Thursday, November 10, 2005

10 questions for Derb   posted by Razib @ 11/10/2005 08:29:00 AM

Recently John Derbyshire was kind enough to answer a few questions I posed for him. You all know John, so I'll introduce him with a quote from a commentor at John Holbo & Belle Waring's weblog:

Like him or not, John Derbyshire is one of the smartest people writing for NRO (Brookhiser may be comparable). For another example, Derbyshire is typically the voice of sweet reason itself when natural selection vs. creationism is at issue. It would be nice if all one's ideological opponents were as newborn-baby-dumb as [another conservative pundit]....

1) Over the past year you've really been hammering intelligent design. As someone who works in conservative journalism, that seems peculiar. I know in your famous/infamous "Metrocon" column you offered that no one at NR rejects evolution, but I am curious as to your motivation for devoting considerable space to this topic of late. What has the for:against ratio in your emails/letters been?

My motivation, so far as I am aware, is my lifelong fascination with science, the extreme scientific shoddiness of the I.D. movement, and my indignation that the I.D. people should presume to claim a place at the science table, when they don't deserve one. The main reason they don't deserve one is that THEY DON'T DO ANY SCIENCE. When I said this to Bruce Chapman, head of the Discovery Institute, at a meeting with him and some I.D. honchos, he said: "Oh yes we do!" and passed me a paper. Here is the paper.

Read it for yourself. I rest my case. The Discovery Institute has been in business since 1991, the CSC (its most currently active offshoot) since 1996. That's an aggregate 23 years, and this is all the "science" they have to show -- or at any rate, this is a star paper that the HMFIC likes to carry around to hand to people who accuse him of not doing any science. What a bunch of frauds.

Of course, if you press this point, the I.D. people say: "Oh, you know, our people just can't get their stuff published in the science journals because of prejudice." To which the response should be: "So you have abig pile of scientific results written up over there at the Institute, that you haven't been able to get published? Mind if I take a look through them?"

I know some young scientists. They have to waste half their time playing politics, angling for NIH grants, filling out forms. For all that, they are mostly poor, the grants mostly very niggardly, academic salaries lousy. If they had the kind of money the Discovery Institute/CSC has, who knows what they might be able to do? It's criminal that they have to scrape and struggle as they do, just to get some real science done, while these ID people are flying around the country on PR junkets -- the Discovery Institute is SWILLING in cash -- DOING NO SCIENCE AT ALL, yet claiming a place at science's table. Feugh!

I.D. is in fact an evangelical Christian movement, a fact amply documented in Barbara Forrest & Paul Gross's excellent book CREATIONISM'S TROJAN HORSE. I have absolutely no problem with evangelical Christianity, and am inclined to believe that it is on balance a strengthening force in U.S. society. It is not science, though, and its teachings don't belong in the science classroom. Everything in its proper place.

I don't know why standing up for science and against pseudoscience should be at odds with conservatism. I.D. is an outgrowth of American folk religiosity, whose political "color" is populist, not conservative. William Jennings Bryan would have socked you on the jaw if you'd called him a conservative. Again, I don't mind populism. I regularlywatch Bill O'Reilly, the foremost TV populist of our day, and even agree with him on some things. That's nothing to do with science, though. Populism and science can't mix, and shouldn't.

2) A personal question, with what you know about genomics now (I am told you have informants in the business), how cheap would a full sequencing have to get before you would be willing to pay up? (assuming privacy was safeguarded)

It's not a thing I am much interested in having done, and I am seriously poor, so I guess the answer is "real cheap." I'm talking two digits to the left of the decimal point.

3) Your Metrocon column was in part a response, or lack of, to the tendency for people to specify what kind of conservative they are. I've heard people label you a "paleocon," and been surprised at your support of Israel, or assumed you were a "neocon" because you wrote for NR but noted that you also published in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE. Can you make heads or tails of all this today anymore than you could 2 years ago? Do you care?

I confess to being a bit uneasy about it. These widely-discussed categories have real meaning (as, I believe, does my "metrocon" category, whose failure to gain general currency I attribute to people mixing it up in their minds with "metrosexual"...) The different positions gathered together under one heading usually have some common philosophical foundation. If you don't fit clearly into any of them, the reason very often is that you haven't really thought things through, or are not being completely honest about your positions. I am honest -- a bit too honest for my own good sometimes -- but I am not really an intellectual. Philosophy puts me to sleep, I can't read it. I keep trying Roger Scruton's books, but I just can't get past page 30. I'm really not very good at connected thinking, and work mostly from impressions.

