You can't imagine the controversy unleashed by my last Newsletter when I described how to make a burrito. Most people around Jalpan swear that what I ate that day at Peña Blanca was just a big gordita. They say that real burritos are made with tortillas, not cornmeal, and that the tortillas are folded over the contents, not stuffed with them. Other people say I got it just right, and still others say that no such thing exists as I ate that day in Peña Blanca.
Finally I met a lady with a steady, wise look in her face -- she was preparing tacos over a portable grill herself -- and she said: "Señor, the concepts change from place to place."
It's clear to me that that's true. What really interests me about the controversy, though, is how certain everyone was of his or her information, and unwilling to believe the opinions of others.
After talking with the taco lady awhile, as well as I can figure out there was one big difference between all the disputers and her. That is, the wise lady seemed to keep straight in her mind the world's three kinds of information:
- information she knew she couldn't trust
- information she thought was right, but wasn't sure
- information she felt almost 100% certain about
I think that most people make little effort to robustly keep straight their beliefs relative to these three categories. In a single conversation you can see some people's opinions drift from mere hunches to vigorously defended beliefs.
This is dangerous. With regard to the planetary environmental crises, with Life on Earth in the balance, we can't indulge in such lazy thinking.
For example, two years ago I first directed readers to the Union of Concerned Scientists' paper entitled "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science." That report beautifully documents the manner by which the Bush Administration consistently distorts information, suppresses other information, and some would say outright lies with regard to important scientific matters, particularly information relating to the environment.
You should see the mail I get each time I mention this report, and the corresponding dip in Newsletter subscriptions. One fellow in Mississippi has suggested that if I keep this up I may suffer physical consequences.
But, rigorously vetted, documented and confirmed facts are magical and powerful things, and I honor them and will not abandon them. If more people had seen the implications of having a president who systematically distorts profoundly important information relating to the public good, maybe we would have avoided an awful war and certainly we would have made more progress toward confronting global warming and the world's population explosion, and stem-cell research would be more advanced.
I wonder if humanity will ever evolve to the point where we all possess the steady, wise-looking gaze of the taco- selling lady? I wonder if we'll ever be able to keep straight in our minds the three kinds of information, and be capable of identifying and appropriately honoring those facts that have been rigorously vetted, documented and confirmed by responsible and capable individuals -- always keeping in mind that it's awfully hard to know with absolute certainty ANYTHING! .