Wednesday, May 14, 2014

It Doesn't Exist. But If It Did.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, George F. Will saw "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and wrote (in a column seemingly no longer available)

Disdain for science usually ends when the disdainer gets a toothache, or his child needs an operation. But hostility to science is the anti-intellectualism of the semi-intellectual. That is in part because science undercuts intellectual vanity:  Measured against what is unknown, the difference between what the most and least learned persons know is trivial.  E.T. is, ostensibly, an invitation to feel what we too rarely feel: wonder. One reason we rarely feel wonder is that science has made many things routine that once were exciting, even terrifying (travel, surgery). But science does more than its despiser do to nurture the wonderful human capacity for wonder.

But a lot can change in 32 years, and has since the Washington Post columnist observed "scientists pounce upon E.T." who "is rescued from the fell clutches of the scientists by a posse of kid bicyclists and boards a spaceship for home." Will found "an animus against science, which is seen as a morbid calling for callous vivisectionists and other unfeeling technocrats."

Will  has regressed dramatically in these 3+ decades.   On the May 4 edition of Fox News Sunday, Charles Krauthammer and Will quesioned the existence of climate change, the latter claiming

Now, there is, as Charles says, the policy question is how much wealth do we want to spend directly or in lost production in order to have no discernible measurable effect on the climate? People say, well, what about this report? There is a sociology of science. Scientists are not saints in white laboratory smocks. They have got interests like everybody else. If you want a tenure-track position in academia, don't question the reigning orthodoxy on climate change. If you want money from the biggest source of direct research in this country, the federal government, don't question its orthodoxy. If you want to get along with your peers, conform to peer pressure. This is what's happening.

Jonathan Chait notes

Will is arguing that climate scientists have been massively corrupted by federal funding and peer pressure. (“They have got interests like everybody else.”) He does not consider the countervailing power of opposing financial interests that might lure scientists to question of the scientific consensus, such as the lucrative funding made available in the right-wing think-tank world. He likewise discounts the possibility that scientists would find the lure of being proven eventually correct to be a powerful reputational incentive, let alone that they would actually care enough about being right to disregard social and financial pressure

Of course, of course, and of course.  Will , unlike Sean Hannity and a few others, does not toe the Repub line simply to toe the GOP line. His argument, however, has morphed into an increasingly common, two-track, line among Repubs: we shouldn't do anything about global warming even if it is occurring, which I'm not saying it is. 

But as John Oliver pointed out (video, below) Sunday night, presenting a discussion between a believer and a denier of climate change or treating the issue as if it is a debatable question borders on the absurd.  "You don't need," he remarked, "peoples' opinions on a fact. You might as well ask which number is bigger: 15 or 5? Or do owls exist?"

Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist, by training, ought to understand that. And George Will, who once believed in science and still is a widely read syndicated columnist, could at least acknowledge a scientific fact. That he cannot do so demonstrates how a rational person can fall.

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