The upside of this is that most people are the same as me, so lots of readers see their own thought processes reflected in mine, and they like that. The downside is that I nurse a nagging sense of inferiority towards people who really have read all the deep-brow stuff, thought everything through and made a coherent belief-system out of it in their heads. Though I'd add that when I meet such people, much more often than not I find their conversation disappointing. Having a well-thought-out world-view can make a person narrow and arrogant.

Israel? The mental map that I formed in my head quite early on in life -- after reading Wittfogel's ORIENTAL DESPOTISM in the mid-1970s, I think, though reading a lot of Chinese history contributed too -- is of a world divided into civilization and barbarism. There is a civilized zone, and a barbarous hinterland. I want to see the civilized zone defended, every damn inch. Israel is a civilized country; the Arabs are barbarous. There is nothing dogmatically biological about this, and I do think that civilized peoples can slip into barbarism, and vice versa. The Vikings were very barbarous; but they developed into the pale, hygienic Scandinavians of our own time. The Hungarians did the same thing very quickly, in a couple of generations, from the terrifying Magyar horde to the Christian kingdom of Stephen. The present state of the world is what we have to deal with, though, and I want the ramparts defended. It doesn't mean hating anyone. If the Arabs "got" civilization tomorrow, I'd be the first to rejoice. Don't see any sign of it, though.

The paleo response is that it is no skin off our nose what happens in the Levant, that we should mind our own business and look strictly to our own national interests. I am quite strongly sympathetic to that, as an instinctive nationalist, but I think it bespeaks civilizational overconfidence, and my sympathy is over-ridden by my affection for Western civilization at large. Civilization is, according to me, a very fragile thing, needing constant maintenance and unblinking, vigilant defense at every boundary. If forced to retreat to the borders of the
USA, it would not survive.

4) Is it hard knowing math when the world is filled with such innumeracy?

No. I belong to that generation of Westerners from low-class backgrounds who got access to higher education far beyond what was available to our parents. We spent our teens and our twenties with the unhappy understanding that our parents, whom we loved and admired, didn't actually know much. This created all sorts of psychological stresses. It had the great advantage, though, of teaching us that good, honest, worthy, hard-working people -- lovable people, admirable people -- could be very ignorant. I like to think that this inoculated us -- some of us, at least -- against intellectual snobbery. Certainly a contempt for ordinary people -- often guiltily but imperfectly disguised -- is very common among people raised in intellectual or professional households. This is independent of politics. I know some conservatives it applies to. No names, no pack drill.

5) Over the years I've seen the following comment (in some form) multiple times: So and so is "perhaps the second most pessimistic opinion journalist right now, after John Derbyshire...." Do you think this characterization of you is accurate? Or do you think everyone else is just unduly optimistic?

Well, it depends what you mean by pessimism. I am a religious person, in a very general way -- I believe there is a supernatural realm accessible to our minds, and more real (in some way) than the natural world, which is really just a play of shadows. The fact that the natural world is a pretty nasty place therefore does not depress me as much as it ought. A nearby supernova could extinguish all life on earth in a few hours, sure -- but if you feel in your guts that there is another place beyond this one, then that isn't the end. Somehow. So on the grandest scale, I am not really a pessimist at all. On the everyday scale, though, I acknowledge that most of our nature, life, & experiences arise from the natural world & therefore partake of its general nastiness, coldness, cruelty, and gross unfairness. Civilized life fences off the horrors to some degree, which is why I am a huge fan of civilization (see above), but the fences are fragile, and the Old Adam will break through them sooner or later. Not in my lifetime, please.

As to everyone else: Yes, I think that optimism, which I would actually characterize as wishful thinking, is epidemic. This is probably a good thing. "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." I can hardly bear it myself sometimes, and I think I am a psychologically quite robust person, a natural stoic. If the bulk of humanity wants to lull themselves with wish-fulfillment dreams, I can understand that. It's just that the kid scientist in me gets annoyed when their fantasies contradict reality too obviously.

I was at a friend's house some years ago just before Christmas. My friend had a daughter, a sweet child about four years old. They were fixing little Christmas stockings to the edge of a shelf over the fireplace. The stockings didn't stick very well, though. The little girl had particular trouble with one stocking. She pressed it to the shelf, but when she let go, it fell down at once. She picked it up and pressed again; it fell down again. At last she found a solution. She pressed it to the shelf, then as she let go she simultaneously turned away so she wouldn't see the stocking fall. It was a great solution, a developmental milestone like the ones Piaget logged. I think I missed that particular stage of development, though.

6) Speaking of how you feel about other people, how does it work that Andrew Sullivan has a "Derbyshire award" even though your opinions in regards to Intelligent Design (in terms of magnitude, if not vector) and Schiavo are at sharp variance with the center of conservative punditry? Do you find it amusing or annoying to the posterboy for the nutso as well as pessimistic Right?

I don't know Andrew personally -- we have never met -- and very rarely read his stuff. The reading I have done, and the opinions of people who know him well, tell me that he is a one-issue guy. His homosexuality is everything to him, and everything he says, if you peel off a layer or two, is really about that. I have the normal and universal (according to me) distaste for male homosexuality, or at any rate for "the man who plays the part of a woman," and so do not have much time for a person who builds his entire identity around that particular thing.

As to being the posterboy for this or that; I passed age 60 this year, and am entering the zone -- I think I'm well into it, actually -- where I don't lose any sleep over what people think about me. I can lapse into what Steve Sailer calls "Elderly Tourette's Syndrome" -- i.e. saying outrageous things and smiling around blithely while everyone gags and sputters. I am really looking forward to my 60s.

7) What publications do you have to read daily?

There aren't any that I compulsively HAVE to read. I read the New York Post every morning for something to do at breakfast. (I'm a very early riser, and usually breakfast alone.) I do a half-hour browse of the Internet -- read the Daily Telegraph from ancient loyalty, the BBC news site because it's easy to navigate, a few blogs -- Steve of course, who usually has something interesting to say, Michelle Malkin, Randall Parker, a few others. I subscribe to a ridiculous number of magazines -- no wonder I'm so poor -- but I'm not sure there are any I'd really miss. The New Criterion, perhaps.

8) What is it like living with a Democrat? How are the kids being raised?

I can't really call Rosie a Democrat. Though intelligent and well-read, she doesn't care about politics. She's like Julia in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" -- what was that passage, where Orwell says that all the political jargon just went right through her, like a seed through a bird's digestive tract. That's the consequence of growing up in a totalitarian society. (I have often wondered if Orwell was talking about his own late wife, Eileen.) So we rarely talk politics, and when we do, it never gets rancorous. So politics is not a domestic irritant. The kids are only 10 and 12, so they don't know much, and the only political work I can do is to try to disabuse them of some of the sillier things their schoolteachers say. You know: keep telling them that the major figures of U.S. history are NOT Sacagawea, Harriet Tubman, and MLK. There are others!

9) If you believe there have been scientists smarter than Carl Friedrich Gauss, who?

No, I don't. He was the bee's knees. Of course this kind of thing is hard to rank, despite Charles Murray's efforts. Newton was of pretty much the same caliber, I think, though I'd say Gauss had the edge on him in breadth of understanding. And there are undoubtedly brighter gems that had the misfortune to be hidden under rocks all their lives. If the Duke of Brunswick hadn't spotted Gauss and helped him up, Gauss might have ended up a schoolmaster somewhere. But no, it's Gauss. In the realm of math there are all sorts of names that excelled him in some particular way -- Euler in industriousness, Riemann in sheer imaginative power, and so on. But net-net, Gauss is tops.

You're the top
You're Carl Fred of Brunswick.
You're the top
You're a boobs-and-buns flick.

Sorry, nervous habit.

10) Are you still thinking of retiring to China?

Not very seriously. My wife wouldn't go, anyway. She likes America too much. And I don't speak the language very well. And I'm getting kind of set in my ways, really don't want that much of a disruption. Still, for all the awfulness of communism, or post-communism, whatever they're in now, China is a fundamentally civilized place, and I have always felt at home among Chinese people. An old friend -- one of my first Chinese friends -- used to say that I was Chinese in a previous life, an idea I am quite open to. In this life, however, I am English, and in an ethnostate like China, I should always be to some degree an outsider. I think it would get on my nerves at last. Of course, if things got really bad here, I would try to find somewhere less stressful to live.

For all my much-advertised pessimism, though, I don't honestly see things getting that bad in the USA. Not in my lifetime. I am 60.