Loyal denizens of the blogosphere will forgive me if I begin this post by sketching out the details of the recent Gregg Easterbrook affair for those who haven’t kept up with the details. Easterbook, a senior editor at the New Republic, started up a blog recently where he cranked out postings at a feverish pace about all sorts of stuff ranging from politics to religion to science. Recently, he questioned the conscience of Jewish movie executives who allowed Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Kill Bill, to be made. A furor ensued, and Easterbrook lost his column with ESPN Magazine (owned by Disney, the same company that produced Kill Bill). Easterbrook apologized for mangling his words.
As David Appell and Atrios point out, the mangling continues. Easterbrook has now got a post about research on extra dimensions in the universe, and says what’s really interesting is the possibility of the existence of a “plane of spirit.” The only reason that physicists don’t take it seriously, Easterbrook contends, is because “to modern thought, even one extra spiritual dimension is a preposterous idea.”
I predict more such mangling in the future. For some years now, I’ve read Easterbrook’s occasional pronouncements on evolution and have shaken my head. He likes to call evolutionary biologists fundamentalists, and claims that Intelligent Design is a “sophisticated theory now being argued out in the nation’s top universities.” (I’ve visited a fair number of the top biology departments, and I can vouch that Easterbrook’s wrong.) It’s a “rich, absorbing hypothesis,” he crows, “the sort of thing that is fascinating to debate, and might get students excited about biology class to boot.” The quotes come from a 2000 Wall St. Journal Op-ed piece. You can read the rest here, at the main web site for Intelligent Design agitprop.
In both physics and biology, Easterbrook seems to use his own personal neat-o-meter to decide what is a legitimate scientific question. Wouldn’t it be neat if there was a hidden spiritual plane just like the planes of string theory? Wouldn’t it be neat if you could prove that life was designed? When anyone brings up the flakiness of his musings, Easterbrook claims that mainstream science is just as flaky. Billions of dimensions? Hah! “Yet which idea sounds more implausible–one unseen dimension or billions of them?” (Actually, Gregg, it’s more like 10 dimensions.) Rigorous experiments on possible precursors to DNA and cells? Hey, no one was there, so any theory that’s fascinating to debate is worth teaching in the classroom. Besides, the kids get sooo bored when you bring out those real papers from peer-reviewed journals.
It amazes me that Easterbrook continues to trot out misinformed musings about science with a mysteriously authoritative tone. I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s dissection of Susan Sontag’s grand pronouncements in “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists”–“Who was this woman?…Perhaps she was exceptionally hell-bent on illustrating McLuhan’s line about indignation endowing the idiot with dignity, but otherwise she was just a typical American intellectual of the post-World War II period. After all, having the faintest notion of what you were talking about was irrelevant.”
As Atrios rightly points out, “physicists understand, even if Easterbrook does not, what their posited extra dimensions mean.” And evolutionary biologists understand what it takes to establish and investigate a scientific theory about life–even if Easterbrook clearly does not.
Correction: Thanks to Steve, who in the comments pointed out that Easterbrook’s column is on ESPN.com, not ESPN magazine.
Originally published October 28, 2003. Copyright 2003 Carl Zimmer.