It can get pretty grim today, examining the rampant run of pseudo-science. There are a lot of intellectuals out there, and a lot of pseudo-intellectuals (that’s SWAY-do, if you’re not in the know) and even more pseudo-scientists. The image by Gillray lifts my spirits a bit, with its hilarious shafting of savants, intent on the investigation of the pneumatic power of farts.
Yes, there’s cold fusion – when will the cold water thrown on it finally wash it away? – and there’s Intelligent Design – a “theory” without content – and there are the worthy epigones of that Victorian blockhead, John Galton, the contemporary running-dog-lackeys of vulgar empiricism. Right now, I’m thinking of Charles Murray, Adam Bellow, and the latecomer to the club, John Gartner. Not household names? – read on!
When I think of pseudo-science, I think of Murray, who made his splash with The Bell Curve, a statistical mishmash that manages to avoid the important question of just what he purports to be measuring. Race, intelligence? Does anyone have a clear definition of what these are? No? Then it’s off to the races, no pun intended – develop your own theory of anything. Murray hit the stores with another book in which assessed human “achievement” of civilizations with a quantitative method. Surprise, the west is on top! You pays your money, make your assumptions, and…
(Those who want a more intelligent assessment of why some cultures have won out while others disappeared should check out Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. His critics often tar him as a simple “environmental determinist”, but his arguments are quite rational, and far more subtle and profound than his critics appreciate.)
Murray’s first book was published by Adam Bellow, who has since weighed in with his cogent analysis of nepotism, a deliciously self-serving tome by someone who’s principal claim to fame – no fault of his own – seems to be his (recently deceased) father. Yes, it’s all genetic, ants do it, fish do it, nepotism is natural. Even Edward Wilson, the father of sociobiology, who stumbles badly when he tries to advance his ideas to the human cultural realm (He is a big-time subscriber to the naturalistic fallacy, i.e., that you can get an ought from an is.), might cavil. The crude socio-biologists always warp the same way: animals have evolved behavior A; humans have behavior B; A and B appear to be similar types of behavior; therefore, human behavior B is nothing but animal behavior A, and it is the same in all respects, origins, and purposes. Quite a few leaps there, and nature doesn’t make big jumps, does she? Back on the purely human level, Bellow said in a NYTimes Opinion piece,
“…a name, nepotism can serve to get your foot in the door, but after that, you’re on your own”.
Of course, legions of struggling actors, artists, and other professional aspirants well tell you deadpan, straight off, getting your foot in the door is THE crucial step! They’re all smart! So, pseudo-science serves, once again, to dress up some propositions that are most gratifying to one’s self-esteem.
I happen to know that the next member of my anti-pantheon, John Gartner was Bellow’s school chum. Is this a co-inky-dink? Or…is it in the genes!? [And why am I talking about them? Simple: Saul Bellow died this week, and Gartner’s book was just reviewed in the NYTimes today. And there are other connections, too dark and nefarious to mention here… ] Now he has written a book which posthumously analyzes several American high achievers and concludes that they were all hypomanic, i.e., just this side of clinically manic. Pity they aren’t around to suggest otherwise. Of course, this just proves that the USA itself is one great big self-selecting gene pool of hypomanics, which is why the USA is so successful, and presumably always will be. This is science? Yes it is, by jingo!
Finally, I must refer to Nicholas Kristoff’s column today, in which he asserts that Nukes are Green. NK doesn’t pretend to be a scientist, but he does claim to be factual and rational. Still he comes out with this statement:
Radioactive wastes are a challenge. But burdening future generations with nuclear wastes in deep shafts is probably more reasonable than burdening them with a warmer world in which Manhattan is submerged under 20 feet of water.
Okay, nuclear plants are pretty safe, I agree. Okay, they don’t contribute to greenhouse gases, but why does he assume that we should be more worried about submerging Manhattan than burying waste? Is he certain that they are equally probable. Nukes do produce waste – Manhattan under 20 feet – that’s a stretch for even the worst warming scenarios. Is it because the French do it? Hey, pass the Freedom Fries! “Probably more reasonable?” Better be sure before you bury!
Environmentalists often state that human civilization is conducting a giant, uncontrolled experiment with the climate, and if it turns out badly, we’re in bad shape. Doesn’t burying tons of intensely radioactive waste and assuming that our progeny will properly take care of it for the next 100,000 years or so amount to a rather daring experiment? A little radioactive waste in the groundwater could be a big problem, not to mention the fact that the USA can’t even seem to find a place to accept burial of even part of its waste. You can’t just dream away political problems such as NIMBY, although if we had a French Revolution here, that would be a solution, We could simply quell parochial resistance by forking over money to those affected the way the French government does. Bravo, bon idee!
Why does Kristoff pose the energy issue as one of “how do we maintain our current level of consumption in our current distribution system?” Green energy options are most feasible when the Grid is gone, replaced by more local sources. Utopian in the short run, perhaps, but the short run is quite malleable in this case by public policy. The long run, in which we are all dead, as Keynes famously remarked, is bad in any case. The facts, and imagination, are both part of science.