Another Week Ends

Seventy Time Seven, Scrooge’s Cruel Calculus, Apocalyptic Realism, Political Loyalty, and Rich-Kid Manifesting

Bryan J. / 3.24.23

1.  Leading off this week is a fascinating study on a top scientific journal, Nature. The journal, you might remember, famously endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Since then, researcher F.J. Zhang set out to see what effect this endorsement had, specifically the reputation of the journal itself. In one data set (complete with controls!), respondents were asked, “how informed are editors of the journal Nature, when it comes to providing advice on science-related issues facing the society” and the endorsement had a significant effect:

In other words, weighing into politics badly damaged the reputation of the journal with Trump supporters, while having no effect on the journal’s credibility with Biden supporters. In view of Zhang’s research, the journal had this to say:

In science, credibility comes mainly from commitment to the scientific method. In politics, at least in democracies, it comes mostly from the ability to articulate why certain moral, ethical, economic or social trade-offs offer the best way to live. Scientific information can and should inform political discussions, by offering clarifying information about likely consequences of actions. But science is almost always insufficient to resolve deep and diverse moral and ethical debates about how we should live.

The current study provides evidence that, when a publication whose credibility comes from science decides to politicize its content, it can damage that credibility. If this decreased credibility, in turn, reduces the impact of scientific research published in the journal, people who would have benefited from the research are the worse for it. I read Zhang’s work as signalling that Nature should avoid the temptation to politicize its pages. In doing so, the journal can continue to inform and enlighten as many people as possible.

It’s not difficult to extrapolate the findings of the study to the issue of churches and politics. I can easily imagine a perhaps well-meaning (or naïve) pastor weighing in on politics, and the “other side” decides to leave the church. Political identities are often so strong, it might just take more than getting knocked of one’s horse for one’s views to change. Or as a friend of mine often says, “If you wrestle with a pig, you get dirty and the pig likes it.”

2. Next, up, let’s check-in on the inheritors of Thomas Malthus’ spirit. The 18th century clergyman and economist was troubled by the abundance of poverty in the British Isles, especially related to the growth of the population. He believed that humanity’s growth would eventually outweigh the earth’s ability to support it, leading to a crisis of hunger, famine, and death. As Alex Trembath and Vijaya Ramachandran outline in the Atlantic this week, a modern neo-Malthusian movement has gained momentum as a response to climate change, which may not be so helpful to the greater climate movement:

Scolding regular people for contributing to climate change is out of fashion. But scolding people for making new people is, apparently, totally fine. Many climate activists say the worst thing an individual can do, from an emissions perspective, is have kids. The climate-advocacy group Project Drawdown lists “family planning and education,” which are intended to lower fertility rates, as leading solutions to global warming. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian and celebrated climate researcher, published an op-ed in Scientific American this month titled “Eight Billion People in the World Is a Crisis, Not an Achievement.”

In recent years, many climate advocates have emphasized human population itself—as opposed to related factors such as consumption and  technology — as the driving force behind environmental destruction. This is, at bottom, a very old idea that can be traced back to the 18th-century cleric Thomas Malthus. It is also analytically unsound and morally objectionable. Critics of overpopulation down through the ages have had a nasty habit of treating people less as individuals with value and agency than as sentient locusts.

The duo go on to describe various ideologies that Malthus inspired, and it’s not good. Eugenics, genocide, the oppression of women, forced sterilizations, even China’s infamous one-child policy can be directly tied to 20th century disciples of Malthus. It’s an association that’s bad for the climate movement altogether, as they outline below:

When the problem is defined as too many carbon emissions, the solutions will be optimized to reduce emissions. When the problem is defined as too little education and bodily autonomy, solutions such as schooling and birth control make intuitive sense. When the problem is defined as too many people, the “solutions” will surely once again go far beyond the gentle, humane approaches that the neo-Malthusians emphasize. As the Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas put it, “Enough with the innuendo: If overpopulation is the hill you want to die on, then you’ve got to defend the  implications.”

There’s little wonder that Charles Dickens painted his infamous Ebenezer Scrooge to be a Malthusian — fewer ideologies are so cold, not just to the rest of the world, but to the believers themselves. Scrooge himself is called out on his Malthusian thinking when the spirit reflects his ideology back at him, suggesting that the death of Bob Cratchet’s sickly son, Tiny Tim, would “decrease the surplus population.” Dickens writes that “Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.” And the spirit warns him of the ideology’s most dangerous conclusion: “It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” The hidden hubris, of course, behind the Malthusian conceit, is that the problem isn’t too many people, it’s too many other people.

