Monday, February 09, 2009

Truth and the Common Good

I've been staring at the screen for about fifteen minutes now, wondering how I can introduce the latest column by Dennis Clayson. A few glib, sarcastic words won't do justice to the abyss he's opened at our feet, and casting doubt on his sanity is unnecessary given the beliefs he's proud to express. Calling him a garden-variety inactivist would obscure his talent for making shit up, while presenting him as some sort of inexhaustible wingnut Scheherazade would downplay the poverty of his thought.

There's nothing to do, really, but proceed.

The first thing you need to know is that Clayson is upset because people intend to celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. In order to understand his dismay, you need to realize that science is sometimes put in service of political ideology.

No, really! For instance, there used to be a theory which claimed that if the US and Russia launched all their nuclear weapons at each other, it would somehow result in something called "nuclear winter."

Not only would cities and military targets be destroyed, but the climate would be so altered that almost everyone would be exposed to famine and environmental collapse. In other words, there could be no winners of a nuclear war.
A fanciful notion, you'll agree, for which we can imagine no physical mechanism or natural precedent. Still, this scenario was politically useful, in that it made all-out nuclear war seem like a bad idea.

If you've ever seen a film called The Corpse Grinders, in which cats develop a taste for human flesh after a cat food company tries to cut costs by raiding the local graveyard, you can probably guess what happened next:
Unfortunately, whether this theory was true or false, scientists learned a lesson about the relationship between the truth and the common good that the left had used for over a century to justify lying.
In other words, they found out that lying about stuff was a fun and profitable way to advance the secular-humanist agenda, and they decided to make a career of it.

This is all very exciting. But for some reason, Clayson feels a need to digress:
If you lived 600 years ago, and if you were rich and didn't have to work, you could take on the task of learning everything there was to know, and no one would be astonished at your ambition.

If someone were to say the same today, we would wonder if they were sane. Know everything there is to know; about what? Sharks? What aspect of what type of shark?

The difference in the amount of knowledge that is available is due to a number of factors, but primarily to something called the Scientific Method.
Unfortunately, he derails this interesting train of thought just as it's nearing the station. Instead, he uses correspondent inference theory to "prove" that scientists are lying about global warming:
Think about what the idea of human-caused global warming justifies. It demands global solutions dependent upon global governments. It demands that business and production be controlled. It demands that human behavior be controlled even down to private decisions that now magically become public policy; such as how many children a person may have.
It's easy to point out what's wrong with this argument: the fact that global warming may result in a given outcome doesn't prove that it was invented to cause that outcome. But pointing out what's wrong with it and defeating it are two different things, sad to say.

Many people find it easier to believe that AGW is a worldwide conspiracy to destroy capitalism (or feminize men, or redistribute wealth, or reduce population) than to accept that we're endangering our own survival through our own bad decisions. The more frightening science's predictions are, the more desperate the Global Liberal Elite must be to make postpartum abortion legal. It's just common sense!

Make no mistake: "there are numerous leftist and environmental groups that want global warming to be true so bad they could wet their pants." Accepting the science, therefore, would make leftists happy. If pleasing leftists is your idea of a good time, you might as well cook them a nice meal of tofu and arugula while you're at it, and then let them buttfuck you 'til the cows come home and are granted human rights by an activist judge.

Remember how Clayson said it's impossible to know very much about science these days, 'cause human knowledge has increased thanks to "something called the Scientific Method"? Well, scratch that. It takes nothing more intellectually strenuous than patriotism to understand that "there is no 'consensus' on the causes of global warming." (As for the likely effects...well, if we can't even be certain that global thermonuclear war would have serious consequences for the climate, why should we worry about building a few more coal-fired power plants?)

So what does any of this have to do with Darwin? It's simple. Sort of.
What about a Darwin Day celebration? Why not a Newton Day, or a Neils Bohr Day? Both are rated higher on scientific importance than Darwin on many historical rankings.

Why Darwin? Because, like the science of global warming, there are some "sciences" that are more important to personal and political aggrandizement than others.
I'd be interested in having a look at the "ratings" Clayson consulted, but never mind about that. He's asking a straightforward question, and I think I can answer it. The reason some people celebrate "Darwin Day" is because the theory of evolution -- unlike the theories of Newton and Bohr -- is under continual attack by invincibly ignorant zealots, whose alleged religious faith is so weak and sickly that it can't survive the strain of understanding the biological processes that occur in a world they claim was created especially for them.

No matter how you feel about Darwin Day -- I tend to think it's waste of time, personally -- you should be able to grasp that people make a point of celebrating Darwin's birth not because he's Teh Bestest Scientist Ever, but because ideologues like Clayson have portrayed him as a fool, a charlatan, and a midwife to Hitler for decades, and pretended that evolution stands or falls with his character.

All of which makes defending evolution roughly equivalent with defending science, both as a source of practical (if occasionally dangerous) knowledge about how our world works, and as a necessary counterbalance to the maniacs who insist that global nuclear war is "winnable," that the concept of race corresponds to a genetic reality, that teh gays don't deserve equal rights, and that some magical force prevents human activity from affecting the climate.

To put it another way, if Clayson really wants to know why Darwin's birthday is being celebrated, and (more to the point) treated as an occasion to review the basics of evolution and science, he should ponder his own career in journalism, and the degree of public ignorance required to make it not just possible, but respectable.


Anonymous said...

I can only state that I'm in awe of someone who can not only write such a marvellous takedown, but also use it as an opportunity to work in a reference to Corpse Grinders.

Anonymous said...

I googled Prof. Dennis Clayson and he's a friggin' Marketing Professor at B. Young U? And he's qualified to use his academic credentials to dupe the public into thinking he might have some scientific expertise? Or is he some other Dennis Clayson?

Holding that biological science would be better served by presenting the public with the enormous amount of science done since the death of Darwin instead of telling cosy tales of life on The Beagle, I think his bringing up Darwin Day is just a dodge. What he's really attacking is the cost of doing something about global warming, which is a big surprise, isn't it. Darwin is just his throw away loss leader, biting his head off is just the geek show for the main attraction which is to accuse environmentalists of doing what? Of practicing exactly what? Marketing.

Just as an aside, your random character generator is requiring me to type in "motorct" Seems spookily apropos.

Anthony McCarthy