Move Along Folks: Conservative rags edition

There is nothing to see here….

That is:  I did something I do for the kind of sick thrill you get passing a wreck on the highway — checking out Megan McCardle’s self parody of a blog over at The Atlantic Monthly’s site. (the lack of link is deliberate; I don’t like to link to things I don’t recommend.  If you are curious, there is this thing called Google that can probably get you where you want to go.)

There I find she recommends, in near ecstatic terms a new site called Culture 11,* (huh?) promoted as a conservative version of Slate, which launched yesterday. ( McCardle’s praise –“Full disclosure:  I’m fairly close to its editorial staff.  Fuller disclosure:  it’s still pretty awesome.” — gives you a bit of a sense of why I am loathe to send the unwary over to wallow in such prose.)

So, in the John Cole school of reading this stuff so you don’t have to, I actually went over to check out this new haven of thought and letters.  There, I searched every last article they have up so far, all twenty seven as of the time of writing this.  There were some notable howlers — see Conor Friedersdorf’s Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism for a hilarious account of, among other things, the dilemma of a conservative on a blind date confronted by a woman who may or may not accept “basic conservative and libertarian truths.”

(Again: fair warning.  Leave aside the argument such as it is.  You have to be willing to stomach sentences like “As a dating dilemma, this is easily solved.  Ask her questions!”  There.  Proceed at your own risk.  Tom Wolfe, conservative though he surely is, knows style and its absence.  He would equally surely wince at the asserted claim of kinship.)

And so on…but really, the point of this post is not simply that someone, somewhere is saying something stupid on the internet.  Rather, it is to point out one reason why conservative claims of intellectual authority have worn so thin.

They ignore science.  There is no science at Culture 11 at all.  Not as a category; not squeezed into headings like “Education” or “Ideas.”  The one article under the heading “Technology” provides an interesting brief against the privatization of city services, but basically includes no actual explanation of the technological problem under review — how to design and build a city-provided wifi network.

Other than that, nothing.  And it’s not that there is a dearth of science and public life stories of interest within the context of conservative politics, after all.  Just today, the Republican National Convention platform committee published their document, which calls for a complete ban on embryonic stem cell research.  That might be worth a comment, no?

How about the argument between the parties about the appropriate resource and technological response to the problem of the US energy mix and supply?

What about some hard thinking about the numbers behind and the moral values inherent in the McCain campaign’s health policy advisor’s statement that the emergency room counts as insurance for the uninsured?

I am not suggesting that I expect anyone from that side of aisle to write stuff I agree with.  I’m not even expecting them to make good cases for the points of view I’m guessing they’ll adopt.  But these are in fact big, obvious issues that matter not just to a scientific community, but to the public at large in the midst of deciding who should be our next president.

And yet, the entire site is designed, at least for now, to suggest that questions with a scientific or technical core don’t rise to the level of significance worthy of a conservative intelligentsia’s attention.  By contrast, Slate has a whole section devoted to health and science, two editors devoted to the care and feeding of that section and about a post a day, sometimes more, to keep the site populated.  I’m not saying I love all their stuff (though when they publish a former student, I do).  But they cover the story; they do so in an opinionated way, writing as public intellectuals. They take this stuff seriously.

I suppose I am picking on a brand new publication, the brain child of a plucky band of brothers (of both genders) rushing into the breach of the defenses of the liberal media.  But it still seems to me both striking and telling that a set of would-be leaders of right-wing public intellectualism would find nothing in science to engage.

I do not think that they achieve such lofty unconcern simply because doing science is hard, though it is, nor that writing well about science is hard, for all that I have scars to remind me that just how hard.

Rather, it is because, IMHO of course, in the broadest sense, it is much harder to spin science than it is, say, the consequences of impotent bellicosity over Georgia.

To put it another way, one near and dear to Boston Celtics fans:  I think the right dodges science when it can because it can’t handle the truth.

You may take all this as the official announcement, rather than the earlier leaks, that Inverse Square is back from vacation.

*This link provided because even though I think the site is basically worthless, it seems to me hard to write a post about a web-location without pointing to it.  A foolish consistency and all that…

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, blogospheric tail chasing, Journalism and its discontents, McCain, political follies, Republican follies, ridicule, science writing, Stupidity

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6 Comments on “Move Along Folks: Conservative rags edition”


  1. Hmm. I find this post puzzling — I’m not sure you understand our publication very well, but if you’re up for intellectual engagement rather than snark I’ll happily join the conversation. And if you have any worthwhile ideas for science stories I’d gladly commission and publish them.

    Conor Friedersdorf
    Features Editor
    Culture11

  2. Tom Says:

    Dear Conor,
    Thank you for your comment, and certainly for your measured response to my own perhaps too-exuberant notes here. I’m sure I don’t understand your publication as well as I might. I did not read every article, though I did read several, and reviewed the entire list as it stood a couple of hours ago. Still, I do think I caught the gist of the site.

    I am glad, however, that you are willing to entertain science stories. But that willingness, though welcome and I hope to be acted upon, is not quite the same as what I was suggesting a real publication of ideas needs in this day and age. As I noted, Slate covers this area in an ongoing way, with several clearly defined areas within science and medicine that they see as forming part of what every informed citizen should know something about.

    That’s what you have to do if you want to be taken seriously: devote resources of every type: space on your home page; editorial thought and direction; and words and pages (paid for, I hope) within the site. It also helps to have people who actually know something about which they write. It is an illusion to think that writing about science is something your culture critic, for example, can just pick up and produce useful copy.

    So I have to say that asking me for “worthwhile” stories seems to me a very weak response. I actually suggested a few in the post. I’ll repeat one here. McCain’s health care advisor asserts that the legal requirement that E.R.s treat all patients regardless of ability to pay who come in with conditions in need of immediate care means that in fact every American has adequate health care insurance.

    Now there are a lot of obvious problems with that statement, but a conservative oriented publication might focus on two: is this in fact a cost effective way to approach health care coverage of the uninsured; and is this a morally defensible way to do so? The two questions are related, of course, again in several ways. But at the core of any policy/morality argument would come a bunch of data and an analysis of the science and social science of medicine. Without getting to that data, you can’t have meaningful arguments between, say, the religious argument on the social value (and hence obligation to pay for) saving a life vs. the libertarian value of individual responsibility, and so on. You are just dealing with conflicting abstractions.

    Now this is also a story, prompted by one stray, quite impolitic quote, that could in fact form a vein of coverage for you. My challenge to you would be to decide as the features editor what parts of the science story your publication simply needs to cover, in the same way it might need to address conservative approaches to food and diet, for example. That you feel the need to ask stray critics what you should cover is in fact the problem.

    Were you to develop a science beat and cover it with attention, time and money, then you can be taken seriously. Do it well, and you have a role in a much larger conversation. Ignore it, or try and cherry pick conservative friendly science, then I think you will find that questions of the choice of music at weddings and the lessons learned from blind dates with smart women will not, in the end, a lasting webzine make.

    Now all this advice comes from someone openly hostile to your larger claims and ambitions, which means, I think, that you don’t need to pay any attention to this at all. That said: good luck with your new publication. I have worked on startups before, and I know how hard they are and how much they demand of you.

  3. jre Says:

    If Conor Friedersdorf is serious about being serious — that is, if he really wants to examine the triple point where culture, politics and science come together, there are some superb examples out there he might consider as templates.
    For example, in his book The Republican War on Science Chris Mooney has argued (persuasively, in my view) that the conservative movement has become actively hostile to, and destructive of, the scientific enterprise. Crooked Timber got an entire seminar out of it.

    Now, I’d expect that Mr. Friedersdorf might have a different take from Chris Mooney, and maybe he could scare up some smart conservatives who believe that they are, too in favor of real science — and, in the process, let us how what they think about developmental biology, climatology, and a host of other topics. Because, to be frank, every time I hear another conservative claim that mainstream science is politicized from root to branch, and it’s the right wing that’s carrying the torch of dispassionate inquiry, I think that I don’t know of a time when one party has been so identified with vain, ignorant, dishonest windbaggery.

    But this is Conor Friedersdorf’s chance to prove me wrong. How about it, Mr. Friedersdorf?


  4. […] In that post, I asserted that the new webzine’s launch with zero science content illustrated a broader problem of current American conservatism refusal to confront the significance of science’s methods and results in any account of the ideas that matter in modern thought, not to mention daily life.  I also suggested that this was so because facts inconveniently muddle what I see as the fantasy life that passes for intellection on at least the web-cages of the right. […]


  5. Tom,

    I’d never say that our magazine is going to cover everything an informed citizen should know something about. It made sense to aim for that kind of generality when people only had a few newspapers and magazines available to them. A Web magazine, in contrast, is part of a bigger conversation, and ought to pick its spots, not imagine that it can print all the news that’s fit to print. Our editorial staff, at present, is quite small. We aim to do lots of things well, and to do everything with an open mind an intellectual honesty, but we do not aim to do everything.

    My spot, in particular, is trying to commission really interesting narratives that entertain while saying something important. If you consult the piece on the FBI agent who left the agency due to its illegal behavior and joined the ACLU, you’ll find the first success I am claiming. Certainly I think science is an important topic — I’ve already commissioned a piece that fits under that heading. In fact, I’d commission more science pieces if the pool of writers capable of writing good science and good narrative weren’t so small.

    I’m not sure what “conservative friendly” science is, and I certainly don’t think that emergency medical care is equivalent to adequate medical insurance, though neither do I think that a piece on the topic is a science story as much as a public policy/politics story. Anyway I’m not particularly interested in commissioning stories for the sake of advancing the political interests of anyone. I am interested in doing good journalism.

    In fact, the piece you dismiss above as being about “blind dates with smart women” is actually about nothing of the sort. That hypothetical lead is a mere introduction to a piece that asserts two things: 1) the flaws of liberalism are very hard to capture in the kind of narrative journalism practiced in America. 2) Conservatives should stop being intellectually dishonest advocates in their journalism, and start being interested in the truth, whether or not it undermines their ideological pieties. Presumably you disagree with the first point, but I am surprised that you are so quick to gloss over a piece that argued the latter rather powerfully.

    I thank you for wishing me well on the startup, but I am a bit unclear about which larger claims and ambitions you feel hostile toward. What claims have I made? What ambitions have I stated with which you disagree? Finally, a correction: you say that the GOP today adopted platform language that called for a complete ban on stem cell research, and that it ought to be worth a comment. As it happens, two of our editors engaged in a reasoned, public and almost immediate debate about that very thing on our staff blog.

    Anyway, to return to your basic premise – you say that “the entire site is designed, at least for now, to suggest that questions with a scientific or technical core don’t rise to the level of significance worthy of a conservative intelligentsia’s attention.” But that just isn’t so, not because we’ve emphasized science, but because there are all sorts of things that we think intelligent people should pay attention to that we aren’t writing about at all. We aren’t denying the importance of science any more than the New England Journal of Medicine is denying the importance of art.

    In any case, I think this has been a useful exchange, and I wish you the best.

  6. Tom Says:

    Dear Conor,

    Without wishing to prolong this exchange unduly, a couple of points need making. Cherry picked science is what the Discovery Institute folks try to do, for example. You can pick up lots of examples like that from around the web. More subtly that’s what conservative opponents of stem cell research have done — picking up the promising new results that do not use embryonic cells, while ignoring the role of embryonic stem cell research had in enabling in making such findings. I think you do know this, and your outraged innocence is a feint; if it is not, then you need to do some reading, pronto.

    I’m glad your editors chose to comment on their blog, and I urge my readers to take a look. It captures precisely the point I suggested you consider: cherry picked science retailed by the ignorant or the ideologically blinkered (or, in this case, I suspect, both.) The scientist quoted by the second poster actually specifically pointed to the necessity of embryonic work both to lay the foundation for the work he had done, and for more work to come. Rather than quote that statement, your poster cited some other right wing blogger to create an echo chamber of pre-destined conclusions — including the hateful and utterly pulled-out-of-the ass claim that “Many favor embryo-destructive research because it gives them an ethical excuse (i.e., compassion for the sick) for denying the inherent dignity of humans in the embryonic stage of life.”

    You call this a reasoned debate; I call it an amateur hour, freshman bull session committed to print.

    (And by the way — a word of advice from someone who’s been around the business for a while. Usually, the author has to let his or her readers decide if their writing has been “argued…rather powerfully.” I’ve found over time, (and I’m trying to teach my eight year old this) that merely saying something does not, in fact, make it so. It’ll help your journalistic career if you internalize that thought.)

    Best of all, from my point of view, your poster, Joe Carter, confirms my essential charge. Here is what your reasoned editor has to say about science: “I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America’s religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion.”

    In that context, I am not surprised you find the pool of science writers suitable for your publication to be small. The many very good science writers I’m acquainted with — friends, colleagues, students, those I have come to know through their writing alone — don’t waste time with intellectual dead ends like the one you have just launched.


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