[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/11/12]

I’m excited about Dan Carlin’s decision to step out of his comfort zone and take action to fix the corruption problem in America. We here at Skepolitical are big fans of Dan, and I feel obliged to heed his call to action. I will be supporting him where I can and observing his progress with bated breath. However, I have to admit that I don’t really understand his plan.

In a typical episode of his Common Sense podcast, Dan will identify events from the past week or two that exemplify the erosion of one of our constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights. He will then analyze the situations and explain with historical context why they are so pernicious. Every few months, however, Dan comes out with an episode of self-reflection, musing on whether all this focus on politics is worthwhile, bemoaning the “Gordian Knot” that prevents us from translating good ideas into legislation, or enviously describing his friend’s decision to ignore politics and just get on with his life. In such episodes, Dan typically explains that he knows that the solution has to be for someone to take action against these injustices, but it’s not in his nature to take the reins to solve problems. He is an observer, and idea guy. His hope was that if he could get enough people to realize that there was a problem, someone would figure out the solution.

Dan had another self-reflective episode this week, but this week’s episode was different.

This week, Dan decided to take the reins and see what he can do to motivate people to focus on the single problem of undoing the Gordian Knot.

As Dan reiterates in a blog post, he’s not exactly cut out for this role, but he feels that someone must step up and make the effort. If it must be him, so be it.

I sure understand anyone who feels this is an effort doomed to failure. At the same time, I think all efforts seem a bit like that before you start them, don’t they? What choice do we have? We sure can’t wait for another “hope and change” candidate to come around and promise to do it for us, can we?

Look…I feel totally inadequate to fill this role. But I feel as though that’s becoming an excuse for not trying. I don’t want to try. But I didn’t want to coach softball either…and my girls won their game last night and remain undefeated and are having a blast. Sometimes things turn out better than a pessimist like I believe they will. But someone has to take the reins. I despise the idea of doing it myself. But I also don’t want that wagon to go over the cliff without at least being able to say I made a dive for the reins before it did. It’s something that we all need to ask ourselves some hard questions about I think. If not now, when? Every year we wait it’s only going to be harder and more daunting and more laughable that puny efforts of citizens will work. I feel as though I have waited long enough.

I applaud the decision and the effort and the willingness to be uncomfortable, but I think some time should have been spent formulating a plan. Efforts are already being made: the Occupy Movement is designed to give people voice, and it clearly has an anti-corruption vein; and the Skeptic Movement is attempting to save the world through better education in critical thinking. Instead of lending his voice to these movements, the best approach Dan could think of was to try to involve some of the thinkers he most respects and who have the biggest reach (for example, Greenwald, Taibbi, and Napolitano) and solicit their efforts. To this end, he rather imprudently (at least for a “neo-prudentist”) asked his listeners to try to get such people on board. The result was painfully predictable:

Well, as Dan acknowledged, the worst that could happen is that he embarrasses himself, but the best that could happen is that the Knot gets undone, breathing life into all the good ideas he and other political analysts have been coming up with. In any case, Dan quickly apologized to Greenwald and put up another blog post trying to provide some context. You can read that here. Personally, I worry that it needs to be far more succinct, especially with that eye-searingly white type on a black background. I actually copy-and-pasted it into an more forgiving format.

As I said, we are big fans of Dan here at Skepolitical. Dan is very good at presenting and illuminating a particular worldview that is compassionate, enlightened, and skeptical. The thing is, plenty of other commentators, with varying styles, are illuminating the same or similar worldview. They are preaching to the choir, so to speak, with only a few conversions here and there. Extending the metaphor: the problem isn’t that this worldview is lacking in preachers. It’s lacking in followers.

One hope I have is that Dan’s efforts will elicit from these prominent figures responses to the following questions: Do you think what you do is doing any good? Are you helping us make progress towards the undoing of the Gordian Knot of corruption? How should we be approaching this problem?

My guess is that a few of them would be thinking about this for the first time, but some, including Greenwald, would respond with something along the following lines.

History is rife with surprising events. Revolutions happen, and rarely are they widely foreseen. One thing that does seem to be necessary is that some critical mass becomes angry about the status quo. Another thing that is necessary is that these people have the courage to do something about it. I am helping to push us towards that critical mass, and movements like Occupy, by exemplifying the necessary courage, are ensuring that something is done when we get there.

If I’m right, and this is how Greenwald and some of the others view the situation, I don’t think Dan will get much traction with them. Yes, they may understand the problem and agree with Dan that it is central to our society’s problems, but they might not share his sense of despair. They won’t agree that there is any need for an “Anti-Corruption Gordian Knot Summit.” They think their work is already exactly what is needed to help undo it.

Dan’s disillusionment with the utility of these efforts seem to put him on the same path that led me to my zeal for skepticism, but he has not made the last step yet. My introductory post here on Skepolitical concluded with the following sentiment.

I love reading Greenwald, and I would recommend him to you, but I think he (like Carlin) is barking up the wrong tree. I consider his work to be “diversionary” stuff, fascinating and infuriating but barely worthwhile absent the power to do something about it. The important work is in the skeptic movement.

Yes, the sort of work being done by Greenwald and (until now) Carlin is useful. Indeed, it contributed to my decision to focus on politics in recent years. However, focusing only on reporting and analyzing abject abuses of civil liberties is an exercise in futility and frustration in the absence of the power to stop it. This holds true regardless of how central these abuses may be to the destruction of our society. This was my contention in my introductory post, and it seems to be the exact sentiment behind Dan’s decision to change course and “take the reins.”

Now Dan is searching for some idea of what it is he needs to do with those reins. I am very interested to see if he might take that last step and come to the same conclusion that I did: in a society that has embraced the ideal of the rule of the people, the best avenue to positive change is to empower as many people as possible to be competent, skeptical decision makers. If the Skeptic movement gets its way and we manage to reform our education system to equip our next generation of children with truly acute critical thinking skills, good ideas will eventually have a chance to be recognized as such and to be embraced. Finally, truly good legislation could potentially ensue.

Dan has shown some signs of recognizing this imperative. There is one episode in which Dan considers an voting test, and another in which he expresses hope that political ads will lose some of their effectiveness as the electorate becomes more cynical. However, in researching this post, it was an episode from July 2011 that has me truly optimistic about the possibility of bringing Dan into the Skeptic Movement. Starting around minute 50 of “Upgrading the Electorate” (or minute 40 if you want more context), Dan uses an H.G. Wells quote to excite his optimism that better education in critical thinking skills could help. For about three minutes, he expounds on how this could be the answer to the problem of a manipulable electorate. He says that one problem is figuring out how to make this subject matter interesting, something I have mentioned might be helped along by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Dan also points out that the ease of using the internet might help us overcome our laziness when it comes to researching important issues. Personally, I don’t think it should be too hard to get children excited about learning ways to show why other people are wrong. In high school, they could then make the small but essential shift from examining others’ reasoning to examining their own, and this is where I think Kahneman’s book would do wonders as required reading.

In those three minutes of his “Upgrading the Electorate” episode, Dan also says he hopes to do an education show soon, but he confesses that he’ll probably forget. I might try reminding him. If I point out that there is already a large and growing Skeptic Movement pushing exactly the types of education reform he envisions, I think I can even convince him that this is an attainable goal. Perhaps it will even be the ultimate undoing of the Gordian Knot.

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