13 April 2009

A Startling Concession

Via the First Things blog, and the New York Times:

It is no secret that a lot of climate-change research is subject to opinion, that climate models sometimes disagree even on the signs of the future changes (e.g. drier vs. wetter future climate).
The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’—and readers’—attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.

This admission from a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics and climatology is a really, really, really bad sign. We're witnessing the very subtle transition from "the facts demand action" to "the facts aren't demanding enough action". The tone of the first phrase is all concern, urgency, and instruction; that of the second is panic, irrationality, and fanaticism. It is the transition from teaching to manipulation; it's a corruption from being in service to a cause to enslavement to ideology.

It is also a consequence of the transition from print to visual media as the vehicle for transmitting information. Not too long ago, I drifted through Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and his critique of television as a medium for public discourse came to mind as I ruminated over the quotation above. Postman claims that unlike printed media, which appealed to the structured, rational dimensions of the mind, television is image-based and therefore fundamentally oriented to the nonrational: emotions, dispositions, "the gut". This is, of course, fine for rhetorical persuasion, but his claim is that each medium carries within itself its own definition of what constitutes truth. A print-based culture, whose conversations were carried out verbally, considered the rational, linear, and ordered presentation of facts and arguments to be the standard for truth, however dressed up in elegant language they may have been. It measured its discourse by this rule.

An image-based media, however, operates by a different standard, and its truth-telling is not rigorous; it is "compelling" or "powerful" but not ultimately judged by its correspondence to reality. It is a truth primarily based upon its ability to persuade. The classic example is Richard Nixon's debate with JFK in the 1960 presidential race: many claim that Nixon's poor health and refusal to wear makeup to have been the deciding factor among the 70 million television viewers who decided Kennedy had bested Nixon (radio listeners pronounced in favor of Nixon). What is true is what persuades; can anyone be blamed, given such a milieu, for being persuasive at any cost?

Yet it is precisely the truth that disappears in such a milieu, for it is drowned by the voices straining to be heard over all others. Truth becomes a lie. It is a short road from "the
facts aren't demanding enough action" to "the facts demand that we exaggerate the facts". Is there any question that this last idea is tantamount to "the facts demand that we lie about the facts"?

A very helpful point on this subject was made in an article by Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson on the political history of stem cells. You may be wondering, Stem cells have a political history? I thought this was a medical question, a scientific question. You'd be right to wonder, and I think Bottum & Anderson strike the perfect ironic tone in the title of their article. Unfortunately, global warming isn't the first time science has gotten itself mixed up with politics, and vice versa. Science and politics aren't nearly so separate as we might believe.

Until the discovery of viable techniques of manipulating adult stem cells (known as induced pluripotent stem cell research, or IPSC), the question of embryonic stem cell research was used as a political weapon. Incredibly, many scientists tolerated this because they thought it would help them do the research they were convinced would lead to cures.

The history of the stem-cell debate is a study of what happens when politics and science reach out to each other. The politicians were guilty, but the scientists were more guilty, for they allowed—no, they encouraged—politicians to make stem-cell research a tool in the public fights over abortion, public religion, and high finance.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election?

We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

It's hard to believe that scientists would place their credibility in the hands of politicians, but we've been watching it happen it for years. IPSC research is an OMELETTE on the face of the scientific stooges of the political left. I'm always hearing about how exasperated the rest of the world is about the idiots who have dug their heels and refused to capitulate to global-warming dogmatics, but I never hear anyone talking about how it's not always wise to trust someone just because they have some letters after their name and a job at a big university. It seems to me that such skeptics are simply holding scientists accountable for their past willingness to be the political puppets of fanatics and ideologues, and their failure to extricate themselves from the awkward alliances they have created.

09 April 2009

Feast of the Priesthood

Today is the day we celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper and the institution of the priesthood of the New Covenant. My pastor handed me a little quote from this month's Magnificat that I thought was worthy of being shared. . . not only because of its occasional significance but the way it sums up my own fears (and hopes) as well:

It became clearer and clearer to me that there is more to the priestly vocation than enjoying theology, indeed, that work in the parish can often lead very far away from that and makes completely different demands … The Yes to the priesthood meant that I had to say Yes to the whole task, oven in its simplest forms.

Since I was rather diffident and downright unpractical, since I had no talent for sports or administration or organization, I had to ask myself whether I would be able to relate to people—whether, for example, as a chaplain I would be able to lead and inspire Catholic youth, whether I would be capable of giving religious instruction to the little ones, whether I could get along with the old and sick, and so forth. I had to ask myself whether I would be ready to do that my whole life long and whether it was really my vocation.

Bound up with this was naturally the question of whether I would be able to remain celibate, unmarried, my whole life long… I often pondered these questions as I walked in the beautiful park of Furstenried and naturally in the chapel, until finally at my diaconal ordination in the fall of 1950 I was able to pronounce a convinced Yes.

Benedict XVI

05 April 2009

I Can't Resist a Juicy Subtitle

An excellent interview on the tendency of liberalism (in the broad, philosophical sense, not the narrow political sense) to degrade into tyranny is over at Zenit.
The attempt [to eradicate oppressive customs and viewpoints] puts liberal government at odds with natural human tendencies. If the way someone acts seems odd to me, and I look at him strangely, that helps construct the social world he's forced to live in. He will find that oppressive. Liberal government can't accept that, so it eventually feels compelled to supervise all my attitudes about how people live and how I express them.

The end result is a comprehensive system of control over all human relations run by an expert elite responsible only to itself. That, of course, is tyranny.

The whole interview is an apt diagnosis of the inherent mechanisms of the liberal political project, particularly as its strengths are recognized even as its weaknesses are unveiled. The idea that the liberal democratic project in the US has followed a trajectory towards secularism and tyranny inherent in its founding is a much more compelling thesis than the conspiracy theories about socialist infiltrators and Haters of All Things American that are slowly and deviously subverting our republic from the inside. The latter certainly makes for more effective boilerplate (and therefore will always find a voice in such venues as talk radio) but ultimately it fails to articulate a compelling response to the encroaching threat of the self-destruction of freedom.

Kalb's book sounds like a helpful contribution to the Church's mission to the post-Christian West. If you get a chance to read it, let me know your thoughts. I'd love to compare notes.

The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command

by James Kalb

04 April 2009


As I was sitting in the adoration chapel today before morning Mass, an old fella stepped in shuffled over to my bench. He is an inveterate talker, holding conversations and offering smalltalk in the sacred space of the chapel, clearly marked by signs and by nearly universal custom as a place of silence. I inwardly groaned when I saw his unmistakable gait out of the corner of my eye, certain that given my placement in the chapel there would be a conversation coming my way very soon. He appeared to think he would not be able to squeeze by me given how far my feet stuck out in front of my legs (they are big), and he thought a good way to get me to move them would be to comment on how big my feet are.

"What are those, size fourteen, fifteen?"


"So they are, yes. Big feet, they are."


After a minute or two of hoarse whispering on his part and tightlipped rejoinders on mine, he shuffled on by. I was relieved ... sometimes these little chats can stretch on for five or seven minutes, as I'm too polite to just tell him to shut his yap. But before taking his seat he leaned down close and said,

"My boy's got some big feet, too. You know what he tells people when they give him a hard time about his big feet?"

"What's that"

"He says, 'It takes a bigger foundation to build a church than a shithouse.' Don't you forget that, now."

No sir, I won't.