Nearly a quarter century has passed since the New York Times science writer James Gleick was a finalist for the non-fiction National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize with his book outlining the then emerging scientific field of predicting the future of seemingly unpredictable systems. Titled "Chaos," this volume is perhaps best remembered for its introduction of Benoit Mandelbrot and his development of fractal geometry to describe natural systems. While no two snowflakes or aspen leaves are identical — and it is impossible to forecast their step-by-step growth — they still produce uniform patterns. Aspen leaves and snowflakes are readily recognizable despite chaotic progression.
Atmospheric scientists were attempting to better predict weather events by 1989 and Gleick explored their multi-variate mathematical techniques. Weather forecasting improved immensely following the arrival of super-computers, an achievement acknowledged this year as three Nobel prizes were awarded in physics to climate and physical system modelers. These 2021 prizes were linked to the growing evidence our planet is warming whatever next week’s weather. I also recall Gleick’s observations regarding the sudden loss of stability in previously predictable systems. Spin a quarter and, as it loses speed, it begins to wobble and wander — occasionally ‘spinning out of control’ to race off the tabletop and plunge to the floor.
Recently bookshelves have begun to groan beneath titles like “How Democracies Die,” “Tyranny,” “Surviving Autocracy,” “Fascism: A Warning” and “Twilight of Democracy.” Is this a flavor of the month alarm or is democratic collapse truly imminent? Where is our congressional equivalent of Winston Churchill, who marched to the microphone in Parliament nearly every day for more than five years to warn of the threat posed by Adolf Hitler? He was perceived as a crank by his colleagues — only later as their savior. Yet his admonition that, “…the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger … (how) the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster,” proved prescient.
There are signs right here in Colorado that our politics are threatening to spin out of control. The report that El Paso County school board candidates were subjected to a bizarre grilling about election machines and vote tabulation from Republican Central Committee members speaks to an utter disconnect with reality. Whether Republican or Democrat, the citizens willing to run for a school board seat almost always harbor a keen interest in the welfare of children. Republicans tend to favor charter schools and "back to basics" instruction, but their motivation is to assure an adequate education that will prepare our kids for the 21st century. They would know next to nothing about the particulars of election mechanics, although former Republican County Clerk and later Secretary of State Wayne Williams is certain to have implemented an airtight, fraud-proof mail ballot system. He has been turned to by both Democrats and Republicans to clean up the election mess created by Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters.
Still, national polls indicate 60% of Republicans believe support for the claim the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump should be required of their candidates. Quizzing school board aspirants on their opinion of Dominion Voting Systems equipment is just plain nuts. But, when you do a little digging, it isn’t hard to find other indicators of lunacy. Jared Polis, tech titan and uber-wealthy Coloradan, is many things, but repeated accusations that he is a socialist seems highly unlikely. Nor is it any more plausible to accuse health care workers and public health officials of an undetected lust for a chance to run our lives rather than protect them. Apparently, a theory has been circulating in the fever swamps of social media that Dr. Anthony Fauci engineered the COVID virus to kill more conservatives than liberals. Wow! How would he do that? Viruses don’t have a brain. They aren’t conscious. It’s doubtful they are even registered Democrats. But COVID can sure as hell tell who isn’t immunized.
Democrats have their own schisms both here in Colorado and Washington, but for the most part they still appear to possess a grip on reality and an abiding commitment to democracy. During the entire epidemic, perhaps the most pungent poster I’ve seen was one that said, “If you’re refusing a vaccine because you believe God will protect you, why do you think you need a gun?” I would prefer to think our democracy is not in peril, but I’ve decided to err on the side of caution going forward. I will refuse to let stupidity slide. There is no honor in respecting the right to promulgate misinformation and misunderstanding. Civic responsibility demands civic education. That requires effort, not the thoughtless repetition of a Twitter feed or Facebook posts. Interventions and corrections are required.