunch of Giants,


As long as nobody's job is on the line and guilt is diffuse, nobody in the West will bother even to recognize that the language barrier even exists, much less see its ties to poverty, war and terror.


Worst of all are ethics professors. To take only the most recent example, in the May, 2008 edition of Scientific American is an article by Oxford ethicist John Broome called, "The Ethics of Climate Change: Pay Now or Pay More Later?"


"Weighing our own prosperity against the chances that climate change will diminish the well-being of our grandchildren calls on economists to make hard ethical judgments."



I tell you this: if academics came to the sudden, spectacular flameout that pilots do, this Broome person would be a smoking hulk on the runway. Better, his colleagues would have had the guts to prevent it being written before the disaster could take place.


I am not saying that he does not make some good points. I had never heard of the very interesting distinction between utilitarianism and prioritarianism that he makes here. But it is all moot.


His whole airframe is exploded by one question, "What is an ethicist doing even talking about this? Who is supposed to be making the ethical decisions that he imagines somebody making? There is no world government, so how can any decisions be made on a world level, ethical or not? He might as well be talking about whether angels are morally justified in accepting fairies to stand with them on the head of a pin. It is utter garbage, a total waste of time. Yet the world blithely accepts that our best-trained minds know what they are doing and would never waste their lives and careers blathering nonsense.


Imagine the common situation in films where the plane is flying high, the cockpit is empty and the flight crew all dead. Do the passengers sit around talking about whether they would be justified in doing this or that if this or that were to happen? No. If they want to live they ask one question: "Is there anybody here who knows how to fly an airplane?" When they find best-qualified person available she goes right behind the wheel, or I should say, yoke. Ask anything else and you might as well be killing yourself.


No comments: