Politics & Policy

All Hail Science!

Celebrity scientists Bill Nye (left) and Neil deGrasse Tyson grab a selfie at the White House.
Memo to progressives: Unlike God, science doesn’t care if you believe in it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Unless you’re at the screening of Al-Qaeda Sniper),

All of us are equal in the eyes of God and the law — or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. (Though the fact that Jon Corzine has neither been hit by lightning nor carted off to jail sometimes causes me moments of doubt on both fronts.) I try pay lip-service to the same principle about readers of this “news”letter, but let’s face it. That’s not true. Nearly all G-File readers are cherished, but not all are cherished equally.

(And, in a year or two when my next book comes out, the great schism in my heart will be between those of you who eagerly purchase my book, and you shameful free riders who, for years, were perfectly happy for me to throw you the gold Aztec idol week after week, but now refuse to throw me the whip as promised, saying “Adios, Señor.” This is the quid people, my next book will be the pro quo. If you assume each Goldberg File I’ve written is worth a quarter, you should probably convert it into zombie-apocalypse currency and assume it’s equal in value to a can of dog food, six dead D batteries, or a fully operational calk gun. But the price is what the market will bear, and even at that valuation, it would more than cover the price of my forthcoming magnum opus for any longtime reader. You have been put on notice.)

I bring this up because Charles Krauthammer is a reader of this “news”letter which, like seeing a spider monkey in your brand new kitchen making crème brûlée with a blowtorch, is both cool and scary. Why it’s cool should be obvious. He’s the Hammer. It’s scary because . . . he’s the Hammer. I try very hard not to put a face to my readers because, frankly, this thing is sometimes so stupid and self-indulgent if I imagined a real person reading it, I’d push the keyboard away. It’s best if I write this thing like a message in a bottle going to no one. And the last thing I need for my performance anxiety is to imagine Charles Krauthammer is the guy unspooling my missive from that bottle. The only thing worse would be to imagine George Will standing behind Charles looking over his shoulder and tsk-tsking all of my split infinitives. And yet, to my dismay, Will, too, has told me he on occasion comes by here. I feel like Martin Short in a synchronized-swimming routine.

Fernal Linguistics

Anyway, Charles is a big fan of “unpaired words.” I don’t mean words with the Bluetooth turned off. I mean . . . hmmm . . . how do I explain?

Well, many times, during the commercial break on Special Report, we’ve gone back and forth — brandy snifters in hand — talking about how we need a president with more feck running an ept and gormful foreign policy. These conversations usually take place after the make-up lady comes into the studio to make sure that we look kempt and shevelled. Well, last Wednesday, the topic came up again, and we kept bandying them about. Which made me think, “This is pretty cool.” It also made me think, “This would be a good riff for the G-File.”

Still, I’m hoping that he isn’t gruntled by this somewhat nocuous and entirely effable effort to rip off one of his favorite parlor games. Indeed, I could have dropped this choate schtick without name-dropping Charles, which might have made it seem less petuous, but why leave my motivation unbeknownst when it can be beknownst? Better to go communicado and cognito, I say. Particularly when I’m still throat clearing as I try to scrounge up a real topic to discuss. Still, I fear I seem quite chalant as I search for sipid things to say. If I don’t work harder, this “news”letter will never be combobulated. (“I don’t want to disrupt your flow here, so I’ll rupt it. But you should know this all comes across as soucient and below even your pareil writing style. I would have thrown this whole thing out the window, but you opted to fenestrate it.” — The Couch)

#page#All Hail Science!

So my column from yesterday was about the quizzing of Scott Walker and other Republicans about evolution. This is an incessant question every four years. And while it deserves to be cessant, it will never will be. (Okay, I’m done now.)#ad#

As many have noted, liberals in and out of the media are very selective in their celebration of science. Guy Benson reminded me of this nicely splenetic post I wrote three years ago in the Corner:

Why does the Left get to pick which issues are the benchmarks for “science”? Why can’t the measure of being pro-science be the question of heritability of intelligence? Or the existence of fetal pain? Or the distribution of cognitive abilities among the sexes at the extreme right tail of the bell curve? Or if that’s too upsetting, how about dividing the line between those who are pro- and anti-science along the lines of support for geoengineering? Or — coming soon — the role cosmic rays play in cloud formation? Why not make it about support for nuclear power? Or Yucca Mountain? Why not deride the idiots who oppose genetically modified crops, even when they might prevent blindness in children?

