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A Premodern/Postmodern Pope?

Pope against frackingCross-posted on the Corner.

From First Things, an interesting take on the pope’s eco-encyclical by R.R. Reno.

Here’s an extract: “Everything is connected” is [the Pope’s] mantra in Laudato Si. True to this principle, Francis links his suspicion of science with suspicions about other dimensions of the modern world. Progress has often been characterized as ever-greater prosperity. But economic globalization, a signature feature of the late modern world, and precondition for today’s rapid growth in China and elsewhere, is excoriated again and again. Francis never tires of denouncing “finance,” by which he seems to mean modern banking in all its forms. And of course we’re destroying mother earth. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history.”

Another feature of modernity and its faith in progress has been a political commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be modern is to believe that, for all our flaws, Western societies are more democratic, more egalitarian, and more inclusive than any in history. This is not the Pope’s view. The West is rapacious. He quotes one source approvingly: “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”

In effect, the present world system created by European and North American modernity—the world made possible by Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Ricardo, Kant, Pasteur, Einstein, Keynes, and countless other architects of modern science, economics, and political culture—is an abomination. Francis never quite says that. But this strong judgment is implied in his many fierce denunciations of the current global order. It destroys the environment, oppresses the multitudes, and makes us blind to the beauty of creation.

Indeed. And it’s worth noting that these are not the first “fierce denunciations” (I’ll stick with that relatively gentle phrase) that we have seen from a pope with something of a weakness for a demagogic, occasionally even paranoid style that would have played well in the Peronist Argentina of his youth, a time when he clearly learnt much and understood little.

But back to First Things:

Today’s progressives are often critical of the West, and in that sense critical of “progress.” Europeans can be hysterical about genetically modified food. They have renounced nuclear energy, the only feasible large-scale alternative to a hydrocarbon-based energy system. Democracy was the signal political aspiration of modernity, but the EU is a post-national political project, a technocratic, post-democratic project. Here in the United States, many are now educated to believe that the history of the West is one long story of oppression and injustice. Optimism has waned, which means that the pope’s pessimism may be received warmly.

Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism.

There may be a strange genius in this. For more than two hundred years Catholicism has resisted a self-sufficient humanism confident in the triumph of reason and science. Now there are powerful forces in the West that regard the modern project of the West as a failure, and the worst-case accounts of global warming encourage us to draw this conclusion. Thus the encyclical’s apparent focus, which is quickly superseded by a wholesale critique of every aspect of the current global system. Francis encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God.

Count me a skeptic. I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If global warming poses a dire threat to humanity—and it may—we will need all the moral strength, scientific integrity, economic vitality, and political legitimacy that Western modernity can muster. The same goes for the pressing problems of poverty and development. Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance. We all need to repent. But when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.

Obviously, I’m not with Reno on the need for the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church (readers may disagree!), but his broader point is subtle and very well made. The fact is that Francis is a pope who is profoundly at odds with not just (what we understand as) the West, but with the best of the West.

And, I would add, this encyclical is far from being the only evidence of that.


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California Injects Some Sense on Vaccination


Or at least it’s getting closer to doing that. This from Reuters/Religion News Service:

California parents who do not vaccinate their children would have to home-school them under a bill passed Thursday by the state Senate, the latest move in a battle between public health officials and “anti-vaxxers” who fear vaccines are dangerous.

The bill, which eliminates the so-called personal beliefs exemption allowing parents to forego vaccinations if opposed to them for any reason, was introduced after a measles outbreak at Disneyland last year that sickened more than 100 people.


Under the bill, which still must be approved by the Assembly, unvaccinated children who do not have a medical exemption would have to study at home or in organized, private home-schooling groups.

Home-schooling has nothing to do with being educated about vaccines of course, but demanding it represents a sufficient enough burden for most parents such that it should definitely help get vaccination numbers up.

Relatedly, the Lifetime Network is doing its part on the vaccine front by showing the stars of “Terra’s Little Family” getting their infant, “Penny,” vaccinated. (Yes, I watch this program. Judge me not!* ) Mom Terra struggles with the decision because she’s “heard” about the literally ill effects of vaccine. But in the end she does the right thing.

It’s good to see the MBA-holding female decision-makers at Lifetime – or Television for Women ™ – doing right by their downscale viewers. Especially because the thrust of the anti-vaccination zeitgeist is coming from the relatively upscale. David Hume has more on that here.

* I’m also a fan of other reality TV, like “Return to Amish.” This while media attention is far more focused on e.g. Mad Men. Here’s why I prefer the former.



