Exploding Heads, Fragile Worldviews
If we can’t even entertain challenges to our basic beliefs without our heads exploding, we might have what I’ll call a fragile worldview.April 28th marked the debut of the New York Times newest columnist, Bret Stephens. Stephens, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at the Wall Street Journal, was already a controversial hire for many Times readers, who apparently felt that Ross Douthat and, depending on the topic, David Brooks, are more than conservative enough for their fragile bubble.The phrase “fragile bubble” may sound harsh, but consider the reaction to Stephens’s first column.The subject of the column was the relationship between data and certainty. Citing examples of the 2016 Clinton campaign and how their data-driven models led them to disregard signs they were underestimating Trump, Stephens wrote, “There’s a lesson here.”That lesson is, quote, “We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.”As Stephens said, “We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous.”Now by itself, this statement shouldn’t be controversial at all. But when he applied it to climate change, things got crazy.Stephens quoted a former Times environmental reporter who recently wrote that he “saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.”In Stephens’ words, “The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority, weren’t.” He added that “while the modest [1.5 degree Fahrenheit] warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.”Again, this shouldn’t be controversial. It is literally true: climate change projections are mathematical models whose possible outcomes are expressed as probabilities.But as Stephens himself predicted, people’s heads “exploded.” Twitter blew up, followed by a campaign to cancel subscriptions to the New York Times just because of the column.While it’s unclear how many people will actually cancel their subscriptions because of the column, as opposed to usual reasons such as moving or cost, what is clear is that many people want to live in a world where their opinions go unchallenged.That’s what I mean by a “fragile bubble.” There’s a famous military maxim that says “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Today’s cultural equivalent seems to be “no worldview survives contact with a dissenting opinion.”And this is exactly what’s behind the increasingly illiberal environment on so many college campuses where students, instead of debating with those whose views they disagree with, seek to silence them instead.And it’s what’s behind the attempt to silence people who disagree with the current sexual orthodoxy. It’s not enough to disagree with people who hold those views these days. It’s not even enough to prevail in the courts. The mere existence of opinions outside of the new orthodoxy is now considered wholly unacceptable.Thus the heretics must be silenced, and even, when possible, punished for their dissent.It doesn’t matter if, like Stephens and climate change, you’re in basic agreement with part of the orthodoxy and your goal is to avoid discrediting the idea by making unsustainable claims. For the people going nuts over Stephen’s column, their beliefs about climate change are like the game of Jenga in which removing a single block can bring the whole edifice down.Now just as no one would want to live in a house made of Jenga blocks, nor should we build our lives on worldviews so unstable and so fragile. And that includes Christians. We shouldn’t be fragile either.