December 10, 2005
David Brooks: Hip-Hopping ConservativeBy James Lewis
It's said that bureaucrats are good people surviving in a bad system. That might explain David Brooks, the token conservative at the New York Times.
Brooks has to be very slippery to survive. It would be fatal to be caught actually taking a principled stand, out in the open on the New York Times Op—Ed Page. So Mr. Brooks boogeys to the left, he boogeys to the right, and he shakes it all around. You get dizzy watching.
One of David Brooks' jobs is to interpret the dark mysteries of conservatism to his readers. His latest effort reveals how bad it feels to control the Congress, the White House, and soon perhaps, the Supreme Court. It's even worse that conservatives have come up with all the original political ideas of the last five decades. Uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown, and all that. Well, it's tough to be on top.
With all the Michael Jackson moondancing coming from Mr. Brooks, it's not easy to follow his line of thought. However, one little hip—thrusting jiggle caught my eye.
OK. So here's my question: how does David Brooks know that conservatives "secretly know" that global warming is real? Can he read our minds?
Take it one more step.
Suppose tens of millions of US conservatives "secretly knew" that global warming was real? Would that make it real?
Are scientific mysteries now going to be solved by what a New York Times writer believes a lot of other people "secretly know?"
High school science teachers all over the world try to drum into their students' heads the difference between scientific hypotheses and established facts. It may come as news to the media, but anthropogenic global warming is an hypothesis. The very worst thing a decent scientist can do is fall in love with any hypothesis, because the most common experience for a scientist is to find out that he or she is just plain wrong. You walk into the lab with a brilliant idea, and (dammit!) the evidence all goes the wrong way. That's the difference between scientists, who are often wrong and realize it, and journalists, who are never wrong.
So whatever you "secretly know" isn't worth a bucket of spit, to quote Cactus Jack Garner on a different matter.
The only question worth asking is what does the evidence show?
David Brooks doesn't know the answer, of course, but much worse, he doesn't seem to have an inkling about how scientists, farmers and engineers go about getting answers in the real world. It's not done by reading the Op—Ed Page, Mr. Brooks. It's not done by listening to the True Believers, or even by joining the Sierra Club. If that's all it takes, we could all get a Nobel Prize. Good scientists let the evidence tell its story. You have to learn to listen very humbly. Basic scientific questions often take centuries to answer. You cannot expect to have it in time for tomorrow's headlines.
Climate science is not a predictive science; it's not Isaac Newton predicting the orbit of Mars. Climatology is very loose, with very spotty evidence (the earth is a big place, Mr. Brooks) and grossly inadequate computer models. Finding the small "signal" of human impacts in the vast ocean of background changes is a tough, tough job. If Mr. Brooks ever bothered to read up on the science he might come to understand that. But he's probably not interested. After all, if he studied the evidence he might end up disagreeing with Pinch Sulzberger. And then it's goodbye New York Times.
One reason for all the intellectual boogeying and hip—hopping is that David Brooks doesn't want to address such real questions.
Is David Brooks still a conservative? That's a tricky word, of course. I've always liked a different word: realist. Conservatives, by and large, pay heed to reality, even if they don't like it. Conservatives know we live in an imperfect world, with very imperfect people. We cannot wish that away.
So we must address it honestly, or we end up hurting far more people than we help. Hurting people is what the Left has done ever since it took power, almost a century ago.
Liberals look at life through an illusion — the fantasy of human perfectability — and when they keep crashing into the brick wall of reality they blame others for their headaches. That's why liberals hate conservatives; we're always reminding them that the world isn't what they wish it would be. There is something terribly childlike about that, a lifelong refusal to grow up.
Thoughtful conservatives manage to learn, often painfully, to listen to reality, and to use the facts they learn to achieve productive and moral ends. Conservatives have to be adults.
Mr. Brooks is said to be a conservative, and he may be. Or maybe he's just surrendered to job pressure. Who knows? His columns throw up so much mud that it's no longer possible to figure it out. But that is not something the conservative movement can afford. If we cannot think and speak clearly and honestly, we are bound to follow the Left, hip—hopping its way onto the trash heap of history.
James Lewis is a frequent contibutor.