3. Any economist or historian knows that Malthus was wrong — technological innovation exponentially grew humanity’s agricultural abilities. That’s not to say, however, that the technology doesn’t have its own problems. Just this week, a few friends and I goofed around with chat GPT-4, asking it to compose an ever increasing set of demands. Our friend with an account confessed to us that he uses the AI regularly to speed up his admin work. “Compose an email to a work colleague telling him that I need to move the date of our meeting back a week because my kids are sick and have to take them to the doctor. Make it professional and apologetic.” It’s tempting to think that AI will reduce our workload and perhaps free us up for other meaningful things, but Elizabeth Renieris over at The Walrus counsels that we’d better not count on it as she answers the question: “Will AI Acutally Mean We’ll Be Able to Work Less?

History has shown us that gains in efficiency or productivity as a result of new technologies rarely liberate those already overburdened in society. Instead, new tech often creates new expectations and norms, heightening standards and the amount of work required to attain them. Known as Parkinson’s law, it’s the idea that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” We have all experienced how meetings scheduled to last an hour will stretch to fill the time allotted. […]

Simply put, the AI productivity narrative is a lie. It holds that by automating tasks, AI will make them more efficient and make us, in turn, more productive. This will free us for more meaningful tasks or for leisurely pursuits such as yoga, painting, or volunteerism, promoting human flourishing and well-being. But if history is any guide, this outcome is highly unlikely, save for a privileged elite. More likely, the rich will only get richer.

Because it’s not technology that can liberate us. To preserve and promote meaningful autonomy in the face of these AI advancements, we must look to our social, political, and economic systems and policies. As Derek Thompson observes in The Atlantic, “Technology only frees people from work if the boss — or the government, or the economic system — allows it.” To allege otherwise is technosolutionism, plain and simple.

I would only add to this that there’s another boss — a higher and more spiritual authority as it were — that frees people from work. Or at least He tries to, with Sabbath laws so strict that collecting firewood on Saturdays was a capital crime. But as readers of The Good Book know, the law can’t change people’s hearts. All the freedom in the world to not work will chafe against our slavery to the desire to prove ourselves as worthy by working. So yes, let’s tone down the optimism that AI is a timesaver, but instead of just blaming the rich, the powerful, and the higher up, it’s worth noting that as long as human beings find righteousness in the work they do, the creep won’t end.

4. The Wall Street Journal published a review this week of “Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy.” Author Alex Mar explores in great detail the 1980 murder of a 78-year-old Bible Study leader by four teenage black girls. One of those girls, Paula Cooper, was sentenced to the death penalty at age 15 for her excessive violence in the murder, starting a global conversation about the overlap between mercy and justice. Things become extra complicated when Jesus gets involved:

Cooper’s biggest advocate, however, turned out to be an unlikely one: the victim’s grandson. One night at work at a Gary steel mill, Bill Pelke had a vision of his grandmother crying and believed that she was crying for Paula Cooper. He became convinced that “she would not want this girl to be killed in her name.” Turning to his Bible for guidance, Pelke was drawn to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that lends the book its title. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus responds, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Pelke absorbed that teaching wholly and began a long correspondence with Cooper. Ms. Mar had access to Cooper’s letters to Pelke, in which the inmate is sometimes combative and defensive and other times reflective and contrite. (They eventually exchanged some 200 letters and, later, around 1,000 emails, and he visited her in prison 14 times.) To the dismay of most of his relatives, Pelke publicly called for the commutation of her death sentence. Devoting himself to death-penalty abolitionism, he traveled the country to speak about his revelation, joining a group of activists who, in the author’s words, have “radical sympathy for those who have committed horrific crimes.”

Reviewer Barbara Spindel doesn’t give us much in the way of answers, praising the book and refusing to give spoilers. It’s joyful, however, to see Jesus’s 70×7 teaching of grace land and grow in someone’s heart. (Plug — we talk about it on the Terrible Parables podcast in connection to the wicked servant!). The idea that Jesus’s teaching would inspire “radical sympathy for those who have committed horrific crimes” sounds right in line with the words of grace offered to his adjoining co-crucified thief.