Some of these examples are controversial, others tendentious, but all are just as fair as the way the Left framed embryonic stem-cell research and all are more relevant than questions about evolution. (Quick: If Obama changed his mind about evolution tomorrow and became a creationist, what policies would change? I’ll wait.)

The point is that the Left considers itself the undisputed champion of “science,” but there are scads of issues where they take un-scientific points of view.

Sure they can cite dissident scientists — just as conservatives can — on this or that issue. But everyone knows that when the science directly threatens the Left’s pieties, it’s the science that must bend — or break. During the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard, comments delivered in the classic spirit of open inquiry and debate cost Summers his job. Actual scientists got the vapors because he violated the principles not of science but of liberalism. During the Gulf oil spill, the Obama administration dishonestly claimed that its independent experts supported a drilling moratorium. They emphatically did not. The president who campaigned on basing his policies on “sound science” ignored his own hand-picked experts. According to the GAO, he did something very similar when he shut down Yucca Mountain. His support for wind and solar energy, as you suggest, isn’t based on science but on faith. And that faith has failed him dramatically.

The idea that conservatives are anti-science is self-evident and self-pleasing liberal hogwash. I see no reason why conservatives should even argue the issue on their terms when it’s so clearly offered in bad faith in the first place.

Recently, others have made this point better than I have, but as the Marines say of their rifles, this “news”letter is mine.

Anyway, what I find really intriguing is the way people talk about “science” as if it is so much more — and occasionally less — than it is. Critics on Twitter and in my e-mail box say we need to know if Scott Walker “believes in science,” as if his answer on evolution will tell us if he’s a witch burner or not.

Well, I regularly get e-mail from creationists. E-mail. In other words, thanks to scientists, the words of creationists are transported through the sky into my phone or computer. And, while I haven’t checked, I’m pretty sure they don’t believe that their e-mail was carried to me on the backs of pixies. I’m also pretty sure that the vast majority of creationists drive cars, take antibiotics, watch TV, and eat foods with preservatives in them. For liberals, perhaps this is proof of some kind of hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance. And maybe it is, though I don’t see it. But it’s also a demonstration that having your faith — or your superstitions — bump into one of the farther borders of scientific knowledge doesn’t require one to reject all of science. It’s not a binary thing. Belief in something unconfirmed or even disproved by science is not a rejection of all science. Just as a refusal to believe unicorns are real doesn’t mean I have to reject the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Kate Upton, or other allegedly mythical creatures.#ad#

That’s part of the irony. The way the science-lovers talk about science, you’d think science was a kind of magic that requires total faith and conviction. If you don’t believe with all of your heart in “science,” it will stop working. It’s like the scientific enterprise is akin to Santa’s sleigh in the movie Elf (a great film, and not just because it inspired my daughter to answer the phone “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?”).

In Elf, Santa’s sleigh no longer relies on flying reindeer. Instead it converts “Christmas cheer” into jet power. That’s how some of these people talk about believing in science. If we don’t project our positive emotions towards it, it won’t take off. I am typing this on a plane from Detroit, Michigan — on Friday the 13th, no less. What happens if I suddenly stop saying in a hopeful whisper “I believe in you, science!” or if I take a deist bent and hold out the possibility that there’s something more than the material world out there? Will my plane suddenly plummet? Will gremlins slowly emerge from behind the seat in front of me, like Miley Cyrus climbing over a toilet-stall door?

Look, science, unlike God, really doesn’t care if you believe in it. And casting doubt on one part of it doesn’t break the spell. That’s the whole point of science; it’s not magic.

Democrats are more likely to believe in paranormal activity. They’re also more likely to believe in reincarnation and astrology. I have personally known liberals who think crystals have healing powers who nonetheless believe that the internal combustion engine doesn’t actually rely on magical horse power.