For a guy who laments moral relativism, Rod Dreher doesn’t shy away from equating ISIS, though with the expected qualifier, to the folks in Silicon Valley. Upon reading a dialogue between two future forecaster types at – who talk about “useless” people (from an economic, military, and intentionally hyperbolic POV, let’s be clear) and the possibility of the very rich cheating death – he’s come away convinced that “slavery” will soon be at hand:

This is the religion of the future. Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress. These are the barbarians coming to rule us — and the masses will welcome them.

If you are not part of a church community that is consciously resisting this vision, then your children, or at best your children’s children, will be lost to the faith. There is no thought more corrupting to the human soul than the Serpent’s promise in Eden: “Ye Shall be as Gods.”

Goodness, er, gracious.

Dreher is disturbed by modernity, period, and for him Silicon Valley is symbolic of everything wrong with the (relatively) rationalist, reductionist tendency in the human affairs of the Global North. He blames the “barbarians” of Silicon Valley for being both elitist – e.g. with their talk of a technological “singularity” and interest in life extension – and down-to-earth in the worst way, by promoting “bread and circuses.” Think Netflix and Snapchat (or to get really granular, the animated gif keyboard).

Some of what Dreher is criticizing is rightly considered problematic (to borrow a term from the left), such as long-term unemployment becoming the norm. And Dreher correctly points out that the trends being noticed in the conversation between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman aren’t necessarily being promoted. But the solution to these and other ills aren’t being obstructed by techno-optimists as much as they are anti-state libertarians (to call out “our” side), or the political dysfunction seemingly difficult to dislodge given increasing ideological rigidity.

In any case, egghead utilitarians deliberating about how the masses will endure the end of work and ample food and entertainment is not at all on par with radical Islam. But that’s just my two cents. Or is that two bitcoins? Whatever.


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“Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder”

Socorro, NM, May 95 (photo AS)Cross-posted on the Corner

Just when you think that the misery that climate change is bringing in its wake can get no worse, there is this.

Grist reports:

…From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties….

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. — and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation’s report — calls this emotional reaction “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term she coined to describe the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.

There is, in my view, a perfectly reasonable case to be made that man may be contributing to the way that our ever-changing climate changes. That’s one thing, but how some choose to express their belief in that proposition can be something altogether, well let’s just say, less reasonable.

Millennialist hysteria is not, of course, a new phenomenon. But, to be fair, it’s not all that hellish for those that embrace it. I suspect that with that, um, “pre-traumatic stress disorder” comes a certain excitement too, of a girding up for the End Times, of a preparation for that definitive battle to save the planet, stave off Satan or whatever the particular apocalypse may be.

And the unbelievers just will not listen:


What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears.

But that too all is not all bad. The willful ignorance of those who will not pay attention to that alarm reinforces the sense of moral superiority felt by those who do. Sinners make it so much easier to be a saint.

And that sense of mission, how it burns.


For activists like Mike Tidwell — founder of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Race to Save America’s Coastal Cities — part of being on the front lines means being outspoken and passionate about the cause. But while activism may be a more forgiving platform to express emotional stresses than within the scientific community, the personal toll of the work goes largely undiscussed.

“You don’t just start talking about unbelievably fast sea-level rise at a cocktail party at a friend’s house,” Tidwell says. “So having to deny the emotional need to talk about what’s on your mind all the time … those are some of the burdens that climate aware scientists and activists have to endure….”

….Perhaps it’s time for those deeply involved in climate science to come forward about the emotional struggle, or at the very least, for those in mental health research and support to start exploring climate change psychology with more fervor. And reaching out to scientists in particular could be a huge opportunity to better explore the world of climate psych, says psychosocial researcher and consultant Renee Lertzman.

“There’s a taboo talking about it,” Lertzman says, adding that the tight-lipped culture of the scientific community can be difficult to bridge. “We’re just starting to piece that together. The field of the psychology of climate change is still very, very young … I believe there are profound and not well-recognized or understood psychological implications of what I would call being a frontliner. There needs to be a lot more attention given to frontliners and where they’re given support.”

“The field of the psychology of climate change” is “very, very young”? I don’t think so.

The chosen, the elect, the saved, the righteous, the “frontliners”.

It’s a very, very old story, but with a new script.




Star Turn

The BBCA.Duerer, Der Astrologe - Duerer / The Astrologer / -:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine. David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work….Explaining his beliefs to BBC News, Mr Tredinnick said he had been right about herbal remedies and healing, which he said were now becoming accepted in parts of the NHS [National Health Service], and he now wanted to promote astrology, which was not just predicting the future but gaining an insight into personal problems.

He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

“I think it’s something that people should be aware of as an option they have if they are confused about themselves.”

He said he had compiled astrological charts for his fellow MPs – he declined to reveal names – adding: “If you look at the charts I have done for people I have certainly made their lives easier.”

Oh yes, there’s this:

The MP for Bosworth [is] a member of the [House of Commons] health committee and… science and technology committee

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Superstitions Old and New

Library of CongressRaw Story:

Televangelist Pat Robertson advised a mother on Monday that she could cure her son’s stomach pains by finding someone to cast out demons that were possibly caused by an ancestor who practiced witchcraft. In an email, a viewer named Dianne told the TV preacher that her son had “painful shock-waves thru his body” that originated in his stomach while she was praying for him and calling on “the name of JESUS.”

“My son said it felt like something hit him very hard in the stomach,” the mother wrote. “I know this is not of God. He is a Christian. Can Christians be attacked by demons?”

Instead of recommending that the mother seek medical attention, Robertson said that the boy could be “oppressed or possessed by demons.”

“You need to get somebody with you who understands the spiritual dimension and doing spiritual warfare,” he continued. “If I were you, I would look back in your family. What in your family — do you have anybody involved in the occult, somebody in witchcraft or tarot cards or psychic things?”

“Has there something been there that you don’t know about. Some grandparent, great grandparent or something. Look into the family tree, and then get some people in there and cast this stuff out. But that does not sound like normal.

Laura Helmuth, writing in Slate:

Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A profile of Kennedy in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine shows that Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders listened politely while Kennedy told them that a vaccine preservative causes autism.

It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country has evaluated the evidence and concluded that the preservative thimerosal is safe. The question is settled scientifically. Thimerosal, out of an abundance of caution, was removed from childhood vaccines 13 years ago, although it is used in some flu vaccines. And yet Kennedy, perhaps more than any other anti-vaccine zealot, has confused parents into worrying that vaccines, which have saved more lives than almost any other public health practice in history, could harm their children.

Mikulski and Sanders, to their credit, both politely blew Kennedy off.

That’s a sign of great progress: Not that many years ago, Rep. Dan Burton held congressional hearings on the entirely made-up dangers of vaccines. I’m especially proud of Sanders, who represents Vermont, a state with one of the highest rates of vaccine denial and misinformation.

But the more people dismiss Kennedy, unfortunately, the more obsessive and slanderous he becomes. Keith Kloor describes some of Kennedy’s recent outrageous claims in the Post profile:

The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.

Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”

I got a taste of Kennedy’s delusions last year. After Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger, Phil Plait, criticized Kennedy for speaking at an anti-vaccine conference, Kennedy called me to complain, and I wrote about our very one-sided conversation. He told me scientists and government agencies are conspiring with the vaccine industry to cover up the evidence that thimerosal is “the most potent brain killer imaginable,” and journalists are dupes who are afraid to question authority. He claimed that several specific scientists had admitted to him that he was right. I called these scientists up. Here’s one representative answer, from a researcher who preferred I not use his name because he gets death threats from anti-vaccine activists: “Kennedy completely misrepresented everything I said.”

To recap: Kennedy accuses scientists of fraud, which is pretty much the worst thing you can say about a scientist. He distorts their statements. He says they should be thrown in jail. He uses his powerful name to besmirch theirs. That name, the reason he has power and fame, is inherited from a family dedicated to public service. He now uses the Kennedy name to accuse employees of government agencies charged with protecting human health—some of the best public servants this country has—of engaging in a massive conspiracy to cause brain damage in children.

And this nonsense has consequences:

The number of measles cases in the United States tripled last year—an entirely preventable disease whose resurgence has been made possible in part by Kennedy’s tireless efforts

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Can Water Weep?

PaltrowCross-posted on the Corner:

The Independent:

In the latest episode of ‘Gwyneth Paltrow states the absolute ridiculous’, the actress has claimed that saying negative things to water can hurt its feelings.


Well, that’s a little bit of a stretch (check out the actual post here), but the rest of the Independent’s summary is pretty much accurate . . .

The ‘consciously uncoupled’ star revealed that she follows the work of Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto, whose experiments attempt to investigate whether human consciousness has a direct effect on the molecular structure of water. His theories go as far as to claim that shouting at rice – as one so frequently does – could turn it bad.

“I am fascinated by the growing science behind the energy of consciousness and its effects on matter,” Paltrow wrote in a blog post for her much derided clean living website GOOP.

“I have long had Dr Emoto’s coffee table book on how negativity changes the structure of water, how the molecules behave differently depending on the words or music being expressed around it.”

