Departments

Scientific chewing

I am not going to recommend that you read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Once you know that Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard is people, you grasp the idea. At the end of the book, after surviving innumerable horrors and humiliations (the only mercy Sinclair allows him is a stint as a migrant worker), the main character falls in with a group of talkative Socialists. Sinclair is artist enough to make them somewhat silly. He wants us not to agree with their solutions, but to recognize the fact of their caring and trying to do anything at all. He wants us not so much to admire them, as to imagine ourselves as one of them. I forget the rest of the projects, but one, mentioned in passing, stuck in my mind; that of the man who proposes “to double the nutritive value of food through the practice of scientific chewing.”

My mind has an alarm for absurdity in reforms and projects; scientific chewing is the noise it makes. Sometimes I will read of a project, and despite its well-designed site, its clever name and cleverer slogan, and the intent, conscientious faces of its young founders – all I hear is scientific chewing.

All useful ideas have three life stages: an infancy when they seem ridiculous; an adolescence when they seem all-important; and a maturity when they are present and useful, but limited, and possibly invisible. Scientific chewing belongs to the adolescence of the idea of the scientific. Those who have only recently learned the benefits of scientific handwashing are susceptible to the idea that chewing might be similarly progressed.

The projects which recall scientific chewing belong to the analogous adolescence of other ideas. Recent examples are many. Online has finally achieved its maturity; there are no more projects tantamount to online chewing, though their weight once derailed the economy. Social is in the throes of adolescence; most days some variant of social chewing shows up in the news, flush with seed funding. Crowdsourced is just settling down; mobile is just hitting puberty.

These examples are worth enumerating because we are very fortunate in them. The worst their excesses have done is to make fools of us. We have been spared the upheavals and atrocities that accompanied the adolescence of ideas like the people or the nation, like society or central planning. The motion of ideas is circular, but not static; a cycloid, not an orbit; but though it moves forward, its does so with wheels that are heavy and iron, and able to run you down.

My interest is not critical but analytic; I want to know where I stand and when to get out of the way. Given that ideas move in a circle, born boosters and born skeptics will both be right sometimes, like stopped clocks. Scientific chewing is my cue to stand with the skeptics. I have yet to find an equally vivid cue to switch the other way; though I have found my sense that something is pointless and weird to reliably predict its popularity – witness the internet.

I know this essay is a little miscellaneous; so are the rest of the essays where I try to think about ideas as such. I feel something enormous and terrainous loom in darkness; when something lights that bulk I observe it as an explorer, and not knowing which features are most important, I cannot omit any.