#page#Help Me, Science, You’re My Only Hope

But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from listening to these people freak out about it. (Sorry, this “news”letter will be light in links because there’s no internet on this plane. Fun fact: If you shout “There’s no Internet on this plane!” in a really loud, terror-filled, voice — as if the plane runs on Internet — your fellow passengers freak out. Try it some time. If it doesn’t work the first time, say it over and over. Eventually you’ll get a lot of attention.)#ad#

When I hear people talk about science as if it’s something to “believe in,” particularly people who reject all sorts of science-y things (vaccines, nuclear power, etc. as discussed above), I immediately think of one of my favorite lines from Eric Voegelin: “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” This will be true, he added, even when “the new apocalyptics insist that the symbols they create are scientific.”

In other words, the “Don’t you believe in evolution!?!” people don’t really believe in science qua science, what they’re really after is dethroning God in favor of their own gods of the material world (though I suspect many don’t even realize why they’re so obsessed with this one facet of the disco ball called “science”). “Criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticisms,” quoth Karl Marx, who then proceeded to create his own secular religion.

This is nothing new of course. This tendency is one of the reasons why every time Moses turned his back on the Hebrews they started worshipping golden calves and whatnot.

At least Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who coined the phrase “sociology,” was open about what he was really up to when he created his “Religion of Humanity,” in which scientists, statesmen, and engineers were elevated to Saints. As I say in my column, the fight over evolution is really a fight over the moral status of man. And, if we are nothing but a few bucks worth of chemicals connected by water and electricity, than there’s really nothing holding us back from elevating “science” to divine status and in turn anointing those who claim to be its champions as our priests. It’s no coincidence that Herbert Croly was literally — not figuratively, the way Joe Biden means literally — baptized into Comte’s Religion of Humanity.

Personally, I think the effort to overthrow Darwin along with Marx and Freud is misguided. I have friends invested in that project and I agree that all sorts of terrible Malthusian and materialist crap is bound up in Darwinism. But that’s an argument for ranking out the manure, not burning down the stable.

In Memoriam

My brother Josh passed away four years ago this month. If I couldn’t get a G-File done this morning, I was going to recycle the one I wrote not long after his funeral. An excerpt:

My brother died last week. He had an accident. He fell down some stairs. He surely had too much to drink when it happened. It’s all such an awful waste. You can read how I felt — how I feel — about my brother here.

But, you know, this is uncharted territory for me. And while I have little to no morbid desire to wallow indefinitely in a public display of grieving, the G-File has always been a dispatch from the frontlines of my mind, a quasi-personal letter to the collective You. Some might even call it the mad scribbling in the virtual ink of diluted fecal matter on my imaginary jail-cell wall.

And, as you can imagine, there are few things more on my mind than this choking fog of awfulness.

I’m told by a friend that there’s a new book out, The Truth about Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, that apparently demonstrates how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross made up all that stuff about the “five stages of grief.” I have no plans to read it. But I’m fully prepared to believe that any hard-and-fast five-point definition of grief is bogus. Admittedly, my data sample set is pretty small but hugely significant; in the last six years I’ve lost my father and my brother out of a family of four people. And, already, it’s clear to me that the geography of grief cannot be so easily mapped.

Obviously there are going to be similarities to the terrain. But just as there are different kinds of happiness — say, winning the lottery versus having a kid, or beating cancer versus seeing Keith Olbermann booted off of MSNBC — there are different kinds of sadness, too. And how they play out depends on the context.

In terms of my own internal response, the most glaring continuity between my dad’s death and my brother’s is loneliness. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got lots of company. I have lots of people who care for me more than I realized. I’m richer in friends and family than I could ever possibly expect or deserve.

But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.

Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.

Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.

One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.

The pain is duller now, but the feelings are the same.

Various & Sundry

Dead people tried!

Cats vs. Robots

Spot the Robot Dog

Taiwanese dad straps baby to steering wheel and spins him around

The secret science behind popcorn

Dinos got high on psychedelic fungus

Cockroaches have individual personalities

Mardi Gras dog parade

Parrot mimics couple arguing

Valentine’s Day puppy born with a heart birthmark

Debby’s Links!

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. © 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.