Handing over the keyboard to friend Dr Habib Sadeghi to explain what on earth she was talking about, he wrote: “Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto performed some of the most fascinating experiments on the effect that words have on energy in the 1990s….In his experiments, Emoto poured pure water into vials labelled with negative phrases like ’I hate you’ or ’Fear’. After 24 hours, the water was frozen, and no longer crystallised under the microscope: It yielded grey, misshapen clumps instead of beautiful lace-like crystals. In contrast, Emoto placed labels that said things like ‘I love you’ or ‘Peace’ on vials of polluted water, and after 24 hours, they produced gleaming, perfectly hexagonal crystals.”

And shouting at rice? Well, nothing was written about raised voices that I can see, but, no matter, mere insults that go against the grain are, it seems, enough.

In another experiment, Emoto tested the power of spoken words. He placed two cups of cooked white rice in two separate mason jars and fixed the lids in place, labeling one jar “Thank You” and the other, “You Fool.” The jars were left in an elementary school classroom, and the students were instructed to speak the words on the labels to the corresponding jars twice a day. After 30 days, the rice in the jar that was constantly insulted had shriveled into a black, gelatinous mass. The rice in the jar that was thanked was as white and fluffy as the day it was made…

No surprise there. I have always thought that rice seemed a little on the oversensitive side. The sturdy potato on the other hand, a vegetable (yes it is) tough enough to prevail over the most British of cooking, would, if confronted by either insult or praise, merely shrug.

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“Nostalgia for the Absolute”

hereticIn the course of an article triggered by the bullying of climatologist Lennart Bengtsson, Mark Steyn digs up this extract from a tremendous “imaginary address” by Yale law professor Stephen Carter to America’s Class of 2014, currently so busy, as Steyn puts it, “disinviting truckloads of distinguished speakers from their graduation ceremonies”:

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

They never really went away (see Marx, K., to start with), but otherwise spot on.

And, yes, read the whole of both Steyn and Carter’s pieces.

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Finding order where there is none

jfk-assassinationVia Andrew Sullivan, Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ examination of American conspiracism in New York magazine:

The seduction of conspiracy is the way it orders chaos.

Hmmm, that sounds like another phenomenon I could mention, which makes this entertainingly ironic :

In the summer of 1964, the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell—past 90 years old then and possibly the most famously rational person on the planet—read the early accounts of the Warren Commission Report with mounting alarm. None of the important questions, he thought, were being answered. There was the matter of the parade route being changed without explanation at the last minute, so that the motorcade passed Lee Harvey Oswald’s workplace; the geometrically confounding arrangement of entry and exit wounds; the curious fact that an alibi witness who helped get an alternate suspect released from custody turned out to be a stripper at Jack Ruby’s club. The logician went to work. Meticulously, Russell documented the discrepancies between each first-person account and the divergences between each report in the media. He gave his document a modest, scientific-sounding title (“16 Questions on the Assassination”) and a just-the-facts tone….

Bertrand, Bertrand, Bertrand.

Just another reminder that the impulses that played such a part in the creation of religious belief will always be with us.




Science and Economics

NooooCross-posted on Ricochet:

The Guardian:

One of Saudi Arabia’s leading conservative clerics has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom’s male-only driving rules.

A campaign calling for women to defy the ban in a protest drive on 26 October has spread rapidly online over the past week and gained support from prominent women activists. On Sunday, the campaign’s website was blocked inside the kingdom.

As one of the 21 members of the senior council of scholars, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan can write fatwas, or religious edicts, advise the government and has a large following among other influential conservatives.

His comments have in the past played into debates in Saudi society and he has been a vocal opponent of tentative reforms to increase freedoms for women by King Abdullah, who sacked him as head of a top judiciary council in 2009.

In an interview published on Friday on the website, he said women aiming to overturn the ban on driving should put “reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions”.

Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister and a figure that The Economist persists in describing as “mildly Islamist”, reminds an audience that Turkish women are not, in his view, having nearly enough children (the birth rate in Turkey is a little over 2, a tally that has, mercifully, fallen by more than a half since the late 1970s);

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has urged a group of women in Mediterranean Turkish province of Denizli to have at least four children rather than his previously advised three…Erdoğan has noted in the past that Turkey’s annual population growth rate should be at least 2.5 percent and if Turkey continued with its existing trend, its population would rapidly become an aging one after the 2030s. Erdoğan has also linked aging populations and low birth rates in European countries to economic recession.

And that last sentence tells you all that you need to know about Erdoğan’s grasp of economics. The European recession has many causes, most notably a dysfunctional single currency, but the continent’s low birth rate is not one of them.

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