November 29, 2011

"... another system of doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen... "

As with religion, it is presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate. As with religion, it comes with an elaborate list of virtues, vices and indulgences. As with religion, its claims are often non-falsifiable, hence the convenience of the term "climate change" when thermometers don't oblige the expected trend lines. As with religion, it is harsh toward skeptics, heretics and other "deniers." And as with religion, it is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit.
Posted by Dr. Frank at November 29, 2011 04:20 PM | TrackBack

Hmm, so that "caste of spectacularly unattractive people" are...scientists? I agree that environmentalists can be annoying, unattractive even, but how does attractiveness enter into it? "That's annoying" doesn't seem a very good argument against a risk of this magnitude.

Also, I think the "there are similarities between environmentalists and ancient doomsday religious sects, therefore, like those religious sects, environmentalists are wrong" argument is a very good one, especially since their modes of inquiry are so drastically different.

Posted by: Nathan Pensky at November 29, 2011 11:02 PM

Whoops, that should read I DON'T think the "there are similarities...etc." argument etc. etc.

Posted by: Nathan Pensky at November 30, 2011 12:48 AM

Pretend scientific criticism didn't work; let's try ridicule.

Posted by: Bill at November 30, 2011 02:47 AM

Yes, Bill, go straight for ridicule right off the bat, I always say.

Nate, I think he means morally unattractive, venal, corrupt, etc.

As for the second point, "modes of inquiry" aside, I think the millenarian echoes here are hard to miss and I find their persistence throughout the ages fascinating. Maybe because of this history and its deep roots in our culture the traditional apocalyptic schema is instinctively felt to be the most persuasive narrative and is adopted naturally whenever the end of the world is the topic at hand; maybe it's a deliberate political-PR strategy; or maybe, as you say, it's simply the case that they're right this time. I guess we'll find out in 2030 or whenever (because I think it's pretty much guaranteed that mankind won't repent to the degree we're supposed to, so whatever is supposed to happen is going to happen, unless it doesn't.)

Posted by: Dr. Frank at November 30, 2011 06:37 AM

I think if he wanted to say "corrupt," he would've just said "corrupt." Not that the Zoroastrians weren't corrupt, but that the word "unattractive" is, to my mind, an attempt to connect the supposed corruption of the Zoroastrians with all religious people, or maybe the way religious people are thought of by WSJ readers. He starts out talking about the Zs, then with the phrase "spectacularly unattractive" conflates Zs with "religion," thereby hitching his argument onto what I would assume to be a general disdain of WSJ readers for religious stuff. Zoroastrians/religious folk were/are CRAZY, and doesn't the apocalyptic tenor of some environmentalists sound like those CRAZY people? Never mind that "religious people" make a huge proportion of the global population, where Zs are a very small one.

But I don't think that the comparison is really fair, either for Zoroastrians or for scientists/environmentalists. Like I said before, their modes of inquiry are totally different, and that is really relevant. Saying that Zoroastrians and modern environmentalists exist in the same ballpark of falsifiability is just not correct. I suppose, on some level, ALL predictions about the future are un-falsifiable. But some are a lot more logical and well thought out than others, right?

So yes, I guess Zoroastrians were/are bad at doing science, not that that's what they were/are about at all, but should environmentalists be discounted because they have similar findings? It's like if your senile great-aunt tells you the house is on fire by looking at the patterns in her cereal, you might not give it much credence, but if your non-senile mom does by smelling smoke, then you would. Never mind the similarity in findings, neither really speaks to each source's soundness of mind, does it?

Then again, he also talks about the fact that "secular gods" like Marx and Freud aren't as strong any more, so maybe he just doesn't like "movements" of any kind, which propel their causes forward by predicting the end of the world? If that's the case, then I can agree, but he kind of steps on a lot of stuff in the process.

Posted by: Nathan Pensky at November 30, 2011 06:17 PM

I can't speak for the writer of the piece, but I believe Zoroastrianism is being cited as but an example of a previous tradition that "fizzled" and now exists only on the fringe. (Marx and Freud fit the pattern as well, though Marxism has far more resonance as a secular ersatz religion -- specifically de-devinized Christianity -- than Freudian psychology ever did) I don't read it as saying, anywhere, that they, or any other religious people, are "crazy." I think you're more on target with the last "maybe" graf.

Anyway, it's not "science" itself that is being compared to apocalyptic religion, but rather its use in supporting the age old narrative of sin-damnation-redemption by those who use it like that. Marxism was state of the art "science" once upon a time and was taken as gospel truth, a matter of belief as much as analysis, for over a century thereafter; Zoroaster in his own idiom represented a similar state of the art of understanding of the moral structure of the cosmos (probably.)

Sin-damnation-redemption is a powerful trope that obviously fills a deep psychological and emotional need in human beings. People, at least some of them, will believe almost any old thing if it fits into the pattern in a way they can understand. I'm not saying it's wrong, by any means, and as a general way of understanding the moral obligations of mankind in relation to God, the cosmos, etc. it's certainly not "wrong." I'm just saying, it's interesting.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at November 30, 2011 07:23 PM

Okay, I'm with you on the sin-damnation-redemption thing now. I see that. But he has an entire paragraph filled with sentences starting with the clause "As with religion..." I don't think it's a far stretch to think he's capitalizing on associations widely held by thinking people, RE: religion, as opposed to only the attitudes held by people generally, RE: once more accepted "fringe groups" like the Zs.

Granted he also says, "Great religions are wise enough to avoid marking down the exact date when the world comes to an end. Not so for the foolish religions." But that seems like a clean-up concession, after the the article's main thrust. Elsewhere, and much more forcefully, he uses the term "religion" to illustrate his points, conflating it with fringe groups, not "foolish religions."

Posted by: Nathan Pensky at November 30, 2011 08:38 PM

In truth, the relationship is much more than an analogy. Modern liberalism is a direct intellectual descendant of 19th century millenial pietism. In fact, most of the early "progressives" that built our modern rule-by-university system were preachers or else the children of preachers. Name any progressive or early 20th century socialist and then hit wikipedia and see just how predictive this relationship is.

Posted by: josh at December 5, 2011 02:19 PM