Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World Closely Observed

Rick Brookhiser has helpfully telegraphed empirical observation as practiced at the intellectual flagship of movement conservatism:

Let’s watch what people do. I suppose many readers of the Corner are evangelicals. Evangelical churches have invested a fair amount of effort and money in humanitarian work in Africa. I imagine this comes up in sermons they hear, which most of them approve, and which they support in any case by some fraction of their giving. Same for Roman Catholics.
So let's walk through that step for step. He starts off by proposing to watch what people do -- hard-headed, fact-driven empiricism! -- then immediately follows by supposing "many" readers of the Corner are "evangelicals." How many? What is the basis for this supposition? While we're observing what people do, who counts as "evangelicals"?

He then goes on to report that these evangelical churches have "invested a fair amount" of money and effort in humanitarian work in Africa. How much money? How much effort? What does "humanitarian work" entail in the context? Where in Africa? Throughout? Here and there?

As shaky as all that is, the "watching what people do" moves on to the form of "imagining" the sermons -- all of them? a few? -- delivered in these unspecified churches, followed by the unsubstantiated claim that "most of the [parishioners] approve" of these sermons. To what extent, if any, does this "most" overlap with the "many" readers of the Corner previously supposed into existence? Moreover, what can we make of "most" -- how many is "most," and what are we to say of those not included in the "most"? Do the non-most quietly ignore these sermons? Rudely interrupt them? Walk out on them? Write angry letters afterward?

It's worth noting that if Brookhiser is only imagining the sermons themselves, then the support of the sermons can only be imaginings on stilts.

"In any case," he continues, these unspecified, uncounted evangelicals "support" whatever it is these unnamed churches are doing somewhere in Africa with "some fraction" of their tithes. I almost hate to ask, what does "support" mean, and what fraction are we talking about? Just to keep things within the range of more or less believable dollar amounts, let's say the fractions range from $1 to $999,999,999 out of every $1,000,000,000. In context, "support" sounds like "passively accept" or "not openly object to," which puts it in tension with the previous claim that "most" parishioners "approve" the Africa-related portions of unspecified sermons, but we're left to guess what this "support" amounts to, both in its kind and degree.

Finally, Brookhiser delivers his coup de grace of half-assed observation packaged as "watching what people do" -- "Same for Roman Catholics." I gather this means all of those suppositions and imaginings, whatever they meant and whatever the basis for them. All of them apply to Roman Catholics, he breezily declares.


My concluding observation, which doesn't claim to be empirical: the flagship has sunk.

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