Science, Anti-Science, and Fantasy

The New Yorker, Matthew Hutson, 28 Dec 2022: Eight Times Science Exceeded Expectations in 2022, subtitle “From asteroids to A.I., this was a year of scientific superlatives.”

The article expands on these achievements in 2022:

  • We nudged an asteroid
  • Magic mushrooms reduced depression
  • Earth got hotter — and hotter
  • Brain cells in a dish played pong
  • A blockchain reduced its energy use by 99.95 per cent
  • We found two-million-year-old mastodon DNA
  • Artificial intelligence learned diplomacy
  • We generated fusion power (finally, sorta)

Hutson wrote one book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, a decade ago (reviewed here), then went back to being a journalist.


The Atlantic, Yasmin Tayag, 23 Dec 2022: How Many Republicans Died Because the GOP Turned Against Vaccines?, subtitled “Party leaders are unquestionably complicit in the premature deaths of their own supporters.”

Related to yesterday’s piece. Details are in the article, but the gist is in the title and subtitle.


Political links:

Salon, Heather Digby Parton, 28 Dec 2022: Worst Republicans of 2022: It’s just so hard to choose!, subtitled “This column doesn’t even mention Marjorie Taylor Greene: She can’t compete with the true depths of GOP horror”

The article does discuss Trump, Musk, Carlson, Rokita, Abbott, and DeSantis, naming the last the “worst of the worst.”


Media Matters, Matt Gertz, 19 Dec 2022: Misinformer of the Year: Tucker Carlson

He of the “great replacement” white supremacist conspiracy theory.


Salon, Amana Marcotte, 28 Dec 2022: George Santos is the Republican Party’s future: A shameless con man, subtitled “Trump opened the door — and now every grifter and two-bit criminal sees job security in pandering to the GOP base”


New York Post, Jon Levine, 24 Dec 2022: House GOP leaders aware of George Santos fabrications: ‘A running joke’


NYT, 27 Dec 2022: G.O.P. Leadership Remains Silent Over George Santos’s Falsehoods, subtitled “The muted response from party leaders suggested that so far they were prepared to mete out little, if any, punishment to the congressman-elect.”


Where Religion and Politics Meet

Jerry Coyne calls out the New York Times’ pandering to religion, again: The New York Times touts religious miracles as proof of God

Coyne sets the stage before tearing into the NYT essay by Molly Worthen, How Would You Prove That God Performed a Miracle?.

Worthen’s title question mentions two important issues. First is that of “proof”, which is really irrelevant to a scientist since we don’t think of empirical “proof” of God—or of anything.  We speak of the strength of evidence, which, to me, is strong for the formula of a water molecule having two hydrogens and one oxygen, and far, far weaker for an omniscient and omnipotent being who cares for each one of us.

Nevertheless, we can in principle get empirical evidence for gods. In Faith Versus Fact (pp. 118-119), I consider (as did Darwin and Carl Sagan before me) what evidence would convince me that there was a God. Indeed, I lay out a scenario that would convince me that this God would be the God of Christianity, i.e., the father of/part of Jesus.  Now this would be “provisional” convincing, for “absolute proof” is beyond the realm of science. But it would make me a believer.  The scenario involves restoring the limbs of amputees and so on, and of course we don’t see that (see below).

Second, the question remains that if there are inexplicable cures, Worthen wants proof that those cures were effected by God. I presume she doesn’t mean Vishnu or John Frum, as she mentions only Abrahamic conceptions of God.  There are of course medical remissions for which doctors have no clear explanation, but that still leaves us with either a naturalistic explanation we don’t understand, or God. Given the absence of evidence for God (see below again), and the prevalence of evidence that things once imputed to God (lightning, disease, evolution, etc. ) are now understood as naturalistic, I think the priors rest with naturalism.

NY Times, David Brooks, 28 Dec 2022: The Sad Tales of George Santos

What would it be like to be so ashamed of your life that you felt compelled to invent a new one? … A reasonably accurate and coherent autobiographical narrative is one of the most important things a person can have. If you don’t have a real story, you don’t have a real self.

George Santos, on the other hand, is a young man who apparently felt compelled to jettison much of his actual life and replace it with fantasy.


People may wonder how Santos could have been so dumb. In political life, his fabrications were bound to be discovered. Perhaps it’s because dissemblers often have trouble anticipating the future; they’re stuck in the right now.

In a sense Santos is a sad, farcical version of where Donald Trump has taken the Republican Party — into the land of unreality, the continent of lies. Trump’s takeover of the G.O.P. was not primarily an ideological takeover, it was a psychological and moral one. I don’t feel sorry for Trump the way I do for Santos, because Trump is so cruel. But he did introduce, on a much larger scale, the same pathetic note into our national psychology.

[… finishing with:]

Karl Marx famously said that under the influence of capitalism, all that’s solid melts into air. I wonder if some elixir of Trumpian influence and online modernity can have the same effect on individual personalities.

The Brooks and Coyne links are not unrelated; they are both about living in worlds that are not true, preferring fantasy (“evidence” of miracles; made-up resumes) to reality. That the audiences for these largely overlap is why Santos might well get away with his shameless mendacity. Republican voters don’t mind Santos’ lies, it may well turn out, as long as they can count on him to vote to support their (largely fantastic) worldview, in which science is an elitist conspiracy, and dicey second-hand testimony is evidence for angels and gods and life after death. Some people “believe” things they wish were true, and claim their sincerity of belief as get-out-of-jail-free cards from the weight of actual evidence and the norms of civil society.

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