5. In humor this week, I’m happy to hear that “Our Holistic Retreat Will Completely Change You into the Perfect Person You Already Are.” It sounds perfect for the person who knows they are perfect but wonders why nothing brings happiness or joy. In other news, “Man’s Use Of ‘Babe’ Increases Exponentially As Girlfriend Closes In On Truth.” And over at Reductress, it’s no surprise that Wildly Successful Person Believes in Manifestation:

While Kennedy’s current manifestation practices have led to such things like getting cast in the movie her dad was producing, she explained that her manifestation journey actually had quite humble beginnings.

“One time, when I was little, I wished for a horse, and then my rich parents bought one for me,” she told reporters. “From that moment on, I knew that manifestation was the real deal.”

At press time, Kennedy spotted a stray $100 bill on the sidewalk, picked it up, and attributed her luck to “the power of positive thinking,” while witnesses at the scene reported to have seen the bill fall out of her own bag just moments before.

6. Lots of great entertainment news this week. There’s new music from U2, or to be more specific, U2 goes 1990’s MTV Unplugged with greatest hits. Check out their Tiny Desk concert above, including a short interview with members of the youth choir. There’s new music from Taylor Swift too, which are revisions from her earlier catalogue that her label sold to a private equity firm. The Mandalorian is in full swing, and our man Din Djarin has redeemed himself by bathing in the Mines of Mandalore. The biggest news is that The Last of Us, the other “good father” vehicle for Pedro Pascal, had its season finale. In the Atlantic Daily newsletter, Tom Nichols takes the occasion to temper our apocalypse expectations.

Living in a world of trees and water and buildings and cars, we can posture all day long about how we would take our personal virtues with us through the gates of Armageddon. But considering that we can barely muster enough civic energy to get off our duffs and go vote every few years, how certain are we about our own bravery and rectitude?

Although Joel and Ellie are rendered with wonderful complexity by the show’s writers and by the actors Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, some of the greatest moments in the Last of Us are with people the protagonists encounter during their travels: Bill, the survivalist (played by Nick Offerman in what should be a slam-dunk Emmy nomination); Kathleen, the militia leader (Melanie Lynskey); and David, the religious preacher… played with terrifying subtlety by Scott Shepherd … Each of these characters is a challenge, and a reproof, to any of us who think we’d be swell folks, and maybe even heroes, after the collapse of civilization.

7. Closing on a more devotional note, Karen Stenberg looks for a friend. Describing the small talk of moms groups all over, Stenberg shares her own little trick for finding other parents with similar parenting styles and struggles. I love her observation that so much of our interpersonal communication is rooted in this question of “do you have struggles like mine?”

Occasionally in situations like this, I’ll throw out a specific question or statement to see what kind of parenting style or personalities the people I’m getting to know might have; something simple like, “I don’t know about you, but I’m not a huge fan of bath time….” If, after I state my feelings about bath time, a mom declares how she loves giving her kids baths and how it’s a part of their nightly bedtime routine, then my response is usually, “That’s awesome! I’m so glad that works for you and the kids!” But if the mom’s response is more like, “Yeah! Bathtime is not my favorite, either. I’m so tired at the end of the day; we probably don’t do it as much as we should…” Then I grab on! Aha!!

“Oh, me too!” I respond. “Honestly … unless they really need it, baths are more weekly in our house than nightly!”

“Really?” She says, “I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who struggles with it!”

We have found something we can relate to, and an opportunity to bond over a shared struggle is born.

When I put statements out there like that, sure, I want to get to know the other women better. But honestly, I’m also fishing to see if they are like me. The question behind the question is, “Do you have struggles like mine?” […]

Of course, skipping bath time is not a sin struggle. But it does serve as a mostly safe “open door” to admitting deeper struggles. The first cracks we show are often the small “acceptable” ones, but over time they give way to the big ones we know we shouldn’t have — the issues we hold close to the chest and are embarrassed to admit to just anyone. When the door opens to those conversations, the message of the cross is close at hand.

The cross is close when you both find yourselves sharing your heart and admitting your weakness and your need. This is when we can point and be pointed to the cross where Jesus meets us with outstretched hands, taking our burdens and proclaiming forgiveness. Only Christ on the cross can take away the hold and the isolation the enemy makes us feel trapped in.

Stenberg’s insights on friendship are firmly in low anthropology terrain. And while they might sound a bit like common sense to anyone who has friends, the shared mutuality of weakness is a far different view than friendships that revolve around mutual benefit or common interests.


subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *