The Long View 2004-11-21: Shaken Faith

This is finally an interesting political post, a reminder that increased turnout in 2002 and 2004 helped elect Republican candidates, which runs counter to what both parties and most pollsters think then and now. Of course, we've also had twelve more years of demographic change, but much like cold fusion, the permanent flip of the electorate seems to just be a few years away.

Shaken Faith


Remember that Winona Ryder/Christian Slater movie, Heathers (1989)? It starts with a student poll that asks the question, "If you won the lottery, but then space aliens announced that the world would be destroyed in five days, what would you do?" When I first heard that, my reaction was that the two parts of the question cancelled each other out: if the world were about to end, your money would be no good; only sometime later did I realize the question was supposed to ask what you would do if you had the resources to do anything, and you could do it without consequences. In any case, that hilarious example of Gen-X adolescent nihilism came to mind when I saw this recent exercise in applied eschatology:

LONDON (AFP) - A British schoolteacher, attempting to motivate her pupils into making the most of each day, told them a meteorite was about to smash into the Earth and that they should all return home to say goodbye to their families, a report said...Saying she had bad news, the teacher announced that a meteor would strike the Earth in 10 days' time, and that they should return home and say their "final farewells" to their parents.

After the crowd of 13- and 14-year-olds looked on in horror, and many burst into tears, the teacher swiftly explained that she was only trying to encourage them to "seize the day".

Youth today lacks the apocalyptic spirit, I fear.

* * *

As I have had occasion to note before, research into the possibility of cold fusion is almost respectable again. The Washington Post ran an account of a recent meeting between the US Department of Energy and cold-fusion proponents:

For the scientists who had risked ostracism to persist in studying cold fusion, the very fact that the Energy Department was reviewing their work this summer seemed like a breakthrough. True, according to two of the presenters who were there, the meeting began with harsh questions. But at 5 p.m., the presenters were ordered to leave the room, and when they returned, the mood had visibly lifted. At the end, the scientists presenting the idea and those reviewing it all shook hands. The reviewers stayed on to discuss the material. The cold fusionists went to a barbecue, feeling celebratory. No one had told them if the presentation had convinced anyone that cold fusion was real. But it was nice, they said, after so many years, just to be treated with respect.

Still, anyone who reads the whole article is not going to be very encouraged about cold fusion's prospects. During the 1990s, cold fusion entered into the world of "rejected knowledge." Like UFOs, cold fusion research appealed chiefly to marginal people, who said that the powers-that-be were trying to cover the whole thing up. The research never fell entirely into the hands of cranks; the serious researchers in the field now seem to be about to persuade the DOE not to automatically dismiss the field. What the researchers have not done, however, is produce results that suggest the possibility of an energy revolution.

* * *

Of course, just because the experts believe something does not mean it is true. That is one of the lessons we might take from Gerard Alexander's analysis in the Weekly Standard (Nov. 22):

The End of a Left-wing Fantasy
There wasn't a huge untapped pool of Democratic voters.

It's not difficult to detect a level of demoralization among some Democrats that can't be explained by the loss of a single presidential election by three points. One reason may be the death, on November 2, of the myth that has long nourished the hopes of the American Left -- the idea that tens of millions of non-voters (if only they could be turned out) were an ace up their sleeve....Nationwide, voters increased from about 105 million in 2000 to somewhere near 120 million this year. That's a rise in turnout from about 56 percent to around 61 percent of eligible voters.

I think it was as late as 7:00 pm Eastern Time on November 2 that I saw a prominent pollster on television explaining that a turnout of 115 million probably meant a Kerry victory, and 120 million would ensure it. This was not a partisan statement: most Republican analysts thought the same thing.

We should note that, by the standards of some other countries, the turnout on election day was not very high. That does not affect the point of the article, however. The political system is adjusting to the idea that the 39% of potential voters who did not vote may not be very different from the 61% who did. This suggests, to me at least, that the Republicans may become less leery of attempts to make voter registration universal and automatic. Democrats may decide that the real opinions of the reluctant voter may be among the things they don't want to know.

* * *

If you can't refute religion metaphysically, the next best thing is to talk about it with a vocabulary that systematically excludes any reference to what religion is and claims to do. Consider, for instance, this properly skeptical piece by Eduardo Porter in today's New York Times:

Give Them Some of that Free-Market Religion

But over the past 10 years or so a growing group of American sociologists has deployed a novel theory to explain the United States' apparently anomalous behavior [in being persistently and even increasingly religious]: supply-side economics. Americans, they say, are fervently religious because there are so many churches competing for their devotion...Europeans..are fundamentally just as religious as Americans...but suffer from an uncompetitive market --lazy, quasi-monopolistic churches that have been protected by the state...

On the other hand...

Islamic states, for instance, have very strong quasi-state churches and high religious the United States, the most religious states and counties are those most dominated by a single denomination -- Mormon, Baptist, or Pentacostal -- not those where there is most competition...

Despite the complete uselessness of this economic model, I predict we will see it cited again and again.

* * *

Moving on from economics to epidemiology, here is another hypothesis we can safely ignore:

Devout Catholics 'risk lung cancer': Churchgoers risk lung cancer because of unhealthy air caused by candles and incense, researchers say...The scientists [studying air quality in a church in Holland] found new forms of "free radicals" that could threaten Roman Catholic rituals...Most at risk would be priests and those who work in churches but "worshippers devout enough to spend several hours each day in church could also be affected", the scientists say.

We have had incense and candles in churches for a very long time. If there were a bad health effect, we really would have noticed by now.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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