Every astronomer knows this poem, not with any special fondness:
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Now, I really like Walt Whitman, but this was not his finest moment. These days, the don't-bother-me-with-explanations torch is carried by the Insane Clown Posse -- two middle-aged white guys, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, who put on makeup and rap approvingly about violence and misogyny. (Sorry for the comparison, Walt, but you brought it on yourself.) They received a lot of scorn from scientists for their recent song Miracles, which featured the immortal lines
Fuckin' magnets, how do they work? And I don't wanna talk to a scientist Y'all motherfuckers lying and getting me pissed.
Now there is a scary and illuminating interview with the duo by Jon Ronson in the Guardian, where they double down on their dislike of explanation and understanding. (Via Ezra Klein.) It's all good, but here's an especially clarifying moment:
"I did think," I admit, "that fog constitutes quite a low threshold for miracles." "Fog?" Violent J says, surprised. "Well," I clarify, "I've lived around fog my whole life, so maybe I'm blasé." "Fog, to me, is awesome," he replies. "Do you know why? Because I look at my five-year-old son and I'm explaining to him what fog is and he thinks it's incredible." "Ah!" I gesticulate. "If you're explaining to your five-year-old son what fog is, then why do you not want to meet scientists? Because they're just like you, explaining things to people…" "Well," Violent J says, "science is… we don't really… that's like…" He pauses. Then he waves his hands as if to say, "OK, an analogy": "If you're trying to fuck a girl, but her mom's home, fuck her mom! You understand? You want to fuck the girl, but her mom's home? Fuck the mom. See?"
If you're confused, Violent J doesn't actually want to have sex with his paramour's mother. He is simply advocating not changing your behavior just because a parent is in the house. One word serving many purposes. Oh yes, and they are evangelical Christians. There are many different senses in which science and religion might come into conflict -- personally I care about "religion makes claims about how the world works that aren't true," but there are certainly others. Here is one of them. As Shaggy puts it: "But since then, scientists go, 'I've got an explanation for that.' It's like, fuck you! I like to believe it was something out of this world." I don't think religion is causing these lovable mop-tops to rebel against the power of scientific explanation; that's too cheap an explanation. Rather, there is an underlying attitude that both pushes them away from science, and toward religion: a strong preference in favor of believing a certain set of things about the world, well before any evidence is in. First we decide that rainbows and magnets and Stonehenge are miraculous and mysterious things that cannot be accounted for by ordinary, understandable processes; then we reject science and turn to religious beliefs because that's what flatters our preconceptions. It's hard to know how to reach people like that. I'm thinking Phil Plait and Brian Cox should put on clown makeup and start rapping about Maxwell's equations.